Our 22nd Century Mental Block

January 17, 2013 § 3 Comments

Maybe it’s all the descriptions of science fiction, especially of utopian or dystopian inclination, that I’ve been reading at work lately.  Or maybe it’s the turn of another year to another futuristic number (2013, for pete’s sake!).  Whatever the cause, it’s just occurred to me recently to wonder:

Why are we not talking about the 22nd century the way that people from the fin de siecle forward (and even before) have talked about, prepared for, fetishized, longed for our 21st century?  Why have we never done so?  (I mean “we” in the broadest sense: humans, though of course I filter primarily through my Western lenses. I think it applies broadly.)

Wondering that has led me to hypothesize.  My hypothesis is that we aren’t thinking about, writing about, and planning for the 22nd century to the same extent that we did for the 21st because, deep down, on a kind of Jungian global subconscious level, we don’t think we’re going to make it that far, as a species.  Partly this is a matter of the narratives of progress and improvement and various ideologies of purity (racial, governmental, sexual, etc.) that drove so much utopian and dystopian thinking in the past 150 or so years having been dismantled and disproven.  And partly I think that numerology does have something to do with it: those 2000s always seemed so sexy as numbers.

But really, aren’t we also at a time in world history that seems deeply short-sighted, deeply unable to look more than a generation ahead?  The space program is an underfunded shell.  We’re still concerned about the price of gas.  We’re more bogged down in sectarian and political conflict than ever.  The ice is melting. Emblematic of all of this is the tired, tired gag of wondering why we don’t have the flying cars we were promised by 1999, or 2001, or 2010, or whatever date.  The tiredness is what’s emblematic: we’ve been making this joke for decades because our reality has outstripped our dreams.  We don’t believe anymore.

I’m fascinated by this idea that we’ve reached a kind of collective block on visions of the future (though of course it’s not complete, just highly noticeable).  It also seems really terrifying.  Every fictional depiction of the far future that I can think of is post-apocalyptic, and many imply that that apocalypse takes place in this century or the next.

Doesn’t it seem so much harder to look 87 years into the future and imagine anything encouraging?  Doesn’t the 22nd century seem like an impossible dream?  Wouldn’t a utopian thinker from Brazil, or China, or wherever — someone with a convincing vision that’s not utterly bleak — be a godsend?

Or am I just out of touch with all of the folks who are busy building the 22nd century’s castles in the sky?  Are these conversations taking place, convincingly?

DFW’s Horror Avant-Garde

August 9, 2011 § 3 Comments

Finished long ago: The Pale King.

A long-belated short note on The Pale King, and DFW’s oeuvre more generally.  To wit:

Is DFW secretly a horror author?  Or a literary author most deeply interested in horror?

Mixing and reappropriating genre conventions has been de rigueur for the belletrist since at least Burroughs, and DFW does some of that, especially with the science-fiction elements of Broom of the System and Infinite Jest (and the great Incandenza filmography, which is itself a parody of avant-garde genre-play).  But Wallace consistently writes in the horror tradition — both using the tropes of the genre (film and fiction) and using unusual techniques to evoke the responses with which it is typically associated — beyond a postmodernist’s appraisal.

Section 48 of The Pale King, which is a brilliant little chunk of discrete horror-comedy, brought this up.  That section, written entirely in dialogue, utilizes the central trope of horror going way back to its Gothic roots — the careful withholding of information to heighten fear of the unknown and let reader’s imagination do the dirty work itself.  But there are ghosts here.  And Toni Ware’s harrowing tale.  And IRS paranormals.  The title is a perfect horror title, with its allusion to the Grim Reaper or other mythic figures of inhuman power.  (Aside: By my count there are at least three characters in the book who could be argued to be the titular king, but I’m not sure any of them were really intended as such.)  (Aside 2: I’m deeply curious about the placement of section 48, which really seems like the kind of thing DFW might’ve placed near the beginning.  Though it strikes me as akin to the first chapter of Infinite Jest, in its cryptic description of a traumatic event integral to the action of the work, perhaps it was be more like the herd of feral hamsters or other asides in that book, and wasn’t actually going to lead anywhere.)

Once you start looking for it, it’s just about everywhere.  Brief Interviews with Hideous Men has horror throughout, in the interviews and elsewhere.  Oblivion has the nightmarish title story, elucidated by my lovely wife here.  Countless anecdotes and incidents in IJ beyond the “wraith” and the grave-digging; the mysterious events at Enfield, for instance.  The Broom of the System is a kind of Wittgensteinian horror tale: The Word Terror.

Beyond all of that, there’s something in horror that seems central to DFW’s worldview and its expression.  Being trapped in a web or spiral, being unable to express one’s self adequately or at all, being out of one’s own control as the unthinkable happens, having heightened consciousness in some ways but a sense of being buried in others: central motifs in DFW’s work, and in nightmares, and consequently in horror.  Almost all of DFW’s fiction is horror fiction at some level: work dealing with the uncanny, awful, and broken in human beings and their societies, the things that we try to keep submerged and the things that are nevertheless surfaced.

Chekhov’s Gooseberries, Tower’s Moose

May 21, 2011 § 1 Comment

Finished: Gargantua, by Francois Rabelais.

Reading now: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower.

Reading next: Pantagruel, by Rabelais.

Wells Tower’s “Retreat” is the best short story I’ve read since… well, since reading Chekhov and Tolstoy this past winter.  But it’s the best contemporary short story I’ve read in quite a while.  And I feel lucky to have read Chekhov recently, because “Retreat” enters into a fascinating — perhaps inadvertent — dialogue with the master’s “Gooseberries.”

The similarity of the stories has been noted before, apparently, by Allan Gurganus.  Interestingly, in this interview, Tower says he hasn’t read “Gooseberries” “in years.”  (Perhaps this is another case of “cryptomnesia” as it has been suggested that Nabokov had with the earlier story “Lolita” by Heinz von Lichberg?)  But there is a scene of what certainly seems like allusion and homage so direct that I assumed that it must be intentional, and which then led to the realization that the stories correspond in a number of ways.  Here is part of a swimming/bathing scene in “Gooseberries”:

Ivan Ivanich emerged from the shed, splashed noisily into the water, and began swimming beneath the rain, spreading his arms wide, making waves all round him, and the white water-lilies rocked on the waves he made.  He swam into the very middle of the river and then dived, a moment later came up at another place and swam further, diving constantly, and trying to touch the bottom.  “Ah, my God,” he kept exclaiming in his enjoyment.  “Ah, my God…”

And here is the comparable scene from “Retreat”:

… we made our way down to the tiny pond I’d built by damming a spring behind my house. We shed our clothes and pushed off into the pond, each on his own gasping course through the exhilarating blackness of the water.  “Oh, oh, oh, God, it feels good,” cried Stephen in a voice of such carnal gratitude that I pitied him.  But it was glorious, the sky and the water of a single world-ending darkness, and we levitated in it until we were as numb as the dead.

Stephen is the suffering-artist brother of the narrator of “Retreat,” Matthew, who has bought the cabin (and the mountain on which it rests) in Maine which Stephen is visiting.  They are joined by Matthew’s neighbor, George, a jolly retiree.  Just as in “Gooseberries,” we have a trio of two tightly joined characters and a third wheel of sorts.  In “Gooseberries” the bulk of the story is taken up by Ivan Ivanich telling a story about his brother Nikolai, who longs to own a country estate and fulfills his dream after his rich wife’s death.  Nikolai’s willful insistence on the perfection of his life and his plan despite the “hard and sour” gooseberries his estate has produced seems to echo the final scene of “Retreat,” the fascinating aftermath of the hunt in which Matthew has bagged a moose, and insists on believing it is not diseased despite all evidence to the contrary.  (And of course, Ivan and Burkin are also hunters, in “Gooseberries.”)

The richness and complexity of the relationship between Stephen and Matthew, and the way that Tower has painted a defining portrait of American life over the canvas of “Gooseberries,” makes this story a masterpiece.  There’s just so much artistry going into that portrait: the  unconscious greed, a default state of being, of real-estate speculator Matthew; the impact on the environment reflected in his speculative plans to subdivide the mountain he’s purchased on the cheap; the hairshirt-wearing Matthew; the mini-epiphany of Matthew’s drunken pronouncement, “My life is on fire,” and the way it is shrugged off at the slightest sign of a change in luck, in classic American fashion; the wonderful crescendo of meaning, the thematic and even allegorical brilliance, of the diseased moose, and the implications of Matthew’s choosing not to believe that it will make him sick.  Much of this is Tower’s own, but the way that much of it has been transfigured from Chekhov’s story (intentionally or not) does seem to deepen the story’s meaning and impact.  After all, Chekhov’s story includes that famous line, “How many happy, satisfied people there are, after all, I said to myself.  What an overwhelming force!”  The implication of suffering for many in the happiness of some is also very present in Tower’s story, miniaturized in the vicious, parasitic relationship between Matthew and Stephen.

Horse Breath in Dickens and Chekhov

February 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Anton Chekhov’s short stories.

Reading next: The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo.

Chekhov has been one of those huge gaps in my reading, so I’m glad to start filling it in with this Norton edition of short stories.  The early stuff is clearly inferior to the later stories from 1887 onward — partly, I learn from the supplementary texts here, because the early stories were written for hire for comic literary magazines under strict space limitations — but still better than anything most writers will ever put down, and apparently these stories are still more beloved in Russia than a lot of his later work.

Anyway, a reminder of Dickens stood out in one of my favorite early stories, “Misery” (from 1886).  In “Misery,” the sleigh driver Iona carries fares through a snowy night, struggling to tell anyone of the recent death of his son.  Finally, he unburdens himself to the mare who drives his sleigh back at the stable as she eats.  The final paragraph: “The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands.  Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.”

So what is it about the breath of horses, anyway?  As I posted here, in chapter 15 of David Copperfield the villainous Uriah Heep breathes into the nostrils of a pony, “as if he were putting some spell upon him.”   Obviously horses were everywhere in nineteenth-century Europe, and the relationship between the species must have been complex and close.   But is there some traditional significance attached to the breath of the horse in particular?  In both Dickens and Chekhov a similar emotional or moral significance seems to be carried by the animal’s breath: Uriah’s apparent attempt to replace the breath of the pony with his own seems to David (and to the reader) a malevolent act; we are led to infer the sweetness and “goodness” (in one sense or another) of the pony’s breath by the uneasiness and wickedness we sense in Uriah.

In “Misery,” feeling the breath of his mare on his hands breaks the dam inside of Iona, and he unburdens himself to her.  Iona is closer to this animal than to any of the people he met that night, who cannot be bothered to hear about his troubles; she becomes a kind of therapist, patiently listening as she eats the hay which is all he can afford to feed her (not having earned enough for oats).  There’s an intimacy in feeling the breath of an animal that can be matched by very few human interactions, a willingness to touch and interact that an animal can provide that few humans would (just imagine the warmth of that breath on your hands on a cold, snowy night — the kind of astounding sensory detail that indicates the mastery of Chekhov).  And the unctuous, obsequious Uriah would never dream of breathing on another person, whereas he forces his breath on the pony when he believes he’s alone — betraying, perhaps, his repressed desire to conquer (or, past that, become intimate with) other creatures.

Apparently horse’s breath was once thought of as a cure for whooping cough, continuing the positive associations, but I find little else about it on a cursory glance.  I want to do some more digging into folklore: horses have been talismanic animals throughout the history of many of the world’s cultures, of course.  Many of us today have never interacted with a horse — have never touched or ridden one, much lest felt or smelt its breath — but horses would have generated a whole world of associations for the nineteenth-century reader that are more or less lost to us now, when horses are mostly status symbols, convenient gambling tools, or nostalgic transportation in tourist cities.  There’s something in each of these stories that points to the symbiotic relationship of horses and humans that has been dismantled in the past century, kept alive mostly by guilds and hobbyists.  Now, of course, there are our pets — our dogs and cats, our ferrets and parrots.  We unburden ourselves to them.  We react to their mistreatment in ways that surpass our insensitivity to human-on-human violence — we feel the wrongness of taking out human frustrations and acting out human desires on animals in ways that often surpass our reactions to with human-on-human crime.

There’s something in us — or some of us, at any rate — that requires interaction with animals.  And I do think that Chekhov intended the ending of “Misery” to be both comically ironic and sad — that this inarticulate, lonely, poor peasant, out of place in the cruel city, can only find sympathy and relief from an animal who cannot understand him, not from the humans who shy away when he mentions his dead son — but there is also something tender and natural in this ending, in this kind of benediction that’s felt in the breath on Iona’s hands, in the thawing of the heart to which it leads.

Three Readings of “The Mat-Maker”

April 25, 2010 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Moby-Dick.

Rereading is a complex phenomenon, involving not only different interpretations of the text, but different interpretations of your past self: you can often end up “reading” your former readings, your former interests and states of mind.  This is especially true when you’ve taken notes during your past readings, and kept them.  You read a kind of palimpsest of text overlaid with memory overlaid with annotations, the things you saw as most important or necessary to remember at the time.

I never write in the margins of my books or underline or highlight or otherwise annotate: if I’m really invested, I write little notes on scraps of paper and tuck those into the book.  I probably set my personal record for number of notes on my first reading of Moby-Dick.  I’m kind of amazed at how much my 20-year-old self noticed in the book that I’ve since overlooked: the introduction of the imagery of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego burning “unconsumed” in chapter 48, “The First Lowering”; the discussion of “rings” in the frenzied chapter 40, “Midnight, Forecastle,” and especially the importance of the line “Why, God, mad’st thou the ring?” to the main themes of the book.  Part of this is the benefit of rigorous reading for a class, and the ferment of learning from other classes.  But Melville also just set my brain on fire in a way very few books ever have.  It was the kind of book I wanted to exist but didn’t know actually did, much less had for 150 years.

On my second reading, a few years later and just because I wanted to, I read from the same copy, rereading my notes, but took far fewer new notes and spent more time trying to observe the book’s overall structure and intentions.  I wrote a brief list on this reading of Melville’s possible intentions: “Entertain (more noticeable), Instruct, Enlighten, Ease His Possession.”  I also noted that the comedy in the book was much more noticeable on the second reading.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m reading from a different edition on this reading.  It’s a very different edition — a general-reading copy with large type, generous margins, and plentiful illustrations, but no notes, around 350 pages longer than the Norton edition I’d read from before.  It’s already a very different experience just based on the editions.  However, I happened to read chapter 47, “The Mat-Maker,” from the Norton edition.  A note there from my first reading seemed to crystallize my different readings, and different kinds of reading, in the last ten years.

“The Mat-Maker” is a gorgeous chapter, transitional and quite short but very interesting, well-known and thoroughly studied.  I wrote the following about the first section of the chapter: “Chance, freewill, & necessity in the making of a mat: Melville’s way of injecting mythic importance into minutiae, detail: the wondrousness of life”.  I chuckled when I read this note.  It’s a good note, and useful, but it reminded me of how enamored of Paul Auster I was in college.  Of course I loved this section!    It also reminded me of how much I loved (and love) the texture of the book: the close-grained observation, the colorful variation of style and format, the silky, lyrical language and far-ranging philosophical digression.  And how cool it was that this all occurred to me in a chapter about weaving, just as Melville weaved together his story from various threads.  It was dazzling.

My second reading did not focus so heavily on this section.  My second reading was more for pure pleasure, and it was clear that after the first two, philosophical paragraphs, this chapter serves mostly to transition to the first attempt to capture a whale, leading to one of the book’s most exciting, entertaining, cinematic, beautiful chapters, “The First Lowering.”

And on this reading?  I noticed the last words of the note, “the wondrousness of life.”  That’s an interesting observation, I think, and one I wouldn’t have made on my own this time, when I’m more familiar with Melville, with this kind of writing.  I meant that Melville was noticing the wonder of daily life, and its occasional, epiphanic revelation of the “ungraspable phantom” of life’s meaning, and thereby allowing me, the reader, to do so.

With the help of Howard Vincent, I also noticed the first paragraph’s emphasis on selfhood, “each silent sailor… resolved into his own invisible self.”  But what struck me anew is the lyricism of the language, its sheer beauty and the way its rhythm echoes the “cloudy, sultry afternoon” portrayed, lulling you into ruminations on its meaning and significance — thereby heightening the surprise and frenzy of “There she blows!” and all that follows: the first appearance of Ahab’s hidden crew, the thrilling hunt for the whale.  Then there’s the amazing return to quietude and slower rhythms at the end of “The First Lowering” — but deadly dangerous rhythms of possible abandonment and death at sea, this time — and Ishmael’s bookend of philosophical rumination in “The Hyena.”  Language, meaning, structure: this section is just a sterling example of what a phenomenal writer Melville was.

Poor Little Nell! Poor Little Paul!

December 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son.

Here’s a nice 21st-century take on Dickens: Dickens the Assassin with a Heart of Gold.  In his outline for this book, in his notes for the very first part, Dickens wrote: “Boy born, to die.”  And so he is, at the book’s beginning; and so he does, not even a quarter of the way through the work.

Dickens makes sure we know he feels bad about it: in his Preface to a later edition (sorry, this crappy Oxford edition doesn’t tell me which edition this prefaces — Dickens wrote many prefaces for new editions — but I know it’s not to the first), he writes in reference to Paul’s death, “…when I am reminded by any chance of what it was that the waves were always saying, my remembrance wanders for a whole winter night about the streets of Paris — as I restlessly did with a heavy heart, on the night when I had written the chapter in which my little friend and I had parted company.”

Fiction writers write things like this fairly often, trying to convince their readers of the reality they feel in the characters they create, until it becomes inconvenient and they condescendingly remind some dolt or critic, who has made the mistake of acting as though the world they’ve created is real, that fiction is make-believe.  No one wants to believe that writers, writers of the kind of social-pseudo-realist fiction that Dickens wrote, create characters out of convenience, out of something so unseemly as a profit motive, much less kill them off for same.  And yet the fact remains: the death of little Nell in the last part of The Old Curiosity Shop had been an absolute sensation, readers in both Britain and America feeling terrible suspense about her fate, and then expressing deep emotion at her death and Dickens’s artistry in presenting it.  And Martin Chuzzlewit, after that book, had flopped.  And Dickens, needing a hit, crafted a story around a boy born to die.  It feels more than a little unseemly.  Killing, hobbling, and imperiling saintly children was good business, in Victorian England.  It sold books, and still does.

That Dickens gets away with it, for this reader at least — not only gets away with it, but actually achieves a genuine artistic breakthrough, and makes you cry in the process — is a kind of miracle of humanity.  Little Paul is so much more a character than little Nell.  Little Nell is one of those typical boring Victorian selfless females, with all the personality of a Precious Moments figurine.  Little Paul is something of a saint, too, I suppose; but he’s a weird little saint, and we get to know him from the inside out.  Shouldn’t this make it worse, Dickens killing him off?  Why should this make me believe that Dickens really did suffer, in writing his premeditated death?

But it doesn’t: Paul becomes a real little boy, like Pinocchio.  He dies because he’s young and sickly and, to speculate on Dickens’s medical beliefs, because he never had his mother’s milk and was weaned from his first nurse far too soon — not because Dickens needs him to die for the plot to work.  I am afraid that, even if Dickens came up with the idea for Paul out of a profit motive, he wrote him into existence.  And it must have pained him to see him die.

Part of the difference between Paul and Nell is surely the Victorian obsession with angelic femininity.  Another part, I’d guess, is the stronger autobiographical impulse Dickens felt towards Paul as a boy whom he’d put into a situation very similar to one he’d been put into as a boy, and the way this connection allowed him to write his way into Paul’s childish point of view.  To Paul, Doctor Blimber’s house is a strange and magical place, where the clock’s working says to him, “‘how, is, my, lit, tle, friend? how, is, my, lit, tle, friend?’ over and over again,” and the patterns in the rugs and wallpaper come to life.  These are the sorts of details we never got for little Nell, who remains boringly angelic.

Beyond that, Paul’s main eccentricity is said to be that he is “old-fashioned,” in a mysterious way that those who call him such cannot quite identify.  He is very polite, and kind, but also very honest — to the point of being rude, such as when Mrs. Pipchin wonders what he’s thinking and he answers, “I’m thinking how old you must be.” In the end, it is implied that people sense that Paul is old-fashioned as a function of his being doomed to death; and yes, child mortality was still a giant problem in the nineteenth century, and was one of the old-fashioned problems Victorian society was most concerned with eradicating.

The way he will stare at Mrs. Pipchin for hours in front of the fire, wondering how old she is, seems to me to be a key to Dickens’s creation of Paul.  Paul knows he is not well; knows he cannot be long for the world; is fascinated by age, by people who have lived ten times as long as he has and seem to get no enjoyment from it; is always asking questions about death, about the voices that seem to live in those waves of life and death.  I think Paul’s old-fashionedness is actually a matter of his being nostalgic for the present, always seeing his own life as if it is already ended; he is always rolling the few scenes and incidents of his short life over and over in his mind, savoring or longing for them, asking to hear about his mother whom he never knew.  Dickens imbues him with an implied, but never stated, self-awareness of his own condition, and he looks upon the world with a ghost’s eyes.  You could dismiss all this as corny Victorian spirituality, I suppose, but I think that reaction is basically a product of years of ham-fisted attempts to replicate the kinds of effects Dickens achieves when he expresses his mysticism.

He definitely does have this mystical streak, and when it works, it seems to produce some of the most beautiful language in literary history.  Chapter 16, the aforementioned “What the Waves were always saying,” really does seem to me to be a point at which Dickens reached a new artistic plateau.  From the beginning of D&S he feels more in control, more sure of his plot, his characters, and his language, than in previous books.  And then comes this, which I know you can read for yourself at that link above, but which I want to write in full just for the glory of it; this must be one of the most beautiful paragraphs in the English language:

When the sunbeams struck into his room through the rustling blinds, and quivered on the opposite wall like golden water, he knew that evening was coming on, and that the sky was red and beautiful.  As the reflection died away, and a gloom went creeping up the wall, he watched it deepen, deepen, deepen, into night.  Then he thought how the long streets were dotted with lamps, and how the peaceful stars were shining overhead.  His fancy had a strange tendency to wander to the river, which he knew was flowing through the great city; and now he thought how black it was, and how deep it would look, reflecting the hosts of stars — and more than all, how steadily it rolled away to meet the sea.

After the first half of this chapter, I will forgive Dickens nearly anything.   The second half of the chapter, at Paul’s deathbed, can be somewhat maudlin in the little Nell style, but even though Nell’s death came very near the end of a very long book, this scene seems to me so much more moving, simply because we’ve seen through the eyes of the sick little boy.  Even at the very end, Paul is “old-fashioned,” using his last words to his father to encourage him to “Remember Walter,” a kid that Paul barely knew but who had helped Florence once — nostalgic for things that happened once upon a time, before he escapes from time forever.

Good Country People?

April 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Bible Salesman.

The first Flannery O’Connor story I ever read was “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”  I was nineteen.  It pretty much made my head explode.  I’d also read King Lear around the same time, and I remember thinking about how the story reminded me of the play.  That same angry comedy of horrors; a similar sense of staring into a void; in both, an existential struggle with God or our sense of him.  The theatre of the absurd, on a country road, with a sociopath called the Misfit.

What’s “funny” in this story, as in much of her work, is rather savage and wicked.  O’Connor had a sneer behind an awful lot of her laughs.  Most of the comedic work is done by the two children, John Wesley and June Star, who are little caricatured monsters: reading their comic books, jaded and utterly bored with their world, they mock everything in sight.  They only come alive when their car wrecks.  “‘But nobody’s killed,’ June Star said with disappointment…”  Their true kin is the Misfit, with his classic closing statement: “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

The Bible Salesman has given me a good reason to revisit this story, a source for Preston Clearwater, and “Good Country People,” a source for Henry Dampier (but which contributed to Clearwater, too, it would seem — there’s something of the Misfit in this story, too).  To be honest, I’d forgotten all about “Good Country People,” which features a nihilistic Bible salesman who seduces a PhD in philosophy, only to steal the lonely woman’s wooden leg.  (Well, when I put it that way, the story sounds completely insane, but it’s great.)

Henry in TBS is a nice inversion of Pointer, the Bible salesman in O’Connor’s story.  While we start out with some doubts about Henry — he writes letters pretending to be a circuit preacher to get free Bibles which he then sells — he grows on us, and we see the goodness and sincerity mixed up with his attempt to make a few bucks.  We also follow his struggles to make sense of some of the complications and confusions in the Bible, and his struggles with faith.  On the other hand, Pointer (a pseudonym) begins with a measure of our trust, posing as a nice, naive young man, but he takes advantage of Joy’s own pose of worldly wisdom and existential ennui to allow her to think that she has seduced him.  In the end, he says to her, “you ain’t so smart.  I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”

The comparison between the two is nicely encapsulated by Edgerton’s use of three of the important objects in O’Connor’s story.  Pointer displays for Joy like “offerings at the shrine of a goddess” a dummy Bible hiding a whiskey flask, a deck of pornographic cards, and a box of condoms.  The objects reveal his selfish nihilism, the dead end of humanity he represents for O’Connor.  Henry also has a flask, an “exotic” deck, and some condoms — “preventatives,” he calls them.  But they’ve lost their ugliness, and gained a context.  We know that Henry is not posing as naive, but actually is: a virgin, curious, and young.  The flask and condoms are used, lovingly, only after Henry has discovered in the Bible that extramarital sex is hardly the universally condemned sin his upbringing led him to believe: if it’s good enough for Abraham, why wouldn’t it be good enough for him?

Some of my favorite passages in this book are Henry’s attempts to read the Bible, baffled right off the bat at the contradictory accounts of the creation in Genesis.  In the truly lovely epilogue of the book, he reads an updated American translation, and finds his way to an understanding and appreciation of key passages of Ecclesiastes and Psalm 23.  It is not a stretch to call this understanding existential; and it seems to me to chart a middle path between the nihilism and uncompromising Christianity present in Flannery O’Connor’s work.

Henry’s sense of engagement, of wanting to understand something that does not make sense but which has always been presented to you as infallible truth (and which you, Henry, have yourself been presenting as the most important thing money can buy), also seems something of an attempt on Edgerton’s part to redeem the vapidity, materialism, and nihilism in O’Connor’s work — what she was bucking against with her stories in the ’50s.  Perhaps there are good country people, after all.

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.

The Great White Shark of Pain

October 20, 2008 § 3 Comments

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

Remember The Raw Shark Texts, that book I told you to read a couple of months ago?  Well, here’s a strand of its source code.

Other than that, I don’t really feel like saying much about this; I’d forgotten about its existence; it is very sad and terrible and scary in a number of ways, but reading it also felt strangely therapeutic.  Some small measure of explanation, perhaps, or at least my assumption thereof.  (And it is my assumption; this section is from Kate Gompert’s point-of-view, mostly.)  But it felt like DFW telling me how it was, I guess, and horrible as it is I was glad to hear it from him.  I hope it did him good, and I think it helps us understand how maybe he hung on for longer than he thought he could.

Hal isn’t old enough yet to know that… numb emptiness isn’t the worst kind of depression.  That dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain.  Authorities term this condition clinical depression or involutional depression or unipolar dysphoria.  Instread of just an incapacity for feeling, a deadening of soul…. Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.

It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it.  It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence.  It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels.  It is a nausea of the cells and soul.  It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself…. Its emotional character… is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.

It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed….  Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution.  It is a hell for one….

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square.  And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing.  The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise…. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.

-David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, p. 695-6

The Murakami Book and What to Call It

August 19, 2008 § 3 Comments

Now reading: The Raw Shark Texts.

A cat is one of the three main characters in this book. The main characters have trouble knowing themselves, much less connecting to someone else. We’re acquainted with something called the Un-Space Exploration Committee. To confirm all suspicions, the epigram to Part Three is a Murakami quote. Yes: we are dealing with a Murakami Book here.

There’s no satisfying name for this genre yet, and perhaps there never should be, since part of the whole point of the genre is that it is willing to use any number of genres to tell complex stories that can get at cultural mores, philosophical underpinnings, the individual and the relationship, and both pleasurable and terrifying aspects of dream-logic. The desire for a name does seem to be increasing: there are those calling this kind of thing “New Fabulist Fiction.” The hoary old nomenclature, I guess, is “metaphysical detective story.” But that’s both too narrow and too broad, since anything could be a metaphysical detective story.

I tend to think of Haruki Murakami as the godfather or founder of this non-school of like minds, although I’ve no idea if that’s accurate or not. Mostly I just read him first, and he’s better than most of the others I’ve read, and seems to be a giant influence. He does seem to be sui generis, though: I can’t really trace some of the most Murakamian characteristics of Murakami to any other author. (I mean, Chandler’s all over Hard-Boiled Wonderland, sure, but who the hell else would pair that idiosyncratic world with the End of the World?) But I may just not be well read enough. Kelly Link’s a prototypical New Fabulist, if that’s what we’re calling them (which I don’t think we should, because who were the Fabulists?) (And while I’m on the subject of Link, Magic for Beginners probably should’ve been on that embarrassingly personal list last post. Jeepers, what a book.)

The last book in Murakami-thrall that I read was David Mitchell’s Number 9 Dream. It was something of a disappointment. Hall’s book is far, far better, and takes its Murakami influence in an interesting new direction. It’s great to see a talented author mining the Murakami-weirdness-vein, a mile deep but fairly narrow (by which I mean, when you see something that’s Murakami-weird, you know it, and it goes to the bone, but it doesn’t happen all that often. Mr Nobody in this book? Murakami-weird.) He’s doing his own things with it, too, which is awesome: using the effect, and something of the style, but not slavishly imitating. So much of Number 9 Dream seemed that way to me: more of a pastiche than a creative use of source material.

Anyway, you could say New Fabulism is just another name for Fancy Genre Writing. You could say it is just another name for non-realism. (Murakami, especially, would be sure to disagree with that, I think: a lot of his writing is realism, and he’s translated some of the biggies, like Carver and Fitzgerald, although Fitzgerald’s a lot weirder than everyone seems to think. Remember the billboard in Great Gatsby?) I think the key to this kind of writing might be its insistence on the “real world,” or some recognizable version thereof, as a place where weird shit happens. It is a kind of alternate realism, maybe. Dream realism. Deep realism. (I’d love to see DFW tackle a novel like this, although a lot of the stories in Oblivion could be construed this way, actually.) It seems to be about layers of meaning, in a way that builds upon high-postmodernism but actually moves past it, for once. And about the ways in which fantasy worlds are a part of the real world: we’ve made them such, and many occupy them much more fully than the “real” world.

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