Introducing DeLillo’s Internet Man

March 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished a while ago: The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo.

Reading now: Big Machine, by Victor LaValle.

Reading next: You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner.

I’d like to think that DeLillo wrote this when he did for much the same reason I read it when I did: Fot the love of God, let me finish something quickly! After Underworld, DeLillo surely enjoyed writing this spare novella, a whispering ghost of a book.

And yet, he’s DeLillo, so it’s also, still, a book like a steel rail, vibrating with the force of the train bearing down on us, and a book like a radio spinning its dial through the world’s most erudite and finely crafted frequencies.  It’s a book that concerns itself with film, radio, audiotape, performance art, art reportage and criticism, but mostly death and the human body.  DeLillo notices more than most of us, and shows us things we were bound to notice eventually but hadn’t yet.  But he does it in such interesting ways that often it’s up to you to notice what he might be talking about.

Case in point: the Internet, here, in this 2001 book.  It make a direct appearance, as the “live-streaming video feed from the edge of a two-lane road in a city in Finland” with which Lauren becomes obsessed for its “sense of organization, a place contained in an unyielding frame, as it is and as you watch… she could see it in its realness, in its hours, minutes and seconds.”  But the Internet might be a larger figure in the book.  Is it the mystery man who appears in Lauren’s house?

This feeling, that the mysterious savant is actually some sort of Internet Man, came slowly, but once I’d had the thought it was difficult to dislodge.  DeLillo is a master of ambiguity, and so he can be an Internet allegory and many other things at once.  But his uncanny mimicry, his lack of human personality and self, his flat screen of recited language and incident, and his blurring (both to Lauren and to us, the readers) of “realness” and artifice or simulacrum add up, for me at least, to a portrait of a new technology, this search-engined network of knowledge and memory.

It crystallized in this passage, near the end, after meditations on the nature of “past, present, and future” and language:

“…she opened and closed her eyes and thought in a blink the world had changed.

He violates the limits of the human.”

The connection of all of this with the book’s deep concerns with death, with the body, and with art: this is, perhaps, of a piece with millennial techno- and future-thinkers, and yet it is utterly different from utopian wishes to escape the body online or dystopian visions of technological tyranny.  It takes Lauren’s artistic vision — and especially her “body work” — to make sense of both the Google-like retrieval of her late husband’s voice by the “savant” in her house and of the mysterious appeal of a Finnish road in the dead of night.

Stories Above, Stories Within, Stories Beside

May 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished a while ago: Atmospheric Disturbances.

Just finished: Pretty Monsters, by Kelly Link.

Reading next: The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño, and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, by Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop.

So I’m very behind, which is a shame, because Atmospheric Disturbances is a really interesting novel, and I unabashedly adore Kelly Link’s stories.  Allow me to point out just a few of the many fascinating things in these books.

First, the Galchen.  I had read before, but completely forgotten, that the author’s father is used as a character in this book; the knowledge that Tzvi Gal-Chen was a real person, a real meteorologist, and not just a clever metafictional author-reference, makes the book come alive in surprising ways.  The book would be orders of magnitude less touching, compelling, and human were it not for its metafictional tricks, its games with narration and a blend of truth and fiction: a convincing and damn near conclusive refutation of those who decry metafiction and all experimental tactics as cold, unfeeling, antagonistic to the reader.  The combination of the story of Leo — Galchen portrays his monomania brilliantly while never quite eliminating the possibility that he’s on to something in thinking his wife “disappeared” and replaced by a simulacrum — the story of our reading of Leo — is this an allegory of marriage, a new fabulist mystery, a fictional memoir of madness? — and the story of Galchen eulogizing Gal-Chen, weaving her memories of her father into this fabulous tale — is quite magical.

And the way that Leo takes these crazy leaps of faith based on cryptic readings of dry scientific papers and Rorschachian interpretations of a meteorological graph!  And the droll, sometimes clinical, sometimes mystical chapter titles!  And the trip to Patagonia, the Jungian unconscious of Argentina!

Then there’s Kelly Link, who is awesome in completely irrefutable and empirically proven ways. Pretty Monsters is a short story collection for a major publisher, Viking, and as such reprints some of the stories from her earlier small-press collections, including what might very well be my favorite short story of this decade, “Magic for Beginners.”  (Or is it a novella?  Aah, whatever it is, it’s the best of that.)  Seriously, if you don’t love this story I can’t have anything to do with you: you will not like me, I will not like you, I will argue with you constantly in unpleasant and unfriendly ways.

Link’s a master at the ambiguously nested narrative.  In “Magic for Beginners,” we’re told right off the bat about the pirate-TV show The Library, and told that the story we’re being told is itself an episode of The Library.  This episode ends up being largely concerned with a group of teenage friends obsessed with the pirate-TV show The Library.  One of the very many brilliant things about this story is how it is a story about a TV show which does things that can only be done in literature, with the written word: if one were to actually try to adapt The Library for the screen, it would be impossibly confusing, expensive, and unsuccessful.  And yet it is irresistable in its ekphrastic descriptions in this story.  It’s the best thing about literature, the most underrated thing: it is utterly unrestrained by the million restraints of performed art, by casting, effects budgets, production companies.  It can do anything, given the right combination of reader and writer.  It can create impossible works of whatsoever form of art and describe them in whatever words, at whatever level of tantalizing detail, it chooses.  (Link, by the way, is great at this variation of detail, of the “granularity,” if you will, of her descriptions: the monster in the excellent story “Monster” is a good example of a terrifyingly sparse description.)

So we care a lot about Jeremy and his friends, and his mother and eccentric Stephen-King-ish father, in ways we wouldn’t if they were framing devices in an episode of The Library.  While you often forget while you reading that it’s framed as an episode, it is fascinating to read this whole story as an episode: a strange new episode of your favorite cult show, in which the fantastic world and characters you’ve become fans of are suddenly thrust into contact with the “real” world, in which the “death” or “life” of those other characters is in agonizing doubt (in multiple ways) but you are asked to pay attention to new characters, characters like you.  A little slice of reality TV.  So, yes: a realistic, naturalistic story about our filmed world, our fictionalized reality.

Link does stories-within-stories very well, but there are also stories side by side: sibling stories, like “Pretty Monsters.”  You can argue for this as another nested narrative, but it seemed to me that as you read it, the stories are on the same plane, even when it becomes clear that a character in one of the narratives is reading the other story.  (But she’s also not: the story here is far too short to be a book; we either have a synopsis of the book, or excerpts from it, or an alternate version of it.)  I am still wrapping my mind around this story, which I loved.  And yet the ending bothered me.  Stories shift their shapes; a story is a kind of pretty monster, utterly true, utterly false, attractive and terrifying; and when the fictional girl “L” acknowledges that there is “no stupid girl named Lee” in the story she was just reading, this is a matter of irony — we affirm the reality of the fictional Lee, Clementine, L and C, just as Jeremy tried to confirm the reality of the fictional Fox in “Magic for Beginners.”  But dammit, the metanarrative here did not deepen or complicate my understanding of the work; I cared too much about the twin narratives for it to work as a frame or conclusion.

Basically, what I am saying is that I really want Kelly Link to stretch out, to restrain or at least delay her ambiguity reflex, and to write a novel.  I’d love to see what happens in a Kelly Link novel.  Things could get wild.

Mario Incandenza’s James Incandenza’s O.N.A.N.tiad

October 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

Since my first reading lo those many years ago, I had forgotten, more or less completely, about Mario Incandenza.  Which is sad, since Mario is such a lovely, strange, mysterious character.  (Also, in a completely inappropriate way, he reminds me of Buster Bluth, from Arrested Development, both in his childlike nature and in his uncertain parentage: whenever it’s mentioned that Mario might be Charles Tavis’s son, I start hearing that soap-opera music they used for Uncle Oscar’s heavy-handed hints about Buster.)

Mario had a premature and very weird birth after Avril’s “hidden pregnancy.”  It sounds like nothing so much as the baby in Eraserhead.  Now he’s bradykinetic (slow of movement and response) and has shriveled S-shaped arms and can’t stand upright.  Allusions are made to robots, spiders, the mentally retarded, and homunculi, when it comes to Mario, but none really apply for anything but physical appearance.  He also seems to be utterly without irony, ulterior motive, or disturbing doubts about his family, unlike everyone else in said family.  He loves Madame Psychosis’s radio show for reasons he can’t explain and is more or less traumatized when she goes off the air (as a result of her overdose/suicide attempt).  He was extremely close to James “The Mad Stork” Incandenza, his father(?), and helped on his films.

In fact, he created a parody/homage to one of those films: The O.N.A.N.tiad, described in the note 24 filmography as an “Oblique, obsessive, and not very funny claymation love triangle played out against live-acted backdrop of the inception of North American Interdependence and Continental Reconfiguration.”  (Here’s what appears to be a simple error: the JOI original is listed as 76 minutes in the filmography but said to be four hours long in the text.)  It’s “anti-confluential,” meaning it resists the trend to tie all the threads of its narrative together in a nice little package, a school of filmmaking JOI helped to create.  (Presumably in reaction against Magnolia, or Crash, or another look-how-we’re-all-connected-and-depend-on-each-other film of 1996’s future.)  On Interdependence Day (Nov. 8th) every year, when the continent “celebrates” the creation of the Organization of North American Nations, the E.T.A. students and staff watch Mario’s version, made in a broom closet with puppets.  We get DFW’s (or Hal’s?) ekphrastic description of it.

In this way we get a lot of the complicated geopolitical background and exposition for the novel.  And part of the point here is how mediated this exposition/background is: we’re watching a homage of a parody of world events which were really, it would seem, much less important to JOI than the affair he thought Rod “the God” Tine was having with French-Canadian operative Luria P., which served as a kind of allegory of the affairs he thought his wife was having with French-Canadian operatives more or less all the time (and perhaps accurately).  There’s an interesting comment that “somebody else in the Incandenza family had at least an amanuentic hand in the screenplay.”  Who?  Avril?  Hal?

(Sidebar: there have apparently been theories floating around about Avril’s “amanuentic hand” being more or less all over this book, and it’s true: she seems to be lurking everywhere, especially in the French-Canadian separatist shenanigans.  Lots of little intimations in the footnotes, here.  And it does make you wonder about that head in the microwave…)

And through this filmed puppet-show we meet “Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner,” leader of the Clean U.S. Party, surprise winner of the U.S. election, utter obsessive about hygiene and cleanliness, possibly a real-life puppet for Rod “the God” Tine, head of the Office of Unspecified Services.  (This possibility, emphasized in Mario’s remake, is downplayed by the narrator, which is interesting.)  The Johnny Gentle/Rod Tine relationship, and the whole “experialist” Gentle presidency, is more or less uncomfortably familiar, after eight years of Bush/Cheney.  Experialism could be construed as just being the opposite of imperialism, in that it involves forcing other countries to take your land, but there’s really a much more complicated relationship between the two concepts, experialism really meaning something more like exploiting the danger of your enormous and even obvious power to do whatever you want with parcels of land that you’ve “generously” “given” to other countries who you railroad into being or at least publicly acting like your allies.  It involves finding an “external Menace to hate and fear,” even if it’s just something you’ve made up, or that was made up or impotent but that you’ve actually made real and potent through either your bungling or your Machiavellian scheming.  (See: Quebecois terrorist groups.)  Hell, I’m sure there are whole dissertations in the works about DFW’s experialism and its Bakhtinian implications or whatnot.

The best part of the movie, by the sound of it, is the newspaper-headline interludes, flashing us through swaths of history a la old movies and (more commonly) homages to old movies.  DFW creates this great mini-narrative, in the narrator’s ekphrastic descriptions of the headlines, about a “Veteran but Methamphetamine-Dependent Headliner” who writes incredibly long run-on headlines that are basically articles in themselves, and we follow this meth-addict headline-writer from his gig at a major newspaper to smaller and smaller towns where he continues to be unable to kick either his meth or logorrhea habit.  (And, of course, a self-reflexive joke on his own run-ons and stylistic quirks, since the headlines are more or less quintessential DFW-style headlines.)

I actually wouldn’t be too surprised if someone did make this movie, someday.  I’d watch it, even if it was “openly jejune.”

Tear Off Your Own Head

August 16, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Been Down So Long It Looked Like Up to Me.

Tear off your own head

Tear off your own head

It’s a doll revolution

-Elvis Costello

This is not an advice column, but I’m going to go ahead and give some anyway: you probably don’t need to read this book. But if you’re interested in Pynchon, you might want to take a look at his introduction sometime. (Mine is a 1983 Penguin paperback, which I believe is the first with the intro.) It’s surprisingly heavy on the personal detail, rather tellingly uninterested in much of the book itself, and seems to have been written while Pynchon was writing or at least planning Vineland, since the phrase “karmic adjustment” pops up.

But there are some interesting things in the book — it’s overstuffed, is all, and rather pompous — including its use of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is the description of an artwork in a medium different than that artwork (although it’s often used for descriptions of books within books, too): in this case, there’s the use of jazz rhythms and descriptions of other music, but there are also paintings. I tend to be a sucker for this in literature: it’s one of the things I love Paul Auster for (the movies were the best part of The Book of Illusions, for instance). The most important painting here is kept rather cryptic, but in a useful way. And it strikes a strange chord (to engage in ekphrastic metaphor) with the Elvis Costello song quoted above.

It’s a mural-sized canvas by Calvin Blacknesse, Gnossos’s friend, advisor, and guru. Blacknesse is, apparently, a figurative painter, rather out of step with the art-world trends of his time, even anachronistic, I should think (although there may be a hint of early psychedelia, here). His canvases appear to be heavy on symbolism and mythological imagery. When we first meet him, he’s painting “the dark goddess.” Here’s our first brief description of the painting most important to Gnossos: “That one with the tapestry look, a beheading. Must have it sometime.” Gnossos then goes on a very bad mescaline trip in the Blacknesses’ house, and is terrified of the painting. “No, I saw him,” he says of the figure in the painting. “He cut his head off. All by himself.” (This leads to one of the funniest scenes in the book, the tripping Gnossos fleeing to the bathroom to hide all the razor blades to protect the family from themselves.)

Nevertheless, he takes the canvas and installs it over the mantel in his room. Like a lot of ekphrastic devices, it serves, I think, as a kind of compact allegory of the character with which it’s identified. Gnossos is, indeed, on a mission to tear off his own head, it would seem: his quest to receive a vision, to get out of his own skin, to remain “Exempt”: from death, societal convention, and ordinary consciousness. In another funny touch, the canvas nearly falls on him when the spurned Pamela attacks him with a knife: “the nearly decapitated profile rushed at his own.” Funny picture, a man in profile presumably with a knife cut through most of his throat, with the medieval look of a tapestry.

Some more lines from “Tear Off Your Own Head”:

What’s that sound?

It will turn you around

It’s a doll revolution

They’re taking it over

And they’re tearing it down

It’s a doll revolution…

(Costello wrote this to be recorded by the Bangles, I’m told, and they did so, after his version was released. It’s a very sixties song, for a very sixties-sounding group.)  At the end of this book that’s exactly what’s happening: Alonso Oeuf, Gnossos’s nemesis, has successfully led a coup of the university administration with a demonstration of thousands of students who will do pretty much whatever they’re told. A doll revolution.  I suspect it’s supposed to be read as a microcosm of the university unrest of so much of the sixties, with both its good elements (increased academic freedom, decreased repressive sexual regulations) and its ugly (wankers who play at being revolutionaries following the mob’s every whim).

Gnossos has an ambivalent relationship with the real: he wants the mystical “real,” as his name implies, the layers of reality behind the mundane. But he’s terrified when a vision does strike — it happens to be a death-vision, unpredictable as visions tend to be — and when real death occurs, he’s rather unprepared for it. He’s a kid, and an unlikeable one at that. Anyone who says “Oh, Thanatos baby, kiss my wicked tongue” as he threatens to jump off the side of a boat for a lost love is not terribly likeable, or prepared for the reality of death.

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