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.

Going SACPOP

October 4, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

Here’s a deep thought: IJ is not a perfect book.  While I doubt DFW would have described it as a piece of speculative fiction without prompting, it nevertheless is that, among many other things: it posits a future, it speculates on what might be in store.  Its main action is probably set right about now, or maybe a few more years down the road, if you want to get specific about it (which really is beside the point).  And as a speculation on technology, it’s not actually very good.

12 (12!) years down the road, it’s easy to see how many anachronisms the book contains.  All of these “cartridges,” CD-ROMs, even the now utterly obsolete 3″ floppies which were becoming obsolete even as the book was published: these are superficial anachronisms, but nevertheless jarring in realizing how we live in the future now: we’ve outstripped expectations for our technological dependence, and also changed the nature of our addiction to “entertainment” in interesting and unforeseeable ways.  I’m thinking here YouTube, FaceBook, Twitter, the already-kind-of-obsolete personal blog, the whole constellation of 2.0 “infotainment” and exhibitionism that an awful lot of people use the Internet for, and which is more or less absent from IJ’s Subsidized Time of the future: people are still watching movies, TV, playing CD-ROM games.  (Of course we in the now still do those things, and still will; point is we do an awful lot more, as well, without really decreasing our consumption of any of the other entertainments we were already abusing.)  I’m guessing DFW wrote much of IJ in the early ’90s, perhaps even late ’80s.  It was probably impossible to anticipate how much the Internet would change things.

The best section on technology in the book is the classic videophone discussion.  It’s brilliant on “a certain queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the microeconomics of consumer high-tech.”  To recap, it explains that videophones went through a vogue when first introduced, but people realized they couldn’t do all the distracted, self-involved things they do when talking on the phone if they’re on a videophone.  So products were developed to help them use these expensive devices without actually using them: filters, fake backdrops and masks and “Transmittable Tableaus” that let the videophoners show whatever “heavily doctored” image of themselves they want to present, until this fad too faded and people just pretty much went back to using audio-only phones and all their paraphernalia for transmitting doctored images of themselves were thrown away or gathered dust, except among the gauche or lower-class who still use them.  (It’s much better to read it yourself: p. 144-51.)  What’s ingenious about this, I think, is the way it highlights (wittily and succinctly, I might add) the issues of power and control at the heart of most communications-based technology.  What interactive “Web 2.0” sites focused on personal interaction and communication (including, of course, this here personal blog) allow you to do is construct a “heavily doctored” image of yourself, a view of yourself to present to the world without really presenting yourself to the world, in, you know, synchronous, face-to-face, interpersonal interaction.  A dance of veils, more or less.  The technology itself is not inherently narcissistic, which seems to be a fallacy many of us fall into.  That just happens to be how it’s been applied.  (This isn’t just 2.0 stuff, of course: you can make the same argument about e-mail.)

The worst section on technology in the book is the game of Eschaton.  I may have dreamed this, and I’m too lazy to look it up now, but I seem to remember DFW saying in some interview that Eschaton was a relic, kind of a self-contained short story, one of the earliest things he wrote that ended up in the book.  That’s how it feels, now: honest to God, he has Otis P. Lord running around on the tennis courts with a “color monitor” laptop hooked up to a more powerful computer by a giant extension cord and 200-something 3″ floppies to process the complicated computations required by Eschaton.  It’s like WarGames, for Chrissake.  Someone get the Lord a wireless connection, a battery, and a laptop built after 1995.

Despite all that: how I do love the Eschaton.  It’s hilarious slapstick, it’s philosophically and metaphysically complex, it’s a crash course in game theory or maybe why game theory isn’t the answer to everything.  (As a super-nerd side note: it’s also one of the most deliberately metafictional portions of the book, with this strange interplay between the text and the footnotes raising the question of whether Pemulis or Hal is narrating, or whether the nameless narrator is simply ventriloquizing Pemulis/Hal.)  It’s an interesting question what DFW was, exactly, trying to do with the Eschaton.  Partly I think it was simply a lot of fun: DFW clearly loved the math involved, the geometry, the vectors, and once Ingersoll hits Kittenplan with that ball to the back of the head there’s sustained comic chaos worthy of the Marx Bros, at least until things turn seriously Lord-of-the-Flies and Lord ends up with his face through a monitor.  (Too much fun, as always.)  Partly there’s the satiric intent of showing how much “fun” apocalyptic scenarios can be, how seriously these 12-to-15-year-olds take the entertainment of their abstracted ends, how easy it is for them to accept scenarios leading to nuclear holocaust.  (I love the treatment of historic consciousness here, how Canadian extremists so often factor into their explicitly nostalgic Cold War scenarios.  We have this way of filtering our present through our past, like now, as we’re reenvisioning former backwaters and bit players like Afghanistan and Islamic fundamentalism as central to our current situation and driving forces in recent history.)  And partly there’s some big-time Pynchon/DeLillo influence here, in the metaphysical concerns underpinning these endgame scenarios, in the aptly named Otis P. Lord and his total lack of control when irrational human beings start acting irrationally and his spinning beanie of doom.  Most of all, in the giggling horror of “going SACPOP”: Strikes Against Civilian Populations as a strategy in a game, a way of winning or of preventing someone else from winning.  This may have seemed a historical concern in 1996, and DFW framing this Cold War section as a kid’s game does seem like a kind of time capsule of 1996, with its sense of post-historicity and global exhale and smaller-scale conflict.  Nevertheless, he kept this section for a reason: the warheads hang around, and even if they didn’t, the knowledge does, and the desire.  (This, of course, is why DeLillo remains vital and not a kind of Cold War cultural artifact.)  DFW’s inclusion of terrorist scenarios proved, obviously, adept, and the cataloging of scenarios used in past and potential Eschatons points out all the dangers that still existed, that were still horribly frightening and imaginable and variable, in that far-away-future year of 1996.

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