September 20, 2008 § 7 Comments
Now reading: Infinite Jest.
Google “and but so” and you get over 200,000 hits. As in any Google search for something not a salable product, most of it is coincidental or indecipherable junk. Of the first 100 hits, the vast majority of comprehensible sites are instructions for using conjunctions, and reviews of, excerpts from, and parodies of David Foster Wallace.
On the basic, sentence-by-sentence level, it’s kind of his trademark — what he’s known for. And I think it’s most prevalent in IJ, although it pops up everywhere. Most writers don’t have any sort of grammatical or syntactical trademark, simply because their goal is writing transparent prose. This was not DFW’s goal, although I think he comes closest to writing transparently in this book. (Of course, it was not Hemingway’s goal either, whatever he might have thought about it. There are all kinds of self-conscious writing.)
DFW was obsessed with grammar, usage, sentence structure. It was more or less second nature to him. A lot of those pages I mentioned above dismiss “and but so” as a tic, an annoyance, or an affectation. But I think, given his level of attention to and control of the building blocks of his work, that it behooves us to think about it when he chooses heterodoxy. Why “and but so”? And, although I probably won’t get into it too much, why “like,” which he also uses selectively?
FIrst of all, it’s important to note that it is “and but so,” not “and, but, so.” It’s not bifurcated in meaning, as in something like “And, but so many of us can go to the pool.” It is a kind of unit, and perhaps in time it’ll become “andbutso,” like “insofar.” DFW breaks it up (“but so,” “and so but,” etc.), with meaning sometimes importantly varying (see p. 77 of my 1996 Little, Brown first paperback, Kate Gompert explaining her condition — another absolutely great and heartbreaking section: ‘”And so,’ she said, ‘but then I quit.'”), but I think that it mostly indicates exactly what it should indicate: the sentence or clause it introduces is, or could be, or seems to be (probably most often the second or third) an extension of, potential contradiction of, and logical conclusion to the preceding.
Now, it’s used in dialogue, in internal monologue or ventriloquized thought, and in narrative exposition (these last two being extremely tricky to separate and define, in IJ). I suspect, therefore, that DFW heard it in actual usage and did not simply concoct it one day in grad school as a writerly trademark, which seems to be how some of his detractors view it. I suspect this because DFW was one of our great writers of voice and dialogue, an unjustly overlooked aspect of his work. I’m talking about verisimilitude, not content, here. He got phrasing, pacing, tone, and the translation of all of that into typographic symbol just right, when he wanted to, which is almost all of the time in this book. And he would not use “and but so” in dialogue if he hadn’t heard it. And I think he’s right; if you listen, I think you’ll hear it more than you think.
Like “like,” the verisimilitude is part of the point. DFW’s passion for rhetoric wouldn’t allow him to write exclusively prescriptively, and we’ve already had sections of transcribed dialect and jargon. But he also uses these words because they’re useful, and they do things efficiently that his language could not otherwise do. (In the case of “like,” there may be a degree of having heard roughly three trillion times from older, prescriptive people how disgusting and pointless and apocalyptic its usage is for the language, and thumbing his nose at that by showing how it is used and useful, as a placeholder while thought takes place or attempts to transform itself into spoken word, or, in “they’re like,” as a casual substitute for “they thought/said/indicated,” or as a carrier of tone, although that tone is typically dismissal, condescension, or indifference, which, granted, were mostly the things DFW was fighting against in his writing.) By and large, “and but so” is a moment of internal conflict. It reveals confusion. It’s a false start of language. People aren’t quite sure what they mean, and what they meant, but they are obliged to explain. Using it in a belletristic novel points out how difficult it is for one to know even one’s own motivations and tendencies, much less those of another, much less those of an entire cast of characters (or, in a more day-to-day sense, a whole family, a whole class of students, a whole office). Like a lot of DFW’s writing, “and but so” reveals the anxiety of being human with other humans. It’s hard to explain something important to yourself or to someone else, hard to get it right, and for all the words he used DFW was always pointing out how the words were not quite right, or not quite enough.
September 1, 2008 § 15 Comments
Now reading: Fragile Things, by Neil Gaiman.
First off, an apology to Nosferatu in Love, by Jim Shepard. I did finish it, and it is good — an imaginative biography of F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu among many other classics (I was disappointed that Sunrise was not only not featured, it wasn’t even mentioned). However, I read a lot of it on an airplane, then finished it during a hectic week. It’s got some more interesting things to say, and I especially enjoyed its descriptions of Murnau flying his airplane in WWI, and the experience of being above the clouds targeting the earth, and how that impacted his sense of what cinema could do — but I’m going to have to skip it for now. Onward.
Because Neil Gaiman is a lot of fun to read, and a lot of fun to think about. “Closing Time,” in particular, is a doozy. There are mysteries here, and ambiguity aplenty. And ooh, Narrator Trouble.
(Allow me to digress and bitch for a minute here. The Internet is a marvelous tool, and so is Google, and blogs are marvelous tools themselves. But, see here: a Google search for [“neil gaiman””closing time”] revealed roughly a zillion reviews of one sort or another in the first 100 hits, including reviews in blogs, and zero substantial critical discussions of what’s actually going on in this or any other story. Mechanisms for selling, basically, not thought. Part of the problem is the imprecision of my search, certainly, and my laziness in going through only 100 of the 6000+ hits (although things get more or less off-topic after what I saw, from a skim of later hits). And another part is the Google algorithms, and the fact that Google just doesn’t search everything: there are some discussions of this story on the neilgaiman.com message boards, but they’re buried too deep in the site for Google to recover. (They’re not very good discussions, anyway.) But might I suggest that people move beyond “I liked this,” etc. if they’re going to the trouble of writing about literature in the first place? We have many commercial vendors compiling that sort of information for us. There are already mechanisms for communicating your likes/dislikes to your pals. They’re called e-mail, telephone, and the good ol’ interpersonal conversation. You don’t have to be useful in a pseudo-public setting, but for God’s sake, would it hurt to try?)
So anyway, this is a “club story.” I’m a sucker for this genre, for reasons I can’t necessarily define: I tend to love frame stories of any sort. Something about stories-within-stories gives me a shiver of pleasure. Anyway, here it’s the Diogenes Club (named after the philosopher who famously could not find an honest man), and three young men are trading ghost stories one night. We have a first-person narrator, an “I,” a “young journalist.” (The story, according to Gaiman’s introduction, includes real places, and some real or similar-to-real events, and seems semi-autobiographical.) And we have an “elderly man” drinking by himself in a corner.
When the two named characters, Paul and Martyn, have each had a go at a fairly uninteresting story, we get this: “And then one of us said, ‘I’ll tell you a true story, if you like…. I don’t know if it’s a ghost story. It probably isn’t.'”
Wait… “one of us”? We then get the entire, genuinely creepy story in first person. And when it’s over, both Paul and Martyn comment upon it. So they weren’t the teller, who’s defined as “the storyteller,” separate from our narrator’s “I.” And it becomes evident that the old man wasn’t the teller either. There was also the proprietor, Nora, but she couldn’t have been the teller either, because she doesn’t accompany the four men out at closing time (plus, the storyteller was clearly a boy).
So: what the hell? Is this just a strange affectation of Gaiman’s? Or is it a way of dividing a person as he normally is and that same person as “storyteller”? A way of pointing out the kind of magic circle that’s drawn around a person telling and the people listening, the way they step outside of normal life, even if it’s a “true story” they’re sharing?
Plus, there’s the strangeness of the story itself. It involves a nine-year-old boy (the storyteller) who meets a group of three slightly older boys. (So we have two groups of four: the four in the Diogenes, the four in the story, with similar three-and-one groupings.) These boys show their younger visitor to a “playhouse” in the woods behind “the Swallows,” a manor house. And the door to this playhouse has a “metal knocker… painted crimson… in the shape of some kind of imp, some kind of grinning pixie or demon, hanging by its hands from a hinge.”
Fair enough, and creepy enough. But we’ve been told, four pages earlier, that the storyteller had made in art class “a painting… of a little house with a red door knocker like a devil or an imp.” And yet he gives no impression that he recognized this house, or this knocker, from his own painting. He says: “I found myself wondering what kind of a person would hang something like that on a playhouse door.”
Now, my wife Jaime (who read the story a few months ago) originally suggested that the three boys in the story were ghosts. The ending makes this difficult to accept, though, at least for all three of the boys. We went back and forth a bit on it, and settled on thinking that perhaps they were a kind of ghost of the living: memories made flesh, or the essence of childhoods lost. A kind of ambiguous, indefinable, deeply interesting non-being. This seems to fit best with the chronology of the story.
But that painting; and the weird handling of the narrator; what is going on here? I suspect that what Gaiman is doing here is something like constructing a “true” ghost story: the story of a haunting. (The story right before “Closing Time” is an avowedly “true” ghost story, called “The Flints of Memory Lane,” and some of the details in it echo in strange ways in “Closing Time.”) The “true” story is of this nine-year-old boy whose school closes down and who takes his strange painting back from its abandoned halls. He’s got a melancholy air about him. He seems, in a word, haunted, as does his landscape of “old houses and estates” about to be torn down to make way for “blandly identical landscapes of desirable modern residences.” And the rest of this story, the meeting of these boys, their strange hiding place, the playhouse, and the ambiguous evil they’ve undergone: it’s a way, also but differently “true,” of giving life to the haunting the boy feels, of explaining “what kind of person,” indeed, “would hang something like that on a playhouse door.” (Some answers: an imaginative person. A cruel person. A young boy. Neil Gaiman. And maybe you could also say that we, the readers, are the kind of people who “would hang something like that.” It’s what gives the story its shiver, after all, that door-knocker. And we like our shiver, whatever it might mean for the characters in the story we’re reading.) It’s a way, I expect, of dramatizing how we’re captured by story, and by memory, in thrall to them. They can make us do, and relive, awful things, wonderful things.
May 12, 2008 § Leave a comment
Just finished: The Art of Memory and The State of Constraint: New Work by Oulipo (part of McSweeney’s Issue 22).
Reading next: Boccaccio’s Decameron.
Even an intellectual historian like Yates, writing in the 1960s, had computers on the brain. A couple of times she mentions these “electric brains” as examples of the contemporary relevance of her research. And I was reminded of this in her final chapters, as she discusses the ways in which memory systems diverged into esoteric arts, in which “memory” became a kind of synonym for “imagination” and “knowledge of divinity,” and new sciences, like Leibniz’s invention of calculus.
It seems kind of hackneyed, by now, to talk about how technology has become embued with religious meaning. Doesn’t make it any less true. And the ways in which the art of memory blended art and science certainly do seem similar. Memory remains what’s behind it all, right? And we expect our newest mnemonic systems to help us cultivate both the art of memory and the science of memory. To an extent Yates probably didn’t expect, we anticipate an organizing and retrieving system for all knowledge, all information. Our collective conceptions of our new art and science of memory certainly partake of some characteristics of a Hermetic art, expected to help us unleash our hidden potential for divinity (or at least ability to connect to divinity), while also functioning as a coolly Aristotelian system of objective data retrieval. Like everything, those statements have elements of truth, elements of fiction.
To approach this from another angle: Oulipo is all about connecting science and art (mathematics and literature, to be specific), and Anne F. Garreta’s essay “On Bookselves” provides some thoroughly eccentric, non-traditional, illogical “principles” for organizing her personal library. My favorite is Principle #8, separating “homebound books” and “nomadic books,” then further dividing “books bought on one side or the other” of a given river, “books that have crossed an ocean at least once,” “books you missed, cruelly, one night at 3 a.m. because they had remained on the other side of the ocean,” etc. The quirkiness of these principles, she explains, is precisely the point:
-Could we order the outside world, the world of objectivity (real books) following patterns residing in our minds, the patterns according to which phantom books reside in our minds?
-You’d be out of your mind.
-Could we escape our misery by simply swallowing a computer and turning our minds into subsets of the Library of Congress Catalog?
-You’d be out of a mind.
Exactly: to leave all the systematizing work of memory to technology is to deprive ourselves of our selves.