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.

Multiple Odysseys and Our Medieval Culture

August 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason.

Reading next: At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien.

There comes a moment, occasionally, when you’re reading along and suddenly, for no obvious reason, the rows of the Cosmic Slot Machine line up and some insight smashes into the front of your skull.  Oftentimes it turns out to be no great fundamental innovation, but the truth behind something that’s become a truism, or something you’ve always known but never understood.

That happened for me as I was reading the fifth story, “Agamemnon and the Word,” in Zachary Mason’s book, an assemblage of fictional “concise variations” on the “crystallized,” canonical version of the Odyssey, said variations supposedly recovered from manuscripts, urns, and other sources and duly translated.  Something about reading these fragments — and especially this fifth, about a knowledge-hungry Agamemnon asking Odysseus and his other “sages” to give him the world’s knowledge in a book, a sentence, a single word — written by a computer scientist, with their artifice of scholarly footnotes linking the variations to the canonical text, made me think that the book could be emblematic of — perhaps is consciously about — our culture’s shift back toward the varietal, the local, the fragmentary, away from the canonical, the universal, the definitive.

Much later, near the end, comes “Record of a Game,” a story begun with a footnote stating that “Though written in credible Homeric Greek, the contents of this chapter cannot be dated much before the early Middle Ages,” and telling us that much of the “papyrus” is damaged, leaving sections of the text up to “conjecture.”  It’s one of my favorites in the book, reading the Iliad and Odyssey as instructional texts for a game of military tactics similar to chess, wildly corrupted and elaborated through years of use and elaboration.

All of this reminded me of Jeanette Winterson saying that “we might be going into a cultural dark ages.”  (You can find the quote here, in an interview with Bill Moyers, though I think she’d said it before then, as well.)  And in my profession, we’re constantly worrying about the creation of a historical dark age through the loss of digital information, the difficulty of capturing and preserving that information (though we seem to finally be turning a corner on that issue, as a profession).  Winterson’s worried about people no longer interested in culture, no longer reading, and whether that absence of market will mean the end of literature and other high art forms.  Archivists are worried about the loss of the historical record.

When Mason writes in his brief preface that “the Homeric material was formless, fluid, its elements shuffled into new narratives like cards in a deck,” he is almost certainly closer to the truth than the idea that one can find a definitive text of a definitive Odyssey, by a definitive Homer.  There were surely many different versions of the Odyssey, as many different versions as there were storytellers, almost all of them lost now.  And yet we — civilization, in general, especially the kind that gets called “Western” — have been engaged, for 600 years or so now, in the systematic canonization of information: putting down authoritative versions of events between covers, over the airwaves, and into the public record of newspapers and legal documents.  This is what scholars, journalists, culture workers of all stripes, have been engaged to do.  But what Mason’s book reminds me of is connection of the pre-Homeric tales of the adventures of a trickster lost on his way back home from war — of that fabled “oral culture” — to the wired world’s increasing proliferation of versions of narratives, “memes,” apocrypha, images real and doctored, commentary, flame wars, propaganda, misinformation.  Crowdsourcing: the creation of large-scale narrative through local knowledge and aggregated data.  Is it possible to see the Internet, again, as some hoped it would be, as a colossal hearth across which storytellers toss the tales they’ve heard, and listeners choose the ones they like best to pass along in their own ways?  Are we in a medieval age of multiplicity, rather than scarcity, of knowledge?

This seems one of the many possible ways to understand Mason’s reasons for reworking one of Western civ’s most fundamental texts, at this late stage in its history, after myriad other reworkings.  The irony, of course, is that Mason wrote a book, and certainly no one can blame him for that: it’s what writers still tend to do, after all.  Not only did he write a book, he published it first with a small press, Starcherone Books, after which the book was picked up and repackaged by Farrar, Straus and Giroux: it’s worked its way up the chain of respectability and wide distribution.  Again, still the logical move to make.  But like a number of other things I’ve read lately, I can’t help but think that the work would be improved, structurally and thematically, by turning away from mainstream publication, and producing it as an online text: a work of electronic literature, not an “e-book” or print book in digital form.  A work inherently unstable, a hypertext in which the reader chooses the order in which to read the narratives, or the narratives are provided in random order.  But one does not get paid (or gets paid very little) for e-lit: there is no market.  Its practitioners, by and large, give content away.  Winterson’s dark age looming, again.

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.

Shakespeare, Owen Hart, Zeitgeist

February 25, 2008 § Leave a comment

Finished last Saturday: Bear v. Shark.

A couple of tidbits from this and then I’m putting it to bed. Really a fun read, even if I do think it’s no great shakes as literature goes. Hey, I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll enjoy, at least at some level, any book that includes a functioning index that is also a parody of an index, and appears not at the end, but as a chapter of the book itself. I’m a sucker for index humor after taking a class on “Indexing and Abstracting” in library school.

Tidbit #1: Chapter 58, “Textual Evidence,” is a radio interview with a poor doctoral candidate trying to build a career on the hypothesis “that Shakespeare had bear sympathies” based on the relative number of appearances of the words “bear” and “shark” in his works. There are some truly hilarious lines in here. E.g.: responding to the charge that most of the “bear”s in Shakespeare are verbs, not nouns: “You know sometimes it’s like Freud never happened.” And there’s the host’s rejoinder of the “negative evidence hypothesis”: the theory that Shakespeare didn’t use the word “shark” because he was so respectful and terrified of them.

This would be silly if people weren’t constantly trying to do this kind of thing with Shakespeare (and a few others), and for similarly ludicrous reasons.

Tidbit #2: Chapter 68, “In Superhero-Type Fashion,” juxtaposes “Long Story Short ed.” recaps of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast and the death of pro wrestler Owen Hart to point out the strange ways in which fiction—artifice, illusion, spectacle—now seems more real, normal, and expected than “real life.” This is really quite brilliant, I thought.

It’s the most explicit statement of a theme that runs throughout: entertainment, pounding hype, repetition, and contrived narrative as a kind of soup we now live in, all around us, absorbing practically everything in sight. (This appears elsewhere in detached snippets of televised/radio broadcast dialogue, commercials, sports talk, etc., and in the whole chapters that detach from the novel’s own narrative arc (such as it is) to describe one program or another.) We expect story and packaged narrative: it’s the moments of unexpected things actually happening that are hardest for us to understand, now. We spend a really inordinate amount of time parsing the details of, and coming to grips with, these “real” occurrences, intrusions of action (alternative narratives, or alternate realities, if you will) into the narratives that have been built around us. (See the chapter “Non Sequitur,” here. See 9/11, and the almost instantaneous growth of a subculture believing it was heavily stage-managed or at least planned to appear on TV. Better yet, read “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” DFW’s 9/11 piece. Now I promise to leave the shrine of DFW alone for at least a month.)

No great insight here, right? This is practically the ur-narrative of this whole school of writing (which is really a lot harder to define than it seems: call it postmodernism and you’re lumping in a bunch of writers to whom it doesn’t so much apply. Maybe we should just call it the Barth/Pynchon school and leave it at that). In other chapters Bachelder, writing (I speculate, based on pub date of 2001) in 1999-2000, throws the Internet into the mix. His particular hobby-horses are the easily detachable, easily misunderstood, easily convoluted bits of info and trivia available there. It’s a little early. He’s still dealing with small-fry conspiracy theorists and poor spellers. Just wait for the well-meaning, ill-informed listserv poster, wikifier, or blogger, my friend! Then you’ll have some serious clusterfucks of rumor, hysteria, outdated information and skewed statistics!

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