The Vertigos in Vertigo

February 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Vertigo; 20 Lines a Day.

Reading next: The Encantadas, by Herman Melville.

There are physical and metaphysical kinds of vertigo in Vertigo.  Sebald also incorporates the themes of the better-known text entitled Vertigo, the Hitchcock film, into his text. He makes his meditative, memoiristic work a kind of thriller, too.  A tongue-in-cheek reference to this aspect of the work occurs when he says to the manager of the hotel he stays at in Limone that he’s writing what may be “a crime story” that “revolved around a series of unsolved murders and the reappearance of a person who had long been missing.”  And indeed, the serial murders perpetrated by the “Organizzazione Ludwig” do appear as a subplot in the work.

A motif of vertiginous seasickness appears throughout, as does vertigo inspired by standing at the edge of high places; people are often standing at the edge of a cliff, abyss, or void, and trips in a boat or ship also appear throughout the text (sometimes in dreams or paintings).  These two kinds of vertigo inspired by physical conditions both refer to one of Sebald’s touchstones, Kafka’s story “The Hunter Gracchus.”  The hunter falls to his doom from a high cliff in the forest after chasing a chamois; he then sails the seas in a state of living death.

The more metaphysical vertigo, the feeling of standing at the edge of the cliff of life, of existence itself, afflicts Sebald and others in the book.  Marie-Henri Beyle (aka Stendhal) experiences “a vertiginous sense of confusion” at “The difference between the images of the battle which he had in his head and what he now saw before him as evidence that the battle had in fact taken place.”  Earlier, Sebald tells us that “Beyle’s advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say destroy them.”  In Sebald’s telling of tales, it is difficult to untangle art from reality, especially given the presence of photographs as “evidence.”  Art, in memory, can take the place of reality, as lines from “The Hunter Gracchus” infiltrate the apparent reality of Sebald’s travelogue.  In Vertigo the film, art also infiltrates reality and memory, as in the portrait that Madeleine adores (of Madeleine’s ancestor, whom she resembles — and of course, Sebald’s narrator is also gazing obsessively at art throughout his Vertigo) and the reenactment of her suicide (both in staged artifice and then in accidental reality).

Kim Novak in Vertigo; note the spiral. Also resembles the profile in Pisanello's fresco inspected by Sebald in Verona.

Kim Novak in Vertigo; note the spiral. Also resembles the profile in Pisanello’s fresco inspected by Sebald in Verona.

When else does Vertigo strike?  It hits Sebald when he wanders the streets of Vienna, following (as Jimmy Stewart’s detective, Scottie, follows) a series of ghostly figures from his past; people long missing, either from the world or from his memory.  It recurs when he returns to his hotel after his epic, compulsive walks, and sees that his shoes are in tatters.  An association occurs to another episode of vertigo earlier that day, hearing children singing Christian songs in a Jewish community center.  A series of murders.  Missing persons. 

Later, twin boys who look just like young Kafka on a bus provoke another bout of vertigo, and the doppelganger theme so important in both Vertigos is introduced: the uncanny return of the dead, and/or the remaking of the living in the image of the dead.  (Sebald’s imagining of Kafka himself will also encounter twins and doppelgangers in the third section of the book.)

Finally, there are a number of references to vertigo symptoms from contact with others, from an encounter with the reality of other people.  Kafka, Sebald writes, feels “the terrors of love” to be “foremost among all the terrors of the earth.”  Stendhal suffers from “giddiness… roaring in his ears… shaking” due to his syphilis and the attempts to treat it.  (He also idealizes past lovers, and returns to woo his Beatrice, who he calls “Lady Simonetta,” eleven years after first conceiving his love for her.)  Sebald’s vision goes blurry when lightly touched by women he barely knows: a landlady, an optometrist.

The book is structured around returns and reenactments of the past, and the final section of the book “Il ritorno in patria,” acts something like the final act of the film Vertigo, as Sebald returns to his childhood villages and encounters as much of his life there as remains, just as Scottie convinces Judy/Madeleine to reenact the scene of the earlier, staged suicide.  And here, too, a “real” death, that of Schlag the hunter, is narrated, after (through chronologically earlier, in Sebald’s telling, creating a complex labyrinth of memory) the earlier “staged” deaths of the hunter Gracchus in Kafka’s stories, in the mannequin in the attic, dressed as a gray hunter, that has been haunting Sebald’s dreams for decades.

Murakami’s Abnormal Normalcy

August 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami.

Reading now: Shriek: An Afterword, by Jeff VanderMeer.

One of Murakami’s recurring themes is the strangeness ever present near the surface of “normal” everyday life.  This is one of the motifs that has made his work so successful globally: while his blend of the domestic and the bizarre is quintessentially Japanese, it translates beautifully to a range of cultures, and his (for all I can tell) simple, unadorned style also lends itself to translation.

I’ve been thinking about this theme ever since the beginning of South of the Border, which, in typical Murakami fashion, efficiently sets up a perfectly normal environment and immediately shows how the narrator perceives himself as abnormal: he has a “100 percent average birth” and “grew up in… your typical middle-class suburbia.” But Hajime, our narrator, is an only child in a town of families with 2 or more kids, and feels himself isolated and “different” because of this.

The oddness within such a normal-seeming life — of any life on earth, from within the unique mind of the person experiencing it — is encoded even in the title.  Hajime and his only friend, the fellow only child Shimamoto, listen to Shimamoto’s father’s records over and over.  One of their favorites is “South of the Border.”

Off in the distance, Nat King Cole was singing “South of the Border.”  The song was about Mexico, but at the time I had no idea. The words “south of the border” had a strangely appealing ring to them.  I was convinced something utterly wonderful lay south of the border.

In Japan as in the US or hundreds of other countries, this is a banal scene of domestic suburban childhood or adolescence from the 1950s to 1970s: going to a friend’s house, listening to pop standards on his/her parents’ hi-fi, experiencing the first sexual longings of your life.  And the choice of “South of the Border,” a hoary old pop song if there ever was one, by Nat King Cole, a wildly popular, very talented, but incredibly safe singer from the perspective of mainstream society just about anywhere, deepens this banality.  It’s Murakami’s gift to makes this unusual, to reveal mystery inherent within even such banality, such domesticity.

Of course, the lyrics they are listening to are in English, and as such present something of a mystery to any listener for whom English is a second language.  The words themselves, “south of the border,” are appealing and mysterious to young Hajime: he doesn’t know what border it is, or what might be south of it.  He doesn’t know yet what Mexico is, or where, or what it signifies.  The border could be the border between life and death, between human life and the realm of spirits and mythological creatures, between childhood and adulthood.  As it turns out, this utterly normal, banal song carries the story of the strangest happenings that will occur to Hajime in his life, the story of his relationship with Shimamoto.

Beyond that, there is another mystery: Nat King Cole did not sing “South of the Border.” I’ve gone through the discographies online without uncovering any version of the song having been recorded by Cole (though, of course, it’s always possible that a Japanese pressing has escaped my notice).  Even a fan video for the book uses the Sinatra version — probably the closest corollary for the kind of bland smoothness we hear in our heads when Hajime mentions a Cole version of the song):

This is kind of fascinating.  You could speculate that Murakami just gets this wrong, and I suppose it’s possible.  But it’s highly unlikely of an author who embeds specific musical cues in all of his works, and especially in a book about a character that becomes the owner of popular jazz clubs.  I think this is intentional, and could be read in a number of ways:

  • The recording only exists between Shimamoto and Hajime.  Later in the book, Shimamoto gives Hajime a gift of the copy of the Nat King Cole record they’d listened to as children.  They listen to it again, together.  When Shimamoto disappears, so does the record.  There are a number of ways to interpret this, most of them hinging on a reading of Shimamoto as a supernatural being: she creates the record as something special for Hajime.  Or it simply becomes, willed into being by the magic between them.
  • Hajime misremembers, or misidentifies.  This is perhaps the most prosaic reading, but also quite momentous for a reading of the entire work.  In this reading, he forgets details of even this most important song, from these most important memory.  Again, this seems highly unlikely since music is Hajime’s business, but is just plausible: in his first memory of the song, Hajime had just mentioned how an old record by Nat King Cole is among the few records in Shimamoto’s father’s collection, so the memory of that record may have transferred to the memory of listening to “South of the Border.”  The incident could be emblematic of the mystery we all present to ourselves.  Our memories are friable, fragile things; Hajime’s emptiness, his existential struggle, comes from within.  One could even speculate that Shimamoto, as a magical, mythological trickster figure, plants such a false memory as part of her promise to “take all of him,” including his memories.  Such a reading reminds me of the explorations of consciousness that structure Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
  • In the world of this novel, Nat King Cole did sing “South of the Border.”  Murakami inserts supernatural or surreal elements into many of his works, but such elements are either ambiguous or nonexistent (depending on your reading) in this book.  The intrusion of the magical or romantic that Shimamoto represents to Hajime may be mirrored in the early placement of a nonexistent song into the “real world” of the novel, making a very familiar standard bizarre.
  • This is an issue of cultural translation which I’m not reading correctly. Perhaps Nat King Cole signifies something to Japanese readers that he does not signify for American readers: an element of exoticism or popularity among a particular social strata that the extant singers of the song would not provide.  Since Murakami wanted to use the song’s lyrics as a motif, he gave it to Cole.

The ambiguity in this motif, which seems at first glance like nothing but a signifier of normal suburban life, is quintessential Murakami.  It’s why even his lesser works (and I consider this one of his lesser works) are well worth reading.

Gone to Ithaca with the Butterfly Man

April 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald.

Reading next: The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi.

The Emigrants is perfect, and as such it is hard to talk about, because it doesn’t need any help in making itself understood.  But it’s also irresistible to talk about it, because it is so beautiful, and there are so many avenues of inquiry to pursue.  There’s its profound and necessary engagement with the legacy of the Holocaust in Germany, and in the collective memory of the German people; there are its style and structure, the very long paragraphs and sentences which do not really seem long, but only unhurried, patient, quiet, melancholy, and the enigmatic, fragmentary epigrams and photographs that are Sebald’s trademark; there are the dreams, my God! the dreams, and the dazzling array of characters that flit into and back out of the narrative, and the globe-trotting settings that Sebald sketches so well; there is, in the background always, an exploration of nature and the environment, and its manipulation and abuse by humans, and its resilience and its danger, that bears some relationship to Werner Herzog’s films (though Sebald’s gentler, and less crazed about nature being murderous).

Most of all, for me, there are the intertwined themes of memory, time, truth, and fiction.  And let me start, in this post, by just enjoying one of the motifs that draw these things together so beautifully.  I speak of the “butterfly man,” Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov appears, in one way or another, in each of the four stories here.  In the first, a slide of the subject, Henry Selwyn, resembles “a photograph of Nabokov in the mountains above Gstaad that I had clipped from a Swiss magazine a few days before.”  Sebald then inserts the photo of Nabokov (which you can see in this fine blog post on Sebald and Nabokov), holding his butterfly net in his dowdy shorts.  Speak, Memory is certainly the work most directly referenced here, with its emphasis on the fictional motifs which Nabokov delighted in finding in his own life story, its use of photographs to bring memory back to life.

But if anything, Sebald out-tricks the old trickster himself.  In the second story, Speak, Memory itself appears, being read by Lucy Landau when she first meets Sebald’s teacher Paul Bereyter, who is resting and trying to come to grips with his “condition” of claustrophobia and possible mental illness.  This seems a remarkable coincidence, but not impossible; it is only the fact of its being the second mention of Nabokov that tips the reader off that something beyond fact is going beyond here.

In the third story, “Ambros Adelwarth,” Nabokov himself becomes a presence in the book, an irruption of the fictional in the form of a real person.  This one story, incidentally, is an epic in its own right, and one of the most memorable reading experiences of my life, in a scant 80 pages (including photographs).  The words epic and Nabokovian become unavoidable and inseparable after the following passage:

In the mirror of the hall stand he had stuck a visiting card with a message for me, and I have carried it with me ever since.  Have gone to Ithaca.  Yours ever — Ambrose.  It was a while before I understood what he meant by Ithaca….The sanatorium, which was run by a Professor Fahnstock, was in grounds that looked like a park.  I still remember, said Aunt Fini, standing with Uncle Adelwarth by his window one crystal-clear Indian Summer morning.  The air was coming in from outside and we were looking over the almost motionless trees towards a meadow that reminded me of the Altach marsh when a middle-aged man appeared, holding a white net on a pole in front of him and occasionally taking curious jumps.  Uncle Adelwarth stared straight ahead, but he registered my bewilderment all the same, and said: It’s the butterfly man, you know.  He comes round here quite often.

Have gone to Ithaca.  In the context of Sebald’s tale of Adelwarth, the phrase resonates through many emotions, many meanings, many allusions.  When we first read the phrase (and see an image of the visiting card itself) it reminds us of the Odyssey: Ithaca is the long-awaited (or is it long-avoided?) homeland, and the homesickness that afflicts so many of the characters is foregrounded here.  But the deep loneliness of Ambros, and his evident feeling of homelessness, also leads one to believe that the Ithaca here may be an eternal home: the grave.  The sanatorium that Ithaca finally signifies partakes of both of these associations, especially as “home” (Germany) seems, as one character puts it, “some kind of insanity lodged in my head.”

But Ithaca is also home of Cornell University, where Nabokov taught for much of his life, so we are prepared for the appearance of the lepidopterist himself.  Its gorges and waterfalls provide the sublime landscape for the tragic demise of Ambros, the willful self-destruction of his submission to shock treatments.  At the end, he wears “armlets made of some satin-like material” and a “green eyeshade” to ease his headaches.  Dressed like a dealer in one of the gambling palaces he’d visited with his companion Cosmo, he is late for his last appointment because he is waiting for the “butterfly man.”

Nabokov makes his most important appearances in the last story, “Max Ferber.”  He “popped out of the bloody ground” to save Ferber from suicide in Switzerland.  And then he appears again, in the memoir of Ferber’s mother, Luisa Lanzberg, as a ten-year-old Russian boy, already chasing butterflies.  He sticks in Luisa’s memory when her beloved Fritz proposes to her:

…though everything else around me blurred, I saw that long-forgotten Russian boy as clearly as anything, leaping about the meadows with his butterfly net; I saw him as a messenger of joy, returning from that distant summer day to open his specimen box and release the most beautiful red admirals, peacock butterflies, brimstones and tortoiseshells to signal my final liberation.

A “messenger of joy.”  A beautiful, misguided phrase.  For the beauty of the first meeting of Luisa and Fritz is not a harbinger of joy and happiness: he is lost to her, and so is another beloved, and so, finally, is she herself, in the murder of the European Jewry.  And yet the joy existed: the joy was there, at the time, if inevitably lost to the irretrievable past, the past from which Germany has been cut off by the enormity of its guilt, from which its Jews have been cut off by the horror of their slaughter.  The indelible fictions that Nabokov prized above all others, those intricately patterned tapestries of language and image and metaphor, are the fictions of memory.  Beyond its status as fiction or memoir or autobiography, this book is a collection of memories, in all their messy, misremembered, pseudofictional glory.

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #5: “Supernatural Superserious” and My R.E.M. Favorites Playlist

February 19, 2012 § 5 Comments

R.E.M. broke up last year, and I’ve been wanting to write something about them ever since, but I’m just now getting around to it.  This may be ridiculous to say at our particular, continually overhyped and hyperventilating historical/cultural moment, but I do feel like the breakup was a bigger deal, in fact, than it was made out to be.  R.E.M. was one of the world’s greatest bands.  For certain people — mostly (but not all!) white, mostly (but not all!) well educated, mostly (but not all!) creatively inclined — they were paragons.  They made art, not product.  They cared about beauty and integrity.  They cared about not selling out.  They were from Athens, not New York, not L.A.

I’m old enough to have cared deeply about R.E.M. when they were at their peak, but not old enough to have caught onto them when they were still under the radar.  But if you were listening to music when Out of Time, Green, and Automatic for the People came out, you went back and found the earlier stuff, too.  I mean, I went to a small Lutheran boarding high school in Nebraska, and our dorm supervisor had a t-shirt from the Automatic for the People tour.  Everyone loved this band.  They are now retired as a band (although of course there’s always the possibility of a reunion).  They would probably get my vote as the greatest American band, period.

Of course, there was that long trough between New Adventures and Accelerate — those three boring albums after Bill Berry quit the band.  But I feel like their last two albums made up for that: these were really great records, overlooked mostly, I think, because R.E.M. had just been around for so long, and they were always going to sell a certain number of albums.  R.E.M. embraced their status as elder statesmen on these albums; their songs weren’t preachy, but they often contained a message.  The sound seemed to epitomize what people think of when they think of R.E.M.

My favorite song from these two albums is probably “Supernatural Superserious” off of Accelerate, though there are a number of great tracks on Collapse Into Now as well.

This is, to start, just a great song, with that R.E.M mix of chime and jangle with power and hook.  I love basically any R.E.M. song that features Mike Mills chiming in on vocals, and this has some lovely harmony/background vocals by him.  It also features an especially inspired performance by Michael Stipe: he sounds like he cares on this track.  (My least favorite part of the song is probably the somewhat cutesy title.  I learn that the Coldplay dude renamed it from its superior working title, “Disguised.”  That would explain it.)

There’s a lot going on in these lyrics.  It starts with a terrific, epigrammatic first line: “Everybody here comes from somewhere that they would just as soon forget and disguise.”  And then we get this knockout verse:

At the summer camp where you volunteered

No one saw your face, no one saw your fear

If that apparition had just appeared,

Took you up and away from this base and sheer humiliation

Of your teenage station

Nobody cares

No one remembers and nobody cares

So we have a song about adolescence.  A summer camp; a hypothetical, perhaps hopeful “apparition”; teenage humiliation.  And this astonishing bit of advice: Nobody cares.  No one remembers, and nobody cares.  This is like the flip side of “Everybody Hurts”: everyone is disguising something they feel humiliated about.  Everyone is too wrapped up in their own dilemmas to care about yours.  That summer-camp humiliation?  Forgotten.  Not worth all the angst. The chorus (“Yeah you cried and you cried/He’s alive, he’s alive/Yeah you cried and you cried and you cried and you cried”) doesn’t sound uplifting based on the lyrics — at all — but it is, especially with those sweet Mike Mills vocals.  We have another implication of the supernatural in that repeated “he’s alive”: is “he” Christ? The teenager’s “apparition”?

This first verse and chorus remind me of a story by Reynolds Price entitled “Michael Egerton.”  It was written when Price was still a teenager, but Mr. Price seems to have been born something of an elder statesman.  It’s a summer-camp tale in which the title character is bullied for missing a championship baseball game, metaphorically “crucified” for his sensitivity.  (It also references the folk song “Green Grow the Rushes,” which is of course also an R.E.M. song.  Not that I think there was any influence by Price on R.E.M., just a funny coincidence.)

Stipe then builds in references to sexuality, theatricality, and S&M (safe words, chafing “ropes,” “fantasies” dressed up as “travesties”) to complicate these themes of disguise and “humiliation,” leading to a straightforward message: “Enjoy yourself with no regrets.”  And that’s as good an encapsulation of R.E.M.’s message as you’re likely to find.

There follows another great verse:

Now there’s nothing dark and there’s nothing weird

Don’t be afraid I will hold you near

From the seance where you first betrayed

An open heart on a darkened stage

A celebration of your teenage station

A seance that’s also a celebration, which was formerly a humiliation: that’s memory, folks.  That’s R.E.M.’s past, that’s the past for all of us.  You will end up celebrating, reminiscing about, calling up from the dead those events that were once so embarrassing.  Enjoy yourself, with no regrets.

***

In that spirit of celebration, here’s my R.E.M. favorites playlist (not in order of preference, but an order in which I enjoy listening to them — and apologies for whatever annoying ads you may encounter):

  1. Finest Worksong
  2. It Happened Today (this has a great video with extended version of the song, by the way)
  3. Swan Swan H
  4. You Are the Everything (sadly, no “official” version; this is a near-contemporary live version, and it’s beautiful, but I do miss Mike Mills’s background vocals from the album track)
  5. Don’t Go Back to Rockville
  6. Try Not to Breathe
  7. Man On the Moon
  8. Cuyahoga (fairly faithful live version, but no substitute for the original.  There’s also a very nice cover by the Decemberists here)
  9. Near Wild Heaven
  10. Sweetness Follows
  11. Driver 8
  12. What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
  13. Orange Crush
  14. Turn You Inside-Out
  15. Supernatural Superserious
  16. Undertow (live version, but very close to the album track.  Note: I love the New Adventures in Hi-Fi album. It was tough not to include “E-Bow the Letter,” “Electrolite,” “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us,” and others.)
  17. Let Me In (there’s also a truly amazing live version from the Monster tour)
  18. Fall On Me
  19. Half a World Away
  20. Nightswimming

Back Down the Toilet of History with Pynchon

June 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon.

Reading next: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.

Pynchon has a thing for toilets, you may have noticed.  I mean, besides the seriously scatological stuff going on in most of his books, toilets themselves are important plot devices or metaphors in his work: think of the scene in Gravity’s Rainbow when Slothrop travels down the toilet in the Roseland Ballroom.

There’s not as much scatology and not as many toilets in Inherent Vice as in Gravity’s Rainbow (but really, that’s the all-time champion in both categories, isn’t it?)  But at one point, a remark sends “Doc off down the Toilet of Memory…”  And that made me think about Pynchon’s toilets, and his historical novels, and what he’s been up to all these years with memory and history.

Because calling them “historical novels” doesn’t even really sound right, does it, even though most of his books are set in a meticulously detailed past?  They’re more novels about history, and about the reverberations into the past and future of any given present.  It’s simply easier to feel those reverberations in a book set in the past: you can view them from both ends, whereas any book set in the present or future will have to contain some guesses, some estimates of what, exactly, it is that’s important to highlight about the present.  (If you’re gifted or just especially well attuned, your book attempting to capture the gestalt ends up captured in it, becoming one of those reverberations people think about when they think about an era: think Great Gatsby, On the Road — hell, even Less than Zero.)

Pynchon’s books set in the past are always mostly about the present, and he tends to weave a bright thread of allusions to the present day (the future of the plot) into his very detailed recreations of the past.  But that’s too clean a metaphor for Pynchon: it’s about toilets, after all.  What he tends to say, in these novels set in the past, is that we, the people of the present day, are the excretions of the past.  We are always the left over, the waste of another time’s failed hopes.  As it frequently is with Pynchon, it’s about being unsaved; unelected; preterite.  We go down the Toilet of Memory because we’re in the bowl to begin with.

In Inherent Vice, that’s clearest in the book’s subplot on the use of ARPAnet, the proto-Internet of university and governmental computers.  Not a plot device that would’ve been found in most detective novels of the late ’60s or early ’70s, but essential for the point Pynchon wants to make about the roots of our current state of hypervigilant cyber-surveillance.  He’s the best at embedding this sort of fictional anachronism into his books.

But a Pynchonian past is never simply a past, but also the future of many former pasts.  So the book’s present day of greedy real estate developers and shadowy drug syndicates and burned-out hippies and ruthless right-wing bikers-for-hire and a nascent national surveillance network is also linked to the Communist scares of the 1950s.  There’s always an earlier attempt at revolution, for Pynchon; and there’s always an earlier repression, too.  (Doc’s obsession with the actor John Garfield, blacklisted for his liberal politics, is a dominant note in this motif.)

The Art and Science of Travel

July 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: Autonauts of the Cosmoroute.

Reading now: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

I’ve been traveling a lot this spring and summer (hence my very, very intermittent posts) — some for work, some for fun.  Autonauts of the Cosmoroute is a great travel book, although it’s made me itch to do the kind of travel I rarely get to anymore: the unhurried, meditative, purposefully digressive kind.  (Only Revolutions, which so far as I’ve been able to glean is more or less a centuries-long allegorical road trip to no particular place, is not really helping to ease this itch, either.  Come to think of it, The Savage Detectives was also singularly unhelpful.)

In Autonauts, Julio Cortázar and his wife Carol Dunlop spend a month in a VW camper van driving down the French “autoroute,” stopping at every rest stop along the way, two per day, and doing nothing else — seeing “the other autoroute,” the one that does not exist for those who just use it as a means of quickest-possible transport.  It’s the book’s playful, idiosyncratic, and finally bittersweet tone that makes it such a great read.  It’s made up of photos and captions, “travel logs” of meals eaten, “observations” made of the rest stop flora and fauna, short essays on the nature of travel and time and dreams and their journey, and flights of fancy in the style of a  scientific expedition.

(A digression: I’ve always wanted to travel around the country and live out of a homey little camper.  When I was maybe 13 or 14 I read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley mostly because I found the idea of traveling around in an apartment-truck with your dog more or less irresistible — and the section of the book about Steinbeck getting his truck ready is one of the few things I still remember about it.  That was before I — or most people, really — thought about MPGs or carbon offsetting.)

It’s a book purporting to document the science of travel, but really it’s very much about an art: the art of memory.  If we think of the historical art of memory as Frances Yates examined it, with its imaginary theatres and palaces filled with rooms of memories, travel is like a kind of very elaborate landscaping: the decoration upon which the inhabitants of the palace gaze.  Isn’t travel a kind of device for making and recovering memories?  We all remember vividly our favorite vacations, road trips, destinations.  And while we’re traveling, can’t we see more perfectly than when we inhabit them our homes, and don’t we recall incidents from our lives with greater clarity?

I don’t know about you, but I also remember what I read when I travel much better than things I only read at home.  It must be something about being mentally absorbed in a different place, in unusual surroundings.  Some of my favorite memories are of reading something I love elsewhere: Ray Bradbury on a boat, Tom Jones in a Danish restaurant.  My choice of reading material always seems more important to me if I’m going on a trip.

Lucy Snowe’s Tiny Universe

February 10, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Villette.

Reading next: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, by Daniel Paul Schreber.

Moving on now, but a few more quick thoughts before we leave Lucy Snowe’s world behind:

-I never did really say anything about three of my favorite scenes: the play in chapter 14, in which Lucy is talked by M. Paul into playing a foppish man but refuses to dress entirely as a man, then goes off book and acts out a scene of wooing Ginevra for Dr. John’s benefit (this chapter should just be called “Grad Student’s Paradise,” for gosh sakes); chapter 19, “The Cleopatra,” in which Lucy hates Rubensesque female portraits and M. Paul begins to tease Lucy for being a scandalous sexpot (but does he really actually have her pegged?); and the amazing “Vashti” episode, in which Lucy attends the theatre with Dr. John and the combined passions of Lucy and the actress Vashti seem to start an actual fire which leads to Paulina’s salvation by Dr. John (I like to think Vashti is actually playing Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, but probably not).

These are all high points in the novel, not just as dissertation-fodder but as brilliant examples of the craft of writing and of character development.  The introduction in my Modern Library edition by A.S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre is really great on these scenes.  It’s actually one of the best introductions I can remember, although, like most introductions, it’s best saved until the end.  (I never read introductions first.  Seriously, why are these not afterwords?  Must be something with marketing.)

-The Vashti episode leads me to another point: Lucy’s is a very concentrated, condensed, even claustrophobic universe.  Everyone shows up over and over; somehow everyone she knew in England moves to Labassecour.  It is a funny thing to do in a book so much about Lucy’s loneliness and her longing for a companion to surround her with a de facto family she can’t seem to shake.  I think partly it was simply demanded of the novel of Brontë’s time to have a cast that worked like this, appearing in each of the three volumes; but the coincidences and reappearances also work against the grain of Lucy’s narration.  People do care about her; she is never alone, never isolated, for better and for worse, and the one time she reaches out from a deep isolation and depression she finds someone (Pere Silas) intimately connected to those she already knew.

-What I’m left with from this book, most of all, is Lucy Snowe’s voice, her narration, her insistence on telling things her way.  She is tricky, indeed.  The ending is, I think, brilliant, and perfectly like Lucy, and perhaps a marvelous unraveling of the mystery of the shipwreck-metaphor I talked about a couple posts back.

In a perfect coincidence of my own, I read Ander Monson’s essay “The Guilty I” in The Believer while in the thick of Villette.  It was perfect for thinking about Lucy: the infuriating way you sometimes know you’re not getting the whole story, the difficulty or impossibility of burrowing back into former manifestations of yoursel — of bearing eyewitness to the “I.”  What we end up with when we dig deeply into our memories are often fictions, constructs based on life experiences.  Just like Lucy; just like Charlotte.

The MS Word Paperclip-Helper: Pure Evil?

August 24, 2008 § 2 Comments

Just finished: The Raw Shark Texts.

Reading next: Nosferatu in Love, by Jim Shepard.

Part three’s probably my favorite section of the book. It’s rad. We enter un-space through a hole in the back of a bookshelf in a closed bookstore (the entrance is behind the “H”s in the literature section, presumably including this book by Mr. Hall, a nice Nabokovian touch), and the journey ends at a giant labyrinth made of tunnels and rooms made entirely of paper and books inside which it “smelled like the pages of a second-hand Charles Dickens novel.” The tunnel forms the letters “ThERa.” (It’s the first letters of the book; there are also tunnels called Milos and Ios. All three are names of Greek islands, too, some Googling reveals.)

This whole complex is behind the walls of a “huge library,” presumably of a university (maybe Oxford or Cambridge?). Cool images, these: the wild, uncontrolled mass of words, fragments of printed matter and jotted notes and forgotten books, like the protective and protected subconscious of the published world.

But the most interesting and surprising section of part three is “The Story of Mycroft Ward.” Now, whatever Hall himself might say about this (and from what I’ve seen online, he’s coy about it, which seems to me a fairly absurd and, again, self-consciously Nabokovian thing to do — “What, me know anything about what my text is doing?”), this is obviously a continuation of the word-play initiated in the book’s title (Rorschach tests=Raw Shark Texts). Mycroft Ward is, in part, a knock on Microsoft (Mycroft Ward=Microsoft Word). It’s also a kick-ass story.

The story reminded me of Yates’s The Art of Memory. I love these gropings, both real and imagined, after the concept of computation, the possibilities of external and internal memory. Hall brilliantly ties his art of memory (“The Arrangement”) to the desires for immortality and “self-preservation,” its true root, and updates Yates by pushing his narrative into the computer age. It’s the scale of things that has made this age scary; the ease with which millions — billions? — of people have been led, and have acquiesced, to using the same “programs” for recording their thoughts, for searching for information, for saving their findings, for running their worlds.

All of which leads me to the question: is that paperclip with googly-eyes that is supposed to “help” you in Word an agent of Mycroft Ward? If you actually click on this thing (does anyone ever actually need this thing’s help, or do anything but disable it as quickly as possible?), do you wake up minutes later, confused and missing parts of your brain? Is the googly-eyed paperclip, in fact, pure evil?

A Monster of a Concept

August 17, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.

It’s something of a commonplace that we look to find ourselves in art, and value the feeling of recognition when we do: the idea that there’s a kindred spirit, that we’re not so weird after all. We tend to think things that we understand — things that are close to our own experiences, thoughts, beings — are “good,” and those that aren’t are “bad” (if we bother with them at all).

I’m no exception here, although I wouldn’t consciously say that this kind of feeling is anywhere near the top of the list of reasons why I love to read. But there are a handful of books where I’ve experienced such an overwhelming rush of recognition that the feeling was almost appalling. Although it does involve recognition of self in deeper ways, as well, mostly it’s been such a similarity to something I’ve actually written, or at least an idea I’ve been playing around with, that there are mingled sensations of pride, envy, horror, and yes, kinship. (The short list, off the top of my head, for the curious: American Gods, House of Leaves, White Noise, a number of Bradbury stories.)

And now there’s The Raw Shark Texts. Lordy, what a first act; what a first 90 pages. I’m going to try to be even more cryptic than usual, because, frankly, you (yes, you, three people who read this blog, you, dammit) need to read this book. It’s awesome and brilliant. I mean, do conceptual sharks cruising communicative waterways for the chum of human memory and identity strike you as interesting? Come on. It’s irresistible.

(Actually, now that I think about this, you shouldn’t be reading this.

I shouldn’t be writing this.

Shit. There was even a warning about the internet.

Forget I said anything. No one reads this. Nice sharky.)

So I’ll just babble a little about four things I loved in Part One:

-Chapter 4, “The Light Bulb Fragment (Part One),” is almost unbearably poignant and touching and eerily familiar (not in the writerly ways, in the personal ones). Scary good. A DFW-level observation of a relationship, only it’s a great relationship, and we know he’s not into those.

-On p. 57-58, there are these two cool representations of a TV screen with something like (but then, very unlike) concrete poetry on their “screens.” A kind of creature made of typography, barely perceptible in the static (so the text tells us; the representation of the screen is just a blank rectangle with this typography-creature). The book has been fairly cinematic, so far — I mean, it’s extremely lucid writing, very visual, and intentionally so. But there has also been a lot of wrangling with “concept” versus “reality,” or the tangible, at any rate — the physical, the solid. (Brilliantly handled wrangling, I might add.) It made me wonder how this would be handled in (the inevitable, if there’s any justice) film adaptation, because it would be easy enough to just picture this creature as a creature, and it’s certainly a powerful enough image just as a creature, rather than a creature made of these words, this jumble of different-sized type. This is cool, after my late experiences with the “TV fiction” of Bear v. Shark and Vineland: finally, the screen makes it onto the page, only to be filled by words, letters, concepts.

-Letter #4 is awesome. This whole sequence of letters is like if Memento and The Matrix had a baby and The Crying of Lot 49 and “The Library of Babel” had a baby and those babies… well, you get the idea. (Yes, I loved Pineapple Express, too.) At any rate, I love the breakdown of the protective powers of “Books of Fact/Books of Fiction,” and this little doozy: “I have an old note written by me before I got so vague which says that some of the great and most complicated stories like The Thousand and One Nights are very old protection puzzles, or even idea nets…” If I were more ambitious, I’d found a whole school of satirical criticism based on this passage.

-On p. 86 we get a small passage which set bells a-ringin’ in my head: “I learned… how to attach the bracken and lichen of foreign ideas to my scalp and work the mud and grass of another self into and over my skin and clothes until I could become invisible at will, until anyone or anything could be looking straight at me and never see the real me at all.”

You may or may not know that I’ve been working on a piece of writing related to King Lear for a very long time. This passage sounds like Edgar transforming into Tom o’ Bedlam, the madman on the heath. And he’s doing something very similar: while his mud and grass are real, it is the other self he really is working into his skin, the mannerisms and the rantings of a being completely foreign to him, and that is mainly why he is not recognized.

What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?

July 12, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Vineland.

First, a tiny bit more on the (already overextended) More Is Less. The cliche has been echoed once more (although, maddeningly, I can’t find the reference now — I think it’s in Zoyd’s conversation with Hector in ch. 3), and reminded me that the other, non-literary reference the phrase conjures up might be the Reagan era and its policies of dismantling government. Reagan was, indeed, the president of more government equals less government, and vice versa. You’d think Pynchon would be behind this idea, but then the “more” that was being lessened was never military spending, covert tinkering with Latin American governments, or other CIA ops.

Second, the Marquis de Sod commercials (p. 46-47) are super-hilarious. Go to the library or bookstore and read about them right now. Now, the jokes are jokes with Pynchon, but they’re also often meaningful, and embedded in this wackiness is another interesting comment on the development of TV advertising, the ramping up of production values, and the weird investments of massive effort and money into incredibly absurd and unnecessary “micromovies” to convince us all to, say, whip our lawns into shape.”

Third, and mostly: Pynchon has escaped the hippie-writer label that Brautigan never did (he’s a much less limited writer: more of a mimic, less of a monolithic voice, more of a satirist and craftsman, less of a bard and mythologizer — a genius, not a dreamer), but Vineland is (already) clearly his look back at the Sixties and their legacy (or lack thereof). Zoyd’s a self-described “old hippie that’s gone sour.” (His interactions with his daughter, Prairie, remind me an awful lot of the hippie parents in Valley Girl.) Writing about this through the lens of the decade that dismantled the hippie ethos is interesting, and would be unavoidable in a book set in northern California even if it wasn’t what interested the author: we’ve already seen the Bodhi Dharma Pizza Temple, complete with deliriously bad organic pizza and a “Pizzic Mandala” stained-glass window, and met Prairie’s boyfriend, Isaiah Two Four, the mohawked member of the punk (or does Pynchon mean metal?) band Billy Barf and the Vomitones, who has a bank interested in financing “a chain of violence centers.”

Pynchon, as always, is genius enough that this is not annoying in the manner of so much boomer-self-involvement: he seems to be exploring the overreaction to, not “lifestyles” or stupid fads (which he’s happy enough to make fun of along with everyone else), but the goals and ideas of the time (granted, only a small minority actually understood or really cared about said goals and ideas). The idea that because hippies don’t shower or they like terrible music or are self-involved, “peace and love” must be horrible ideas worthy of ridicule, and protest of unjust and tyrannical government must be whiny and the by-product of too many drugs. The idea that getting “welfare queens” (and Zoyd’s kind of a welfare king, come to think of it) off the government dole is more important than changing the conditions that lead to the necessity of welfare in the first place. Etc etc.

All the same, he does seem more involved personally than in previous books: there seem to be more passages of authorial interpretation than previously, more moments of non-wacky retrospection. There’s the really interesting discussion between Hector and Zoyd on “who was saved” by the sixties (the inevitable preterition theme), and the stunning paragraph following (seemingly in the narrator’s own voice, for the most part) on Hector’s self-pity for his own state of being fallen (p. 28-30). There’re also Zoyd’s reflections on his relationship with his ex-wife Frenesi (Spanish for “frenzy,” apparently, and the name of a jazz standard, sez Wikipedia).

Here’s a gorgeous paragraph on their wedding. I love how it combines obvious (but nevertheless funny) satire on hippieness with emphasis on the importance of the moment. I love its ambiguous attention to the vagaries of memory, the way it never actually disproves that greeting card “soft-focus” it acknowledges, and its strange and disquieting (for Pynchon) certitude about the character of the “Mellow Sixties.” And the complexity of those last two sentences!

“Frenesi Margaret, Zoyd Herbert, will you, for real, in trouble or in trippiness, promise to remain always on the groovy high known as Love,” and so forth, it may have taken hours or been over in half a minute, there were few if any timepieces among those assembled, and nobody seemed restless, this after all being the Mellow Sixties, a slower-moving time, predigital, not yet so cut into pieces, not even by television. It would be easy to remember the day as a soft-focus shot, the kind to be seen on “sensitivity” greeting cards in another few years. Everything in nature, every living being on the hillside that day, strange as it sounded later whenever Zoyd tried to tell about it, was gentle, at peace — the visible world was a sunlit sheep farm. War in Vietnam, murder as an instrument of American politics, black neighborhoods torched to ashes and death, all must have been off on some other planet.

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