March 9, 2011 § 4 Comments
Finished: Big Machine, by Victor Lavalle.
Big Machine left me with the odd sensation of hoping it is eventually adapted as a feature film: I had the feeling throughout that it wanted to be a movie in the first place. It’s instructive, in this regard: there’s a piling-on of incident and image, a technique heavy on flashback and punchy, nearly noir narration (complete with terse, hard-boiled, “surprise” final sentences to many of the short chapters), and a transparent, unremarkable syntax and style that makes the book seem like its native form is the horror screenplay.
And yet all of that leaves me sounding down on the book, which I’m not, or not completely. I love horror movies, after all. And there are things that Lavalle does with the cross-cutting of his short chapters to tie the slowly illuminated events of the past with the book’s present day in all sorts of interesting ways. It would be a fantastic movie, smarter than just about anything else getting made these days, especially in genre films. It would involve poor people. And black people. And cults. And drug abuse. And monsters. And abortion. And weirdness.
Lots and lots of weirdness. The book never reads like a dream — the language is too straightforward, the events too linear — but the linkages between fantasy and reality, between the supernatural and the mundane, and the characters’ acceptance of these linkages, do seem like a kind of transcript of a dream our culture’s having. I guess this is what we normally call mythology.
The obvious and interesting comparison, at least for me, is with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. They’re both books that feel right, as mythology, but right in different ways. One of the things that Neil Gaiman said about his book at the Gathering of American Gods that’s stuck with me is that the book was one of the ways in which he came to discover the strangeness of the country he’d adopted as his home. It is a story by an outsider, of outsiders, those brought to the country with their own ways, and how those ways mutate in a new place with its own ways. It feels very true, as that kind of story. Big Machine feels true as a different kind of story: an inside kind of story, a story the culture tells itself. The story of a black man whose people have formed the culture, despite all attempts to prevent them from doing so.
And so we get details like the Washerwomen, and their Bible rewritten to take place among Southern blacks. While the Washerwomen are inventions, he’s not inventing the Biblical revision: a man named Clarence Jordan translated sections of the New Testament into American idiom, changed place names from the Middle East to the American South, and changed crucifixion to lynching. We get an organization of “spiritual X-Men” who dress up as high-society swells in 1930s Harlem and track down the paranormal through small-town newspapers — printed newspapers! — in the age of the Internet. We get the “big machine,” doubt, and a recommendation from a cult leader that it be considered a good thing, and that we remember “King Jesus as our greatest doubter.” We get another big machine, a real machine, that maybe undercuts that suggestion. We get a couple of miracles and a really well done near-death scene with some freaky cats. Vengeance and forgiveness. Terrorism and holy war. Angels and demons. Managing not to oppose these things, but see them as potentially just different perspectives on the same thing. A whole country busy distracting itself from its overwhelming need to believe.
July 25, 2010 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Mulligan Stew, by Gilbert Sorrentino.
Last night I watched, voluntarily and even enthusiastically, a film called Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. It contains intentionally incompetent acting and action sequences, intentionally ridiculous characters and special effects, intentionally poorly dubbed dialogue, intentionally anachronistic music, editing, and cinematography. It is intentionally bad, an attempt to make a kitsch object, a work of art so horrible it is transformed into something great, through its purity of intention and earnestness of delivery. (I hadn’t really thought of it as a continuation of the alchemical tradition before, but it sure seems obvious when you put it that way.)
This is an entire genre now, a style with a tradition fertile enough and a fan base large enough to provide year-round fodder for art house theaters, if there were any so inclined. Heck, I just went to a William Castle double feature a couple of weeks ago, and he’s certainly one of the granddaddies in the field. The intention to make a bad film would seem to make such a work completely worthless — no purity of heart if you set out to make something bad — but the economics of the movie business and the absurdity of the billions of dollars devoted to worldwide promotion and distribution of “ideas” more ridiculous and pointless than JCVH (just off the top of my head: Transformers. The A-Team. Alvin and the Chipmunks. Any “romantic comedy” starring Katharine Heigl) keep so-bad-it’s-good filmmakers on our side. It just seems so arbitrary: could Watchmen possibly have been as terrible made for $100K by some devoted fanboy as it ending up being for $130M by an army of studio hacks? If you decide to make a film so bad it’s good, either you really believe in a DIY/punk cinema and try to refine your craft with a stable of committed actors until your craft develops to the point where you’re no longer intentionally bad, scraping by on low/no budgets in the hopes of making something funny, inspiring, and genuine, or you are a truly cynical mofo and you’re just playing the odds: unless you’re interested in making social realism, there’s more hope in camping it up and hoping that something clicks at a festival so you can get an actual budget for your next ridiculous idea and can direct the fight sequences with better editing, effects, and stuntpeople. (JCVH seemed to fall more on the punk side to me, and its affection for and impressive tonal mimicry of low-budget ’60s and ’70s horror and exploitation films was enough to win me over.)
All of which leads me (twist!) to Mulligan Stew. It is much more difficult to write an intentionally bad novel or story while letting readers in on the joke than it is to make such a film; for one thing, there’s much less of an economic reason for such works to exist. Exaggerated pastiche has always been the easiest way, the recent literary monster mash-ups being an interesting example and perhaps the most popular attempt to introduce intentional kitsch into literature.
The other way is to combine such pastiche with another layer of story, embedding an intentionally bad work in a better one which allows the author to show that he knows and intends the inner work to be bad. Mulligan Stew is like that, but also kind of better than that: there’s no “higher” layer of an author or narrator showing us the bad work, but rather a lower layer of the characters themselves rebelling against the crap they’re forced to do (as told in one character’s journal), along with a mix of materials such as letters, journals, and scrapbooks to show us the author of the awful work in all his, well, awfulness. To make things better, the awful work here isn’t a potboiler or horror story: it’s an experimental novel, a pretentious metaphysical detective novel in which the narrator cannot remember whether he’s killed a man in the next room over.
A couple of cogent quotes from a great interview with Sorrentino published in the first issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, back in 1981 (two years after MS‘s publication).
…I think all writers create characters so that they can manipulate them, do what they want with them. But it’s very easy to assault people who, let’s say, read the wrong books and listen to the wrong music and have the wrong ideas about what films are hip and fashionable…. The really dangerous people are the ones who know everything, the people who know everything worthwhile to know; they do everything right. Those are the people who must be watched every minute of the time…. It’s the people who have the marvelous fronts who should be assaulted…. [There] are people who write because they think writing is a tool, it’s a way of changing the environment. That’s an odd way of looking at writing, which has always seemed to me an end in itself. The world is filled with very intelligent, very bright, and even very talented people who think of art the way one thinks of a job, think of art as a way of being promoted…. And I don’t mean commercial writers. I mean writers who are “serious” people.
More succinctly, Sorrentino says elsewhere, “The Mask that covers all others is the mask of the wiseguy.” Even though Sorrentino wasn’t talking about MS here, that’s very much in line with Anthony Lamont, the author of the horrible novel-in-progress in question. Lamont talks of his commitment to the avant-garde when trying to convince (passive-aggressively, of course) a literature professor to use one of his books in a course on contemporary American fiction, his desperation to receive some sort of recognition and success much more blatant than any “commercial” author’s concern over sales figures. He also, hilariously, uses the avant-garde or “experimentation,” without apparently having much sense of what the terms mean to him, as a kind of blanket justification for any flaw in the design of his plot or the quality of his prose, allowing him to keep making his mess of a book while talking himself into believing its a kind of unclassifiable masterpiece.
This all relates, I think, to the prefatory material Sorrentino includes, comprised of rejection notes to “Gilbert Sorrentino” from various publishers regarding Mulligan Stew. Complicated as the “Etymology” and “Extracts” of Moby-Dick, I am fairly certain that these are fictional, though the few places that discuss them seem to vary on the perceived degree of fiction: whether they are fictionalized versions of the kinds of rejections he received, or outright fabrications, or just real letters with the names changed. Since Sorrentino himself does not assume a voice in the book, speaking only through documents, this could be a way to puncture that “wiseguy” mask, showing the arguments to be made against the book, against his writing, showing he doesn’t want to be seen as the smirking know-it-all laughing at the rubes in the book. It’s a kind of self-defeating structure. But it also could be seen as the author inviting the reader to wear the wiseguy mask, instead: to appreciate the book that so many publishers dared not. To be hip. To see how a book can be so bad it’s good.
Sorrentino discussed the intentional badness of Lamont’s book within the book in the same interview:
Bad prose is easily identifiable but you have to discover what the writer is up to before you can say this is bad prose. Mulligan Stew is a good example. You have to read a while to see what I’m up to. You have to read a while to see that “I” am not writing this; it’s the bad prose of somebody else. Also, it can be bad prose written in such a way that it can become good; for instance, mistakes made in order to make a line comic or ludicrous. Bad prose, however, that is intended to be serious is usually identifiable… it’s intent upon telling you something, it’s intent upon instructing you in the truths of life, it’s intent upon getting a story across to you so that you will be moved or warmed, it’s clearly rubbish.
Sorrentino wants you to enjoy, in other words. Laugh. Enter the world of the book. It is easy to do so: the layer of bad experimental fiction is enjoyably hilarious, and also heightens the “reality” of the layers of text about the writing of that fiction. Like Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter or what Tarantino calls “movie movies,” they are fictions whose referents are other fictions, not any “real” world. As such, they can be not only enjoyable, but also interesting for thinking about how narrative works; how our minds work; how the world gets constructed, many stories at a time.
February 24, 2010 § Leave a comment
Now reading: GraceLand.
Reading next: Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare, and Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace.
Movies are everywhere in this book. Just for one memorable example: when 10-year-old Elvis gets hooked on going to the latest Bollywood movies with his cousin Efua, he starts stealing the money his grandmother gives him to mail letters to her pen pals around the world. But he needs to keep giving her responses so she doesn’t catch on, so “scenes from Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Gone with the Wind were rewritten to fit his letters.” But movies — mostly American — are woven into casual dialogue, the thoughts of the characters, everyday life.
An important scene occurs at the movies in chapter thirteen, when the rebellious, enigmatic King of Beggars (yes, this book involves characters named Elvis, the King, and the Colonel) takes Elvis to the new theater to see a Yugoslavian art film entitled Love Film. (Possibly this, but then it might not be a real film at all.) He’s trying to show Elvis an “alternative” to the world of violence and self-interest that threatens to swallow him. And Elvis loves the movie; he loves its first line, “People are important.” This qualifies as a major breakthrough in a world as debased, as corrupted, as nightmarish, as his can be.
But the most interesting scene involving the movies comes in chapter fourteen. Elvis, now thirteen, goes to “the local motor park, where silent westerns and Indian films with badly translated English subtitles were shown after dark.” These, as it turns out, are “shown courtesy of an American tobacco company” which also gives out free cigarettes “irrespective of age.” In this case, the film is The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It’s no glamorous spectacle, though: the screen’s a torn, dirty bedsheet and the old projector often eats films and jitters the picture from side to side, for which the crowd has learned to compensate by “sway[ing] from side to side while squinting off to the left.”
But this is not the best part. The best part is that the films are made into a live performance, based on a kind of new folklore. The projectionist narrates the action on the screen, creating a whole new story out of the images. These narrations mostly involve the exploits of a mythological “John Wayne” and “Actor,” the principles in a recurring good-versus-evil storyline across many kinds of films. As the narrator explains, “John Wayne acting as the villain in a film was Actor, and Clint Eastwood as sheriff was John Wayne.”
I have not yet been able to verify whether this is or was actual practice in Nigeria, but I strongly suspect it was. It’s not even as simple as it seems, either. Elvis walks into an argument between teenagers over whether John Wayne or Actor is superior — which is “the true hero.” And Elvis prefers the figure of Actor, too, as “part villain, part hero,” and explains here:
Women preferred him to John Wayne and men wanted to be him. His evil was caddish, not malicious, and Elvis knew that though most people dared not step out of the strict lines of this culture, they adored Actor. He was the embodiment of the stored-up rebellions in their souls.
Actor, in other words, is a trickster to John Wayne’s ideal. But the narration of the films also allows for audience participation, especially when the projectionist is drunk or annoying or misses something: here, the audience gets going on something and ends up arguing about which person on the screen is Actor and which is John Wayne. (Particularly appropriate, actually, in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.) That this is taking place in the late ’70s, during the emergence of the antihero (and even the black antihero — Shaft is referred to in this chapter) in American cinema, in the Nigeria of corrupt officials and in Elvis’s world with a drunk, abusive father and even worse uncle, makes perfect sense. And of course, Actor is still alive and well (as one of the debaters argues, he cannot be killed): the Joker in The Dark Knight springs to mind as a prime example.
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.
September 23, 2008 § 1 Comment
Now reading:Infinite Jest.
DFW could write a hell of a straightforwardly poignant and true observational sentence when he wanted to. Case in point, two of my favorites from a great section, on November 3 Y.D.A.U., of the tennis kids hanging out and being tired and bitchy:
And time in the P.M. locker room seems of limitless depth; they’ve all been just here before, just like this, and will be again tomorrow. The light saddening outside, a grief felt in the bones, a sharpness to the edge of the lengthening shadows.
“The light saddening outside.” It’s like the Proustian madeleine, that sentence. It takes me back to grade school, and high school, at just that time of year, after basketball practice. I went to a boarding high school; that is what the light does at that time of day in November. It saddens, and aggrieves, in inexplicable ways, after heavy exertion, on your way to a cafeteria meal. And I’ll further agree that time does somehow stretch and deepen after conditioning and practice and weights, as you sit around being tired together and complaining about the coaches. You could sit there forever, and somehow feel that you have.
But anyway. DFW could also write crazily pyrotechnic postmodern interludes, such as the notorious footnote 24, “James O. Incandenza: A Filmography.” The footnote’s very important, actually, smuggling a good deal of info on Incandenza and his family and DFW’s speculative development of the film/video industry into a highly entertaining list format. And it functions in any number of other ways: as a parody of academic writing, as a parody/homage to experimental film, as an opportunity to name-check influences, as a partial explanation for the crazy science involved in The Entertainment. For super-dorks, it’s also a lot of fun, hopefully not mindless. Herewith, the JOI joints I’d most like to see:
–Dark Logics…. 35mm.; 21 minutes; color; silent w/ deafening Wagner/Sousa soundtrack. Griffith tribute, Iimura parody. Child-sized but severely palsied hand turns pages of incunabular manuscripts [kind of a contradiction in terms, but whatever] in mathematics, alchemy, religion, and bogus political autobiography, each page comprising some articulation or defense of intolerance or hatred.
Note here: Taka Iimura made a movie called Onan about “desire… which has no object but itself.”
–Immanent Domain…. 35mm.; 88 minutes; black and white w/ microphotography; sound. Three memory-neurons… in the Inferior frontal gyrus of a man’s… brain fight heroically to prevent their displacement by new memory-neurons as the man undergoes intensive psychoanalysis.
Now that’s experimental filmmaking! Think of the costumes!
–‘The Medusa v. the Odalisque.’ … 78 mm.; 29 minutes; black and white; silent w/ audience-noises appropriated from broadcast television. Mobile holograms of two visually lethal mythologic females duel with reflective surfaces onstage while a live crowd of spectators turns to stone.
–Blood Sister: One Tough Nun.… 35 mm.; 90 minutes; color; sound. Parody of revenge/recidivism action genre, a formerly delinquent nun’s… failure to reform a juvenile delinquent… leads to a rampage of recidivist revenge.
Wait, wasn’t this one of the Grindhouse trailers?
–Good-Looking Men in Small Clever Rooms That Utilize Every Centimeter of Available Space With Mind-Boggling Efficiency. Unfinished due to hospitalization.
–Safe Boating Is No Accident.… Kierkegaard/Lynch (?) parody, a claustrophobic water-ski instructor…, struggling with his romantic conscience after his fiancee’s… face is grotesquely mangled by an outboard propeller, becomes trapped in an overcrowded hospital elevator with a defrocked Trappist monk, two overcombed missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, an enigmatic fitness guru, the Massachusetts State Commissioner for Beach and Water Safety, and seven severely intoxicated opticians with silly hats and exploding cigars.
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.
August 2, 2008 § 3 Comments
Now reading: Vineland.
In all of Pynchon’s books there seems to be a chapter that totally baffles me on first reading — a chapter I simply can’t follow. The last chapter I read, the twelfth (though they aren’t numbered), seems to be that chapter for Vineland. It involves, I kid you not: a Friar’s Club Roast of the Living Dead, a Luftwaffe officer in charge of eradicating marijuana fields, parrots telling bedtime stories to kids who then engage in communal lucid dreaming, a Kafkaesque dentist’s office, a scene which turns out (I think) to be an imaginary idyllic flash-forward of Pynchon’s own creation or perhaps of Prairie’s (or just through her, as she watches footage?), tiny gangsters playing pinochle on Weed Atman’s nose (seriously), the agonizing dissolution of 24fps and the People’s Republic of Rock and Roll, Weed Atman’s death or staged death, a system of secret highways called the Federal Emergency Evacuation Route, ninja moves, a plot to kill Castro, typical Pynchonian S&M pseudo-erotica, the gorgeous recurring Dream of the Gentle Flood, a trip to Mexico, commentary on Reaganomics, horoscopes about the danger of Pluto, and wiretapping.
There are so many loose ends here, I can’t imagine Pynchon tying them all up in 120 pages, though then again all of that only took 50. (I mean, read that list again! Only Pynchon.) It’s the chapter in which he’s throwing off ideas like sparks, seemingly on a strong cocktail of stimulants. But I think one of the important elements of the chapter is that it is, in large part, mediated: much of it seems to be the story as told to Prairie and/or seen by her on film, although it’s hard for me to tell how much is meant to be read this way and how much is simply provoked by that scenario, and meant to be read as the narrator’s address to the reader.
This question of mediation is important. In this chapter I think Pynchon reveals that his hints of another world, close to our own and connected to it but also very different, refer to the world created by and existing in film (now video, I suppose I should say), the 24-frames-per-second world. Most important in this regard is the confrontation between Weed and Rex. Frenesi has deliberately set it up to confront Weed with the accusation that he has betrayed the collective to the FBI (when, of course, it’s her that’s working for Brock Vond — although Weed might have been turned, too, it’s hard to say) on film, in the guerrilla style of 24fps. But the cameraman was changing rolls at the time, so the actual shooting is not filmed: there’s only sound footage and blurs, which Ditzah presents to Prairie. Here it is in the actual language; note all the complexity here, all the mediation:
Rex screaming, “Don’t you walk away from me!” the squeak of a screen door, feet and furniture thumping around, the door again, a starter motor shrieking, an engine catching, as Sledge then moved on out into the alley after them and Frenesi tried to find enough cable to get one of the floods on them and Howie got his new roll in and on his way out offered to switch places with Frenesi, who may have hesitated — her camera, her shot — but must have waved him on, because it was Howie… who emerged into the darkness and, while trying to find the ring to open the aperture, missed the actual moment, although shapes may have moved somewhere in the frame, black on black, like ghosts trying to return to earthly form, but Sledge was right there on them, and the sound of the shot captured by Krishna’s tape. Prairie, listening, could hear in its aftermath the slack whisper of the surf against this coast — and when Howie finally got there and Frenesi aimed the light, Weed was on his face with his blood all on the cement, the shirt cloth still burning around the blackly erupted exit, pale flames guttering out, and Rex was staring into the camera, posing, pretending to blow smoke away from the muzzle of the .38….
I mean, for one thing, so far as I can tell Rex was chasing Weed; so why’s Weed on his face with the exit wound in his back? For another, Weed’s a Thanatoid in the present-day 1984 of the book; either we believe he’s an actual ghost or spirit, or this was staged, and Weed escapes into an underground life. (If he’s a spirit, the Thanatoid Roast at the start of this chapter takes on a very Beetlejuice feel. And I suspect that the ambiguity might be what’s important to Pynchon: this way, he gets to kill Weed with both camera and gun, as well as allowing us to see various levels of conspiracy and intrigue, if we so wish.)
Right before the shooting, we are told that his face (as captured on film) betrayed his understanding of Frenesi’s betrayal, and that this was “the moment of his real passing,” his spirit actually seeming to leave his body. This ties in with a comment Howie made earlier, that confronting Weed on film would be “takin’ his soul, man,” a la that idea (is this myth or actually documented?) that some Native tribes believed the camera stole their soul. It might also go a way toward explaining the meaning of the Thanatoids: beings from whom the spirit has been drained, brains operating only on mediated experience, through the Tube. There’s also the comparison, recurring throughout the chapter (and book), of camera with gun. Frenesi, at the end of the chapter, says they were fools to think their cameras could stand against the Man’s guns.
Pynchon’s feelings about all of this remain difficult for me to interpret. He certainly is sympathetic to the aims of 24fps, and would seem to think that the camera is, in fact, just as powerful as the gun, if only we’d believe it. Factoring into all of it is that Kabbalistic myth that’s so important in Gravity’s Rainbow, of the world as broken vessel, shards of light scattered throughout the darkness. The last words of the chapter are “the spilled, the broken world.” DL is equated with Lilith and shadow, Frenesi with Eve and light, and much as in GR light/white is often menacing while shadow protects the good. The “broken world” could be the world broken into countless segments of film which only seem continuous, but the “real” world is what’s being talked about here, what’s broken. Perhaps the point is that they are parts of each other, just as shadow and light exist because of the other. The broken world of film could also redeem the broken world we live in, perhaps, by recording injustice and forcing outrage at the inhumane. Maybe that’s why so much of this book veers between cinematic pastiche, political commentary, and literary genre-play?
But the issue of possession is also troubling, and there’s definitely a hint of vampirism in some of Pynchon’s filmic references. Brock is in the possession business. He kind of reminds me of the Mystery Man in Lost Highway, with that camcorder attached to his eye. (The chapter before this ends with an uber-creepy scene in which Brock is staring at Frenesi in the dark, and starts laughing when she’s scared by him.) (And this further reminds me that there’s some pretty Lynchian stuff in this chapter; I wonder if Pynchon’s a fan?) The sections of this chapter on FEER and the surveillance of the ex-24fps’ers seem downright prescient, now. Brock abducts the dangerous elements from the People’s Republic and hides them in his secret camp, for reeducation or blackmail or torture, but uses cameras and those media outlets who will play along to remake this story into the story of radicals “going underground,” a “rapture below.” Bad puns. (Those who ask inconvenient questions are summarily removed from the press pool.)
PS: One more stylistic quirk I’ve noticed popping up more and more in this book. Pynchon makes a point of using an apostrophe at the beginning of ‘suckers, though the word had clearly lost the connotation that this implies in ordinary usage by the time he’s writing in and of. I think it’s a way for him to reinforce the crazed sexual desire, perversity, and brutality simmering beneath the surface of everyday life, politics as usual in the good ol’ USA.
July 23, 2008 § 2 Comments
Now reading: Vineland.
For all his theological concern, I’ve never been sure what Pynchon makes of Jesus. His concern is primarily with the lost and outcast — all of us, or damn close — and not with the saved and saving.
But one of the most surprising elements of JC’s teaching is his emphasis on love and his deemphasis of guilt. He talks to prostitutes and Samaritans, recruits tax collectors and peasants, asks forgiveness for his punishers. A revolution of personal orientation toward the world: doing good not because you’ve done bad and feel bad about it, but doing good because you love your neighbors and your God.
Of course Christianity has very little to do with Christ. (Did it ever?) But I do think Pynchon addresses himself in the long chapter covering pages 130-191 to the lack of love in our contemporary discourse, and the preponderance of guilt.
The startling passage that got me thinking on these lines occurs as we meet a Thanatoid, one of Pynchon’s underground people. Thanatoids are ambiguous beings, creatures of entropy. They “watch a lot of Tube,” living in ghostly communities like Shade Creek, where DL and Takeshi (the “Karmic Adjuster” almost accidentally killed by DL thinking she was killing Brock Vond with the ninjic “Vibrating Palm” — is anything harder to summarize than a Pynchon plot?) meet Ortho Bob Dulang, their first Thanatoid. They “limit themselves… to emotions helpful in setting right whatever was keeping them from advancing further into the condition of death… the most common by far was resentment…”
After a cool exchange in which Takeshi is revealed as a kind of anti-Thanatoid, “trying to go — the opposite way! Back to life!” from his dead-man-walking condition as DL’s victim, we get this doozy, as Ortho Bob comments on the arrangement by which DL is assisting Takeshi for a year and a day to atone for her, you know, killing him slowly with her ninja moves: “My mom would love this. She watches all these shows where, you got love, is always winnin’ out, over death? Adult fantasy kind of stories. So you guys, it’s like guilt against death? Hey — very Thanatoid thing to be doin’, and good luck.”
He’s right: very Thanatoid thing to be doin’. But what does that mean? The Thanatoids are still quite slippery, Pynchon keeping their meaning ambiguous: sometimes they seem to stand for American culture as a whole, a culture glued to the TV and losing the will to do just about anything else; sometimes they seem to be presented as victims of Vietnam or the reactionary elite, made half-ghostly by their inability to overcome their desire for revenge; sometimes they seem simply a way of presenting the human condition: always moving towards death. But it’s the way Ortho Bob frames his argument, his sarcastic, typically Thanatoid comment that there’s no way that guilt (much less love!) could ever overcome death, that’s interesting.
Because the Thanatoids do practically nothing but watch TV, the idea of “love winning out over death” strikes him as an “adult fantasy.” In the arrangement before him, he doesn’t see love as entering into the equation at all: guilt is the emotion he sees, incapable of believing that DL could possibly have any other motivation. But of course, I think the point of the whole exercise from the SKA’s point of view is to move her past guilt, to a desire to operate in the world out of something more than rage and resentment. And it works, maybe — she’s still with Takeshi an undetermined number of years later, in a presumably platonic relationship that seems to bear many of the marks of love.
It’s a very cool, dense passage. It reminds me a helluva lot of DFW, with those extra commas, that broken grammar, the filtering through TV. And also in the way that love is dismissed from the discourse, as something too often exaggerated and mediated and sold to possibly be a real opportunity for salvation. And that does seem to me a Pynchonian commentary on the 1980s, in the time’s utter repudiation of something like “love” — say, concern for fellow citizens and humans, a desire to live peacefully and simply.
One more note here. We saw The Dark Knight last Sunday, and I was struck by what a strange movie it was, so very different from so much else that’s been released in recent years. What made it strange, I think, was its attempt to move past our societal obsession with blame and guilt — if only we can identify and punish the “evildoers,” surely everything will be all right — and its amazingly old-fashioned climax, a fascinating variation on the “prisoner’s dilemma” of game theory set up by the Joker (and seriously, it’s not just hype: Heath Ledger is really unbelievably good as the Joker). It’s hardly a Batman movie at all: it’s a movie about wanting a man, a city, a country to move past guilt, towards decency, regard for fellow humans, something like love.
February 14, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Invisible Man.
Just finished watching Yes, a deeply weird, deeply beautiful movie in which all the dialogue is in a lovely, Shakespearean iambic pentameter–some rhyming, some not. (You know I’m a sucker for this kind of thing. Bonus points for an antiquated outlandish formal conceit.) There’s an Irish-American biologist, a Lebanese cook, a chorus of housekeepers, an English blues aficionado, and much much more. I’d spoil the plot but want you to go ahead and watch the movie, so I won’t.
Anywho, this coupled with IM finds me thinking about history. The place of the individual in it, out of it, or near it. What we think of as history and what we think of as life. Etc.
Chapter 20 felt an awful lot like the core of this book. In chapter 17 the narrator and his compatriot, Brother Tod Clifton, have a run-in with their nemesis in Harlem, the black militant Ras the Exhorter. And Ras does not approve of their working in the Brotherhood (as their organization is called) with and for white people. After their confrontation, Clifton says of Ras, “I don’t know…I suppose sometimes a man has to plunge outside history….Plunge outside, turn his back…Otherwise he might kill somebody, go nuts.”
By chapter 20 Clifton has abandoned his post in the Brotherhood. The narrator, reassigned to the Harlem beat, tries to track him down and finds him hawking small, paper-and-cardboard dancing dolls. They’re black, they’re called Sambo, and the narrator sees them as a betrayal of everything he and Clifton had stood for. Clifton ends up shot dead by a cop he’d punched in anger. And the narrator is left to ruminate on Clifton’s sudden plunge outside history, into the black marketplace, selling the world’s image of himself.
I won’t pretend to understand everything in the narrator’s ruminations, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here about history and time. He sees three black boys in the subway, and thinks, “These fellows whose bodies seemed–what had one of my teachers said of me?–‘You’re like one of these African sculptures, distorted in the interest of a design.’ Well, what design and whose?” And going on, continuing to talk about these “transitional,” extra-historical (because not recording their own histories, and sure to be forgotten in the traditional textbooks) boys, he says, “What if Brother Jack were wrong? What if history was a gambler, instead of a force in a laboratory experiment, and the boys his ace in the hole?”
What does it mean, exactly, to plunge outside history? To turn one’s back on the narrative of “progress,” or destiny, or fate? To what end? Are the downtrodden in any sense free agents–or does the narrator insinuate the exact opposite–that history is gambling on those boys (all of us), thinking they might lead to some big payoff (the Brotherhood, writ large) but never quite knowing? A kind of determinism lite?