March 5, 2009 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.
The strangest thing about this very strange book is the mystery of Schreber’s mental state as he wrote it: clearly still mentally ill, but lucid and intelligent enough to write a tract which makes his insanity seem utterly sane, even dull. It is, mostly, the evidence and procedure of a courtroom, not an asylum. Schreber explicitly states that he’s writing the book both to disseminate the important information he’s received about the universe and to prove his sanity — to show the evidence for his brain’s perfect functioning, but also for the truth of the universe he’s had revealed to him.
It veers so close to self-parody, while remaining utterly in earnest. The most stunningly forthright passage is at the beginning of chapter 20, when Schreber comes right out and says what every paranoid thinks, but shows that he’s aware of how this might sound and explicates his reasons for believing it nonetheless:
…everything that happens is in reference to me. Writing this sentence, I am fully aware that other people may be tempted to think that I am pathologically conceited; I know very well that this very tendency to relate everything to oneself, to bring everything that happens into connection with one’s own person, is a common phenomenon among mental patients. But in my case the very reverse obtains. Since God entered into nerve-contact with me exclusively, I became in a way for God the only human being, or simply the human being around whom everything turns, to whom everything that happens must be related and who therefore, from his own point of view, must also relate all things to himself.
It’s truly baffling how he, veteran of the asylum and respected legal authority, can make this kind of flimsy claim for his exemption from the monstrous egocentricity of his view of reality. It is shocking how real it must have all come to be, for him; how he’d worked it all out in his head, had told himself the story to make sense of his pain and confusion and isolation, and therefore made it true.
There are a number of moments in the book when one can get a glimpse of Schreber against the grain of his narration, or especially in the reports of Dr. Weber, the head of the asylum, in the Addenda section at the end of the book. The most compelling such moments involve Schreber’s “states of bellowing,” times when he feels he must let out an animalistic bellow or roar as a reaction to the voices he hears. He talks of the great release he feels in this state, and how he loves going for walks in the country when he can just let it rip, but has also learned to control the bellowing in polite company, restraining it to little peeps or yelps. Schreber presents this as little more than a perfectly understandable quirk, a trait of his that should simply be accepted and ignored by those he meets once they know about the reasons for it. And yet, it’s clearly one of the main physical symptoms of his illness. Isn’t it somewhat horrifying to imagine meeting a man, presented to you as a “respected jurist,” whose face twitches and trembles until he finally lets loose with first a yip, then a yelp, then great bovine bellows of mixed relief and rage? (Hasn’t David Lynch made a career of horrifying people with scenes just like this?)
Further, in one of his reports on Schreber’s progress, Dr. Weber confirms Schreber’s report that he was allowed to join Weber’s family at dinner occasionally. Weber also mentions that Schreber would sometimes stay to play the piano or converse with Weber’s wife and daughter. This sounds, to me, like a Robert Olin Butler story waiting to happen: at the time of Freud’s great discoveries, mental patient with highly developed, extremely idiosyncratic worldview, who believes himself to be turning into a woman/earth-goddess, plays sonatas with German bourgeoisie , occasionally giving vent to animal sounds in the parlor.
October 26, 2008 § 3 Comments
Now reading: Infinite Jest.
Today’s subject: confluence, anti-confluence, paranoia, structure, and accident.
I’ve talked about the structure of the novel before, but of course I left out a couple of things. For instance, I haven’t even addressed the weird fractal theory, in which every chapter is supposed to replicate the structure of the entire book (and I see this in some chapters, and miss it in others; there does seem to be a pattern in which a chapter, just like the book as a whole, opens at a disorienting end and then works backward to fill in the details, although this isn’t all that unusual, really). But what I’ve been thinking most about, nearing the end of the book, is J.O. Incandenza’s concept of “anti-confluential” cinema, and how this reflects on IJ. Is this an anti-confluential book? A confluential one? Both or neither?
This ties in with the theme of paranoia, and two of DFW’s great literary father-ghosts: Pynchon and DeLillo. Pynchon, especially, was a master at ambiguous paranoia: are the characters right to be paranoid? Are you, as a reader, right to be paranoid, making connections from your privileged perspective? Or does Pynchon write “about” paranoia, as a phenomenon, gazing coolly at it as from a distance? However this finally came out in your mind, you couldn’t deny that Pynchon and DeLillo are both masters at tweaking their works to show the connections between things, the systems governing our lives, the ways that it was impossible not to see forces at work, pulling strings. White Noise is especially concerned with the confluence, with how things are connected.
The Higher Power in IJ is an AA term, typically meaning God or another supernatural force. DFW is very serious about this in subtle and powerful ways. Thinking about literary lineages, it’s not hard to see that the “higher power” in Pynchon is typically government, bureaucracy, sinister forces of destruction. The higher supernatural powers are usually wildly marginalized and powerless, forgotten or neglected. (See the Yuroks’ woge, in Vineland.) This is somehow emblematic of the differences between them, I think.
I digress. Conspiracy and skullduggery play a big part in IJ too, of course. But the book also jokes with its conspiratorial figures, inserting inconvenient accidents of circumstance and timing that fit the book’s narrative, but not the conspirators’. Somehow, I think DFW was trying to write a book in which it was apparent that human efforts to control could only go so far, and human efforts to interpret would always remain incomplete. Somehow both confluence and anti-confluence contribute to his thesis.
Example: the most obvious, Gately’s botched burglary, killing “the anti-O.N.A.N. organizer” DuPlessis. This event becomes the focus of immense conspiratorial and governmental scrutiny. It is, to those who knew who DuPlessis was, obviously an intentional message of some sort, or at least done for a reason connected to them: to find the tape of “the Entertainment,” to snuff the French-Canadian terrorist offensive. But this event, so badly misinterpreted, was an accident. There was no guiding hand here at all. Gately and his partner fucked up. DuPlessis was home when they didn’t think he was. These events — Gately’s robbery, the search for Infinite Jest — were not connected. Anti-confluential. (But then… wait… Joelle Van Dyne, star of the lethal entertainment, comes to Ennet House. And so does Remy Marathe, looking for Joelle…)
And then there’s Mike Pemulis. We learn Pemulis’s fate in two somehow heartbreaking footnotes (and I’m still trying to figure out why these sections are footnotes, exactly, and not just regular sections of text, because they footnote nothing but gaps in the text). Pemulis is the one with the poster of the troubled king with the tagline that is the title of this post. He’s a street kid, gets in trouble, and the major drug source at E.T.A. And he always covers his ass, and he is extremely paranoid, and lives in fear of getting kicked out in his last year when he’s so close to getting away from his horrible family and neighborhood and life for good. But then he is kicked out, and it is because his roommate, Jim Troeltsch, kept some (stolen) amphetamines in a bottle labeled as anti-histamine tablets, one of which John Wayne takes, leading to horrible embarrassment for just about every official at E.T.A. in one of the book’s funniest scenes. And, Pemulis thinks, Troeltsch ratted on him to save his own hide. There was some kind of conspiracy to get the kid out of E.T.A. — Avril, Hal’s mom, hates Pemulis, and so do the other administrators, it would seem — but they got him for something he didn’t even do.
But DFW also pulls strings throughout the book, bringing people and events together: Hal seeing Kevin Bain at the horrible “Inner Infant” meeting; Avril and her Quebecois cronies; the purse-snatchings of Lenz and Krause, the meeting of Kate Gompert and Remy Marathe. Read that poster-tagline again, in its original all-caps: “YES, I’M PARANOID — BUT AM I PARANOID ENOUGH?” I think DFW saw this as the crucial problem with postmodern literature, and with postmodern readers, and with postmodern thinkers (which is pretty much our culture, and not some kind of hyper-elite subgroup, at least in my opinion): always believing there to be another motive behind the surface, always another layer of secrecy. And, importantly, always a conspiracy pointed right at you, the king of your universe. And a seemingly transparent pose about it all: who could really be so cripplingly paranoid who had a poster advertising his paranoia on his wall?
Strange to say about such a complex book, but I think DFW was trying to help us all find our way back into some kind of honest relationship with literature and ourselves. The footnotes, the complicated narration, the complete or over-complete disclosure and the lack of knowledge in other areas: it is about showing that there are no tricks here, nothing up his sleeves. He was trying to write a book for adults, about being an adult, part of which is letting your guard down once in a while and engaging. DFW tried to let us know exactly as much about what happens to these characters as he knew, I think.
July 17, 2008 § 2 Comments
Now reading: Vineland.
Well, shucks, things have changed. It’s still a fun book, but we’ve gotten into heavy-duty Pynchon territory now. The damned, the paranoid, the radical and the tyrannical. I have this strange feeling that TP started out trying to write a different kind of book but it sucked him in and he let it take him, his obsessions with Calvinism, systems, technology. There are moments when you can feel the sentences pulling him along to his inevitable conclusions. But it’s great stuff, and there are passages in here to rival anything in Gravity’s Rainbow. (Also, the quirk I remember most from GR, the “a-and” stutter or elongation, has resurfaced here, if only a couple of times. I always liked that, and it always seemed like Pynchon was trying to channel the archetypal overexcited American kid in movies and ’50s TV with that extra letter and dash, and it seemed to me like a brilliant condensation of American character. In which case it fits in well in this media-obsessed book, showing how TV has worked its way into our minds and is constantly showing us how to live, how to be. Or it was just supposed to be a longer “a” sound and I got the whole thing wrong. Anyway.)
He’s on to computers, for instance. There are no less than three really virtuoso pieces about computers already in the book. Two are in the chapter in which we’re shifted to Frenesi’s story (a virtuoso chapter overall, really). On page 87, after Frenesi’s husband Flash has been talking about how people are disappearing from the government’s computer files (and it begins…), their son enters. The kids in this book are really interesting — Pynchon seems to have a lot more invested in them than in previous books, or maybe is just more interested, or is acknowledging the shift toward youth that the culture as a whole took after the 60s — so I might quote a little long just to get in some of the allusive, pitch-perfect, idiosyncratic dialogue:
…Justin came wandering in, cartoons having ended and his parents now become the least objectionable programming around here, for half an hour, anyway — and just as well, too, because the last thing either parent needed right now was an argument, or what passed for one with them, a kind of alien-invasion game in which Flash launched complaints of different sizes at different speeds and Frenesi tried to deflect or neutralize them before her own defenses gave way.
“Say, Justintime, how’s ’em Transformers, makin’ out OK?”
“And how was everything over at Wallace’s?”
The kid put on a genial smile, waved, put his hand to his ear like Reagan going, “Say again?” “How about a few questions,” Justin pretending to look around the room, “Mom? You had your hand up?”
“We’re just getting you back for all those questions you used to ask us” — Flash adding “Amen!” — “not too long ago.”
“I don’t remember that,” trying not to laugh, because in fact he did, and wanted to be teased.
“Must be gettin’ old, man,” said Frenesi.
“Nonstop questions nobody could answer,” Flash told him, “like, ‘What is metal?'”
“‘How do you know when you’re dreaming and when you’re not?'” Frenesi recalled, “That was my favorite.”
Isn’t that great, that subtle shift, incorporating the computer-game metaphor into the already-established TV theme? And this idea itself, of parental arguments being seen as a video game? I’m always fascinated by Pynchon’s narrators, how they manage to shift their voices so rapidly and convincingly without actually shifting point of view: the idea of Flash and Frenesi’s arguments being like a giant game of Space Invaders would not have occurred without Justin’s point of view, in addition to the metaphor being important to Pynchon’s overriding concerns. (I love Justin impersonating Reagan, too, and “I don’t remember that” — just like Reagan, forgetful whenever convenient, and playing his coy game with the media, wanting to be teased.) Plus there’s Frenesi’s remembrance of young Justin asking about dreams; we’ll later see DL asking similar questions, wondering if she’d become “finally lost in a great edge-to-edge delusion.”
So this leads to the end of the chapter, as F&F’s nightmare is coming to pass and they’ve apparently been erased from the system they were living on the edge of, as independent contractors on shady governmental missions.
…it would all be done with keys on alphanumeric keyboards that stood for weightless, invisible chains of electronic presence or absence. If patterns of ones and zeros were “like” patterns of human lives and deaths, if everything about an individual could be represented in a computer record by a long string of ones and zeros, then what kind of creature would be represented by a long string of lives and deaths? It would have to be up one level at least — an angel, a minor god, something in a UFO. It would take eight human lives and deaths just to form one character in this being’s name… We are digits in God’s computer, she not so much thought as hummed to herself to a sort of standard gospel tune, And the only thing we’re good for, to be dead or to be living, is the only thing He sees. What we cry, what we contend for, in our world of toil and blood, it all lies beneath the notice of the hacker we call God.
Overblown? Maybe you could say that. But mind-blowing, too, and I wonder what Pynchon makes of the fact that a lot of the people in the world are now busy adding to their “computer records” pictures, profiles of friends and acquaintances, weird literary blogs? (2.0 apps as path to acknowledgment by the hacker-God, and as handy guides to governmental intrusion.)
Then there’s Prairie, looking at her mom’s file on an apparently magic computer (it plays “Wake Up, Little Susie,” and it politely says goodnight to Prairie when she shuts it off — it’s maybe the worst line I’ve ever seen Pynchon write, actually, right there on p. 115). But this is a great paragraph, an enrichment of the theme:
So into it and then on Prairie followed, a girl in a haunted mansion, led room to room, sheet to sheet, by the peripheral whiteness, the earnest whisper, of her mother’s ghost. She already knew how literal computers could be — even spaces between characters mattered. She had wondered if ghosts were only literal in the same way. Could a ghost think for herself, or was she responsive totally to the needs of the still-living, needs like keystrokes entered into her world, lines of sorrow, loss, justice denied?… But to be of any use, to be “real,” a ghost would have to be more than only that kind of elaborate pretending….
After that we get Prairie finding out some things, but transported by a picture of her mom with DL (the asskicking Ninjette) in the 60s. There’s a great transcript of what Prairie imagines they’re talking about in the photo, and then, once Prairie has shut the machine off, in his inimitable Pynchonian fashion, the narrator takes us back into those “quiescent ones and zeros” and shows us (apparently) the true story behind the picture, and we get a nice long flashback, and flashbacks to flashbacks, and the ghosts become as real as ghosts in a machine can. (Realer, maybe.)