The Data Discman of American Experimental Fiction

July 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished long, long ago: My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, by Mark Leyner.

Okay: back on the horse. This will begin a series of catch-up posts on books read in the past few months, when I’ve been too busy, distracted, or otherwise occupied to write about reading. But there’s been a lot of good stuff, so I’d like to post at least something brief about many of these books.

Beginning with this work, which features prominently in the David Foster Wallace essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.”  That’s where I first heard about it, in the mid-90s.  Frankly, the essay tells you all you really need to know about the book, though if DFW piques your interest as he did mine, it’s a very quick read.  When I finally came across a copy at a used bookstore, I snapped it up.  Especially since the back cover features blurbs by DFW and David Byrne:

Published as part of that ’80s-90s wave of trade paperback originals of avant-gardists, its packaging and paratexts are retro-futuristic throwbacks: each chapter begins with a very large numeral and initial letter in a raster font reminiscent of an 8-bit PC or game system.  The chapters are short, and each given two opening pages (one for the title and numeral, one blank); without this filler, the book probably would have been simply too short to be published at the time.  (As it is, it’s just 154 pages, 34 of that chapter intro pages.  But then, the chapter titles really are the best parts of the book.)  In both form and content, it’s a book that manages both immediate obsolescence and eerie prescience: the Apple II or Data Discman of American experimental fiction.  Those aren’t offhand comparisons for a book that is obsessed with technology: this is, as DFW points out, a book that would rather be a TV show or, perhaps, a video game.

While its preoccupations with network TV, robots, and the fearsome Japanese economy now seem awfully dated, the work as a whole does beckon towards our current media-soaked age.  For instance, the 3-page “About the Author” send-up is straight out of social media’s identity-bending playbook.  The brilliant idea of a Hollywood blockbuster version of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” complete with “huge metal robotic women who come and go talking of Michelangelo” must have seemed among the most ridiculous ideas in the book in 1990; now we have both billion-dollar Transformers movies and a 3D version of The Great Gatsby.  The references to haute cuisine and fast food must have seemed like throwaway yuppie jokes at the time of publication; now, they seem harbingers of our country’s obsession with food (on the very first page, “a bright neon sign flashing on and off that read: FOIE GRAS AND HARICOTS VERTS NEXT EXIT”).  Its nearly complete lack of coherent plot or stylistic consistency point toward the snippets and mashups in which we now consume so much of our culture.  Its utterly superficial, drug-addled stand-ins for people have problems with health care, bodies upon which surgery, sex, and cybernetics are performed, and total disregard for the reality of others.  So yeah, that sounds about right.

Translating Ancient, Humanist, and Contemporary Literature

October 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished: Satires, by Juvenal (trans. Niall Rudd); Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami (trans. Philip Gabriel).

Still reading: Gargantua and Pantagruel.

Reading next: The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre, by John Polidori et al.

I’ve been reading a lot of translated literature lately, so my recurring interest in the complexities and quandaries of translation has resurfaced.  As luck would have it, these have been 20th-century translations of works spanning two millennia: from the 2nd-century imperial Rome of Juvenal to the 16th-century France (and countless imaginary islands) of Rabelais to the late-20th-century Japan of Murakami.  Further, these have been three very different kinds of books, in genre, market, and physical format.  Juvenal I read in an inexpensive Oxford World’s Classics paperback perfect for autodidacts and students of Latin lit in translation.  Rabelais is a 1942 Heritage Press production with illustrations by Lynd Ward; Heritage was the mass-market version of the expensive Limited Editions Club editions.  Finally, the Murakami is a Knopf first American edition, with the standard Knopf gestures at and allusions to quality bookmaking (glued-on endbands, faux deckle edges, colophon) without much of the actual craftsmanship of same.

All of which is prefatory to my impression that the format and intended public for each of these works are the key factors in how the translation is made, and what I am and am not suggested to learn from and experience in them. Every work of literature is mediated by these factors to some degree, but (to travesty Orwell) some are more mediated than others, and translations are the most mediated of all — even putting matters of different languages aside.

As with most any ancient author, reading Juvenal is, for the lay reader, an act of suspended disbelief.  In many ways, ancient authors are more like mysterious bronze statues in town squares (to borrow a Hellenic image from Sputnik Sweetheart) than actual, knowable people: their features are recognizable, but they have accumulated centuries of ambergris (copying errors), bird poop (intentional removals or additions thanks to changing morals or understandings), vandalism (forgery), conservation and repair (glosses and marginalia).  It’s even more complicated than usual, with Juvenal, who fell out of fashion quickly after his death.

You can argue that Juvenal is as much a medieval author as an ancient one, given the amount of ambiguity there seems to be about what he actually wrote, and what has just been attributed to him.  (For a late but beautiful example of a medieval manuscript copy of Juvenal’s Satires, and how complicated these could be in their presentation, check this out, from Harvard’s Houghton Library.)  Niall Rudd explains in his fascinating, useful, and almost-certain-to-be-skipped “Translator’s Preface” to the edition I read that he expects most of his readers to be “students… [in] an academic course,” and that he has striven to balance a desire to make Juvenal “accessible” with a need to let his audience “know what is, and what is not, in the original text, even if that involves keeping their thumb in the notes.”

But of course there is no “original text” of Juvenal extant: there are many different copies of varying reliability and quality.  And yet the Platonic ideal of Juvenal (as of Shakespeare, or Rabelais, or even Murakami) remains the goal of translation, and the specter that every translator and reader chases, even though such a perfect snapshot of the author’s intention is forever impossible in translation.  So lines that have been deemed spurious, or interpolated commentary on the poetry taken for lines by Juvenal, have been removed from the main text to the notes, and surely there are many more that have not been included at all. We are given yet another “new and improved” text to take its place beside those many others of the past.

I greatly enjoyed Rudd’s Juvenal; there’s so much fascinating insight into ancient Rome and human nature, from greed and lust and gluttony and contempt to reminders that we’ve apparently always thought that things were about to go or had just gone to hell in a handbasket to incredible details such as those in Satire 14, presented here with the title “The Influence of Vicious Parents,” which includes mention of shipwrecked sailors begging with painted images of the shipwreck they survived, gripes about real estate in the suburbs of Rome, and the astonishing fact that parricides were punished by being tied up in a sack with an ape, dog, snake, and rooster and thrown into a lake.  But I wonder about the medieval “Juvenal,” too, and think about Satire 6, by far the longest of the sixteen, with its rampant misogyny, and wonder if it’s so long because so much was added to it by later enthusiasts.

While I have my quibbles with this edition of Juvenal, overall I found it a great value, with informative and extensive notes and thoughtful presentation.  This makes an interesting contrast with the Rabelais, which is so very different a kind of book as to be an almost completely different reading experience.  The emphasis here is on enjoyment of the work, with an introduction (by the translator, Jacques LeClercq) that devotes all of four brief paragraphs to the problems of translation and is chiefly concerned with explaining Rabelais’ life and times.  LeClercq seeks “interest and readability.”  Astonishingly, he has done so by inserting material that would be presented as footnotes in most editions directly into the text — so that, for instance, explanations of complicated idioms and phrases in languages other than French in the original are put into the mouths of the narrator and other characters.

In this way, LeClercq harkens back to the medieval tradition of the gloss or commentary: as Juvenal’s commentators would write their “helpful” comments between (and thereby into) the lines of the text or around the margins of the work, so the LEC/Heritage edition rewrites Rabelais.  (A comparison with a more recent translation by M.A. Screech reveals a massive amount of variation between the texts.) The publication history of the parts of Rabelais’s work is fully as complicated as the transmission of Juvenal’s text, and in fact the fifth book is quite possibly not by Rabelais at all (not that you’d know that from the Heritage edition).  The desire to present for ownership “The” five books of Gargantua and Pantagruel, and to make them palatable as non-scholarly works of enjoyable literature replete with illustrations by a popular artist of the time, leads to an utterly misleading text.  (Which is not to say I’m not having fun with it.  I enjoy Lynd Ward’s work, and the crazy lists and names and anti-clerical ranting and wild scatology of Rabelaisian Renaissance lit.  It’s just that I’ve felt the need, because I am a certain type of obsessive reader, to check the Screech edition frequently against the LeClercq text.)

Finally, there’s Murakami.  And here’s a question: why don’t publishers let (or, hell, make) translators include footnotes in their works?  Is it really that scary to an American reading public for translated belles lettres that I dare guess is fairly small and well educated?  Or is it actually more expensive, for some reason, to include footnotes?  Or do translators actually not want to do this?  I end up with questions about specifics of translation and cultural allusion — questions that I suspect would be easily answered by the translator, who’s doing the work of parsing these problems anyway — with just about every contemporary work I read.  For just one example: when Gabriel translates “bang!” on page 8, what’s he translating?  A similar Japanese onomatopoeia?  A sound effect seen in Japanese manga?  Or is that exact word, the use of which is, granted, not that big of a deal, but is somewhat emblematic of Murakami’s loose, pop-cultural, conversational style, at least to this reader in English — is that exact word in the original, which would be an interesting Americanism?  (Incidentally, I suspect that Gabriel also indulges in some in-text footnoting, as when the name Sumire is identified as meaning “Violet” in Japanese.  Maybe most translators do this.)

Maybe e-books will be an answer here: they would seem to have the capacity for pop-up footnotes that could be less scary to readers (or, in reality, to publishers) and could actually add value to a printed text.  Will translated literature will be the first format to take a real step forward in the e-book format?

The Pale King, § 9 and the “Clever Metafictional Titty-Pincher”

July 24, 2011 § 2 Comments

Now reading: The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace.

The Pale King is classified on its title page as “An Unfinished Novel,” by David Foster Wallace.  The “Editor’s Note” that follows this title page (and the important copyright page on its verso) makes it clear that this is… well… not untrue, exactly, but also not the straight dope.  The book is by David Foster Wallace and Michael Pietsch, his editor.  TPK, as DFW left it, was an unfinished novel, but this is not that TPK.  This TPK is an assemblage put together from DFW’s papers by Pietsch, in an order approximating what Pietsch thought DFW might have wanted, or at least what Pietsch and/or others at Little, Brown/Hachette thought most interesting and/or viable in bookstores.  It’s a collage.  It’s not how DFW left it; it’s something different.  The closest correlative I can think of is the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems, altered in a multitude of ways.  As I read it, I find that I have to keep telling myself: This isn’t even close to a finished piece of work.  This isn’t a novel.  This is a bunch of stuff put in a “best-guess” order by a knowledgeable editor who, while I will forever appreciate his putting in the time and effort to put this book together, is not David Foster Wallace, and had arguments with DFW about what belonged in his books, and put together a book as he, the editor, saw fit, without any input or pushback from the author, who wasn’t done with the thing to begin with.

Because of course DFW did all sorts of things with structure and fragmentary narratives and disjointed timelines and complicated plots in his finished fiction.  So it can seem like a real, live DFW novel.  But it’s not.  And that’s horribly sad.  (And seriously: I don’t think it was close to being done.  I think this was another Infinite Jest-scale work.)  But it is a helluva thing in its own right, and I’m glad to have it.

All of this ontological and classificatory speculation is germane to the book itself, as it turns out.  Section 9 is the “Author’s Foreword,” and it’s clear from the footnotes and other internal evidence that DFW did want this Foreword to be somewhere a ways into the book (I mean, I really don’t mean to say that Pietsch is a bad guy for putting the book together; it was clearly a heroic effort and labor of love, and he did his best with the assignment he chose, which was to make a pile of papers into a salable product.)  In it, DFW claims that the book is a memoir, not fiction at all, but is called a novel for legal purposes.  It’s weird and tricksy, exactly the “kind of clever metafictional titty-pincher” DFW claims in this very chapter that the book is not.

Because, look: for reasons that are as yet unclear to me (and I suspect may never be clear to me), DFW wrote himself into the book.  He claims to have served as an IRS employee in the mid-80s after leaving college, having written papers for cash.  Two of the biggest chunks of narrative in the book (though not the biggest) are concerned with this DFW character. He goes to some lengths to convince readers of this “foreword” that the book is factual, including the following:

Our mutual contract here is based on the presumptions of (a) my veracity, and (b) your understanding that any features or semions that might appear to undercut that veracity are in fact protective legal devices, not unlike the boilerplate that accompanies sweepstakes and civil contracts, and thus are not meant to be decoded or ‘read’ so much as merely acquiesced to as part of the cost of our doing business together, so to speak, in today’s commercial climate.

DFW explicitly dismisses the idea that he’s playing on different definitions or kinds of “truth” here (i.e., that the book is all true in an emotional or aesthetic sense, the typical claim for fiction’s “truthfulness”).  He also, interestingly, refers to himself as “primarily a fiction writer,” which is not the way most of the general reading public knew him: more people read his very popular nonfiction, at least before his death.  And maybe he hoped to bring together those two published personae — DFW the avant-garde fiction writer, and DFW the genius profiler and cruise-ship-interrogator — in this book.  But maybe what DFW was mostly up to with this “Foreword” was an attempt to sort of cut the Gordian knot which the reading of literary fiction of his sort has become.  The stakes, frankly, have become so small, and he wanted to raise them.  As he points out in this section, people care about “made-up stuff” in memoirs in a way that they do not in fiction, much less metafiction or belles lettres.  I think the Foreword might be a way of asking us to read and act like it’s all true, even if it’s not.  To pay attention to it, especially when it’s “user-unfriendly” or boring, as though it were as true as the “real world,” which was part of the point of metafiction in the first place (I think, though in the past I’ve thought of it more as pointing out that the “real world” is as structured and narrative-based and “false” as the fictional ones).  Because even if the work is demonstrably clever and metafictional, he absolutely did not want it to be a “titty-pincher”: a kind of low-stakes, slightly hurtful, slightly titillating prank.

All of this is somewhat undercut by the book’s unfinished nature: the discussions of legal reviews of final drafts and wrangling with editors and such is all obviously impossible, even if you take out the biographical information.  It gives the section a kind of melancholy hilarity, this knowledge that DFW wrote all this without any of said legal reviews or editorial agonizings having taken place.  Presumably some less grandiose approximation eventually did, made much easier by his decease and the chapter’s obvious falsehood accruing therefrom.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Double Number 19/20

January 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

Finished: David Copperfield.

So at last, we’ve reached the end.  As Dickensian endings go, it’s not one of my favorites, though it’s certainly what you would expect from him, and I suppose it’s successful on his own terms.  Nevertheless, here are my favorite passages from the last number of DC:

Chapter 58:

I came, one evening before sunset, down into a valley, where I was to rest.  In the course of my descent to it, by the winding track along the mountain-side, from which I saw it shining far below, I think some long-unwonted sense of beauty and tranquillity, some softening influence awakened by its peace, moved faintly in my breast.  I remember pausing once, with a kind of sorrow that was not all oppressive, not quite despairing.  I remember almost hoping that some better change was possible within me.

This chapter, “Absence,” is mostly Dickens at his worst, and for being so full of emotion and despair it feels rather like he put a stamp on it and mailed it in.  Which is not to say that it’s not interesting or useful: it could function as a kind of paint-by-numbers of Victorian poses and cliches and sentimentality and unexamined truisms.  For instance, there’s this passage about Switzerland, in which David’s standard impression of the “sublimity and wonder” of his setting gives way to the moment in which “great Nature spoke to” him, though the power of mountain scenery at sunset and the sound of peasant-folk — shepherds — singing in the distance, just as if on their way to visit the baby Jesus.  You could do a lot worse for an examination of the decay of Romanticism into Victorian piety, or for a literary equivalent to the overwrought landscapes so popular at the time.  Nevertheless, there’s something insightful and true in the paragraph above, in David’s sense of the gradations of sorrow (or, as we might say now, depression) lightening, giving way to just the “possibility” that all might not be lost.  Then, of course, because this is Victorian England, “great Nature” (with capital N) speaks and David lays down on Swiss grass (who has ever done this, ever, ever, this laying down on grass overcome with emotion?) and bawls for the wife he secretly wished was dead all along.

Chapter 59:

A small sharp-looking lad, half-footboy and half-clerk, who was very much out of breath, but who looked at me as if he defied me to prove it legally, presented himself.

I’ll let this quick little sketch of Traddles’ servant stand in for the whole wonderful first part of the chapter, on David’s return to London and anxiety for the state of Traddles considering his living situation, leading to the delight of seeing him in domestic bliss (contrasted, despite its crowded and difficult nature, with the domestic squalor of David and Dora’s life — the difference, it is implied, being Traddles and Sophy not making the mistake of being too horny and getting married young, and therefore maintaining a balance of affection and dutiful service).  I love it when Dickens can’t help but invent a little character for those people he needs only to move the plot along — this footboy need not have do more than open a door, or not exist at all and just have Traddles open it in his impoverished state, but Dickens gives him this sharpness and protective reluctance and breathlessness of having (I’d guess) been playing with Sophy’s sisters.

Chapter 60:

When I returned, Mr. Wickfield had come home, from a garden he had, a couple of miles or so out of the town, where he now employed himself almost every day.  I found him as my aunt had described him.  We sat down to dinner, with some half-dozen little girls; and he seemed but the shadow of his handsome picture on the wall.

Not a terribly remarkable piece of prose, but what interested me about this passage was how much it reminded me of Tolstoy, who greatly admired Dickens.  That little detail about Wickfield, recovered from his Heep-encouraged alcoholism and dissipation, taking up gardening in the country, like Levin from Anna Karenina having his epiphany about the value of working the land.  Agnes, meanwhile, opening a girls’ school.  And the conversation that follows, in which Wickfield reflects on the wrongs he’s committed, the great love he’s received from Agnes, and the story of his own long-dead wife: all of it seems quite like something out of Tolstoy.  Actually, nearly all of this last number seems that way to me, especially in the Agnes-David plot.

Chapter 61:

After some conversation among these gentlemen, from which I might have supposed that there was nothing in the world to be legitimately taken into account but the supreme comfort of prisoners, at any expense, and nothing on the wide earth to be done outside prison-doors, we began our inspection.  It being then just dinner-time, we went, first into the great kitchen, where every prisoner’s dinner was in course being set out separately (to be handed to him in his cell), with the regularity and precision of clock-work.  I said aside, to Traddles, that I wondered whether it occurred to anybody, that there was a striking contrast between these plentiful repasts of choice quality, and the dinners, not to say of paupers, but of soldiers, sailors, laborers, the great bulk of the honest, working community; of whom not one man in five hundred ever dined half so well.  But I learned that the “system” required high living…

A fascinating set piece, this chapter, entitled “I Am Shown Two Interesting Penitents.”  It is one of Dickens’ standard curtain-call chapters, in which loose ends are wrapped up and popular secondary characters are given one last scene in which to take a bow.  But in this case, the chapter is almost completely detachable from the larger narrative, and concerns David and Traddles visiting a prison.  There are all sorts of interesting features here, but what’s most interesting to me is how Dickens, whose own father was in debtors’ prison for a while, clearly had not given much consideration to criminal incarceration, or the purposes of imprisonment, or the means of making prisons places for rehabilitation rather than holding pens of punishment and misery.  These were all hot topics in Victorian society, but Dickens, in this chapter, displays a kind of knee-jerk distaste for the whole subject that’s rather unlike him — insisting, instead, that too much effort is being expended on the behalf of criminals, when more should be spent on the poor and needy who have not committed crimes.  It is a punishment-based view of prison, in other words.  All the same, his eye does catch some of the absurdities and hypocrisies of the nascent prison industry.

Chapter 62:

We stood together in the same old-fashioned window at night, when the moon was shining; Agnes with her quiet eyes raised up to it; I following her glance.  Long miles of road then opened out before my mind; and, toiling on, I saw a ragged way-worn boy, forsaken and neglected, who should come to call even the heart now beating against mine, his own.

This is, in essence, The End.  Dickens always seems to end his plots before the end, then either gives more curtain calls or telescopes his vision to encapsulate a view of the rest of a life — like those synopses of what happened to characters at the end of movies.  Here, you can tell it’s the end by the use of three intra-chapter breaks — quite unusual in Dickens.  And it’s quite a fine “last” line, too, David viewing in the moon’s glow his own remarkable journey from hopeless orphan to winner of his true love’s heart.

Chapter 63:

“For Em’ly,” he said, as he put it in his breast.  “I promised, Mas’r Davy.”

A happily-ever-after chapter, with a clever little fairy-tale allusion at its beginning, and this sweetly sorrowful fairy-tale ending of eternal fidelity and redemption.  A reminder that Dickens could, occasionally, be understated.

Chapter 64:

Traddles’s house is one of the very houses — or it easily may have been — which he and Sophy used to parcel out, in their evening walks.  It is a large house; but Traddles keeps his papers in his dressing-room, and his boots with his papers; and he and Sophy squeeze themselves into upper rooms, reserving the best bed-rooms for the Beauty and the girls.

I love that turn of phrase, “his papers in his dressing-room, and his boots with his papers.”  In this last chapter, Dickens mixes the dark with the light, as always, giving us brief cautionary tales to go along with the happinesses of the main characters.  It’s interesting to me that he grew so fond of Traddles and his family that he gets nearly the last mention, and much longer than the brief sentences at the end about Agnes.  I would’ve sworn, upon first meeting him and reading about his strange habit of drawing skeletons everywhere, that he was just a tertiary comic character, invented to take abuse from Creakle and little else, perhaps showing up now and again later as a happy-go-lucky sad sack.  Shows what I know.

The Consumptive and the Sub-Sub

April 5, 2010 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, with The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, by Howard P. Vincent.

This is my third reading of the great novel, the first time in a ’40s Modern Library edition reproducing those gorgeous Rockwell Kent illustrations.  (N.B. If anyone ever wants to buy me a $20K present, the three-volume folio Lakeside Press edition in which the illustrations first appeared would be great.  My favorite book (as an object of art) of the 20th century.)  I should be forthright and say that M-D is probably my favorite novel.  You will not find objective critique or lamentations over length and difficulty here.  I unabashedly love this book.

I read it first in college (in the Norton edition, which really is the best way to first read it), and was immediately charmed by the “Etymology” and “Extracts” which appear before the main narrative.  I have ever since had a warm spot in my heart for these very weird textual appendages, which I’ve gone back and forth about considering as paratexts or as part of the narrative proper or as something in between.  I’d forgotten, however, that what originally charmed me about them was precisely their in-between nature: the miniature fictional narratives that are used to frame these long lists of epigrams.

These sections are most often dismissed as throat-clearing or simple Melvillean maximalism — they were shunted to an appendix at the back of the book in the first British edition, setting an unfortunate precedent which led to their being cut entirely from a number of editions — but there’s clearly more going on than that.  Each section can be read as a short short story about the “creator” of each section: the “late consumptive usher to a grammar school” and the “sub-sub-librarian,” respectively.  In my metafiction-besotted undergraduate days, I enjoyed speculating on whether the “I” in these character sketches was Melville, or Ishmael, or an unnamed editor, or none of the above.  I equally enjoyed how these sections highlighted the cetomania of both these characters and the ambiguous “I” discussing them, drawing us both on to and past the surface of the text to come.  That’s all still quite enjoyable and interesting, to me at least.  But on this reading, I’ve come to believe that the E&E sections are meant to function mostly as an overture, a passage introducing the motifs and methods to be used and fleshed out in the following symphony (or opera, if you prefer — which is the book more like?)

Howard Vincent’s book helped me see this: his emphasis on Melville’s theme of man’s isolation and search for self led me to reflect more on the characters themselves — the usher, the sub-sub — and why Melville bothered with them at all.  He uses the usher and sub-sub as archetypes of sadness, loneliness, and radically proscribed living.  The usher, consumptive and “pale,” dusts his books with a handkerchief “mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world.”  Brilliant, that “mockingly,” those repeated “all”s: the sick schoolteacher will never go anywhere, never see any of those nations represented on his handkerchief.  The narrator is rather more harsh to the librarian, dismissing him as a “grubworm,” a “poor devil,” “hopeless, sallow.”  Worse, to a librarian, is the cutting advice: “Give it up, Sub-Subs!  For by how much the more pains ye take to please the world, by so much the more shall ye for ever go thankless!”  These are lost souls, probably as given to “hypos” as Ishmael himself, subsuming their selves in quests for knowledge — dismissed by the narrator as fruitless attempts to “please the world.”

But the etymologies and the extracts are there, chosen by Melville or Ishmael or someone in between depending on how we choose to read the metafiction; and these too contribute to the overture.  In their variety and excess and scope — etymologies from Hebrew to “Erromangoan,” extracts from the Bible to sea shanties — they highlight the various perspectives on the whale that Melville will employ to advance his theme, and give a sense of his ambition (and/or mania).  I posit that they are as carefully chosen, rigorously arranged, and pregnant with meaning as any musical overture and as the narrative itself, when viewed in conjunction with that narrative.

Hypertext, Paratext, Metaphor, and My Confusion

January 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Dictionary of the Khazars.

Before moving on, just a few words about this book’s complex structure (you could say, “overly, needlessly complex” — yeah, let’s say that) and how I went about reading it.

Pavic wanted readers to participate as full partners in creating his fiction: he wanted them to skip around in it, picking how they want to read (within certain reasonable patterns), not following a single preordained pattern of linear reading.  This is an analog hypertext, in other words.  The book has “Preliminary Notes,” followed by three dictionaries (more like encyclopedias, actually): Red, Green, and Yellow Books, with entries related to the Khazars from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish sources and perspectives, respectively.  Then there are two appendices.  So far as I can tell, these are appendices and not incorporated into the entries only because Pavic wanted them to be read after the other entries.  It’s not as though the content of the entries themselves is so overly focused.  The substantial entries are linked stories, for all their trappings as scholarly entries.  There are also two slightly different versions of the book: a “Male Edition,” and a “Female Edition,” differing by one paragraph.

I read the book like so: first, the preliminary notes.  Then I read the four entries included in each of the three books, which seemed fairly introductory to me.  Then I started following links in those entries to other entries, which led to a more or less chronological reading, with a few exceptions: from entries on the historical Khazars of the 7th-10th centuries and their conversions to other religions, to entries on the three characters of the 17th century linked by their dreams and the creation of the destroyed first edition of the Dictionary of the Khazars, to entries on the 20th-century characters studying the history of the Khazars in one way or another.  I read the first appendix after it was linked in the text, somewhere in the middle; I read the second appendix and closing author’s note at the end, since they were never linked anywhere in the text.

The metafictional apparatus by which the book purports to be a reconstruction and expansion of a lost 17th-century original (of which two copies, one written with some kind of magically poisoned ink, survived) never quite worked for me.  Mostly it just confused me.  It’s certainly a good example of the kinds of bibliographic muddles one can get into in researching old books, and trying to understand the sources of those books; and the idea that the sources of the three books of the different religions need to talk to each other to understand the entire story of the Khazars is also an important one.  But the artifice is never convincing.  The entries are, for the most part, incredibly detailed but also somewhat random: the list of entries is much more novelistic than scholarly or lexicographical.  The gaps in knowledge seem convenient. Partly I think this is an epistemological critique, a way of reconstructing a whole race, a people that have been forgotten precisely through such Western exercises as the compilation of historical sources and archival material.  If that’s the case, I don’t think it’s entirely successful.  Somehow it just seems messy.

Part of my problem with the book, I suspect, is also with the often baffling language.  Is this a translation problem, a problem of my lack of knowledge, or a problem of my method of reading — if I’d read the book in another order, would I have caught the meaning behind some of these perplexing metaphors and constructions?  Indeed, in many cases there is a connection to another entry or a recurring character, but not in nearly all cases. Just for three instances chosen at random from many, if someone can fill me in on what might be meant by “She always thought she had three Fridays until dinnertime” or “‘Do you know how many mouth holes the Jews have?’ his mother asked that day as he ate” or “…Cohen had swallowed a soaring bird with his left eye,” I’d appreciate it.  Few of these weird folkloric metaphors and surrealistic intrusions into fictive reality struck a chord with me; mostly they were just frustrating.  (Though at least in the case of Dr. Suk’s entry it seems possible that all or most of the events are taking place within a dream, which lends the tone and language some credence.  By and large, the dreams in the book are more lucid and straightforward than the supposed reality.  Perhaps I’m looking at the book with two eyes when I should be looking with one, as Pavic would have it.)

Melville Patches His Jacket

August 6, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: White-Jacket, by Herman Melville.

It’s tough to read White-Jacket on its own terms, and not as The Book Before Moby-Dick.  Too much fun, for instance, to see how Melville’s approach to designing his narrative and combining his mini-essays, reminiscences, fictional events, and factual chapters into a cohesive whole changed from this book to his masterpiece.

Moby-Dick is, obviously, much more successful at this, but the earlier book is different in interesting ways.  W-J does not begin with a compelling narrative like the adventures of Ishmael and Queequeg, propelling the reader into the more various and philosophical chapters of the book’s middle; instead, it begins with a mildly humorous description of the eponymous white jacket, made of patches and scraps of fabric.  To the reader accustomed to Melville, the chapter and the device of the jacket are irresistible as a metafiction, a metaphor for the entire work, for his style in general: the patchwork, uncanny (“white as a shroud”), self-made, absorbent jacket is a fine symbol of Melville’s work.  Besides which, that whiteness: already creeping into (or back into, if such a coat actually existed) Melville’s mind, the pariah, mysterious whiteness.

(Also, as in M-D, the beginning of the narrative is not actually the beginning of the book.  Here, there’s a preface (in the English edition) or note (in the American) in which Melville states that he’s used his own “man-of-war experiences and observations” in the book.  Unlike the extravagant legend-building in the paratextual opening of M-D, here there’s an avowal of basis in fact and truth, in real life.  Melville still not over the sting of Mardi‘s dismissal, not yet ready to write another giant piece of fiction.)

After this opening, W-J slips into the kind of observations of nautical life loosely joined to a fictional framework which occupy much of M-D‘s middle — but without doing much of the work of helping us identify with the narrator or the other characters on the ship.  The observations are engaging enough, but the reader is left with a lot of unanswered, nagging questions about the narrator, and about how to read the book (interestingly, the preface in the English edition encourages the reader to read the book as fact-based fiction, while the American-edition note makes it seem a work of biography).

And yet the voice into which Melville is growing — has grown, it seems, by this point in his career — compels.  There’s a great section from chapters 16 to 19, including a furious chapter, full of complex, fascinating rhetoric,  about the injustice of war and worthless preparations for war; an ironic, contrapuntal chapter about the desperate attempts to save anyone fallen overboard on a man-of-war; a smooth segue into a beautiful statement of the man-of-war “full as a Nut,” a kind of floating city or world; and a gorgeous chapter, containing a premonition of the Icarus theme in M-D and a paean to sailors, who “expatriate ourselves to nationalize with the universe.”

Melville said he wrote Redburn and White-Jacket for the money, plain and simple; it’s a gross simplification, of course, because the man was full of interesting thoughts and interesting words, and got himself invested in whatever he was working on.  And yet (even a fraction of the way in, as I am into W-J) the difference is plainly there, between these works and M-D, or even between these and Mardi or Pierre.  To my own surprise, I find the difference is not so much one of sincerity, or deeper thinking, or even of finding a theme worthy of his best work.  No: the difference is one of artifice.  Melville was at his most rigorously artificial, his most fantastical and fictional, when he cared most, when he felt he was playing for artistic and aesthetic keeps.  For Melville, plain speaking could only lead to superficial understanding.

The Decadent Book, or the Book of the Decade?

July 14, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

I will get into the specifics of what this very strange book might be about and how it might work soon, but first I can’t resist talking about the book itself: its physical form, its extravagant typography and layout, and the experience of reading it.  And in fact, as in all books, but especially in this strange one, that experience is a very large part of its subject and function.

Only Revolutions is a Choose Your Own Adventure: there is no set way of reading it.  Although there is a publisher-recommended way, the reader has to make many choices based simply on the book’s unusual presentation.  There are two title pages, one for the “story” by Sam, the other for Hailey.  The Sam-story and the Hailey-story start from opposite ends and meet in the middle, then go back the other way: the story you’re not reading is always upside-down on the page.  From the jacket flap: “The publisher suggests alternating between Sam and Hailey, reading eight pages at a time.”  They rather strongly suggest that — or, I suspect, Danielewski does — by introducing every ninth page with a large initial letter, intimating a break at the end of the previous page.  (And yes, I’ve followed this suggestion.)  But of course, you can start from either end.  And you can certainly disregard the advice and read all the way through one story, then all the way through the other.

But further, there is also more than one section of text on every page: there’s a main body of varying size and layout which looks suspiciously like verse, but always mostly right-justified on versos and left-justified on rectos.  In the gutter of each page is a sidebar, in small (different) font: a chronology of real-life national and world events, from 1863 to 2005.  (There are also empty sidebars up to 2063.)  These sidebar snapshots can be rather cryptic, given the space restraints and the author’s stylistic preferences: a typical line from World War II reads “6 German saboteurs go” (go being a multivalent word in the book, but very often meaning die).  Many are even less descriptive: a simple number, the meaning of which is only revealed (or not) after later repetitions.  (I hate to do this to someone as cool as Danielewski obviously is, but the device is reminiscent of nothing so much as the wildly popular but, in retrospect, horribly embarrassing Billy Joel boomer anthem “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”)

You can choose to read these and attempt to decipher them or just skim for a sense of time and zeitgeist or utterly ignore them as annoying contrivance, simply acknowledging their perceived use in the book.  But if you do pay attention to them, you can also choose what kind of meaning you wish to assign to them: are they summarizing events contemporaneous with the personal events in the main body of text?  Are they only a kind of symbolic anchoring of the themes of the text in the history of the “real” world?  What is the purpose of the bizarre but rigorously uniform phrasing and syntax and style evident in the sidebars — a cipher or code, or (dare I dream?) a kind of Oulipian game, or merely a sort of literary ticker-tape, or what?

But wait!  There’s more!  The letter “o” and the number zero always appear in green ink in Sam’s narrative, gold in Hailey’s.  The page numbers — two for each page, one for each narrative — appear on the side of the page, in two circles within a larger circle; the numbers rotate 360 degrees around each other through the course of the book.  The sidebar dates appear in a kind of deep magenta.  And the word “creep” (and character The Creep) also appears in a kind of reddish-purple (which may or may not be the same as the date-magenta — I really can’t tell if there’s a difference, because of the different sizes and fonts).  Also, characters’ names (and some important objects) besides Sam and Hailey appear in small caps.  Names of animals in Sam’s narrative, and plants in Hailey’s, appear in boldface (gray boldface in the second half).

Beyond all that, the book features across its boards a gorgeous photographic collage of plants and animals in green and gold and earth-tones, and on its two dust jacket covers extreme close-ups of a green-flecked gold iris and a gold-flecked green iris.  Plus two slightly different jacket blurbs — one for Sam, one for Hailey.  Also, gold and green ribbons, for keeping your place.  And a “concordance” of many overlapping circles of words on both sets of endpapers, to be read in a mirror.

If you’ve read his first book, House of Leaves (a book I utterly adore, and a real candidate for my favorite book of the decade), this is not exactly a surprise — but Jesus, what a load of paratext!  It is tempting to read it as a conceptual poem: more like Kenneth Goldsmith‘s work than Joyce’s, even though Finnegan’s Wake is what first springs to mind as a comparison, in that its existing is as much or more the point as anything it actually says.

That’s an overstatement, because documentation of the process is certainly not the end point of Z’s work, but it leads me to one of the things I find so interesting about the book’s format.  This is a book, published in 2006, and very much about cosmic themes of birth and death and renewal and obsolescence, which is also very much about being a book published in 2006, about what a book might be.  I don’t know how much Z actually thought about the book’s publication/marketing during its composition — while I think writers don’t much like thinking about publishing, I think Z is perforce an exception — but I think the folks at Pantheon/Random House must’ve thought of the book as a way to make “the book” hip again.  I think they had to think of it as futuristic/avant-garde/cutting-edge, for promotional purposes.  And perhaps it is; it certainly would’ve been utterly impossible to commercially produce 20-30 years ago.  But it also strikes me as, possibly, a kind of death-knell: a really remarkable piece of decadent bookmaking, an example of digital typography and layout and contemporary cheap-but-flashy binding run amok, the kind of thing that gets designed and pushed by a really very respectable publisher and nominated for the National Book Award when “the book” is going through a massive identity crisis.

In some ways the book is very book-specific, in that the look of it and the rotation of the book 360 degrees to read the other narrative and the thematic import of its typography and layout are meant to be quite profoundly part of the book’s meaning — its “content.”  In other ways it’s very hypertextual: one of those works moving past the book, which only feels constrained when it’s moved from a screen where it can more fully interact with a reader or “user” to a page.

None of which I mean to detract from the work itself, which is really quite remarkable in many respects.  It just strikes me, when I look at it on the table, and when I hold it in my hand, and when I read its overflowing pages, as being simultaneously a very exciting and very sad thing.  And even though I’ve just spilled a lot of language about it, I’m still not sure I’ve quite captured why that is.

Casts of Characters

December 12, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens and Other Electricities by Ander Monson.

It’s all story, these two very different books agree.  From the perspective of someone even vaguely acquainted with literary history and criticism, these books seem wildly dissimilar and even oppositional: Victorian v. American postmodern, social realist v. belletristic, representational v. poststructuralist.  But to a 13th- or 30th-century person, they could seem very much the same: pretty lies with title pages, single authors, plots and pictures and casts of characters, all in the service of story.

It’s all story in different ways to Dickens and Monson, to be sure.  When I say “it’s all story” to Dickens, I mean that Dickens was a one-man storytelling industry, a factory, a marvelous machine that could create characters and plots and scenes seemingly out of anything.  And I guess that story, narrative,  seemed to him the way that life worked, the way to make sense of things, the way to get things done: see an injustice, write a story that would show people why and how the situation could be unjust to a person they might know, might love, and sometimes (at his best) even why and how the evil behind the injustice might be examined and understood.

Whereas Monson’s “it’s all story” is a little more about calling attention to the structure of the lenses through which we see the world.  To Monson, a conversation is a story; a list is a story; a table of contents is a story; a news report is a story; a diagram is a story; a memory is a story.  Another word for “story” is “fiction,” and another word for “fiction” is “construct.”  Reality is a mosaic of a trillion fictions.  Etc etc; if you were an English major (or minor or whatever) you don’t need to hear this all again.  (It is interesting, really, if only you can separate the idea from the way so many profs are so obnoxious and smug about it, and are so certain that it’s the only way of “reading” the “world.”  I digress.)

Maybe you know that I love those appurtenances of literature known in academic circles as “paratexts,” those pieces of supposed non-story which are nevertheless central to how we read books, to our understanding of how books work and what they are.  As it happens, both of these dissimilar books are pretty heavily paratextual.  Other Electricities in its first (only, so far) edition contains, by my count, 37 pages of paratextual material in a book of only 169 total pages.  (Plus one of these paratextual pages contains a web address where there’s even more.)

And Dickens editions, in this day and age, are crazy with the paratexts; so many students in need of so much help.  This Penguin Classics edition I’m using (God bless ’em; where would the world be without Penguin Classics?) contains a one-page bio of Dickens, an expanded 4-page bio, a 16-page critical introduction, a note on the text, a short bibliography for further reading, a reproduction of the first-edition title page, a reproduction of the original dedication page, three prefaces to different editions (all by Dickens, all reworking similar material in slightly different ways and responding to slightly different grievances Dickens perceived or wanted to cut off at the pass), a detailed table of contents, a cast of characters, and at the end a postscript, two appendices, and explanatory notes.  Good God!  (Not to mention that Dickens does not exactly dive head-first into his narrative once you actually get to the text of the actual novel; Dickens was a throat-clearing sort of writer, it seems to me, and would often write his way into the narrative and into the characters’ lives with little mini-narratives: here, there’s a seven-page satirical genealogical history and a three-page description, almost a prose poem, of an early-winter wind before we meet any characters, Dickens seeming to just enjoy playing around with language, casting a kind of linguistic spell on himself as much as us.)

One of the things I find most interesting about paratexts is their aura of mystery, when you think about them: I mean, who writes this stuff?  And why do so many books look so alike, when you think about it: half-title, title, copyright, t.o.c., etc., etc.?  Am I the only one who’s interested in whether an author writes his own dust-jacket copy and bio?  Does anyone else hate it when there’s no info in a book on the book’s designers or illustrators or cover art?

I digress again (big time).  So both of these books contain long, complicated casts of characters.  In the case of Dickens, I’m not sure when this feature was first introduced, and whether it’s an addition to the text by Dickens for some edition during his life or was included once the book was mainly read in classrooms; however, the short notes certainly have a Dickensian flavor to them.  Characters are “weazen-faced,” “unpretentious but high-souled,” “starched and punctilious.”  It’s oddly ordered, in that there’s an alphabetical list followed by another, shorter alphabetical list, presumably of secondary characters.  Reading the cast gives us some sense of the kind of book we’re in for, and does form a narrative in that sense (although the notes are not revealing of plot, only of character), but I’m sure it’s actually supposed to be most useful for revisiting the work when writing a paper, or when you’ve gotten two characters confused.  A handy checklist, in other words.

In Monson, “A Helpful Guide to the Characters and Their Relationship to Danger, and an Explanation of Some Symbols Commonly Found Herein” is a story itself.  It tells, in a different form, the story we’re about to read, and other stories, too.  Probably my favorite entry in the cast is this:

JOSH: jumps off a cliff into the cold water & the dark below, the snow circling around him & falling on his body; compares himself to Jesus; drives his dad’s car without permission; might cease to exist at any moment; minor character who is barely worth consideration

I mean, that’s just brilliant.  It’s a heartbreaking very short story: that last clause made me give one of those surprised huffs of air that sound like a laugh but are often quite sad.  It’s also a great comment on all those untold stories: all the “minor characters” with major meaning, at least to themselves.  Minor characters in life can have Jesus complexes, too.  And Monson’s “Helpful Guide” shows us that a supposedly objective and non-fictional structure like a list of characters can be — is, in fact, in Dickens as much as Monson — a story we tell, a skewed view on the world and its people.

The Sportscaster in American Literature

November 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: End Zone, by Don DeLillo.

I’m reading this book in a weird little mass-market paperback edition published by Pocket Books in, apparently, 1973.  (The book was published in 1972.)  I picked it up for 50 cents at the Newberry Library Book Fair a couple of years ago, just because it was so damn weird.  Like an artifact from some parallel universe where Don DeLillo books are the kinds of books sold in supermarkets and newspaper kiosks. Judging by the list of Pocket Books’ other publications at the end of the text here, there’s a name for this parallel universe: the 1970s.  They also published Donald Barthelme and Bernard Malamud, $1.95-$2.25 each.  For such a supposedly philistine decade, they were sure doing a helluva lot better than us at making literature available to people.  My copy bears the stamp of a place called “Paperback Exchange” in Reno, Nevada — “We Sell — We Trade.”

Anyway, here’s a shot of the cover (from LibraryThing):

Since this post is basically one big digression, let me also say that the dust jacket of the first edition is one of my all-time favorites; it’s just absolutely gorgeous and simple (also from LibraryThing):

Anyway. I can’t resist sharing the copy on the back cover on the Pocket paperback.  Books’ promotional copy fascinates me — in terms of who writes it and how it gets written, and in its status as a kind of “paratext” — and this is a great example of fairly mysterious, utterly cryptic, and wildly, misleadingly incorrect copy, although not in the way you might expect:


There is a small college somewhere in America where such questions have answers.  There young men gather to study the secrets of the universe; to refine their sexual techniques; to meditate on human folly — and to play hard, belting football.  And there, they learn that God himself is waiting for the outcome of the season.

So, I’m only about halfway through this short book, but I feel safe in saying that, hilarious as this is, it’s not a faithful description of what is actually going on in this book.  The illustration is actually much better for that, tying in as it does the themes of nuclear war, big Texas sky, and, well, football.  (It also makes Myna Corbett thin and pretty where she’s described as kind of fat and ugly; but at least the dress is the right color.)

Also can’t resist quoting this blurb from Nelson Algren, of all people: “If you dug Jack Nicholson’s role in Five Easy Pieces or the fables of Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo is your man.”  Uh, sure, whatever you say, Nelson.  You’re a hip, hip, hip dude.

All of which is a long way around to saying that I still love the specificity and tactility of holding and using a specific copy of a printing of an edition of a book.  It’s somehow thrilling that this book, thin spine broken, hinges wobbly, made its way to a used bookstore in Reno, was dumped at a book sale in Chicago, and now finds itself in North Carolina, useful all around the country across a span of 35 years.

Anyway, a couple of notes before I dive into the actual text in my next post.  Turns out this book was surely some kind of influence on DFW.  I need to reserve judgment on the deeper levels of influence for now, but there are some easy referents and allusions that DFW includes in Infinite Jest.  Beyond the whole nuclear-war-and-sport connection, there’s a player named Onan and a coach named Hauptfuhrer (I maddeningly can’t find it now, although I’m certain there are a few references to a person named Hauptfuhrer in IJ, too.  Or perhaps someone just calls Schtitt hauptfuhrer?)  And then there’s the sportscaster-in-training.  Jim Troeltsch, meet your spiritual father, Raymond Toon: “…Raymond practiced his sportscasting in the room all weekend.  When he wasn’t studying theories of economic valuation, he was camped in front of his portable TV set.  He’d switch it on, turn the sound down to nothing, and describe the action.”

This is the third book this year that’s included this subplot.  There was Ché, in Vineland, admiring Brent Musberger and always framing and commenting upon her life; there was Troeltsch; and now there’s Toon, who narrates a football game he’s ostensibly involved in, as a reserve, from the sidelines, “talking into his fist.”  Troeltsch is a culmination of sorts here, in that we get a sense of the verisimilitude of his practice-sportscasting and thereby a sense of how deeply imbedded and influential event-narrators like TV sportscasters are to us, the Viewing Public.

Like a lot of kids, I suspect, I used to act out sporting events by myself and would call the play-by-play in a kind of half-whisper, half-shout, so I could be heard over the deafening crowd in my head.  (For me, it was mostly basketball and football.)  In high school, I was the P.A. announcer for the football games during my senior year.  I loved this job.  Sportscasters used to be completely ignored, the white noise of TV, but now everything gets talked about and it’s common to have favorites and nemeses, those in whom you perceive a bias and those you think are simply incompetent, etc.  It’s also common to decry the utter banality and pointlessness and clichè-ridden-drivelness of sportscasting.  And I don’t think that’s wrong, most of the time.  But I do think it’s wrong to imagine that the banality and clichèd, regurgitated phrases serve no purpose and are unintentional.  They’re a comfort.  It was comforting, shooting hoops in my driveway and counting down the seconds, or up in the crow’s nest with a view of the football field, calling out “flag on the play” and “Brauer rumbles for seven yards.”  Of course, it’s only comforting if you don’t think about it too much.  If I stop and think about how I’d soaked up so much televised sports by the time I was seven or eight that it was probably the single most familiar and approachable narrative structure in my life — that I could do an utterly convincing job of narrating my imagined sporting events, just as Troeltsch can with real events in his teens — if I think about it, it’s kind of terrifying.  But we’ll get into that in my next post.

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