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.

Opened Graves, Emptied Coffins

March 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: The Art of Fielding.

SPOILER ALERT: You’ll probably want to skip this post for now if you plan on reading The Art of Fielding anytime soon.

Given that the Bible is the wellspring of 2000 years of Western culture, it’s not surprising that the empty grave, and the resurrected body, should be recurring features in our literature.  Early on in The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach (through his character Mike Schwartz) introduces a lesser-known example from the life of Emerson:

“His first wife died young, of tuberculosis.  Emerson was shattered.  Months later, he went to the cemetery, alone, and dug up her grave.  Opened the coffin and looked inside, at what was left of the woman he loved.  Can you imagine? It must have been terrible.  Just a terrible thing to do.  But the thing is, Emerson had to do it.  He needed to see for himself.  To understand death. To make death real….”

It’s a little surprising, when you start looking, how many of the open graves in our literature do not partake of the Christian joy and hope in resurrection: how many are full instead of terror, disgust, despair, existential questioning, grim humor.  Hamlet, of course.  The premature burials and morbid lovers of Poe.  The countless tales of “resurrection men” in penny dreadfuls, ballads, and sensational stories.

In the coda to this book, Pella (with the help of Owen, Henry, and Mike) digs up her father’s body to bury him at sea, as she believes he would have wanted.  Harbach is referencing a number of the empty graves in American literature with this finale — or at least, it reminded me of them.  Most obviously, there is the coffin of Queequeg in Moby-Dick, rescuing Ishmael from the Pequod’s doom.  The famous last word of that work is “orphan,” and orphans abound in this work: Affenlight’s death leaves Pella orphaned, of course, but Schwartz is also an orphan.  You can argue that Henry is also a kind of orphan in this work, at least spiritually.  His parents are nonentities in his life, objecting to the liberality of his college experience; further, his spiritual father, Aparicio Rodriguez, is present for his public humiliation, leaving him too ashamed to meet his hero.

The two other allusions are more subtle, but I think they are there.  The possibility entered my mind thanks to the seemingly innocuous fact that Westish plays Amherst in the national championship game.  Amherst: hometown of Emily Dickinson, and alma mater of David Foster Wallace.  With this choice of opponent, Harbach introduces connections to both the American Renaissance that forms the background of his work and the contemporary milieu of his work.

Dickinson, of course, is one of the great grapplers with death and the afterlife, testing possibilities and asking questions throughout her poetic career, imagining both death in the grave and life beyond it.  The questioning and constant self-inspection of Dickinson, and her interest in conceptions of an end to same, are reminiscent of Henry’s journey from “thoughtless being” to “thought” to “return to thoughtless being.”  Further, Dickinson is a weighty counterpoint to Emerson and the traditional, male-centered view of American literary history.  Pella objects to the Emerson story that Mike tells, “the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights.”

Infinite Jest also contains (or at least looks forward to) the exhumation of a father: Hal Incandenza’s father James, whose head may contain the antidote to his unstoppably entertaining film.  The allusion points out a number of parallels between Harbach’s book and DFW’s, especially the campus setting, casually precocious students, mysterious drive and stamina of gifted athletes, addictions to pain and painkillers, and battles with depression and stasis.  But the different purposes for grave-robbing in the two novels point out the differences between the authors.  I think, in this scene, that Harbach is referencing Infinite Jest (by way of Moby-Dick, and Hamlet, and Dickinson) to attempt to move beyond the postmodern condition which DFW critiqued and which Affenlight diagnoses earlier in the book, the crippling self-consciousness and “profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action.”  In Owen’s eulogy over the body, he remembers Guert Affenlight’s belief “that a soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.”  He asserts the continuation of Guert’s soul in the people he loved, the works to which he devoted it.  The whole scene feels a little like a “didactic little parable-ish story”  at the close of a tragicomic, linear narrative of liberal-arts education.  But we’ve seen that it’s actually pretty complex, and that it’s about how to be an adult, how to move beyond education: how to choose what to think about.  The orator of the 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech would be proud.

Connecting Mulligan Stew and Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter Is Easier Than You Think!

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.

Conflict (or the Lack Thereof) Through Structure

July 12, 2010 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.

Reading next: Mulligan Stew, by Gilbert Sorrentino.

I finished it a couple of days ago, but my mind’s still not entirely made up about Cloud Atlas.  Part of me thinks it’s an absolute masterpiece, one of the best pieces of literature in recent years.  Another, smaller part keeps trying to tamp down that enthusiasm, pointing to the sometimes pedestrian prose, the wooden or slightly stilted language occasionally on display (especially in “Half-Lives” and “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” which also happen to be the sections in which it’s easiest to call these faults intentional), the strange irritation I sometimes feel in the company of Mitchell, and the niggling sense that nothing truly groundbreaking is going on here.

All of that seems relatively minor, though, compared to the brilliance on display in much of the book, especially (in my opinion) “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” “An Orison of Sonmi-451,” and “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After.”  These latter two are some of the best science fiction I’ve read in a long time, and also manage to transform the rest of the book into science fiction of a sort, as well.  I wished, while reading it, that “Sloosha’s Crossin'” was its own book, not the novella nestled at the center of another.  But that’s part of the brilliance: it’s at the center because of its interactions with the other five parts of this “sextet,” this musical work in literary form.  The central story is very close to being its own story, but it is not: not quite.  Nothing is ever only its own story.  No one is ever only their own self.  That’s the point.

It was while reading “Sloosha’s Crossin'” in the middle of the book that I started to wonder about how one would go about teaching this book, and about that hoary old classroom discussion on types of conflict.  You know: man vs. man! man vs. nature!  man vs. self!  man vs. society!  That whole bit.  (Here come some SPOILERS, of maybe META-SPOILERS, so look out.)  The book’s structure is clever, and elegant: a fragment of five stories, each fragment being read (or at least experienced) by a character in the next, with the complete text of a sixth (“Sloosha’s Crossin'”) in the middle, followed by the completion of each fragment in reverse order, the completions being found in each preceding story.

Remember those graphs of a novel’s structure that you had to draw in middle- or high school, showing the rising and falling action, the varying degrees of intensity of narrative tension and incident?  Here there could be six lines on the graph, each rising, then flatlining (with an occasional bump) as another story takes over, then picking back up after a trough of varying length.  (I loved drawing those graphs.  If I had a scanner I’d draw one and slap it in here right now.)  But here’s the thing: because these six stories, however compelling on their own, appear in the context of their own reading — some presented as fictional within the fiction itself (or are they?) — these graphical depictions would be rather dishonest, or at least incomplete.  The real plot, the real conflict, lies in their conjunctions.  Not to get all John Barth on you here, but the main “conflicts” are Story vs. Story and Reader vs. Text, at both the level of the plot itself and at the metafictional level.

One of the book’s brilliances, though, is the integration (maybe even subordination) of these postmodern conflicts into the content of the book, and the fact that it’s possible to experience the book not as a battlefield of conflicts at all, but more like the piece of symphonic music it explicitly patterns itself after.  You can read the stories as working together like instruments in an ensemble, to tell a larger story of a tension and landscape (rather than conflict) something like “Humanity Struggles” or “Souls Reemerge,” rather than as conflicting across levels of text and comprehension.  (The symphonic aspect of the work is really beautifully done, not only in the structure, but also at the level of metaphor and motif.)  A passage that clarified this for me appears on p. 169, in the comedic “Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” in which the titular vanity-press publisher vents on his life in books:

Despondency makes one hanker after lives one never led.  Why have you given your life to books, TC?  Dull, dull, dull!  The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction!  Hero goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don’t, will is pitted against will.  “Admire me, for I am a metaphor.”

The passage is, I think, the funniest in the book (that last-sentence punchline kills me, especially if you imagine a British comedian like Ricky Gervais or John Cleese delivering it).  Anyone who deals with pedestrian fiction in bulk (as vanity-press publishers surely do, and as librarians do, as well) has thought something similar.  Mitchell includes it (and the entire “Ghastly Ordeal” tale) not only as comic relief, but for its reflection on the whole business of making narrative, making story, and the desire to transcend those archetypal plot types in some way.

What Mitchell does better than many of the arch-postmodernists have done is use this desire to actually convey a story about not only its own telling, but important matters in the worlds of the plot and the “real world” the plot mimics.  He manages to conclude his book with a two-page message, for God’s sake — a moral, even! — without seeming dishonest, pedantic, maudlin, or hokey.  That’s a real accomplishment: a step forward, thanks be, to the past.

Is Donald Barthelme a Pleasure to Feel Guilty About?

November 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Guilty Pleasures, by Donald Barthelme.

Reading next: Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens.

Don B gets my vote for coolest writer of the century: he’s like the Miles Davis of literature, unassailable in his hipness and his knack for finding the joy in (and audience for) experimentation.  But coolness is not an unalloyed good.  Some prefer warmth, after all.  Or sincerity.  Or finely drawn character.

I love Barthelme, have ever since I first read him in college.  I can’t even hold it against him that he was the New Yorker‘s darling for so long; that’s how much I love him.  I can remember reading “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph” and thinking it was the greatest thing ever.  In this collection, we get “And Now Let’s Hear It for the Ed Sullivan Show!”, which is simply a recitation of the events of an episode.  Proto-TV fiction, in other words.  These TV-episode stories are still delightful examinations of how TV was fun and how it was banal (it’s both fun and banal differently now, 40 years down the road, of course).  I love the staccato incantation in “Ed Sullivan,” the flat judgments of the everymannish narrator, and the weirdnesses of people being on camera that it exposes.  (These, of course, are still weird, for all their seeming less weird to us: we are so used to the mannerisms and rhetoric that TV inflicts on us, now.)

But somehow these are less impressive to me, now, though I certainly see them as crucial for American experimental lit’s development.  I love Don B when he’s in pure play mode, especially: when he’s messing around, creating narratives around his collages of old engravings and illustrations, or compiling lists of real and/or imaginary things (“Games Are the Enemies of Beauty, Truth, and Sleep, Amanda Said” is an absolute classic of this type), or when he’s throwing his narrative and/or argument off the rails (or at least onto a sidetrack) just because it pleases him to do so (like the old-style s confusion in “An Hesitation on the Bank of the Delaware”). Is it weird that this is when he seems most important to me — not when he’s being “topical,” or “satirical”?

Mostly I love his mimicry: his perfect synthesis of tone, form, and vocabulary.  His story “That Cosmopolitan Girl,” an extended parody of an ad for Cosmopolitan magazine, is quite funny at first just for its silly exaggeration of the ad’s own rhythms and mannerisms and utter emptiness.  But it stays funny due to phrases like “pure unshirted hell” and its gonzo plot: when it moves beyond satire into surrealism.  He was a perfect sounding board for his time, was Don B.

There’s guilt to be had in the inconsequentiality of so much of his subject matter, I suppose, but Barthelme always seemed to get in at least one sentence that actually made you consider why he was writing what he was writing, or see why he loved what he was doing.  Sometimes he can seem a little too smooth for his own good — all of those seemingly tossed-off New Yorker pieces must have grated on his less fortunate contemporaries.  But hey, people love Kind of Blue for a reason, too.

The Preoccupied Text

October 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

Reading next: Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.

The most surprising thing about this book isn’t the erotica, or the range of genres and voices employed; that’s always somewhat startling in a 19th-century work, but it’s really par for the course in the Boccaccio-Chaucer-1001 Nights stories-within-stories tradition.  What’s surprising about Potocki’s book, at least to me, is its self-consciousness, its reflexivity, its — dare I say it? — its metafictional tendencies, and its occasional seemingly contemporary sensibilities.

These moments can be hard to track, and may be an effect of translation as much as content.  However, there must be something undeniably modern in a passage like this, from the end of the tenth day, as van Worden is puzzling over the strange way that a story seems to apply to his own situation: “The bell for dinner sounded.  The cabbalist was not at the table.  Everyone seemed preoccupied to me because I was preoccupied myself.”

Everyone seemed preoccupied to me because I was preoccupied myself. Couldn’t that be Fitzgerald, Carver, or even a Dylan lyric?  That anxiety, disaffectedness, alienation?  That projection of inner turmoil onto environment?  They rattled me, those flat, modern sentences, coming as they did after the retelling of a 17th-century religious parable/spook story.  This juxtaposition itself seemed further evidence of a rather jaded, modern sensibility; evidence that the history of literature is much weirder, more tangled, and idiosyncratic than its presentation in survey courses; evidence that seeming historically inevitable, societally molded progressions are often more like cycles of discovery, rediscovery, recycling, affiliations among fellow thinkers.  (Call it the Tristram Shandy hypothesis.)  The passage, and others like it, seemed a window onto the mysterious Potocki: losing himself in his maze of stories and characters, eminently preoccupied, unable to connect with others.  Facing a quandary, perhaps, about the need for entertainment and the need for human contact.

It’s a very flat work, emotionally.  I am uncertain how conscious of this Potocki was, or whether he cared.  Compared to Boccaccio or Chaucer, certainly, Potocki evinces much less concern or compassion for his characters and much more concern for his structure, for the mapping of his narratives and the relationships among the work, the author, and the reader.  There is an ongoing motif in the framing narrative of characters coyly voicing the concerns Potocki feels the reader (and perhaps he himself) has about the direction the book is taking.  Much of this Potocki works rather brilliantly into the romantic subplot between Rebecca/Laura, the caballist’s daugher, and Velasquez the geometer (of whom I’ll write at more length later).  At the end of the 28th day, Velasquez complains that the stories-within-stories that the gypsy chief Pandesowna is telling have become impossible to follow, and, even though he’s hearing rather than reading the stories, he states,

“It is a veritable labyrinth.  I had always thought that novels and other works of that kind should be written in several columns like chronological tables.”

“You are right,” said Rebecca….  “That would no doubt clarify the story.”

After Velasquez clarifies that he wishes the stories would be presented more systematically and logically, Rebecca replies: “Yes, indeed….  Continual surprises don’t keep one’s interest in the story alive.  One can never foresee what will happen subsequently.”  After one more dig, van Worden realizes “that Rebecca was making fun of all of us.”  The author takes the last word here; but at the end of the 35th day, with its four layers of tales, Velasquez the geometer states, “I was right to foresee that the stories of the gypsy would get entangled one with another….  I hope the gypsy will tell us what became of fair Ines.  But if he interpolates yet another story, I’ll fallout with him…  Meanwhile I don’t believe that our storyteller will be coming back this evening.”  He is not refuted.  In these passages, Potocki performs the neat trick of sympathizing with and challenging his readers.  Potocki seems keenly aware of the “level of reader annoyance” (I seem to recall DFW using the phrase, as applied by an editor to himself) for which he is aiming, and which he thinks the interest of the work can withstand.

There are many more examples of these metafictional flourishes; the convenient summoning and dismissal or departure of the Wandering Jew, and the discussion of same, form another fascinatingly self-conscious thread, especially in its play with the supernatural and listeners’ (and readers’) attitude toward it.  But more on that shortly.  Another simple but telling example: the continuation of the gypsy chief’s tale with the phrase “the gypsy, having nothing else to do, continued his story as follows.”  Having nothing else to do.  Does Potocki intend his metafiction and modernism as avant-garde gestures and comments on his society, his self?  Or does he have nothing else to do, and amuse himself by complicating his narrative, even to the point of talking back to himself?  Part of the attraction and the frustration of reading historical works is the difficulty of grasping the mind behind the work — their frame of reference, the culture and society and family and history and canon to which they are responding.  Potocki is clearly and explicitly writing in many traditions here, and responding to them, but it is hard to find the motivations behind those responses.

Casey Back at the Bat

August 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: A Child Again, by Robert Coover.

Reading next: Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser.

Don’t we all find the postmodern retelling of the classic tale a little played out by now?  Aren’t we more or less sick of old stories from new perspectives (as my wife Jaime says, books following the The [insert traditionally male occupation]’s Wife/Maid/Daughter template have truly reached the saturation/nauseatingly trite level), contemporary retellings of “timeless” legends, extensions and expansions of bare-bones myths and folktales?  Or is it just me?  Is this, in fact, Barth’s “literature of exhaustion,” or is it me that’s exhausted?

Actually, though, to be honest, I’m more often exhausted by the idea than I am by the stories themselves.  I like this stuff — I like Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Gardner, all those scavenger-sorcerers digesting and regurgitating literary history.  (Did I just admit to liking literary vomit?  I guess I did.)  Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber might be my favorite example, but there are many, many others.

Coover has seemed exhausted a few times so far in this collection — especially the first story, “Sir John Paper Returns to Honah-Lee,” a little metafiction about Puff the Magic Dragon, which dragged on and on.  But other times he’s been in fine form; enough that I’ll probably have to do a little top-5 recap to cover all the stories I really liked here once I’m done.  I’m surprised that I bought this a few years back, and a little surprised I still wanted to read it: it contains a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, for chrissakes, which I really felt no need to read another version of after reading Angela Carter.  Also a ribald version of Snow White.  I have never said to myself, “Someone needs to write a ribald retelling of Snow White.”

And yet I’m still reading.  The story that kept me reading was “Playing House,” mysterious and wonderful and sinister.  The story that showed me something I didn’t know (or remember) about Coover was “The Return of the Dark Children,” which is a straight-up awesome horror story that happens to also build on the Pied Piper tale.  (This story could easily be a J-Horror blockbuster at a cineplex near you.)  And the story that crystallized for me why I’m still reading is “McDuff on the Mound,” which is “Casey at the Bat” from the pitcher’s point of view.

I value a story like this because it exists to make you think about why it was written, and why you are reading it.  It’s a kind of literary riddle, or postmodern thriller (which there is an actual riddle-story in this collection, too): the suspense builds from all the wrong angles, as you try to guess why it was written, and what the author will do with it.  Instead of absorbing you in the details of the plot, it absorbs you in the mind of the author, and in your own ideas about what literature is for, and why you value it.

In “McDuff on the Mound,” you get strangely sucked into the buildup of Mudville’s bottom of the ninth; McDuff, utterly fatalistic, feels wrapped up in a system beyond his control as two horrible hitters make it on base.  He feels the inevitability of having to face mighty Casey.  Astonishingly, even though you know exactly how the story has ended, you realize that you do not know that that is how Coover will choose to end it here; every retelling is an opportunity to rewrite, to find the recessive genes that were hidden within the DNA of the story.  (Incidentally, this is perhaps the most incredible thing about Inglourious Basterds, which I just saw last week.  Do you anticipate the audacity of rewriting history — of showing a revision of the world, in all its gory detail?  I found myself flabbergasted at the scene in the theater — still do, actually.)

Or not; it may be that the story exists to more fully map the story’s DNA, but not to change its ultimate expression.  And this is the true subject of these retellings: you and the author, thinking about why stories work the way they do, and what you want out of them.

Me, I suspect Coover began this story with (or perhaps wrote this story as an excuse to include) this kick-ass exegesis of the name Casey; certainly the slapstick passages earlier in the story feel like padding compared to the energy and enthusiasm in this paragraph:

And Casey: who was Casey?  A Hero, to be sure.  A Giant.  A figure of grace and power, yes, but wasn’t he more than that?  He was tall and mighty (omnipotent, some claimed, though perhaps, like all fans, they’d got a bit carried away), with a great mustache and a merry knowing twinkle in his eye.  Was he, as had been suggested, the One True Thing?  McDuff shook to watch him.  He was ageless, older than Mudville certainly, though Mudville claimed him as their own.  Some believed that “Casey” was a transliteration of the initials “K.C.” and stood for King Christ.  Others, of a similar but simpler school, opted for King Corn, while another group believed it to be a barbarism for Krishna.  Some, rightly observing that “case” meant “event,” pursued this meaning back to its primitive root, “to fall,” and thus saw in Casey (for a case was also a container) the whole history and condition of man, a history perhaps as yet incomplete.  On the other hand, a case was also an oddity, was it not, and a medical patient, and maybe, said some, mighty Casey was the sickest of them all.  Yet a case was an example, cried others, plight, the actual state of things, while a good many thought all such mystification was so much crap, and Casey was simply a good ballplayer….

So what do you think, with that setup in mind?  Knowing what you know (or don’t know) about Robert Coover, what’s he do with this story?  What do you want him to do?

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.

Yes, I’m Paranoid — But Am I Paranoid Enough?

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.

Shakespeare, Owen Hart, Zeitgeist

February 25, 2008 § Leave a comment

Finished last Saturday: Bear v. Shark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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