Points of Light

April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Half an hour later everything in the room with the falcon had been turned upside down.  A trunk stood on the floor, its padded inner lid wide open.  Elena, looking drawn and serious, wrinkles at the corners of her mouth, was silently packing the trunk with shirts, underclothes and towels.  Kneeling down, Talberg was fumbling with his keys at the bottom drawer of the chest-of-drawers.  Soon the room had the desolate look that comes from the chaos of packing up to go away and, worse, from removing the shade from the lamp.  Never, never take the shade off a lamp.  A lampshade is something sacred.  Scuttle away like a rat from danger and into the unknown.  Read or doze beside your lampshade; let the storm howl outside and wait until they come for you.

That’s early on in The White Guard, before things get really bad, but it’s one of those knockout passages that Bulgakov uncorks every now and then, topping it off with one of his enigmatic, double-edged epigrams.  I was startled to realize, as I kept reading, that it was a very important passage.  Light — lamps — especially electric lights — kept popping up.  More than a motif, a kind of presence.  A metaphor, a character.  The Lights of Kiev.

Monument of St. Vladimir, Kiev, 2008. From lights2008 flickr photostream.

Light bulbs, candles, wood-burning stoves, and electric street lights fight a kind of shadow-war in the novel.  It’s a book, famously, about the irrevocable loss of a certain kind of world, a kind of system of being, to another, new system: the tsarists giving way to the socialists, the Ukrainian nationalists, inevitably the Bolsheviks, amid the swirling confusion of a World War.  And there are these lights, everywhere: these bulbs being turned on and off, and Bulgakov taking the time to mention these things, associate them with certain kinds of actions, certain ways of being.

Wires “snake” from outlets to lamps.  As our young cadet-officer, Nikolka Turbin, struggles to make his way home through the war-ravaged city, “the electric street lamp on the corner was turned on and began to burn with a very faint hiss.”  In a marvelous, grotesque chapter, the syphilitic avant-gardist Rusakov shows his compatriot how to “thrust [his] way upwards to the top” by “Clasping the lamppost” and “wind[ing] his way up it” like a “grass-snake.”

You see what I’m getting at here, though I’m really only scratching the surface (and only highlighting one aspect of the representations of light in the novel).  We’re not so far from The Master and Margarita after all.  I am astonished to find myself believing that Bulgakov’s marvelous encoding of the giant all-seeing eye of Stalin as the sun in that novel did not begin there; no, he built that image out of its beginnings in The White Guard, where light bulbs, especially the unshaded ones, are Satanic.  They change night to day.  The little light bulbs here, at the beginnings of the Soviet Union’s formation, represent the beginnings of the spy-state.  Eventually, adding all of the light bulbs together leads to a spy apparatus the size and scope of the sun: overwhelming, nearly inescapable.   A lampshade is sacred because it represents the individual’s freedom from oppression by the spy-state.  Maybe this is all common knowledge, but it was a revelation to me.

Bulgakov also uses light bulbs as part of a broader thread of images of machinery and technology: field telephones also function as a sort of character.  Things are anthropomorphized (guns, the Turbins’ tiled stove), and people become things (clocks, especially).  But the focus on electric light made me realize how Bulgakov prefigured later use of the bulb as an important symbol, motif, and character.  Two legendary American examples:

-The prologue of Invisible Man: the 1,369 lights in the invisible man’s “hole in the basement,” the electricity stolen from the grid of Monopolated Light & Power “for taking so much of my money before I learned to protect myself,” and to allow him to feel his “vital aliveness.”

Jeff Wall, <i>After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the Preface</i>, 1999-2001

-“The Story of Byron the Bulb,” in Gravity’s Rainbow. As with everything in the book, it’s dense, clotted with meaning, both perverse and hilarious.  The story of an immortal bulb, and the “international light-bulb cartel” that monitors his activities.  Surveillance.  Power.  The individual against the oppressive state.  It’s all happening again…

The Top Ten Goofs of Inherent Vice

June 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Inherent Vice.

Continuing the tradition I founded in a post on Vineland, to which IV is nearly a prequel — stylistically, thematically, in place and character, they are of a piece — I give you my ten favorite Pynchonian jokes, riffs, and goofs in this book.  Once again, feel free to print out and take to the library to enjoy in air-conditioned splendor.  In paginated order:

-Wouldn’t be a Pynchon book without at least one ridiculous TV-commercial setup: here, it’s Bigfoot Bjornsen, an LAPD cop of ambiguous motivations and allegiances, who “moonlight[s] after a busy day of civil-rights violation” in commercials in an Afro wig and cape with a ” relentless terror squad of small children,” with whom he’s worked up a W.C. Fields routine.  p. 9-10.

-Doc’s conversation with his lawyer, Sauncho Smilax, p. 28: a laugh-out-loud drug-addled discussion of Donald Duck’s whisker-stubble that’s downright Tarantinoesque. (He has a hilarious riff on Charlie the Tuna on p. 119, as well.)

-St. Flip of Lawndale, “for whom Jesus Christ was not only personal savior but surfing consultant as well,” and the conversation at surfer-breakfast joint Wavos about the lost island of Lemuria on p. 99-102.  I especially like “GNASH, the Global Network of Anecdotal Surfer Horseshit.”

-The counterfeit U.S. currency featuring the face of a tripping Richard Nixon, p. 117 and following.

-Doc and Denis’s trip to the house of the surf-rock band the Boards, p. 124-136, chock-full of crazy details and tidbits, including a fun discussion of the difference between American and English zombies.

-“Soul Gidget,” by black surf band Meatball Flag, p. 155.  Enough said.  Some band needs to cover this, already. Pynchon’s really on top of his game with the music in this book.  (The country song “Full Moon in Pisces” on p. 241-42 is also great.)

-Pynchon’s one of the great scene-setters in American literature.  My favorite example here is probably on p. 236, his gorgeous description of the decrepit Kismet casino from bygone Vegas.  Also excellent: the amazing global-warming-inspired paragraph on p. 98.

-The motel for “Toobfreex” on p. 253-54, with its incredible amount of early cable programming thanks to “time-zone issues.”

-Doc’s dialogue is frequently priceless, and it may be mere speculation, but it does seem like Pynchon enjoyed The Big Lebowski — or maybe both works just capture that stoner cadence and vocabulary perfectly.  Innumerable one-liners and PI quips to choose from.  One of my favorites on p. 313: “You know how some people say they have a ‘gut feeling’?  Well, Shasta Fay, what I have is dick feelings, and my dick feeling sez —”

-Doc’s parents getting hooked on dope and getting freaked out by Another World, p. 352-53.

Back Down the Toilet of History with Pynchon

June 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon.

Reading next: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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:

IS GOD A FOOTBALL FAN?

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.

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.

The Bifurcation of the Parabola

October 12, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

A couple of links, first, to pieces you’ve probably already read but that I’ve just been enjoying, both courtesy the Howling Fantods “IJ Theses” page.  One is this excellent examination of DFW’s first draft by Steven Moore, a friend of his during his Illinois years.  What it really does is makes me want to see the first draft for myself, but Moore’s notes are nevertheless immensely interesting.

The other is Chris Hager’s undergraduate thesis on IJ, which is embarrassing, given the general quality of my undergrad papers.  I found especially interesting the section on the structure of IJ (it’s the section that starts with the quote about the difference between art and drugs).  Hager posits that the book forms a parabola, a la Gravity’s Rainbow, with the book swooping down into narrative and then slowly coming back up to take us out of the book.  Furthermore, the brutal broomstick-impaling of Lucien Antitoi at the book’s (more or less exact) halfway point bisects the parabola.

The Antitoi murder is a remarkable piece of writing in a number of ways.  It certainly does appear to be a kind of exceptional passage in the book, both in its position and in its execution.  We get to the Antitoi Entertainment shop by following Gately on one of his joyrides in Pat Montesian’s Aventura (which is very black, very fast, and very sleek, and seems a direct allusion to the Imipolex G Schwarzgerät — “black device” — in GR).  What’s remarkable here is how we leave Gately, midsentence, post-semicolon: “and one piece of the debris Gately’s raised and set spinning behind him, a thick flattened M.F. cup, caught by a sudden gust as it falls, twirling, is caught at some aerodyne’s angle and blown spinning all the way to the storefront of one ‘Antitoi Entertainment’…”  And suddenly we’re learning about the Antitoi brothers.  That’s a cinematic segue rather unlike anything else in the book, and a very unusual move by this narrator, if the book can be said to have one consistent narrator.

So the wheelchair assassins come for the tape of Infinite Jest which the Antitois have unwittingly stumbled upon, and Lucien is impaled.  (We learn via footnote that “To hear the squeak” is “the very darkest of contemporary Canada’s euphemisms for sudden and violent de-mapping,” thanks to the squeaks of the assassins’ wheelchairs.  Incidentally, just a couple of pages later, we get the awful story of James I. and his father trying to fix a squeak in a bed, the father keeling over in his own vomit, perhaps dead — the parabola has started its ascent.)  And but so after the horrible murder takes place — and it is horrible — we are told that Lucien “sees snow on the round hills of his native Gaspé, pretty curls of smoke from chimneys, his mother’s linen apron…”  And that when he finally dies, impaled, he “sheds his body’s suit” and escapes, whole, and soars north, toward home.

Remarkable.  The pole at the center of this book is death and a rather startling, unexpected declaration of rebirth.  It is awful and disgusting and horribly symbolic (impaled on a broomstick, like the O.N.A.N. of the book, created by an obsession with cleanliness), and then, suddenly, beautiful, lovely, sincere.  Lucien is an innocent, very like Mario, and DFW seems to have nothing but affection for both of these characters.  (There’s a telling passage on p. 517 in which Mario’s sympathetic view of Charles Tavis is contrasted with Hal’s view, which tends to focus on Tavis’s effect on him, Hal.)  In the escape of Lucien from his agonizing death, there’s this sense of the undoing of the horror of Gravity’s Rainbow: no longer strapped into a horrible body-suit plunging toward death, but “shed” of it, hurtling home, out of death.  It’s an escape, or an attempted escape, from the irony and stricture and coldness of metafiction, through metafiction.  There’s something remarkable, too, in the way Lucien’s spirit is “catapulted,” like the trash of the U.S., and in the way it “sound[s] a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues.”  I am not sure I know what this means, I am not sure why the call is “nearly maternal.”  Gorgeous phrase, though.

In a lot of ways, this is as much of an ending and beginning as the book has.  For, although it’s a bifurcated parabola, the book must also be annular, a ring, a circle.  The book dances around its center — what happens to Hal, what happens to Gately.  Those two are the head and heart, respectively, of the work.  (I’m noticing on this reading just how many of the footnotes occur in Hal’s sections.  It’s disproportionate, let’s put it that way.  Can’t stop thinking, that Hal.)

Going SACPOP

October 4, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

Here’s a deep thought: IJ is not a perfect book.  While I doubt DFW would have described it as a piece of speculative fiction without prompting, it nevertheless is that, among many other things: it posits a future, it speculates on what might be in store.  Its main action is probably set right about now, or maybe a few more years down the road, if you want to get specific about it (which really is beside the point).  And as a speculation on technology, it’s not actually very good.

12 (12!) years down the road, it’s easy to see how many anachronisms the book contains.  All of these “cartridges,” CD-ROMs, even the now utterly obsolete 3″ floppies which were becoming obsolete even as the book was published: these are superficial anachronisms, but nevertheless jarring in realizing how we live in the future now: we’ve outstripped expectations for our technological dependence, and also changed the nature of our addiction to “entertainment” in interesting and unforeseeable ways.  I’m thinking here YouTube, FaceBook, Twitter, the already-kind-of-obsolete personal blog, the whole constellation of 2.0 “infotainment” and exhibitionism that an awful lot of people use the Internet for, and which is more or less absent from IJ’s Subsidized Time of the future: people are still watching movies, TV, playing CD-ROM games.  (Of course we in the now still do those things, and still will; point is we do an awful lot more, as well, without really decreasing our consumption of any of the other entertainments we were already abusing.)  I’m guessing DFW wrote much of IJ in the early ’90s, perhaps even late ’80s.  It was probably impossible to anticipate how much the Internet would change things.

The best section on technology in the book is the classic videophone discussion.  It’s brilliant on “a certain queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the microeconomics of consumer high-tech.”  To recap, it explains that videophones went through a vogue when first introduced, but people realized they couldn’t do all the distracted, self-involved things they do when talking on the phone if they’re on a videophone.  So products were developed to help them use these expensive devices without actually using them: filters, fake backdrops and masks and “Transmittable Tableaus” that let the videophoners show whatever “heavily doctored” image of themselves they want to present, until this fad too faded and people just pretty much went back to using audio-only phones and all their paraphernalia for transmitting doctored images of themselves were thrown away or gathered dust, except among the gauche or lower-class who still use them.  (It’s much better to read it yourself: p. 144-51.)  What’s ingenious about this, I think, is the way it highlights (wittily and succinctly, I might add) the issues of power and control at the heart of most communications-based technology.  What interactive “Web 2.0” sites focused on personal interaction and communication (including, of course, this here personal blog) allow you to do is construct a “heavily doctored” image of yourself, a view of yourself to present to the world without really presenting yourself to the world, in, you know, synchronous, face-to-face, interpersonal interaction.  A dance of veils, more or less.  The technology itself is not inherently narcissistic, which seems to be a fallacy many of us fall into.  That just happens to be how it’s been applied.  (This isn’t just 2.0 stuff, of course: you can make the same argument about e-mail.)

The worst section on technology in the book is the game of Eschaton.  I may have dreamed this, and I’m too lazy to look it up now, but I seem to remember DFW saying in some interview that Eschaton was a relic, kind of a self-contained short story, one of the earliest things he wrote that ended up in the book.  That’s how it feels, now: honest to God, he has Otis P. Lord running around on the tennis courts with a “color monitor” laptop hooked up to a more powerful computer by a giant extension cord and 200-something 3″ floppies to process the complicated computations required by Eschaton.  It’s like WarGames, for Chrissake.  Someone get the Lord a wireless connection, a battery, and a laptop built after 1995.

Despite all that: how I do love the Eschaton.  It’s hilarious slapstick, it’s philosophically and metaphysically complex, it’s a crash course in game theory or maybe why game theory isn’t the answer to everything.  (As a super-nerd side note: it’s also one of the most deliberately metafictional portions of the book, with this strange interplay between the text and the footnotes raising the question of whether Pemulis or Hal is narrating, or whether the nameless narrator is simply ventriloquizing Pemulis/Hal.)  It’s an interesting question what DFW was, exactly, trying to do with the Eschaton.  Partly I think it was simply a lot of fun: DFW clearly loved the math involved, the geometry, the vectors, and once Ingersoll hits Kittenplan with that ball to the back of the head there’s sustained comic chaos worthy of the Marx Bros, at least until things turn seriously Lord-of-the-Flies and Lord ends up with his face through a monitor.  (Too much fun, as always.)  Partly there’s the satiric intent of showing how much “fun” apocalyptic scenarios can be, how seriously these 12-to-15-year-olds take the entertainment of their abstracted ends, how easy it is for them to accept scenarios leading to nuclear holocaust.  (I love the treatment of historic consciousness here, how Canadian extremists so often factor into their explicitly nostalgic Cold War scenarios.  We have this way of filtering our present through our past, like now, as we’re reenvisioning former backwaters and bit players like Afghanistan and Islamic fundamentalism as central to our current situation and driving forces in recent history.)  And partly there’s some big-time Pynchon/DeLillo influence here, in the metaphysical concerns underpinning these endgame scenarios, in the aptly named Otis P. Lord and his total lack of control when irrational human beings start acting irrationally and his spinning beanie of doom.  Most of all, in the giggling horror of “going SACPOP”: Strikes Against Civilian Populations as a strategy in a game, a way of winning or of preventing someone else from winning.  This may have seemed a historical concern in 1996, and DFW framing this Cold War section as a kid’s game does seem like a kind of time capsule of 1996, with its sense of post-historicity and global exhale and smaller-scale conflict.  Nevertheless, he kept this section for a reason: the warheads hang around, and even if they didn’t, the knowledge does, and the desire.  (This, of course, is why DeLillo remains vital and not a kind of Cold War cultural artifact.)  DFW’s inclusion of terrorist scenarios proved, obviously, adept, and the cataloging of scenarios used in past and potential Eschatons points out all the dangers that still existed, that were still horribly frightening and imaginable and variable, in that far-away-future year of 1996.

Semiautobiography: Madame Psychosis and Metempsychosis

September 29, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading:Infinite Jest.

It is both true and kind of oxymoronic that this book is intensely semiautobiographical.  While I mean by the “semi-” that the book is, of course, fiction, and full of made-up stuff and not a roman a clef in any way, I also mean that I get the feeling that DFW, the person (rather than the mind, the author, or the persona), is scattered throughout the book to a degree that, say, Pynchon is not in Gravity’s Rainbow or Joyce is not in Ulysses (or even Portrait, for that matter).  Authors are inscribed in every word they write; people aren’t, necessarily.

(Sidebar: GR and U are the two books that consistently spring to mind for me as comparables, here.  They are size- and stature- and scope- and ambition-equivalent, more or less, I think.  I haven’t read Gaddis or Gass or maybe they’d be in there too.  Nabokov doesn’t strike me as comparable, for some reason, while we’re playing this little parlor game.  I can’t quite put my finger on why.)

I’m not getting this primarily from recent events or little cues that certain characters are obvious stand-ins for certain “real people.”  And in fact, IJ has one of my favorite copyright-page notices: “The characters and events in this book are fictitious.  Any apparent similarity to real persons is not intended by the author and is either a coincidence or the product of your own troubled imagination.”  But nevertheless, I insist: DFW, the person with the lived life, is all over this book.  Which is both funny and sad, since he was always saddled with the rep of being too “cerebral” or cold or unapproachable or experimental.  He poured an awful lot of himself into this book.  I’d even say that’s what made the book one of the greats, ultimately: this semiautobiographical element, and not the language or structure or style alone (although, hell, they’re pretty damn good too).

I have a feeling that what I’m dancing around here is a kind of transmigration of souls.  Metempsychosis.  One of the most quotable and direct and self-contained sections is p. 200-205, a litany of things “you” can learn hanging around a facility like Ennet House.  It’s a characterless section, leading us to believe that it’s the narrator telling us all of this.   (Sidebar again: the narrator is an interesting problem in IJ, or rather an interesting lack of a problem, because I’m going to go ahead and commit a horrible lit-crit fallacy and say that DFW’s narrator is DFW, trying to tell us things DFW believes, and giving us scenes and voices that DFW thought worth paying attention to.  There’s some metafictional trickery, sure, in that the narrator is wildly omniscient in some ways and extremely not in others, but it’s him.  I’d swear to it.  I think that DFW thought of himself as writing this book.  DFW was a rhetorician of the first water, and I think that’s the conclusion he wants us to arrive at.  And I happen to believe it.)  But then we segue smoothly and without break into an exploration of Tiny Ewell’s obsession with other residents’ tattoos, and we’re kind of in between the narrator’s head and Tiny’s (or was it Tiny’s all along?).  And then Ewell approaches Gately and we’re a bit in Gately’s head and from his perspective, too.

And but so… metempsychosis.  Bookending this little passage I was just talking about are our introductions to Madame Psychosis, aka Joelle van Dyne.  And the section p. 219-240, of Joelle’s preparations to commit suicide by overdose, is one of the true tour-de-force sections of the novel.  The name, Madame Psychosis, is an obvious reference to metempsychosis.  To DFW, that undoubtedly means Joyce, Ulysses, where the idea and the word are major motifs in the grand modernist style.  (On the other hand, I suspect that “Dyne” might be an allusion to Yoyodyne, the company in Crying of Lot 49, in addition to being a unit of force.)  But it’s more than homage, and part of the bloody point of this book is that there’s more to life and to fiction than creating a web of allusion and referent and ambiguity, although those are cool.  He’s engaging with Joyce through this name and this idea, but there’s more.  I think he’s making a kind of argument about the nature of literature: that what it is, in a way, is a transmigration of souls, from an author to a character to a reader.  And I think he’s also indicating one of his primary methods — his own personal soul, flitting from voice to voice, perspective to perspective, unlike Joyce’s use of the term to allude to the constant reenactment and reembodiment of archetype in modern times — and through that method two of his primary concerns.  And those are empathy, and heredity.  Less-sexy varieties of transmigration of souls.

I mean, this is one of the best books about sports ever written, and it reeks of lived experience.  It’s horribly authentic on depression and drug abuse and grad school.  (Yes, they seem to belong together.)  It’s got grammar riots and cast-off scenes of peoples’ interactions with entertainment.  Hal and Joelle and Don and others: you can see glimpses of DFW’s life and his experience in them.  But of course I doubt DFW ever killed a Quebecois terrorist in a botched robbery; I think he could feel what it would feel like to be that desperate, though.  That’s where empathy comes in.  I also doubt his father or grandfather ever took his son out and treated him to an excruciating drunken self-involved monologue, exactly.  That’s where heredity comes in.

And I haven’t even mentioned death, which is kind of central to the whole thing.  We’ll talk about this later, eh?

A Monster of a Concept

August 17, 2008 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

I shouldn’t be writing this.

Shit. There was even a warning about the internet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tear Off Your Own Head

August 16, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Been Down So Long It Looked Like Up to Me.

Tear off your own head

Tear off your own head

It’s a doll revolution

-Elvis Costello

This is not an advice column, but I’m going to go ahead and give some anyway: you probably don’t need to read this book. But if you’re interested in Pynchon, you might want to take a look at his introduction sometime. (Mine is a 1983 Penguin paperback, which I believe is the first with the intro.) It’s surprisingly heavy on the personal detail, rather tellingly uninterested in much of the book itself, and seems to have been written while Pynchon was writing or at least planning Vineland, since the phrase “karmic adjustment” pops up.

But there are some interesting things in the book — it’s overstuffed, is all, and rather pompous — including its use of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is the description of an artwork in a medium different than that artwork (although it’s often used for descriptions of books within books, too): in this case, there’s the use of jazz rhythms and descriptions of other music, but there are also paintings. I tend to be a sucker for this in literature: it’s one of the things I love Paul Auster for (the movies were the best part of The Book of Illusions, for instance). The most important painting here is kept rather cryptic, but in a useful way. And it strikes a strange chord (to engage in ekphrastic metaphor) with the Elvis Costello song quoted above.

It’s a mural-sized canvas by Calvin Blacknesse, Gnossos’s friend, advisor, and guru. Blacknesse is, apparently, a figurative painter, rather out of step with the art-world trends of his time, even anachronistic, I should think (although there may be a hint of early psychedelia, here). His canvases appear to be heavy on symbolism and mythological imagery. When we first meet him, he’s painting “the dark goddess.” Here’s our first brief description of the painting most important to Gnossos: “That one with the tapestry look, a beheading. Must have it sometime.” Gnossos then goes on a very bad mescaline trip in the Blacknesses’ house, and is terrified of the painting. “No, I saw him,” he says of the figure in the painting. “He cut his head off. All by himself.” (This leads to one of the funniest scenes in the book, the tripping Gnossos fleeing to the bathroom to hide all the razor blades to protect the family from themselves.)

Nevertheless, he takes the canvas and installs it over the mantel in his room. Like a lot of ekphrastic devices, it serves, I think, as a kind of compact allegory of the character with which it’s identified. Gnossos is, indeed, on a mission to tear off his own head, it would seem: his quest to receive a vision, to get out of his own skin, to remain “Exempt”: from death, societal convention, and ordinary consciousness. In another funny touch, the canvas nearly falls on him when the spurned Pamela attacks him with a knife: “the nearly decapitated profile rushed at his own.” Funny picture, a man in profile presumably with a knife cut through most of his throat, with the medieval look of a tapestry.

Some more lines from “Tear Off Your Own Head”:

What’s that sound?

It will turn you around

It’s a doll revolution

They’re taking it over

And they’re tearing it down

It’s a doll revolution…

(Costello wrote this to be recorded by the Bangles, I’m told, and they did so, after his version was released. It’s a very sixties song, for a very sixties-sounding group.)  At the end of this book that’s exactly what’s happening: Alonso Oeuf, Gnossos’s nemesis, has successfully led a coup of the university administration with a demonstration of thousands of students who will do pretty much whatever they’re told. A doll revolution.  I suspect it’s supposed to be read as a microcosm of the university unrest of so much of the sixties, with both its good elements (increased academic freedom, decreased repressive sexual regulations) and its ugly (wankers who play at being revolutionaries following the mob’s every whim).

Gnossos has an ambivalent relationship with the real: he wants the mystical “real,” as his name implies, the layers of reality behind the mundane. But he’s terrified when a vision does strike — it happens to be a death-vision, unpredictable as visions tend to be — and when real death occurs, he’s rather unprepared for it. He’s a kid, and an unlikeable one at that. Anyone who says “Oh, Thanatos baby, kiss my wicked tongue” as he threatens to jump off the side of a boat for a lost love is not terribly likeable, or prepared for the reality of death.

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