Time Passing, Time Stopping

February 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Just finished: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf.

Reading next: Tales of the Unexpected, by Roald Dahl.

Some alternate titles that popped into my head while reading To the Lighthouse:

Ulysses Takes a Holiday.

Daddy Dearest.

Art Is Hard.

People Thinking.

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire.

None quite right to summarize the entire book, though.  It’s a demonstrably great work of literature; a work great enough to title its tour de force middle section covering the years of World War I “Time Passes,” the ultimate boring title.  As it happens, time passing is one of the main areas of inquiry for Woolf, one of the central mysteries of life as a human.

“Time Passes” is beautiful, full of gorgeous allusion and lyricism, in fifteen or so artful pages documenting the death and misery of the Ramsay family as World War I approaches and ends, and the decay in their vacation home, which sits abandoned for ten years.  Nature’s operations on the island form a kind of expressionist depiction of the war.  Deaths occur in subordinate clauses, in passing.

This short section comes between two much longer sections which each document less than a day each, slowing time to a crawl, skipping from one mind’s workings to another, as not much of anything happens.  As incredible as “Time Passes” is, it’s much easier for me to understand how it was written, and to see myself writing something similar to it, than to understand how Virginia Woolf could possibly have had the patience to write out the excruciating details of interpersonal minutiae which, to be honest and more than a little ashamed, drive me crazy about so much of the English high modernists.  I simply cannot imagine myself sitting down and facing the blank page day after day and continuing to write about nothing happening, continuing to parse every single motion and interaction for its sexual, socioeconomic, political, and/or generational significance.  To build up a collage of impressions of the eminent Victorians, the Ramsays, and the doubtful artist, Lily Briscoe, from symbols, and flights of mental fancy, and memory and dream, as time stands still for pages on end.  It would drive me to despair.

As an example, there are the long, comma-larded sentences like this:

Mrs Ramsay, who had been sitting loosely, folding her son in her arm, braced herself, and, half turning, seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating (quietly though she sat, taking up her stocking again), and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare.

Sentences like this provoke in me equal parts exasperation and awe, a mixture that seems unique in my experience to reading modernists such as Woolf, Forster, and Beckett, though oddly hardly ever Joyce (with whom I hardly ever feel exasperated — well, maybe the “Oxen of the Sun” section of Ulysses).   The transition into and out of “Time Passes,” with its wonderful and elegiac  movement, lyricism, is so beautiful and poignant as to justify the investment in such sentences, the investment in the fine web of allusion and symbol that Woolf creates.  The way in which time passes only very slowly in the rest of the book is precisely the point: the capturing in amber of the days in which art is created, insights discovered, people remain alive, learning how to live and understand each other.

Three Readings of “The Mat-Maker”

April 25, 2010 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Moby-Dick.

Rereading is a complex phenomenon, involving not only different interpretations of the text, but different interpretations of your past self: you can often end up “reading” your former readings, your former interests and states of mind.  This is especially true when you’ve taken notes during your past readings, and kept them.  You read a kind of palimpsest of text overlaid with memory overlaid with annotations, the things you saw as most important or necessary to remember at the time.

I never write in the margins of my books or underline or highlight or otherwise annotate: if I’m really invested, I write little notes on scraps of paper and tuck those into the book.  I probably set my personal record for number of notes on my first reading of Moby-Dick.  I’m kind of amazed at how much my 20-year-old self noticed in the book that I’ve since overlooked: the introduction of the imagery of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego burning “unconsumed” in chapter 48, “The First Lowering”; the discussion of “rings” in the frenzied chapter 40, “Midnight, Forecastle,” and especially the importance of the line “Why, God, mad’st thou the ring?” to the main themes of the book.  Part of this is the benefit of rigorous reading for a class, and the ferment of learning from other classes.  But Melville also just set my brain on fire in a way very few books ever have.  It was the kind of book I wanted to exist but didn’t know actually did, much less had for 150 years.

On my second reading, a few years later and just because I wanted to, I read from the same copy, rereading my notes, but took far fewer new notes and spent more time trying to observe the book’s overall structure and intentions.  I wrote a brief list on this reading of Melville’s possible intentions: “Entertain (more noticeable), Instruct, Enlighten, Ease His Possession.”  I also noted that the comedy in the book was much more noticeable on the second reading.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m reading from a different edition on this reading.  It’s a very different edition — a general-reading copy with large type, generous margins, and plentiful illustrations, but no notes, around 350 pages longer than the Norton edition I’d read from before.  It’s already a very different experience just based on the editions.  However, I happened to read chapter 47, “The Mat-Maker,” from the Norton edition.  A note there from my first reading seemed to crystallize my different readings, and different kinds of reading, in the last ten years.

“The Mat-Maker” is a gorgeous chapter, transitional and quite short but very interesting, well-known and thoroughly studied.  I wrote the following about the first section of the chapter: “Chance, freewill, & necessity in the making of a mat: Melville’s way of injecting mythic importance into minutiae, detail: the wondrousness of life”.  I chuckled when I read this note.  It’s a good note, and useful, but it reminded me of how enamored of Paul Auster I was in college.  Of course I loved this section!    It also reminded me of how much I loved (and love) the texture of the book: the close-grained observation, the colorful variation of style and format, the silky, lyrical language and far-ranging philosophical digression.  And how cool it was that this all occurred to me in a chapter about weaving, just as Melville weaved together his story from various threads.  It was dazzling.

My second reading did not focus so heavily on this section.  My second reading was more for pure pleasure, and it was clear that after the first two, philosophical paragraphs, this chapter serves mostly to transition to the first attempt to capture a whale, leading to one of the book’s most exciting, entertaining, cinematic, beautiful chapters, “The First Lowering.”

And on this reading?  I noticed the last words of the note, “the wondrousness of life.”  That’s an interesting observation, I think, and one I wouldn’t have made on my own this time, when I’m more familiar with Melville, with this kind of writing.  I meant that Melville was noticing the wonder of daily life, and its occasional, epiphanic revelation of the “ungraspable phantom” of life’s meaning, and thereby allowing me, the reader, to do so.

With the help of Howard Vincent, I also noticed the first paragraph’s emphasis on selfhood, “each silent sailor… resolved into his own invisible self.”  But what struck me anew is the lyricism of the language, its sheer beauty and the way its rhythm echoes the “cloudy, sultry afternoon” portrayed, lulling you into ruminations on its meaning and significance — thereby heightening the surprise and frenzy of “There she blows!” and all that follows: the first appearance of Ahab’s hidden crew, the thrilling hunt for the whale.  Then there’s the amazing return to quietude and slower rhythms at the end of “The First Lowering” — but deadly dangerous rhythms of possible abandonment and death at sea, this time — and Ishmael’s bookend of philosophical rumination in “The Hyena.”  Language, meaning, structure: this section is just a sterling example of what a phenomenal writer Melville was.

Stratospheric Abstraction in the World’s Largest Booklet

March 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace.

(Re)reading next: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, accompanied by The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, by Howard P. Vincent.

I just barely passed my AP calculus exam; I was seriously unsure about whether I’d done well enough until getting that blessed “3” in the mail one day in the summer after graduation.  College credit in hand, I happily forgot just about everything I’d “learned” in cramming for the exam.  This is a common experience, I suspect, at least for those expecting to go into the humanities in college.

Part of my disconnect with calc — my reason for scraping by just exactly as much as I could without trying to get much at all out of the class — was that I either wasn’t paying attention at the beginning of class or was never given an explanation about what, exactly, I was learning: what were all these crazy new theorems and formulas for, exactly?  What did the symbols, procedures, and functions signify?  AP calc was so compressed and results-based that there wasn’t necessarily time for these kinds of background explanations.  But I never even “got” what limits were, or why they were important, or what even differentiated calc from algebra, trig, etc.  It all just seemed kind of pointlessly complicated and wickedly disconnected from any level of empirical reality (which is more or less diametrically wrong, but that is how it seemed).

Which is to say, in DFW’s phrase, it seemed “stratospherically abstract,” divorced from human experience or even (my) comprehension.  So does much of Everything and More, to be honest, and at times I’m scraping by with the same bare modicum of understanding I did in AP calc if I’m scraping by at all.  But at least DFW has given me some sense of what calc is for — understanding and manipulating continuities like motion and time — and what limits and functions and derivatives are about, at a basic level.  All of this is somewhat tangential or at least secondary to the book’s main point, the history of infinity as a mathematical concept of central importance.  But I’m grateful for it.  DFW clearly had a really gifted and engaging teacher of calc, a Robert Goris, whose techniques for teaching many different concepts in calc are referenced quite often in the text.

I would never have considered reading this book if it weren’t for DFW-completist reasons.  And I honestly don’t care much whether I understand calc, advanced math, and/or mathematical infinities.  That ship’s long since sailed.  What I cared about was DFW’s approach to the material, which was obviously very important to him, and about how or whether he would adapt the  idiosyncratic style and voice of his fiction and creative nonfiction to what he presents as a “piece of pop technical writing” in his “Small but Necessary Foreword.”  (I’m not sure it’s all that “pop,” to be honest, even so far as writing about mathematical history goes; we get all of five pages of “Soft-News Interpolation,” padded by two photos, on the biography of its ostensible subject, Georg Cantor.  DFW’s titling of this section as “soft news,” and rather arbitrary placement at the “Last Place to Do It Without Disrupting the Juggernaut-Like Momentum of the Pre-Cantor Mathematical Context,” seems to me to suggest that even this tiny amount of non-technical discussion might have been forced on him by his editor.)

Some of the DFW quirks are here: the footnotes, of course, and the tendency to use abbreviations, acronyms, and symbols to save space within the text.  Actually, one of this text’s illuminations on DFW’s style is that these quirks in his literary works are reflections of his mathematical/philosophical academic background: these techniques are par for the course in those academic disciplines, and he found them efficient and natural ways to deal with his dense literary material, as well.  While I’d registered before the general academic/technical register of these techniques, their precedence in his own academic history had never occurred to me before.

Rhetoric is always a paramount concern in DFW’s work, with self-awareness in the text of the arguments and appeals that are being made, the techniques that are being employed, and the intended relationship between the author and the audience.  Everything and More is also rhetorical, though it is more subdued and consistent in its voice and its stance toward the reader than most of his other work, and much less self-conscious.  In fact, he discusses his rhetorical stance in the aforementioned “Small but Necessary Foreword,” like so:

The aim is to discuss these [mathematical] achievements in such a way that they’re vivid and comprehensible to readers who do not have pro-grade technical backgrounds and expertise.  To make the math beautiful — or at least get the reader to see how someone might find it so.  Which of course all sounds very nice, except there’s a hitch: just how technical can the presentation get without either losing the reader or burying her in endless little definitions and explanatory asides?  Plus… how can the discussion be pitched so that it’s accessible to the neophyte without being dull or annoying to somebody who’s had a lot of college math?

And then, in the first of the book’s footnotes:

Your author here is someone with a medium-strong amateur interest in math and formal systems.  He is also someone who disliked and did poorly in every math course he ever took, save one, which wasn’t even in college, but which was taught by one of those rare specialists who can make the abstract alive and urgent, and who actually talks to you when he’s lecturing, and of whom anything that’s good about this booklet is a pale and well-meant imitation.

This last seems to be an obvious allusion to the aforementioned Robert Goris.  So maybe it’s obvious that by and large, DFW is operating here as a teacher, rather than as an everyman or tour guide or friend or even expert.  He sprinkles the text with less formal sentences and phrases, and occasional restatements and reminders and examples and metaphors, just like a good teacher would.  He is more concerned with getting through the material than in his other works, where he’s more focused on maintaining an entertainment-informational-emotional balance.  In other words, though he never says it, it seems to me that DFW is simply enthusiastic about the content of the work, and believes it will shine if he gets out of the way as much as possible and presents the text.  He wants to help you understand the concepts he’s talking about.

Those quotes above also include one of the book’s more obvious rhetorical strategies, consistently employing the word “booklet” to refer to the text in hand.  This term is ridiculous in reference to a 300-plus-page hardbound book.  This is a booklet like Infinite Jest is a beach read.  DFW knows this.  I think he uses “booklet” to try to make the work seem less intimidating to the lay reader.  Or he was deluded or misguided by the publisher about the format or intended length of the work.

Do DFW’s rhetorical strategies succeed for his stated purpose?  Marginally, at best, I think.  DFW’s writing here was well received by critics as a promising step in his career (as I recall), and I suspect that’s because he’s subdued his style and concentrated on clarifying his dizzyingly abstract subject.  Critics are often lazy, and dumb.  DFW is trying not to make you work at understanding him here, in order not to pile rhetorical difficulty onto his subject’s difficulty.  This is rather different than what he’s trying to do in his literary registers, where he’s frequently emphasizing that we all need to work a little harder at understanding texts and people and the fiercely concrete complexity of life.

It Takes a Graveyard

February 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.

Reading next: The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers.

In the aughts Neil Gaiman went from being a sort of byword for coolness with the literary-fantasy crowd to being the Second Coming of Stephen King.  He’s another one-man industry, generating a remarkable amount of product in any different number of formats and genres.  Now, I’m exaggerating here: Gaiman’s output is not nearly as metronomic as King’s (who claimed to be retiring a few years back — remember that? — but simply could not stop himself from producing novels), nor is his work as repetitive, nor does Gaiman seem as loose as King at lending his ideas and characters out for brand-expansion and remakes and prequels and whatnot.  (Though he is a little more laissez-faire with comics, it would seem, and the idea of him allowing an American Gods comics series without his direct input is not that farfetched.)

But the comparison’s instructive, and I don’t mean to use it disparagingly.  I love Stephen King, warts and all.  He and Gaiman are very different writers.  The remarkable thing about King is the energy with which he still writes, the investment he still has in his work, the raw power of his narrative which can still be quite engrossing long after the (relatively few) patterns of Stephen King story have been established.  With Gaiman, the most remarkable thing has been the quality he’s maintained.  His prose and story construction are fine, his conceits are frequently brilliant, his characters are compelling and diverse, across and between genres and formats.  I don’t think Stephen King’s a hack, but with Gaiman you never even need to worry about mounting the defense.  It’s bloody obvious he’s not a hack.  He’s damned good.

It is impossible to imagine King writing something even remotely like The Graveyard Book: it’s just not in his range.  Nevertheless, part of me wouldn’t mind seeing the Stephen King version of the story, because I find myself longing a little for his approach here.  The book begins with an incredibly dramatic, startling event — the murder of a family and escape of the family’s toddler into the nearby graveyard, where he’s given the name Nobody and adopted by the ghosts of the dead and an undead “guardian.”  The event is presented elliptically, even rather lyrically (the shiny black shoes of the murderer, “the moon reflected in them, tiny and half full”), but is nonetheless gripping: it is right on the fault line between fairy tale and modern horror novel, this beginning.  Amazing, and quite ballsy, in a book for children or at least “young adults” that ended up winning the Newbery Medal.

The tone shifts once we’re in the graveyard, and the book essentially becomes a series of linked short stories about various events in the boy’s childhood, as he comes to know and is raised by the dead.  The murderer, “the man Jack,” drops out of the narrative, to reappear in the book’s second half.  Once you’re into the book, this shocking opening comes to seem a folkloric, almost whimsical origin story, a way to get the boy into the graveyard where he belongs.   But Jack comes up just often enough (including one big near miss) to maintain the reader’s sense that his part in the story is not done, while maintaining his aura of mysterious dread and power.  Again, ballsy, and quite an ambitious narrative structure: Gaiman is gambling that his stories, almost completely disconnected from the framing narrative of the toddler’s miraculous escape from gruesome death, will be entertaining enough to overcome the reader’s annoyance that he’s not getting back to what the deal is with this “man Jack.”

If this was a Stephen King novel, there would be no loosely connected vignettes.  The man Jack’s true nature, motivations, and activities would be given their own sections of narrative to keep the sense of a chase happening behind the scenes, interspersed with the chapters in which Nobody grows up and gets to know the graveyard’s inhabitants, whose back stories would be more fully developed (especially Silas, Nobody’s possibly vampiric guardian).  The book would also be 500 pages longer, and much less beautiful.

The key to understanding why this gap exists is another writer, a predecessor of both: Ray Bradbury.  Gaiman wrote a short story called “October in the Chair” (it’s in Fragile Things) that, in his words, served as a “dry run” for this book: he dedicated it to Bradbury.  The Graveyard Book‘s structure reminds me quite a lot of Dandelion Wine, Bradbury’s unbelievably gorgeous prose poem about growing up in the Midwest, a book I love beyond expression.  Its conceit, tone, and characters, on the other hand, seem a direct homage to Bradbury’s stories about the Elliott family of supernatural beings, another of my favorite Bradbury creations.  I’m thinking especially of “Homecoming,” maybe the best of those stories: young Timothy, the “abnormal” normal, human kid who doesn’t like the taste of blood and can’t fly or do much of anything to show off at the family reunion.  Here’s a paragraph of Timothy’s mother talking to him right at the end, before the final, gorgeous concluding sentences:

She came to touch her hand on his face.  “Son,” she said, “we love you.  Remember that.  We all love you.  No matter how different you are, no matter if you leave us one day.”  She kissed his cheek.  “And if and when you die, your bones will lie undisturbed, we’ll see to that.  You’ll lie at ease forever, and I’ll come visit every Allhallows Eve and tuck you in the more secure.”

There, as here, it takes a graveyard to raise a child.

In Dostoyevskyland

January 26, 2010 § 2 Comments

Now reading: The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Dostoyevsky, or any Russian writers at all, for that matter; I think the last thing I read was The Brothers Karamazov, maybe six or seven years ago.  I’m amazed at how suddenly the force of his writing came back to me.  Partly this is due to the nature of The Gambler, which begins very much in media res and plunges headlong, with part of the “fun” being to determine what’s going on among these seemingly sordid characters.  But I think it’s also at least in part due to the very distinctive world Dostoyevsky creates in his books.

We don’t hear much about Dostoyevsky the creator of imaginative recreations of the world, of cities and places, as we do with, say, Dickens.  Mostly this is because Dostoyevsky spends precious little time doing any sort of describing or scene-setting.  And yet his focus on psychology, voice, relationship, and character create a kind of claustrophobic universe just as visceral and recognizable as the London of Dickens.  You’re plunged into an alternate reality — or, if you prefer, a fantasy — with Dostoyevsky just as surely as you are in a science fiction novel; it’s just the alternate reality of a mind, usually a mind in serious trouble.

For me, this intense, almost hallucinatory quality to Dostoyevsky’s works makes for an odd reading experience.  I find myself quite involved with the books as I read them, gobbling up chunks of text, catching intricacies of interrelationship and forebodings of coming events, savoring Dostoyevsky’s little flashes of surreality and powerful emotion.  And then, when I finish… they somehow vanish.  I’m astounded by how little I remember of what I’ve read of his.  I remember more of Anna Karenina, read about ten years ago, than any of the three major Dostoyevsky works I read since.  I’m baffled by this.

No one claims The Gambler is Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece; it’s better known for his having to write it in a hurry under great pressure, and for its autobiographical elements, than for anything actually involved in the text itself.  But in a way its subject and setting — a group of nobles desperate for money and love, set loose on the roulette tables of a fictional spa town — are perfect for the fevered tone of his prose (or at least, his prose as it seems in translation).  The most remarkable passage so far is in chapter two: in a single three-page paragraph, the narrator (about whom we know next to nothing at the point) discourses on the “two kinds of gambling: the genteel kind, and the plebeian or mercenary, such as that played by all sorts of riffraff.”  (The translation I’m reading, by the way, is by Victor Terras.)  He ranges over a variety of observations and anecdotes; he is witty and interesting on the various kinds of gambling; and yet the length and intensity of the discussion, and the switchbacks and asides and seeming contradictions and pronouncements such as “of late I have been finding it somehow extremely repulsive to apply any kind of moral standard to my actions and thoughts” contribute to a sense of derangement.  The narrator (and an author?) plunge into their monologue to such a depth as to barely find their way back to the surface, the masterful tics and ramblings giving the sense of a character seriously lost in their subject, betraying a very likely problematic fascination.

Love-Words Written in Blood

October 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished: Nights at the Circus.

As I mentioned in my last post, exuberance, digression, and deliberate inefficience (sometimes to a fault) are major keys to Angela Carter’s style, and ways in which her style reflects her message.  The third chapter of the “Siberia” section is a more or less perfect example of how Angela Carter works.

In terms of simple plot development, this chapter is almost completely extraneous: its only purpose in connection to the main narrative is to introduce the characters who will rescue Walser from the train wreck.  Instead of simply having some Siberian hunters or peasants find him, or the rescue crew take him to the next town, Carter introduces the tale of the Countess P.’s asylum/penitentiary for husband-murderers.

This and other self-contained backstory chapters are the best parts of Nights; they make me think that, from my limited experience, Carter is a better short-story writer than novelist.  The story here, of the inmate Olga Alexandrovna discovering ways to subvert and, ultimately, bring down the Countess’s cruel panopticon from the inside, is moving and almost perfectly constructed for Carter’s feminist, humanist, and (perhaps) magical realist purposes (what it is not is at all necessary in this novel).

The paragraphs in which we learn the method by which Olga begins to communicate with the guard who delivers her food are another classic Carter passage — one that, while I still quibble with its word-by-word execution, I admire very much for its brilliant embodiment of Carter’s ideas:

That evening, after a free if surreptitious exchange of looks as supper was served, Olga Alexandrovna found a note tucked into the hollowed-out centre of her bread roll.  She devoured the love-words more eagerly than she would have done the bread they replaced and obtained more nourishment therefrom.  There was not a pencil nor pen in the cell, of course, but, as it happened, her courses were upon her and — ingenious stratagem only a woman could execute — she dipped her finger in the flow, wrote a brief answer on the back of the note she had received and delivered it up to those brown eyes that now she could have identified amongst a thousand, thousand pairs of brown eyes, in the immutable privacy of her toilet pail.

In her womb’s blood, on the secret place inside her cell, she drew a heart.

I mean… wow!  That’s just a brilliant example of imaginative, utterly unrealistic, even antirealistic, fiction’s power to connect readers to difficult ideas in a way polemics or criticism cannot, as is this whole chapter.  (Do I even need to read Foucault after this?)  The opposition to institutional schemes of surveillance and enforced penitence; the discovery of lesbian love (female companionships, sexual and/or friendly, recur throughout the work); the brilliant, earthy, purely human, believably and powerfully symbolic method by which Olga replies, with its echoes of “Satanic” pacts written in blood, its message of totalitarian inability to overcome the physically and basically human and female, its touching example of the human need for connection and love; and the surprising romance of the last sentences — these are the essence of Angela Carter.

On Angela Carter’s Style

October 28, 2009 § 2 Comments

Just finished: Nights at the Circus.

Reading next: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.

Everyone has a different idea of what makes a “well written” book.  I try to avoid describing books as “well written” for precisely that reason, though when I find myself using the phrase it’s generally in reference to a book in which I admired the author’s use of language, inventive sentence structures, and control over plot, without necessarily making much of a connection to characters or themes.  Calling a book “well written” is a backhanded compliment, at least from me. It can be a matter of editing as much as writing, to some extent.

Nights at the Circus did not strike me as well written.  I was surprised by this, as I very much admired the writing in Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. This is a matter of some sloppiness — things that surely should have been pointed out in editing — but also of style.  Now, it is impossible to talk about Angela Carter for very long without talking about style.  Hers was showy, verbose, lyrical, passionate.  Flowery, even.  In this book, it struck me as excessively so.  Perhaps it is a matter of length.  I’m not sure. At any rate, for my taste, this book includes a few too many sentences like this:

The toil-misshapen back of the baboushka humbly bowed before the bubbling urn in the impotently submissive obeisance of one who pleads for a respite or a mercy she knows in advance will not be forthcoming, and her hands, those worn, veiny hands that had involuntarily burnished the handles of the bellows over decades of use, those immemorial hands of hers slowly parted and came together again just as slowly, in a hypnotically reiterated gesture that was as if she were about to join her hands in prayer.

Carter will often coin hyphenates like that “toil-misshapen,” and will also wedge parts of speech in where she pleases (she’s especially loose about adjectives and adverbs).  The writing consistently draws attention to itself, which is enough for some people to write it off as poorly written (and for others to praise it as well written).  I have no problem with intentionally heightened (or lowered, or otherwise self-evident) language; but it better be damned well done.  Sometimes it is here; sometimes it’s not, as in that turgid sentence about the baboushka.

Another matter of style is dealing with person and tense; Carter can also be loose with this, and I am appreciative of it to an extent.  There’s something to be said for taking on the voice and perspective the story demands without worrying overmuch about the internal logic of your text; and I think Carter comes down on the side of liberty in these matters as in all others, consistently.  I enjoyed the transition from the shifting third-person perspective of the second section to the introduction of the first person, in the mind of Sophie Fevvers, for the first time in the book, as we enter the third section, “Siberia.”  But suddenly, within the first chapter, we again shift out of Sophie’s mind.  It seemed capricious and unnecessary, in a book that has been rather free about letting us delve into minds and perspectives, nearly omnisciently, and has also been telling us back-stories and legends with some regularity.

All of which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book — I did.  And all of which is not to say it’s not full of more interesting ideas and characters and plot twists than nine-tenths of the fiction I’m ever likely to read.  But it struck me that this is one of the few books I’ve read recently that I found myself fighting against on the basic level of language: of annoyance with the words chosen, and their order.  I do think Carter wanted her readers to tussle at that level, to some extent, to fight against the threadbare mundane language in which most of us communicate (and even think).  Certainly the overabundance of her words and sentences was a central part of why the stories in The Bloody Chamber worked so well for me: nothing efficient, brutal, or straightforwardly masculine about them.  “There’s nothing like confidence,” as Sophie says.  In the tightrope act of fitting style to message, I thought the “confidence” of The Bloody Chamber was self-assurance, and the “confidence” of Nights at the Circus had more than a little of the grifter in it.

In the John with the Mother of Mexican Poetry

May 26, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Savage Detectives.

My favorite section of this book so far is the monologue/testimony of Auxilio Lacouture, self-proclaimed “mother of Mexican poetry.”  Like most of the characters, Auxilio is apparently based on a real person, and the remarkable event in the chapter also seems to be reality-based (if not “real,” exactly).

It’s the best illustration yet that DFW was right in thinking that bathrooms are “places of mortal drama.”  (He was talking about men’s rooms, but presumably that’s all he knew, right?  I think we’re justified in extending his aphorism to the ladies’.)  Auxilio’s predilection for reading poetry in the ladies’ room in the Faculty of Literature at her Mexico City university leads to her being overlooked in the governmental massacre and takeover of the university; she spends ten days in the restroom, in a small but important act of protest — becoming “UNAM’s last redoubt of autonomy.”

Bolaño has told Auxilio’s story in more detail in Amulet.  Here, she’s given a ten-page, one-paragraph monologue, as she revisits passages of her life by revisiting her residency on the ladies’ room floor.  It’s full of fascinating things, including Auxilio’s relationship with Arturo Belano (Roberto B’s fictional alter ego), her status as both insider and outsider in Mexico, the drama of staying alive by eating toilet paper and drinking water (and writing poetry on toilet paper, and dreaming, and crying, and remembering).  Here’s one of my favorite passages, when she realizes what has happened:

So I went over to the only window in the bathroom and looked out.  I saw a soldier far off in the distance.  I saw the outline of an armored troop carrier or the shadow of an armored troop carrier.  Like the portico of Latin literature, the portico of Greek literature.  Oh, I adore Greek literature, from Pindar to George Seferis.  I saw the wind sweeping the university as if it was delighting in the last light of day.  And I knew what I had to do.  I knew.  I knew I had to resist.  So I sat on the tiled floor of the women’s bathroom and in the last rays of light I read three more poems by Pedro Garfias and then I closed the book and closed my eyes and said to myself: Auxilio Lacouture, citizen of Uruguay, Latin American, poet and traveler, stand your ground.  That was all.

This is a good passage to illustrate Bolano’s style: the deceptively straightforward sentences that suddenly drop into a kind of cryptic code (an “armored troop carrier” is like “the portico of Latin literature” how?), the boring factual monotone that suddenly spikes into moments of beautiful clarity and purpose, of perfect pacing (“citizen of Uruguay, Latin American, poet and traveler, stand your ground.  That was all.”), the emphasis on finding voice without idiosyncratic tics or tricks.

In fact, I think one of the most remarkable things about this book  is how Bolaño dares you to be bored — perhaps dares himself, too.  As a writer, it is remarkably hard to be content with a boring sentence; it is hard to move from sentence to sentence without trying to be beautiful or showy.  Obvious but frequently overlooked: writing boring sentences is boring, and boring is not easy.  Boring is hard.  (Personally, I’ve always had the most trouble writing the most basic transitional elements; those utilitarian sentences to move characters from one place to another, from one scene to another.  They’re just so damn boring to write!  I always fall into the temptation of thinking that they must be boring for the reader, too.)  Bolaño almost never succumbs to the temptation to be beautiful — when he does, it’s because the voice he’s taken on would see fit to do so, and he is, after all, talking about poets.  He lets the thread of his narrative pull the reader along, slowly and intermittently letting insights dawn on the reader.

Adventures in the Shadow World

August 2, 2008 § 3 Comments

Now reading: Vineland.

In all of Pynchon’s books there seems to be a chapter that totally baffles me on first reading — a chapter I simply can’t follow. The last chapter I read, the twelfth (though they aren’t numbered), seems to be that chapter for Vineland. It involves, I kid you not: a Friar’s Club Roast of the Living Dead, a Luftwaffe officer in charge of eradicating marijuana fields, parrots telling bedtime stories to kids who then engage in communal lucid dreaming, a Kafkaesque dentist’s office, a scene which turns out (I think) to be an imaginary idyllic flash-forward of Pynchon’s own creation or perhaps of Prairie’s (or just through her, as she watches footage?), tiny gangsters playing pinochle on Weed Atman’s nose (seriously), the agonizing dissolution of 24fps and the People’s Republic of Rock and Roll, Weed Atman’s death or staged death, a system of secret highways called the Federal Emergency Evacuation Route, ninja moves, a plot to kill Castro, typical Pynchonian S&M pseudo-erotica, the gorgeous recurring Dream of the Gentle Flood, a trip to Mexico, commentary on Reaganomics, horoscopes about the danger of Pluto, and wiretapping.

There are so many loose ends here, I can’t imagine Pynchon tying them all up in 120 pages, though then again all of that only took 50. (I mean, read that list again! Only Pynchon.) It’s the chapter in which he’s throwing off ideas like sparks, seemingly on a strong cocktail of stimulants. But I think one of the important elements of the chapter is that it is, in large part, mediated: much of it seems to be the story as told to Prairie and/or seen by her on film, although it’s hard for me to tell how much is meant to be read this way and how much is simply provoked by that scenario, and meant to be read as the narrator’s address to the reader.

This question of mediation is important. In this chapter I think Pynchon reveals that his hints of another world, close to our own and connected to it but also very different, refer to the world created by and existing in film (now video, I suppose I should say), the 24-frames-per-second world. Most important in this regard is the confrontation between Weed and Rex. Frenesi has deliberately set it up to confront Weed with the accusation that he has betrayed the collective to the FBI (when, of course, it’s her that’s working for Brock Vond — although Weed might have been turned, too, it’s hard to say) on film, in the guerrilla style of 24fps. But the cameraman was changing rolls at the time, so the actual shooting is not filmed: there’s only sound footage and blurs, which Ditzah presents to Prairie. Here it is in the actual language; note all the complexity here, all the mediation:

Rex screaming, “Don’t you walk away from me!” the squeak of a screen door, feet and furniture thumping around, the door again, a starter motor shrieking, an engine catching, as Sledge then moved on out into the alley after them and Frenesi tried to find enough cable to get one of the floods on them and Howie got his new roll in and on his way out offered to switch places with Frenesi, who may have hesitated — her camera, her shot — but must have waved him on, because it was Howie… who emerged into the darkness and, while trying to find the ring to open the aperture, missed the actual moment, although shapes may have moved somewhere in the frame, black on black, like ghosts trying to return to earthly form, but Sledge was right there on them, and the sound of the shot captured by Krishna’s tape. Prairie, listening, could hear in its aftermath the slack whisper of the surf against this coast — and when Howie finally got there and Frenesi aimed the light, Weed was on his face with his blood all on the cement, the shirt cloth still burning around the blackly erupted exit, pale flames guttering out, and Rex was staring into the camera, posing, pretending to blow smoke away from the muzzle of the .38….

I mean, for one thing, so far as I can tell Rex was chasing Weed; so why’s Weed on his face with the exit wound in his back? For another, Weed’s a Thanatoid in the present-day 1984 of the book; either we believe he’s an actual ghost or spirit, or this was staged, and Weed escapes into an underground life. (If he’s a spirit, the Thanatoid Roast at the start of this chapter takes on a very Beetlejuice feel. And I suspect that the ambiguity might be what’s important to Pynchon: this way, he gets to kill Weed with both camera and gun, as well as allowing us to see various levels of conspiracy and intrigue, if we so wish.)

Right before the shooting, we are told that his face (as captured on film) betrayed his understanding of Frenesi’s betrayal, and that this was “the moment of his real passing,” his spirit actually seeming to leave his body. This ties in with a comment Howie made earlier, that confronting Weed on film would be “takin’ his soul, man,” a la that idea (is this myth or actually documented?) that some Native tribes believed the camera stole their soul. It might also go a way toward explaining the meaning of the Thanatoids: beings from whom the spirit has been drained, brains operating only on mediated experience, through the Tube. There’s also the comparison, recurring throughout the chapter (and book), of camera with gun. Frenesi, at the end of the chapter, says they were fools to think their cameras could stand against the Man’s guns.

Pynchon’s feelings about all of this remain difficult for me to interpret. He certainly is sympathetic to the aims of 24fps, and would seem to think that the camera is, in fact, just as powerful as the gun, if only we’d believe it. Factoring into all of it is that Kabbalistic myth that’s so important in Gravity’s Rainbow, of the world as broken vessel, shards of light scattered throughout the darkness. The last words of the chapter are “the spilled, the broken world.” DL is equated with Lilith and shadow, Frenesi with Eve and light, and much as in GR light/white is often menacing while shadow protects the good. The “broken world” could be the world broken into countless segments of film which only seem continuous, but the “real” world is what’s being talked about here, what’s broken. Perhaps the point is that they are parts of each other, just as shadow and light exist because of the other. The broken world of film could also redeem the broken world we live in, perhaps, by recording injustice and forcing outrage at the inhumane. Maybe that’s why so much of this book veers between cinematic pastiche, political commentary, and literary genre-play?

But the issue of possession is also troubling, and there’s definitely a hint of vampirism in some of Pynchon’s filmic references. Brock is in the possession business. He kind of reminds me of the Mystery Man in Lost Highway, with that camcorder attached to his eye. (The chapter before this ends with an uber-creepy scene in which Brock is staring at Frenesi in the dark, and starts laughing when she’s scared by him.) (And this further reminds me that there’s some pretty Lynchian stuff in this chapter; I wonder if Pynchon’s a fan?) The sections of this chapter on FEER and the surveillance of the ex-24fps’ers seem downright prescient, now. Brock abducts the dangerous elements from the People’s Republic and hides them in his secret camp, for reeducation or blackmail or torture, but uses cameras and those media outlets who will play along to remake this story into the story of radicals “going underground,” a “rapture below.” Bad puns. (Those who ask inconvenient questions are summarily removed from the press pool.)

PS: One more stylistic quirk I’ve noticed popping up more and more in this book. Pynchon makes a point of using an apostrophe at the beginning of ‘suckers, though the word had clearly lost the connotation that this implies in ordinary usage by the time he’s writing in and of. I think it’s a way for him to reinforce the crazed sexual desire, perversity, and brutality simmering beneath the surface of everyday life, politics as usual in the good ol’ USA.

Fun with Accent Marks and Brackets

July 16, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Vineland.

For my own faulty memory, here are a few quick notes on Pynchon’s usual bunch of stylistic quirks (“usual” in that there’s always a bunch, although they seem to change at least slightly from book to book):

-Most typically for him, language (and especially dialogue) is tortured into weird conjunctions. Some of the time they make sense as a way of capturing speech, but sometimes they just seem perverse, and impossible to actually capture in voice. He likes jamming a bunch of consonants together, and I can’t speculate on a reason why. Perhaps he really does think it captures the spoken word, which — let’s face it — would be unreadable if actually transcribed.

-A related point, his consistent use of the misspelling “didt’n” instead of “didn’t.” I suspect this is Pynchon’s way of pointing out that yes, in fact, people do often drop the “t” at the end, pronouncing more like “did’n,” although the “t” sound does seem to slip in there somewhere just before the “n.”

-He’s also using accent marks in the dialogue of Hector Zuniga, Zoyd’s pursuer, to capture the Hispanic pronunciation of ultimate syllables (like “in” in “complainin”). Surprised I haven’t seen this done before, actually.

Now we come to the quirks that actually seem important thematically, the media-related quirks:

-“the Tube.” That’s the dominant term for TV here, and it’s always capitalized. It’s a character and a presence. I have to keep reminding myself that this was published in 1990: Pynchon was fairly unusual, I think, in persisting in writing about the medium in such monolithic terms. I’m sure we’ll get some gonzo descriptions of the content of the feedings from said Tube later, but for now it seems a weirdly trite way of discussing the fact that, yes, we’re addicted to TV as a culture.

-Whenever a movie is mentioned in this book (and it happens a lot), the year in which it was released is placed after it, in brackets if the mention takes place in dialogue, in parentheses if not. This is, obviously, a weird thing to do in a work of fiction. Even weirder, Pynchon does not do this if he’s making up a movie (like “Pat Sajak in The Frank Gorshin Story,” which is funny not only because it’s stupid, but funny because Frank Gorshin played the Riddler on the campy old Batman show and Sajak hosts America’s favorite pointless campy show about riddles, Wheel of Fortune. And, while we’re here, that seems to be a semi-important illustration of Pynchon’s concern with television and media saturation in general: he obviously knows all of the backstory of Gorshin and Sajak, and he’s constructed the little joke to allow us to catch it, too, and I think, given the context of the book as a whole, that’s meant to give us pause: this over-familiarity with not even just purely escapist entertainment, but entertainment willfully constructed to be as dumb and campy and unimportant).

Why do this? The fact that he “cites” real movies and not the fake ones could be a metafictional device, a reminder that it’s all a big fiction (and there are moments when Pynchon telegraphs that it is to be read, intermittently, as fiction of an especially wacky and cartoonish sort, if not exactly campy). From another metafictional angle, it could be a weird glimpse at the narrator/author, at his obsessive cataloging of cultural objects like old movies and B-sides real and imaginary, at our culture’s addiction to the Tube and allied pastimes. While a lot of movies are mentioned so far, they’re almost all being watched on TV. This all reminds me very much of Infinite Jest (although really IJ, and really a lot of DFW’s oeuvre, should’ve reminded me of this book, which seems very much like one of DFW’s true touchstones), with its addicts, its isolated entertainment junkies, its killer videotape.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with style at The Ambiguities.