August 18, 2012 § 5 Comments
Finished: Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart.
Shteyngart’s book is full of fascinating names and terminology, so I thought I’d pick a few that especially interested me and look at them a bit more closely:
äppärät: The devices which control social interaction in society, broadcasting information about their owners (all subjective rankings, potentially humiliating and cause for constant anxiety) and also serving as the main entertainment and communication devices. So, yes: iPhone/iPads. Everyone is constantly ranking and evaluating everyone else, and monitoring their own rankings, and the rankings as well as the categories of ranking themselves (Credit, Hotness, Sustainabilit¥, Fuckability, Personality) revealing the coarse, striving superficiality dominating American discourse. As now, the devices themselves are also status symbols, the smaller and sleeker the better.
dachshunds: Kind of the Shteyngart equivalent of Nabokov’s butterflies, they pop up here and there in the narrative. Mostly, however, this is an excuse to show the inscription to and drawing of our dachshund Bruno by Shteyngart in my copy:
GlobalTeens: The Facebookian social media site that dominates communication, especially for our protagonist Lenny Abramov’s beloved, Eunice Park. Her side of the story is told through the semi-literate messages, called “teens,” that she sends to her friends and family through her GlobalTeens account. The emphasis here on an arrested, adolescent-level emotional development and communication is a recurring theme in the work: that the basic messages themselves through which most of society now communicates are called “teens,” to the point that physically speaking is called “verballing” to differentiate it from teening, is both plausible and kind of horrifying.
Media: Both a noun and adjective, as in “He’s so Media,” the ultimate sign of approval. One of the main Media outlets for news information is called CrisisNet; others are FoxLiberty-Prime and FoxLiberty-Ultra. But many people have their own streaming entertainment/commentary shows, and ratings for these shows are monitored in real time to react to what people do and do not want to hear about.
People’s Literature Publishing House: The publisher of an edition of Lenny’s diaries and Eunice’s GlobalTeens messages — in other words, Super Sad True Love Story. As Lenny says, “it never occurred to me that any text would ever find a new generation of readers,” and did not write his diary entries with publication in mind. However, the People’s Capitalist Party of China issued, as the last of its “Fifty-One Represents,” the message, “To write text is glorious!”, leading to resurgence of the printed word. This is one of the few hopeful notes in the book. Lenny is one of the few buyers and readers of “bound, printed, non-streaming Media artifacts” left in the world, and is something of a freak because of it: his friends and Eunice find the books smelly and somewhat disgusting, and he sprays them with air freshener to get rid of the smell of old paper. The representation of how reading functions in a society that places no value on introspection or empathy, and what might come to be valued in it again, is a fascinating subtext in the work.
Post-Human Services: The division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation which employs Lenny Abramov. It is dedicated to achieving eternal youth for its High Net Worth Individual clients through a variety of nutritional, cosmetic, and high-tech medical procedures (“smart blood” being one of the key elements). The process does seem to work, at least to some degree: Lenny’s boss, Joshie, seems to be in his seventies even though he appears a twenty-something. But Shteyngart leaves the exact nature of Post-Human Services ambiguous. It could be seen as a scam for separating the desperate, aging wealthy from their money along these lines. Lenny clearly believes; Joshie, a smooth operator, may be playing at belief. Whatever the case, the inclusion of this thread of life-extension technology exclusively for the superwealthy by a giant, foreign-owned multinational is a smart inclusion in a day-after-tomorrow dystopia.
Rubenstein: The shadowy Secretary of Defense who seems to be the true man in charge of the entire American government — or what remains of it, in the form of the American Restoration Authority, a turbo-charged Homeland Security-like apparatus, run by the Bipartisan Party, given to equal parts paranoid security measures and absurd sloganeering (a digital spy/mascot in the form of an otter, cartoonish anti-immigration posters, a PR campaign based on Mellancamp’s “Pink Houses”). The names are interesting here: in Shteyngart’s dystopia, Israel is SecurityStateIsrael, still a lynchpin of US foreign policy, and our political parties have blended into one “Bipartisan” non-choice, even as the US is eaten from within by its debt, its military misadventures, and its economic inequalities. So, yes: as with all satire, this is not so much bleak vision of the future as slight exaggeration of the current state of affairs. I’m curious about the Zionist angle, here, and what kinds of reaction Shteyngart has received to it.
Suk, Reverend: Leader of a Korean Christian crusade, the description of his Madison Square Garden revival is one of the fascinating set pieces of the book, tying together the themes of immigrant families’ assimilation, religion, spectacle, and evolving/devolving language in an astounding display of guilt, shame, and community. It also calls to mind other famous sermons in American literature, from Father Mapple in Moby-Dick to Reverend Barbee in Invisible Man, but as with so much else in this dystopia of America on the verge of collapse, the rhetoric and the presentation are wildly different: flattened, religious experience debased. And yet, even though Lenny’s friend Grace believes Korean Christianity to be a matter of assimilation, gone in one more generation, haven’t we been saying the same thing for generations now? Aren’t we always thinking the next generation will be the one to abandon religion altogether, and aren’t we always surprised to find it still alive and well?
TIMATOV: One of the hilarious GlobalTeens-based acronyms in the book, standing for Think I’m About to Openly Vomit.
Venezuela: Site of the current American military intervention, leading to the veteran-led revolt and credit crisis that finally brings down the US. As with a number of glancing references to corporations here, oil is the subtext: nationalized corporations in oil-rich countries are running the show, and the US attempt to take over Venezuela is obviously about that.
March 6, 2011 § Leave a comment
Finished a while ago: The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo.
Reading now: Big Machine, by Victor LaValle.
Reading next: You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner.
I’d like to think that DeLillo wrote this when he did for much the same reason I read it when I did: Fot the love of God, let me finish something quickly! After Underworld, DeLillo surely enjoyed writing this spare novella, a whispering ghost of a book.
And yet, he’s DeLillo, so it’s also, still, a book like a steel rail, vibrating with the force of the train bearing down on us, and a book like a radio spinning its dial through the world’s most erudite and finely crafted frequencies. It’s a book that concerns itself with film, radio, audiotape, performance art, art reportage and criticism, but mostly death and the human body. DeLillo notices more than most of us, and shows us things we were bound to notice eventually but hadn’t yet. But he does it in such interesting ways that often it’s up to you to notice what he might be talking about.
Case in point: the Internet, here, in this 2001 book. It make a direct appearance, as the “live-streaming video feed from the edge of a two-lane road in a city in Finland” with which Lauren becomes obsessed for its “sense of organization, a place contained in an unyielding frame, as it is and as you watch… she could see it in its realness, in its hours, minutes and seconds.” But the Internet might be a larger figure in the book. Is it the mystery man who appears in Lauren’s house?
This feeling, that the mysterious savant is actually some sort of Internet Man, came slowly, but once I’d had the thought it was difficult to dislodge. DeLillo is a master of ambiguity, and so he can be an Internet allegory and many other things at once. But his uncanny mimicry, his lack of human personality and self, his flat screen of recited language and incident, and his blurring (both to Lauren and to us, the readers) of “realness” and artifice or simulacrum add up, for me at least, to a portrait of a new technology, this search-engined network of knowledge and memory.
It crystallized in this passage, near the end, after meditations on the nature of “past, present, and future” and language:
“…she opened and closed her eyes and thought in a blink the world had changed.
He violates the limits of the human.”
The connection of all of this with the book’s deep concerns with death, with the body, and with art: this is, perhaps, of a piece with millennial techno- and future-thinkers, and yet it is utterly different from utopian wishes to escape the body online or dystopian visions of technological tyranny. It takes Lauren’s artistic vision — and especially her “body work” — to make sense of both the Google-like retrieval of her late husband’s voice by the “savant” in her house and of the mysterious appeal of a Finnish road in the dead of night.
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.
July 17, 2008 § 2 Comments
Now reading: Vineland.
Well, shucks, things have changed. It’s still a fun book, but we’ve gotten into heavy-duty Pynchon territory now. The damned, the paranoid, the radical and the tyrannical. I have this strange feeling that TP started out trying to write a different kind of book but it sucked him in and he let it take him, his obsessions with Calvinism, systems, technology. There are moments when you can feel the sentences pulling him along to his inevitable conclusions. But it’s great stuff, and there are passages in here to rival anything in Gravity’s Rainbow. (Also, the quirk I remember most from GR, the “a-and” stutter or elongation, has resurfaced here, if only a couple of times. I always liked that, and it always seemed like Pynchon was trying to channel the archetypal overexcited American kid in movies and ’50s TV with that extra letter and dash, and it seemed to me like a brilliant condensation of American character. In which case it fits in well in this media-obsessed book, showing how TV has worked its way into our minds and is constantly showing us how to live, how to be. Or it was just supposed to be a longer “a” sound and I got the whole thing wrong. Anyway.)
He’s on to computers, for instance. There are no less than three really virtuoso pieces about computers already in the book. Two are in the chapter in which we’re shifted to Frenesi’s story (a virtuoso chapter overall, really). On page 87, after Frenesi’s husband Flash has been talking about how people are disappearing from the government’s computer files (and it begins…), their son enters. The kids in this book are really interesting — Pynchon seems to have a lot more invested in them than in previous books, or maybe is just more interested, or is acknowledging the shift toward youth that the culture as a whole took after the 60s — so I might quote a little long just to get in some of the allusive, pitch-perfect, idiosyncratic dialogue:
…Justin came wandering in, cartoons having ended and his parents now become the least objectionable programming around here, for half an hour, anyway — and just as well, too, because the last thing either parent needed right now was an argument, or what passed for one with them, a kind of alien-invasion game in which Flash launched complaints of different sizes at different speeds and Frenesi tried to deflect or neutralize them before her own defenses gave way.
“Say, Justintime, how’s ’em Transformers, makin’ out OK?”
“And how was everything over at Wallace’s?”
The kid put on a genial smile, waved, put his hand to his ear like Reagan going, “Say again?” “How about a few questions,” Justin pretending to look around the room, “Mom? You had your hand up?”
“We’re just getting you back for all those questions you used to ask us” — Flash adding “Amen!” — “not too long ago.”
“I don’t remember that,” trying not to laugh, because in fact he did, and wanted to be teased.
“Must be gettin’ old, man,” said Frenesi.
“Nonstop questions nobody could answer,” Flash told him, “like, ‘What is metal?'”
“‘How do you know when you’re dreaming and when you’re not?'” Frenesi recalled, “That was my favorite.”
Isn’t that great, that subtle shift, incorporating the computer-game metaphor into the already-established TV theme? And this idea itself, of parental arguments being seen as a video game? I’m always fascinated by Pynchon’s narrators, how they manage to shift their voices so rapidly and convincingly without actually shifting point of view: the idea of Flash and Frenesi’s arguments being like a giant game of Space Invaders would not have occurred without Justin’s point of view, in addition to the metaphor being important to Pynchon’s overriding concerns. (I love Justin impersonating Reagan, too, and “I don’t remember that” — just like Reagan, forgetful whenever convenient, and playing his coy game with the media, wanting to be teased.) Plus there’s Frenesi’s remembrance of young Justin asking about dreams; we’ll later see DL asking similar questions, wondering if she’d become “finally lost in a great edge-to-edge delusion.”
So this leads to the end of the chapter, as F&F’s nightmare is coming to pass and they’ve apparently been erased from the system they were living on the edge of, as independent contractors on shady governmental missions.
…it would all be done with keys on alphanumeric keyboards that stood for weightless, invisible chains of electronic presence or absence. If patterns of ones and zeros were “like” patterns of human lives and deaths, if everything about an individual could be represented in a computer record by a long string of ones and zeros, then what kind of creature would be represented by a long string of lives and deaths? It would have to be up one level at least — an angel, a minor god, something in a UFO. It would take eight human lives and deaths just to form one character in this being’s name… We are digits in God’s computer, she not so much thought as hummed to herself to a sort of standard gospel tune, And the only thing we’re good for, to be dead or to be living, is the only thing He sees. What we cry, what we contend for, in our world of toil and blood, it all lies beneath the notice of the hacker we call God.
Overblown? Maybe you could say that. But mind-blowing, too, and I wonder what Pynchon makes of the fact that a lot of the people in the world are now busy adding to their “computer records” pictures, profiles of friends and acquaintances, weird literary blogs? (2.0 apps as path to acknowledgment by the hacker-God, and as handy guides to governmental intrusion.)
Then there’s Prairie, looking at her mom’s file on an apparently magic computer (it plays “Wake Up, Little Susie,” and it politely says goodnight to Prairie when she shuts it off — it’s maybe the worst line I’ve ever seen Pynchon write, actually, right there on p. 115). But this is a great paragraph, an enrichment of the theme:
So into it and then on Prairie followed, a girl in a haunted mansion, led room to room, sheet to sheet, by the peripheral whiteness, the earnest whisper, of her mother’s ghost. She already knew how literal computers could be — even spaces between characters mattered. She had wondered if ghosts were only literal in the same way. Could a ghost think for herself, or was she responsive totally to the needs of the still-living, needs like keystrokes entered into her world, lines of sorrow, loss, justice denied?… But to be of any use, to be “real,” a ghost would have to be more than only that kind of elaborate pretending….
After that we get Prairie finding out some things, but transported by a picture of her mom with DL (the asskicking Ninjette) in the 60s. There’s a great transcript of what Prairie imagines they’re talking about in the photo, and then, once Prairie has shut the machine off, in his inimitable Pynchonian fashion, the narrator takes us back into those “quiescent ones and zeros” and shows us (apparently) the true story behind the picture, and we get a nice long flashback, and flashbacks to flashbacks, and the ghosts become as real as ghosts in a machine can. (Realer, maybe.)
May 12, 2008 § Leave a comment
Just finished: The Art of Memory and The State of Constraint: New Work by Oulipo (part of McSweeney’s Issue 22).
Reading next: Boccaccio’s Decameron.
Even an intellectual historian like Yates, writing in the 1960s, had computers on the brain. A couple of times she mentions these “electric brains” as examples of the contemporary relevance of her research. And I was reminded of this in her final chapters, as she discusses the ways in which memory systems diverged into esoteric arts, in which “memory” became a kind of synonym for “imagination” and “knowledge of divinity,” and new sciences, like Leibniz’s invention of calculus.
It seems kind of hackneyed, by now, to talk about how technology has become embued with religious meaning. Doesn’t make it any less true. And the ways in which the art of memory blended art and science certainly do seem similar. Memory remains what’s behind it all, right? And we expect our newest mnemonic systems to help us cultivate both the art of memory and the science of memory. To an extent Yates probably didn’t expect, we anticipate an organizing and retrieving system for all knowledge, all information. Our collective conceptions of our new art and science of memory certainly partake of some characteristics of a Hermetic art, expected to help us unleash our hidden potential for divinity (or at least ability to connect to divinity), while also functioning as a coolly Aristotelian system of objective data retrieval. Like everything, those statements have elements of truth, elements of fiction.
To approach this from another angle: Oulipo is all about connecting science and art (mathematics and literature, to be specific), and Anne F. Garreta’s essay “On Bookselves” provides some thoroughly eccentric, non-traditional, illogical “principles” for organizing her personal library. My favorite is Principle #8, separating “homebound books” and “nomadic books,” then further dividing “books bought on one side or the other” of a given river, “books that have crossed an ocean at least once,” “books you missed, cruelly, one night at 3 a.m. because they had remained on the other side of the ocean,” etc. The quirkiness of these principles, she explains, is precisely the point:
-Could we order the outside world, the world of objectivity (real books) following patterns residing in our minds, the patterns according to which phantom books reside in our minds?
-You’d be out of your mind.
-Could we escape our misery by simply swallowing a computer and turning our minds into subsets of the Library of Congress Catalog?
-You’d be out of a mind.
Exactly: to leave all the systematizing work of memory to technology is to deprive ourselves of our selves.