Grandma Goes Gambling

January 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Gambler.

Reading next: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.

I love gambling, though I’m too cheap to gamble for anything but small stakes.  Gambling as a powerful force in American life has forced its way to the surface in the past fifteen or so years after a long, long existence underground: the poker craze (now, maybe, dying out, though the World Series of Poker events and online poker rooms are still drawing more and more players each year, I believe), offshore Internet gambling, stocks and other sordid financial risks.  Maybe most of all, gambling on sports.  I remain convinced that the two biggest reasons why pro (and to a lesser degree, college) football has become the overwhelming spectator sport of choice in the last 30 years have been the perfection of its scoring system and statistics to facilitate gambling (on point spreads, over/under total points, fantasy leagues, and the like), and the matching of the pace and flow of the game to television broadcast.  College basketball might have died out completely by now, were it not for gambling on the NCAA tournament.

All of which has nearly nothing to do with Dostoyevsky.  Nearly, but not absolutely nothing: the darker aspects of American culture that are revealed in its gambling economy (in its various forms, from semi-secret to publicly financed) are also examined in the section of The Gambler in which Grandmother, the matriarch of the group waiting and hoping for her to die, goes on a spree at the roulette wheel.

Grandmother’s gambling is crucial to the plot, but Dostoyevsky also structures his telling of her spree as a kind of self-contained vignette: a primer on how not to gamble, or the worst that can happen with gambling to the wrong sort of personality.  Grandmother has the bad luck to have very good beginner’s luck: seeing zero come up on her first bet (zero being the number in roulette that loses all bets except those on zero), she becomes convinced that she should bet on zero until it comes up, and it does, twice more, soon thereafter, and becoming convinced of her mastery of the wheel, she then bets everything she’s won on red — and wins again. Satisfied, she stops for the night, having won a massive amount.

But now she has the fever.  Grandmother is quite used to things going her way, to people obeying her commands — she is a Russian noblewoman, after all, owner of entire “villages” of people.  Her first observations of people playing roulette convince her that people are just “fools” for placing the wrong bets; they just don’t have God on their side, they just aren’t marked for greatness the way she is.  And so she goes back, and the bets she placed the previous day don’t work now, and she loses, and loses, and loses, and exchanges her Russian funds at a truly usurious rate, and loses some more, and even when she’s full of rage at how much she’s lost she remains convinced that she’ll win it all back, and cancels her first train back to Moscow, and goes through one more round of losing nearly everything she has.

This is how pure gambling (in games with no skill at all involved) works.  It reveals the obvious: there’s no rhyme or reason to luck.  God is absent, on no one’s side, particularly — unless it’s the house’s, which is a rather monstrous thought.  Or isn’t He?  Does He abase Grandmother?  All of this is interesting in relation to Dostoyevsky.  His telling of the passages in the casino is quite detailed, in terms of the wagers placed, the outcomes, the ebb and flow of the game; there is an investment in the play-by-play of the action which reveals his own gambling obsession, his attempts to work out how and why roulette seems so maddeningly simple and yet continues to take her (and his) money.  He is interested in these minutiae, and you can almost hear the frenzy of his narration of the events.

Most of the time the outcomes and wagers are realistically inconsistent, if that makes sense.  Dostoyevsky (through Alexsei, his narrator) inserts observations of how the game seems to work, with runs of numbers coming up over and over and then passing out of favor, with red or black coming up more than the other on a particular night and how this affects the wagers.  He seems honestly perplexed about whether these observations actually mean anything, reveal any system operating behind the random motion of the ball and the wheel.

This pattern breaks during Grandmother’s losing streak, when zero emerges as a Satanic figure.  Twice it comes up at crucial junctures right after she has forsaken it, speeding her fall while also fueling her rage and determination to win it all back; the cruel timing of these appearances in Dostoyevsky’s narrative, after zero has tempted Grandmother into earlier belief in its power, suggests that his roulette is not random, that it is an expression of the metaphysical.  (That Grandmother has been gambling with funds she’d originally earmarked for the renovation of a church is also quite suggestive of the Satanic power at work here.)  But this is not the end of the story.  Will Alexsei gamble his own money?  What will happen when he does?

Time, Reality, Authorship, and Other Delusions

March 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: VALIS, by Philip K. Dick.

Reading next: Against Nature (À Rebours), by J.-K. Huysmans, and Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, by S.S. Prawer.

VALIS is more or less the perfect book to read after Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, if I do say so myself.  Like Schreber’s book, it’s a cosmology and exegesis, not primarily a narrative, entertainment, or memoir.  Like Schreber’s book, the most interesting thing about it is the question of how seriously to take it. The question you keep asking yourself, when reading both books, is: Is this a joke? They’re batshit-crazy books.

Of course, there are different standards for VALIS.  Schreber, by all indications, was mentally ill, and both telling the story of his imprisonment and explaining the nature of the universe as he felt it had been revealed to him.  Dick was a novelist; his book was marketed as a novel; and despite the fact that the book is legendarily connected to the experience of “an invasion of [Dick’s] mind by a transcendentally rational mind” in 1974, it is (has to be) a fiction about madness, theology, reality.  It’s kind of Memoirs… turned inside out.

And the book’s main character, Horselover Fat, does have a stint in an asylum, after his miraculously unsuccessful suicide attempt.  Chapter 5, about this time, includes some great insights.  My favorite part of the book might be Fat’s interactions with Dr. Stone, a fascinating character — a “healer,” Fat believes, but possibly a quack and unstable himself.  Stone uses the unusual technique of simply believing his patients.  Stone takes an interest in Fat’s obsession with Gnostic Christianity and his theory that time stopped, kind of, in 70 A.D.: that time since then has been a delusion.  And as they discuss it, Fat seeks validity for one of his ideas.  “‘You would know,’ Dr. Stone said, and then he said something that no one had ever said to Fat before.  ‘You’re the authority,’ Dr. Stone said.”

Dr. Stone wasn’t insane: Stone was a healer.  He held down the right job.  Probably he had healed many people and in many ways.  He adapted his therapy to the individual, not the individual to the therapy.

That’s an interesting idea.  Most of the time we think that the problem with the seriously delusional — the schizophrenic, psychotic, what have you — is that they are too sure of their point of view.  They are sure they know.  This passage, in which Dr. Stone’s belief (real or feigned) in Fat’s theories is applauded as a therapeutic approach, seems to me to indicate that Dick really does want us to take Fat’s — the book’s — cosmology seriously.  Because you do not encourage the delusional to persist in their delusion.  Do you?

Here’s how Dick explains it, in one of the book’s best and most affecting passages:

They — note the “they” — paid Dr. Stone to figure out what had destroyed the patient entering the ward.  In each case a bullet had been fired at him, somewhere, at some time, in his life.  The bullet entered him and the pain began to spread out.  Insidiously, the pain filled him up until he split in half, right down the middle.  The task of the staff, and even of the other patients, was to put the person back together but this could not be done so long as the bullet remained.  All that lesser therapists did was note the person split into two pieces and begin the job of patching him back into a unity; but they failed to find and remove the bullet….  Dr. Stone had a paranormal talent, like his paranormal Bach remedies which were a palpable hoax, a pretext to listen to the patient.  Rum with a flower dipped into it — nothing more, but a sharp mind listening to what the patient said.

But as it turns out, Fat’s not healed after all.  If he was, he wouldn’t exist anymore, as we find out later.  (I think that “note the ‘they'” is PKD’s authorial interjection to tip us off to the fact: Fat’s/Dick’s persistent paranoia.)  So where’s that leave us?

As a novel, I have to say the book’s a failure (not that any PKD fan’s going to give a damn what I think).  It has about 50% too much going on: so many half-explained theories, overheated tracts on the nature of time and space, overreaching attempts to encompass too many very different ideas and religious systems in single symbols, muddled events.  (In this, it also resembles Schreber’s book, which could also be mind-numbingly boring in its minutiae of the workings of an obviously delusional and incomprehensible worldview.)

However, as a document, as an artifact of a mind with a vast capacity for idea- and narrative-generation shucking its habits and trying something vast and self-consciously “important,” it’s fascinating.  I do feel like lately, I keep harping on the narration of events rather than the events themselves.  I hate to keep being so meta in my reading; but it happens to be the most interesting thing about these books, to me.  I mean, I’m sure PKD would rather his readers took the opportunity to reflect on what they actually think about God, the existence of evil, and the connections between the religions of the world.  I’m sure he’d rather we talk about reality and whether our experiences are not often delusional in one way or another.

But the fact is, this is a book in which Philip K. Dick is a character, and so is one Horselover Fat — “Horselover” being the meaning of “Philip” in Greek, and “Fat” meaning “Dick” in German.  And it’s also a book in which Dick says, right up front, that he is Fat, but that he’s going to write as though he’s not.  And near the end of the book, Fat is reabsorbed into Dick.  Fat’s been a fiction all along, even in a fictional world.  Dick has been writing about an alter ego, a fictional version of himself.

You can see the whole narrative of this book as a complex allegory on the creation of fictions — of narratives, of universes.  VALIS is a term for a supposedly rational mind invading our irrational world, ruled by a “God” who thinks he’s the only god — a delusional god.  Is Dick trying to break out, and break his readers out, of the delusion of being the one true “God” of their fictions?  In other words, is the work self-consciously bogus — a hoax, like Stone’s, which really exists to listen and “believe”?

Near the end, Dick and Fat have become one and he and his friends have met the young girl Sophia (wisdom), who may be the “Savior.”  The group believes that Sophia tells them that “The time had come when we no longer had to believe in any deity other than ourselves.”  It’s wisdom shared in people, between people.  Is Dick trying to help us see that truth exists in between — in the communication, not in the interpretation?

The Top Ten Goofs of Vineland

August 8, 2008 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Vineland.

In case my scintillating analysis hasn’t convinced you to read (or re-read) Vineland, I’m listing below my ten favorite jokes, digressions, fables, and goofs (the majority of the book, really). Print it out, take it with you to the library, enjoy in air-conditioned splendor. (Plus, if you don’t check it out, the Feds can’t track you and your dangerously socialist borrowing habits!)

In paginated order:

-The first chapter is almost completely detachable, a zany, slapstick, perfect little mini-narrative of lumberjack-themed gay bars, Valley girls, DEA agents, transfenestration, and, of course, the Tube. Read it. Pretend it’s a short story.

-The Marquis de Sod commercial, p. 46-47. Please tell me a California landscaping company has co-opted this schtick by now.

-Takeshi’s adventures at Wawazume Life and Non-Life, p. 142-48. The inevitable Godzilla subplot.

-Sister Rochelle’s alternate version of the Garden of Eden, p. 166. Pretty close to the heart of the book’s sex stuff.

-The crazy preacher on p. 213 who interrupts the weather crew. This whole chapter about the People’s Republic of Rock and Roll is pretty great, actually.

-Weed’s adventures with Dr. Larry Elasmo, p. 225-229. Pynchon does Kafka!

-The Federal Emergency Evacuation Route, p. 248-49. Believable and paranoid.

-Brock on the airplane, p. 277. What the little girl sitting next to him shouts made me laugh harder than anything else in the book, but it’s also more than a throwaway. Great paragraph.

-The Noir Center, p. 326. Bubble Indemnity! (The whole interaction of Prairie and Che is great, actually, and I’m deeply impressed by how Pynchon uses Brent Musberger to make maybe his best point about how TV’s affected us: our desire to “be the one to frame,” to comment on our world and our lives rather than to act, to move.)

-The running gag of biopics starring wildly unusual actors, culminating on p. 370-71. This is a movie that must get made. (Just after this there’s a movie about the ’83-84 NBA playoffs with the Lakers as heroes, the Celtics as villains, but let me remind you that Pynchon’s always commenting on how the Tube distorts events, so I don’t think he’s necessarily a Lakers fan. Please, God, let it not be so.)

Some of the songs are funny, too, and there’s a passage in the last paragraph which might (it’s a very qualified might, even) explain the cartoonish sections of the book (more metafiction, if you choose to read it that way).

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