- A colleague dropped by today, burst in my office really, if you’ll forgive the cliché, animated, ecstatic almost—Read this!—he commanded, thrusting a big fat hardbacked Gore Vidal volume in front of me. Read this, his finger pointing to the last paragraph of the 1981 essay “Pink Triangle and Gold Star” (ostensibly a review of Renaud Camus’ novel Tricks). So I read it. See? It’s just like today! my colleague declared. Vidal’s essay ends with a call for the unity of marginalized people to resist “our ruling class” — the banks, The Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon — and “their kindly voice,” Ronald Reagan. We then had a brief discussion about Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, something I have until now refused to talk about at all because it’s all just too weird.
- I sometimes feel like I’m living in a Thomas Pynchon novel.
- I sometimes feel like I’m living in a J.G. Ballard short story.
- I sometimes feel like I’m living in some distorted, slipped timeline.
- Reading Philip K. Dick’s novel Martian Time-Slip, I kept wanting to burst into someone’s office, animated, pointing to a paragraph, crying, Read this! See? It’s just like today!
- Not that we’ve colonized Mars but—
- —colonial metaphors, yes? Cowboys and Indians…
- But also, that we’d want the final frontier to be just like home: Desert Mars with green lawns, irrigated flower gardens. Swimming pools. Dick’s Mars is California 1964 and California 2015. And: a water-scarce environment to come.
- Did I mention that the novel is set in 1994?
- I sometimes feel like I’m living in a Don DeLillo novel.
- But where was I? I launched into this riff with a long anecdote, so—What my colleague and I worked into was, ultimately, a discussion of the sheer irreality of modern life—the paranoia that permeates American culture, the sense that the last two decades seem like a bad repetition of Bad Times that outdated textbooks told us had been conquered.
- (Or maybe I’m just getting old).
- (Sorry for the scatterbrainededness of this ordeal. I finished the novel this afternoon and if I don’t get this down now it seems I won’t get anything down).
- So obviously you can find alienation, instability, and repetition right there in the title Martian Time-Slip.
- And Dick loads the novel with images and props and ideas to evoke those themes of alienation, instability, and repetition: autism, primitivism, schizophrenia.
- Colonies, camps, U.N. as World Police.
- Health food.
- And land speculation.
- And abjection.
- And abjection erupts in paranoia and irreality, pointing to a People Who Aren’t People:
He saw, through the man’s skin, his skeleton. It had been wired together, the bones connected with fine copper wire. The organs, which had withered away, were replaced by artificial components, kidney, heart, lungs—everything was made of plastic and stainless steel, all working in unison but entirely without authentic life. The man’s voice issued from a tape, through an amplifier and speaker system.
Possibly at some time in the past the man had been real and alive, but that was over, and the stealthy replacement had taken place, inch by inch, progressing insidiously from one organ to the next, and the entire structure was there to deceive others.
- —so the sense that the contemporary person is just a technological mediation, a deception, inauthentic. (Dear reader, attach this passage to what you will, but it seems to me surpassing prescient).
- I’ve done a poor job of outlining the plot, right? Sorry. But look, it’s a Philip K. Dick novel, and certainly one of his better ones—and if you’re a more-than-casual reader, you know it, I think, and if you’ve read his finest—VALIS, The Man in the High Castle, Ubik, A Scanner Darkly, Palmer Eldritch—you might should could read Time-Slip.
- But so plot, well: Here’s Lawrence Sutin on the novel, from Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick:
Life in the bleak Martian colonies bears a striking resemblance to business as usual on modern-day Earth…In the parched Martian colonies, grasping Arnie Kott is the chief of the powerful plumber’s union (based on the fifties Berkely Co-op Phil despised for its wrangling politics). The little guy, repairman Jack Bohlen, is a onetime schizophrenic who still lives with schizophrenia’s aftereffects. An autistic kid, Manfred Steiner, slipslides helplessly forward and backward in time, into realms of entropy and death.
- Arnie seeks to capitalize on Manfred’s timeslipping, and Dick—who, let’s just admit it, isn’t always the most writerly writer (whatever that means) handles the time slippage with rhetorical aplomb, making the reader slip-slide through time with Manfred, Arnie, and Jack. I shared an extended passage a few days ago as an example; it shows us (a version of) Manfred decaying in a future Martian slum. The imagery is abject and pitiful, evoking again the notion of a human’s decay into machination:
He lay there for a hundred and twentythree years and then his artificial liver gave out and he fainted and died. By that time they had removed both his arms and legs up to the pelvis because those parts of him had decayed.
He didn’t use them anyhow. And without arms he didn’t try to pull the catheter out, and that pleased them.
- Time-Slip rockets into rhetorical reverberation, cycling its final chapters into a strange decay. The timeslips jar the reader’s narrative perception—Hey wait, didn’t I already read this?—unsettling expectations, and ultimately suggesting that this Martian Time-Slip is just one version of Martian Time-Slip. That there are other timelines, distorted, slipped.
- And there are threads—wires, if we want to borrow one of the novel’s motifs—that don’t fully connect. There are short circuits, misfires, gaps. Dick tears into the real stuff, the inner material, and pulls it up to the surface without putting it all back together too neatly.
- There’s even a slippiness to the Dick’s resolved wires (if you’ll excuse my torturing the metaphor). The novel concludes in a strange jolt of domestic restoration, a kind of farce of the traditional comedic and tragic conventions where all returns to normal—there is no normal, never—and so No normal never is, paradoxically, paranoically, normal.
- I sometimes feel like I’m living in a Philip K. Dick novel.
Over the next few weeks, Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang and I will be discussing New American Stories, an anthology edited—or maybe “curated” is the right word, although I’m not sure—by Ben Marcus.
Edwin Turner: You got your copy of New American Stories? Let’s talk about the cover, the intro, and the first story, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Paranoia.”
Ryan Chang: The cover and the introduction, and hence the context of the selections, elegantly mesh, which is more than I can say for 99% of covers. But I like anything that Mendelsund touches. It’s quiet, understated, but an excellent visual metaphor for what Marcus discusses in his introduction. The best part about this cover is the spot where part of the word “Stories” tries to mingle with the blocked passage from the introduction. The two don’t merely coexist, or mesh at all, but exist in this static conflict. It seems to be what Marcus wants most out of this new anthology; it occurs to me that I don’t have a lot of anthologies because a) I find them pretty boring, b) if it’s going to be an anthology, it’s going to be non-Anglo and -American — most of the time, the anthologies featuring these authors are already on my shelf in one way or another, and when I flip through them in the book store, the new context in which I find an author (say, someone like Richard Yates and Barry Hannah) isn’t new and exciting.
ET: The cover is great—spine too. I agree with you that it’s “quiet”—although that’s a strange word, y’know, considering there’s so much going on there—so much text. But the book is handsome, and the cover presents as a baseline postmodern conundrum—Where does the text begin? The authorship question is there too, on the second page, the “Also by Ben Marcus” page—as if Marcus were the author of the collection. Which in a way he kinda sorta is—the whole mixtape/DJ/curator thing—I mean he’s the author of the “anthology,” the tracklist, the occasion. I’m generally suspicious of the overuse of the term “curator,” but I think it’s ultimately more apt than editor. And Marcus spins a cool set. The book is a tasty gateway drug.
Anthologies were really important to me when I was 15, 16, 23…but now I tend to think of them entirely in teaching terms, often in very jaded terms, honestly. I would love to be able to look over the selections here with fresher eyes, if you know what I mean. As a freshman in college, I read the 1994 anthology The Vintage Book of Contemporary Short Stories, which Tobias Wolff edited. It would be impossible for me to overestimate the importance of that for me—it introduced me to Barry Hannah, Denis Johnson, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, and all these other writers who simply weren’t on my radar. In retrospect, I realize that that anthology represented a very particular kind of writing, but I think Wolff captured something of an era there.
RC: The posture of most anthologies is to celebrate/represent the coalesced spirit of a kind of writing, or an era. And I only realized this reading through Marcus’s introduction. He writes, “This anthology aims to present … a sampler of behaviors and feelings we can very nearly have only through reading. A sourcebook of compulsory emotions.” I really like this. The focus of NAS is on language — as is to be expected in Marcus’s hands — and not on, say, a particular identity, era, or whatever. This is an anthology about the breadth of styles and forms — which brings me back to the cover. It’s a really brilliant illustration of Marcus’s guiding aesthetic principle in his own work and here: the productive tension between form and content. The scope of selection is wide, and encouraging from someone known to run in “experimental circles.” This is an anthology about aesthetic modes, not being an American.
ET: Parts of Marcus’s introduction feel a little like a wide-eyed sermon for the choir to me, but maybe I’m being cynical. Maybe I want him to be cynical with me. We all know why we’re here; get to the stories. His riffs on language and what and why we (might) use language offer an adequate “defense” of the title/mission New Stories—but there’s not really an engagement with the American aspect there, which, I suppose, might have played into a deeply ideological thing, a statement thing. Maybe A Sourcebook of Compulsory Emotions is a much much better title. But—but! But that first story, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Paranoia”—that’s a very American story, or, rather, that’s a story about America: nationalism, capitalism, racism, militarism, football, a Fourth of July scene? Oh, and, paranoia.
RC: The first story is a great opener, I think. It’s a classic realist mode, which, after reading the introduction, will get the reader to think, “Will something weird happen?” The weirdness that happens is the “moral honesty” that Marcus talks about in the introduction: the weirdness is in how normal this story is. I say classic and realist and I mean that the plot is straightforward, its language is plain and mostly functional (that is, free of any acoustical poetic attention or syntactical destruction), and about, quote-unquote, real people. Here’s the weird, and it’s not even that weird: the small talk we take for granted — i.e., when we ask the other person how they’re doing; in “Paranoia,” it’s the weather — becomes this refrain for each section in the story; Sayrafiezadeh deftly shows that repetition — i.e. stability — gives only the illusion of comfort, and that comfort in almost-knowing the weather is a salve against the American reality: that the worst will always happen. I won’t give the story away for anyone reading this post, but “Paranoia” works on two really brilliant moves. They’re pretty obvious maneuvers, but I think it shows that even in a more straightforward form, if one hones in on the tension between form and content — that is, diction/syntax and images the former evokes — some affecting writing is bound to occur. The other way — a commitment to a particular position — political, moral or otherwise — comes off cheap and stale.
ET: “Paranoia” asks its reader to attend closely to diction: “That word’s not called for!” is a through-line in the story. I almost wrote tale for story there (attending to diction), but “Paranoia” is not a tale. There’s no neat bow at the end. It succeeds on vibe, on mood, on the evocation of menace its title promises.
RC: Yeah, you’re right — it demands that the reader divert their attention away from the televised bombings of “the peninsula,” and on the subversive, subdermal ways in which language organizes reality — exactly how Marcus describes language in his introduction.
ET: So…let’s read the last story together next, no? Then, you pick one that’s a reread for you, but not for me, and we’ll read it—and then I’ll do the same—pick a reread for me that you haven’t read? Good?
- The final episode of the second season of True Detective airs on HBO tomorrow tonight [9 Aug 2015]. Popular and critical consensus seems to decree that this finale can only redeem Nic Pizzolatto’s supposed sophomore slump. I’m very much looking forward to the episode, as I’ve looked forward to each episode this season.
- Season 2 of True Detective is a much, much better show than its many noisy naysayers might maintain. It’s a neon noir satire, a potboiler bubbling over with lurid, sticky flux. It’s hilarious and anxious and abject. I riff more on it in point 10 if you want to jump down there now. (Or indulge my anxieties, if that’s your deal).
- A friend of mine pointed out over drinks a few weeks back that this season of the show will be reevaluated in a few years, after the True Detective serials have run their course. We agreed that the season will likely be reconsidered in a far more positive light. (Think season 2 of The Wire, if you will).
- Re: point 3—I’ve talked about the show all season long with friends—texted about it, etc. There’s something still vital there, no matter how much it may seem to curdle compared to season one. Maybe you’ve talked about it with your friends too, no?
- And re: point 4: I’ve had more people email or tweet me asking me to write about True Detective than anything ever. So, like, I’m trying, here.
- And re: point 5: I’m guessing folks wanted me to write about this season maybe because I wrote about it so damn much last year: About its agon with consciousness, its dreams and nightmares, its literary touches, its weakest episode, and its werewolves. And then I kind of failed to write, at least immediately, about the finale, and when I did write about it, I buried it in a riff on things I wish I’d written about, writing:
…I could not bring myself to write about the ending, in part because of the (perceived) negative backlash the conclusion received. I felt the need to address haters and doubters, when what I really wanted to comment on was the sheer beauty of the episode—its aesthetics, its greenness. Critics emphasized the bromantic ending, or the moment where Cohle seems to retreat (uncharacteristically) to metaphysics, but for me the signal moment was achieved when Hart is asked by his ex-wife and children, who attend him in his hospital bed, if he is alright. This question links back to a domestic lull in the middle of episode four. We see Hart and Cohle as roommates, as Lucinda Williams’s gentle song “Are You Alright?” plays. This is the middle of the series, and also the central question of the series: Are you alright? At the end of the series, Hart attempts to affirm that he is alright, but it is clear to everyone—audience, family, and Hart himself—that he isn’t.
- In that big fat quote above, I wrote that “I felt the need to address haters and doubters” about the end of season one; similarly, part of the anxiety of writing about season 2 is that one falls into the position of having to address the “discussion” — almost all negative chatter — about season 2 — instead of, you know, discussing the mood, aesthetics, and tone.
- And of course season 2 was born into a kind of Oedipal anxiety over its progenitor. Season 1 seemed to come from nowhere, black, electric, crackling with the charisma of its two leads.
- (I’m such a nerd that I had a dream a few weeks before the début of the second season where I dreamed I saw the second season and it wasn’t nearly as good as the first. Inside the dream, I knew that this was my subconscious helping to deflate anxieties. And over a fucking TV show! What’s wrong with me?) Well let’s get to whatever point I might have:
- The second season of True Detective can be read as a satire—on noir, on L.A. stories, on hardboiled pulp, on masculine anxieties. Yes: But it also plays as a satire on television itself, on viewer expectations even. Sincere satire never fully announces itself as such. This second season of True Detective is sincere satire.
- One satirical reading rule for True Detective Season 2 is introduced in the first episode, “The Western Book of the Dead.” In one of its more memorable sequences, Ray Velcoro dons a mask before beating up an Los Angeles Times reporter who was working on an “eight-part series” to expose corruption in Vinci. The scene reads as a metatextual prick at viewers hoping to have this eight-part series laid out neatly for them.
- The lurid violence here succeeds by connecting to a kernel of pathos for its perpetrator, Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell). Velcoro is surely the reason to watch this season. He anchors the satire in sincerity.
- We can find similar sincere satire in True Detective season 2’s superior cousin, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Inherent Vice. There are plenty of plot convergences between these two, but the tonal overlap is more interesting to me.
- Well, plot of course—
- —but wait a moment with plot: Mood. Ambiance. Tone. —Of course they are linked, plot and feeling—but this season has done a marvelous job evoking the dreadnights of David Lynch (and if the directors seem to borrow a bit heavily from Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway, so much the better). And The Long Goodbye. And Chinatown (talk about Oedipal anxieties!). But also Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (why not?). Or even The Big Lebowski.
- And the plot? What? Another reading rule, indulge me, indulge me, comes in the series’ overuse of aerial shots of L.A. freeways—big converging loops, sometimes black white gray, but often glowing lurid neon at night. The plot is easy to write off as a shaggy dog mess (see also Inherent Vice, Twin Peaks, The Big Lebowski), but it’s not. It does fit together (just like the plots of those examples I proffered parenthetically). You can even have someone explain the plot to you if you like. Ascending from the confusing and abject trenches, the looping freeways’ tangled violence resolves into a beautiful, complete, pulsing picture.
- And there are other reading rules that guide a viewer toward TD2’s satire—the bizarre cliffhanger “death” of Velcoro at the end of only the second episode, for example. The scene was thoroughly convincing in its morbidity and illogic, an illogic predicated on its audience’s intimate relationship with hoary TV tropes of yore.
- Or the insane gunfight at the end of the fourth episode (an answer, we know—and not a full answer, just a different one—to the famous thrilling single-take shot at the end of the fourth episode of the first season). The scene begins with nonchalant swagger and escalates into Michael-Bay-on-the-cheap territory. The hyperbole untethers from reality—it really gets out of hand fast—delivering an overabundance of violent spectation. The satire punctures any veneer of reality—but only momentarily. The end of the scene finds our detectives realizing how awful things went.
- Or? Or the body of our (ostensible) murder victim, Ben Caspere, chauffeured about a la Weekend at Bernies? Or the scene at the Chessani estate? Or Woodrugh’s cheeks flapping in the wind? Or the saloon that Velcoro frequents, with a witch guitarist on retainer? Or the Elvis impersonator? Or the Good People commune? (Reminds me that I forgot to namedrop The Source Family in points 15 or 16). Or the garbage apocalypse movie? Rick fucking Springfield? The masks? The dildos? The knives? The teeth? The eyes? Or the fucking orgy scene, with its wonderful syrup soundtrack?
- The satire overwhelms, I mean, re: point 19. The satire normalizes, elides its own satirical contours. L.A. and Environs of TD2 is absurd, abject, and surreal. It’s fun stuff.
- And this, re: point 20, is what maybe fails to connect with so many viewers who’ve been so critical of the season—It takes itself too seriously! is a common accusation. But no, I don’t think it does, not a bit.
- This isn’t to say that the actors aren’t acting so seriously—sometimes to the point that they appear to be in entirely different series from each other. Vince Vaughn is an easy example here. He’s not just playing against type as Frank Semyon, he’s playing against strength. And common sense. And maybe even good taste. (Although I don’t think good taste has anything to do with TD2). Vaughn’s Semyon occasionally comes to life when he’s back in his rough-and-tumble element, but for the most part, his character seems to be one long deadpan (emphasis on dead) satire of audience expectations.
- Let me anticipate: Look, pal, are you saying that Vince Vaughn is bad on purpose in True Detective? No. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that he was a bad but interesting bet for the role, and I think he was cast as a satirical jab at audience expectations.
- And but still, re: point 22, re VV’s Semyon: When, on his revenge kick in ep 5, he delivers the simile “It’s like blue balls in your heart,” what other option is there but to laugh hysterically? I mean, spit out your precious bourbon even, if it’s in your mouth! Blue balls in your heart is a satirical metaphor, the punchline to the series’ set-ups of masculine anxieties. It’s an especially excellent example of one of many, many lines in TD2 that oozes pulp. The audience is to chew that pulp and like it. (Or do a spit-take).
- 25 points seem like too many points in a riff, as these things go, and too much has been written about True Detective Season 2 anyway—which attests maybe to its zeitgeistiness, if not its greatness. I’ve enjoyed the season very much, and I do not care at all if its loops cohere into some greater picture in the finale. I’ll happily settle for some ridiculous hardboiled neon noir satire.
The second part of my (long) interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion. Chock full of all sorts of riffage: sincerity, authenticity, Vollmann’s visual art, etc. Special bonus: slightly frazzled Franzen pic.
I reread David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest in June/July. First time I’d read the whole thing since 2001. I wrote about reading the first 299 pages. I was also reading some of the essays in William H. Gass’s Fiction and the Figures of Life, and I riffed at some length on Wallace contra Gass, masscult entertainment, etc. From that riff:
…this is Wallace’s big insight in Infinite Jest, right?—that our consciousnesses, mapped in the muck, are framed in desire and reward, and we are conditioned/subjected into that system of desire/reward, so that we desire the desire, even as our consciousnesses…can sneer at something we love, can dismiss the muck that helped shape us even as we plunge into it, the muck. And—too, part of Wallace’s insight in Infinite Jest—too, the consciousness of the consciousness of the desire of desire—that that’s, like, the contemporary condition. And what Wallace…seems to want to point to is some way out of the muck of pop consciousness, a reconciliation toward a pure consciousness that doesn’t sneer—right?
Here’s that owl—with a special guest no less!
Early in J.G. Ballard’s 2003 novel Millennium People, our narrator David Markham remarks that “A vicious boredom ruled the world, for the first time in human history, interrupted by meaningless acts of violence.” The sentence delivers three of the novel’s key terms: boredom, meaningless, and violence. These words (or iterations of these words) repeat so often in Millennium People that any connotative spark they might bear becomes dulled. Even the violence becomes boring.
The violence in the novel resonates from its central plot about a middle-class revolution in Chelsea Marina, an “enclave of middle-class decorum.” Corporate psychologist David Markham is drawn into this revolution after his ex-wife dies in an apparently-meaningless bombing at Heathrow Airport. (She dies at the baggage carousel—symbolically-overloaded and thoroughly-Ballardian). Initially, Markham’s goal is to infiltrate the group as a kind of unwitting police spy. However, he soon takes part in acts of terrorism and meaningless violence, led in large part by Kay Churchill, an ex-film studies professor who rails against the evils of Hollywood and travel. Soon, Kay ventriloquizes Markham:
…I could hear her voice inside my head: bullying, pleading, sensible and utterly mad. The middle class was the new proletariat, the victims of a centuries-old conspiracy, at last throwing off the chains of duty and civic responsibility.
Kay eventually leads Markham to Millennium People’s would-be heart of darkness, demented pediatrician Dr. Richard Gould. Kay and Markham:
‘Richard says that people who find the world meaningless find meaning in pointless violence.’
‘Richard? Dr Richard Gould?’
‘You’ll meet him again, when he’s ready. He’s the leader of our middle-class rebellion. His mind is amazingly clear, like those brain-damaged children he looks after. In a way, he’s one of them.’
Kay is a far more interesting character than Gould. Unfortunately, Ballard teases out Gould as the Big Bad, occasionally having him show up to dialogue with Markham on finding big-em Meaning in all the meaninglessness of the world. God as a Void, the evils of the 20th century infecting the new millennium, etc. These ideas repeat and repeat and repeat, bumping along a muddled plot. Indeed, much of the plot and many of the themes of Millennium People might be condensed into this conversation between Markham and his one-time colleague/boring-assed doppelgänger Henry the psychologist. Markham speaks first in this exchange, explaining the revolution to Henry (I’ve added bold-faced emphasis if you’re in a hurry):
‘Middle-class pique. We sense we’re being exploited. All those liberal values and humane concern for the less fortunate. Our role is to keep the lower orders in check, but in fact we’re policing ourselves.’
Henry watched me tolerantly over his whisky. ‘Do you believe all that?’
‘Who knows? The important thing is that the people at Chelsea Marina believe it. It’s amateurish and childish, but the middle classes are amateurish, and they’ve never left their childhoods behind. But there’s something much more important going on. Something that ought to worry your friends at the Home Office.”
“And that is?’
‘Decent and level-headed people are hungry for violence.’
‘Grim, if true.’ Henry put down his whisky. ‘Directed at what?’
‘It doesn’t matter. In fact, the ideal act of violence isn’t directed at anything.’
‘The exact opposite. This is where we’ve all been wrong – you, me, the Adler, liberal opinion. It isn’t a search for nothingness. It’s a search for meaning. Blow up the Stock Exchange and you’re rejecting global capitalism. Bomb the Ministry of Defence and you’re protesting against war. You don’t even need to hand out the leaflets. But a truly pointless act of violence, shooting at random into a crowd, grips our attention for months. The absence of rational motive carries a significance of its own.‘
While Ballard’s diagnosis of the end of the 20th century is both perceptive and prescient, the novel’s repetitions build to very little. Ballard puts his interlocutors into fascinating territory, but then squirms away. Here’s Gould holding forth to Markham:
We’re living in a soft-regime prison built by earlier generations of inmates. Somehow we’ve got to break free. The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 was a brave attempt to free America from the 20th Century. The deaths were tragic, but otherwise it was a meaningless act. And that was its point.
Markham then immediately turns the conversation to the Heathrow bombing that killed his ex-wife. The potential for a shocking exchange simply veers back to the novel’s central thesis.
And that thesis becomes muddied. Markham, Gould, Kay, and other revolutionaries make bold, radical declarations, but often append them in a sentimentality at odds with their revolutionary claims. Ballard’s characters let us know that they think murder is wrong. The contradiction between the impulse for meaningless violence and the core (and very middle-class) values that often restrains the impulse remains unexplored. This unresolved contradiction might have been a purposeful tactic meant to highlight the limits of our narrator’s desire for real revolution, but there’s little to lead a reader to this conclusion beyond his own hopeful imagination. Ballard seems as uncommitted as the characters.
A lack of force and shock—that’s the problem of Millennium People, I suppose. It’s unfair and unproductive to expect Ballard to rewrite Crash or High-Rise here, even though he’s playing with many of the same themes and motifs. And yet those novels exist. Dr. Richard Gould is a pale answer to Crash’s Dr. Robert Vaughan (or Richard Wilder of High-Rise or Strangman of The Drowned World or Dr. Barbara of Rushing to Paradise…). Ballard’s satire suffers from a lack of full commitment. The hyperbole peters out; the tonal inconsistencies, far from clashing, become dull.
Still, there’s much to commend in Millennium People even if it falls short of Ballard’s finest work. The novel’s larded with little riffs and satirical observations: “America invented the movies so it would never need to grow up,” Kay remarks. Markham observes in a riot “the outrage of professional men and women who had never known pain and whose soft bodies had been pummelled only by their lovers and osteopaths.” We’re informed that “From now on ordering an olive ciabatta is a political act.” (I would love to read the notebook where Ballard recorded these phrases, if such a treasure exists).
Millennium People’s prescience—like most of Ballard’s previous work—only comes into sharper relief over time. The erosion of the middle class, the spike in income inequality, the inability of regular working people to live in places like London or New York City anymore—Ballard’s mapped it all out here. The contemporary world Ballard satirizes in Millennium People—published just a few years before his death in 2009—is already thoroughly Ballardian. The millennium caught up to the man.
- With the bad taste of a recentish YAish post-apocalyptish novel in my brain, I riffled through some old sci-fi titles, hoping to find something to hit “reset.” J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise—which I hadn’t read since I was a teenager—wrapped me up immediately with its opening sentence:
- (If the promise of that first line doesn’t intrigue you, High-Rise isn’t for you. Maybe you’ll enjoy all the old High-Rise covers I couldn’t help but to scatter through this riff).
- The first chapter of High-Rise is aptly titled “Critical Mass.” This is a book where things, uh, escalate quickly, if you’ll forgive my indulging in the parlance of our times. Ballard dispenses with any simmering in his tale of depraved debauchery (or is that debauched depravity?). He gets that pot boilin’.
- Depravity. Debauchery. Degeneration. The boiling pot of late-20th century consciousness.
- So, what is High-Rise about? Like, the plot, man? Class-war in a high-rise condo: A self-contained society that fails, its id overspilling into sex and violence: The veneer dissolved in piss and spite. And the best part? Ballard dispenses with any sort of explanation whatsoever. We begin at critical mass. He counted on his late-20th-century reader to intuit the whole damn deal (or throw down the book in defensive disgust).
- Ballard structures the book around three anti-heroes, who represent, probably, id, ego, and superego—or rather, what I mean to say is ironic send-ups of id, ego, and superego—with the high-rise itself a kind of consciousness in crisis.
- From the middle-class (and perhaps ego)—the 25th floor—there’s Dr. Robert Laing—not really a practicing doctor, no, but he works at a teaching hospital. Ballard tricks us into thinking he’s the protagonist—which I guess he is!—by which I mean audience surrogate, and also typical Ballardian hero (divorced; mama issues; a drinker). His name may recall to you the (anti-)psychiatrist R.D. Laing (as well as, perhaps, Language).
- We might find a tidy—as in sanitary–summary of High-Rise in this brief excerpt, where our ego hero Laing packs away his tools and totems of the old world in anticipation of the new one to come:
In this suitcase-sized cavity he hid away his cheque book and insurance policies, tax returns and share certificates. Lastly, he forced in his medical case with vials of morphine, antibiotics and cardiac stimulants. When he nailed the floorboards back into place he felt that he was sealing away for ever the last residues of his previous life, and preparing himself without reservation for the new one to come.
- The phrase “to come” — as in a future to come — repeats throughout High-Rise—a kind of irony, ultimately, that I shouldn’t step all over here. I’ll get back to that momentarily, but—
- Ballard soon trips us up by shifting his free-indirect style from Laing to Richard Wilder of the 2nd floor. A bestial brawny brawly dude (and the only father in this trio of anti-heroes) Wilder (c’mon with that name man!) is id id id all the way down (up). Wilder’s also a filmmaker, a camera in his hand, a sensing thing all the way down (up). He causes some problems.
- (The idea that a middle-class man like Wilder might represent the proletariat here is addressed in more (although oblique) depth in Ballard’s 2003 novel Millennium People).
- And then the super-ego/upper crust: Anthony Royal (O! c’mon with that name dammit!) of the penthouse. He’s the literal architect of the high-rise, which makes him possibly maybe probably responsible for its many, many design flaws, which boil down to intake, outtake, and power, but look like parking, garbage, and electricity.
- And so Ballard shuttles us between these three consciousnesses, like the elevators that symbolically anchor this novel. (Anchor is a terrible verb for these mobile metaphors. Or maybe it’s the precise verb).
- Like I said in point 5, Ballard doesn’t really bother to foreground the causes for the high-rises’s society’s degenerate descent (ascent?)—instead, he offers concrete contours and psychological descriptions. Like this one, when a psychiatrist (yep) offers this analysis to Laing (and the reader, of course):
I had a bucket of urine thrown over me this afternoon. Much more of that and I may take up a cudgel myself. It’s a mistake to imagine that we’re all moving towards a state of happy primitivism. The model here seems to be less the noble savage than our un-innocent post-Freudian selves, outraged by all that over-indulgent toilet-training, dedicated breast-feeding and parental affection — obviously a more dangerous mix than anything our Victorian forebears had to cope with. Our neighbours had happy childhoods to a man and still feel angry. Perhaps they resent never having had a chance to become perverse . . .
- (“Perverse” is a term that repeats throughout High-Rise, and I had to leave in those bucket of urine and cudgel details).
- The concrete contours, the description, the late-20th century analysis—that’s the reason to boil along with High-Rise. The book is fucking fun in its thrilling awful decadence—it’s Lord of the Flies for adults, with the spiritual mumbo-jumbo replaced with psychiatric mumbo-jumbo. Or Salò.
- Back to that future to come thing, here’s another citation, at some length (enjoy those concrete contours), but with my emphasis in boldface if you’re in some big fucking hurry:
Still uncertain how long he had been awake, or what he had been doing half an hour earlier, Laing sat down among the empty bottles and refuse on the kitchen floor. He gazed up at the derelict washing-machine and refrigerator, now only used as garbage-bins. He found it hard to remember what their original function had been. To some extent they had taken on a new significance, a role that he had yet to understand. Even the run-down nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways. Laing pondered this — sometimes he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.
- Ballard’s describing the late 20th century there, but perhaps he intuits the beginning of the 21st as well.
- —Or maybe those are the same thing, I suppose—I mean, High-Rise was published in 1975, four decades ago, but doesn’t feel that old. For some perspective, Karel Capek’s War with the Newts was published in 1936, almost forty years before High-Rise, and that novel doesn’t feel horribly dated either, a tribute to its sharp satire.
- —Which is my way of transitioning to the probably completely non-controversial idea that High-Rise is wonderful dark satire. Ballard ushers our consciousness to the high-rise’s summit through surrogate Laing, the limited concrete prose focused on the failed doctor’s misperception of transcendence. Laing perceives himself as the conquering brute, alpha male par excellence, inheritor not only of the falling high-rise, but also its female cohort, his harem in a future to come, his genealogical generativity restored. Laing can’t see that he’s been x’ed out of this equation, the failed phallic figure jutting impotently into mother sky.
- So you know that High-Rise is going to be a movie? A Major Motion Picture? Starring Tom Hiddleston? As cynical as I am, I think the book should make a fine film—it’s adaptable, yes. It could even be a great video game. A video game where you eat a dog. A video game where you think you win, but you don’t.
The short review is, “Nell Zink’s début novel The Wallcreeper is extraordinary.”
But this argument is insufficient, unsupported, you, dear reader, may protest. Why should you spend your hard-earned time reading The Wallcreeper, eh? (I read the book in four sittings. I was late to Sunday dinner for finishing the thing). To invert one of the better book short book reviews I’ve ever read: Every sentence made me want to read the next sentence. Is that not a good enough reason to read The Wallcreeper? Maybe you want to read some of those sentences. Here’s the first one:
I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.
Or a page or two later when our heroine/narrator Tiffany describes how she met Stephen:
Our first meeting prevented a crime. He saw me standing in front of the open gate of the vault.
(Don’t worry about that crime). Oh, and, on that first meeting with Stephen:
It was one of those moments where you think: We will definitely fuck. It might take a while, though, because Stephen looked as respectable as I did.
And here’s a simile from Tiffany, just because I love the line and can wedge it in here:
After the cranes had landed, the geese passed overhead in so many Vs that they merged into Xs and covered the entire sky like a fishnet stocking.
It occurs to me now that I’m probably doing this wrong, right? I should be summarizing the book a bit, no? I’m not particularly interested in that—the plot is the sentences—I mean, yeah, there’s a plot, about Tiffany and Stephen in Berne and later Berlin—and some other places too—and the different lovers they take and the various projects they undertake—music, language acquisition, ecoterrorism—and lots of birdwatching.
Maybe I should lazily just reblurb Keith Gessen’s blurb:
Who is Nell Zink? She claims to be an expatriate living in northeast Germany. Maybe she is; maybe she isn’t. I don’t know. I do know that this first novel arrives with a voice that is fully formed: mature, hilarious, terrifyingly intelligent, and wicked. The novel is about a bird-loving American couple that moves to Europe and becomes, basically, eco-terrorists. This is strange, and interesting, but in between is some writing about marriage, love, fidelity, Europe, and saving the earth that is as funny and as grown-up as anything I’ve read in years. And there are some jokes in here that a young Don DeLillo would kill to have written. I hope he doesn’t kill Nell Zink
The DeLillo comparison is apt, but Zink’s novel is funnier than anything DeLillo’s done in ages. Maybe that’s not fair. “Funny” seems like a weak word, really, for Zink and her narrator Tiffany (and Stephen)—all the words I would use to describe what Zink’s doing here seem pale and imprecise. I mean witty, smart, intelligent, devastating, confounding. Extraordinary, right, that was the word I used above, yes? (He looks the word up in an online dictionary, somehow at 36 and a lifelong native English speaker unsure what it actually means). A placeholder like strange would work, except some of y’all take that word as a pejorative. Eccentric or quirky imply, I think, a rhetorical imprecision wholly absent from the novel. The Wallcreeper is a precise book. The book is very good. It is an interesting book. (What awful sentences those were! But true).
Can you know a book through the words the reviewer uses to describe it though? (No). Can you really know a character through the words she launches your way, anyway? In The Wallcreeper, Tiffany doesn’t really know herself, or Stephen, and the narrative is in some ways her kinda sorta finding out about herself (and Stephen, and other stuff), in a non-urgent manner. Or maybe very urgent, I don’t know—she and Stephen are in a constant state of crisis, sort of, or epiphany-making—
Our marriage had begun in the most daunting way imaginable. We had barely known each other, and then we had those accidents and that jarring disconnect between causes (empty-headed young people liking each other, wallcreepers) and effects (pain, death).
A wallcreeper is a small bird with crimson wings, by the way.
The titular wallcreeper, also by the way, is the thing that makes Stephen swerve in that opening sentence I shared for you above. The book is full of swerves, dips, dives, turns—each sentence swerves into the next, artfully, gracefully, precisely. Tiffany’s consciousness, or the language that Zink uses to represent Tiffany’s consciousness, swerves:
We walked down into the lower garden and sat on a bench. He looked into the pond and remarked favorably on the lack of goldfish. I thought of all the spawn-guzzling carp I had admired in the past and felt abashed. I shrank at the vulgarity of raptures over beauty, nature’s most irrelevant and unnecessary quality.
But where was I? I think swerves was the metaphor I was batting about a bit—well, I suppose I could go on, suggest that all that swerving swerves up to Something More, that the novel swerves (swells? no, not swells) to an ending shot-through with mythical undertones (which our narrator punctures)—I mean to say that, yes, okay, the novel is a wonderful witty aesthetic read—each sentence made me want to read the next sentence—but readers who require More Than That will also get it. Or maybe not. The Wallcreeper, like all extraordinary novels, is Not For Everyone. The Wallcreeper was/is for me though, and I hope it will also be for you too.
The Wallcreeper is available directly from publisher The Dorothy Project and finer bookshops.
[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit (a book I’ve always loved). I’ve preserved the reviewers’ original punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.].
The Hobbit stinks.
It is just so boreing.
“DEATH TO HOBBITS!”
This is such a horrible book.
Gandalf the wizard is a bogus
Swoar, lil’ fools wack for REALL.
And what’s this thing about hairy feet?
Crying because the story will NOT END!
my mom liked it (what’s wrong with her? )
Spend your money on Harry Potter instead.
I dought we will ever finish this horrible book.
No offense, but the suspense was not at all amusing
I know for a fact that there are several of Hobbit fans.
Bilbo is a Hobbit who seems not to do much in the story.
it was as if a ten year old coul’ve made up these characters.
forget about all the other reviews. they just think bilbo the bimbo is hot.
This is a dangerous book and is an extremely bad influence on adolescents.
Not only that, it is also more boring than having tea with nan and the relatives.
There is no action and Bilbo Baggins is the biggest a$$ in a fantasy novel ever.
This is a prime example of what happens when Star Trek and Star Wars dorks pick up a book.
No originality whatsoever is involved and the pages make me wish I was not even in existence.
After reading literary masterpieces by Robert Jordan, and Aurther C. Clark, books like these seem pointless.
The book is about a young hobit that goes on an adventurer to get rid of a ring that if you w where it you turn e ebook
One more things on the dwarves. They are useless characters and this story makes me want to vomit.
This book is a story of your everyday savior (supposedly Bilbo) having adventures and slaying a dragon.
The ending of the story is horrible and it seems that Tolkien wasted his POOR and SENSELESS usage of his brain.
They also don’t fit the spirit of dwarves, but then again after time they evolved into the grumpy alchoholics fantasy tends to portray them as.
I sit there reading every single word of it, but I think about something else. I read “Bilbo blah blah blah,” but think “Oh what am I gonna do today after school?”
Bilbo is not exactly the character which you would find addicted to. He stammers and is basically a coward.
This yogurt tastes awful! This is the worst yogurt I have ever tasted!
And like all stories, there are monsters and strange happenings.
What was I drinking when I decided to read this piece of junk?
:-( Boo! :-( Boo! :-( Boo! :-( Boo! :-( Boo!:-(
I despise and loathe this series tremendously.
I’m just glad this guy’s dead. :)
Bilbo reminds me of a pig.
“DIE HOBBITS, DIE!”
Idiotic and Irritating.
to many characters!
this is some butt
David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest poses rhetorical, formal, and verbal challenges that will confound many readers new to the text. The abundance of (or excess of) guides and commentaries on the novel can perhaps have the adverse and unintentional consequence of making readers new to Infinite Jest believe that they can’t “get it” without help. Much of the online analyses and resources for Infinite Jest are created by and targeted to readers who have finished or are rereading the novel. While I’ve read many insightful and enlightening commentaries on the novel over the years (and, in particular, over the past six weeks rereading IJ), my intuition remains that the superabundance of analysis may have the paradoxical effect of actually impeding readers new to the text. With this in mind, I’d suggest that first-time readers need only a dictionary and some patience.
(Still: Two online resources that might be useful are “Several More and Less Helpful Things for the Person Reading Infinite Jest,” which offers a glossary and a few other unobtrusive documents, and “Infinite Jest: A Scene-by-Scene Guide,”which is not a guide at all, but rather a brief series of synopses of each scene in the novel, organized by page number and year; my sense is that this guide would be helpful to readers attempting to delineate the novel’s nonlinear chronology—however, I’d advise against peeking ahead).
The big advantage (and pleasure) of rereading Infinite Jest is that the rereader may come to understand the plot anew; IJ is richer and denser the second go around, its themes showing brighter as its formal construction clarifies. The rereader is free to attend to the imagery and motifs of the novel more intensely than a first-time reader, who must suss out a byzantine plot propelled by a plethora of characters. Readers new to IJ may find it helpful to attend from the outset to some of the novel’s repeated images, words, and phrases. Tracking motifs will help to clarify not only the novel’s themes and “messages,” but also its plot. I’ve listed just a few of these motifs below, leaving out the obvious ones like entertainment, drugs, tennis (and, more generally, sports and games), and death. The list is in no way definitive or analytic, nor do I present it as an expert; rather, it’s my hope that this short list might help a reader or two get more out of a first reading.
A note on the context of the first reading, subsequent ventures, and this rereading
I bought David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest in 1997 when I was a freshman in college, as required by law. I attempted reading it a few times without really getting to page 100. (I did read and reread the short stories and the essays and Wallace’s first novel in that time though. None were assigned readings. The DFW Academic Industry was not a Thing yet).
The first time I read the book the whole way through was in the weird fall of 2001, the first fall I hadn’t returned to school because I had graduated from school, the fall of 9/11, the fall I moved to Tokyo the week after 9/11, packing the book in a smallish suitcase that the airport security guy had to take everything out of with his latex-gloved hands, removing every item, all the clothes and books, because I was traveling on a one-way ticket to a foreign land. It was in that weird fall that I finally read the book, reading mostly in the very very early a.m., sometimes reading for hours, reading too late, becoming addicted.
In years since, I’ve poked at rereadings, often looking for very specific passages/sections, and always meaning to do a full reread, but there are all those other big books that need to get read (and then reread).
Well so and anyway: This reread has been prompted by back-to-back readings of Gravity’s Rainbow, which I take to be the most obvious precursor text for Infinite Jest (and likely the greatest source of Wallace’s Oedipal anxiety if we want to get all Bloomian). I thought about Infinite Jest a lot while reading GR.
So far, like any rereading of a big encyclopedic novel, Infinite Jest seems much, much easier than my initial go through (although coming off GR almost anything would probably seem much, much easier). With the contours of the “big plot” in place (and the rhetorical dazzle of some of Wallace’s embedded-essays not as blinding as before), focusing on details, patterns, and motifs becomes simply more possible. (I don’t think I connected Hal’s clipping his toenails in Ch. 18 to the toenails Gately finds in Ennet House in Ch. 19 before, f’r’instance). (There are no actual chapter numbers in IJ, although there are circles separating chapters which can be counted).
A note to readers new to Infinite Jest
Infinite Jest is very long but it’s not nearly as difficult as its reputation suggests. There is a compelling plot behind the erudite essaying and sesquipedalian vocabulary. That plot develops around three major strands which the reader must tie together, with both the aid of—and the challenge of—the novel’s discursive style. Those three major plot strands are the tragic saga of the Incandenzas (familial); the redemptive narrative of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, with Don Gately as the primary hero (socicultural); and the the schemes of the Québécois separatists (national/international/political). An addictive and thus deadly film called Infinite Jest links these three plots (through discursive and byzantine subplots).
Wallace often obscures the links between these plot strands, and many of the major plot connections have to be intuited or outright guessed. Furthermore, while there are clear, explicit connections between the plot strands made for the reader, Wallace seems to withhold explicating these connections until after the 200-page mark. Arguably, the real contours of the Big Plot come into (incomplete) focus in a discussion between Hal Incandenza and his brother Orin in pages 242-58. While that scene by no means telegraphs what happens in IJ, it nonetheless offers some promise that the set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes shall add up to Something Bigger. Continue reading “Some notes from 299 pages into a rereading of Infinite Jest”