- 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that permeates American culture, the sense that the last two decades seem like a bad repetition of Bad Times that outdated textbooks told us had been conquered.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.
I’m safe here at my office, away from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I almost certainly would not dare to write about it were it proximal. If the book were here with me, its text would infect me, and I’d replicate it in chunks here for you, dear reader, to sort out (or not sort out) as you wish (or do not wish).
□ □ □ □ □ □ □
I’m almost finished with Gravity’s Rainbow, which is how I know that I’m not finished with Gravity’s Rainbow. I’m going to have to read it again. (I want to read it again).
□ □ □ □ □ □ □
I’m about fifty pages from the last page—just got through/endured/delighted in/icked and acked at the Gross Suckling Conference, or, as I like to think of it, the alliterative abject dinner party.
□ □ □ □ □ □ □
Gravity’s Rainbow is filled with more abject imagery than any novel I’ve ever read.
□ □ □ □ □ □ □
I mean abjection here in the general sense of degradation, etc., but also in the specific sense that Julia Kristeva uses in Powers of Horror:
The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall), that which has irremediably come a cropper, is cesspool, and death; it upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance. A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver. If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled. The border has become an object. How can I be without border? That elsewhere that I imagine beyond the present, or that I hallucinate so that I might, in a present time, speak to you, conceive of you—it is now here, jetted, abjected, into “my” world. Deprived of world, therefore, I fall in a faint. In that compelling, raw, insolent thing in the morgue’s full sunlight, in that thing that no longer matches and therefore no longer signifies anything, I behold the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders: fainting away. The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.
□ □ □ □ □ □ □
Forgive me for citing at such length, but perhaps Kristeva summarizes some aspect of Gravity’s Rainbow that deeply interests me: The core of the novel (the core that Pynchon atomizes, decentralizes, scatters like his main man Tyrone Slothrop)—the core of the novel rests on love and death, me and not-me: “How can I be without border?” The war and its corpses and rockets and dissolutions. Continue reading “A scattered riff on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow”
Watching (again) Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood last night, it struck me that the film can be read as an expansion of the epilogue to Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian.
Here is that infamously perplexing passage, a strange note that punctuates the devastating infanticidal horror at the novel’s core:
In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.
I’ve heard numerous interpretations of this passage over the years. Many of the interpretations dwell on the metaphorical power of the epilogue—it’s the final gnostic clue in the Judge’s web of mysteries; it’s the Promethean redemption of humanity against the Judge’s evil; it’s the spirit of civilization that will measure and conquer the bloody West, a progressive new dawn; it’s Cormac McCarthy’s signature, his designation of himself as the writer who carries the fire.
I’m fine with all of these interpretations, for I foolishly take Judge Holden at his word when he points out that, “Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.” Let me eschew the symbolic then, at least momentarily, for the literal.
The epilogue’s literal imagery suggests a man working with post hole diggers: Is he building a fence? Constructing telegraph poles? Exploring? Surveying? Whatever his intentions, he marks and measures the land.
Whether the digger is a leader or not, he has followers, “the wanderers in search of bones” as well as “those who do not search.” Bones of what? Are the searchers hunting relics? (To revert to the metaphorical—sorry—are these bones the dead eyes Emerson warned us not to look through?). Or are the bones something else—dinosaur bones, Texas tea, carbon, fuel?
So There Will Blood and there will be bones: Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview, a misanthropic, near-malevolent, and ultimately murderous oil man—what I want to say is that he is (a failed version of) McCarthy’s Epilogue Digger. Is not There Will Be Blood a film about digging, about holes, falling in holes, dying holes, striking fire from holes? And is not There Will Be Blood also a film about the abjection of holes—the oil, the mud, the much, the blood that coats hands and faces, eyes, lips, ears burst? Of the recapitulation of the hole as the primal space for culture—a fertile, generative, fecund, deadly space? The hole as the space of shame and possibility? Daniel Plainview, surveying California, marking lines for his followers to follow, striking oil, striking fire. No?
We might see in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film a repetitious revision of McCarthy’s novel—a recasting of sorts, with Plainview possessed by Glanton’s maniacal spirit—and Glanton in turn possessed by the spirit of the Judge, the dark omnipresent bad father. Both film and novel mediate their Oedipal dramas in an utterly masculine world. Blood Meridian affords more speaking roles to women than There Will Be Blood does, but both see fit to discharge any notion of a mother from the Oedipal contests they depict, rendering the kid in each narrative the warden of strange gangs, strange wanderers. Anderson allows H.W. to suffer but live and perhaps thrive, to find a mate, to escape into new and alien territory, outside of the holes his surrogate father has dug. Our would-be hero of Blood Meridian, the kid, dies in an outhouse, an abject hole.
And Daniel Plainview—he murders the false priest (which the judge failed to do—although Tobin was a true priest though ex-priest), murders a version of himself—another brother, another Abel. He’s not a good guy. If we read McCarthy’s epilogue through his latest novel, The Road, or even through some of the lines in No Country for Old Men, we can see that “the good guys” are charged with carrying the fire—and is this not what the Epilogue Digger is doing? Carrying the fire, freeing the fire from the earth? Plainview would like to carry the fire, to generate new life, new communities, but he fails, he falls, he crumbles. He abandons his child, and then denies his child. “I’m finished!”
Am I finished? I’m now more confused than when I started this riff. The germ of the idea woke with me this morning—the alien landscape of PTA’s film seemed to restage for me moments in McCarthy’s novel in some waking dream—and like a dream seemed perfectly illogically logical. But bound up in my language I’m not so sure. What I did detect in the film, last night, that I had previously perhaps missed, or maybe forgotten, was how admirable Daniel Plainview often is, especially early on in the film—decisive, bold, asserting his own agency and working with his own hands, he’s a Nietzschean figure. But his paranoia gives way to madness and corruption. Okay. I’m finished.
“If one did not wish to suffer Horror directly,” comments the Revd in his Day-Book, “one might either transcend it spiritually, or eroticize it carnally,— the sex Entrepreneurs reasoning that the combination of Equatorial heat, sweat, and the flesh of strangers in enforc’d intimacy might be Pleasurable,— that therefore might some dramatiz’d approach to death under such circumstances be pleasurable as well, with all squirming together in a serpent’s Nest of Limbs and Apertures and penises, immobiliz’d in a bondage of similarly bound bodies, lubricated with a gleaming mixture of their own shar’d sweat, piss, and feces, nothing to breathe but one another’s exhausted breaths, moving toward some single slow warm Explosion. . . .”
An abject passage from Ch. 14 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon. The entire chapter seems with unseemliness, as Cornelius Vroom forces Dixon to witness the debauchery of the Cape Dutch.
If you haven’t yet seen Too Many Cooks, Casper Kelly’s short film for Adult Swim, here it is:
Too Many Cooks compels and rewards/punishes its audience not because of its comedic elements, but rather for its horror. Kelly has made one of the finest little horror films I’ve ever seen.
The central techniques of Too Many Cooks–repetition, collage, and genre parody—are fairly obvious and wonderfully synthesized. The film relies on an understanding that its audience has a particular way of seeing. The intended audience of Too Many Cooks has:
1) An understanding and acceptance of the postmodern tradition of repeating a punchline (or set-up) past the point of humor. And–
2) A particular ironic vision that delights in seeing commercial TV genre conventions of yore skewered.
Too Many Cooks succeeds by disrupting both ways of seeing. Its audiovisual repetitions (oh my lord the song!) become insane tics in a horror story that the viewer did not expect to happen—despite a number of early clues.
In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe suggests that when “men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect.” Let us substitute “Horror” for “Beauty” (Poe would not mind, I think) and we have a fair description of what the filmmakers behind Too Many Cooks have created: A short piece of art that, by its arrangement, editing, of particulars—including its audience’s preconceptions—creates the effect of horror.
That horror emanates from the secret protagonist of Too Many Cooks, a mad-eyed killer who haunts the film first from its peripheries before eventually overtaking it. (He bears a slight resemblance to the philosopher Slavoj Žižek).
The Killer is the organizing principle of Too Many Cooks. He’s right there from the beginning, a specter whose agency throughout the piece subverts audience expectations. It’s not the uber-Father (who begat too many Cooks) who is the film’s central figure, but the infanticidal Killer.
Here is the first time we see The Killer, just 20 seconds in. He’s there on the right, sweater-vested (like a dad):
And then a few seconds later, lurking on the Brady/Cosby/Bundy stairs, still obscure:
The Killer next shows up about 90 seconds in; this is, unless I’m wrong, the first time we see his visage. It’s also the moment when Too Many Cooks’s early joke on corny nineties sitcom intros really starts to wear thin—the filmmakers offer us repeated images of cooks as if to underscore the tedious point.
And there’s The Killer in the second family photo:
Stephen Collins’s début graphic novel The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil tells the story of Dave, an especially average (forgive the oxymoron) guy in the neat-and-tidy island of Here, a place where conformity rules and difference is unthinkable. Dave fits like a cog into his tidy world until a beard erupts from his face, severing him from society.
Despite its neat and tidy contours, an omnipresent dread of otherness gestates in the egg-shaped isle of Here. That dread manifests in the fabled land of There. Dave’s psyche is haunted by There; its very existence threatens both body and mind. Collins renders this anxiety in a remarkable series of panels that concretize Dave’s nightmare of otherness:
Dave’s nightmare highlights his subconscious realization that there cannot be a Here without a There. The realization leaves him abject, torn, and destabilized, even before his beard appears. When the first hairs do arrive, Dave’s interior existential crisis spills outward, his messy difference oozing out to disrupt and upset the tidy normalcy of Here.
The beard quickly becomes a national emergency requiring enormous resources. Police, military, the media, and eventually the entire society become entangled in the crisis. United against a common foe, the citizens of Here are nevertheless distracted, letting their grooming habits slip. Things become less tidy. In their battle against the beard, they overlook the greater war on weird.
The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is an allegorical fable. Collins attacks conformity and fear of otherness, but also depicts just how complex and horrifying otherness can be. While the island of Here is clearly a stand-in for England, Collins’s satire of xenophobia and the dangers of groupthink will resonate pretty much everywhere. All kinds of 21st-century anxieties writhe under the text: fear of immigration, the collapse of cultural homogeneity, ecological devastation—the end of a particular way of life. The angry mob castigating poor Dave call him a terrorist, but they are the authors of their own terror.
In an unexpected and rewarding fourth act, Collins examines the aftermath of what comes to be known as “The Beard Event.” The Untidiness that happened while the citizens of Here were distracted dealing with Dave becomes the new normal. Fits of nonconformity inevitably become trends, then commodities.
The Beard Event eventually becomes “A story many times retold and resold,” complete with its own museum (enter through the gift shop). Collins offers a clear depiction of difference—how it’s first feared, then resisted and attacked, and eventually absorbed and recycled.
I’ve tried to offer enough of Collin’s words and art to convey a sense of his simple but refined style. His lines are often gentle and always precise, his subtle shading all the color this tale needs. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil succeeds visually on the strength of Collins’s pacing and panel design. Collins seamlessly integrates his prose into the panels, moving the story along in a lilt of rhymes and non-rhymes evocative of Edward Gorey or Roald Dahl. Collins nimbly avoids the potential pitfalls of preachiness or meaningless absurdity here, leading to a confident and convincing début. I look forward to more. Great stuff.
The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is now available in the United States in hardback and ebook from Picador.
Julia Kristeva, defining abjection, in a 1980 interview with Elaine Hoffmann Baruch.
My attraction to film as a medium—i.e., a dead medium, as opposed to what they pompously called at the time a living spectacle—had undoubtedly been the first sign in me of a disinterest in, even a disgust for, the general public—and probably for mankind in general. I was working at that time on my sketches with a small video camera, fixed on a tripod and linked to a monitor on which I could control in real time my intonations, funny expressions, and gestures. I had always had a simple principle: if I burst out laughing at a given moment, it was this moment that had a good chance of making the audience laugh as well. Little by little, as I watched the cassettes, I became aware that I was suffering from a deeper and deeper malaise, sometimes bordering on nausea. Two weeks before the premiere, the reason for this malaise became clear to me: what I found more and more unbearable wasn’t even my face, nor was it the repetitive and predictable nature of certain standard impersonations that I was obliged to do: what I could no longer stand was laughter, laughter in itself, that sudden and violent distortion of the features that deforms the human face and strips it instantly of all dignity. If man laughs, if he is the only one, in the animal kingdom, to exhibit this atrocious facial deformation, it is also the case that he is the only one, if you disregard the natural self-centeredness of animals, to have attained the supreme and infernal stage of cruelty.
The three-week run was a permanent calvary; for the first time, I truly experienced those notorious, atrocious tears of the clown; for the first time, I truly understood mankind. I had dismantled the cogs in the machine, and I knew how to make it work, whenever I wanted. Every evening, before going on stage, I swallowed an entire sheet of Xanax. Every time the audience laughed (and I could predict it, I knew how to dose my effects, I was a consummate professional), I was obliged to turn away so as not to see those hideous faces those, hundreds of faces moved by convulsions, agitated by hate.
From Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Possibility of an Island.
Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s classic The BFG begins with a dedication to the author’s daughter: “For Olivia: 20th April 1955 — 17th November 1962.”
If I had noticed the dedication when I first read The BFG as a child, I certainly didn’t think about it then. The slim sad range of those dates would have meant nothing to me, eager as I was to dig into a book about child-eating giants, secure in my own childish immortality. However, when I started reading the book with my daughter, the dedication howled out to me, thoroughly coloring the lens through which I read.
Had Olivia Twenty Dahl not died from measles encephalitis at only seven, had she continued to live to be alive now, she would be approaching her sixtieth birthday. But because she died as a seven-year-old little girl, she remained a seven-year-old little girl to me, the reader, who saw her spirit under every page.
I believe she remained a seven-year-old little girl for Dahl as well—at least in the imaginative world of The BFG where she is recast as the hero Sophie. Reading The BFG, it was impossible for me not to immediately connect Sophie to Olivia, those names with their Greek roots and their long O‘s. It was also impossible for me not to connect these two girls to my own daughter Zoe, who is also seven.
(Parenthetically, I’ll admit that biographical interpretation of literature is often a terrible practice—especially when combined with a touch of reader-response criticism—and that what I am doing here is not something I think advisable, let alone commendable. And yet the central affective power for me in reading The BFG—as an adult to my little girl—rests in my inescapable intuition that Dahl wrote the book to make his daughter live again, to live forever). Continue reading “The BFG, Roald Dahl’s Love Letter to His Lost Daughter”
And now, a note for those of you who consider this a vulgarly supernatural tale: It may well be that ambitious people of any stripe find themselves compelled to schematize the subjects of their solicitude into, say, Jews to be liquidated, or Jews to be saved. There might not be might not be time to learn the name of every Esther or Isaac who falls within Operation Reinhard’s purview. And the further those subjects (I mean objects) get altered in accordance with the purpose, the more problematic it becomes to perceive their irrelevantly human qualities. I quote the testimony of Michal Chilczuk, Polish People’s Army (he’d participated in the liberation of Sachsenhausen): But what I saw were people I call humans, but it was difficult to grasp that they were humans. What did Chilczuk mean by this? To put it aphoristically, a human skeleton is not human. It frightens us because it proves the truth of that gravestone epitaph so common in the age of Holbein: What I once was, so you are. What I am now, so you will be. The gaze of those dark, sharp-edged eye-sockets seems implacable, and the many teeth, which haunted Edgar Allan Poe, snarl much too nakedly, bereft of those festive pink ribbons of flesh we call “lips,” whose convolutions and involutions can express mirth, friendliness, even tenderness. A human skull’s smile is as menacing as a crocodile’s. Since death itself is nothing, the best our minds can do to represent it is through that expressionless face of bone which one day will be ours, and to which we cannot help imparting an expression. Under such circumstances, how can that expression be reassuring?
From William T. Vollmann’s novel Europe Central.
Yes, she could feel within herself the presence of a perfect animal. She resisted the idea of unleashing this animal one day. Perhaps for fear of causing some embarrassment or because she was afraid of some revelation… No, no — she repeated to herself- one mustn’t be afraid of being creative. Deep down, the animal probably repelled her because she still felt anxious to please and to be loved by someone as powerful as her dead aunt. Even if only to humiliate her afterwards and disown her without giving it another thought. For the best saying, as well as being the most recent was: goodness makes me want to vomit. Goodness was lukewarm and weak, it stank of raw meat that had been lying around for a long time without, however, becoming completely rotten. It was freshened up from time to time, seasoned sufficiently to preserve it, a lump of lukewarm, stagnating meat.
From Clarice Lispector’s novel Near to the Wild Heart.
I have to move through Near to the Wild Heart very slowly—Lispector’s representation of her narrator’s shifts in consciousness is slippery, abstract, terrifying at times, often beautiful, alienating, complex. As in The Hour of the Star, there’s an intense vein of abjection that unifies the work—its narrator’s navigation of internal and external worlds—that simultaneously attracts and compels me.