Posts tagged ‘narrator’

November 30, 2012

A Riff on Thomas Bernhard’s Novel The Loser

by Edwin Turner

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1. I finished Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel The Loser (English transl. Jack Dawson ’91) a few weeks ago and then picked over some of it again this week.

I’m not going to try to unpack all of The Loser here—it’s too thick, too loaded, too layered—its density is monochromatic, or monoglossic really, a monologue that threatens to drown the reader. One big paragraph.

2. The Loser is the second Bernhard novel I’ve read, after Correction, which is an even denser novel: Correction’s sentences are longer, its tone grimmer, its humor less readily apparent.

Correction is a novel about repetition. The Loser reads like a repetition of Correction: Like CorrectionThe Loser is one long uninterrupted monologue by an unnamed narrator who attempts to puzzle out the motives and meanings of a friend’s recent suicide. As in Correction, the suicide in The Loser (eponymous Wertheimer, whose name recalls Correction’s Roithamer) is a ridiculously wealthy man who obsesses almost incestuously over his sister, repressing her in the process. Like CorrectionThe Loser focuses on three friends. And like CorrectionThe Loser is ultimately about how idealism leads to breakdown, insanity, and suicide.

3. (I riffed on Correction here).

4. You might want a plot summary (always my least favorite business of a book review).

Here, straight from the text:

Wertheimer had wanted to compete with Glenn, I thought, to show his sister, to pay her back for everything by hanging himself only a hundred steps from her house in Zizers.

That’s more or less the plot: Our loser’s sister (whom he sought to control and constrain and confine) elopes to Switzerland to marry a Swiss millionaire. This is the proverbial  last straw for Wertheimer, whose dream of being a great piano player was decimated the moment he heard Glenn Gould play piano years ago when they attended a conservatory together.

5. That’s like, the Glenn Gould of course—which is what our narrator calls him (that is, the).

Glenn Gould’s perfection—or rather the perfection Wertheimer (and the narrator, through whom Wertheimer lives (as a voice)) affords GG—stymies the pair forever:

Glenn is the victor, we are the failures

GG is their ideal, and the ideal shatters them:

. . . always Glenn Gould at the center, not Glenn but Glenn Gould, who destroyed us both, I thought.

And later:

. . . there’s nothing more terrible than to see a person so magnificent that his magnificence destroys us . . .

6. Glenn Gould has the gall to die of a stroke, upsetting Wertheimer to no end. (Wertheimer’s not upset that Glenn Gould has died—no, he can’t stand the perfection of Glenn Gould’s death)

7. Glenn Gould’s own idealism:

. . .to be the Steinway itself . . .

—an idealized self-erasure; a self that doesn’t think, that doesn’t theorize; a self that only acts.

8. Glenn Gould’s perfection shatters Wertheimer, but when his sister leaves him he starts to go insane:

We have an ideal sister for our needs and she leaves us at exactly the wrong moment . . .

9. More on our loser Wertheimer:

Do you think I could have become a great piano player? he asked me, naturally without waiting for an answer and laughing a dreadful Never! from deep inside.

—and—

. . . ultimately he was enamored of failure . . .

—and—

. . . he was addicted to people because he was addicted to unhappiness.

—and—

My constant curiosity got in the way of my suicide, so he said, I thought.

10. In that last example, we see the layering of The Loser’s narrative: “so he said, I thought.” The novel is entirely the narrator’s internal monologue, moving through time and space freely—yet Bernhard constantly anchors the monologue in these layered attributions. The effect is often jarring, as we experience the narrator move from memory to thought to observation on the present continuous world he is currently experiencing.

Here’s an example:

Parents know very well that they perpetuate their own unhappiness in their children, they go about it cruelly by having children and throwing them into the existence machine, he said, I thought, contemplating the restaurant.

We move from Wertheimer’s observation about throwing children into the “existence machine” to attribution of that thought to Wertheimer (“he”) to another layering of attribution (“I thought”) and then, bizarrely, to the narrator suggesting that he is “contemplating the restaurant” (the narrator’s concrete action for the first half of the book is entering an inn). The narrator simultaneously remembers and observes and contemplates—but there’s a deep anxiety here, I think, a refusal to slow down, to reflect.

11. Or perhaps this is just how “the existence machine”—consciousness—works.

12. More on “the existence machine”:

We exist, we don’t have any other choice, Glenn once said.

—and—(thus Wertheimer):

. . . we don’t exist, we get existed . . .

—and—-

Wertheimer had to commit suicide, I told myself, he had no future left. He’d used himself up, had run out existence coupons.

Existence coupons!

13. If you do not find the citation above (re: “existence coupons”) particularly and absurdly and perhaps cruelly funny, it is likely that you will not enjoy The Loser, a book that I found hilarious.

14. Another humorous passage—our narrator, having entered his “deterioration process,” elects to give away his piano:

I knew I was giving up my expensive instrument to an absolutely worthless individual and precisely for that reason I had it delivered to the teacher. The teacher’s daughter took my instrument, one of the very best, one of the rarest and therefore most sought after and therefore also most expensive pianos in the world, and in the shortest period imaginable destroyed it, rendered it worthless.

15. The Loser, like Correction, is very much about destruction, about breaking down both objects and ideas into a pure, idealized zero.

Take Wertheimer’s book, which echoes the narrator’s piano (and Glenn Gould’s own will to remove himself from the process of playing, to be “the Steinway itself”):

He wanted to publish a book, but it never came to that, for he kept changing his manuscript, changing it so often and to such an extent that nothing was left of the manuscript, of which finally nothing remained except the title, The Loser.

The narrator too plans to write a book, his Glenn Essay:

. . . everything we write down, if we leave it for a while and start reading it from the beginning, naturally becomes unbearable and we won’t rest until we’ve destroyed it again, I thought. Next week I’ll be in Madrid again and the first thing I’ll do is destroy my Glenn Essay in order to start a new one, I thought, an even more intense, even more authentic one, I thought. For we always think we are authentic and in truth we are not.

This is how idealism plays out in The Loser: a process of correction that leads to fragmentation, deterioration, nullification.

The fight against getting existed.

16. The Loser’s narrator repeatedly brings up the clash between idealism (theory) and existence (practice):

In theory he mastered all the unpleasantness of life, all the degrees of desperation, the evil in the world that grinds us down, but in practice he was never up to it. And so he went to pot, completely at odds with his own theories, went all the way to suicide, I thought, all the way to Zizers, his ridiculous end of the line, I thought. In theory he had always spoken out against suicide, deemed me capable of it however without a second thought, always went to my funeral, in practice he killed himself and I went to his funeral. In theory he became one of the greatest piano virtuosos in the world, one of the most famous artists of all time (even if not as famous as Glenn Gould!), in practice he accomplished nothing at the piano, I thought.

There is something simultaneously absurdly hilarious and tragic in the idea that even in his theoretical ideal state, Wertheimer is still not as accomplished as Glenn Gould!

17. For the narrator of The Loser, the tragic space between theory and practice is a deeply existential problem, the problem of the individual consciousness’s relation to other people:

In theory we understand people, but in practice we can’t put up with them, I thought, deal with them for the most part reluctantly and always treat them from our own point of view. We should observe and treat people not from our own point of view but from all angles, I thought, associate with them in such a way that we can say we associate with them so to speak in a completely unbiased way, which however isn’t possible, since we actually are always biased against everybody.

18. Watching some beer-truck drivers in the inn, the narrator undertakes a thought experiment that highlights a will to belong, to relate to others, coupled with the immediate dismissal—the internalized abject rejection—of this idea:

Again and again we picture ourselves sitting together with the people we feel drawn to all our lives, precisely these so-called simple people, whom naturally we imagine much differently from the way they truly are, for if we actually sit down with them, we see that they aren’t the way we’ve pictured them and that we absolutely don’t belong with them, as we’ve talked ourselves into believing, and we get rejected at their table and in their midst as we logically should get after sitting down at their table and believing we belonged with them or we could sit with them for even the shortest time without being punished, which is the biggest mistake, I thought.

19. Note in the later passages of The Loser ( including the two I cite in points 17 and 18) the dominant use of the pronoun we. The narrator’s we might be a simple rhythmic projection, a generalization of the narrator’s own anxieties displaced onto others. At the same time, the narrator’s we seems to hold the ghosts of Glenn Gould and Wertheimer, who possess, haunt, and ventriloquize the narrator’s voice—which is the novel, of course.

20. The Loser seems like a great starting place for someone interested in reading Bernhard. I think it’s a more manageable introduction to his themes than Correction is: the humor is more accessible, the book’s ironies perhaps more apparent, and its sentences are far, far shorter. (I feel the need to clarify: None of these comments should be interpreted as a knock against Correction, which I thought brilliant; neither should these comments be interpreted as a knock against the intelligence and abilities of readers interested in Bernhard).

21. I still have two Bernhards in the stack—Yes and Concrete—but I’ll hold off for a while. Dude’s writing is rewarding but taxing.

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October 30, 2012

I Review The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights, a Chapbook by Allen Kechagiar

by Edwin Turner

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“The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights” is a lovely little chapbook, new from Pilotless Press, an Athenian  outfit (uh, Greek, not Georgian) that  knows how to put together an aesthetically-pleasing text. “Lockwood Heights” is their first release. It’s by Allen Kechagiar, who, full disclosure, I’ve been email-friendly with for a several years now.

What’s “Lockwood Heights” about?

An unnamed narrator, a young man, returns to his hometown in California, the titular Lockwood Heights, “another far station, another dead end valley prone to fire, another far suburb with no other cause than the profit it would generate for its contractors.” With little going for it in a depressed economy, the citizens of Lockwood Heights allow porn production to become their town’s raison d’etre. Studios move in and the girls of Lockwood Heights soon find they can essentially auction off their virginity on camera:

They struggle to keep their virginity intact (or at any rate their parents struggle to keep it so) and hope that they will be chosen as the royal heir’s queen consort. Here, at Lockwood Heights, we had our very own race: at its finish line there was no prince to greet the winners, but a whole menagerie, or more accurately a bestiary, comprising of artificially tanned Californian would-have-beens, barely legal girls with gigantic strap-ons, transvestites and hermaphrodites, midgets and giants, obese, anorexic, effeminate, silicon-enhanced or not, all of them with a ticket to her body, standing in a metaphorical queue. A body that wasn’t hers to control anymore. The studio owned it from then on, through the unwritten contracts of promised fame that is rarely delivered.

They were also called the Treasurers or The Knights Who Say No. Their motto was non numquam. Their herald was a locked gate.

The various histories of these girls fill most of “The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights,” and as the narrator often uses the first-person plural “we” (that is, the high school boys), the story sometimes takes on a melancholy and wistful tone similar to Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. These are the finest moments of “Heights,” compact and precise narratives that relate the sad (and sometimes not-so-sad) lives of these girls who make porn (or, in some cases, refuse to).

It’s not just the girls of Lockwood Heights who sell their bodies on film—our protagonist comes home to sell all he has left, his “twin virginity” to be lost for a director who is sometimes called the Stanley Kubrick of porn. Scenes of the narrator meeting the casting director, his costar, and other workers on the film’s production are interspersed with the girl stories, as well as the backdrop of the narrator’s homecoming. His father has died, his mother is absent, and a strange little ersatz closet has been constructed in one of the house’s corridors. The interrelationship between these three elements is not as fully developed as it could be; I found myself wanting more. I also wanted more of the strange, aphoristic asides the narrator occasionally offers, like this one:

When we sleep we do not live in the full sense of the word. We rehearse death. Our dreams, the fallout of our daily lives, can only be remembered. They cannot be lived.

When they happen, we do not exist.

In its best moments (and there are plenty of those), “Heights” commands the reader’s attention with its bizarre mix of pathos and the pathetic, with sharp humor that threatens to tip into something more sinister. The southern California exurb Kechagiar crafts recalls the slightly off dystopias of George Saunders—the kind of place we wish were more removed from our immediate reality. “The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights” feels like the starting point of something bigger, more expansive, more detailed—and I’d want to read that something. Recommended.

June 5, 2012

Everybody Hates a Tourist (I Sort of Review the Audiobook of David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)

by Edwin Turner

I recently listened to Hachette’s new audiobook version of David Foster Wallace’s essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a collection of essays that I’ve read and enjoyed several times. My outline and notes for a review of the Fun Thing audiobook quickly swelled into an ugly, unmanageable bruise sporting a lengthy intro and dithering asides, when what I really intend to say boils down to “The audiobook is not very good.”

Why is it not very good? I hate to rest all the blame on voice talent Paul Garcia, because I’m sure that there were other people involved—a director, a producer, etc.—who also abetted this thing. If you’ve heard Wallace read—and I had to go back and listen to the few essays from Lobster that he reads to reconfirm this (more on that in a minute)—-if you’ve heard Wallace read his own stuff, you know that he brings this wonderfully restrained not-quite-affectless tone and rhythm to his work. I hesitate to call it naturalistic, but I guess that’s the closest word I can think of for what I’m trying to describe. Another way of putting this might be that when you hear Wallace reading his work, there’s a conversational tone to it, and that even when he’s reading something that is grossly hyperbolic or soaked in venom, he restrains himself from over-emoting these positions. It’s as if a barrier is removed between reader and auditor. In contrast, Paul Garcia mugs and hams his way through the essays in Fun Thing as if he’s doing bad dinner theater. He seems to delight in overzealously stressing every other syllable. The affectations tend to highlight how a certain way of reading—or perhaps hearing Wallace, in reality—can make him seem like a pompous, verbose asshole.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that hearing Garcia read Wallace’s first-person pronoun essays made me hear a different version of Wallace, one that I’d never heard in my own head when I’d read these pieces. Garcia made me hear a version of Wallace that I often disliked—finicky, vituperative, arrogant—one at odds with my own reading.

Reaching for an antidote, I then audited a few of the essays Wallace reads in Consider the Lobster—”Big Red Son,” recounting his trip to the AVN (porn film) awards in Las Vegas, and “Consider the Lobster,” where he visits the Maine Lobster Festival. These two essays balance neatly with the pair that likely stands out the most in Fun Thing: the title essay, Wallace’s infamous documentation of a luxury cruise, and “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” an account of the Illinois State Fair. (I think “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a rumination on Lynch’s place in cinema set against the backdrop of the filming of Lost Highway also holds up remarkably well—even in Garcia’s reading—but I’ve used some notes on it for another essay I’m working on about Roberto Bolaño and evil, so I’ll hold off any discussion). In any case, these four essays together illustrate the pattern Wallace’s reportage is most often identified with: Wallace goes to some place that he’s not really familiar with and writes about it, usually in obsessive, personal detail, mixing both humor and pathos as he details its absurdities and contradictions.

Several themes unify A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (one of the biggest is Wallace’s ever-present agon with irony), but what stood out most in going through the essays again was the sense of despair, the strange sadness that Wallace expresses when he shows us what happens when large groups of people get together for a good time. One of my favorite lines from pop music comes from Pulp’s “Common People,” where crooner Jarvis Cocker gently snarls, “Everybody hates a tourist.” I guess I love the line because I think it’s true, and it’s especially true in its own self-awareness of what it means to be a tourist—that a true tourist must be either oblivious (and thus hated) or self-hating (and thus in despair). So much of David Foster Wallace’s travel writing (if you want to call it that; I mean, it’s not travel writing, it’s more writing-about-mass-groups-of-people-in-contrived-situations) seems to be trying to work out these strange poles, to somehow understand what he is witnessing and overcome the hatred and disgust he feels at the vulgar, venal displays he’s seeing. In a footnote in “Consider the Lobster, Wallace lays it all out better than I can:

I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud hot crowded tourist venues in order to sample a “local flavor” that is by definition ruined by the presence of tourists. This may (as my Festival companions keep pointing out) all be a matter of personality and hardwired taste: The fact that I just do not like tourist venues means that I’ll never understand their appeal and so am probably not the one to talk about it (the supposed appeal). But, since this note will almost surely not survive magazine-editing anyway, here goes:

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. (Coming up is the part that my companions find especially unhappy and repellent, a sure way to spoil the fun of vacation travel:) To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

I suppose it’s too easy, maybe even intellectually lazy to gravitate to Wallace’s despair in the cold light of his suicide, but this despair nevertheless is a thick vein that runs through his work. Just a few paragraphs above I offered a bit of bad logic, wherein I suggested that being a tourist is always an either/or position (oblivious, ignorant, smiling or hyper-aware and self- and other-loathing); if I’m more honest I suppose there are third and fourth ways, maybe fifth and sixth, but they become hard to imagine.

Frankly, I’ve always liked Wallace’s essays so much because I relate so strongly to his first-person pronoun’s experience of other people. When Wallace tries to navigate his contempt for the rubes at the Illinois State Fair (“Kmart People,” he calls them!) against the idea that he should try to understand and empathize with other human beings as, like, real human beings with complex inner-lives, hopes, dreams, desires, despairs, I get all that. I’ve been there. Every damn day. But it’s these complex articulations that put Wallace’s travel journalism in such a desperate position. Unlike Hunter S. Thompson, who fully embraced nihilism, Wallace couldn’t simply write off the people around him as creeps, mutants, and lizards; neither could he fully empathize or love them the way that William Vollmann seems to. In the essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a wistful Wallace admits that he would love to jump from one ship to another in “a bold and William T. Vollmannish bit of journalistic derring-do” — but of course such a feat would never even be on Wallace’s radar (aside from a literary reference): this guy will spend the entire last day of the cruise alone in his room not talking to anyone. Which again, would probably be me.

I quoted a pop song above so I’ll indulge myself and cite another one. I love The Breeders’ fantastic 1993 LP Last Splash, and the song “Saints” is a great jam, but I’ve always felt a little alienated by its opening lyrics, where Kim Deal howls: “I like all the different people / I like sticky everywhere / Look around, you bet I’ll be there!” I guess I couldn’t hang with Kim Deal at the fair, because, if I’m honest, I don’t like all the different people, and I don’t like sticky everywhere. And even when I can enjoy a carnival atmosphere, there is usually some mediating substance like alcohol or irony involved.

This is perhaps a long-winded way of saying that I relate to the central discomfort-cum-despair that runs through Wallace’s essays about having to be in the midst of large groups of people. And while comfort isn’t the sign of great art or great writing (Wallace handles this issue as well in his Lynch essay, but more on that another time), I feel admittedly comfortable in his essays. Which is perhaps why I didn’t care for the Garcia-read audiobook: it made me feel like a tourist.

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