A review of Millennium People, J.G. Ballard’s novel of middle-class boredom and meaningless violence

Act of Violence, Rene Magritte

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: boredommeaningless, 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.’

‘Pure nihilism?’

‘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.

A riff on J.G. Ballard’s superb degenerate satire High-Rise

  1. Ballard-High-RiseWith 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:

    Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

  2. (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).
  3. 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’.ballard-high-rise
  4. Depravity. Debauchery. Degeneration. The boiling pot of late-20th century consciousness.
  5. 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).
  6. 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.6001572752_4a601a081e_b
  7. 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).
  8. 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.

  9. 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—
  10. 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.
  11. (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).
  12. 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.High-Rise
  13. 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).
  14. 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 . . .

  15. (“Perverse” is a term that repeats throughout High-Rise, and I had to leave in those bucket of urine and cudgel details).
  16. 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.
  17. 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.

  18. Ballard’s describing the late 20th century there, but perhaps he intuits the beginning of the 21st as well.91ihsrhnexl-_sl1500_
  19. —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.
  20. —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.
  21. 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.

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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From top to bottom:

Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed

Last summer, I read Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark and never mustered a review (Florida heat; Fourth of July fireworks; booze; other excuses). I’ve thought about Lanark all the time though. I’m afraid Mumbo Jumbo is gonna fall in the same slot as Lanark—too much to handle in one read. I need to go back and reread Mumbo Jumbo—just fantastic stuff—conspiracy theories, hoodoo, music, art theft—I owe it more than I seem to be able to register here.

Fiction and the Figures of Life, William H. Gass

So I read a handful of essays in Gass’s earliest essay collection interspersed with Infinite Jest, and I actually did write a bit about one of them here, in conjunction with IJ. Perfect sentences. (Gass’s sentences. Not mine). I wisely shelved the thing (Gass’s “review” of a Donald Barthelme collection almost paralyzed me), leaving more pieces to return to later.

The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink

I started Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper this afternoon and only put it down when I had to go pick my kids up from day camp. Then I picked it up again. I just put it down again, at a break, of sorts, on page 77, to write this. Every sentence makes me want to read the next sentence (“I felt almost nostalgic toward socially acceptable horrors with larger meanings related to reproduction,” our narrator quips; a bit later: “My life was like falling off a log comfortably located somewhere light-years above the earth”). It’s about this young married couple living in Bern, Switzerland—also sex, birdwatching, music, etc. I was kinda worried that any novel I picked up after Infinite Jest (see below) might suffer, but nah. The Wallcreeper is fantastic so far.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Okay, so I mustered a few riffs on rereading Infinite Jest, including a thing about the first 299 pages and a thing for first-time readers—but I finished the novel yesterday, and this is how I felt:

Twitter was the easiest way to try to bottle the feeling of finishing the novel, which is a feeling that I wanted to bottle because didn’t record the feeling of finishing IJ the first time, back in 2001. But I remember finishing it, very, very late at night/early in the morning, and going back through it, rereading that first chapter, trying to figure out What Happened. So what I mean is I felt enthusiasm and energy—it was the opposite of the reread, which was deflationary, I suppose—richer and sadder. And I hate to write this, but it’s impossible not to reread Infinite Jest through the lens of Wallace’s suicide. Just too many suicides in the novel…and then this late passage, from Hal’s narration (elisions and emphasis mine):

…the old specimen’s horrified face as the boy sobs into the chartreuse satin and shrieks ‘Murderer! Murderer!’ over and over, so that almost a third of Accomplice!’s total length is devoted to the racked repetition of this word — way, way longer than is needed for the audience to absorb the twist and all its possible implications and meanings. This was just the sort of issue Mario and I argued about. As I see it, even though the cartridge’s end has both characters emoting out of every pore, Accomplice!’sessential project remains abstract and self-reflexive; we end up feeling and thinking not about the characters but about the cartridge itself. By the time the final repetitive image darkens to a silhouette and the credits roll against it and the old man’s face stops spasming in horror and the boy shuts up, the cartridge’s real tension becomes the question: Did Himself subject us to 500 seconds of the repeated cry ‘Murderer!’ for some reason, i.e. is the puzzlement and then boredom and then impatience and then excruciation and then near-rage aroused in the film’s audience by the static repetitive final 1⁄3 of the film aroused for some theoretical-aesthetic end, or is Himself simply an amazingly shitty editor of his own stuff?

It was only after Himself’s death that critics and theorists started to treat this question as potentially important. A woman at U. Cal–Irvine had earned tenure with an essay arguing that the reason-versus-no-reason debate about what was unentertaining in Himself’s work illuminated the central conundra of millennial après-garde film, most of which, in the teleputer age of home-only entertainment, involved the question why so much aesthetically ambitious film was so boring and why so much shitty reductive commercial entertainment was so much fun. The essay was turgid to the point of being unreadable, besides using reference as a verb and pluralizing conundrum as conundra.

From my horizontal position on the bedroom floor…

There’s hero Hal horizontal, psychic parallel to Don Gately, the hero of stasis, to borrow Hal’s own term…

I’ll try to muster more.

Cess, Gordon Lish

AKA Gordon Lish does whatever the fuck he wants. I read this in one alarmed sitting, and I’m not sure if I read it “correctly,” whatever that means.

The Spectators,Victor Hussenot

Another beautiful book from Nobrow—not a graphic novel, but something closer to a colorful illustrated tone poem, a meditation, a feeling. Excellent review at Loser City, which I made the mistake of reading before I composed my own.

Faust was an actual person (From Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo)

…Faust was an actual person. Somewhere between 1510 and 1540 this “wandering conjurer and medical quack” made his travels about the southwest German Empire, telling people his knowledge of “secret things.” I always puzzled over why such a legend was so basic to the Western mind; but I’ve thought about it and now I think I know the answer. Can’t you imagine this man traveling about with his bad herbs, love philters, physicks and potions, charms, overcharging the peasants but dazzling them with his badly constructed Greek and sometimes labeling his “wonder cures” with gibberish titles like “Polyunsaturated 99½% pure.” Hocus-pocus. He makes a living and can always get a free night’s lodging at an inn with his ability to prescribe cures and tell fortunes, that is, predict the future. You see he travels about the Empire and is able to serve as a kind of national radio for people in the locales. Well 1 day while he is leeching people, cutting hair or raising the dead who only have diseases which give the manifestations of death, something really works. He knows that he’s a bokor adept at card tricks, but something really works. He tries it again and it works. He continues to repeat this performance and each time it works. The peasants begin to look upon him as a supernatural being and he encourages the tales about him, that he heals the sick and performs marvels. He becomes wealthy with his ability to do The Work. Royalty visits him. He is a counselor to the king. He lives in a castle. Peasants whisper, a Black man, a very bearded devil himself visits him. That strange coach they saw, the 1 with the eyes as decorations drawn to his castle by wild-looking black horses. They say that he has made a pact with the devil because he invites the Africans who work in various cities throughout the Empire to his castle. There were 1000s in Europe at the time: blackamoors who worked as butlers, coachmen, footmen, pint-sized page boys; and conjurors whom only the depraved consulted. The villagers hear “Arabian” music, drums coming from the place but as soon as the series of meetings begin it all comes to a halt. Rumors circulate that Faust is dead. The village whispers that the Black men have collected. That is the nagging notion of Western man. China had rocketry, Africa iron furnaces, but he didn’t know when to stop with his newly found Work. That’s the basic wound. He will create fancy systems 13 letters long to convince himself he doesn’t have this wound. What is the wound? Someone will even call it guilt. But guilt implies a conscience. Is Faust capable of charity? No it isn’t guilt but the knowledge in his heart that he is a bokor. A charlatan who has sent 1000000s to the churchyard with his charlatan panaceas. Western man doesn’t know the difference between a houngan and a bokor. He once knew this difference but the knowledge was lost when the Atonists crushed the opposition. When they converted a Roman emperor and began rampaging and book-burning. His sorcery, white magic, his bokorism will improve. Soon he will be able to annihilate 1000000s by pushing a button. I do not believe that a Yellow or Black hand will push this button but a robot-like descendant of Faust the quack will. The dreaded bokor, a humbug who doesn’t know when to stop. 

From Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo.

Ronald Fraser’s Drought (Book acquired, like, maybe two weeks ago)

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Between end of term papers and Gravity’s Rainbow, I’ve been a bit too busy to do more than glance at a lot of the review copies that have been coming in this month. But Ronald Fraser’s forthcoming novel Drought looks interesting.

Fraser, a British historian, was the founder of New Left Books, now Verso Books—publisher of Drought. Verso’s blurb:

A brilliant novel about memory, love, and the clash between the old world and the new, set in 1950s Spain
“He turned his back on the old man to mourn in silence this unnecessary death and his part in it; but the sight of the coffin brought anger instead …”

In 1957, burned-out journalist John leaves London to recover in the Andalusian haven of Benalamar. Here he finds a village that has not changed since the Civil War, but when a foreign businessman, Bob, comes with plans to develop the area, the community is sent into turmoil. As a time of drought threatens, Bob promises to build a reservoir but this has unforeseen consequences. When a local farmer, Miguel, commits suicide, John is sent off on an investigation that leads back into recent history, lost love, and civil war.

To put it aphoristically, a human skeleton is not human (William T. Vollmann)

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.

“Everything could be dispensed with if only we had the strength and the courage” (Thomas Bernhard)

On the one hand we overrate other people, on the other we underrate them; and we constantly overrate and underrate ourselves; when we ought to overrate ourselves we underrate ourselves, and in the same way we underrate ourselves when we ought to overrate ourselves. And above all we always overrate whatever we plan to do, for, if the truth were known, every intellectual work, like every other work, is grossly overrated, and there is no intellectual work in this generally overrated world which could not be dispensed with, just as there is no person, and hence no intellect, which cannot be dispensed with in this world: everything could be dispensed with if only we had the strength and the courage.

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Concrete.

“To find a lost father” (Donald Barthelme)

To find a lost father: The first problem in finding a lost father is to lose him, decisively. Often he will wander away from home and lose himself. Often he will remain at home but still be “lost” in every true sense, locked away in an upper room, or in a workshop, or in the contemplation of beauty, or in the contemplation of a secret life. He may, every evening, pick up his gold-headed cane, wrap himself in his cloak, and depart, leaving behind, on the coffee table, a sealed laundry bag in which there is an address at which he may be reached, in case of war. War, as is well known, is a place at which many fathers are lost, sometimes temporarily, sometimes forever. Fathers are frequently lost on expeditions of various kinds (the journey to the interior). The five best places to seek this kind of lost father are Nepal, Rupert’s Land, Mount Elbrus, Paris, and the agora. The five kinds of vegetation in which fathers most often lose themselves are needle-leaved forest, broad-leaved forest mainly evergreen, broad-leaved forest mainly deciduous, mixed needle-leaved and broad-leaved forest, and tundra. The five kinds of things fathers were wearing when last seen are caftans, bush jackets, parkas, Confederate gray, and ordinary business suits. Armed with these clues then, you may place an advertisement in the newspaper: Lost, in Paris, on or about February 24, a broad-leaf-loving father, 6’ 2”, wearing a blue caftan, may be armed and dangerous, we don’t know, answers to the name Old Hickory. Reward. Having completed this futile exercise, you are then free to think about what is really important. Do you really want to find this father? What if, when you find him, he speaks to you in the same tone he used before he lost himself? Will he again place nails in your mother, in her elbows and back of the knee? Remember the javelin. Have you any reason to believe that it will not, once again, flash through the seven-o’clock-in-the-evening air? What we are attempting to determine is simple: Under what conditions do you wish to live? Yes, he “nervously twiddles the stem of his wineglass.” Do you wish to watch him do so on into the last quarter of the present century? I don’t think so. Let him take those mannerisms, and what they portend, to Borneo, they will be new to Borneo. Perhaps in Borneo he will also nervously twiddle the stem of, etc., but he will not be brave enough to manufacture, there the explosion of which this is a sign. Throwing the roast through the mirror. Thrusting a belch big as an opened umbrella into the middle of something someone else is trying to say. Beating you, either with a wet, knotted rawhide, or with an ordinary belt. Ignore that empty chair at the head of the table. Give thanks.

From Donald Barthelme’s novel The Dead Father.

“Horror Demands Laughter” | This Is Not a Review of Thomas Bernhard’s Novel Frost

The Blind Man, Albert Bloch

I.

Thomas Bernhard’s first novel Frost is (unless I’m mistaken) his longest, and of the several I’ve now read, the most taxing on the reader—bitter, caustic, depressive, nihilistic.

It’s also terribly funny, the story of a young doctor hell-bent on making a career for himself who heads to the remote village of Weng to spy on Strauch, “the painter,” on behalf of Strauch’s brother, who can presumably further the narrator’s medical career. The painter, long-estranged from his family, his health deteriorating, lives (if it can be called that) in a vile inn at the bottom of a gorge. The painter’s brother dispatches the narrator to report back in the minutest detail: “Watch the way my brother holds his stick, I want a precise description of it.”

II.

A word I learned reading Frost: “knacker.” A knacker is a person who renders, buries, or otherwise disposes of dead animals. The knacker of Weng is one of the main characters of Frost. He’s having an affair with the innkeeper, a symbolically overdetermined plot device (in a basically plotless book) that thematically ties death to hearthFrost is savagely morbid, its blank white snow the perfect canvas for Bernhard’s bloody strokes. The abject violence of his next novel Gargoyles seems refined in comparison to the brutality of Frost. The painter declares that “the abattoir is the only essentially philosophical venue. The abattoir is the classroom and the lecture hall. The only wisdom is abattoir wisdom!” Frost is an abattoir.

III.

Frost is also a stage play of sorts—like the other Bernhard novels I’ve read, it takes something of its form from the conventions drama: limited sets, just a handful of characters, and dialogue that usually veers into monologue. Through the course of the novels, these monologues (usually delivered by an obsessive, sanity-challenged older man) eventually ventriloquize the ostensible narrator/auditor, a stand-in for the reader’s own consciousness. Bernhard designs, builds, destroys, and then rebuilds these consciousnesses; when the painter of Frost declares that he has mastered “perspectivelessness . . . because I am so full of different perspectives,” he offers us a condensation of Bernhard’s analysis of first-person perspective and its attendant imaginative capacity as simultaneously creative and destructive.

IV.

Indeed, as novelist Ben Marcus points out in his review of Frost:

Bernhard is an architect of consciousness more than a narrative storyteller. His project is not to reference the known world, stuffing it with fully rounded characters who commence to discover their conflicts with one another, but to erect complex states of mind—usually self-loathing, obsessive ones—and then set about destroying them. Bernhard’s characters are thorough accomplices in their own destruction, and they are bestowed with a language that is dementedly repetitive and besotted with the appurtenances of logical thinking. The devious rationality of Bernhard’s language strives for a severe authority, and it tends to make his characters seem believable, no matter how unhinged their claims. Phrases don’t get repeated so much as needled until they yield graver meanings, with incremental changes introduced as though a deranged scientist were adding and removing substances in the performance of an experiment.

V.

I can’t do better than Marcus, and Frost is too long a performance to try. I will say: Gargoyles or The Loser are probably better starting places for those interested in Bernhard’s work. This suggestion isn’t meant to slight the book at all—but it does read a bit like a first novel, occasionally weighed down by (what I perceive to be) its authors need to say it all, all of it, here and now. Of course, Frost features prose-passages that any first-time novelist would be proud (and probably terrified) to have in their debuts; I’ve featured several on the site already.

VI.

But this isn’t really a review of Frost. A proper analysis of Bernhard would take the time to work through his language. I marked so much in Frost, highlighted so many passages that I’m not really sure how to go about synthesizing it.

My initial thought was to dodge it all by making a sarcastic post, a parody of the so-called “listicle,” those non-articles that seek to boil a work down to a digestible (and forgettable) summation of quotes, often with the intention of offering the reader a modicum of self-help (under the pretense of “wisdom”). Something like “Forty Inspiring Quotes from Thomas Bernhard’s Frost” or “Timeless Wisdom from Thomas Bernhard” or some such nonsense. Anyway, the next section, VII, comprises 40 citations from Frost, mostly excellent one-liners too good not to share. I’ve enumerated them and lumped them into one big block quote; they are listed in the order they come in the text. I think that they offer a painful and funny overview of the novel.

VII.

  1. Suddenly I heard the story of a lineman who had been asphyxiated in a snowstorm, which ended: “He never cared about anything.”
  2. It’s the same disgust I felt when I was a child and had to vomit outside the open doors of the slaughterhouse.
  3. “Nature is bloody,” he said, “but bloodiest toward her own finest, most remarkable, and choicest gifts. She grinds them down without batting an eyelid.”
  4. Is it permissible for suicide to be a sort of secret pleasure to a man?
  5. Something was splendid, and the next thing was brutal, much more brutal than the first had been splendid.
  6. “You’ll get to meet a whole series of monsters here.”
  7. “Even dreams die. Everything turns into cold. The imagination, everything.”
  8. “People who make a new person are taking an extraordinary responsibility upon themselves. All unrealizable. Hopeless. It’s a great crime to create a person, when you know he’ll be unhappy, certainly if there’s any unhappiness about. The unhappiness that exists momentarily is the whole of unhappiness. To produce solitude just because you don’t want to be alone anymore yourself is a crime.”
  9. People don’t have favorite children, they just have a lot of them.
  10. I’m sure imagination is an illness. An illness that you don’t catch, merely because you’ve always had it. An illness that is responsible for everything, and particularly everything ridiculous and malignant. Do you understand the imagination? What is imagination?
  11. “There is a pain center, and from that pain center everything radiates out,” he said; “it’s somewhere in the center of nature. Nature is built up on many centers, but principally on that pain center.”
  12. “Nothing is progressive, but nothing is less progressive than philosophy. Progress is tripe. Impossible.”
  13. Helping and mankind, the distance between those two terms.
  14. Who had the idea of letting people walk around on the planet, or something called a planet, only to put them in a grave, their grave, afterward?
  15. By and by it comes to your attention: the world around you, nothing but corruption, colossal misrule.
  16. “How everything has crumbled, how everything has dissolved, how all the reference points have shifted, how all fixity has moved, how nothing exists anymore, how nothing exists, you see, how all the religions and all the irreligions and the protracted absurdities of all forms of worship have turned into nothing, nothing at all, you see, how belief and unbelief no longer exist, how science, modern science, how the stumbling blocks, the millennial courts, have all been thrown out and ushered out and blown out into the air, how all of it is now just so much air … Listen, it’s all air, all concepts are air, all points of reference are air, everything is just air …” And he said: “Frozen air, everything just so much frozen air …”
  17. What is pain, if not pain?
  18. “I used to take sleeping pills,” he said, “and slowly boosted the number of pills I took. In the end, they had absolutely no effect on me, and I could have gulped any number of them, and still not have got to sleep. I repeatedly took such high dosages, I should have died. But I only ever vomited them up.”
  19. Everything torments me now.
  20. Man is an ideal hell to his fellow men.
  21. He was just scraps of words and dislocated phrases.
  22. Things have lost their power to disgust me.
  23. The human race was the unfruitful thing, “the only unfruitful thing in the whole world. It serves no purpose. It can’t be made into anything. It can’t be eaten. It isn’t a raw material for some process outside itself.”
  24. “Men like rats, chopped up by street sweepers’ shovels. Too many negotiations with humans have done me in.”
  25. The ruin of mankind had been a child’s dream.
  26. The food had been better than for any corpse she could remember.
  27. “The frost eats everything up,” said the painter, “trees, humans, animals, and whatever is in the trees and the humans and the animals. The blood stalls, and at great speed. You can break apart a frozen human like a piece of stale bread.”
  28. There were no real humans anymore, just death masks of real humans.
  29. The nightmarish sweat of fear, that’s the air.
  30. Truth leads downhill, points downhill, truth is always an abyss.
  31. The abattoir is the classroom and the lecture hall. The only wisdom is abattoir wisdom!
  32. You wake up, and you feel molested.
  33. Everything is barbarous kitsch.
  34. “And when I saw the grisly chopped-up animals, I had to burst out laughing, I burst out into extraordinary laughter. Do you know what that means? It means horror demands laughter!”
  35. Various venerable old families would assemble “in a spirit of megalomania, to shoot holes in nature.
  36. It’s a mistake to count on people.
  37. Every object I see hurts me.
  38.  ” . . . hopelessness … There is only one way to go, through the snow and ice into despair; past the adultery of reason.”
  39. “The world is a progressive dimming of light,.”
  40. The breeding of a human being (thinking most rigorously of himself) is the decision of the father (first and foremost) and of the mother (as well) to sponsor the suicide of their offspring, the child, the sudden premonition “of having created a new suicide.”

“—you see you were always lost” (Thomas Bernhard)

“You just arrive in a place,” said the painter,“ and then you leave it again, and yet everything, every single object you take in, is the sum of its prehistory. The older you become, the less you think about the connections you’ve already established. Table, cow, sky, stream, stone, tree, they’ve all been studied. Now they just get handled. Objects, the harmonic range of invention, completely unappreciated, no more truck with variation, deepening, gradation. You just try to work out the big connections. Suddenly you look into the macro-structure of the world, and you discover it: a vast ornament of space, nothing else. Humble backgrounds, vast replications—you see you were always lost. As you get older, thinking becomes a tormenting reference mechanism. No merit to it. I say ‘tree,’ and I see huge forests. I say ‘river,’ and I see every river. I say ‘house,’ and I see cities with their seas of roofs. I say ‘snow,’ and I see oceans of it. A thought sets off the whole thing. Where it takes art is to think small as well as big, to be present on every scale …”

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost.

The Chums of Chance Reading List (Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)

hgdTitles of The Chums of Chance books mentioned in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day:

  • The Chums of Chance and the Evil Halfwit
  • The Chums of Chance and the Curse of the Great Kahuna
  • The Chums of Chance and the Ice Pirates
  • The Chums of Chance Nearly Crash into the Kremlin
  • The Chums of Chance and the Caged Women of Yokohama
  • The Chums of Chance and the Wrath of the Yellow Fang
  • The Chums of Chance at Krakatoa
  • The Chums of Chance Search for Atlantis
  • The Chums of Chance in Old Mexico
  • The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth
  • The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth

The Chums of Chance bits have been some of my favorites in Pynchon’s Against the Day, and have given me more than one occasion to riff. There’s something wonderfully generative (and even generous) about these pulpy, romantic titles—an invitation to daydream, to fly with the boys a bit.

The painting of the airship at the top is by Harry Grant Dart, whose comic strip The Explorigator undoubtedly influenced Pynchon’s vision of The Chums of Chance. You can perhaps glean some of that inspiration in this 1908 broadside:

Explorigator19080503Intro