Nature’s Nightmare, A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion (Book Acquired, 10.12.2013)

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I was psyched when Greg Carlisle’s Nature’s Nightmare: Analyzing David Foster Walalce’s Oblivion showed up in the mail. (You might recall Carlisle as the author of Elegant Complexity, a study of Infinite Jest). Blurb from publisher Slideshow Media Group:

Carlisle gives an in-depth narrative analysis of each story: “Mr. Squishy,” “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” “Incarnations of Burned Children,” “Another Pioneer,” “Good Old Neon,” “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” “Oblivion,” and “The Suffering Channel.” Carlisle’s methodical approach walks readers through Wallace’s thematic interests and situates Oblivion in the broader arc of Wallace’s career. Every passage of each story is analyzed in terms of 1) interrelation of narrative form and content, 2) relation of story to the theme of oblivion, 3) recurring thematic motifs in Wallace’s work, and 4) assessment of content in relation to Infinite Jest and The Pale King. The book includes nine charts that illustrate narrative devices Wallace employs throughout the stories. Jason Kottke called Elegant Complexity the reference book for Infinite Jest and now Nature’s Nightmare is the primary reference work for Oblivion.

I read the introduction and first chapter, covering “Mr. Squishy,” this weekend, and Carlisle’s perceptive analysis made me want to reread the story. Of course, I had to scan over the chapter for “Good Old Neon,” maybe my favorite Wallace story and arguably his best piece of writing. Here’s the diagram from that chapter (did I neglect to mention that there are diagrams?):

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Full review forthcoming.

 

The Never-Ending Torture of Unrest | Georg Büchner’s Lenz Reviewed

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The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (detail), Francisco Goya

Composed in 1836, Georg Büchner’s novella-fragment Lenz still seems ahead of its time. While Lenz’s themes of madness, art, and ennui can be found throughout literature, Büchner’s strange, wonderful prose and documentary aims bypass the constraints of his era.

Let me share some of that prose. Here is the opening paragraph of Lenz:

The 20th, Lenz walked through the mountains. Snow on the peaks and upper slopes, gray rock down into the valleys, swatches of green, boulders, firs. It was sopping cold, the water trickled down the rocks and leapt across the path. The fir boughs sagged in the damp air. Gray clouds drifted across the sky, but everything so stifling, and then the fog floated up and crept heavy and damp through the bushes, so sluggish, so clumsy. He walked onward, caring little one way or another, to him the path mattered not, now up , now down. He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head. At first he felt a tightening in his chest when the rocks skittered away, the gray woods below him shook, and the fog now engulfed the shapes, now half-revealed their powerful limbs; things were building up inside him, he was searching for something, as if for lost dreams, but was finding nothing. Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.

Büchner sets us on Lenz’s shoulder, moving us through the estranging countryside without any exposition that might lend us bearings. The environment impinges protagonist and reader alike, heavy, damp, stifling. Büchner’s syntax shuffles along, comma splices tripping us into Lenz’s manic consciousness, his mind-swings doubled in the path that is “now up, now down.” We feel the “tightening” in Lenz’s chest as the “rocks skittered away,” as the “woods below him shook” — the natural world seems to envelop him, cloak him, suffocate him. It’s an animist terrain, and Büchner divines those spirits again in the text. The claustrophobia Lenz experiences then swings to another extreme, as our hero, his consciousness inflated, feels “he could cover [the earth] with a pair of strides.

And that baffling line: “He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head.” Well.

The end notes to the Archipelago edition I read (translated by Richard Sieburth) offer Arnold Zweig’s suggestion that “this sentence marks the beginning of modern European prose,” as well as Paul Celan’s observation that “whoever walks on his head has heaven beneath him as an abyss.”

Celan’s description is apt, and Büchner’s story repeatedly invokes the abyss to evoke its hero’s precarious psyche. Poor Lenz, somnambulist bather, screamer, dreamer, often feels “within himself something . . . stirring and swarming toward an abyss toward which he was being swept by an inexorable force.” Lenz is the story of a young artist falling into despair and madness.

The Man Made Mad by Fear, Gustave Courbet
The Man Made Mad by Fear, Gustave Courbet

But perhaps I should offer a more lucid summary. I’ll do that in the next paragraph, but first: Let me just recommend you skip that paragraph. Really. What I perhaps loved most about Lenz was piecing together the plot through the often elliptical or opaque experiences we get via Büchner’s haunting free indirect style. The evocation of a consciousness in turmoil is probably best maintained when we read through the same confusion that Lenz experiences. I read the novella cold based on blurbs from William H. Gass and Harold Bloom and I’m glad I did.

Here is the summary paragraph you should skip: Jakob Lenz, a writer of the Sturm and Drung movement (and friend and rival to Goethe), has recently suffered a terrible episode of schizophrenia and “an accident” (likely a suicide attempt). He’s sent to pastor-physician J.F. Oberlin, who attends to him in the Alsatian countryside in the first few weeks of 1778. During this time Lenz obsesses over a young local girl who dies (he attempts to resurrect her), takes long walks in the countryside, cries manically, offers his own aesthetic theory, prays, takes loud late-night bath in the local fountain, receives a distressing letter, and, eventually, likely—although it’s never made entirely explicit—attempts suicide again and is thusly shipped away.

Büchner bases his story on sections of Oberlin’s diary, reproduced in the Archipelago edition. In straightforward prose, these entries fill in the expository gaps that Büchner has so elegantly removed and replaced with the wonder and dread of Lenz’s imagination. The diary’s lucid entries attest to the power of Büchner’s speculative fiction, to his own art and imagination, which so bracingly take us into a clouded mind.

In Sieburth’s afterword (which also offers a concise chronology of Lenz’s troubled life), our translator points out that “Like De Quincey’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” or Chateaubriand’s Life of Rancé, Büchner’s Lenz is an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication—an early nineteenth-century example of the modern genre of docufiction.” Obviously, any number of postmodern novels have explored or used historical figures—Public Burning, Ragtime, and Mason & Dixon are all easy go-to examples. But Lenz is more personal than these postmodern fictions, more an exploration of consciousness, and although we are treated to Lenz’s ideas about literature, art, and religion, we access this very much through his own skull and soul. He’s not just a placeholder or mouthpiece for Büchner.

Lenz strikes me as something closer to the docufiction of W.G. Sebald. Perhaps it’s all the ambulating; maybe it’s the melancholy; could be the philosophical tone. And, while I’m lazily, assbackwardly comparing Büchner’s book to writers who came much later: Thomas Bernhard. Maybe it’s the flights of rant that Lenz occasionally hits, or the madness, or the depictions of nature, or hell, maybe it’s those long, long passages. The comma splices.

Chronologically closer is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose depictions of manic bipolar depression resonate strongly with Lenz—not to mention the abysses, the torment, the spirits, the doppelgängers. Why not share another sample here to illustrate this claim? Okay:

The incidents during the night reached a horrific pitch. Only with the greatest effort did he fall asleep, having tried at length to fill the terrible void. Then he fell into a dreadful state between sleeping and waking; he bumped into something ghastly, hideous, madness took hold of him, he sat up, screaming violently, bathed in sweat, and only gradually found himself again. He had to begin with the simplest things in order to come back to himself. In fact he was not the one doing this but rather a powerful instinct for self preservation, it was as if he were double, the one half attempting to save the other, calling out to itself; he told stories, he recited poems out loud, wracked with anxiety, until he came to his sense.

Here, Lenz suspends his neurotic horror through storytelling and art—but it’s just that, only a suspension. Büchner doesn’t blithely, naïvely suggest that art has the power to permanently comfort those in despair; rather, Lenz repeatedly suggests that art, that storytelling is a symptom of despair.

The Last Judgment (detail), Rogier van der Weyden
The Last Judgment (detail), Rogier van der Weyden

What drives despair? Lenz—Lenz—Büchner (?)—suggests repeatedly that it’s Langeweile—boredom. Sieburth renders the German Langeweile as boredom, a choice I like, even though he might have been tempted to reach for its existentialist chain-smoking cousin ennui. When Lenz won’t get out of bed one day, Oberlin heads to his room to rouse him:

Oberlin had to repeat his questions at length before getting an answer: Yes, Reverend, you see, boredom! Boredom! O, sheer boredom, what more can I say, I have already drawn all the figures on the wall. Oberlin said to him he should turn to God; he laughed and said: if I were as lucky as you to have discovered such an agreeable pastime, yes, one could indeed wile away one’s time that way. Tedium the root of it all. Most people pray only out of boredom; others fall in love out of boredom, still others are virtuous or depraved, but I am nothing, nothing at all, I cannot even kill myself: too boring . . .

Lenz fits in neatly into the literature of boredom, a deep root that predates Dostoevsky, Camus, and Bellow, as well as contemporary novels like Lee Rourke’s The Canal and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.

Ultimately, the boredom Lenz circles around is deeply painful:

The half-hearted attempts at suicide he kept on making were not entirely serious, it was less the desire to die, death for him held no promise of peace or hope, than the attempt, at moments of excruciating anxiety or dull apathy bordering on non-existence bordering on non-existence, to snap back into himself through physical pain. But his happiest moments were when his mind seemed to gallop away on some madcap idea. This at least provided some relief and the wild look in his eye was less horrible than the anxious thirsting for deliverance, the never-ending torture of unrest!

The “never-ending torture of unrest” is the burden of existence we all carry, sloppily fumble, negotiate with an awkward grip and bent back. Büchner’s analysis fascinates in its refusal to lighten this burden or ponderously dwell on its existential weight. Instead, Lenz is a character study that the reader can’t quite get out of—we’re too inside the frame to see the full contours; precariously perched on Lenz’s shoulder, we have to jostle along with him, look through his wild eyes, gallop along with him on the energy of his madcap idea. The gallop is sad and beautiful and rewarding. Very highly recommended.

Chris Ware on DFW’s Novel The Pale King

Crippled Robot painting by Chris Ware

Cartoonist/graphic novelist/chronicler of shame and despair Chris Ware wrote about his favorite books for Foyles bookstore. The list includes UlyssesMoby-Dick, and works by cartoonists like Lynda Barry and Ivan Brunetti. Here’s what Ware wrote about David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King:

The first great novel of the 21st century uses the sinister beauty of the American Tax Code as a springboard from which to launch into a genuinely serious discussion of the origins and importance of civic responsibility amidst the hazy, blurred stupidity of a country in quick decline. Contrary to many reviews, I don’t think it’s about boredom, and it’s certainly not boring. Another posthumous editor-to-manuscript resuscitation, the book hangs heavy with the clotted spectre of Wallace’s suicide, which makes the writing glow all the more painfully through it.

List with No Name #10

1. 2666, Roberto Bolaño

2. The Pale King, David Foster Wallace

3.  Train Dreams, Denis Johnson

4. The Last Novel, David Markson

5. Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, Lydia Davis

6. Agapē Agape, William Gaddis

7. C, Tom McCarthy

8. No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

9. Sandokan, Nanni Balestrini

10. Open City, Teju Cole

Book Shelves #21, 5.20.2012

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Book shelves series #21, twenty-first Sunday of 2012: William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace

Sorry about the glare in the photo above. As I seem to attest weekly, photography is hard. Photographing books is hard. Lighting issues, glare etc. Anyway, this shelf is half Vollmann, half DFW. I’ve written so extensively about these guys on the site that I won’t bother linking to anything here. A few months ago, Gaddis’s JR and The Recognitions was hanging out here, but then I put Expelled and Imperial on the shelf, bought Everything and More, and also picked up some more Gaddis, and, well, anyway, had to move him up with Joyce, where he seems to belong. The paperback of The Pale King is a review copy; it has additional stuff. Maybe I should part with the hardback. It seems ridiculous to have them both.

The copy of Girl with Curious Hair is extremely important to me, as silly as that sounds. It was one of the first books I ever “reviewed” on this blog, back when I still focused almost entirely on books I’d stolen or books I’d never returned to. From that review:

Scott Martin was kind enough to loan me this book. Did he know that it would forever change the way I read? It was the first semester of my freshman year in college, and I was slowly reaching beyond stuff like Henry Miller, Wm Burroughs and Franz Kafka. David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Girl With Curious Hair introduced me to a whole new world of writing. Reading DFW is like having a very witty friend tell you a moving and funny story over a few beers. He’s hilarious, thought-provoking, and not nearly as hard to read as people seem to think.

I leave the bookmark I’ve been using in almost every book I read. When I pulled Girl from the shelf, I found a Polaroid of my cat:

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He’s just a kitten here. His name is Remy. He no longer lives with us, but he’s still around. We moved a year ago from a bungalow set above the ground (i.e. with cat crawl space) to a ranch on a block (i.e. no crawl space). He didn’t want to move because he was having this romance with a stray my daughter named Pearly. I eventually trapped him and moved him to the new place, but I foolishly forgot he’d have no place to run and hide while getting acclimated. He ran away. A few months later I found him down the street. He looked happy and came up and talked to us. He followed us back to the new place and we gave him some people food treats. Then he left again. We seem him every now and then. He’s gotten surprisingly fat and seems to like the new people he’s taken up with. They have two boys, a little older than my kids. Sometimes I miss my cat.

The Pale King Paperback (Book Acquired, 4.07.2012)

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I was happy to get a trade paperback of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King this weekend (thanks Hachette!) for a few reasons. First, I detest hardback books — that didn’t stop me from picking up (and reviewingTPK when it debuted last year — but I know I’ll prefer this paperback for rereadings. More to the point, the paperback boasts four vignettes not published with the hardback last year, which I’m sure is in no way a cynical marketing ploy cooked up by the publishers. On those scenes:

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Okay, so yes, I read them. They’re short, and they don’t really add to the novel; actually, they probably take away from the Michael Pietsch’s fine editing work. Still, DFW fans will eat them up. I’ll try to reflect more later.

There’s also one of those reading group guide sections, which cracks me up. Are book clubs gonna read this book? I mean, I hope they do, but they’ll likely hate it. Here’s a question that caught my eye, mostly because I wrote a bit about §19 this summer.

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I Riff–Again–on William Gaddis’s Enormous Novel JR (This Time After Finishing It)

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1. Let me point those of you who may care to my first riff on William Gaddis’s J R, which I wrote about half way into the book, and which will likely provide more context than I’m prepared to offer here. Also, there might be spoilers ahead.

2. The end of J R is heartbreaking. We find some of our principal characters—Bast, Gibbs, and JR—in nebulous spaces, their plans and dreams and hopes crumbling or smoking or fizzing out or jettisoned (pick your verb as I’m too lazy or unequipped).

3. The final face-to-face scene between Bast and JR, the one that begins with them riding in a limousine and ends with Bast’s psycho breakdown—heartbreaking. Little JR, we realize, is most motivated by his intense need for human connection, his desire for family, perhaps, or place, at least. Bast’s rejection of JR—really a rejection of contemporary consumer culture—is almost horrific, even more so because the reader (this reader, anyway) so readily identifies with Bast and JR simultaneously.

4. Here’s Gaddis on his character JR (from The Paris Review interview):

The boy himself is a total invention, completely sui generis. The reason he is eleven is because he is in this prepubescent age where he is amoral, with a clear conscience, dealing with people who are immoral, unscrupulous; they realize what scruples are, but push them aside, whereas his good cheer and greed he considers perfectly normal. He thinks this is what you’re supposed to do; he is not going to wait around; he is in a hurry, as you should be in America—get on with it, get going. He is very scrupulous about obeying the letter of the law and then (never making the distinction) evading the spirit of the law at every possible turn. He is in these ways an innocent and is well-meaning, a sincere hypocrite. With Bast, he does think he’s helping him out.

5. And again:

INTERVIEWER

Which is the novel you care most for?

GADDIS

I think that I care most for JR because I’m awfully fond of the boy himself.

6. In that same interview, Gaddis contends that JR is motivated by “good-natured greed,” which is probably true (see above re: letter vs. spirit). Despite his predatory capitalism, his willingness to strip company employees of basic safety nets, JR remains sympathetic.

7. Why is JR a sympathetic character? He’s just a child, one who lives in a world without adult supervision let alone love and care. In a touching scene that telegraphs the bizarre black humor that runs through the novel, JR suggests that the Eskimos on display at a museum are the work of a taxidermist: That is, said Eskimos were once, like, alive, and are now on display. Amy Joubert, his social studies teacher (and the object of Gibbs’s and possibly Bast’s affection) is moved to both pity and terror by JR’s confusion, and clutches him to her breast.

8. While we’re on Eskimos, which is to say Native Americans, which is to say, perhaps, Indians: The Indian plot in JR fascinates; it recapitulates a bloody, awful past, pointing to the brutal way the quote unquote invisible hand of the market might sweep entire people away and then come back (in a cheap costume) to offer modernity at a price.

9. Ethnic minorities in general find themselves displaced in JR, or at least displaced in the language of JR (and is there a novel that is more language than JR, if such a statement might be permitted to exist (at least metaphorically)? No, I don’t think there is, or at least I don’t know of one). The casual racism of 1%ers like Zona Selk and Cates is ugly and bitter, but the PR man Davidoff is somehow worse—he sees race as something to use, to manipulate, to control.

10. And, of course, JR’s infamous “Alsaka Report,” a connection to Manifest Destiny, to the valuation of our ecosystem in the most base and short-sighted terms (there’s a perhaps overlooked streak of environmentalism to JR):

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11. Sci-fi elements to JR: The Frigicom process, which promises to freeze noise. The Teletravel transmission process.

12. At the end of JR, we learn that poor diCephalis is lost in Teletravel transmission.

13. I couldn’t help but be reminded—repeatedly—of David Foster Wallace’s work during JR (diCephalis stuck in Teletravel recalls poor Orin in the giant glassjar at the end of Infinite Jest). In general, the loose threads of JR recall Wallace’s loose threads (other way round, I know).

14. The phone motif alone might have led me to compare Wallace to Gaddis—but there’s also all that, y’know, thematic unity.

15. And clearly, too, style. I’m sure that longtime readers of Gaddis have likely made the comparisons already, but throughout his work, Wallace repeatedly uses chapters or sections that comprise only dialogue. A good example is §19 of The Pale King (which I riffed on a bit this summer), a conversation between three IRS agents stuck in an elevator. In some ways, the scene, set only a few years after the publication of JR feels like a strange little sequel, or an echo of a shadow of a chapter of a sequel (or maybe not—just riffing here). Wallace’s concerns about civics, ethics, and compassion seem more straightforward than Gaddis’s angry vision of a desacralized world, a world where symphonies must be chopped into three minute segments to allow for commercial interruptions (or, rather, that symphonies must interrupt commercials). Wallace is obviously writing after the victory of Pop Art, of populism, of the slow sprawling stripmalling of America . . . but I’ve riffed off track (there is no track).

16. ” . . . I mean they never lose these banks don’t, I mean where we’re getting screwed . . . ” — JR laments on page 653 of my Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition.

17. The above quote as the briefest illustration that, published in 1975, JR is more relevant than ever.

18. To wit, Gaddis again, again from The Paris Review interview, commenting on hollow, false values:

. . . I’d always been intrigued by the charade of the so-called free market, so-called free enterprise system, the stock market conceived of as what was called a “people’s capitalism” where you “owned a part of the company” and so forth. All of which is true; you own shares in a company, so you literally do own part of the assets. But if you own a hundred shares out of six or sixty or six hundred million, you’re not going to influence things very much. Also, the fact that people buy securities—the very word in this context is comic—not because they are excited by the product—often you don’t know what the company makes—but simply for profit: The stock looks good and you buy it. The moment it looks bad you sell it. What had actually happened in the company is not your concern.

19. Gaddis’s take on the “art” of capitalism: design mock ups for a potential logo for the JR Family of Companies:

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20. JR is one of the most prescient novels I’ve ever read—and not just in its illustration of the the chaos at the intersection of corporatism, Wall Street, government, and military, but also in its handling and treatment of education. Gaddis is way ahead of an ugly curve, showing us an educational system largely disinterested in intellectual, aesthetic, or even athletic development. Instead we get a storehouse for children, reliant on programmed lessons delivered via technology and assessment by standardized testing. It’s ugly and it’s more real than ever now.

21. And here’s Gibb’s railing against it, in a way, in (what’s likely a half-drunken or at least hung-over) rant to his students:

Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .

(That’s from page 20 of my Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition, by the bye).

22. There are no happy families in JR. Just broken families.

23. I said this at the top of the riff, but again–-heartbreaking.

24. This is probably a direction out of this riff—to resuscitate the emotional dimension of the novel, which is too easily overlooked, perhaps, because Gaddis’s manipulations (and all novelists manipulate their audience) require so much active participation from the reader. JR is without exposition, without the overt imposition of the novelist telling us how to feel: instead there’s a thickness to it, a building of buzz and clatter, yes, but music under all that noise: even a kernel of love (and hope!) under the heavy folds of anger.

25. Very highly recommended.