Phantoms and Ghosts in DFW’s Novel The Pale King (Ghost Riff 2)

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The narrator of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King assures us at one point that “phantoms are not the same as real ghosts.”

Okay.

So what’s a phantom then, at least in the universe of The Pale King?

Phantom refers to a particular kind of hallucination that can afflict rote examiners at a certain threshold of concentrated boredom.

The “rote examiners” are IRS agents who perform Sisyphean tasks of boredom. They are also placeholders for anyone who works a boring, repetitive job.

(We might even wax a bit here on the phrase rote examiner—the paradox in it—that to examine should require looking at the examined with fresh eyes, a fresh spirit—a spirit canceled out by the modifier rote).

In The Pale King, phantoms visit the rote examiners who toil in wiggle rooms. The “phantoms are always deeply, diametrically different from the examiners they visit,” suggesting two simultaneous outcomes: 1) an injection of life-force, a disruption of stasis that serves to balance out the examiner’s personality and 2) in the novel’s own language, “the yammering mind-monkey of their own personality’s dark, self-destructive side.”

In one scene, desperate Lane Dean contemplates suicide on the job, until he’s visited by a phantom.

“Yes but now that you’re getting a taste, consider it, the word. You know the one.”

The word is boredom, and the phantom proceeds to give a lecture on its etymology:

Word appears suddenly in 1766. No known etymology. The Earl of March uses it in a letter describing a French peer of the realm. He didn’t cast a shadow, but that didn’t mean anything. For no reason, Lane Dean flexed his buttocks. In fact the first three appearances of bore in English conjoin it with the adjective French, that French bore, that boring Frenchman, yes? The French of course had malaise, ennui. See Pascal’s fourth Pensée, which Lane Dean heard as pantsy.

(Thank you, narrator—who are you?!—for mediating the phantom’s speech and Dean’s misauditing of that speech). Read More

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David Mitchell’s New Novel The Bone Clocks Falls Far Short of His Best Work

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David Mitchell’s latest novel The Bone Clocks is 624 pages in hardback, its sprawling metaphysical plot jammed into six overlapping sections that move through six decades and several genres. Any number of critical placeholders might be applied here: Sweepingambitious, genre-skeweringkaleidoscopic (I stole that last one from the book jacket). Or, perhaps we prefer our descriptors more academic? Okay: Postmodernmetatextualmetacritical, polyglossic. With The Bone Clocks, Mitchell has used these functional, formal postmodernist techniques to string together a few good novellas with some not-so-good novellas into a novel that’s not bad—but also not particularly good.The Bone Clocks is just okay. It fills space, it fills time. But unlike Mitchell’s previous stronger novels—Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas in particular—The Bone Clocks fills without nourishing.

The Bone Clocks opens in 1984 with “A Hot Spell,” introducing us to the novel’s ostensible subject, Holly Sykes, a fifteen year-old who runs away from home. This section also introduces us to Mitchell’s consistent idiom here, a first-person present tense narration that forces the plot forward like an engine. When Mitchell needs to deliver any background information, the narrator simply trots out old memories, or a character politely shows up to dump exposition. The exposition-dumping is particularly egregious in the novel’s final sections.

Our heroine Holly Sykes helps out with some of that exposition early on, filling in some of the contours we’ll need to understand if we want to suss out the Big Metaphysical Plot of The Bone Clocks: There are “the radio people,” voices that contact Holly, um, telepathically; there are the strange figures of Marinus and Constantin; there is the drama of Holly’s deep-souled, old-souled little brother Jacko, who ominously makes her memorize a labyrinthine map in the book’s early pages (foreshadowing!):

The one Jacko’s drawn’s actually dead simple by his standards, made of eight or nine circles inside each other.

“Take it,” he tells me. “It’s diabolical.”

“It doesn’t look all that bad to me.”

“ ‘Diabolical’ means ‘satanic,’ sis.”

“Why’s your maze so satanic, then?”

“The Dusk follows you as you go through it. If it touches you, you cease to exist, so one wrong turn down a dead end, that’s the end of you. That’s why you have to learn the labyrinth by heart.”

Christ, I don’t half have a freaky little brother.

“Right. Well, thanks, Jacko. Look, I’ve got a few things to—” Jacko holds my wrist. “Learn this labyrinth, Holly. Indulge your freaky little brother. Please.” That jolts me a bit.

See how young Holly doesn’t quite cotton that Jacko has, like, responded to her by using the same phrase she thought but didn’t say aloud? Mitchell has a talent for crafting characters like this—characters who can’t see their own blind spots, characters utterly naïve to how we see them. Mitchell excelled at this technique in Black Swan Green, whose narrator Jason Taylor describes for us what he cannot name or fully understand. Holly’s 1984 narrative often feels like a rewrite of Black Swan Green. Jason actually shows up—sort of—in The Bone Clocks; his cousin Hugo Lamb, a minor character in Black Swan Green, narrates the section antecedent to young Holly’s story.

Hugo Lamb’s “Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume” propels us to 1991. Lamb is a charming, conniving con man. If young Holly echoes Adam Ewing of Mitchell’s superior novel Cloud Atlas in her naïve innocence (she does), then Hugo Lamb echoes Cloud Atlas’s genius con man, Robert Frobisher. Indeed, most of the central narrators in The Bone Clocks read like familiar repetitions of characters from Cloud Atlas. I enjoyed Frobisher’s plotting and scheming, and I enjoyed it again in Lamb, a sympathetic rake. I was digging The Bone Clocks all through his section, despite feeling vaguely worried that Mitchell was not exactly doing much to flesh out The Big Metaphysical Plot that would have to hold this thing together.

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Charles Burns’s Sugar Skull Reviewed

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Sugar Skull concludes the trilogy that Charles Burns began four years ago with X’ed Out (I reviewed it here) and its 2012 follow-up The Hive (I reviewed it here).

In X’ed Out, Burns introduces us to his protagonist Doug, a would-be art-punk poet whose Burroughsesque sound-collage performances are misunderstood by everyone but Sarah, a troubled artist whose photographs and installations reverberate with menacing violence. We first find Doug in the aftermath of an unnamed trauma involving Sarah and her tyrannical boyfriend—a trauma that Sugar Skull must and does answer to. The trauma transports Doug from his dead father’s office, where he’s been hiding and popping pills, into a fever-dreamscape reminiscent of William Burroughs’s Interzone. In this world, Doug becomes Nitnit, his own features transmuted to the Tintin mask he wears when performing his cut-ups.

The Hive takes Doug/Nitnit even deeper into Interzone, into its subterranean caverns, gaping like tumorous wombs, while simultaneously moving the “real” Doug forward and backward in time, through his doomed relationship with Sarah and into the fallout of their split, where Doug short circuits.

Sugar Skull completes this circuit, offering readers the complete picture—and an exit out of Interzone—even as it dooms Doug/Nitnit to repeat the past. We find here the traumatic violence of love, death, begetting, and denial.

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The trilogy’s development evinces in Burns’s rich cover art. X’ed Out shows us young, skinny Doug, his head bandaged, his haircut an echo of Tintin’s cowlick. Wrapped in his dead father’s purple robe and set against utter wreckage, young Doug regards a massive egg, itself a visual echo of Tintin cover. The cover of The Hive shows us an older, heavier Doug, lost and confused in the abject uterine labyrinth of the Hive. In the lower-right corner—the same space the egg occupies on the cover of X’ed Out—lurks one of Interzone’s mutable mutants. This figure repeats in the trilogy, an amorphous being who shifts from Nitnit’s aide and familiar, to a dog stranded in a flood, to a piglet in a jar, to a massive breed-sow, to, perhaps, Doug’s father—and then Doug himself.

The figure opposite an older, fatter Doug on the cover of Sugar Skull condenses these roles into the emblem of death: it is at once the skeleton of the mutant, but also the frame of Doug’s dead father and the emblem of the symbolic infanticide at the core of the trilogy. And so we get the natural progression of life—from egg and embryo to a pink bundle of mobile cells to skeletal remains—set against an uncanny, chaotic backdrop.

Throughout the trilogy, Burns forces reader and Doug alike to navigate that chaos. The first two volumes in the series propelled the reader (and Doug, of course) through different times, different realities, sifting through the awful wreckage for clues, for a pattern, for an answer that might explain poor Doug’s trauma. By the beginning of Sugar Skull, our hero is finally equipped with a map to guide him through the underworld:

Page 10 from Burns_SUGAR SKULL“Why does this have to be so difficult?” our hero wonders. Because of repressed fear, anger, hurt—and failure. The real trauma, the secret trauma, of the trilogy is Doug’s radical failure. This failure keeps him up at night, both in waking sweat, but also in his Interzone, the fantasy world where the repressed returns, where his alter-ego Nitnit can play boy detective. And yet, as we see in Sugar Skull, Nitnit, dream warrior, is ultimately unequipped to right the wrongs of the past. He can only replay them in a dark, surreal space. The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

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X’ed Out and The Hive point repeatedly to the specter of violence and infanticide, both through implication in the dialogue as well as intense imagery. Both novels ominously arrange events that could only lead to the head wound that our hero sustains before the trilogy begins—a head wound that may or may not be a primary cause of Doug’s excursions into irreality.

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The infanticidal images that haunt the first two books pointed to a deeper mystery though, one beyond the physical violence Doug suffered. Those books hinted at abortion or miscarriage. But there are other ways to lose children.

Have I over shared the plot? Or am I hinting too vaguely? Reviewing my lines, it seems like I’ve said nothing at all, or perhaps dwelled on the first two books too much.

To simplify: Sugar Skull is sad and beautiful and strange and deeply human—this is not the tale of a doppelgänger’s adventures in wonderland, but rather the story of youth’s cowardice, of how we fail ourselves and others, how the versions of ourselves that we try to pin down—like Doug, who takes endless selfies with a Polaroid—are not nearly as stable as we might like them to be. Sugar Skull also explores how we cover over those instabilities and failures—I didn’t do those things; This isn’t happening to me.

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The final moments of Sugar Skull enact a shock to stability, to sense of self. Burns fulfills a narrative promise to his readers, and to Doug—one that, if I’m honest, was not what I had predicted at all—and then sends Doug’s altered-ego Nitnit into the desert wilds. The last few pages of Sugar Skull seem to borrow as much from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as they do from Hergés Tintin or William Burroughs.

And yet Doug passes through the wasteland to a refuge of sorts, the dream-double of two other settings that figure prominently in the trilogy, condensed into a place that is and is not. The setting mirrors Doug’s doomed double-consciousness, a consciousness condemned to repeat the same cycle, to respond again and again to the same terrifying call to nightmare-adventure.

I’ve neglected to comment on Burns’s wonderful art, mostly because I think it speaks for itself. His heavy inks and rich colors help unify the shift in styles that mark Doug’s movement between worlds. The trilogy would be worth the admission price alone just for the art, but Burns offers so much more with his storytelling. What’s perhaps most impressive is how thematically precise Burns’s images are—how panels, angles, shots, poses, gestures, and expressions repeat with difference from volume to volume. Burns uses these repeated images to subtly evoke his theme of cycles, doubles, and reiterations. In rereading we see again, recognize again—but from a different perspective.

And if Burns strands Doug/Nitnit in a loop of repetition, he also extends, perhaps, that same chance to his hero—to see again, but from a different perspective. If Sugar Skull forecloses the possibility of escape from the past, it doesn’t cut off a generative futurity. And as our protagonist awakes—again—to follow Inky into the strange wreckage of the past, many readers will feel prompted to follow the pair—again, and then again.

Sugar Skull is available now in hardback from Pantheon.

 

A Conversation about Ben Lerner’s Novel 10:04 (Part 2)

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[Context/editorial noteThis is the second and final part of a discussion between Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang and myself about Ben Lerner's new novel 10:04. You can read the first part of the discussion here, if you like---the gist of that conversation is that I am kinda sorta hating the book, while Ryan makes a strong case for my finishing it. Which I did. -- ET].

Edwin Turner: Okay, Ryan, so I’m still having a hard time with the book, and I think that Hari Kunzru pins down why in his (diplomatic) review at The New York Times:

Does [the novel's] ironic tone (which often feels like a reflex, a tic) preclude sincerity? Is all this talk of community no more than an artful confection, the purest kind of cynicism? The question is impossible to resolve, so each of these episodes — and indeed the book as a whole — takes on a sort of hermetic undecidability.

I find the “hermetic undecidability” not so much unsettling—the proper rhetorical gambit to match the novel’s themes—but rather a dodge, an escape hatch even, to avoid adequately answering to the model that the narrator wants to find in Whitman. There’s this wonderful moment where the narrator says “Art has to offer something other than stylized despair” — and I take this to be something like the mission of the book — but the archness, the cleverness of the book, its frequent retreats away from (what I take to be) Whitman’s project (the kosmos, the roughneck with the unstopped throat) — I just don’t see much but a kind of stylized ennui (if not despair) about the “bad forms of collectivity” our narrator is forced (forces himself) to partake in.

My favorite moments of the book continue to be the essay passages, the art or literary theory that he spackles in—the riff on Peggy Noonan writing Reagan’s Challenger-explosion speech, the elements of borrowed language, etc. (Again, I’m almost the same age as Lerner. I was in Young Astronauts, and our field trip to Cape Canaveral was canceled because of inclement weather, so we watched it in the cafeteria—live. I did not understand what happened, but I remember my teachers crying).

Ryan Chang: Hey man, I just skimmed the NYT review—per the excerpt you provided—because I don’t want Kunzru clouding any of my response. It’s certainly a question I too grapple with, and I think Kunzru is right insofar that the question is “undecidable” but not for the reason(s) he suggests. I agree with you that he dodges the question, whether or not from editorial pressure or a reticence to actually address “hermetic undecidability.”

For one, I’m not sure myself if The Author ever arrives at the Whitmanic model of democracy he posits. I’m also not sure if he is supposed to “arrive” in the sense that a finality is set. I guess I also want to riff a bit on how finality might be described. Is finality then something static; as in, somehow 10:04 transmits–electrocutes, reverberates–through its readership, now coeval (the when negligent, the position of the reader enmeshed in the text is the same at 10 PM here as it is at 5 AM there), the novel’s theses and everything is suddenly Whitmanic? Community successfully reimagined and cemented? That sounds too easy, too convenient, too short-sighted. Or is it a kind of arrival into an embodiment of time that exists outside of conventional literary clocks, which is also a Market-based clock — it’s my sense that the kind of democracy Whitman envisions in his work is one constantly in flux, a “reality in process” and thus in opposition to the capitalist clock? That is, we know we are supposed to “stop” working at 5, the embodiment of the currency-based clock disappears after 5, but it’s a contrasting relationship. Our time outside of the currency then absorbs a negative value (I think The Author only mentions once or twice how we are all connected by our debt, a negativity projected into the future), though the illusion of the clock is that we are “free” in our time. OK: in a literary sense, wouldn’t this be a sense of a text’s world stopping, a suspension that retroactively pauses the whole book? That 10:04 ends not only with a dissolution of prose into poetry, but also The Author into Whitman and thus recasting the first-/third-person narrator into a lyric-poet mode suggests the book’s integration into our, the reader’s, time (and also, retroactively, the entirety of the text). In that sense, for me, the issue whether or not The Author of 10:04 integrates the book fully into a Whitmanic model is not necessarily the point — it is that he, and also we hopefully through him — actively participate in remaking a “bad form of collectivity” less so. Read More

Roman Muradov’s Enigmatic Graphic Novella (In a Sense) Lost and Found Reviewed

If you regularly read The New York Times or The New Yorker, you’ve probably already seen Roman Muradov’s compelling illustrations. If you’re a fan, you also know about his strange and wonderful Yellow Zine comics (and if you don’t know them, check out his adaptation of Italo Calvino).

Muradov’s début graphic novella (In a Sense) Lost and Found was released recently by Nobrow Press, and it’s a beauty—rich, imaginative, playful, and rewarding. And it smells good.

(In a Sense) Lost and Found begins with a nod to Kafka’s Metamorphosis:

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Although we’re told by the narrative script that our heroine F. Premise (faulty premise?) “awoke,” the surreal world Muradov creates in Lost and Found suggests that those “troubled dreams” continue far into waking hours. The story runs on its own internal dream-logic, shifting into amorphous spaces without any kind of exposition to guide the reader who is, in a sense, as lost as the protagonist becomes at times on her Kafkaesque quest.

What is F. Premise’s mission? To regain her innocence, perhaps, although only the initial narrative script and the punning title allude to “innocence.” The characters seem unable or unwilling to name this object; each time they mention it, their speech trails off elliptically, as we see when Premise’s father (?) confronts her at the breakfast table:

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Muradov’s imagery suggests Kafka’s bug again—the father’s antennae poke over the broadsheet he’s reading (the book is larded with readers), his strange mouth sagging out under it. Even more Kafkaesque though is Muradov’s refusal to reveal the father’s face, the face of authority, who sends his daughter back up to her room where she must remain locked away.

She sneaks out of course—would there be an adventure otherwise?—and it turns out that faceless father is right: F. Premise falls (literally) under the intense gaze of the community. F. Premise is startlingly present to others now by virtue of her absent virtue.

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Muradov uses traditional nine-panel grids to tell his story, utilizing large splashes sparingly to convey the intensity of key moments in the narrative. The book brims with beautiful, weird energy, rendered in intense color and deep shadow. Muradov’s abstractions—pure shapes—cohere into representative objects only to fragment again into abstraction. (Perhaps I should switch “cohere” and “fragment” here—I may have the verbs backwards).

The art here seems as grounded in a kind of post-cubism as it does in the work of Muradov’s cartooning forebears. In the remarkable passage below, for example, our heroine moves from one world to another, her form nearly disappearing into complete abstraction by the fifth panel (an image that recalls Miró), before stabilizing again (if momentarily) in the sixth panel.

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It’s in that last panel that F. Premise returns to her adopted home (of sorts)—a bookstore, of course. Earlier, the kindly owner of the bookstore loans her a pair of old plus-fours, and all of a sudden her identity shifts—or rather, the community shifts her identity, their penetrating gaze no longer trying to screw her to a particular preconception. Identity in Lost and Found is as fluid and changeable as the objects in Muradov’s haunting illustrations.

I have probably already belabored too much of the plot. Suffice to say that our heroine’s quest takes strange turns, makes radical shifts, she descends up and down and into other worlds. Embedded in the journey is a critique of nostalgia, of the commodification of memory (or, more accurately, the memory of memory). Is our innocence what we thought it was? Can we buy it back like some mass-produced object?

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As I noted before, Lost and Found is stuffed with images of readers. There’s something almost Borgesian in the gesture, as if each background character might be on the threshold (if not right in the middle of) their own adventures.

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It’s in the book’s final moments though that we see a move from reading to writing: Our heroine F. Premise picks up the pen and claims agency, writes her own life. She is indeed the narrative voice after all, the imposing script that, like some all-knowing hand, guided us into the narrative in the first place, only to disappear until the end.

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I loved Lost and Found, finding more in its details, shadowy corners, and the spaces between the panels with each new reading. My only complaint is that I wish it were longer. The book is probably not for everyone—readers looking for a simple comic with an expository voice that will guide them through a traditional plot should probably look elsewhere. But readers willing to engage in Muradov’s ludic text will be rewarded—and even folks left scratching their heads will have to admit that the book is gorgeous, an aesthetic experience unto itself. And it smells good. Highly recommended.

 

A Conversation about Ben Lerner’s Novel 10:04 (Part 1)

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[Context/editorial note: Ben Lerner's new novel 10:04 wasn't on my radar until Ryan Chang, who has been contributing reviews, riffs, citations, and other good stuff to this blog for the some time now, brought it up. He digs it, I don't---but in fairness, I haven't finished it yet. I was determined to abandon it, but Ryan's emails kept me interested enough to continue; our conversation of the past five days is presented below. The book frustrates and rewards; at times I've laughed out loud and at other moments I've sprained my eyeballs by rolling them. More to come, because this is pretty long---but I think Ryan, who offers the bulk of the analysis here, makes a strong case for Lerner's book. -- ET].   

Edwin Turner: Got an e-galley of the Lerner book. I don’t know if it’s that I’m almost exactly the same age as Lerner/the narrator or what, but I really really hate it so far! He’s very smart and the sentences are often great, but I find myself rolling my eyes at a lot of what he’s doing—it’s probably me not him. The narrative voice strikes me as so thoroughly inauthentic that I want to grab the narrator by the lapels and shout, Quit aping Sebald, quit trying to show how clever you are, and just observe and report! Again, it’s probably me not him.

Ryan Chang: I know what you mean; though it won’t bear any difference to your reading, I can attest personally to the diction & syntax of the narrator and Lerner himself (indeed, he does speak like that). I don’t think it’s an affectation, but I think it’s real “poet-y.” It is a criticism I forgive b/c I see that the tension between authenticity (of time) and inauthenticity (of time; especially exemplified in the Whole Foods/Instant coffee scene — which narrative context of time determines the Real, the Market (or its interpretation of Universal time) or our intuition (something like Whitmanic time, where time is experienced not on a linear, progressive plane but a circular, lateral one?)) is a crucial thread that runs throughout 10:04 and in Lerner’s other work. That said, I know  that in reviews to come of the book he’ll get slammed for that (I think the Kirkus review already did this).

A lot of my friends echo your distaste for Lerner for those exact same reasons, and I totally see why, and I’m kind of annoyed by it too. For me, the success of the book lies in the reclamation of fiction as a communal space from fetish book object/commercial futurity (author advances, agents, contracts, etc. — you already get some of this early on but there is more to come in a beautifully scathing scene of the NYC literary scene) And also, a kind of shiv to the Standard American Novelistic Form that reinforces traditional forms of American identity-making that Gass/Gaddis/Markson et al. have been doing for years and, I think, a poisonous strain of American political sentimentality that keeps most of us “depressed.” I think, too, because I’ve read it twice now, that there is an acknowledgment of his complicity in the very machines he participates in, and an inability, at least on his own, to dismantle those systems. Not sure if we should forgive him for criticizing the bourgeois Food Co-Op while being a member, albeit begrudgingly or tolerate his admission. There’s a lot of celebration of Whitmanic politics in that book, a return to a kind of Whitmanic democratic person is a return to a democratic reading is a return to a “real” democracy shared through the space of the book, of the position of the reader looking at an object and knowing that her “I” is shared amongst several. I’m not sure if you’ve gotten here yet, but he keeps intoning this phrase “bad forms of collectivity” as a better solution than nothing, than “modernist difficulty as resistance to the market.”

The Sebald comparison is apt, esp. with the form & diction & syntax, and I agree with you–Sebald is the master. There’s also something to be said, though, that this kind of fiction-making is badly needed in contemporary American letters on the Big 5 Publishing scene. I mean, I can’t read another fucking book about Brooklyn parents or mid-career Manhattan artist crises without wringing my neck. The kind of book Sebald innovated, too, is able to dismantle received ideas of art/history/writing/identity etc.;  I may be being too generous here, but I think it’s a form that will see continued adoption on this side of the pond.

ET: So your response made me return to the book, Ryan. The line that made me quit was something like, “The place was so quiet I could hear the bartender mixing our artisanal cocktails” or something like that—-I’m still not sure how to read that line as anything but a parody, but I think that the narrator, author, and writer are all sincere in trying to capture or document a particular time/feeling with the phrase. And as I continued reading, I was rewarded by the episode of the older poets/mentors, and their “daughter,” whom the narrator obsessed over—a very fine passage—humorous, reflective, a kind of parodic-but-sincere take on wanting to belong to a particular artistic scene. (What continues to unsettle me is the narrator’s assurance of his own achievement, although I could be wrong).

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What’s got into you? | Ventriloquism in Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook

In Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, Marion Portmain, a housewife neglected by her husband, resolves that she will begin to live her life with the aim of helping other people. Marion believes that this change is a major breakthrough in her life, a moment to claim agency for herself and to find her own authentic voice in a world where she has been silenced and ignored.

She asks her friend, the book’s protagonist Anna Wulf for the address of an imprisoned South African political activist:

‘Do you remember that black leader, the African man you used to know? Mathews, or something like that?’

This was not at all what Anna had expected. ‘You don’t mean Tom Mathlong?’Marion had actually taken out a notebook and was sitting with a poised pencil.

Marion has taken up her own notebook, a parallel to the colored notebooks that Anna keeps to impose some semblance of order—or at least to contain—the chaos of modernity.

Anna protests Marion’s request; she implicitly condescends Marion’s naïvety and myopic worldview:

‘But Marion…’ Anna looked at Marion, trying to make contact with the woman she had been talking to only a few minutes before. She was met by a gaze from brown eyes glazed with a guilty but happy hysteria. Anna went on, firmly: ‘It’s not a nice organized prison like Brixton or somewhere like that. It’s probably a shack in the bush, hundreds of miles from anywhere, about fifty political prisoners, and very likely they don’t even get letters. What did you think?—that they had visiting days and rights and things like that?’

And here is where the scene becomes particularly intriguing for me, as Anna begins to break down the various sources that ventriloquize Marion’s “new” consciousness: 

Marion pouted and said: ‘I think that’s an awfully negative attitude to take about the poor things.’

Anna thought: negative attitude is Tommy’s—echoes from the Communist Party; but poor things is all Marion’s—probably her mother and sisters give old clothes to charities.

For Anna, Marion’s (attempt at) a new outlook is merely the weak synthesis of the language of Marion’s stepson’s communism with the stock-phrases of her aristocratic family’s noblesse oblige. Anna does not accept Marion’s “transformation” as authentic, but rather the product of tuning in new voices. 

As Marion continues, Anna analyzes her speech, her unvoiced comments interposed in parentheses that name the news sources from which Marion has “clipped” her thoughts:

‘I mean,’ said Marion happily, ‘it’s a continent in chains, well, isn’t it?’ (Tribune, thought Anna; or possibly the Daily Worker.) ‘And measures ought to be taken immediately to restore the Africans’ faith in justice if it is not already too late.’ (The New Statesman, thought Anna.) ‘Well at least the situation ought to be thoroughly gone into in the interests of everybody.’ (The Manchester Guardian, at a time of acute crisis.) ‘But Anna, I don’t understand your attitude. Surely you’ll admit there’s evidence that something’s gone wrong?’ (The Times, editorializing a week after the news that the white administration has shot twenty Africans and imprisoned fifty more without trial.)

‘Marion, what’s got into you?

This scene responds to an earlier section of The Golden Notebook (I wrote before about it here) in which Anna’s note-book becomes pure collage: She no longer writes in her own “original” language, but rather cuts fragments from newspapers and pastes them directly into her diary. The section highlights (and rhetorically demonstrates) the novel’s theme of the disintegration of language, meaning, and order—one of the central problems of postmodernist literature.

Anna’s question to Marion at the end of the passage I’ve cited — “What’s got into you?” — is a banal commonplace, yet utterly sincere, authentic—-and all the more authentic for its underlying irony: Anna has already decided what’s “got into” Marion (The Tribune, The Daily Worker, etc.). 

Lessing’s passage here underscores just how susceptible we are to not-knowing, just at the moment when we feel most confident in our belief. Marion feels wholly authentic here, feels her way-of-seeing as rich, full, clear, alive—but it’s this very feeling of clarity that blinds her from seeing herself (seeing herself) parroting back the stock language of the sources that have infiltrated her consciousness.

Anna is far more attuned to her own self-blindness; indeed, her color-coded notebooks are a means to account for the discursive narratives that might try to give shape to the messiness of consciousness. In one extended episode, Anna attempts to write a complete narrative of a particular day, but as she repeatedly notes, her awareness of her project leads to such a heightened self-consciousness that every observation she makes about the day is placed under radical suspicion—she sees that she sees herself seeing (herself), but, intuiting her consciousness’ structure, also understands that there are ways in which she cannot see herself seeing (herself).

Can Anna’s realization of the limitations of first-person-perspective help to free her? I have not yet finished the novel, but so far, Lessing depicts the question as a deep, painful struggle. Anna grapples with a disintegrating sense of self, a self that can identify (and cut out and paste and record and document) the voices that have “got into” her, even as those voices destabilize her identity.

“James Joyce” — James Huneker

“James Joyce,” a chapter from James Huneker’s collection of criticism, Unicorns (1917).

Who is James Joyce? is a question that was answered by John Quinn, who told us that the new writer was from Dublin and at present residing in Switzerland; that he is not in good health—his eyes trouble him—and that he was once a student in theology, but soon gave up the idea of becoming a priest. He is evidently a member of the new group of young Irish writers who see their country and countrymen in anything but a flattering light. Ireland, surely the most beautiful and most melancholy island on the globe, is not the Isle of Saints for those iconoclasts. George Moore is a poet who happens to write English, though he often thinks in French; Bernard Shaw, notwithstanding his native wit, is of London and the Londoners; while Yeats and Synge are essentially Celtic, and both poets. Yes, and there is the delightful James Stephen, who mingles angels’ pin-feathers with rainbow gold; a magic decoction of which we never weary. But James Joyce, potentially a poet, and a realist of the De Maupassant breed, envisages Dublin and the Dubliners with a cruel scrutinising gaze. He is as truthful as Tchekov, and as grey—that Tchekov compared with whose the “realism” of De Maupassant is romantic bric-à-brac, gilded with a fine style. Joyce is as implacably naturalistic as the Russian in his vision of the sombre, mean, petty, dusty commonplaces of middle-class life, and he sometimes suggests the Frenchman in his clear, concise, technical methods. The man is indubitably a fresh talent.

Emerson, after his experiences in Europe, became an armchair traveller. He positively despised the idea of voyaging across the water to see what is just as good at home. He calls Europe a tapeworm in the brain of his countrymen. “The stuff of all countries is just the same.” So Ralph Waldo sat in his chair and enjoyed thinking about Europe, thus evading the worries of going there too often. It has its merit, this Emersonian way, particularly for souls easily disillusioned. To anticipate too much of a foreign city may result in disappointment. We have all had this experience. Paris resembles Chicago, or Vienna is a second Philadelphia at times; it depends on the colour of your mood. Few countries have been so persistently misrepresented as Ireland. It is lauded to the eleventh heaven of the Burmese or it is a place full of fighting devils in a hell of crazy politics. Of course, it is neither, nor is it the land of Lover and Lever; Handy Andy and Harry Lorrequer are there, but you never encounter them in Dublin. John Synge got nearer to the heart of the peasantry, and Yeats and Lady Gregory brought back from the hidden spaces fairies and heroes.

Is Father Ralph by Gerald O’Donovan a veracious picture of Irish priesthood and college life? Is the fiction of Mr. Joyce representative of the middle class and of the Jesuits? A cloud of contradictory witnesses passes across the sky. What is the Celtic character? Dion Boucicault’s The Shaughraun? Or isn’t the pessimistic dreamer with the soul of a “wild goose,” depicted in George Moore’s story, the real man? Celtic magic, cried Matthew Arnold. He should have said, Irish magic, for while the Irishman is a Celt, he is unlike his brethren across the Channel. Perhaps he is nearer to the Sarmatian than the continental Celt. Ireland and Poland! The Irish and the Polish! Dissatisfied no matter under which king! Not Playboys of the Western World, but martyrs to their unhappy temperaments. Read More

Riff on Aronofsky’s Noah

1. Noah continues director Darren Aronofsky’s streak of making films that I will never watch more than once.

2. (The film is new on DVD &c.; I dutifully missed in the theater).

3. (Although I did see Aronofsky’s first feature Pi in the theater—at my university’s student union. I liked the claustrophobic paranoia of Pi, but the film was also silly, histrionic even, and I did not understand the film’s handling of metaphysics—mostly because the film does not understand its own metaphysical vision).

4. (Noah, for its part, does seem to understand its own metaphysical vision; or, rather, it understands a version of its own metaphysical vision).

5. Aronofsky’s Noah takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape: Cities are failing, the world is barren, dry, the ground seems to be comprised of basalt and ash. The people in his Prediluvian world use a mishmash of technologies, some of which seem fairly advanced (strip-mining, metallurgy, advanced textiles, etc.)—but these technologies also seem stymied, stuck, abortive last grasps at progress. Noah looks at times like a Mad Max film, or even Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road.

6. Aronofsky’s Noah is a post-apocalyptic pre-apocalypse film.

7. Aronofsky’s Noah attempts an answer to both Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden and Cain’s murder of Abel.

8. Aronofsky’s Noah foregrounds the radical infanticide at the heart of the flood myth. 

9. From A. Samuel Kimball’s The Infanticidal Logic of Evolution and Culture:

. . . when he promises never again to subject the world to such destruction, God memorializes the irreversibility of his massively -cidal violence and binds the future that will transpire to the futurity that will now never come to pass. Indeed, God destroys an infinite number of futures with the respective deaths of the Flood’s victims, for whom the waters of the Flood will never stop flooding, never cease obliterating the future. When he ratifies his promise in the covenant with Noah and his descendants, God inscribes the future reproductivity of the Noahic lineage in the limitless infanticidism of the Flood.

10. Aronofsky’s Noah gains most, if not all, of its moral tension in depicting Noah’s attempt to negate the future reproductivity of the Noahic lineage.

11. Should humanity be allowed to exist after The Flood? is Noah’s (and Noah’s) central question. Aronofsky’s answer to this question is, I think, ultimately ambiguous. While Noah’s own infanticidal violence (an extension of his attempt to prevent his sons from begetting offspring) is suspended (by love!), Aronofsky represents this suspension with ambivalence. Noah, drunk in a cave, invites us to look on his naked failure. 

12. Aronofsky’s Noah is most successful as a kind of failed boilerplate color-by-numbers summer-popcorn-big-budget-action flick. It’s just too weird to fully adhere to its formula, but it hangs together by the formula nonetheless, jostling, uneasy. 

13. Aronofsky’s Noah features giant fallen angels encased in rock. These golems are probably the signal special effect of the film, and a sore reminder of the pervasive influence of the special effects battle sequences in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings

14. This was easily my favorite sequence of Noah:

15. (And yet that sequence still suffers from a kind of queasy supernatural cheesiness that infects Aronofsky’s work).

16. After watching the film, I sought reviews, which led me quickly to John Nolte’s paranoid (and unintentionally hilarious) take on the film at the right-wing website Breitbart. Nolte clearly enjoyed the film and he repeatedly praises its techniques, production values, and acting, but condemns it as “blasphemous” in depicting God as “some kind of tree-hugger.” “Aronofsky is the anti-Michelangelo,” Nolte declares, “a master craftsman using his talents to a dishonest and wicked end.” That wicked end is “using the story of Noah to twist Christianity into something it is not…[Noah is] a genius piece of propagandizing that is sure to lead many away from God under the mistaken belief that through left-wing environmentalism they are coming closer to Him.”

Nolte’s strident praise/condemnation is hilarious and hyperbolic.

Does he actually believe that this movie is aesthetically affecting enough to motivate any kind of change in belief?

17. (Reviews like Nolte’s are important to me because they help to remind me of the subjectivity of aesthetic experience. He saw a completely different film (with his completely different eyes) than I did).

18. My favorite Aronofsky film, and the only one that I would consider watching again, is The Fountain. I think that The Fountain might be a kind of precursor film to Noah, a trial-run even, although I have no evidence for this claim.

19. I started this riff with the claim that I have no desire to rewatch Aronofsky’s films, and that Noah continues this pattern. Aronofksy is an auteur, and like most auteurs, I’m sure rewatching his films would enrich an understanding of the themes and problems he’s trying to address. However, I find his films repulsive, by which I mean the opposite of compelling. I have never wanted to exit a fictional world as much as I wanted to escape Requiem for a Dream. I found The Wrestler depressing and empty. I’m afraid if I watch Black Swan again it will turn out that Aronofsky was actually not attempting to make a comedy about psychosis, but was rather actually serious about his melodrama’s tragic scope.

20. Noah isn’t repulsive, but it isn’t great either. Flawed doesn’t even begin to describe the film—yes, it survives its own competing impulses of spectacle-bombast and introspective-character-study, but never synthesizes them. It’s unclear who the film is for. The film resolves in a moment of supposed-uplift, positing “love” –of offspring– as a solution, but it also binds that solution/blessing in the cursing of offspring.

Both of these moments feel wholly inauthentic. In the end, what remains is the bitter aftertaste of Noah’s contempt—and his anxiety at failing to create a utopia devoid of humans.

Under the Skin Riff

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1. I hadn’t read a review of Under the Skin until after I watched it, but I had gleaned an idea of it based on taglines and posters—something like “Scarlett Johansson as a sexy alien seducing men in Scotland.”

2. That is not what the film is.

3. Under the Skin is an aesthetic experience. Now, this phrase, aesthetic experience, this phrase is extremely pretentious, and the way I’ve used it here also strikes me as pretentious, and even worse, not particularly clear. Any film could be described as an aesthetic experience. Films are, after all, simply light and sound.

4. Under the Skin is best experienced as light and sound—as aesthetic.

5. I’ve neglected to mention the film’s director, Jonathan Glazer, who directed another film I love, Sexy Beast.

6. For Under the Skin, Glazer adapted Michel Faber’s novel of the same name. I haven’t read the book, but a cursory cruise over its Wikipedia page suggests that Glazer dissolved most of the plot, keeping just the frame, or the idea of a frame for his film.

7. What I liked most about Under the Skin: The film is not really about anything. The film just happens. 

8. Point 7 is a terrible description! Of course the film is about something—but its themes and motifs are overdetermined and underexplained—or not explained at all.

9. There is very little dialogue in the film—no exposition or explanation for what’s happening, let alone a conversation that might guide the audience to how to think or feel about what’s happening.

10. (Okay: This is not entirely true, but it is mostly true. There is a key conversation, if it can be called that, between Johansson’s unnamed character and a man with a deformed face). 

11. The bits of dialogue that do evince often seem unscripted and random. The men Johansson’s character picks up speak in thick Scottish accents, their voices often obscured behind a din of traffic, buzz of music, or the thick glass windows of the van she drives around in. 

12. (A favorite moment of auditory distortion in Under the Skin: In a domestic scene, in a kitchen, cleaning up, a man turns on his radio and just-barely tunes in a station. Deacon Blue’s “Real Gone Kid” plays through a hazy crackle. Lovely).

13. The sound mixing in the film is beautiful—waves crashing, the clip-clop of horse hooves on a high road, the wind blowing heavy through tall evergreens—these auditory cues mix in with Mica Levi’s creepy, lush score, which channels Krzysztof Komeda’s work and Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score through Portishead and Loveless

Scarlett Johansson Under the Skin

14. Sound and light—those shots: Cinematographer Daniel Landin is the secret star of the film. Every shot is gorgeous, painterly, and if Glazer often allows a scene to linger just past an acceptable threshold, it’s because he’s in love with the film’s dark beauty. 

15. (And/or: Glazer lets his shots linger so long to provoke the viewer into a kind of hypnotic discomfort).

16. The film’s early visual references to Kubrick’s 2001 are a bit on-the-nose—too on-the-nose, too expected. As the film progresses, the shots take their cues not from Kubrick’s sci-fi classic, but his most painterly film, Barry Lyndon

17. (Under the Skin also reminded me of Upstream Color, Moon, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Tree of Life, and Morvern Callar).

18. The film is best enjoyed, as I’ve said, as an aesthetic experience, art, if that’s the word you like. I think that viewers who attempt to impose their own narrative logic on the film will attune their energy to the wrong frequency. Let the aesthetic happen.

19. (The beach sequence in this film is one of the best scenes I’ve watched in a long, long time).

20. I have completely and purposefully neglected to mention anything about the plot, because I do not think the plot, in the sense of plot-as-arrangement-of-action matters to the film. The film’s aesthetic is the plot.

21. And Under the Skin’s aesthetic is the film’s theme. This film is about seeing, hearing. Touch, taste, smell.

You can boil that down to whichever theory floats your boat—the male gaze, alienation, othering, sexual subversion, radical feminism, etc.—but I think that imposing any schema, any deep reading here, may be a way of anesthetizing the film’s aesthetic.

22. Highly recommended.

 

 

Kevin Thomas Discusses His Illustrated Book Reviews with Biblioklept

Kevin Thomas’s new book Horn! (from OR Books) collects the book reviews he’s been doing for the past few years at the Rumpus. Kevin reviews new books (and occasionally reissues) in comic strip form. Over a series of emails, Kevin talked with me about his process, how he got started, the books that have stuck with him the most over the years, and his theory that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a secret remake of Three Amigos!  Find Kevin on Goodreads,Twitter, and Tumblr.

Biblioklept: You’ve been reviewing books at The Rumpus for a couple of years now in your strip Horn! How did the strip start? Did it start with The Rumpus, or before?

Kevin Thomas: I had been making these primitive autobiographical webcomics under the “Horn!” moniker for about a year when The Rumpus Book Club started. One of the selling points of the book club was that if you reviewed a book and the editors liked it, they’d publish it on the site. So I dedicated one comic a month to reviewing these books, and after the third submission was accepted, The Rumpus asked me if I wanted to make it a regular strip.

Biblioklept: What other kinds of comics did you make before that? Did you have any training or background in cartooning?

KT: No, I was trained, to put it generously, to be a composer. Before that I wanted to be a poet. I had great teachers in both of those fields, but never even thought about taking a studio art class. Maybe the fact that I hadn’t yet tried and failed at comics was what drew me to it. Read More

Snowpiercer Riff

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1. Snowpiercer, 2013, directed by Bong Joon Ho and produced by Park Chan Wook, is a sci-fi dystopian set on a mega-train, where the vestiges of humanity survive, protected from the new ice age outside. The plot involves the third-class passengers’ revolt against the elites who enjoy a privileged life at the head of the train. Etc.

2. You’ve seen this movie before, read this book before. You’ve played this video game.

3. Metropolis, Soylent Green12 MonkeysHalf-Life 2The Time Machine, the MaddAddam trilogy, Children of Men, BioShockZardozLogan’s Run, Brave New World, BrazilThe City of Lost ChildrenBad Dudes, Die HardThe Polar Express, etc.

4. Points 2 and 3 are lazy writing, and Snowpiercer deserves better. Although the film is not especially original, it does have a clear point of view, its own aesthetics, and an engaging, energetic rhythm, powered by strong (if purposefully cartoonish) performances from its cast.

5. Snowpiercer is essentially structured like a video game. The heroes, a rebel alliance led by Chris Evans (Captain America, looking like The Edge from U2 for half the film), clear each train car—each game board—before moving on to the next challenge. An early standout scene involves a fight with a band of ninjas who for some reason ritually slaughter a fish before battle (the scene echoes the famous hammer hallway fight in Old Boy, a film directed by Snowpiercer producer Chan Wook Park). 

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6. The simple narrative structure of Snowpiercer allows the filmmakers to highlight the plot’s allegorical dimension. Highlight is the wrong verb: What I mean to say is hammer. Snowpiercer is not especially subtle in its critique of capitalism, with the engine that powers the train as a metaphor for capitalism itself—the engine determines the form of the train which in turn shapes the form of the society that must live in the train.

7. At Jacobin, Peter Frase offers a strong argument that the film challenges the entire system of capitalism and ultimately advocates transcendence of the system—not internal revolution.

8. While I think Frase’s essay offers a compelling analysis, I think that he simply wants the film to be better than it is. Snowpiercer, despite an apparent subversive streak, is still a Hollywoodish spectacle of violence and noise. It cannot transcend its own tropes (it can’t even revolutionize them). The vision of transcendence it offers is a rhetorical trick; not only that, it’s a stale trick, one that we can find at the end of any number of dystopian fictions: The exit door, the escape hatch, the way out.

9. I want to talk about that exit door—the end of the film: so major spoilers ahead. Read More

The BFG, Roald Dahl’s Love Letter to His Lost Daughter

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Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s classic The BFG begins with a dedication to the author’s daughter: “For Olivia: 20th April 1955 — 17th November 1962.”

If I had noticed the dedication when I first read The BFG as a child, I certainly didn’t think about it then. The slim sad range of those dates would have meant nothing to me, eager as I was to dig into a book about child-eating giants, secure in my own childish immortality. However, when I started reading the book with my daughter, the dedication howled out to me, thoroughly coloring the lens through which I read.

Had Olivia Twenty Dahl not died from measles encephalitis at only seven, had she continued to live to be alive now, she would be approaching her sixtieth birthday. But because she died as a seven-year-old little girl, she remained a seven-year-old little girl to me, the reader, who saw her spirit under every page. 

I believe she remained a seven-year-old little girl for Dahl as well—at least in the imaginative world of The BFG where she is recast as the hero Sophie. Reading The BFG, it was impossible for me not to immediately connect Sophie to Olivia, those names with their Greek roots and their long O‘s. It was also impossible for me not to connect these two girls to my own daughter Zoe, who is also seven.

(Parenthetically, I’ll admit that biographical interpretation of literature is often a terrible practice—especially when combined with a touch of reader-response criticism—and that what I am doing here is not something I think advisable, let alone commendable. And yet the central affective power for me in reading The BFG—as an adult to my little girl—rests in my inescapable intuition that Dahl wrote the book to make his daughter live again, to live forever). Read More

William Faulkner Reviews Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea

His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.

William Faulkner’s review of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea was first published in the Autumn 1952 issue of Shenandoah. The review is collected in Faulkner’s Essays, Speeches & Public Letters.