A rambling and possibly incoherent riff on Inherent Vice (film and novel) and The Crying of Lot 49

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A. The first time I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Inherent Vice, I was in the middle of rereading Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49, which I hadn’t read in fifteen years. I remembered the novel’s vibe, its milieu, but not really its details.

B. I read The Crying of Lot 49 and then immediately reread it. It seemed much stronger the second time—not nearly as silly. Darker. Oedipa Maas, precursor to Doc Sportello, trying not to lose the thread as she leaves the tower for the labyrinth, rushing dizzy into the sixties.

C. Another way of saying this: Inherent Vice is sequel to The Crying of Lot 49. Any number of details substantiate this claim (and alternately unravel it, if you wish, but let’s not travel there)—we could focus on the settings, sure, or maybe the cabals lurking in the metaphorical shadows of each narrative—is The Golden Fang another iteration of The Tristero?—but let me focus on the conclusions of both novels and then discuss the conclusion of PTA’s film.

D. A favorite line from a favorite passage from The Crying of Lot 49: “the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself.” Paranoia as a kind of sustained hope, a way to find meaning, order, a center.

E. The final pages of The Crying of Lot 49 find Oedipa trying to make sense of the labyrinth (my emphases in bold):

For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth. In the songs Miles, Dean, Serge and Leonard sang was either some fraction of the truth’s numinous beauty (as Mucho now believed) or only a power spectrum. Tremaine the Swastika Salesman’s reprieve from holocaust was either an injustice, or the absence of a wind; the bones of the GI’s at the bottom of Lake Inverarity were there either for a reason that mattered to the world, or for skin divers and cigarette smokers. Ones and zeroes. So did the couples arrange themselves. At Vesperhaven House either an accommodation reached, in some kind of dignity, with the Angel of Death, or only death and the daily, tedious preparations for it. Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.

There is either meaning, or there is not meaning. Continue reading

A Conversation about Evan Dara’s Novel Flee (Part 1)

[Context/editorial note: I’ve been meaning to read Evan Dara’s latest novel Flee for a while nowand when Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang told me he’d be reading it as part of a contemporary literature class I decided to join him. This is the first part of a two-part discussion which took place over a few weeks of emails. — ET].   

Edwin Turner: So you’re reading Evan Dara’s Flee for a class, right? What’s the name of the class again? What are some of the other texts in the class?

Ryan Chang: Yeah, a class called 21st Century Fiction: What is Contemporary? We started out reading Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and Acker’s Empire of the Senseless. We just finished reading Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad (awful), and we’re moving onto Chaon’s Await Your Reply and Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. Everything, up to Pynchon, has as its central conflict the dissolution of the subject vis. the postmodern. Perhaps because of the spatialization of time (Egan, Reed) or a steroidal fungibility of a self because of technology (Chaon). The awareness of how deeply we are disciplined by master narratives (Acker). We’ve yet to get to Blake Butler’s There Is No Year and Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker, which I’m looking forward to after the Chaon and Egan who, in their attempt to write novels critical of the contemporary (more so of Egan, who does nothing but neuter the very real state of late capitalism’s terror into entertainment), do not make it past the merely interesting. I liked the Egan much less than the Chaon; part of the problem is the prose style, I think — it’s characteristically white American, shaped by sentimentality and preoccupied with the syntax of conventional form. In other words, the blueberry muffin prose styles betray the experimental forms in which they’re enveloped.

ET: I always have to look up the word fungibility. Dara’s Flee seems to fit into that early theme you mention, the conflict of the dissolution of the subject, which is both the book’s formal rhetorical strategy, but also its plot program, encapsulated (maybe) on page 45: “What is the weight of we?” What do you make of Dara’s style here? Like initial impression?

RC: I’m about ~40 pages in. I think I mentioned in the Books Acquired thing I wrote that Dara, stylistically, is hitting hard on Gaddis. Admittedly, I’m most familiar with the late Gaddis — Carpenter’s Gothic. (Agape Agape, too, but this is, of course, his letter to Bernhard.) I like that both focus on voice, on streams of speech that collide or blur into each other. The Gaddis influence is more of an echo than anything.
Specifically re: Dara — the interruptions, digressions and hesitations immediately struck me as something like a Tragic Greek chorus that, having incurred some sort of its own trauma (and not acting only as the all-knowing unconscious of the play), is completely disoriented, confused of its own purpose. But amidst the cacophony–or something like a directed cacophony towards the reader–they are still unwittingly functioning as a chorus. They’re giving us the stage for Flee’s story, hinting quietly at the book’s central plot conflict. Also naming characters (Carol, Rick, Marcus, etc), which is now more intriguing to me at the passage from p.45 you mention. What’s also different in Carpenter’s Gothic is, while that whole book remains on one diegetic level (as far as I can remember, it’s been a few years) because no narrator ever announces itself, in Dara, there’s a blurring of diegetic arenas, a refusal to centralize any narrative authority. Ok, so, re: dissolution of the subject: It seems that not only are the chorus members interrupting themselves, but they’re also interrupting the narrator as well. Each left-margin emdash cuts the narrator off, in a way, if you will. That scene when they’re pitying Rick, acting as a narrator with dialogue tags. The commonly individuated voice of the narrator is subsumed into the characters’ diegetic arena; a tension between the collective and individual implicit in prose structure alone. It also seems, by “36,551,” that whatever the population is fleeing from is not collectively driven (ie., the pity for Mark’s poorly planned meetings for something, we don’t know what yet), but selfishly driven. And in the flattening power of numbers, that selfishness — a hermetic individuality — becomes collective. There is a kind of infinite distance between I and we that, perhaps, the book is trying to trace? Or its relationship in the temporality of the novel is a perpetual expanding/contracting relationship, like a rubber band?

As far as I am in the book, the interruptions and digressions also have a hysteria to them that points to something the chorus is ignoring even in the face of the beginnings of a series of rude awakenings. Each voice just bemoans this dissolution of themselves; but, especially in the scene where Rick is, like, torn apart for his idea in service of the township, each voice is just narcissistically concerned with how it’s going to inconvenience them, rather than the potential worth of Rick’s idea.

ET: I teach an introductory American lit class, and today we were talking about Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily,” which I think offers this wonderful example of a first-person plural narrator, this kind of limited chorus that is not-quite omniscient, not-quite omnipresent, and hardly omnipotent. It’s this weird we that seems able to transcend time, but not space—it can live for more than eighty years but it can’t see into Emily Grierson’s house. Its limitations are human; its limitations are the limitations of all the members of a community. I had your email in the back of my head while I was riffing on all this today—that, yes, the we is this fiction that we all subscribe to (hey look, I just used it!)—it’s our linguistic tag for culture, religion, whatever—but it requires some other—a you, I guess, that we can all point to, an Emily Grierson that’s only part of the we by paradoxically not being a part of the we, by defining the weFlee doesn’t seem to have that other, at least not in the first seven chapters anyway, although it does foreground two protagonists in Rick and Carol—something that Dara’s first novel The Lost Scrapbook does not do. The Lost Scrapbook is far more polyglossic than Flee also, which again reminds me of Faulkner’s story in its unified we-ness—Flee‘s narrative voice somehow unifies entropy, breakdown, the chaotic rumbling becomes this throbbing tone of dissolution (“There’s no here here,” page 79), where the narcissistic flight of each member of the community paradoxically underwrites the viability of a community, the possibility of a community… Continue reading

A short riff on a favorite scene from Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood

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I absolutely loved Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, which is nominated for a few Oscars this year, including Best Picture. (Boyhood is too good to win best picture; I’m fine with that prize going to Iñárritu’s faux-art film Birdman). A rich and sentimental evocation of “reality,” Boyhood synthesizes the best elements of Linklater’s previous films, and like many of those films—Slacker, the Before trilogy, Waking LifeDazed and ConfusedBoyhood isn’t really about anything. Of course it’s also kinda sorta about everything: family, love, growth, education, life. Etc.

The central formal device of Boyhood—namely, that Linklater shot the film over twelve years using the same actors—has been remarked upon at great length by others, so I won’t touch on it, other than to say that I found watching Ellar Coltrane’s Mason grow up profoundly moving. The aesthetic experience of Boyhood is its greatest pleasure, much like its sister film The Tree of Life. And although Boyhood’s aesthetic power relies in large part on our witnessing its characters grow and age, its emotional tenor, its vibe, inheres from scene to scene.

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There are many wonderful moments in the film, some more memorable than others, but a favorite of mine takes place at an overnight “camping trip” in a house that’s still under construction. Mason is maybe, what, thirteen here?—I’m not quite sure, but he tells his mother the truth about where he’s going, if not entirely the truth about what he’ll be doing there…which is, what? Not much really—the younger kids hang out with the older kids, drink a beer or two, lie about sex—stuff kids do. The scene captures the same not-quite-boring hangout vibe that permeates Dazed and Confused and Waking Life—a kind of familiar realness.

Linklater is a master at evoking a sense of place. And this place, this house—it’s simultaneously boring, calming, and horrifying. On one hand, we’ve been there before—the abandoned house, the empty parking lot, the little switch of trees that aren’t quite woods, not really—the free space where we can play at being adults. On the other hand, Boyhood has allowed us—or maybe I should not extend my pronoun to the plural? No?—Okay: Boyhood has allowed me, this viewer, a kind of paternalistic view of Mason (“my-son”) who is, after all, growing up before our very eyes (sorry for slipping back into the first-person plural there). And here Linklater has young Mason—whom we trust to do the right thing and all but still—here Linklater has staged Mason & co. in an abandoned house full of scrap wood and power tools and circular saw blades which the young men are of course throwing into the sheet rock with gleeful abandon.

I flinched as the blades flew forcefully past Mason and his friend; in any other film they would have to cut into flesh and bone, be tools for forces tragic or comic. Plot devices. But in Boyhood they are the toys of boys playing at growing up. Nothing happens. No grievous injury or terrible death—the sort of thing that usually licenses, I don’t know, the central character’s maturation. Not even a comic wound. Nothing. The blade-throwing is just normal bored stupid teenage amusement. It’s the sort of thing that Mason’s mom—and a paternalistic viewer like me—might find horrifying—You could get very badly hurt, Mason!—but he doesn’t. He’s fine. He’s alive.

For me, this particular scene—not the strongest or the strangest or the most memorable or moving—is nevertheless a key moment in Boyhood, not just because it disrupts audience expectations (the film is full of such gentle disruptions), but because it engenders and then discharges my own parental anxieties. That’s a form of catharsis, I guess, but not a catharsis of tragedy. It’s catharsis for reality.

Some notes on beginning Evan Dara’s novel Flee

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A. What a cover on Evan Dara’s 2013 novel Flee, don’t you agree?

B. From the back cover:

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C. That’s all there is. Well, okay, there’s an ISBN too. But no blurbs, no other text.

D. “Something always going on—” is the first line of Flee. It’s also an apt description of Dara’s formal technique, a constantly-shifting series of dialogues, monologues, overlapping, cross-cutting, diverging—always out there ahead of the reader. That dash there—that dash is the simple summative signal of it all, a little typographic pole that simultaneously connects and interrupts.

E. The most obvious point of comparison for Dara’s technique (besides his amazing debut novel The Lost Scrapbook) is William Gaddis’s stuff, particularly J Rthe verbal dazzle, the few stray lines of poetic stage-setting in lieu of traditional exposition—the throw-the-reader-in-the-deep-end stuff. David Foster Wallace frequently attempted the same rhetorical mode, most successfully in §19 of The Pale King. (It’s entirely likely that The Lost Scrapbook could have had the same following that Infinite Jest achieved had Dara done anything to promote the book. But here I think of Gaddis in his Paris Review interview: “I’d go back to The Recognitions where Wyatt asks what people want from the man they didn’t get from his work, because presumably that’s where he’s tried to distill this ‘life and personality and views’ you speak of. What’s any artist but the dregs of his work: I gave that line to Wyatt thirty-odd years ago and as far as I’m concerned it’s still valid”).

F. The point of contrast though is Dara’s abrupt transition, sometimes it seems mid-sentence, from one speaker to the next. Just as we feel (nearly) comfortable with who this particular narrator might be, another voice interjects, or rather continues, or re-trajects the discourse—as in the second chapter of Flee (“38,842″), where a college student driving home in snowy weather to pick up a book by Paul Krugman gives over to a number of speakers all describing the closing of the local university, Pitkinson (this closing’s being the presumable, like, plot of Flee so far I suppose)—faculty and staff and townies and residents—until a grad student takes over to report the speech of one Professor Gray, himself bearing witness to the downfall of the school (Ghost Sociology is the issue)—and then of course the chapter gives over to more rumor, more speculation. “Something always going on—.”

G. So I’ve read the first three chapters (“38,839,” “38,842,” “36,551”). But wait: The next chapter (“35,717″–do the titles reflect the dwindling population of the town (Anderburg)?)—but wait the next chapter, I see by scanning, offers some new, perhaps, rhetorical gesture—a section in a different font? Chunkier paragraphs?

I have to go see about this. (More to come).

Jane Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies confounds with sinister humor and dark delight

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Here’s a short review of Jane Bowles’s only novel, Two Serious Ladies: The book is amazing, a confounding, energetic picaresque suffused with sinister humor and dark delight. I read it knowing nothing about the plot on the recommendation of Ben Marcus, who described it as “so insane, so beautiful, and in some sense, unknowable to me. On the surface, it’s not really about much, but the arrangement of words does something chemical to me.” My recommendation is to dispense with the rest of my review and read Bowles’s novel.

“Unknowable” is a fair description, and Two Serious Ladies was met with bewilderment when it was first published in 1943, as Negar Azimi points out in the comprehensive essay “The Madness of Queen Jane”:

Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.

The notion that “The book is about nothing,” is corrected by Marcus’s qualifier about its “surface”: Two Serious Ladies moves through the phenomenological world that its characters experience, but it does not mediate the concrete contours of that world in a way that its characters can name for the reader. When the characters, those two serious ladies, do stumble into language that might name, pin down, or otherwise fix their experience, fix their consciousness into a stable relation with the world, Bowles spins the wheel again, flings her characters into new scenarios. Moments of epiphany are transitory and hard-purchased. A (perhaps) illustrating passage, offered without context:

Mrs. Copperfield started to tremble after the girl had closed the door behind her. She trembled so violently that she shook the bed. She was suffering as much as she had ever suffered because she was going to do what she wanted to do. But it would not make her happy. She did not have the courage to stop from doing what she wanted to do. She knew that it would not make her happy, because only the dreams of crazy people come true. She thought that she was only interested in duplicating a dream, but in doing so she necessarily became the complete victim of a nightmare.

The free indirect style here still hides so much from the reader, who must suss the characters’ unnamed desires from bewildering details alone. The passage above shows us fear and trembling, dream, nightmare—and crazy people. What does Copperfield want to do? One subtext here is a lesbian desire seemingly comprehended by everyone but Mrs. Copperfield herself. (In some of the book’s strangest moments, Mr. Copperfield leaves his near-mad wife in a dangerous part of a foreign city to encounter hookers of every stripe). Two Serious Ladies is about women searching for something, but something they can’t name, can’t conceive in language—but can perhaps imagine. Continue reading

Reading There Will Be Blood as the expanded epilogue to Blood Meridian

Watching (again) Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood last night, it struck me that the film can be read as an expansion of the epilogue to Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian.

Here is that infamously perplexing passage, a strange note that punctuates the devastating infanticidal horror at the novel’s core:

In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.

I’ve heard numerous interpretations of this passage over the years. Many of the interpretations dwell on the metaphorical power of the epilogue—it’s the final gnostic clue in the Judge’s web of mysteries; it’s the Promethean redemption of humanity against the Judge’s evil; it’s the spirit of civilization that will measure and conquer the bloody West, a progressive new dawn; it’s Cormac McCarthy’s signature, his designation of himself as the writer who carries the fire.

I’m fine with all of these interpretations, for I foolishly take Judge Holden at his word when he points out that, “Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.” Let me eschew the symbolic then, at least momentarily, for the literal.

The epilogue’s literal imagery suggests a man working with post hole diggers: Is he building a fence? Constructing telegraph poles? Exploring? Surveying? Whatever his intentions, he marks and measures the land.

Whether the digger is a leader or not, he has followers, “the wanderers in search of bones” as well as “those who do not search.” Bones of what? Are the searchers hunting relics? (To revert to the metaphorical—sorry—are these bones the dead eyes Emerson warned us not to look through?). Or are the bones something else—dinosaur bones, Texas tea, carbon, fuel?

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So There Will Blood and there will be bones: Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview, a misanthropic, near-malevolent, and ultimately murderous oil man—what I want to say is that he is (a failed version of) McCarthy’s Epilogue Digger. Is not There Will Be Blood  a film about digging, about holes, falling in holes, dying holes, striking fire from holes? And is not There Will Be Blood also a film about the abjection of holes—the oil, the mud, the much, the blood that coats hands and faces, eyes, lips, ears burst? Of the recapitulation of the hole as the primal space for culture—a fertile, generative, fecund, deadly space? The hole as the space of shame and possibility? Daniel Plainview, surveying California, marking lines for his followers to follow, striking oil, striking fire. No?

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We might see in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film a repetitious revision of McCarthy’s novel—a recasting of sorts, with Plainview possessed by Glanton’s maniacal spirit—and Glanton in turn possessed by the spirit of the Judge, the dark omnipresent bad father. Both film and novel mediate their Oedipal dramas in an utterly masculine world. Blood Meridian affords more speaking roles to women than There Will Be Blood does, but both see fit to discharge any notion of a mother from the Oedipal contests they depict, rendering the kid in each narrative the warden of strange gangs, strange wanderers. Anderson allows H.W. to suffer but live and perhaps thrive, to find a mate, to escape into new and alien territory, outside of the holes his surrogate father has dug. Our would-be hero of Blood Meridian, the kid, dies in an outhouse, an abject hole.

And Daniel Plainview—he murders the false priest (which the judge failed to do—although Tobin was a true priest though ex-priest), murders a version of himself—another brother, another Abel. He’s not a good guy. If we read McCarthy’s epilogue through his latest novel, The Road, or even through some of the lines in No Country for Old Men, we can see that “the good guys” are charged with carrying the fire—and is this not what the Epilogue Digger is doing? Carrying the fire, freeing the fire from the earth? Plainview would like to carry the fire, to generate new life, new communities, but he fails, he falls, he crumbles. He abandons his child, and then denies his child. “I’m finished!”

Am I finished? I’m now more confused than when I started this riff. The germ of the idea woke with me this morning—the alien landscape of PTA’s film seemed to restage for me moments in McCarthy’s novel in some waking dream—and like a dream seemed perfectly illogically logical. But bound up in my language I’m not so sure. What I did detect in the film, last night, that I had previously perhaps missed, or maybe forgotten, was how admirable Daniel Plainview often is, especially early on in the film—decisive, bold, asserting his own agency and working with his own hands, he’s a Nietzschean figure. But his paranoia gives way to madness and corruption. Okay. I’m finished.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Film Birdman Reviewed

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Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Birdman relies heavily on a central stylistic conceit: The film unfolds as one continuous uninterrupted shot, the camera unblinking, restlessly moving after Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor who has put everything he has—financially, physically, mentally—into a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

The shot isn’t really continuous (any savvy viewer will spot the cuts), but the effect is powerful and engaging early on, especially when Keaton shares the lens with Edward Norton, who plays Mike, a wild foil to Keaton’s Riggan. Mike is the artist, the theater actor, the method actor, the real deal; Riggan is just a celebrity—or rather was a celebrity, the star of the Birdman franchise. The nod to Keaton’s Batman films is not even a nod, but one of several meta-crutches that Iñárritu rests all the film’s supposed “weight” on. Birdman wants to be heavy, but it feels hollow. Good thing it’s always in motion.

Birdman suffers by comparison to a handful of other films, notably Aleksandr Sokurov’s masterpiece Russian Ark in particular. Sokurov’s film, also filmed in one continuous take, does a finer job plumbing the mysteries of aesthetics (and any of aesthetics’ supposed nemeses) than Birdman. Sokurov’s film also bewilders, where Birdman’s contours are fairly familiar stuff. Another film that stages (and restages) what Birdman would like to be doing with more force is Charlie Kaufman’s deeply flawed and very brilliant film Synecdoche, New York, an alienating study of art, performance, and audience.

Of course I’ve just done exactly what Keaton’s Riggan howls against late in Birdman’s second act. He confronts the theater critic who has promised to kill his play, screaming that she, as a critic, takes no risks, puts nothing on the line. Her words are just labels; all she does is make weak comparisons. Has Iñárritu built a defense into this scene? Are we to empathize with Keaton’s Riggan? Or with Norton’s Mike? Or with the other characters whom Riggan alternately alienates and draws back in, including his ex-wife, his daughter, his girlfriend, his co-star, and his best friend? Or maybe we empathize with Riggan’s Birdman, the voice that haunts him, the voice that haunts itself into existence?

Anchored by fantastic performances—what a joy to see Keaton carry a movie again—great cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki , and a jazz percussion score, Birdman is an entertaining way to pass two hours, but the profundity it seeks in its final moments simply isn’t there. The film’s formal structuring device, the uninterrupted shot, would like to penetrate its hero’s consciousness, but always seems to fail, necessitating voice-over or dialogue to clumsily underline the main idea. (Should I unfairly contrast this weakness with the far more powerful long-takes in Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void? No? Okay). Birdman strives to explore the tangle between art and entertainment, but at the end we’re left with yet another Hollywood satire of ego and celebrity. Birdman is amusing when it seeks to be penetrating, clever when it seeks to be profound. And it made Raymond Carver’s story look like lurid dinner theater. But these are just labels.