More Plant-like: Riffing on Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

We tend to pathologize the ultimate no—suicide—as a shameful failure, the worst kind of failure. The shame of not having assimilated into normative culture, of not bootstrapping the self into a legible narrative of success. Of being merely unable. Melville’s Bartleby teaches us this lesson all too well. Those around Bartleby can’t read his preference to merely not be as such. They want to know why he doesn’t want to be a good bureaucrat. And they string him up for it. But saying no can be an assertion of power, freedom and will, as Bartelby teaches us. The choice to merely not be is simply that. It frustrates everyone around it because it defies the most naturalized assumption in existence: that consciousness is a gift, a privilege, a precious unit of time not to be squandered or frivolously wasted. We are urged to make good with life.

But this attitude comes with the privilege of choices. One who can say that things can be different, that one only need to work a bit harder, shift her perception, to “be the change she wishes to see in the world” doesn’t wake up on Skid Row every morning, is not black in Baltimore or Ferguson, does not live in a body policed by the law and popular culture. Moreover, this attitude assumes that whatever prevents this different life, where one doesn’t have to say no, is conquerable, fixable. Often, the sensation that things cannot be different appears insurmountable. Whatever is assaulting you cannot be removed with a simple shift in perception and attitude.

Such is the dilemma of Yeong-hye in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. The flap copy describes Yeong-hye’s turn towards vegetarianism as a decision, as does her tyrannical husband and everyone around her, but Yeong-hye’s plant-like turn is only a decision in the most technical sense. Yes, she does decide to become a vegetarian, but not because of preference, or political/ethical commitment. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is vital; for her, vegetarianism is her only out from the violent misogyny that she has been born into. But to also say that she wants death and, in turn, that Kang’s novel is a reconfiguration of the normative narrative of suicide would be a double injustice. I know nothing of South Korean culture, and I can only speak confidently of the misogyny that frames The Vegetarian because it is terrifyingly normal in the mouths of its narrators; the first injustice is that I only know this misogyny through western narratives. The second, to assert that Yeong-hye wants death, falls into the trap of romanticizing suicide. None of Yeong-hye’s life is decision, or choice, or freedom, except her desire to become more plant-like—even that is a stretch to say it is a desire. For Yeong-hye, a plant-like existence approaches a state of supreme serenity and disaffection from her world – a position where she cannot be read as a sexual being and, in turn, under the hands of a violent culture. Vegetarianism hangs the human body and self between what we understand and project onto the outside world as life and death. Vegetarianism asymptotically kisses death.

Continue reading “More Plant-like: Riffing on Han Kang’s The Vegetarian”

Good Old “Good Old Neon” Essay (Not Actually Old But Actually Very New)

Wallace4

Today, the Los Angeles Review of Books published an insightful essay by Tim Peters about David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon.”

“Good Old Neon” is (in my estimation) Wallace’s finest piece of sustained prose, and his most tortured exploration of the tension between authenticity and performance.

Peters’s essay also features a number of photographs from Wallace’s high school yearbook, which are interesting, sure, but they actually fit into the essay.

Breaking into the strands and allusions that feed “Good Old Neon” (including Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, and Hemingway), Peters’s essay has a riff-like quality (is that why I like it so much?), but there’s also a thesis here, one that I think actually answers alarmist/reactionary “death of the novel”/”end of literature” “think pieces” (how do you like that last clause for phrases in quotation marks?).

Obviously, if you haven’t read “Good Old Neon,” then read “Good Old Neon.

Then check out Peter’s essay. A sample of his analysis:

If you read “Good Old Neon” and then read D. T. Max’s biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (the epigraph of which is a line from “Neon”), you see one example after another of stuff from Wallace’s life that Neal says happened to him. Being raised by people “of high ideals and values, humanists”; making fun of his sister as a kid and pretending like she was obese and jumping out of the way when she passed him in the hallway; having a knack for mathematical logic and logical paradoxes; having “a killer G.P.A.”; playing a varsity sport; being a philanderer with women; being on the professional fast track by the time he was in his 20s; getting into religion and meditation as a way of dealing with his troubles; living in the vicinity of the cornfields of Illinois; committing suicide. At the end of the story, when Neal’s ghost is hovering over Wallace and their high school yearbook, and as the latter is thinking about how impossible it is to try and pass through the exterior image of a person and to enter into the realm of his psyche, you wonder if what’s really going on in this story is something more akin to what happens between Dorian Gray and his picture, or William Wilson and his double, or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk, or the two Tyler Durdens in Fight Club, or even between Martin Sheen and his reflection in the mirror in Hearts of Darkness, which is to say, you wonder if what’s going on here is a sort of a spiritual/philosophical death match, a duel between two opposite tendencies that are internal to a psyche but in the world of these stories are teased into two separate but similar-looking characters, into doubles or doppelgängers who both need each other and then perversely also try to destroy each other. And the dialectic that these characters are working out is Apollo v. Dionysus, the superego v. the id, the false self v. the true self, the rational civilized scientific order v. spontaneity and passion and a community of spirit. The drama that makes these stories interesting is that there’s no boring, middling, mediating ego term to calm things down and to make concessions and to prevent the dialectic from exploding. Hence: Dorian Gray stabs himself; William Wilson stabs himself; Mr. Hyde is either going to be executed or to commit suicide; The Hulk goes Smash; Tyler Durden shoots himself; Martin Sheen has a heart attack and has to be flown off the set of Apocalypse Now. And as for “Good Old Neon,” the struggle is between Neal, the golden child, against the “real, more enduring and sentimental” David Wallace who’s looking at their pictures in the high school yearbook. It’s the struggle between a nihilist who’s yet actively making the society function, and a believer who has a desire for solid, non-alienated, human relationships, but who’s quietly, sadly, sitting in a recliner and watching the nihilists run.

“Too Blue” — Langston Hughes

tooblue

Goodbye World (The Far Side)

thefarside

Suicide — Andy Warhol

“A Sea of Troubles” — P.G. Wodehouse

“A Sea of Troubles” by P.G. Wodehouse

Mr Meggs’s mind was made up. He was going to commit suicide.

There had been moments, in the interval which had elapsed between the first inception of the idea and his present state of fixed determination, when he had wavered. In these moments he had debated, with Hamlet, the question whether it was nobler in the mind to suffer, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. But all that was over now. He was resolved.

Mr Meggs’s point, the main plank, as it were, in his suicidal platform, was that with him it was beside the question whether or not it was nobler to suffer in the mind. The mind hardly entered into it at all. What he had to decide was whether it was worth while putting up any longer with the perfectly infernal pain in his stomach. For Mr Meggs was a martyr to indigestion. As he was also devoted to the pleasures of the table, life had become for him one long battle, in which, whatever happened, he always got the worst of it.

He was sick of it. He looked back down the vista of the years, and found therein no hope for the future. One after the other all the patent medicines in creation had failed him. Smith’s Supreme Digestive Pellets—he had given them a more than fair trial. Blenkinsop’s Liquid Life-Giver—he had drunk enough of it to float a ship. Perkins’s Premier Pain-Preventer, strongly recommended by the sword-swallowing lady at Barnum and Bailey’s—he had wallowed in it. And so on down the list. His interior organism had simply sneered at the lot of them.

‘Death, where is thy sting?’ thought Mr Meggs, and forthwith began to make his preparations. Continue reading ““A Sea of Troubles” — P.G. Wodehouse”

Another paradox (David Foster Wallace)

This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc. — and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant. The internal head-speed or whatever of these ideas, memories, realizations, emotions and so on is even faster, by the way — exponentially faster, unimaginably faster — when you’re dying, meaning during that vanishingly tiny nanosecond between when you technically die and when the next thing happens, so that in reality the cliché about people’s whole life flashing before their eyes as they’re dying isn’t all that far off — although the whole life here isn’t really a sequential thing where first you’re born and then you’re in the crib and then you’re up at the plate in Legion ball, etc., which it turns out that that’s what people usually mean when they say ‘my whole life,’ meaning a discrete, chronological series of moments that they add up and call their lifetime. It’s not really like that. The best way I can think of to try to say it is that it all happens at once, but that at once doesn’t really mean a finite moment of sequential time the way we think of time while we’re alive, plus that what turns out to be the meaning of the term my life isn’t even close to what we think we’re talking about when we say ‘my life.’ Words and chronological time create all these total misunderstandings of what’s really going on at the most basic level. And yet at the same time English is all we have to try to understand it and try to form anything larger or more meaningful and true with anybody else, which is yet another paradox.

From David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon,” collected in Oblivion.

I read “Good Old Neon” first back when Oblivion came out in hardback. It was good then, but it seemed more poignant and deeper after Wallace’s suicide. I reread it again last night, and I’m convinced it’s his finest discrete piece, and rivals some of the strongest sections of Infinite Jest and The Pale King. Anyway, I encourage doubters to check it out if they haven’t read it.

I’ll close by suggesting that in some way I think the story works through an idea from Ludwig Wittgenstein:

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311).