André Holland (of The Knick, which I dug) reads from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. (Via Matt Bucher).
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.”
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). Continue reading
The truth is that there are two actual, non-hallucinatory ghosts haunting Post 047’s wiggle room. No one knows whether there are any in the Immersive Pods; those Pods are worlds unto themselves.
The ghosts’ names are Garrity and Blumquist. Much of the following info comes after the fact from Claude Sylvanshine. Blumquist is a very bland, dull, efficient rote examiner who died at his desk unnoticed in 1980. Some of the older examiners actually worked with him in rotes in the 1970s. The other ghost is older. Meaning dating from an earlier historical period. Garrity had evidently been a line inspector for Mid West Mirror Works in the mid-twentieth century. His job was to examine each one of a certain model of decorative mirror that came off the final production line, for flaws. A flaw was usually a bubble or unevenness in the mirror’s aluminum backing that caused the reflected image to distend or distort in some way. Garrity had twenty seconds to check each mirror. Industrial psychology was a primitive discipline then, and there was little understanding of non-physical types of stress. In essence, Garrity sat on a stool next to a slow-moving belt and moved his upper body in a complex system of squares and butterfly shapes, examining his face’s reflection at very close range. He did this three times a minute, 1,440 times per day, 356 days a year, for eighteen years. Toward the end he evidently moved his body in the complex inspectorial system of squares and butterfly shapes even when he was off-duty and there were no mirrors around. In 1964 or 1965 he had apparently hanged himself from a steam pipe in what is now the north hallway off the REC Annex’s wiggle room. Among the staff at 047, only Claude Sylvanshine knows anything detailed about Garrity, whom he’s never actually seen—and then most of what Sylvanshine gets is repetitive data on Garrity’s weight, belt size, the topology of optical flaws, and the number of strokes it takes to shave with your eyes closed. Garrity is the easier of the wiggle room’s two ghosts to mistake for a phantom because he’s extremely chatty and distracting and thus is often taken by wigglers straining to maintain concentration as the yammering mind-monkey of their own personality’s dark, self-destructive side.
Blumquist is different. When Blumquist manifests in the air near an examiner, he just basically sits with you. Silently, without moving. Only a slight translucence about Blumquist and his chair betrays anything untoward. He’s no bother. It’s not like he stares at you in an uncomfortable way. You get the sense that he just likes to be there. The sense is ever so slightly sad. He has a high forehead and mild eyes made large by his glasses. Sometimes he’s hatted; sometimes he holds the hat by the brim as he sits. Except for those examiners who spasm out at any sort of visitation—and these are the rigid, fragile ones who are ripe for phantom-visits anyhow, so it’s something of a vicious circle—except for these, most examiners accept or even like a visit from Blumquist. He has a few he seems to favor, but he is quite democratic. The wigglers find him companionable. But no one ever speaks of him.
(Help yourself to some context (or not)).
Let’s look at some more of §19 of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Our interlocutors, all IRS agents, stuck in an elevator (methinks), direct their attention toward the decline of civics education (“‘Civics is the branch of political science that quote concerns itself with citizenship and the rights and duties of US citizens,’” we learn) in America and link this decline to the 1960s—
‘I think it’s no accident that civics isn’t taught anymore or that a young man like yourself bridles at the word duty.’
‘We’ve gotten soft, you’re saying.’
‘I’m saying that the sixties—which God love them did a lot for raising people’s consciousness in a whole lot of areas, such as racism and feminism—‘
‘Not to mention Vietnam.’
‘No, mention it, because here was a whole generation where most of them now for the first time questioned authority and said that their individual moral beliefs about the war outweighed their duty to go fight if their duly elected representatives told them to.’
‘In other words that their highest actual duty was to themselves.’
And down a bit—
‘The sixties were America’s starting to decline into decadence and selfish individualism—the Me generation.’
‘There was more decadence in the twenties than there was in the sixties though.’
‘You know what I think? I think the Constitution and Federalist Papers of this country were an incredible moral and imaginative achievement. For really the first time in a modern nation, those in power set up a system where the citizens’ power over their own government was to be a matter of substance and not mere symbolism. It was utterly priceless, and will go down in history with Athens and the Magna Carta. The fact that it was a utopia which for over two hundred years actually worked makes it beyond priceless—it’s literally a miracle. And—and I’m speaking of Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin, the real church Fathers—what raised the American experiment beyond great imagination and made it very nearly work was not just these men’s intelligence but their profound moral enlightenment—their sense of civics. The fact is that they cared more about the nation and the citizens than about themselves. They could have just set America up as an oligarchy where powerful eastern industrialists and southern landowners controlled all the power and ruled with an iron hand in a glove of liberal rhetoric. Need I say Robespierre, or the Bolsheviks, or the Ayatollah? These Founding Fathers were geniuses of civic virtue. They were heroes. Most of their effort went into restraining the power of the government.’
‘Checks and balances.’
‘Power to the people.’
‘They knew the tendency of power to corrupt—’
As I said in some earlier posts about §19, I don’t really have any great thesis to share about it: I really just want folks to read it. I think it’s a thoughtful and sometimes funny discussion that seems especially relevant against the backdrop of current American politics, which seem to be infected by a terrible case of the reactionaries, a very vocal contingent that does not seem to believe in civic duty.
Most reviewers have remarked (rightly) upon Wallace’s grand theme of boredom in The Pale King, but I don’t know how much attention has been paid to the way the book tries to measure the costs of existence (namely, death and taxes). Wallace squares boredom as both symptom and affect of a postindustrial existence, a post-democratic existence, an existence that has the leisure, or at least the means and the common vocabulary, to hash out the finnicky sinews between rights and duties—or, in turn, the leisure and means (and entertainments) to psychologically deflect or otherwise ignore those costs. His characters in The Pale King—and not just these guys stuck in the elevator, but, hey, their colloquy is especially instructive—his characters are in many ways are trying to find meaning, a sense of duty, against terrible, soul-crushing boredom, a boredom that capitalist culture fosters and with one hand and then assuages with the other, like a heroin dealer stringing along a junkie for all he’s worth. (There’s an intersection here with Infinite Jest, of course).
It seems that “civics” is a dirty word now, or even worse, a word unattached to any real concept in the American hivemind. It’s pretty much a given (and “given” in the sense of, like, “submission”) that our politicians are wholly corrupted by power, part and parcel of a corporatocracy that thrives on manufactured desire, on the promotion of “lack,” constantly feeding into the basest instincts of a populace easily motivated by xenophobia, paranoia, and the sense that a creeping dark “other” is destabilizing America’s “natural” progress to some great grand glowing telos in the sky. The great lie of the past few decades has been to perpetuate the ideal of a cost-free existence, a metaphysical out, an endless deflection of our rapid consumption. We live in a world where the leading Republican candidates for the 2012 election race are basically cartoons. We live in a world where headlines from The Onion seem more the work of prescient prescription than outright satire. We live in a world where an honest assessment of who-pays-what-taxes can only come from a comedy show.
Perhaps I’m ranting; perhaps this post is too hyperbolic. Sorry. I’ll return to Wallace’s language and that opening line: “‘I think it’s no accident that civics isn’t taught anymore or that a young man like yourself bridles at the word duty.'” Americans are being told that they have no duty to other Americans, that they should not have to have any relationship with other Americans, that, essentially, there is no civic duty to one’s country, to one’s fellow Americans—there is only a duty to one’s ruggedly individual self, only a duty to one’s bootstraps, which you must always pull up by yourself. The corporate-advertising-entertainment-industrial complex perpetuates the illusion of rugged individualism and politicians reinforce it with their empty rhetoric, blasting at any element of a public, civic corpus that isn’t part of the American war machine (which remains of course untouchable; perhaps the greatest signal of cognitive dissonance I regularly see on my commute to and from work are the cars in front of me that somehow bear anti-tax bumper stickers right next to calls to “Support Our Troops”).
Wallace perhaps rightly links the genesis of this cognitive dissonance when it comes to civic rights and civic duties to the 1960s, when the baby boomers, finding power in sheer numbers, were able to assert a generational agency unseen in this country’s history. His elevator talkers here are at the precipice of the Reagan ’80s, post-Watergate disenchantment, but also post-Carter malaise, a time when the boomers are oiled and primed for the complete ideological failure that should forever mark their generation.
There’s more rant in me, of course, but I’ll save it for more excerpts from §19.
From §19 of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King:
‘I have no idea what we do. As citizens we cede more and more of our autonomy, but if we the government take away citizens’ freedom to cede their autonomy we’re now taking away their autonomy. It’s a paradox. Citizens are constitutionally empowered to choose to default and leave the decisions to corporations and a government we expect to control them. Corporations are getting better and better at seducing us into thinking the way they think—of profits as the telos and responsibility as something to be enshrined in symbol and evaded in reality. Cleverness as opposed to wisdom. Wanting and having instead of thinking and making. We cannot stop it. I suspect what’ll happen is that there will be some sort of disaster—depression, hyperinflation—and then it’ll be showtime: We’ll either wake up and retake our freedom or we’ll fall apart utterly. Like Rome—conqueror of its own people.’
(This is the second paragraph; read the first here (or, like, buy the book)).
I want to write about this chapter against the backdrop of America’s current political/social/cultural climate—the so-called “debate” about government’s role, individual responsibility, our corporate welfare state, etc. What I want to write I am having a hard time writing. For one, the issue seems so big, so slippery, so oily, so recent, so indigestible. For another, I feel like Wallace’s chapter is so smart and engaging on its own that I shouldn’t be messing with it when I really don’t have anything smart or engaging to say about it.
I guess what I really want is for people to read it, or at least parts of it, so I’ll be posting bits of it over the next week or two, with occasional comments.
If I can’t be analytic about §19 of The Pale King, perhaps I can at least offer a rough description:
The chapter is one of the longer ones in the novel at 20 pages, although it’s hardly the longest.
The chapter is probably set in early 1980 (or possible late 1979).
The chapter is probably set in a stuck elevator, probably as the result of a power failure, as the lights seem to be off.
The chapter is written entirely as a dialogue, mainly (solely?) between three IRS agents: Glendenning, DeWitt, and someone referred to as ‘X.’
The chapter references The Excorist, which might have been intended to be (or maybe is?) a motif in The Pale King.
The chapter discusses the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and early ’70s, and links this upheaval to the dawning conservatism of the Reagan years (which obviously have not yet happened in terms of the chapter’s timeline, but which one of the interlocutors nevertheless perspicaciously anticipates).
The dialogue (Socratic, if I’m feeling analytic) traces the tension between individual freedom, individual liberty, and the role of the government as an arbiter of civic life.
I’ll end with the somewhat generic definition of “civics” the chapter offers—
‘Civics is the branch of political science that quote concerns itself with citizenship and the rights and duties of US citizens.’
And there we go—that conflict between rights and duties.
Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial novel American Psycho turns 20 this year. The folks at Vintage were kind enough to send me a copy of the book to promote the anniversary, and despite a mounding stack of review copies, I took a few hours to re-read parts of Ellis’s third novel.
I’ve only read two Ellis books and I remember the reading of them distinctly, precisely; I remember how I picked them up and where I was and what I was doing and all that jazz. The first was Ellis’s début Less Than Zero, a slim, ugly little novel that I read in one night. I was fifteen, spending a summer with my aunt and uncle, living in my cousin’s old bedroom. Less Than Zero was part of a cache of books that included Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Anthony Scaduto’s Bob Dylan biography, some Hemingway and Fitzgerald novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and a Kurt Vonnegut starter kit. In short, a life changing library, and most of it went home with me in my Jansport (somewhat surreptitiously, although I’m sure if I had asked I would have received). Only I didn’t take Less Than Zero, despite reading it all in one sick night, and then reading it again in pieces over the summer. The book hurt my stomach. The drugs were not the Looney Tunes business in HST’s book—they were the symptom of a blank nihilism I simply couldn’t identify with. The scene where the kids casually watch a snuff film horrified me. And the rape scene. Well. It was the first time I read something that genuinely disturbed me in a non-child, non-Grimm’s way — in a way where I felt moral outrage from an adult-psyche-type-position (whatever that means). The book genuinely concerned me; I was afraid such people existed.
I read American Psycho in 2002. I was traveling through Thailand for a month, trading books at guest houses and shops as I went, and the only book I remember being more ubiquitous than American Psycho was Alex Garland’s The Beach (which, yes, I also read there). I had seen and quite enjoyed Mary Harron’s 2000 film adaptation of American Psycho, which had the good sense to treat the whole matter as a piece of cartoonish black comedy. In Harron’s hands, the hyperbolic exploits of Patrick Bateman are considerably less ambiguous than the book’s depiction; Harron clearly marks the narrative violence as Bateman’s internal fantasies. Of course, one of literature’s greatest tools is ambiguity, and Ellis’s American Psycho revels in it. In a sense, this is the book’s defining nihilism: its total unwillingness to make a definitive judgment about its protagonist’s violence. Instead, American Psycho’s claims to satire rely on the implicit force of the reader’s sense of humanity and morality; like Less Than Zero before it, we have a flat narrative, an utter lack of self-reflection or internal psychology. Ellis gives us only concrete contours, cocaine, hydrochloric acid, chainsaws, and a laundry list of brand names. These are novels without interiors.
American Psycho, utterly concrete, deeply ironic, and occasionally funny, is a strange beach read, but a beach read nonetheless (although all that gristle and blood (and oh the rat!) won’t go down easy for many folks). When I read it in 2002 I found it neither shocking or enlightening, just precise and ugly and grotesque, a numbing progression of concrete descriptions of clothes and restaurants punctuated by ridiculous violence. Its one-note satire would find a better home in a short story. A short short story. I’ve spent the past few days reading through its sections again, trying to reassess it against the backdrop of my current literary estimations of Bret Easton Ellis, which I hate to admit are largely informed not only by his own acerbic personality, but also by (or perhaps more accurately against) his agon with David Foster Wallace.
BEE vs. DFW is not exactly news. Ellis (b. 1964) and Wallace (b. 1962) both published their first novels in the mid-eighties. Less Than Zero made 21-year-old Ellis a star, a likely “voice of his generation.” The Broom of the System didn’t exactly go gangbusters for Wallace, but its voluminous scope, Pynchonian silliness, and its willingness to pick up the postmodern games that Ellis and the other new minimalists seemed to reject announced a major new talent who was willing to both think and feel—to go beyond the surfaces. Indeed, Wallace’s entire project might be defined as setting himself apart from the cool, detached irony that characterizes Ellis’s ethos. In a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery,Wallace decries fiction that devotes
“a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them. You can see this clearly in something like Ellis’s American Psycho: it panders shamelessly to the audience’s sadism for a while, but by the end it’s clear that the sadism’s real object is the reader herself.” I think this is an apt criticism. American Psycho is torture porn encased in a thin veneer of social satire with no interior substance. Here’s Wallace at length—
I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.
Four years before the interview—and two years before the publication of American Psycho—Wallace mocked Ellis’s void, vacuous characters in “Girl with Curious Hair,” a story about a yuppie on LSD at a Keith Jarrett concert. With no affective life, Sick Puppy (as his low life punk rock friends call him) feels nothing. He cannot enjoy his wealth, his position—not even his acid trip. He can’t even enjoy sex unless he can burn his partner as he’s being fellated. As Marshall Boswell points out in his study Understanding David Foster Wallace, “the story eerily forecasts . . . American Psycho . . . in a grisly and hilarious pastiche of Ellis’ preposterously benumbed prose.”
Perhaps Wallace’s greatest critique of nihilism — greatest in that it escapes the confines of Ellis and his ilk’s literary purview — is Don Gately, erstwhile hero of Infinite Jest, a recovering Demerol addict and small time thief whose painful day-to-day existence figures as the existential struggle against bleak, overwhelming nothingness. Gately is the heart and spirit of IJ, a big sad throbbing heart that, to quote Wallace out of context (from above), is the writer’s way “to depict this [dark] world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”
Ellis perhaps perceives a character like Gately and his illuminating possibilities as simply too affected. Last summer, at a reading in Hackney, England, Easton offered the following—
Question: David Foster Wallace – as an American writer, what is your opinion now that he has died?
Answer: Is it too soon? It’s too soon right? Well I don’t rate him. The journalism is pedestrian, the stories scattered and full of that Midwestern faux-sentimentality, and Infinite Jest is unreadable. His life story and his battle with depression however is really quite touching . . .
Then there was this cryptic tweet a few months ago—
I’m not sure what Ellis’s tweet meant, and attendees of the Hackney reading claim that he was more considered and measured in his tone than the actual words of his response seem to entail. His end of the agon with Wallace is also rife with its own set of problems—his contemporary is dead, horribly dead, a suicide, (the kind of death that makes an essay like this one, an essay that claims to find affirmation of life in DFW and empty nihilism BEE, particularly hard to swallow, I suppose)—making it all the harder to respond. I read his “too soon” remark from the Hackney reading to be in earnest.
But Ellis’s tweets are not part of his literary corpus (even though they can be entertaining), and Wallace’s suicide is not part of his text. So, I return to those texts—
Wallace’s last effort, The Pale King, contrasts strongly with American Psycho. Wallace’s novel is fractured, heteroglossic, crammed with ideas, and at times purposefully taxing on its reader’s attention. American Psycho is concise (even if its plot is messy and episodic), imagistic, lacks even the pretense of allowing a controlling voice other than Bateman’s into the narrative, and, in its fetishistic, sexualized violence, is a work designed to lock its reader’s attention in a sensationalized vice grip. It’s id-bait par excellence, seductive and stylish. Its greatest achievement may be to fool some readers into believing that its violence is simply part and parcel of its intention of being a scathing satire. The book then relies heavily — too heavily — on an exterior morality system to weigh its flat, static characters, characters who face incredible trauma and yet never process it (or even attempt to process it). And I am not just speaking of Bateman. Consider the dry cleaner who repeatedly removes bloodstains, or the maid who mops up brain bits without a single question. Then there are the faceless, indistinguishable alpha males who populate Bateman’s yuppie corporate world, and their requisite fiancées and mistresses, weak watery women the narrative repeatedly condemns. These characters lack meaning or depth; they are essentially probable replicants of Bateman, the implication being that psychopathic tendencies lurk everywhere, that the modern condition preempts empathy or human understanding or plain old common decency. The savvy reader is supposed to admire Ellis’s satire of capitalist vacuity, and admittedly, there are some very funny riffs (Bateman’s bits on popular music like Huey Lewis and the News and Whitney Houston, replicated in the film version, still hold up well). But I think Wallace is correct when he asserts that the real violence is ultimately inflicted on the reader. Ellis’s violence is not the same as Flannery O’Connor’s, who used the shock of murder in her stories to explore the possibility of awe, transcendence, and revelation in a desacralized world. Wallace’s The Pale King tries to sanctify the costs of life (death and taxes and the deep existential crisis these costs entail) in a world that has largely abandoned the sacred, in a society where many people are incapable or unwilling to think empathetically about their relation to (via taxes and social institutions) other humans whom they do not personally know. Ellis’s American Psycho is a cartoonish, lopsided distortion of a descralized world. Its affective power is purely externalized, generated from the reader’s moral core. It replaces feeling with violence; it replaces ideas with the illusion of ideas. Its closest claim to art is its satirical power, which is ultimately puddle-shallow (did we really need Ellis to tell us that yuppies are uncaring, shallow and materialistic?) Writers need not be morally instructive, but good books are guided by a vision. Ellis’s vision is pure, bleak nihilism, abyssal and unreflecting, asking little from its reader other than to play voyeur to murder and giving back nothing in return.