J.G. Ballard’s “The Subliminal Man,” John Carpenter’s They Live, and Black Friday

Today is Black Friday in America. I don’t think it’s necessary to remark at length on the bizarre disjunction between this exercise in consumerism-as-culture and the intended spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday that precedes it. Indeed, I think that the cognitive dissonance that underwrites Black Friday—the compulsion to suffer (and cause suffering), both physically and mentally,  to “save” money on “consumer goods” (sorry for all the scare quotes, but these terms are euphemisms and must be placed under suspicion)—I think that this cognitive dissonance is nakedly apparent to all who choose to (or are forced to) actively engage in Black Friday. The name itself is dark, ominous, wonderfully satanic.

Rereading “The Subliminal Man,” I was struck by how presciently J.G. Ballard anticipated not only the contours of consumerist culture—urban sprawl, a debt-based economy, the mechanization of leisure, the illusion of freedom of choice—but also how closely he intuited the human, psychological responses to the consumerist society he saw on the horizon. Half a century after its publication, “The Subliminal Man” seems more relevant than ever.

The premise of the tale is fairly straightforward and fits neatly with the schema of many other early Ballard stories: Franklin, an overworked doctor, is approached by Hathaway, a “crazy beatnik,” who refuses to take part in the non-stop consumerism of contemporary society. Hathaway can “see” the subliminal messages sent through advertising. He asks for Franklin’s help in stopping the spread of these messages. Hathaway reasons that the messages are intended to enforce consumerist society:

Ultimately we’ll all be working and spending twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare refuse. Think what a slump would mean – millions of lay–offs, people with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure, not just time spent buying things . . .

The fear of a slump. You know the new economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five per cent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Subliminal advertising will provide the spur.

Franklin is unconvinced, even though he is already working Saturdays and Sunday mornings to payoff TVs, radios, and other electronic goods that he and his wife replace every few months. Soon, however, he realizes that something is wrong:

He began his inventory after hearing the newscast, and discovered that in the previous fortnight he and Judith had traded in their Car (previous model 2 months old) 2 TV sets (4 months) Power mower (7 months) Electric cooker (5 months) Hair dryer (4 months) Refrigerator (3 months) 2 radios (7 months) Record player (5 months) Cocktail bar (8 months)

Franklin finally sees the truth, but only after Hathaway takes to blowing up signs’ switch boxes (the word “terrorism” is of course not used in the text, although it surely would be today):

Then the flicker of lights cleared and steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.

BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW

YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES

Like many Ballard stories, “The Subliminal Man” ends on a pessimistic note, with Franklin choosing to ignore his brief enlightenment and give in. Ballard drives his criticism home in the final image of the story, with Franklin and his wife heading out to shop:

They walked out into the trim drive, the shadows of the signs swinging across the quiet neighbourhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the people on their way to the supermarket like the blades of enormous scythes.

“The Subliminal Man” offers a critique of consumerism that John Carpenter would make with more humor, violence, and force in his 1988 film They Live. In Carpenter’s film, the hero John Nada (played by Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the ads, billboards, and other commercials he’s exposed. What’s underneath? Naked consumerism:

they-live-billboard

The images here recall the opening lines of “The Subliminal Man”: ‘The signs, Doctor! Have you seen the signs?’ Like Ballard’s story, Carpenter’s film is about waking up, to seeing the controlling messages under the surface.

In his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek offers a compelling critique of just how painful it is to wake up to these messages:

It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter offers a far more optimistic vision than Ballard. Ballard’s hero gives in—goes back to sleep, shuts his eyes. Carpenter’s hero Nada resists the subliminal messages—he actually takes up arms against them. This active resistance is possible because Carpenter allows his narrative an existential escape hatch: In They Live, there are real, genuine bad guys, body-snatching ugly-assed aliens—others that have imposed consumerism on humanity to enslave them. That’s the big trick to They Live: It’s not us, it’s them.

Ballard understands that there is no them; indeed, even as the story skirts around the idea of a conspiracy to dupe consumers into cycles of nonstop buying, working, and disposing, it never pins that conspiracy on any individual or group. There’s no attack on corporations or government—there’s not even a nebulous “them” or “they” that appears to have controlling agency in “The Subliminal Man.” Rather, Ballard’s story posits ideology as the controlling force, with the only escape a kind of forced suicide.

I don’t think that those who engage in consumerism-as-sport, in shopping-as-a-feeling are as blind as Ballard or Carpenter represent. I think they are aware. Hell, they enjoy it. What I think Ballard and Carpenter (and others, of course) really point to is the deep dissatisfaction that many of us feel with this dominant mode of life. For Ballard, we have resistance in the form of the beatnik Hathaway, an artist, a creator, a person who can perceive what real leisure would mean. For Carpenter, Nada is the resister—an outsider, a loner, a weirdo too. It’s somehow far more satisfying to believe that those who engage in spectacle consumerism are brainwashed by aliens than it is to have to come to terms with the notion that these people are acting through their own agency, of their own will and volition. Happy shopping everyone!

Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this post a few years ago. It is offered again now in the spirit of Thanksgiving leftovers.

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“One day is there of the series / Termed Thanksgiving day” — Emily Dickinson

ED

“That morning, the city was celebrating Consumer Thanksgiving Day” | Italo Calvino

That morning, the city was celebrating Consumer Thanksgiving Day. This feast came around every year, on a day in November, and had been set up to allow shoppers to display their gratitude toward the god Production, who tirelessly satisfied their every desire. The biggest department store in town organized a parade every year: an enormous balloon in the shape of a garishly colored doll was paraded through the main streets, pulled by ribbons that sequin-clad girls held as they marched behind a musical band. That day, the procession was coming down Fifth Avenue: the majorette twirled her baton in the air, the big drums banged, and the balloon giant, representing the Satisfied Customer, flew among the skyscrapers, obediently advancing on leashes held by girls in kepis, tassels, and fringed epaulets, riding spangly motorcycles.

At the same time, another parade was crossing Manhattan. The flaky, moldy moon was also advancing, sailing between the skyscrapers, pulled by the naked girls, and behind it came a line of beat-up cars and skeletons of trucks, amid a silent crowd that was gradually increasing in size. Thousands of people joined the throng that had been following the moon since the early hours of the morning, people of all colors, whole families with children of every age, especially as the procession filed past the crowded black and Puerto Rican areas of Harlem.

Read the rest of Italo Calvino’s short story “The Daughters of the Moon” — or listen to Robert Coover read and discuss it.

 

She was the poem | Another riff on William Gaddis’s The Recognitions

An intriguing and confounding section of Chapter 1 of Part II of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions focuses heavily on Esme, the poet who models for Wyatt Gwyon as he paints his forgeries. The episode eventually reveals Esme as one of the heroes of The Recognitions. It begins with Esme cloistering herself, pinning a sign to her door that reads: “Do Not Disturb Me I Am Working Esme.” She begins her “work” in a manic blur, “delighted to be alone.” As her energy shifts, she sews for a bit, before finally switching to attend to her small library:

But before that sewing was done she was up, rearranging her books with no concern but for size. There was, really, little else their small ranks held in common (except color of the bindings, and so they had been arranged, and so too the reason often enough she’d bought them). Their compass was as casual as books left behind in a rooming house; and this book of stories by Stevenson, with no idea where she’d got it, she hadn’t looked into it for years, now could not put it down, and to her now it was the only book she owned.

Esme’s bookshelving is purely aesthetic, and the aesthetic seems arbitrary (and likely temporary). In this little scene she moves from arrangement by color to arrangement by size. Her aesthetic arrangement leads her back to a collection of Robert Louis Stevenson stories (likely The Merry Men, and Other Tales), her current (arbitrary, temporary) aesthetic obsession. The “Esme working” section of II.1 of The Recognitions actually begins with an entire paragraph a Stevenson story, presumably read aloud by Esme. This long quote goes unattributed, but Steven Moore identifies it in his annotations for The Recognitions as part of the Gothic short story “Olalla.”

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The passage from “Olalla” quoted in The Recognitions begins with the phrase “What is mine, then, and what am I?” Olalla poses these questions to the narrator of Stevenson’s tale, a nameless Scottish soldier who recuperates from wounds in a Spanish hospital and then in the home of a fallen noble family (Gaddis cribs from this plot in the first chapter of The Recognitions, where Wyatt’s father, the Reverend Gwyon, recovers in a Spanish monastery).

Olalla’s questions are quite literal. She recognizes herself in the paintings of her ancestors, which line the walls of her family’s house, and claims a part of herself in those paintings in a haunting phrase: “Others, ages dead, have wooed other men with my eyes.” Olalla recognizes something in herself that antecedes her ancestors, some essential element that surpasses death and transcends time. She describes herself as “a transitory eddy” in a stream of time (lines not included in Gaddis’s graft from the story): not the original, but the wave that carries the impulse of origination. Her words challenge the notion of a stable, self-present self.

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Olalla’s questions — “What is mine, then, and what am I?” — are essentially Esme’s questions. Esme fragments as the novel progresses, and Gaddis rhetorically highlights her looming madness by employing a daunting elliptical prose style in the sections that wander into her consciousness. Consider here, where we learn about Esme the reader:

Even so she had never read for the reasons that most people give themselves for reading. Facts mattered little, ideas propounded, exploited, shattered, even less, and narrative nothing.

This sentence is fairly straightforward—we see how Esme’s reading might differ from the way most of us read. But let’s see where we go next—what does Esme read for?

Only occasional groupings of words held her,

Esme reads discontinuously, perhaps arbitrarily, aesthetically—but let’s let that sentence unwind:

Only occasional groupings of words held her, and she entered to inhabit them a little while, until they became submerged, finding sanctuary in that part of herself which she looked upon distal and afraid, a residence as separate and alien, real or unreal, as those which shocked her with such deep remorse when the features of others betrayed them. An infinite regret, simply that she had seen, might rise in her then, having seen too much unseen; and it brought her eyes down quick.

I’ll admit I find the lines baffling. Esme inhabits the words, which then, strangely, become submerged within her, or a part of her that she has disassociated from her self-present self. The paragraph ends with a shock of recognition. Is this Esme gazing into the abyss? In any case, we see here Gaddis’s rhetorical skill at conjuring complex instability in his subject.

Let’s continue by moving from Esme the aesthetic reader to Esme the aesthetic writer:

The sole way, it seemed to her often enough when she was working at writing a poem, to use words with meaning, would be to choose words for themselves, and invest them with her own meaning: not her own, perhaps, but meaning which was implicit in their shape, too frequently nothing to do with dictionary definition.

And yet it would be too simple to suggest that Esme’s poetry is utterly meaningless, pure sound and shape without content. Rather, her writing is a writing against: A writing against the cheapness of language in a masscult zeitgeist, against newspapers and memos and comic books and flyers and stock ticker tape and museum guides and informational pamphlets and millions and millions of copies of How to Win Friends and Influence People. The paragraph continues, highlighting Gaddis’s fascination with entropy:

The words which the tradition of her art offered her were by now in chaos, coerced through the contexts of a million inanities, the printed page everywhere opiate, row upon row of compelling idiocies disposed to induce stupor, coma, necrotic convulsion; and when they reached her hands they were brittle, straining and cracking, sometimes they broke under the burden which her tense will imposed, and she found herself clutching their fragments, attempting again with this shabby equipment her raid on the inarticulate.

Esme is one of Gaddis’s heroes. Like Jack Gibbs in J R or McCandless in Carpenter’s Gothic or the narrator of Agapē Agape, she forces her will against an entropic dissolving world, and she does so to make art. And in her art she makes her self, or a version of her self, a self apart from the self-present self that might have to haggle and bustle in the tumult of the masscult midcentury metropolis. Esme strives for transcendence from language through language toward a place of pure recognition:

It was through this imposed accumulation of chaos that she struggled to move now: beyond it lay simplicity, unmeasurable, residence of perfection, where nothing was created, where originality did not exist: because it was origin; where once she was there work and thought in causal and stumbling sequence did not exist, but only transcription: where the poem she knew but could not write existed, ready-formed, awaiting recovery in that moment when the writing down of it was impossible: because she was the poem.

hugo_van_der_goes_-_the_fall_of_man_and_the_lamentation_-_google_art_project
The Fall of Man, Hugo van der Goes

 

Mother Lish’s Bologna Sandwich, a recipe from Gordon Lish

  1. First check the refrigerator to make certain none of the following are in there: lettuce, butter, margarine, mustard, ketchup or mayo.
  2. Remove the jar of mint jelly from the cupboard. (Marmalade is an acceptable substitution.)
  3. Your bread should be of the diet variety, well-aged and adequately chilled. If the counter is wet, place two slices of bread on it. Press down with the heel of your hand to make sure they lie flat. (If you experience some difficulty in separating two slices of bread from the rest of the loaf, rap the loaf smartly on the edge of the counter.)
  4. Never use presliced bologna. Your bologna should be of the sausage type, with good stout rind on it. Working with a dull knife, hack off what you need. What you’re aiming for here are pieces of bologna that display a certain ragged configuration.
  5. Spread mint jelly on one slice of your dampened bread. On the other slice, distribute chunks of bologna. Lift jellied slice up, jellied side up and lower it over the other slice. (If jellied slice sticks to the counter, use screwdriver to pry it off.)
  6. Still working with the same knife, halve the finished product, cutting from one corner to the other. (Bread should come apart into a number of small pieces all by itself. But if this does not occur, start over again.) Serve immediately. (If this is not possible, store in freezer for later use.) keeps indefinitely if wrapped in a brown paper bag with a rubber band around it.)

From “The Day Mother Invented Junk Food” by Gordon Lish. The full piece was published in The New York Times, 2 Aug. 1978. Thanks to David Winters for sharing it with me years ago.

100 phrases culled from The New York Times list of “100 Notable Books of 2018”

The following phrases appear in The New York Times list of “100 Notable Books of 2018.” There is one phrase culled from each blurb on the list.


slow burn

latest novel

bizarre story

tour de force

stunning debut

homage of sorts

explores this idea

tactile immediacy

fragmented novel

fascinating paean

grapples seriously

searching account

harrowing account

harrowing memoir

fascinating portrait

expansive narrative

novel that ricochets

fast-paced account

stunning new novel

bristling intelligence

impassioned account

incisive new collection

magisterial new novel

bighearted family saga

breezy, appealing style

impressive debut novel

bewitching debut novel

remarkable debut novel

private and public twists

stylish and inspired collection

deeply and lovingly personal

describes the years of research

reveals surprising connections

world of scams and seductions

our history and our current age

dire consequences for democracy

darkly comic and profound novel

memoir of an unstable childhood

powerful and realistic page turner

mammoth autobiographical novel

devastatingly beautiful debut novel

blazingly moral and devastatingly sidelong

capturing the themes of identity and reinvention

written by the actress herself and not a ghostwriter

seemingly quiet but ultimately volcanic collection

recounted here with great lyricism and emotion

sometimes fanciful, always gossipy portrait

navigate the political and the personal

tense, moment-by-moment account

illuminates her narrator’s inner life

public and private responsibilities

searing autobiographical novel

the personal and the political

more political than economic

vivid, slightly surreal history

writes about new research

sweeping, sobering account

deep dive into the question

unnerving cautionary tale

searingly passionate book

deeply reported account

monumental biography

heralds America’s future

much more complicated

posthumous collection

law professor recounts

marvelous debut novel

nervy, obsessive novel

shattering work of art

important biography

recounts her struggle

first major biography

semi-surreal sendup

landmark translation

thinly veiled memoir

satisfying slow burn

unbelievable debut

forgotten histories

reads like a thriller

fast-paced thriller

mine the question

capture the chaos

infinitely capable

rousing defense

widens the lens

singular portrait

sparkling novel

eloquent novel

riveting exposé

gritty depiction

noted historian

searing memoir

writerly passion

road-trip novel

think differently

page after page

Pulitzer finalist

tells his story

timely novel

wry catalog

Barry Hannah reading “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail” on his porch swing

Barry Hannah reading “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail” (from Airships) and talking about memory and voice at his home in Oxford, Mississippi in February, 1986.

No situations (Barthelme)

But it is wrong to speak of “situations,” implying sets of circumstances leading to some resolution, some escape of tension; there were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there — muted heavy grays and browns for the most part, contrasting with the walnut and soft yellows. A deliberate lack of finish, enhanced by skillful installation, gave the surface a rough, forgotten quality; sliding weights on the inside, carefully adjusted, anchored the great, vari-shaped mass at a number of points. Now we have had a flood of original ideas in all media, works of singular beauty as well as significant milestones in the history of inflation, but at that moment, there was only this balloon, concrete particular, hanging there.

From “The Balloon” by Donald Barthelme.

Read “The Fortune-Teller,” a short story by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

“The Fortune-Teller”

by

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

Translated by Isaac Goldberg


Hamlet observes to Horatio that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. This was the selfsame explanation that was given by beautiful Rita to her lover, Camillo, on a certain Friday of November, 1869, when Camillo laughed at her for having gone, the previous evening, to consult a fortune-teller. The only difference is that she made her explanation in other words.

“Laugh, laugh. That’s just like you men; you don’t believe in anything. Well, let me tell you, I went there and she guessed the reason for my coming before I ever spoke a word. Scarcely had she begun to lay out the cards when she said to me: ‘The lady likes a certain person …’ I confessed that it was so, and then she continued to rearrange the cards in various combinations, finally telling me that I was afraid you would forget me, but that there were no grounds for my fear.”

“She was wrong!” interrupted Camillo with a laugh.

“Don’t say that, Camillo. If you only realized in what anguish I went there, all on account of you. You know. I’ve told you before. Don’t laugh at me; don’t poke fun at me….”

Camillo seized her hands and gazed into her eyes earnestly and long. He swore that he loved her ever so much, that her fears were childish; in any case, should she ever harbor a fear, the best fortune-teller to consult was he himself. Then he reproved her, saying that it was imprudent to visit such houses. Villela might learn of it, and then …

“Impossible! I was exceedingly careful when I entered the place.”

“Where is the house?”

“Near here. On Guarda-Velha Street. Nobody was passing by at the time. Rest easy. I’m not a fool.”

Camillo laughed again.

“Do you really believe in such things?” he asked. Continue reading “Read “The Fortune-Teller,” a short story by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis”

Blog about November reading (and blogging) goals

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For the past few days I’ve felt as if I would never put one word after another again, that I would never put together a sentence, string together clauses and sling them out into the world. This previous statement is hyperbole and I am silly—but even simple emails have seemed the acme of wretched futility to compose. Chalk it up to a mild head cold; chalk it up to too many essays to grade; chalk it up to anxiety of (fear of) writing. But I feel like I used to want to feel like I needed to write, right? On 1 Oct. 2018 I wrote a silly post on this weblog called “Blog about October reading (and blogging) goals,” in which I set a goal to blog “every day, even about nothing,” which I failed to achieve.

did actually achieve some of the reading goals expressed in that October goals blog though: I finished George Eliot’s Silas Marner; I made a bigger dent in Moderan, David R. Bunch’s cult dystopian novel; I finally read William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic; I actually returned and did not keep forever a book I borrowed from a friend; I did not gobble up Paul Kirchner’s Hieronymus & Bosch but rather limited myself to one or two cartoon strips a day (or sometimes, like, five).

So for November—

I’ve read the first two stories in Chris Power’s debut collection Mothers and they are good (the collection is available in the US in January 2019; I should have a full review then).

Tristan Foster’s collection Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is very much my weird cup of weird tea.

David Bunch’s Moderan deserves a big proper essay. I’ve suggested that our zeitgeist surpasses the parodic powers of postmodernism’s toolkit, but Moderan anticipates and slices up Our Bad Times.

Part of my anxiety about writing comes from having failed three times now to write a proper review of Conversations with Gordon Lish, which is the kind of self-deconstructing performance of writing about writing that is difficult to describe or analyze; it’s the sort of thing you simply want the reader to read.

I started the audiobook of William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions, and have ended up not only reading my Penguin edition in tandem—a sort of re-rereading—but have also been flirting with The Gaddis Tapes1 and Letters of William Gaddis.  (This summer I said I’d reread The Recognitions: is this that?). I don’t really know what I want from this material, and I certainly don’t suggest it as anything approaching ancillary or auxiliary “help” with Gaddis’s project—I mean, in his Paris Review interview Gaddis paraphrases his hero and explains why we shouldn’t look for keys to art in the artist:

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.

—but hey look I know what I just did—took my cue from the artist in explaining the artist’s art. So. Oh, hey, here’s a great little segment from a letter Gaddis to his mama (from Mexico City) in April, 1947:

Could you then do this?: Send, as soon as it is conveniently possible, to me at Wells-Fargo:

My high-heeled black boots.

My spurs.

a pair of “levis”—those blue denim pants, if you can find a whole pair

the good machete, with bone handle and wide blade—and scabbard—if

this doesn’t distend package too much.

Bible, and paper-bound Great Pyramid book from H—Street.

those two rather worn gabardine shirts, maroon and green.

Incidentally I hope you got my watch pawn ticket, so that won’t be lost.

PS My mustache is so white and successful I am starting a beard.

The same day I got The Labyrinth, a collection of mid-century cartooning by Saul Steinberg (new from NYRB, I read a passage in The Gaddis Tapes where Gaddis quotes his friend, Saul Steinberg. That same day my son, eight, went through the whole volume, and asked me what it was, how I was supposed to write about it, etc. Still not sure, but it’s great, heroic, etc. and I hope to post a review at The Comics Journal later this month. Here is Steinberg’s Quixote:

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And I like to pretend this is his illustration of some Gaddis character at a party in The Recognitions (even if I recognize it is not):

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Bottom of the stack is Paul Kirchner’s latest Hieronymus & Bosch, a sort of MAD Magazine take on eternal damnation that puts the scatology in eschatology. Great stuff.

Not pictured in the stack is Angela Carter’s 1972 novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, which is by my bed and which I keep falling asleep to. It deserves better from me; or maybe it’s a bit of evidence in the emerging truth that I can’t read before bed most of the time most of these days. (Separate blog post, perhaps—chalk it up to a head cold; chalk it up to too many essays to grade; chalk it up to two kids; chalk it up to too much read wine; chalk chalk chalk).

Hope to do better than this in the next 29 days.


Knight, Christopher J., William Gaddis, and Tom Smith. “The New York State Writers Institute Tapes: William Gaddis.” Contemporary Literature 42, no. 4 (2001): 667-93. doi:10.2307/1209049.

Read “The Demon Lover,” a short story by Elizabeth Bowen

“The Demon Lover”

by

Elizabeth Bowen


 

Toward the end of her day in London Mrs. Drover went round to her shut-up house to look for several things she wanted to take away. Some belonged to herself, some to her family, who were by now used to their country life. It was late August; it had been a steamy, showery day: At the moment the trees down the pavement glittered in an escape of humid yellow afternoon sun. Against the next batch of clouds, already piling up ink-dark, broken chimneys and parapets stood out. In her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up; a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs. Drover’s return. Shifting some parcels under her arm, she slowly forced round her latchkey in an unwilling lock, then gave the door, which had warped, a push with her knee. Dead air came out to meet her as she went in.

The staircase window having been boarded up, no light came down into the hall. But one door, she could just see, stood ajar, so she went quickly through into the room and unshuttered the big window in there. Now the prosaic woman, looking about her, was more perplexed than she knew by everything that she saw, by traces of her long former habit of life—the yellow smoke stain up the white marble mantelpiece, the ring left by a vase on the top of the escritoire; the bruise in the wallpaper where, on the door being thrown open widely, the china handle had always hit the wall. The piano, having gone away to be stored, had left what looked like claw marks on its part of the parquet. Though not much dust had seeped in, each object wore a film of another kind; and, the only ventilation being the chimney, the whole drawing room smelled of the cold hearth. Mrs. Drover put down her parcels on the escritoire and left the room to proceed upstairs; the things she wanted were in a bedroom chest. Continue reading “Read “The Demon Lover,” a short story by Elizabeth Bowen”

The writer as a confidence man (William Gaddis)

To turn now–it’s not a different direction; it’s this whole idea of the risk of authorial absence and the risk one takes with the reader putting down the book, saying, “It’s too much trouble, I don’t know what’s going on here.” Refusing to collaborate because it’s not worth the effort. So in that light, the idea of the writer as a confidence man has always appealed to me and to many writers. When you think about it, the number of novels [wherein there is a confidence man is great; one thinks] of Melville and, oh dear, Maugham I think had one. The idea of a confidence man has a great appeal for writers because there is something of the con man in the writer, I think. He’s trying—What? What does the confidence man do?—he is working for this “willing suspension of disbelief.”

An excerpt from William Gaddis’s New York State Writers Institute reading, April 4, 1990

Blog about starting the audiobook version of William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions

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I downloaded the audiobook of version of William Gaddis’s first novel The Recognitions the other afternoon. The recording is 51 hours and 41 minutes long, and read by Nick Sullivan.

I am almost exactly six hours in, over halfway through the novel’s third chapter, an aural space that correlates to page 114 of my 956-page Penguin edition of the novel. In this particular moment, Wyatt Gwyon, the sorta-hero of The Recognitions, rants to his wife Esther about literary modernism. I stopped the book at that particular moment to find that particular passage in my copy of The Recognitions; it was particularly easy to find because I’d already dogeared that particular page.

I’m not sure if I dogeared that particular page when I first attempted The Recognitions in 2009 (I stalled out in the book’s second of three sections, somewhere around page 330 or so), or if I dogeared it on my second (and successful) reading in 2012. And while I’m tempted to focus on the passage I’ve just audited and then reread—a meta-moment where Wyatt raves about Modernism (even making a dig at Hemingway)—I’m more interested in making a few generalizations about the audiobook and the first chapter of The Recognitions.

So a few generalizations:

Nick Sullivan, who reads The Recognitions, is excellent. He’s expressive, and imbues the novel with a wonderful rhythm and vitality, differentiating the voices of each of the characters (no mean feat). I have audited Sullivan’s reading of Gaddis’s second novel JR, which is marvelous, and in many ways taught me to “read” that novel, which is told in almost entirely unattributed dialogue. I would strongly recommend anyone daunted by JR to read it in tandem with Sullivan’s audiobook version.

I would not, however, recommend using the audiobook of The Recognitions for a first go through (unless you intend to use the audiobook chapters after you’ve read the chapters yourself). The Recognitions simply contains a density of information unparalleled in almost any other novel I can think of). You’ll need to attend closely to it to parse the threads that matter in terms of the plot and the threads that are there to build the theme. And unless you’re a polyglot, hearing all the untranslated Latin, Spanish, Italian, and German read aloud does little for comprehension. No, I think The Recognitions is best read slowly, and ideally the reader should take the time to attend to its many allusions and motifs (Steven Moore’s online guide is invaluable here). This isn’t to say that readers need to get every damn little reference to enjoy and appreciate Gaddis’s novel—but it doesn’t hurt to try.

Still, there’ a lot in The Recognitions. The book is wonderful, a work of genius, and this is perhaps one of its faults—it suffers from First Novel Syndrome, the author cramming in all that he can, anxious that the audience Recognize Genius. Gaddis was young when it was published—just 34 (amazing). A much older Gaddis seemed to recognize this, saying the following in 1990:

So, in the work I’ve tried to do, in J R, especially the awful lot of description and narrative interference, as I see it now, in The Recognitions, where I am awfully pleased with information that I have come across and would like to share it with you-so I go on for two pages about, oh, I don’t know, the medieval Church,… the forgery, painting, theories of forgery and so forth, and descriptions, literally, of houses or landscapes. And when I got started on the second novel, which was J R, 726 pages, almost entirely my intention was to get the author out of there, to oblige the characters to create themselves and each other and their story, and all of it in dialogue

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The first chapter of The Recognitions, the fruit of an author awfully pleased with information that he has come across, lays out an encyclopedic range of references to literature, art, religion, history, and every other manifestation of culture you might think of. The chapter is impossibly rich, and in some ways, the rest of the novel can never quite match it. Or rather, the rest of the novel teases out the material that Gaddis offers at its outset, threading the material into cables of plot and theme. Or maybe what I’m trying to say is, The first chapter of The Recognitions might be the best first chapter of any novel I can think of.  At 62 pages, it’s almost a novella, and it can arguably stand on its own. Let me borrow my own summary of Chapter I from my 2009 write-up:

The first chapter is the best first chapter of any book I can remember reading in recent years. It tells the story of Rev. Gwyon looking for solace in the Catholic monasteries of Spain after his wife’s death at sea under the clumsy hands of a fugitive counterfeiter posing as a doctor (already, the book posits the inherent dangers of forgery, even as it complicates those dangers by asking who isn’t in some sense a phony). There’s a beautiful line Gaddis treads in the first chapter, between pain, despair, and melancholy and caustic humor, as Gwyon slowly realizes the false limits of his religion. The chapter continues to tell the story of young Wyatt, growing up under the stern care of his puritanical Aunt May, whose religious attitude is confounded by the increasingly erratic behavior of Wyatt’s often-absent father. While deathly ill, Wyatt teaches himself to paint by copying masterworks. He also attempts an original, a painting of his dead mother, but he cannot bear to finish it because, as he tells his father, “There’s something about . . . an unfinished piece of work . . . Where perfection is still possible. Because it’s there, it’s there all the time, all the time you work trying to uncover it.” This problem of originality, of Platonic perfection guides much of the novel’s critique on Modernism.

(The “novel’s critique on Modernism” — well, hey, that’s sort of how I came into this riff—stopping the audiobook six hours in to go track down pages 113-14, where Wyatt attacks Hemingway’s modern prose style). There’s more to the plot of Ch. 1, including a ritual sacrifice that’s easy to miss if you’re not paying close enough attention. There are also numerous references to pipe organs, planting the seeds of The Recognitions’ strange conclusion. But now of course is not the time to write about that conclusion; instead, I’ll conclude by remarking that I saw more of the novel’s form—including its conclusion—in its introduction than I had previously thought was there. And that’s the value in rereading a big novel—recognizing what we previously did not recognize.

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“On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror” — Anna Letitia Aikin

“On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror” (1773)

by

Anna Letitia Aikin


That the exercise of our benevolent feelings, as called forth by the view of human afflictions, should be a source of pleasure, cannot appear wonderful to one who considers that relation between the moral and natural system of man, which has connected a degree of satisfaction with every action or emotion productive of the general welfare. The painful sensation immediately arising from a scene of misery, is so much softened and alleviated by the reflex sense of self-approbation on attending virtuous sympathy, that we find, on the whole, a very exquisite and refined pleasure remaining, which makes us desirous of again being witnesses to such scenes, instead of flying from them with disgust and horror. It is obvious how greatly such a provision must conduce to the ends of mutual support and assistance. But the apparent delight with which we dwell upon objects of pure terror, where our moral feelings are not in the least concerned, and no passion seems to be excited but the depressing one of fear, is a paradox of the heart, much more difficult of solution.

The reality of this source of pleasure seems evident from daily observation. The greediness with which the tales of ghosts and goblins, of murders, earthquakes, fires, shipwrecks, and all the most terrible disasters attending human life, are devoured by every ear, must have been generally remarked. Tragedy, the most favourite work of fiction, has taken a full share of those scenes; “it has supt full with horrors”–and has, perhaps, been more indebted to its tender and pathetic parts. The ghost of Hamlet, Macbeth descending into the witches’ cave, and the tent scene in Richard, command as forcibly the attention of our souls as the parting of Jasseir and Belvidera, the fall of Wolsey, or the death of Shore. The inspiration of terror was by the antient critics assigned as the peculiar province of tragedy; and the Greek and Roman tragedians have introduced some extraordinary personages for this purpose: not only the shades of the dead, but the furies and other fabulous inhabitants of the infernal regions. Collins, in his most poetical ode to Fear, has finely enforced this idea. “Tho’ gentle Pity claims her mingled part, Yet all the thunders of the scene are thine.” The old Gothic romance and the Eastern tale, with their genii, giants, enchantments, and transformations, however a refined critic may censure them as absurd and extravagant, will ever retain a most powerful influence on the mind, and interest the reader independently of all perculiarity of taste. Thus the great Milton, who had a strong bias to these wildnesses of the imagination, has with striking effect made the stories “of forests and enchantments drear,” a favourite subject with his Penseroso; and had undoubtedly their awakening images strong upon his mind when he breaks out,

“Call up him that left half-told
The story of Cambuscan bold; &c.”How are we then to account for the pleasure derived from such objects? I have often been led to imagine that there is a deception in these cases; and that the avidity with which we attend is not a proof of our receiving real pleasure. The pain of suspense, and the irresistible desire of satisfying curiosity, when once raised, for our eagerness to go quite through an adventure, though we suffer actual pain during the whole course of it. We rather chuse to suffer the smart pang of a violent emotion than the uneasy craving of an unsatisfied desire. That this principle, in many instances, may involuntarily carry us through what we dislike, I am convinced from experience. This is the impulse which renders the poorest and most insipid narrative interesting when once we get fairly into it; and I have frequently felt it with regard to our modern novels, which, if lying on my table, and taken up in an idle hour, have led me through the most tedious and disgusting pages, while, like Pistol eating his leek, I have swallowed and execrated to the end. And it will not only force us through dulness, but through actual torture–through the relation of a Damien’s execution, or an inquisitor’s act of faith. When children, therefore, listen with pale and mute attention to the frightful stories of apparitions, we are not, perhaps, to imagine that they are in a state of enjoyment, any more than the poor bird which is dropping into the mouth of the rattlesnake–they are chained by the ears, and fascinated by curiosity. This solution, however, does not satisfy me with respect to the well-wrought scenes of aritificial terror which are formed by a sublime and vigorous imagination. Here, though we know before-hand what to expect, we enter into them with eagerness, in quest of a pleasure already experienced. This is the pleasure constantly attached to the excitement of surprise from new and wonderful objects. A strange and unexpected event awakens the mind, and keeps it on the stretch; and where the agency of invisible beings is introduced, of “forms unseen, and mightier far than we,” our imagination, darting forth, explores with rapture the new world which is laid open to its view, and rejoices in the expansion of its powers. Passion and fancy cooperating elevate the soul to its highest pitch; and the pain of terror is lost in amazement.

Hence the more wild, fanciful, and extraordinary are the circumstance of a scene of horror, the more pleasure we receive from it; and where they are too near common nature, though violently borne by curiosity through the adventure, we cannot repeat it or reflect on it, without an overbalance of pain. In the Arabian Nights are many most striking examples of the terrible joined with the marvellous: the story of Alladin, and the travels of Sinbad, are particularly excellent. The Castle of Otranto is a very spirited modern attempt upon the same plan of mixed terror, adapted to the model of Gothic romance. The best conceived, and most strongly worked-up scene of mere natural horror that I recollect, is in Smollett’s Ferdinand Count Fathom; where the hero, entertained in a lone house in a forest, finds a corpse just slaughtered in the room where he is sent to sleep, and the door of which is locked upon him. It may be amusing for the reader to compare his feelings upon these, and from thence form his opinion of the justness of my theory.

 

A patchwork of conceits, a hodgepodge of good intentions, another blog about William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic

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In its sixth (and penultimate chapter), William Gaddis’s 1985 novel Carpenter’s Gothic includes a rare scene. Our heroine Elizabeth Booth exits the house she spends most of the book confined in and actually looks at it from the outside. With her is the house’s owner, the mysterious Mr. McCandless:

—I’ve never really looked at it.

—At what… looking where she was looking.

—At the house. From outside I mean.

Carpenter’s Gothic is a novel of utter interiority—the reader never makes it but a few feet out of the house, and only then on rare occasions. This postmodern Gothic novel tingles with a smothering claustrophobia, its insularity underscored by continual references to other spaces outside the house. The possibility of an outside world waiting for Elizabeth is realized through dialogue with her husband Paul, her brother Billy, and mysterious Mr. McCandless, as well as the non-stop (and, from the reader’s perspective, one-sided) telephone conversations that make up so much of the novel’s material. And yet with all its references to traveling away to California, Africa, New York City, Acapulco, etc., Carpenter’s Gothic keeps Elizabeth locked away in the old house, tethered to the umbilical phone cord at the novel’s center.

McCandless is off in his own interior space—the shifting tortured howl of his own consciousness—when Elizabeth remarks that she has never really seen the house from the outside. Her observation raises him “to the surface” of concrete reality:

—Oh the house yes, the house. It was built that way yes, it was built to be seen from outside it was, that was the style, he came on, abruptly rescued from uncertainty, raised to the surface —yes, they had style books, these country architects and the carpenters it was all derivative wasn’t it, those grand Victorian mansions with their rooms and rooms and towering heights and cupolas and the marvelous intricate ironwork.

The house is built in the Carpenter Gothic style (sometimes called Rural Gothic style), which essentially amounts to an American imitation of European Gothic’s forceful elegance. McCandless continues:

That whole inspiration of medieval Gothic but these poor fellows didn’t have it, the stonework and the wrought iron. All they had were the simple dependable old materials, the wood and their hammers and saws and their own clumsy ingenuity bringing those grandiose visions the masters had left behind down to a human scale with their own little inventions, those vertical darts coming down from the eaves? and that row of bull’s eyes underneath?

McCandless, stand-in for Gaddis, performs a metatextual interpretation for the reader. The Carpenter Gothic is Carpenter’s Gothic, the American postGothic reinterpreation of the European form—namely, the Gothic novel. The materials Gaddis uses to build his book are the materials of mass media and mass textuality. He condenses high literature, lurid newspaper clippings, mail, textbook pages, scraps of illegible notes, pornographic centerfolds, and every other manner of paper into a postGothic synthesis. And not just paper, but also the telephone (always ringing) and the radio (always on, always tuned to inhuman human voices). And the television too, tuned to Orson Welles as Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre (dir. Robert Stevenson, 1943),  a film which weaves its way in and out of Elizabeth’s consciousness in the beginning of the novel, planting seeds of romance and locked rooms and secrets and fire.

But I’ve cut off McCandless, who was just about to give us another neat description of the Carpenter Gothic, which is to say another neat description of Carpenter’s Gothic:

He was up kicking leaves aside, gesturing, both arms raised embracing —a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions, the inside’s a hodgepodge of good intentions like one last ridiculous effort at something worth doing even on this small a scale, because it’s stood here, hasn’t it, foolish inventions and all it’s stood here for ninety years…

 Carpenter’s Gothic is more than just a hodgepodge or patchwork; it is more than a ridiculous effort; it is more than the sum of its foolish inventions. Gaddis gives us something new, a postmodern Gothic analysis of the end of the American century.

McCandless, Gaddis’s stand-in, wants to put all the pieces together. He echoes Jack Gibbs, the (anti-)hero (and fellow Gaddis stand-in) of J R, and he prefigures the narrator of Gaddis’s last novel, Agapē Agape, who, like Gibbs, strives to stitch together something from the atomized scraps and remnants of the 20th century.  Gaddis’s protagonists contend with entropy and attempt to get the detritus of the modern world “sorted and organized.” The push-pull of hope and despair drives these protagonists, but often drives them too far.

And McCandless’s reverie takes him too far, again into the interiority of his skull:

…breaking off, staring up where her gaze had fled back with those towering heights and cupolas, as though for some echo: It’s like the inside of your head McCandless, if that was what brought him to add —why when somebody breaks in, it’s like being assaulted, it’s the…

In a moment of self-speech, McCandless realizes that the Carpenter Gothic is “like the inside of [his] head,” underscoring his connection to his creator, Gaddis, as well as the connection between the house and the novel.

The (always) ringing phone punctures the scene:

—Listen! The phone had rung inside and she started up at the second ring, sank back with the third. —All I meant was, it’s a hard house to hide in…

Elizabeth’s lines here emphasize Carpenter’s Gothic’s central Gothicism—the Carpenter Gothic and Carpenter’s Gothic is a hard place to hide in. Secrets will out.

And so well where does our hodgepodge of good intentions lead?

Something in this sunny autumnal atmosphere | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for October 14th, 1837

Characteristics during the walk–Apple-trees with only here and there an apple on the boughs, among the thinned leaves, the relics of a gathering. In others you observe a rustling, and see the boughs shaking and hear the apples thumping down, without seeing the person who does it. Apples scattered by thewayside, some with pieces bitten out, others entire, which you pick up and taste, and find them harsh, crabbed cider-apples, though they have a pretty, waxen appearance. In sunny spots of woodland, boys in search of nuts, looking picturesque among the scarlet and golden foliage. There is something in this sunny autumnal atmosphere that gives a peculiar effect to laughter and joyous voices,–it makes them infinitely more elastic and gladsome than at other seasons. Heaps of dry leaves tossed together by the wind, as if for a couch and lounging-place for the weary traveller, while the sun is warming it for him. Golden pumpkins and squashes, heaped in the angle of a house till they reach the lower windows. Ox-teams, laden with a rustling load of Indian corn, in the stalk and ear. When an inlet of the sea runs far up into the country, you stare to see a large schooner appear amid the rural landscape; she is unloading a cargo of wood, moist with rain or salt water that has dashed over it. Perhaps you hear the sound of an axe in the woodland; occasionally, the report of a fowling-piece. The travellers in the early part of the afternoon look warm and comfortable as if taking a summer drive; but as eve draws nearer, you meet them well wrapped in topcoats or cloaks, or rough, great surtouts, and red-nosed withal, seeming to take no great comfort, but pressing homeward. The characteristic conversation among teamsters and country squires, where the ascent of a hill causes the chaise to go at the same pace as an ox-team,–perhaps discussing the qualities of a yoke of oxen. The cold, blue aspects of sheets of water. Some of the country shops with the doors closed; others still open as in summer. I meet a wood-sawyer, with his horse and saw on his shoulders, returning from work. As night draws on, you begin to see the gleaming of fires on the ceilings in the houses which you pass. The comfortless appearance of houses at bleak and bare spots,–you wonder how there can be any enjoyment in them. I meet a girl in a chintz gown, with a small shawl on her shoulders, white stockings, and summer morocco shoes,–it looks observable. Turkeys, queer, solemn objects, in black attire, grazing about, and trying to peck the fallen apples, which slip away from their bills.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for October 14th, 1837. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

 

Blog about about the Halloween chapter of William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic

Mischief Night, Jamie Wyeth

The fourth of seven unnumbered chapters in William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic is set over the course of Halloween, moving from morning, into afternoon, and then night. Halloween is an appropriately Gothic setting for the midpoint of Gaddis’s postmodern Gothic novel, and there are some fascinating turns in this central chapter.

A summary with spoilers is not necessary here. Suffice to say that our heroine Elizabeth Booth is left alone on Halloween in the dilapidated Rural Gothic style house she and her awful husband Paul rent from mysterious Mr. McCandless. As Paul exits the house to go on one his many fruitless business trips, he notices that some neighborhood kids have already played their Halloween tricks:

He had the front door open but he stood there, looking out, looking up, —little bastards look at that, not even Halloween till tonight but they couldn’t wait… Toilet paper hung in disconsolate streamers from the telephone lines, arched and drooped in the bared maple branches reaching over the windows of the frame garage beyond the fence palings where shaving cream spelled fuck. —Look keep the doors locked, did this last night Christ knows what you’re in for tonight… and the weight of his hand fell away from her shoulder, —Liz? just try and be patient? and he pulled the door hard enough for the snap of the lock to startle her less with threats locked out than herself locked in, to leave her steadying a hand on the newel…

The kids’ Halloween antics take on a particularly sinister aspect here, set against the stark New England background Gaddis conjures. We get gloomy streamers, desolate trees, and the bald, ugly signification of one lone word: fuck. (Fuck and its iterations, along with Gaddis’s old favorite God damn, are bywords in Carpenter’s Gothic). Paul’s reading of this scene is also sinister; he underscores the Gothic motif in telling Elizabeth to “keep the doors locked” because she doesn’t know what she’s “in for tonight.” Tellingly, the aural snap of Paul’s exit shows us that Elizabeth is ultimately more paranoid about being locked in. Indeed, by the middle of the novel, we see her increasingly trapped in her (haunted) house. The staircase newel, an image that Gaddis uses repeatedly in the novel, becomes her literal support. Elizabeth spends the rest of the morning avoiding chores before eventually vomiting and taking a nap.

Then, Gaddis propels us forward a few hours with two remarkable paragraphs (or, I should say, two paragraphs upon which I wish to remark). Here is the first post-nap paragraph:

She woke abruptly to a black rage of crows in the heights of those limbs rising over the road below and lay still, the rise and fall of her breath a bare echo of the light and shadow stirred through the bedroom by winds flurrying the limbs out there till she turned sharply for the phone and dialed slowly for the time, up handling herself with the same fragile care to search the mirror, search the world outside from the commotion in the trees on down the road to the straggle of boys faces streaked with blacking and this one, that one in an oversize hat, sharing kicks and punches up the hill where in one anxious glimpse the mailman turned the corner and was gone.

What a fantastic sentence. Gaddis’s prose here reverberates with sinister force, capturing (and to an extent, replicating) Elizabeth’s disorientation. Dreadful crows and flittering shadows shake Elizabeth, and searching for stability she telephones for the time. (If you are a young person perhaps bewildered by this detail: This is something we used to do. We used to call a number for the time. Like, the time of day. You can actually still do this. Call the US Naval Observatory at 202-762-1069 if you’re curious what this aesthetic experience is like). The house’s only clock is broken, further alienating Elizabeth from any sense of normalcy. In a mode of “fragile care,” anxious Elizabeth glances in the mirror, another Gothic symbol that repeats throughout this chapter. She then spies the “straggle of boys” (a neat parallel to the “black rage of crows” at the sentence’s beginning) already dressed up in horrorshow gear for mischief night and rumbling with violence. The mailman—another connection to the outside world, to some kind of external and steadying authority—simply disappears.

Here is the next paragraph:

Through the festoons drifting gently from the wires and branches a crow dropped like shot, and another, stabbing at a squirrel crushed on the road there, vaunting black wings and taking to them as a car bore down, as a boy rushed the road right down to the mailbox in the whirl of yellowed rust spotted leaves, shouts and laughter behind the fence palings, pieces of pumpkin flung through the air and the crows came back all fierce alarm, stabbing and tearing, bridling at movement anywhere till finally, when she came out to the mailbox, stillness enveloped her reaching it at arm’s length and pulling it open. It looked empty; but then there came sounds of hoarded laughter behind the fence palings and she was standing there holding the page, staring at the picture of a blonde bared to the margin, a full tumid penis squeezed stiff in her hand and pink as the tip of her tongue drawing the beading at its engorged head off in a fine thread. For that moment the blonde’s eyes, turned to her in forthright complicity, held her in their steady stare; then her tremble was lost in a turn to be plainly seen crumpling it, going back in and dropping it crumpled on the kitchen table.

The paragraph begins with the Gothic violence of the crows “stabbing and tearing” at a squirrel. Gaddis fills Carpenter’s Gothic with birds—in fact, the first words of the novel are “The bird”—a motif that underscores the possibility of flight, of escape (and entails its opposite–confinement, imprisonment). These crows are pure Halloween, shredding small mammals as the wild boys smash pumpkins. Elizabeth exits the house (a rare vignette in Carpenter’s Gothic, which keeps her primarily confined inside it) to check the mail. The only message that has been delivered to her though is from the Halloween tricksters, who cruelly laugh at their prank. The pornographic image, ripped from a magazine, is described in such a way that the blonde woman trapped within it comes to life, “in forthright complicity,” making eye contact with Elizabeth. There’s an intimation of aggressive sexual violence underlying the prank, whether the boys understand this or not. The scrap of paper doubles their earlier signal, the shaving creamed fuck written on the garage door.

Elizabeth recovers herself to signify steadiness in return, demonstratively crumpling the pornographic scrap—but she takes it with her, back into the house, where it joins the other heaps of papers, scraps, detritus of media and writing that make so much of the content of the novel. Here, the pornographic scrap takes on its own sinister force. Initially, Elizabeth sets out to compose herself anew; the next paragraph finds her descending the stairs, “differently dressed now, eyeliner streaked on her lids and the
colour unevenly matched on her paled cheeks,” where she answers the ringing phone with “a quaver in her hand.” The scene that follows is an extraordinary displacement in which the phone takes on a phallic dimension, and Elizabeth imaginatively correlates herself with the blonde woman in the pornographic picture. She stares at this image the whole time she is on the phone while a disembodied male voice demands answers she cannot provide:

The voice burst at her from the phone and she held it away, staring down close at the picture as though something, some detail, might have changed in her absence, as though what was promised there in minutes, or moments, might have come in a sudden burst on the wet lips as the voice broke from the phone in a pitch of invective, in a harried staccato, broke off in a wail and she held it close enough to say —I’m sorry Mister Mullins, I don’t know what to… and she held it away again bursting with spleen, her own fingertip smoothing the still fingers hoarding the roothairs of the inflexible surge before her with polished nails, tracing the delicate vein engorged up the curve of its glistening rise to the crown cleft fierce with colour where that glint of beading led off in its fine thread to the still tongue, mouth opened without appetite and the mascaraed eyes unwavering on hers without a gleam of hope or even expectation, —I don’t know I can’t tell you!

Gaddis’s triple repetition of the verb burst links the phone to the phallus and links Elizabeth to the blonde woman. This link is reinforced by the notation of the woman’s “mascaraed eyes,” a detail echoing the paragraph’s initial image of Elizabeth descending the stairs with streaked eyeliner. The final identification between the two is the most horrific—Elizabeth reads those eyes, that image, that scrap of paper, as a work “without a gleam of hope or even expectation.” Doom.

Elizabeth is “saved,” if only temporarily, by the unexpected arrival of the mysterious Mr. McCandless, who quickly stabilizes the poor woman. Gaddis notes that McCandless “caught the newel with her hand…He had her arm, had her hand in fact firm in one of his.” When he asks why she is so upset, she replies, “It’s the, just the mess out there, Halloween out there…” McCandless chalks the mess up to “kids with nothing to do,” but Elizabeth reads in it something more sinister: “there’s a meanness.” McCandless counters that “it’s plain stupidity…There’s much more stupidity than there is malice in the world.” This phrase “Halloween out there” repeats three times in the chapter, suggesting a larger signification—it isn’t just Halloween tonight, but rather, as McCandless puts it, the night is “Like the whole damned world isn’t it.” It’s always Halloween out there in Carpenter’s Gothic, and this adds up to mostly malice of mostly stupidity in this world—depending on how you read it.

The second half of the chapter gives over to McCandless, who comes to unexpectedly inhabit the novel’s center. Elizabeth departs, if only for a few hours, leaving McCandless alone, if only momentarily. A shifty interlocutor soon arrives on the thresh hold of his Carpenter Gothic home, and we learn some of his fascinating background. It’s a strange moment in a novel that has focused so intently on the consciousness of Elizabeth, but coming in the novel’s center, it acts as a stabilizing force. I won’t go into great detail here—I think much of what happens when McCandless is the center of the narrative is best experienced without any kind of spoiler—but we get at times from him a sustained howl against the meanness and stupidity of the world. He finally ushers his surprise interlocutor out of his home with the following admonition: “It’s Halloween out there too.”