Lost in The Vorrh

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I got lost in Brian Catling’s expansive 2012 novel The Vorrh, a phantasmagorical critique of colonialism set in and around a massive, possibly infinite jungle called the Vorrh. Apparently God likes to stroll this primeval forest while he meditates, the original Adam (gray and shrunken) skulks about like Gollum, and anthropophagi lurk in the hopes of capturing a human or two to snack on.

These are just minor moments though in this shaggy opus. The Vorrh is larded with myth, religion, science, history, art, and literature. Catling, a sculptor by trade, synthesizes the nascent 20th-century’s ideas about all the centuries that came before it into what Alan Moore calls “Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy.” Moore goes on to describe The Vorrh as

….a sprawling immaterial organism which leaves the reader filthy with its seeds and spores, encouraging new growth and threatening a great reforesting of the imagination.

Moore is enthusiastic (perhaps overly so), and his introduction to the novel serves as a far better review than anything I can muster here—like I said at the outset, I got lost in The Vorrh. It’s an overstuffed beast of a book, its storylines sprouting strangely (often from nowhere), tangling into other storylines, colliding in a kaleidoscope of blooms that often fall from their vine before bearing fruit.

There are a several main strands to The Vorrh’s plot though, and they do bear strange fruit. There’s a Cyclops named Ishmael, raised by robots underneath a haunted house in the colonial capital of Essenwald. He has sex with a blind woman named Cyrena during Carnival and she becomes sighted, an event that sparks a healing epidemic which in time turns into a plague. There’s Peter Williams, veteran of the Great War, who makes a bow out of his wife’s corpse in the novel’s opening section. (Don’t worry, she was a shaman who wanted him to do that). He treks into the Vorrh.  Tsungali, a warrior of the True People, tracks the trekker. Another warrior tracks him. There’s a shady doctor and a Scottish taskmaster who conspire to keep a hive-mind slave army happy (?) cutting down trees at the periphery of the Vorrh. There’s a knot of historical characters, including the photographer Eadweard Muybridge (the dude who photographed a horse in motion), Queen Victoria’s personal physician Sir William Withey Gull (whom Alan Moore posited as Jack the Ripper in From Hell), and a version of surrealist writer Raymond Roussel. I realize I began this paragraph with the phrase “several main strands” and then listed more than several without even getting to all of the plot points, let alone an articulation of how they come together—or don’t come together.

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The Vorrh has the feel and texture of grand great shaggy comic book, one rendered in my mind’s eye in the fabulous, expansive style of Moebius. Characters—so many characters!—come and go, and if someone dies, don’t worry—there’s every possibility of resurrection in The Vorrh. Catling delights in giving us the backstory on a pair of twin assassins even after he’s killed them off; he allows his free indirect style to enter the consciousness of a sleeping dog’s sex dream; he spends a few sentences on a charming cannibal’s dinner plans. The Vorrh’s in the details.

In its loose erudition and striking visuals, The Vorrh reminded me of the fiction of China Mieville or Neal Stephenson. In its shaggy weirdness it also reminded me of Chris Claremont’s run on The Uncanny X-Men. Its Victorian Gothicism and syntheses of adventure, horror, and Western tropes also recalls the late Showtime television series, Penny Dreadful. And The Vorrh’s prose style often harnesses some of the bombast we find in classic Weird Fiction of Lovecraft or Lord Dunsany.

If it’s lazy to simply trot out comparisons (and there are so many more I can make), mea culpa. The novel is big, and I’d have to read it again to figure out how its baroque features fit together to do any real proper decent analysis—and I’d rather read its sequel, The Erstwhile. I will say that I liked it despite (and maybe to an extent because of) its faults. I think you can suss out from my weak summary in the fourth paragraph if The Vorrh holds any interest for you.


[Ed. note–the image at the top of this review is a scan of a strange press booklet that publisher Vintage sent with original review copies of The VorrhIn addition to Alan Moore’s introduction, the slim, string-bound booklet contains an interview with Catling, and a portrait by Catling of Alan Moore as a cyclops. The cover of the booklet is a painting by Catling].

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More Plant-Like: A review of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian

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

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

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

‘…I thought trees stood up straight … I only found out just now. They actually stand with both arms in the earth, all of them. … Do you know how I found out? Well, I was in a dream, and I was standing on my head … leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands … so I dug down into the earth. On and on…I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch so I spread my legs; I spread them wide…’

What’s peculiar about the novel, apart from the quiet horror of Kang’s prose, the quiet violence of Yeong-hye’s world and its casual presentation thereof, and actually a lot of things that are wonderfully disquieting, is that none of its three acts are narrated by Yeong-hye herself. I expected more time with and inside Yeong-hye in a book about the murderously aloof self-satisfaction of the men in power that orchestrate her destruction. But I even wince at the word “inside” of Yeong-hye. It sounds like I’m participating in a certain kind of violence. The important thing to remember is that Yeong-hye’s perceived disability is only so in the eyes of the narrators, Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law, and sister. Her family insists, and then demands, that Yeong-hye provide a rational reason for her vegetarianism, but they only want to hear her say that it’s for the sake of her health, or for her appearance. They might even tolerate an ethical argument. Instead, Yeong-hye only offers, like our Bartleby, a frustration. Drunk and sleepy, Yeong-hye’s husband finds his wife staring intently into the white light of the fridge.

Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now. Frightened. Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside. A long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down. Try to push past but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my moth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto skin.

The repetition of the word meat has a certain violence to it, and metaphorizes the ways in which the category of “meat” is embedded even in the writing itself, how deeply it penetrates. Yeong-hye is treated like meat; pigs and cattle raised for consumption are referred to as pork and beef, even before they’re slaughtered; meat is a violently rendered, aestheticized experience. Soon, Yeong-hye does remember the places that are lost in her dreams inside of actual memories. The haunting repetition of the word “meat” transforming what was once familiar into paralyzing strangeness.

While Father ties the dog to the tree and scorches it with a lamp, he says it isn’t to be flogged. He says he heard somewhere that driving a dog to keep running until the point of death is considered a milder punishment. The motorcycle engine starts, and Father begins to drive in a circle. […] Once it has gone five laps, the dog is frothing at the mouth. Blood drips from its throat, which is being choked with the rope. Constantly groaning through its damaged throat, the dog is dragged along the ground.

Punishment and thus justice isn’t swift, but an exercise in pushing one’s ability to endure physical shame. Like when her father, incredulous and domineering, forces her family to hold Yeong-hye back as he shoves a “lump of meat” into Yeong-hye’s wailing body. Or when Yeong-hye is forced to endure the public shaming at an obligatory business dinner. Her vegetarianism unhinges the normative narrative of her family’s reality, and they take it personally. To them, it is an invitation to rape, to control, and to punish.

But it was no easy thing for a man in the prime of his life, for whom married life had always gone entirely without a hitch, to have his physical needs go unsatisfied for such a long period of time. So yes, one night when I returned home late and somewhat inebriated after a meal with colleagues, I grabbed hold of my wife and pushed her to the floor. Pinning down her struggling arms and tugging off her trousers, I became unexpectedly aroused. She put up a surprisingly strong resistance and, spitting out vulgar curses all the while, it took me three attempts before I managed to insert myself successfully. Once that had happened she lay there in the dark staring up at the ceiling, her face blank, as though she were a ‘comfort woman’ dragged in against her will, and I was the Japanese soldier demanding her services.

Rape doesn’t apply to Yeong-hye because she is called a wife, her refusal to play the role erases the violence of rape in the rules of this reality. Yeong-hye’s renunciation of subservience, and the subsequent violence, highlights the underlying rage of male culture presented in this novel. More striking than the appalling behavior of Yeong-hye’s husband is his nonchalance, a result of Kang’s cool, distending prose, brilliantly translated by into English by Deborah Smith. We’re not meant to be unhinged by the drapes of meat in Yeong-hye’s dreams, but the coolness in which Yeong-hye’s family preclude empathy and default to insult and violence. Even before empathy, they preclude curiosity—their questions only seek answers for which they are already disappointed. What we are supposed to be horrified by is how bereft they are of compassion.

Where they shame a woman supposedly acting out of character, Yeong-hye simply wants the dreams to stop. But where do the dreams come from? This tension sustains the entirety of the novel, and drives Yeong-hye deeper into plant-like behavior. Yeong-hye is eventually committed to a mental hospital after the staff find her shirtless, looking up into the sun with eyes clenched, as if in the grip of photosynthesis. Later, after a divorce, in a second mental hospital, something akin to the sanatoriums of Kafka’s and Bernhard’s worlds, far away from Seoul, she refuses to eat and spends hours in a hand-stand, emulating the trees of the mountains. Yeong-hye can’t do anything about the dreams because they are the signature of her conscription into humanity.

Yeong-hye cut her off. ‘They say my insides have all atrophied, you know.’ In-hye was lost for words. Yeong-hye moved her emaciated face closer to her sister. ‘I’m not an animal anymore, sister,’ she said, first scanning the empty ward as if about to disclose a momentous secret. ‘I don’t need to eat, now now. I can live without it. All I need is sunlight.’

Becoming vegetarian isn’t a choice, but a last resort. Yeong-hye is compelled towards plant-like existence because it’s her only method of control and, ironically, affirming her humanity. Yeong-hye doesn’t elect vegetarianism; her family conditioned her for this transformation, her refusal to play this version of humanity. But this is the humanity under which all of us are prescribed. When Yeong-hye recoils at the sight of meat, she sees herself. Yeong-hye turns to vegetarianism because she projects onto plants a freedom of being non-human, non-woman, non-sexualized. The possibility of existing without violence or domination, of being in the world without the risk of knowing what one is, but just being. Vegetarianism in The Vegetarian isn’t a religious requirement, nor the fancy of first-world privilege, but anti-human. It is an affirmation that says not only is the culture a problem, but people are the problem.

[Ed. note: Ryan Chang’s review of The Vegetarian was originally published by Biblioklept in May of 2015].

Not a review of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian

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  1. What follows is not a novel of Han Kang’s 2007 novel The Vegetarian, which I read this weekend (in Deborah Smith’s 2015 English language translation).
  2. Here—by which I mean this link—is a review of The Vegetarian by Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang. He reviewed the novel two years ago on this blog, in depth, and with plenty of like, citations and examples from the novel itself.
  3. I meant to read The Vegetarian after reading Ryan’s review, but got sidetracked, (Sidetracked is not the right metaphor. I hoped to read it but didn’t. Until this weekend).
  4. Anyway, in the meantime while I was not reading it, The Vegetarian won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, which means it got plenty of reviews and attention, which is good, because it’s a “good” book (whatever that means—what I mean is it’s a perplexing and fucked up and weird book), and also I’ve been out in the sun drinking beers all day and I know I couldn’t muster, like, a review.
  5. To really review the book, I’d have to reread it anyway, which I’ll probably do. The narrative’s arranged in three sections told via three very different perspectives—kinda sorta Rashomon style, I guess—and information in each section shades and intensifies information in other sections—so rereading the first two sections would be, um, valuable to seeing/feeling the novel anew.
  6. I use seeing/feeling above in lieu of understanding. The Vegetarian produced an aesthetic sensation in me (by which I maybe mean emotion that I don’t have the right word for. This previous statement sounds like boilerplate hyperbole, but it’s not—I literally cannot think of an accurate word to describe the feeling of the end of the novel. I’ve read takes on the novel that use terms like “unsettling” or “disturbing,” but these seem like adjectives without clear or proper referents.
  7. My adjective/noun combo for The Vegetarian: “dreamy queasiness.”
  8. Or maybe: “queasy dreaminess.”
  9. Does that hold appeal for you, kind reader? A dreamy queasy South Korean novel about a woman who stops eating meat after a weird dream and whose family reacts extremely poorly to her decision to stop eating meet? That description sounds way more banal than the novel really is. The books’ not banal at all; it’s a weird take on cruelty and abjection and refusal, refusal, refusal. It’s confounding. (I don’t have the right adjectives right now).
  10. I don’t have the right adjectives right now. Maybe I’ll just hit “publish” on this post and then repost Ryan’s review, which is far more detailed and perceptive and interesting than this non-review. In fact, I’m sure I’ll do that.

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On Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a story about storytelling

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Talhas been adapted into a television series by Hulu, a fact which you probably already knew if you are on the internet and are interested in these sorts of things.

Initial clips of the show seem promising enough. Elisabeth Moss, who I loved in Top of The Lake,  plays the novel’s protagonist Offred, and Margaret Atwood, a consulting producer, has been a vocal supporter of the adaptation. And, as many have pointed out lately, the story’s backdrop—a patriarchal theocratic regime—seems, uh, timely. (Hell, there’s even a Wall).

In anticipation of Hulu’s adaptation, I decided to reread The Handmade’s Tale a third time in a third decade. I found it subtler, more personally intense than the broad, voluminous epic my memory had concocted. My memory had filled in some of Atwood’s strategic gaps; one of her rhetorical gambits is to deliver the so-called “worldbuilding” common to sci-fi novels in tiny morsels and incomplete glimpses. She refuses to give us a big picture. We see this world like one of the handmaids, who view it through a veil of white wings around their heads.

Our narrator Offred is one of those, whatchamacallit, unreliable narrators (as she frequently, subtly reminds us), and her picture of the Republic of Gilead is necessarily incomplete. My memory filled in huge swaths of backstory—a caste system, forced breeding, a plague of infertility, civil wars, ecological collapse, mutations, religious infighting, spy networks and underground railroads. There’s something of an epic scale there, no? But the The Handmaid’s Tale actually elides much of the its genre’s heavy baggage. Exposition hides in bits and pieces for the reader to scrabble together. Even in some of its more straightforward expository passages, as when Offred describes the theocratic regime’s coup d’etat, we still only get the events from her perspective. We experience the effects of the revolution as the effects on her life. There’s no big picture geopolitical analysis. The causes aren’t clear.

Indeed, the lack of clear causality between events is one of the scariest aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale. Our narrator emphasizes how quickly norms can change in a culture, which is, from a plot-standpoint, quite important. Nineteen Eighty-Four has long been a point of comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale, but in Orwell’s novel the totalitarian regime has presumably been in power for decades (although of course, the protagonist’s job in that novel is to revise historical documents so that they align with the past, making “history” suspect).

In The Handmaid’s Tale, crucially, the protagonist is still connected to the pre-Revolutionary, pre-theocratic world. We’re reminded again and again that she’s one of the first generation of handmaids; we’re reminded again and again that after the first generation takes hold, the practice of forced breeding will become completely normalized. The Handmaid’s Tale is the preamble to dystopia. Offred remembers life in the U.S., life before her role was absolutely proscribed by a patriarchal theocracy. The narrator’s disconnection between that life and her new one drives the narrative.

This radical disconnection threatens the narrator’s sanity. It’s not just the wings of her habit that obstruct her vision, but also a veil of creeping instability. The unraveling of history, the sense that she is dislocated in time threaten to undo her. Her way of seeing the world and her self in the world is completely destabilized. Consider the following passage, in which our heroine gazes at the “smile” of a dead man hung from the Wall as a warning:

I look at the one red smile. The red of the smile is the same as the red of the tulips in Serena Joy’s garden, towards the base of the flowers where they are beginning to heal. The red is the same but there is no connection. The tulips are not tulips of blood, the red smiles are not flowers, neither thing makes a comment on the other. The tulip is not a reason for disbelief in the hanged man, or vice versa. Each thing is valid and really there. It is through a field of such valid objects that I must pick my way, every day and in every way. I put a lot of effort into making such distinctions. I need to make them. I need to be very clear, in my own mind.

The protagonist’s defense against the threat of dislocation, displacement, and insanity is her power to tell her tale. In this sense, The Handmade’s Tale has as much in common with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” as it does with Orwell’s dystopian classic.

Our narrator’s need “to be very clear [in her] own mind” carries (what many readers will consider) the main thread of The Handmaid’s Tale on a straightforward, linear path: Offred is pressed into the service of the Commander (Fred, from whom she receives her patronymic) so that he can impregnate her, become a father, and perpetuate his class tier. If she can’t produce a child in a certain time frame, it’s off to the colonies! (Never mind that the Commander is likely sterile).

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The narrative’s linear sequence will provide a sturdy frame for Hulu’s adaptation, and the constant flashbacks that interweave through the novel will also likely help to flesh out the series, both in tone and characterization. The ways in which the novel’s narrator weaves and unweaves these story strands might be much more difficult for the show to capture though. Indeed, Atwood’s rhetorical technique here is something native to literature itself. Atwood evokes consciousness under duress. She shows us a heroine trying to weave strands of a story together into something meaningful, to make a story where there is none, to find a space to speak where there is only the specter of mute doom. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about storytelling as resistance and self-preservation:

I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance.

If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.

It isn’t a story I’m telling.

It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along.

Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.

Even when there is no one.

A story is like a letter. Dear You, I’ll say. Just you, without a name. Attaching a name attaches you to the world of fact, which is riskier, more hazardous: who knows what the chances are out there, of survival, yours? I will say you, you, like an old love song. You can mean more than one.

You can mean thousands.

Our storyteller—we are her You—is finely attuned to language. She constantly points out old phrases, commonplaces, and cliches, and remarks on what they used to mean in “the time before.” In some of these moments of linguistic mulling, Atwood calls attention to language’s destructive potential, of its ability to unravel the very meaning we seek to pin to it. If language connects, it can also disconnect. Consider the following passage:

It’s strange, now, to think about having a job. Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children, when they were being toilet-trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet. You were supposed to hit them with rolled-up newspapers, my mother said. I can remember when there were newspapers, though I never had a dog, only cats.

The Book of Job.

Language can protect, but it can also threaten. It can slipslide from a random memory to an existentialist myth in the span of a breath. It can turn tulips into bloody smiles and bloody smiles into explanations for executions. Language can turn into stories, but stories can swallow up whole lives, whole cultures. That’s the threat of theocracy.

Atwood highlights the novel’s attention to storytelling itself in the final chapter, which reads almost like an appendix. Called “Historical Notes,” and separated from the text proper by its own title page, the final (unnumbered) chapter purports to be the transcript of a speech given at an academic conference on “Gileadean Studies” in the year 2195. There is much exposition and analysis here. Our anthropologist lecturer informs us that what is known as The Handmaid’s Tale is the composite of a number of audiocassettes. Furthermore, we learn that the narrator Offred (apparently) fabricated or synthesized elements of the story, either to protect certain persons’ anonymity, or for her own pleasure—or simply in the service, of, y’know, good storytelling. The lecturer laments that Offred failed to give future listeners more details about politics and war and the culture of Gilead at large. In a sense, the lecturer’s complaint is the one that many readers who go to Atwood’s novel expecting “worldbuilding” might have. The narrator isn’t telling a story about dystopian Gilead. She’s telling a story about storytelling. She’s making herself a story. Speaking to a You helps to preserve her I.

The “Historical Notes” on The Handmaid’s Tale are an example of a particular trope I generally dislike—the “expert shows up at the end and explains everything” device. However, Atwood’s final chapter is successful, and perhaps even essential to the novel’s critique of patriarchy and of how institutions tell and what they tell. The key, of course, is to recognize the layers of irony in this “explainer” chapter, in which a male authority arrives and asks all the wrong questions about Offred and criticizes some of her narrative choices. Even though he’s an expert on her text, he manages to miss that she’s woven her true name into the story. It’s right there at the end of the first chapter.

“Historical Notes” shows the problems and limitations in telling “the truth,” highlighting that all tales are constructions, syntheses of pre-existing elements. At the same time, the chapter points towards a narrative future, and a fairly stable future at that. “Historical Notes” thus provides the “happy ending” that the text proper—The Handmaid’s Tale—refuses to offer.

After finishing Atwood’s novel, I indulged in a favorite treat: sifting through one-star Amazon reviews with the express purpose of rearranging lines and fragments into…something. A complaint that arose again and again about The Handmaid’s Tale was the novel’s ambiguous ending. Only “ambiguous” wasn’t a word I saw used—our stalwart reviewers insisted that the novel had no conclusion. Such an interpretation is either a misreading or a failure to see that ambiguity is its own opening to adventure.

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Our heroine concludes her tale: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.” The line might frustrate many readers and even license them to accuse Atwood of simply not knowing how to finish her story. The final line’s ambiguity is structural though, part and parcel of the narrative itself. The heroine crosses a threshold. She’s pregnant, both literally and figuratively. The novel’s final ambiguity opens a space for our heroine to “step up” into. As Scheherazade understood, storytelling isn’t about closing off, but opening up. When the narrator walks out into either darkness or light, she’s entering a new narrative possibility—one that can be imagined by the auditors of her tale, her future You.

Perhaps its best to assess Atwood’s ending using her own rubric. Here are the last lines of her 1983 short story “Happy Endings”:

So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.

That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.

Now try How and Why.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale succeeds in answering How and Why. 

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest poses rhetorical, formal, and verbal challenges that will confound many readers new to the text. The abundance of (or excess of) guides and commentaries on the novel can perhaps have the adverse and unintentional consequence of making readers new to Infinite Jest believe that they can’t “get it” without help.  Many of the online analyses and resources for Infinite Jest are created by and targeted to readers who have finished the novel or are rereading the novel. While I’ve read many insightful and enlightening commentaries on the novel over the years, my intuition remains that the superabundance of analysis may have the paradoxical effect of actually impeding readers new to the text. With this in mind, I’d suggest that first-time readers need only a dictionary and some patience.

Infinite Jest is very long but it’s not nearly as difficult as its reputation suggests. There is a compelling plot behind the erudite essaying and sesquipedalian vocabulary. That plot develops around three major strands which the reader must tie together, with both the aid of—and the challenge of—the novel’s discursive style. Those three major plot strands are the tragic saga of the Incandenzas (familial); the redemptive narrative of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, with Don Gately as the primary hero (socicultural); and the the schemes of the Québécois separatists (national/international/political). An addictive and thus deadly film called Infinite Jest links these three plots (through discursive and byzantine subplots).

Wallace often obscures the links between these plot strands, and many of the major plot connections have to be intuited or outright guessed. Furthermore, while there are clear, explicit connections between the plot strands made for the reader, Wallace seems to withhold explicating these connections until after the 200-page mark. Arguably, the real contours of the Big Plot come into (incomplete) focus in a discussion between Hal Incandenza and his brother Orin in pages 242-58. Getting to this scene is perhaps a demand on the patience of many readers. And, while the scene by no means telegraphs what happens in IJ, it nonetheless offers some promise that the set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes shall add up to Something Bigger. 

Some of those earliest set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes function almost as rhetorical obstacles for a first-time reader. The  novel’s opening scene, Hal Incandenza’s interview with the deans at the University of Arizona, is chronologically the last event in the narrative, and it dumps a lot of expository info on the reader. It also poses a number of questions or riddles about the plot to come, questions and riddles that frankly run the risk of the first-time reader’s forgetting through no fault of his own.

The second chapter of IJ is relatively short—just 10 pages—but it seems interminable, and it’s my guess that Wallace wanted to make his reader endure it the same way that the chapter’s protagonist–Erdedy, an ultimately very minor character—must endure the agonizing wait for a marijuana delivery. The chapter delivers the novel’s themes of ambivalence, desire, addiction, shame, entertainment, “fun,” and secrecy, both in its content and form. My guess is that this where a lot of new readers abandon the novel.

The reader who continues must then work through 30 more pages until meeting the novel’s heart, Don Gately, but by the time we’ve met him we might not trust just how much attention we need to pay him, because Wallace has shifted through so many other characters already. And then Gately doesn’t really show up again until like, 200 pages later.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace seems to suspend or delay introducing the reading rules that we’ve been trained to look for in contemporary novels. While I imagine this technique could frustrate first-time readers, I want to reiterate that this suspension or delay or digression is indeed a technique, a rhetorical tool Wallace employs to perform the novel’s themes about addiction and relief, patience and plateaus, gratitude and forgiveness.

Where is a fair place to abandon Infinite Jest

I would urge first-time readers to stick with the novel at least until page 64, where they will be directed to end note 24, the filmography of J.O. Incandenza (I will not even discuss the idea of not reading the end notes. They are essential). Incandenza’s filmography helps to outline the plot’s themes and the themes’ plots—albeit obliquely. And readers who make it to the filmography and find nothing to compel them further into the text should feel okay about abandoning the book at that point.

What about a guide?

There are many, many guides and discussions to IJ online and elsewhere, as I noted above. Do you really need them? I don’t know—but my intuition is that you’d probably do fine without them. Maybe reread Hamlet’s monologue from the beginning of Act V, but don’t dwell too much on the relationship between entertainment and death. All you really need is a good dictionary. (And, by the way, IJ is an ideal read for an electronic device—the end notes are hyperlinked, and you can easily look up words as you read).

Still: Two online resources that might be useful are “Several More and Less Helpful Things for the Person Reading Infinite Jest,” which offers a glossary and a few other unobtrusive documents, and Infinite Jest: A Scene-by-Scene Guide,” which is not a guide at all, but rather a brief series of synopses of each scene in the novel, organized by page number and year; my sense is that this guide would be helpful to readers attempting to delineate the novel’s nonlinear chronology—however, I’d advise against peeking ahead. After you read you may wish to search for a plot diagram of the novel, of which there are several. But I’d wait until after.

An incomplete list of motifs readers new to Infinite Jest may wish to attend to

The big advantage (and pleasure) of rereading Infinite Jest is that the rereader may come to understand the plot anew; IJ is richer and denser the second go around, its themes showing brighter as its formal construction clarifies. The rereader is free to attend to the imagery and motifs of the novel more intensely than a first-time reader, who must suss out a byzantine plot propelled by a plethora of characters.

Therefore, readers new to IJ may find it helpful to attend from the outset to some of the novel’s repeated images, words, and phrases. Tracking motifs will help to clarify not only the novel’s themes and “messages,” but also its plot. I’ve listed just a few of these motifs below, leaving out the obvious ones like entertainment, drugs, tennis (and, more generally, sports and games), and death. The list is in no way definitive or analytic, nor do I present it as an expert; rather, it’s my hope that this short list might help a reader or two get more out of a first reading.

Heads

Cages

Faces

Masks

Teeth

Cycles

Maps

Waste

Infants

Pain

Deformities

Subjects

Objects

One final note

Infinite Jest is a rhetorical/aesthetic experience, not a plot.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept posted a version of this note in the summer of 2015. Wallace would have turned 55 years old today].

A review of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Ishmael Reed’s syncretic Neo-HooDoo revenge Western

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Ishmael Reed’s second novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down tells the story of the Loop Garoo Kid, a “desperado so onery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner’s swine.”

The novel explodes in kaleidoscopic bursts as Reed dices up three centuries of American history to riff on race, religion, sex, and power. Unstuck in time and unhampered by geographic or technological restraint, historical figures like Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson, John Wesley Harding, Groucho Marx, and Pope Innocent (never mind which one) wander in and out of the narrative, supplementing its ironic allegorical heft. These minor characters are part of Reed’s Neo-HooDoo spell, ingredients in a Western revenge story that is simultaneously comic and apocalyptic in its howl against the dominant historical American narrative. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is a strange and marvelous novel, at once slapstick and deadly serious, exuberant in its joy and harsh in its bitterness, close to 50 years after its publication, as timely as ever.

After the breathless introduction of its hero the Loop Garoo Kid, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down initiates its plot. Loop’s circus troupe arrives to the titular city Yellow Back Radio (the “nearest town Video Junction is about fifty miles away”), only to find that the children of the town, “dressed in the attire of the Plains Indians,” have deposed the adults:

We chased them out of town. We were tired of them ordering us around. They worked us day and night in the mines, made us herd animals harvest the crops and for three hours a day we went to school to hear teachers praise the old. Made us learn facts by rote. Lies really bent upon making us behave. We decided to create our own fiction.

The children’s revolutionary, anarchic spirit drives Reed’s own fiction, which counters all those old lies the old people use to make us behave.

Of course the old—the adults—want “their” land back. Enter that most powerful of cattlemen, Drag Gibson, who plans to wrest the land away from everyone for himself. We first meet Drag “at his usual hobby, embracing his property.” Drag’s favorite property is a green mustang,

a symbol for all his streams of fish, his herds, his fruit so large they weighed down the mountains, black gold and diamonds which lay in untapped fields, and his barnyard overflowing with robust and erotic fowl.

Drag loves to French kiss the horse, we’re told. Oh, and lest you wonder if “green” here is a metaphor for, like, new, or inexperienced, or callow: No. The horse is literally green (“turned green from old nightmares”). That’s the wonderful surreal logic of Reed’s vibrant Western, and such details (the novel is crammed with them) make Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down a joy to read.

Where was I? Oh yes, Drag Gibson.

Drag—allegorical stand-in for Manifest Destiny, white privilege, capitalist expansion, you name it—Drag, in the process of trying to clear the kids out of Yellow Back Radio, orders all of Loop’s troupe slaughtered.

The massacre sets in motion Loop’s revenge on Drag (and white supremacy in general), which unfolds in a bitter blazing series of japes, riffs, rants, and gags. (“Unfolds” is the wrong verb—too neat. The action in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is more like the springing of a Jack-in-the-box).

Loop goes about obtaining his revenge via his NeoHooDoo practices. He calls out curses and hexes, summoning loas in a lengthy prayer. Loop’s spell culminates in a call that goes beyond an immediate revenge on Drag and his henchmen, a call that moves toward a retribution for black culture in general:

O Black Hawk American Indian houngan of Hoo-Doo please do open up some of these prissy orthodox minds so that they will no longer call Black People’s American experience “corrupt” “perverse” and “decadent.” Please show them that Booker T and MG’s, Etta James, Johnny Ace and Bojangle tapdancing is just as beautiful as anything that happened anywhere else in the world. Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.

So much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is turning all experience into art. Reed spins multivalent cultural material into something new, something arguably American. The title of the novel suggests its program: a breaking-down of yellowed paperback narratives, a breaking-down of radio signals. Significantly, that analysis, that break-down, is also synthesized in this novel into something wholly original. Rhetorically, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down evokes flipping through paperbacks at random, making a new narrative; or scrolling up and down a radio dial, making new music from random bursts of sound; or rifling through a stack of manic Sunday funnies to make a new, somehow more vibrant collage.

Perhaps the Pope puts it best when he arrives late in the novel. (Ostensibly, the Pope shows up to put an end to Loop’s hexing and vexing of the adult citizenry—but let’s just say the two Holy Men have a deeper, older relationship). After a lengthy disquisition on the history of hoodoo and its genesis in the Voudon religion of Africa (“that strange continent which serves as the subconscious of our planet…shaped so like the human skull”), the Pope declares that “Loop Garoo seems to be practicing a syncretistic American version” of the old Ju Ju. The Pope continues:

Loop seems to be scatting arbitrarily, using forms of this and that and adding his own. He’s blowing like that celebrated musician Charles Yardbird Parker—improvising as he goes along. He’s throwing clusters of demon chords at you and you don’t know the changes, do you Mr. Drag?

The Pope here describes Reed’s style too, of course (which is to say that Reed is describing his own style, via one of his characters. The purest postmodernism). The apparent effortlessness of Reed’s improvisations—the prose’s sheer manic energy—actually camouflages a tight and precise plot. I was struck by how much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down’s apparent anarchy resolves into a bigger picture upon a second reading.

That simultaneous effortlessness and precision makes Reed’s novel a joy to jaunt through. Here is a writer taking what he wants from any number of literary and artistic traditions while dispensing with the forms and tropes he doesn’t want and doesn’t need. If Reed wants to riff on the historical relations between Indians and African-Americans, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to assess the relative values of Thomas Jefferson as a progressive figure, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to attack his neo-social realist critics, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to critique the relationship between militarism and science, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to tell some really dirty jokes about a threesome, he’ll do that. And you can bet if he wants some ass-kicking Amazons to show up at some point, they’re gonna show.

And it’s a great show. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down begins with the slaughter of a circus troupe before we get to see their act. The real circus act is the novel itself, filled with orators and showmen, carnival barkers and con-artists, pistoleers and magicians. There’s a manic glee to it all, a glee tempered in anger—think of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, or Thomas Pynchon’s zany rage, or Robert Downey Sr.’s satirical film Putney Swope.

Through all its anger, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down nevertheless repeatedly affirms the possibility of imagination and creation—both as cures and as hexes. We have here a tale of defensive and retaliatory magic. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is the third novel of Reed’s novels I’ve read (after Mumbo Jumbo and The Free-Lance Pallbearers), and my favorite thus far. Frankly, I needed the novel right now in a way that I didn’t know that I needed it until I read it; the contemporary novel I tried to read after it felt stale and boring. So I read Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down again. The great gift here is that Reed’s novel answers to the final line of Loop’s prayer to the Loa: “Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.” Like the children of Yellow Back Radio, Reed creates his own fiction, and invites us to do the same. Very highly recommended.

A review of Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

A review of Robert Coover’s excellent new novel Huck Out West

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In the final lines of Mark Twain’s 1884 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, our narrator-hero declares: “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

We have here the signal trope of so much American literature—escape. Escape into the wild, the unknown, the expanse: the Territory. Ishmael goes to sea, Young Goodman Brown wanders into the woods, Rip Van Winkle retreats into the mountains. American literature loves to posit Transcendental escape, and with that escape, a utopian promise, a chance to reinvent “sivilization.” As the poet-critic Charles Olson puts it in the beginning of Call Me Ishmael, “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America. I spell it large because it comes large here.”

The other side of the utopian facade is much darker: westward expansion, continentalism, war, violence, extinction agendas, and the exploitation of all things mineral, vegetable, animal, and human. Manifest Destiny. Olson noted that American space might be large, but it was “Large, and without mercy.” Manifest Destiny offered nineteenth-century Americans an illusion of mercy, a mimesis of meaning, a rhetorical gloss to cover over predation, violence, and genocide. Manifest Destiny was a story to stick to, a story with a purpose, good guys and bad guys, and an ethos to drive a narrative. Through such a narrative, Americans might come to see their nation allegorically maturing, coming of age, expanding freedom. Manifest Destiny offered a narrative of a nation growing, a narrative that made space for itself via the violent erasure of native peoples.

Robert Coover’s new novel Huck Out West is very much about storytelling and maturation–about how we attempt to give meaning to the passing of time. Sure, it’s a yarn, an adventure tale that answers happens to Huckleberry Finn after he’s lit out into the Territory. But it’s also a story of what it means to grow up, essentially asking whether such a thing is even possible. “It was almost like there was something wicked about growing up,” Huck remarks in the novel’s second chapter. Ever the misfit, Huck cannot square the evil around him with the dominant social narratives that would try to justify injustice. He can’t stick out a story. This is a character who has always preferred immediate truth.

Consider a few early lines:

Tom is always living in a story he’s read in a book so he knows what happens next, and sometimes it does. For me it ain’t like that. Something happens and then something else happens, and I’m in trouble again.

Like Twain’s original novel, Huck Out West is also a picaresque, albeit one in which the main character repeatedly wonders how to stitch together the seemingly random episodes of his life into a meaningful narrative. Huck’s life is essentially picaresque, and without Tom Sawyer around to rein the episodes together into a story, Huck’s left with “something happens and then something else happens.” Here’s a picaresque passage that summarizes Huck’s “adventures” in his new milieu:

I wrangled horses, rode shotgun on coaches and wagon trains, murdered some buffalos, worked with one or t’other army, fought some Indian wars, shooting and getting shot at, and didn’t think too much about any of it. I reckoned if I could earn some money, I could try to buy Jim’s freedom back, but I warn’t never nothing but stone broke. The war was still on, each side chasing and killing t’other at a brisk pace clean across the Territory, and they both needed a body like me to scout ahead for them, watch over their stock at night, pony messages to the far side of the fighting, clean their muddy boots and help bury the dead, of which there warn’t never no scarcity, nuther boots nor dead.

Variations of these scenarios, as well as flashbacks to earlier episodes mentioned here, play out as the early plot in Huck Out West; Huck’s only real aim is to “buy Jim’s freedom back.” Jim’s been cruelly sold as a slave to a tribe of Indians by Tom Sawyer. Tom Sawyer is a fucking asshole.

But Tom is Huck’s main partner, or “pard” in Coover’s Twain’s vernacular. And don’t worry, Jim (Huck’s other pard) ends up okay. We meet him again, along with other members of the old gang, including Becky Thatcher, who’s fallen on harder times, and Ben Rogers. Ben has graduated from his youthful playacting in Tom Sawyers’ Gang to armed robbery as a member of a real gang. Huck Finn accidentally joins up. The scene plays out as one of many dark repetitions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and ends in violence.

Huck Out West is a violent novel, and reading it helps to foreground the violence of Twain’s original novel. In his 1960 study Love and Death in the American Novel, critic Leslie Fiedler highlighted the horror of Twain’s novel, horror which hides in plain sight:

Huckleberry Finn, that euphoric boys’ book, begins with its protagonist holding off at gun point his father driven half mad by the D.T.’s and ends (after a lynching, a disinterment, and a series of violent deaths relieved by such humorous incidents as soaking a dog in kerosene and setting him on fire) with the revelation of that father’s sordid death. Nothing is spared; Pap, horrible enough in life, is found murdered brutally, abandoned to float down the river in a decaying house scrawled with obscenities. But it is all “humor,” of course, a last desperate attempt to convince us of the innocence of violence, the good clean fun of horror.

In Huck Out West, no amount of humor can convince us—and, significantly poor Huckleberry—of the innocence of violence. There is no consolation in Manifest Destiny, only genocidal violence. Take the following passage, for example, in which Huck, conscripted by a malevolent general (well, colonel really—but who hasn’t told a stretcher every now and then?) to break horses for the U.S. Army, witnesses the massacre of an Indian tribe:

What happened a few minutes later come to be called a famous battle in the history books and the general he got a power of glory out of it, but a battle is what it exactly warn’t. Whilst me and Star watched over the spare horses, the soldier boys galloped howling through the burning tents and slaughtered more’n a hundred sleepers, which the general called warriors, but who was mostly wrinkled up old men, women, and little boys and girls. I seen eyes gouged out and ears tore off and bellies slit open with their innards spilling out like sausages.

The language of Huck Out West, here and elsewhere—full of missing scalps, ears, limbs, etc.—often veers closer to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian than Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

As ever, Huck’s sense of justice simply does not square with the narrative (“history books”… “power of glory”) that others will shape from the raw predation he’s witnessed. He’s unable to connect the letter of the law to its spirit—or rather, he plainly sees that the letter is used to gloss over an evil, evil spirit. He’s still the same kid who, in the moral climax of Adventures, elected to “go to hell” rather than see Jim enslaved again.

Anyone familiar with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will also know that the novel’s ending is an incredibly problematic vaudeville of cruel comedy. Tom Sawyer pops back into the narrative, overwhelming whatever spirit of growth and maturity Huck achieved in the novel’s climax. The pair undertakes a series of cruel jokes on Jim. Their play is, to invert Fiedler’s terms above, a showcase for the violence of innocence, the horror of good clean fun. Critics over the years have either had to brush away the novel’s final chapters, or to try to reconcile them in some way. More germane is the viewpoint of one of Paul Bowles’s narrators (undoubtedly Bowles himself), who, in the short story “Unwelcome Words” laments: “I’ve often wished that someone would rewrite the end of Huckleberry Finn.” Coover provides a rewrite, in a sense: A fuller, more mature revision, one that takes Tom and Huck out of their adolescence into full-blown, inescapable adulthood—a revision that requires Huck resist the cruelty of both Tom and the “sivilization” he represents.

“The Amazing Tom Sawyer,” as various characters call him in Huck Out West is an awful evil instigator: a con-man, a fake-lawyer, a demagogue of the worst stripe. He’s always been this way, but we failed to notice, perhaps, enthralled by his confidence game. And what American doesn’t love a confidence trickster? Hell, Tom had kids lined up to pay him to whitewash a fence.

Tom pops in and out of Huck Out West with a jolting, picaresque force, and in some ways the central plot of the novel revolves around his partnership with Huck—a partnership that requires Huck buy into Tom’s nihilism. “Ain’t nothing fair, starting with getting born and having to die,” Tom scolds Huck. Huck is right though: It isn’t fair. In this case, Huck is protesting the “largest mass hanging in U.S. history,” the execution of over three dozen Sioux Indians in Minnesota in 1862.

Tom dresses up his core nihilism in any number of narratives. The great lie of all these narratives is, of course, the idea that Tom’s various predatory schemes are actually founded in justice, in some kind of manifestation of destiny. Tom sells the narrative to the people he’s conning. For him, maturation is nothing more than progressing, perfecting, and extending the long con on any rubes he can sucker. He dresses up the tribalist demagoguery he uses to sway the herd in romantic legalese, but at heart he’s a brute.

Huck’s maturation is more profound. He understands, spiritually if not intellectually, that he needs to get away from Tom Sawyer and his tribe “sivilzation.” Huck addresses Tom late in the book:

“Tribes,” I says. “They’re a powerful curse laid on you when you get born. They ruin you, but you can’t get away from them. They’re a nightmare a body’s got to live with in the daytime.”

Coover provides a salient contrast to Tom Sawyer in a character of his own invention, a young Lakota Huck calls Eeteh (he can’t pronounce the full name). Eeteh is a holy fool who tells (and perhaps invents) stories of Snake, Raven, and Coyote—trickster tales and origin stories. Eeteh’s storytelling seems to point in a different direction than Tom’s tall tales. Eeteh describes the trickster and hides a kernel of wisdom in his tales; Tom’s stories are tricks on fools, signifying nothing. Significantly, Eeteh is something of an outcast among the Lakota. He understands Huck in ways Huck doesn’t understand himself:

Eeteh says that both of us growed up too early and missed a lot, so really didn’t grow up at all, just only got older. I says that’s probably better’n growing up and Eeteh was of the same opinion.

Huck and Eeteh have both, through their unique early upbringings (or lack-there-of), missed the “sivilizing” influences that would bind them into a dominant social narrative. Coover’s insight here is that “growing up” doesn’t necessarily mean “growing wise,” and that the old often hide their foolishness and venality behind empty stories.

But Coover’s storytelling is marvelous, rich, full. He colors brightly Huck’s moments of epiphany. In one prominent example, Huck Finn the horsebreaker takes (what I’m pretty sure was) mescaline at the behest of the Lakota tribe that temporarily adopts him. He breaks a wild horse, his metaphorical trip literalized in a wild gallop through American history and geography:

We was pounding over a desert, but when I peeked again we was suddenly splashing through a river, then tromping a wheat field, and next on the grasslands, scattering herds a buffalos and yelping coyotes. I had to scrouch down when he run through a low forest, not to get scraped off, then pull my knees up as we raced through a narrow gorge. We hammered in and out a mining and cow towns, Indian camps and army forts.

Huck’s apotheosis is real—for him, anyway—but the Lakota still enjoy a laugh at his expense, just as they have with inside outsider Eeteh. Tribes of any stripe are a nightmare to try to escape from.

And hence the final moments of Huck Out West recapitulate the final lines of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck and Eeteh—do I give away too much, dear reader? Very well, I give away too much—Huck and Eeteh dream of new frontiers and new freedoms. On the eve of the American centennial anniversary, the pards venture to fresh Territory. As they set out, Eeteh spins a final tale. In this tale, Fox and Coyote create a new being with “two members” made from pre-existing elements:

 

So they made a new cretur out a parts borrowed from Whooping Crane, Prairie Dog, Mountain Goat, Rainbow Trout, Turkey Vulture, Jack Rabbit, and Porkypine.

“That must a been something to see!” I says. “A cretur with two members, joined up from a crane, prairie dog, goat and trout, plain stops me cold in my tracks, never mind the rest!”

Eeteh says he’s really glad he didn’t try to tell me about Coyote in the Land of the Dead.

“Ain’t that a story about afterlife soul creturs? I thought you don’t take no stock in souls.”

Eeteh sighed and says that’s just what he means.

The final moments of Huck Out West reinvent Huck’s dream of synthesis at the beginning of Twain’s Adventures: “In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better,” Huck tells us in that much older novel.

And even if Huck digs the swap and the flow of the new, he still can’t fully puzzle out Eeteh’s headscratcher. Our boy Huck never was one for narrative. “I was plumb lost,” he admits in the next line, before signaling the new Territory all storytelling opens: “I reckoned we could start over at the campfire tonight.” Tell the story again, tell it new.

So what does Eeteh’s story mean? Is there a rejection here of metaphysical meaning, of, like, a soul? I don’t know but I don’t think so. Perhaps Eeteh’s evoking here something closer to what Emerson called the Over-Soul (“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles…but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul”).

But is “Over-Soul” just another simple gloss, a sturdy but rusty nail to hang a narrative on—like “Manifest Destiny”? Coover’s Huck ends his narrative by admitting, “I was lost again,” which seems like a more than fair metaphor for America, if that’s how we’re to take the novel. (There are plenty of other ways to take it: It’s very funny, and the prose is amazing—I mean, here’s a novel that could’ve fallen into the trap of becoming some bizarre bad fanfiction, but Coover’s too good. The novel is aesthetically marvelous. I hope I’ve shared enough samples here to convey that to you, reader).

If Huck is lost again, he has a few solutions, the first one being to “muddytate” on the problem (with some whiskey, some fish, and the company of his pard). And so Huck the escape artist recalls here at the end of his narrative the other paradigm of American literature: the lazing loafer, the shirker, the dreamer. And what is dreaming but the richest form of escape? I think of Walt Whitman leaning and loafing at his ease observing a spear of summer grass, Ishmael’s sea-dreams, Rip Van Winkle dozing through the Revolutionary War… If Huck Out West posits a utopian escape, it’s an escape through imagination, and it’s an escape utopian only in its rejection of all social order outside of a single “pard.”

But ultimately, I don’t think Huck Out West wants its readers to escape from history, from American history, from the ugly awful violence of Manifest Destiny. Rather, I think the novel calls its reader to look anew through the eyes of our naive experienced insider outsider paradox of a hero, Huckleberry Finn—to look afresh at the Big Narrative that has dominated our society, and to decide whether or not it’s something we want to recapitulate—or something we’d be better off reimagining. Huck and his one pard—there is no utopia outside of a pair, it seems—might get to escape into the sunset, but the rest of us are stuck here. Let us all muddytate and then do better.

 

“The Story to End All Stories” — Philip K. Dick

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Roman Muradov’s graphic novella Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art reviewed

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Roman Muradov’s newest graphic novella, Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art (Uncivilized Books, 2016), is the brief, shadowy, surreal tale of an illustrator who’s robbed of his artwork by a rival.

There’s more of course.

In a sense though, the plot is best summarized in the first line of Jacob Bladders:

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Okay.

Maybe that’s too oblique for a summary (or not really a summary at all, if we’re being honest).

But it’s a fucking excellent opening line, right?

Like I said, “There’s more” and if the more—the plot—doesn’t necessarily cohere for you on a first or second reading, don’t worry. You do have worth, reader, and Muradov’s book believes that you’re equipped to tangle with some murky noir and smudgy edges. (It also trusts your sense of irony).

The opening line is part of a bold, newspaperish-looking introduction that pairs with a map. This map offers a concretish anchor to the seemingly-abstractish events of Jacob Bladders. 

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The map isn’t just a plot anchor though, but also a symbolic anchor, visually echoing William Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder (1805).  Blake’s illustration of the story from Genesis 28:10-19 is directly referenced in the “Notes” that append the text of Jacob Bladders. There’s also a (meta)fictional “About the Author” section after the end notes (“Muradov died in October of 1949”), as well as twin character webs printed on the endpapers.

Along with the intro and map, these sections offer a set of metatextual reading rules for Jacob Bladders. The map helps anchor the murky timeline; the character webs help anchor the relationships between Muradov’s figures (lots of doppelgänger here, folks); the end notes help anchor Muradov’s satire.

These framing anchors are ironic though—when Muradov tips his hand, we sense that the reveal is actually another distraction, another displacement, another metaphor. (Sample end note: “METAPHOR: A now defunct rhetorical device relying on substitution of a real-life entity with any animal”).

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It’s tempting to read perhaps too much into Jacob Bladder’s metatextual self-reflexivity. Here is writing about writing, art about art: an illustrated story about illustrating stories. And of course it’s impossible not to ferret out pseudoautobiographical morsels from the novella. Roman Muradov is, after all, a working illustrator, beholden to publishers, editors, art-directors, and deadlines. (Again from the end notes: “DEADLINE: A fictional date given to an illustrator to encourage timely delivery of the assignment. Usually set 1-2 days before the real (also known as ‘hard’) deadline”). If you’ve read The New Yorker or The New York Times lately, you’ve likely seen Muradov’s illustrations.

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So what to make of the section of Jacob Bladders above? Here, a nefarious publisher commands a hapless illustrator to illustrate a “career ladders” story without using an illustration of a career ladder (From the end notes: “CAREER LADDER: An illustration of a steep ladder, scaled by an accountant in pursuit of a promotion or a raise. The Society of Illustrators currently houses America’s largest collection of career ladders, including works by M.C. Escher, Balthus, and Marcel Duchamp”).

Draw a fucking metaphor indeed. (I love how the illustrator turns into a Cubist cricket here).

Again, it’s hard not to find semi-autobiographical elements in Jacob Bladders’s publishing satire. Muradov couches these elements in surreal transpositions. The first two panels of the story announce the setting: New York / 1947—but just a few panels later, the novella pulls this move:

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Here’s our illustrator-hero Jacob Bladders asking his secretary (secretary!) for “any tweets”; he seems disappointed to have gotten “just a retweet.” In Muradov’s transposition, Twitter becomes “Tweeter,” a “city-wide messaging system, established in 1867” and favored by writers like E.B. White and Dorothy Parker.

Do you follow Muradov on Twitter?

I do. Which makes it, again, kinda hard for me not to root out those autobiographical touches. (He sometimes tweets on the illustration biz, y’see).

But I’m dwelling too much on these biographical elements I fear, simply because, it’s much, much harder to write compellingly about the art of it all, of how Muradov communicates his metatextual pseudoautobiographical story. (Did I get enough postmoderny adjectives in there? Did I mention that I think this novella exemplary of post-postmodernism? No? These descriptions don’t matter. Look, the book is fucking good).

Muradov’s art is better appreciated by, like, looking at it instead of trying to describe it (this is an obvious thing to write). Look at this spread (click on it for biggeration):

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The contours, the edges, the borders. The blacks, the whites, the notes in between. This eight-panel sequence gives us insides and outsides, borders and content, expression and impression. Watching, paranoia, a framed consciousness. 

And yet our reading rules—again, from the end notes: “SPOTILLO: Spot illustration. Most commonly a borderless ink drawing set against white background”; followed by “CONSTRAINT: An arbitrary restriction imposed on a work of art in order to give it an illusion of depth”.

Arbitrary? Maybe. No. Who cares? Look at the command of form and content here, the mix and contrast and contradistinctions of styles: Cubism, expressionism, impressionism, abstraction: Klee, Miro, Balthus, Schjerfbeck: Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang. Etc. (Chiaroscuro is a word I should use somewhere in this review).

But also cartooning, also comix here—Muradov’s jutting anarchic tangles, often recoiling from the panel proper, recall George Herriman’s seminal anarcho-strip Krazy Kat. (Whether or not Muradov intends such allusions is not the point at all. Rather, what we see here is a continuity of the form’s best energies). Like Herriman’s strip, Muradov’s tale moves under the power of its own dream logic (more of a glide here than Herriman’s manic skipping).

That dream logic follows the lead (lede?!) of that famous Romantic printmaker and illustrator William Blake, whose name is the last “spoken” word of the narrative (although not the last line in this illustrated text). Blake is the illustrator of visions and dreams—visions of Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob Bladders. Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art culminates in the Romantic/ironic apotheosis of its hero. The final panels are simultaneously bleak and rich, sad and funny, expressive and impressive. Muradov ironizes the creative process, but he also points to it as an imaginative renewal. “Imagination is the real,” William Blake advised us, and Muradov, whether he’d admit it or not, makes imagination real here. Highly recommended.

 

A place must be made for innocence | Gravity’s Rainbow, annotations and illustrations for page 419

In a corporate State 1, a place must be made for innocence, and its many uses 2. In developing an official version of innocence, the culture of childhood has proven invaluable . Games, fairy-tales, legends from history, all the paraphernalia of make-believe can be adapted and even embodied in a physical place, such as at Zwölfkinder 5. Over the years it had become a children’s resort, almost a spa. If you were an adult, you couldn’t get inside the city limits without a child escort. There was a child mayor 6, a child city council of twelve. Children picked up the papers, fruit peelings and bottles you left in the street, children gave you guided tours through the Tierpark 7, the Hoard of the Nibelungen 8, cautioning you to silence during the impressive re-enactment of Bismarck’s elevation, at the spring equinox of 1871, to prince and imperial chancellor 9,… child police reprimanded you if you were caught alone, without your child accompanying. Whoever carried on the real business of the town—it could not have been children—they were well hidden.10

From page 419 of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

Pynchon, as always, diagnoses not just the past and present, but the future. The state is corporate; They — the oligarchy et al. — run the show. And conceptualizing innocence is part of running that show.

Cf. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789). In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), Blake wrote: “Without Contraries is no progression.” Without corruption there is no innocence; without abjection there is no purity; without an elect, there is no preterite.

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The Chimney Sweeper, William Blake, 1794

Blake’s Songs share much in common with Pynchon’s big novel—both argue for the preterite, pointing out the ways in which industrial technologies exploit the most vulnerable among us; both are wildly, acidly vivid; both employ metaphors of fall and ascent; both foreground the utterly real humanity of their subjects.

Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” (from Experience) shows in simple language how the official version of innocence can be used to enforce the dominant and exploitative order. Consider the last stanza:

And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery

Blake’s chimney sweeper asserts his right to happiness, to laughter and joy. The creative impulse is a Counterforce against Them—here, the Priest and King. Yet They co-opt the dancing and joy and convert it into signs of “the official version of innocence”: a lie to cover over the utter corruption of the dominant order.

You’ve read Freud, right? Like, those ideas on infantile sexuality that are downright icky, and yet nevertheless reaffirmed and reinforced by the Corporate State? (Oligarchial capitalism simultaneously infantilizes and sexualizes its subjects). Gravity’s Rainbow does a lot of stuff it’s easier (less queasier) to write off as abject than to actually like, think through. But GR also shows that They infantilize and sexualize childhood in the service of control, as a way of establishing (and blurring and “defiling”) official versions of innocence.

Consider Our Poor Hero Tyrone Slothrop, whose conditioning as an infant by Laszlo Jamf (involving the mysterious MacGuffin Imipolex G) leads to erections that predict rocket strikes. (I swear that sentence makes sense).

“Games, fairy-tales, legends from history, all the paraphernalia of make-believe can be adapted and even embodied in a physical places” — physical places like Gravity’s Rainbow. Well, okay. I mean, we get a condensation here of Pynchon’s process, his synthesis, his grab-bag of songs and japes and jibes and jokes and tales and etcetera.

But Pynchon’s pointing out other, perhaps more nefarious and venal and corporate uses for the same cultural material he’s massaging: A fucking theme park. Like, uh, Disneyland. Or Disneyworld. Etcetera, you get it—that we—did I just write We?!—I want to say They—that They colonize and corporatize the imagination; that They gobble up the cultural material and excrete it in smooth, digestible, sanitized (yet subtly sexualized)—and consumable, marketable!—segments that we take our kids to queue up to experience in their innocence.

5  As always, Pynchon Wiki does it better than I can:

“Twelve Children” – the name evokes Jacob’s twelve sons (and the daughter who is not one of the official twelve). This pattern is self-consciously repeated in the Grimms’ tale “The Twelve Brothers”, where the boys are to die if their mother gives birth to a girl.

The camp, which is also a quasi-town, may be modelled after Theresienstadt, the Jewish town/Lager set up by the Nazis in what is now the Czech Republic. This is suggested by themes like transit, phoney children’s paradise, as well as the large orchestra, or the number 60,000 (the number of those who “passed through” Zwölfkinder as well the population of Theresienstadt at its peak). It also recalls another totalitarian institution, that of the communist “children’s towns” (large, town-like, somewhat militarized holiday camps for Young Pioneers), whose prototype was Artek in the Soviet Union. (Deutsches Jungvolk also had its summer camps.)

Further, consider Argentina’s Republic of Children, a city proportioned for children, which was created under Juan Peron’s regime and opened in 1951.

The Oedipal plot of Grimms’ “The Twelve Children” repeats throughout Gravity’s Rainbow, and I invite you to look for it lurking in Disney.

“The brothers were full of joy, and embraced her with fondest affection,” Mary Hamilton Fry, 1912

Cf. Gravity’s Rainbow page 534—Osbie Feel’s screenplay Doper’s Greed!:

“At the entrance to the town, barring their way, stands the Midget who played the lead in Freaks. The one with the German accent. He is the town sheriff. He is wearing an enormous gold star that nearly covers his chest.”

The little person referenced is Harry Earles who played Hans in Freaks (1932; dir. Tod Browning).

The zoo.

A vast treasure hoard, such as Scrooge McDuck might dive into, or Bilbo Baggins and his pals might play upon.

The Nibelungen Hoard, as I’m sure you know, is the treasure of the Nibelungen. (You know Wagner’s Ring Cycle, eh? Or you’ve read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, right?—you get the idea. The titular Nibelung is the dwarf Alberich, by the way).

Cf. W.N. Lettsom—

The tale of that same treasure might well your wonder raise;
’T was much as twelve huge wagons in four whole nights and days
Could carry from the mountain down to the salt-sea bay,
If to and fro each wagon thrice journeyed every day.

It was made up of nothing but precious stones and gold;
Were all the world bought from it, and down the value told,
Not a mark the less thereafter were left, than erst was scored.
Good reason sure had Hagan to covet such a hoard.

Hagen Orders Servants to Sink the Hoard in the Rhine, Peter von Cornelius (1859)
Hagen Orders Servants to Sink the Hoard in the Rhine, Peter von Cornelius (1859)

In the Nibelungenlied, Hagen murders the hero Siegfried and then steals and hides the Nibelung hoard.

Otto von Bismarck, 1815-1898, who unified Germany through technocracy and, uh, war.

10 “…they were well hidden”: A précis of Pynchonian paranoia, perhaps.

A riff on my favorite ghost story, Roberto Bolaño’s “The Return”

Roberto Bolaño’s short story “The Return” is so good that it has two perfect opening paragraphs:

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.

That’s a hell of a way to start a story! Bolaño lays out his two themes—the afterlife and necrophilia—in a jovial, almost cavalier, but dare I say sweet, even charming way. And then this paragraph:

Death caught up with me in a Paris disco at four in the morning. My doctor had warned me, but some things are stronger than reason. I was convinced, mistakenly (and even now it’s something I regret), that drinking and dancing were not the most hazardous of my passions. Another reason I kept going out every night to the fashionable places in Paris was my routine as a middle manager at Fracsa; I was after what I couldn’t find at work or in what people call the inner life: the buzz that you get from a certain excess.

Those are the first two paragraphs, and maybe they’ll entice you to read the story. However, the following riff includes what some people might consider spoilers; my hope is that if you’ve never read it before, you’ll take it on faith that “The Return” is a great, great story and you’ll go read it and stop reading this riff now. (Maybe come back later though after you’ve read it).

“The Return” is a ghost story that transmutes the horror of death and the abjection of the corpse into love, empathy, and communication—and art. It’s a beautiful ghost tale in the Romantic, Gothic tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, from whom Bolaño drew heavily. However, while Poe’s tales of necrophilia (like the poem “Annabel Lee,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Berenice” to name just a few) obsess over repression, loss, burial, and imperfect and violent attempts at restoration, Bolaño’s “The Return” offers its readers a peaceful reconciliation with death. It’s collected in The Return (New Directions, English translation by Chris Andrews), which is a perfect introduction to Bolaño—so many great stories there (“Buba,” “Clara,” “William Burns,” etc.). So go read it.

Continue reading “A riff on my favorite ghost story, Roberto Bolaño’s “The Return””

No knightly hero | Gravity’s Rainbow, annotations and illustrations for page 364

The Gray Tree, Piet Mondrian (1911)
The Gray Tree, Piet Mondrian (1911)

Toward dusk, the black birds descend, millions 1  of them, to sit in the branches of trees nearby. The trees grow heavy with black birds, branches like dendrites of the Nervous System 2  fattening, deep in twittering nerve-dusk, in preparation for some important message… . 3

Later in Berlin, down in the cellar among fever-dreams with shit leaking out of him at gallons per hour, too weak to aim more than token kicks at the rats 4 running by with eyes fixed earnestly noplace, trying to make believe they don’t have a newer and dearer status among the Berliners, at minimum points on his mental health chart, when the sun is gone so totally it might as well be for good, Slothrop’s dumb idling heart 5 sez: The Schwarzgerät is no Grail, Ace, that’s not what the G in Imipolex G stands for. And you are no knightly hero 6. The best you can compare with is Tannhäuser 7, the Singing Nincompoop—you’ve been under one mountain at Nordhausen, been known to sing a song or two with uke accompaniment, and don’tcha feel you’re in a sucking marshland of sin out here, Slothrop? maybe not the same thing William Slothrop, vomiting a good part of 1630 away over the side of that Arbella 8, meant when he said “sin.” . . . But what you’ve done is put yourself on somebody else’s voyage 9—some Frau Holda, some Venus in some mountain—playing her, its, game… you know that in some irreducible way it’s an evil game. You play because you have nothing better to do 10, but that doesn’t make it right. And where is the Pope whose staff’s gonna bloom for you? 11

From page 364 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

1 A million black birds sounds like a hyperbole of crows, but Berlin 1945, post-V-E Day—which is like, where we are here—I mean, it’s a desperate deathly ghastly place. So maybe buzzards and dreadful crows abound.

2 Cf. the discussion between nerve cells in pages 148-49.

Drawing of Purkinje cells (A) and granule cells (B) from pigeon cerebellum, Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1899)
Drawing of Purkinje cells (A) and granule cells (B) from pigeon cerebellum, Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1899)

3  What’s the important message? Oh wait, we’re still in the marvelous tree-crow-dendrite simile—the “twittering nerve-dusk”—so the “message” the crow-tree-branches awaits is just part of the, uh, metaphor. Or not? I mean, this is a novel in large part about expectation—about waiting for the bomb to fall, waiting for the Sword of Damocles to descend. And also: awaiting a message of Return.

But: What a lovely little simile. Pynchon’s powers as a prose stylist seem under-remarked upon.

4 Cf. page 359: “Last week, in the British sector someplace, Slothrop, having been asshole enough to drink out of an ornamental pond in the Tiergarten, took sick.”

The cellar, the diarrhea, the rats….I’ve written it before: Gravity’s Rainbow is a thoroughly abject novel—full of assholes (literal) and shit (literal) and toilets (literal). (And oh, also: metaphorical too, metaphorical too). Slothrop here is sick, literally evacuating—but also figuratively evacuating. A few pages later he’ll evacuate into his next identity, Rocket Man.

Cf. page 553, from Slothrop’s “Partial List of Wishes on Evening Stars for This Period”:

“Let me be able to take a shit soon.”

5  I counted 75 words in the dependent clause that precedes Pynchon’s finally introducing the independent clause—which is to say subject and verb

“Slothrop’s dumb idling heart sez”

(My count is likely off; I counted once and I’ve had some bourbon. I counted “fever-dreams” as two words, although I think you’re not supposed to do that).

Anyway: That’s a lot of dependent-clauseauge before, like, the main idea—which I guess, from a prose/aesthetic analysis, is the, uh, main idea—ascent, suspension—and then an immediate divergence (and note how Pynchon simultaneously deflates and invigorates his predicate verb “sez” with colloquial zeal).

6  Many of Gravity’s Rainbow’s motifs almost cohere here. Pynchon highlights two of Slothrop’s ostensible “quests” — the Schwarzgerät (the mysterious “black device” that will be installed in rocket 00000 (present), and the sexy sinister plastic Imipolex G (past). (But also both, obviously: Future).

Slothrop’s dumb heart denies any knightly virtue, rejects Romanticism—and, perhaps, Modernism’s ironic obsessions with Romanticism.

(I think the passage above, what with its ravens and Venus-denial and grail-refusal, is a tidy antonym to Rossetti’s depiction of the Grail…and yet I’d argue Pynchon’s writing bears a Pre-Raphaelite streak)—

The Damsel of the Holy Grail, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)
The Damsel of the Holy Grail, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)

The episode strikes me as utterly true, a moment of honest self-speech. As Emily Dickinson put it: “I like a look of Agony / Because I know it’s true.” (One of Slothrop’s ancestor’s plagiarized Ms. Dickinson on his gravestone). And yet and yet and yet…Perhaps Tyrone S. is being a bit too harsh on himself (who among us hasn’t cast a harsh gaze into the mirror?).

Slothrop expels the old identity here, the old dreams, the old, evacuating space for the arrival of “Raketemensch,” — Rocketman!

Rocketman points to an emerging postmodern hero—a comic bookish hero, perhaps—totemic, sure, but also Pop, cartoonish, textual—framed (literally) in the conventions of previous centuries’ conceptions of “heroism.”

7  Cf. page 299: “There is that not-so-rare personality disorder known as Tannhäuserism. Some of us love to be taken under mountains, and not always with horny expectations.” I annotated the page here.  Slothrop seems to accept the abject mantle of a bard, a laze, a loaf, a lingerer. I think of Whitman here, proud to lean and loafe at his ease at the beginning of Song of Myself, only to “effuse [his] flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags” in the poem’s closing lines. Like Whitman’s persona, Slothrop will dissipate.

8 Cf. pages 203-04 (annotations here), wherein Slothrop’s vomiting ancestor William Slothrop, in a remarkable passage of hysteron proteron, travels backwards from the New World to the Old.

9 One of the central paranoias of Gravity’s Rainbow is that you might be on their voyage. How much agency do you have in your own life? And what’s the cost of asserting that agency? How many identities do you have to evacuate? And in the end—what’s left?

10 Boredom strikes me as one of (if not the) central theme connecting Modernism, postmodernism, and post-postmodernism.

11 Cf. the Tannhäuser story/footnote 7.

Or: Simply note the motif of bloom, of fruition, of phallic life, of promise. In fuller context though—it’s a bloom too late. The question blooms from Slothrop’s self-speech, but also extends to you and me, reader.

Or: Cf. the opening of Gravity’s Rainbow. From the sixth paragraph:

“You didn’t really believe you’d be saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow. . . .”

A riff on the Westworld pilot, “The Original”

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Watching HBO’s new show Westworld, I couldn’t help but think of the late American novelist William Gaddis’s obsession for player-pianos. The narrator of Gaddis’s final novel Agapē Agape howls that the player piano “was the plague spreading across America…its punched paper roll at the heart of the whole thing, of the frenzy of invention and mechanization and democracy and how to have art without the artist and automation, cybernetics.” Here was the idea of art, the artifice of art. Spiritless spirit. Automation.

Director Jonathan Nolan threads these automaton player pianos throughout “The Original,” Westworld’s ironically-titled pilot episodeThe motif is a perhaps-unsubtle reminder of Westworld’s core conflict—automation vs. spirit, real vs. copy, authentic vs. simulation. Human vs. machine.

You know the story of course: whether from Westworld’s source material (Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name), or from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Philip K. Dick in general, or The Matrix, or Battlestar Galactica (original or reboot), or Pinocchio, or AI, or Pygmalion, or Baudrillard, or just generally being alive in the 21st century….or…or…or…you know the story of course. (Oh, and, uh westerns too, natch).

Knowing the story enriches this particular reboot (or reimagining or re-whatever) of Westworld’s pregnant possibilities, and “The Original” is at its finest when tweaking its tropes.

For example, James Marsden’s fresh-faced Teddy Flood arrives to Westworld a noob, a surrogate for the audience—just another “Newcomer,” a human tourist among the amusement park’s android “Hosts” looking for fun and trouble, right? An early reveal shows that he’s actually a Host too though (gadzooks!), an automaton pining after fresh-faced series lead Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores Abernathy. (I suppose having a fresh face is easy when the lab operatives can grow you a new one each night).

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The bait-and-switch gambit with Flood plays out in a riveting scene with ringer Ed Harris, the Man in Black, hardly a “Newcomer” and a seemingly unwelcome guest. He reveals that he’s been coming to Westworld for “over thirty years,” and we later learn that the theme park’s automatons haven’t had major glitches in (You guessed it!thirty years. “We’re overdue,” says Westworld’s operations manager, Theresa Cullen (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen–and by the way, that quote’s from my bad memory so don’t quote me on it). Foreshadowing! With the Man in Black creepin’ ’round and takin’ automaton scalps Blood Meridian style, there’s sure to be trouble!

But wait—Westworld can make its own trouble for its own damn self without mysterious outside agents, thank you very much. Dr. Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins, another ringer, and please don’t make me comment on the symbolically-overdetermined character name) has updated the “Hosts” with a new operating system, which includes a new program for “reveries.” These reveries have the replicants all fucked up. In short, the automatons, the Hosts, start going off-script (literally)—asking philosophical questions about the nature of their reality (and pouring milk over corpses).

Ford doesn’t care though—as he explains to Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard Lowe (Westworld’s head programmer), humanity, what with curing all its diseases, etc., can’t progress anymore — “This is as good as we’ll get.” So, like, why not trigger the Singularity? To return to our player piano motif, if only momentarily, Ford would like to inspirit art into the artificial. He wants, or at least moments of “The Original” suggest he wants, to teach the Hosts to play.

But the security forces behind the scenes decide it’s probably not good for their guests to be subjected to unknown quirks. They remand some of these suspect automatons to a creepy Bluebeard’s closet full of other decomissioned replicants that surely won’t be any kind of problem down the line in Westworld, right?

As my quick overview suggests, Westworld brims with potential. Indeed, “The Original,” despite a tight plot, often feels overpacked. There’s not just a season’s worth of plot lines lurking in here, but a whole series’ worth. As a result, “The Original” leaves many interesting characters on the margins for now (Thandie Newton’s brothel madam in particular).  I suppose keeping key players on the sidelines makes sense, especially as the pilot is exposition-heavy as it is (a fault with any number of TV pilots, from Game of Thrones to The Sopranos. Not every show can emerge autochthonous and fully-realized out of the gate like True Detective).

And yet even stuffed with emerging plots, Westworld finds time for a cinematic shooting-slaughter sequence that I suppose many viewers found thrilling but I found admittedly cold. With zero stakes at this early point, the scene felt like any other American TV show where meaningless bodies are gunned to pieces. Maybe that was the point though?

In any case, the punchline to the shooting sequence—one of the Newcomers (a prototypical Ugly American doof) Saves the Day! right before the baddie-Host can give his Big Speech—the punchline didn’t make me laugh so much as grimace. “The Original” is full of tonal inconsistencies and missed opportunities for sharp satire and dark humor. I hope Westworld loosens up a bit, gets a bit weirder, bites more from J.G. Ballard’s playbook. The pilot seems to go for profundity over weirdness, as if the showmakers must telegraph at all times: This is a Dark Serious Show. (Did I mention that director and creator Jonathan Nolan is Christopher Nolan’s brother?).

If the arcade shooter sequence is a dud (or, rather, the simulacrum of a real shootout, an authentic inauthenticity), the final scenes of “The Original” make up for it. In an echo of Blade Runner’s final sequence, Hopkins’s Ford squares off with his creation, Dolores’s father Peter. Peter has found a photograph depicting a girl in Times Square, and the cognitive dissonance of this unreality has him goin’ straight-glitch, quotin’ Shakespeare, and generally blowin’ android gaskets. We find out he’s been rebooted a number of times, and was once the leader of a cannibal cult in a Westworld scenario called “The Dinner Party.” (Har har! That pun works on at least two levels). Peter perhaps has realized he’s but a player in play—but not a true player, just a copy of a player, a simulacrum.

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Westworld is acutely aware of its own layers of simulacra. The show constantly calls attention to itself as a show, as a play. Early in “The Original,” the camera pulls up from travelers on a train to reveal a god’s-eye diorama of the terrain—a moving diorama that recalls the intro to Game of Thrones (the show Westworld would replace in your hearts and on your screens). The Westworld is surveyed by producers and showrunners making adjustments—just like Westworld. We have here a metacommentary on television, a self-consciously postmodern (and thus, post-postmodern) gesture. Not just automation and artifice, but artists! Not just player pianos, but players!

The diorama shot also reveals the Big Dream embedded in Westworld’s Big Nightmare. We have here that mythic American promise: The Frontier, the Territory that Huck Finn swears to light out to in order to duck the constraints of those who would “sivilize” him. “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America,” declared Charles Olson in the beginning of Call Me Ishmael, his study of Melville’s whale. “I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.” The Newcomers, the tourists, flock to Westworld because it is a safe and constrained territory, a SPACE that is sivilized, yet masked to appear otherwise, garbed in the myth of danger, the empty promises of our National Pastimes, Sex & Violence. Dr. Ford plants reveries—dreams—into his automatons, disrupting civilization’s veneer of order. This is the new Frontier that Westworld promises to explore.

A short report from The Charterhouse of Parma

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Have you read Honoré de Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet?

I haven’t, but I’ve read the Wikipedia summary.

I’ve also read, several times, Donald Barthelme’s 1968 parody, “Eugénie Grandet,” which is very very funny.

Have you read  Stendhal’s 1839 novel The Charterhouse of Parma?

After repeated false starts, I seem to be finishing it up (I’m on Chapter 19 of 28 of Richard Howard’s 1999 Modern Library translation).

I brought up Eugénie Grandet (Balzac’s) to bring up “Eugénie Grandet” (Barthelme’s). Stendhal’s (1830’s French) novel Charterhouse keeps reminding me of Barthelme’s (1960’s American) short story “Eugénie Grandet,” which is, as I’ve said, a parody of Honoré de Balzac’s (1830’s French) novel Eugénie Grandet. Balzac and Stendhal are pre-Modernists (which is to say they were modernists, I suppose). Donald Barthelme wanted to be a big em Modernist; his postmodernism was inadvertent. By which I mean— “postmodernism” is just a description (a description of a description really, but let me not navelgaze).

Well and so: I find myself often bored with The Charterhouse of Parma and wishing for a condensation, for a Donald Barthelme number that will magically boil down all its best bits into a loving parody that retains its themes and storylines (while simultaneously critiquing them)—a parody served with an au jus of the novel’s rich flavor.

My frequent boredom with the novel—and, let me insert here, betwixt beloved dashes, that one of my (many) favorite things about Charterhouse is that it is about boredom! that phrases like “boredom,” boring,” and “bored” repeat repeatedly throughout it! I fucking love that! And Stendhal, the pre-Modernist (which is to say “modernist”), wants the reader to feel some of the boredom of court intrigue (which is not always intriguing). The marvelous ironic earnest narrator so frequently frequents phrases like, “The reader will no doubt tire of this conversation, which went on for like two fucking hours” (not a direct quote, although the word “fuck” shows up a few times in Howard’s translation. How fucking Modern!)—okay—

My frequent boredom with the novel is actually not so frequent. It’s more like a chapter to chapter affair. I love pretty much every moment that Stendhal keeps the lens on his naive hero, the intrepid nobleman Fabrizio del Dongo. In love with (the idea of) Napoleon (and his aunt, sorta), a revolutionist (not really), a big ell Liberal (nope), Fabrizio is a charismatic (and callow) hero, and his chapters shuttle along with marvelous quixotic ironic energy. It’s picaresque stuff. (Fabrizio reminds me of another hero I love, Candide). Fabrizio runs away from home to join Napoleon’s army! Fabrizio is threatened with arrest! Fabrizio is sorta exiled! Fabrizio fucks around in Naples! Fabrizio joins the priesthood! Fabrizio might love love his aunt! Fabrizio fights a duel! Fabrizio kills a man! (Not the duel dude). Fabrizio is on the run (again)! Fabrizio goes to jail! Fabrizio falls in love!

When it’s not doing the picaresque adventure story/quixotic romance thing (which is to say, like half the time) Charterhouse is a novel of courtly intrigues and political machinations (I think our boy Balzac called it the new The Prince). One of the greatest strengths of Charterhouse is its depictions of psychology, or consciousness-in-motion (which is to say Modernism, (or pre-modernism)). Stendhal takes us through his characters’ thinking…but that can sometimes be dull, I’ll admit. (Except when it’s not). Let me turn over this riff to Italo Calvino, briefly, who clearly does not think the novel dull, ever—but I like his description here of the books operatic “dramatic centre.” From his essay “Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse:

All this in the petty world of court and society intrigue, between a prince haunted by fear for having hanged two patriots and the ‘fiscal général’ (justice minister) Rassi who is the incarnation (perhaps for the first time in a character in a novel) of a bureaucratic mediocrity which also has something terrifying in it. And here the conflict is, in line with Stendhal’s intentions, between this image of the backward Europe of Metternich and the absolute nature of those passions which brook no bounds and which were the last refuge for the noble ideals of an age that had been overcome.

The dramatic centre of the book is like an opera (and opera had been the first medium which had helped the music-mad Stendhal to understand Italy) but in The Charterhouse the atmosphere (luckily) is not that of tragic opera but rather (as Paul Valéry discovered) of operetta. The tyrannical rule is squalid but hesitant and clumsy (much worse had really taken place at Modena) and the passions are powerful but work by a rather basic mechanism. (Just one character, Count Mosca, possesses any psychological complexity, a calculating character but one who is also desperate, possessive and nihilistic.)

I disagree with Calvino here. Mosca is an interesting character (at times), but hardly the only one with any psychological complexity. Stendhal is always showing us the gears ticking clicking wheeling churning in his characters’ minds—Fabrizio’s Auntie Gina in particular. (Ahem. Excuse me–The Duchessa).

But Duchess Aunt Gina is a big character, perhaps the secret star of Charterhouse, really, and I’m getting read to wrap this thing up. So I’ll offer a brief example rather from (what I assume is ultimately) a minor character, sweet Clélia Conti. Here she is, in the chapter I finished today, puzzling through the puzzle of fickle Fabrizio, who’s imprisoned in her dad’s tower and has fallen for her:

Fabrizio was fickle; in Naples, he had had the reputation of charming mistresses quite readily. Despite all the reserve imposed upon the role of a young lady, ever since she had become a Canoness and had gone to court, Clélia, without ever asking questions but by listening attentively, had managed to learn the reputations of the young men who had, one after the next, sought her hand in marriage; well then, Fabrizio, compared to all the others, was the one who was least trustworthy in affairs of the heart. He was in prison, he was bored, he paid court to the one woman he could speak to—what could be simpler? What, indeed, more common? And this is what plunged Clélia into despair.

Clélia’s despair is earned; her introspection is adroit (even as it is tender). Perhaps the wonderful trick of Charterhouse is that Stendhal shows us a Fabrizio who cannot see (that he cannot see) that he is fickle, that Clélia’s take on his character is probably accurate—he’s just bored! (Again, I’ve not read to the end). Yes: What, indeed, could be more common? And one of my favorite things about Charterhouse is not just that our dear narrator renders that (common) despair in real and emotional and psychological (which is to say, um Modern) terms for us—but also that our narrator takes a sweetly ironic tone about the whole business.

Or maybe it’s not sweetly ironic—but I wouldn’t know. I have to read it post-Barthelme, through a post-postmodern lens. I’m not otherwise equipped.

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