Novel factory | A passage from (and a short riff on) William Gaddis’s The Recognitions

In Ch. VII of Part I of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions, the erstwhile hero of the novel, Wyatt Gwyon—who has by this point disappeared into an anonymous he—meets Basil Valentine, a somewhat ambiguous and priestly art-world contact for Recktall Brown, the arch-capitalist Mephistophelean villain of the novel. Brown uses Valentine to arrange the forgeries that Gwyon executes. Here, Valentine and Wyatt discuss Brown, who has left the room. (Brown is the initial He; Valentine speaks first):

—He would absolutely have to have Alexander Pope in a box, to enjoy him. He is beyond anything I’ve ever come upon. Honestly, I never in my life could have imagined that business could live so powerfully independent of every other faculty of the human intelligence. Basil Valentine rested his head back, blowing smoke toward the ceiling, and watching it rise there. —Earlier, you know, he mentioned to me the idea of a novel factory, a sort of assembly line of writers, each one with his own especial little job. Mass production, he said, and tailored to the public taste. But not so absurd, Basil Valentine said sitting forward suddenly.

—Yes, I … I know. I know.

—When I laughed . . . but it’s not so funny in his hands, you know. Just recently he started this business of submitting novels to a public opinion board, a cross-section of readers who give their opinions, and the author makes changes accordingly. Best sellers, of course.

—Yes, good God, imagine if … submitting paintings to them, to a cross section? You’d better take out . . . This color . . . These lines, and . . . He drew his hand down over his face, —You can change a line without even touching it. No, he went on after a pause, and Valentine watched him closely, —nothing is funny in his hands. Everything becomes very . . . real.

Do you like the passage? I do.

I continue to enjoy re-reading Gaddis’s debut novel, aided in large part by an audiobook version read by Nick Sullivan. I’ve also been reading The Recognitions with/against Letters of William Gaddis (ed. Steven Moore, Dalkey Archive, 2013), which I do not recommend doing (especially for first-time readers). Gaddis, paraphrasing his own novel, said that the artist was simply “the dregs of his [own] work,” and much of The Recognitions reads like Gaddis polishing the material from his own early life and travels and readings, and then forcing that material—the nuggets and the morsels (and, let us be honest, the occasional duds)—into an angry demanding sustained attack on the Modern condition. But the material is good ammunition in that oh-so self-conscious attack on Modernism—an attack that in many ways engenders postmodernism, or at least builds a bridge to it, or perhaps sunders links to Modernism—

—look, I have way too many stupid metaphors cooking here, forgive me: What I mean to say, in simpler terms, is that The Recognitions diagnoses the end of big-em Modernism, that it describes something yet-to-emerge, and that it also, significantly, performs that something yet-to-emerge. Gaddis’s letters show the frustrations of a young man trying to cook up adventures in a modern world: a world already explored, mapped, tagged, and written about by other folks. And not just written about im histories and novels, but also in cheap guide books and cheap glossy magazines. This is the world after the age of mechanical reproduction, the world in which Gaddis’s hero Wyatt strives to forge a legitimate forgery of a place for himself.

Gaddis’s novel’s emergent postmodernism—more fully realized in his follow-up, J R—also presciently points to the post-postmodernist storytelling world of late capitalism. Gaddis’s villain Recktall Brown is a brute, but this philistine is perceptive, and he understands the economy of middlebrow aesthetics. As erudite Valentine laments, “I never in my life could have imagined that business could live so powerfully independent of every other faculty of the human intelligence.” Valentine should imagine harder. But this is America, where people frequently mistake wealth and the power to create wealth with creative intelligence.

Maybe I’m too hard here on Valentine, who eventually realizes that an appeal to the lowest common denominator is “not so absurd,” after he reflects on Recktall’s business idea “of a novel factory, a sort of assembly line of writers, each one with his own especial little job. Mass production…tailored to the public taste.” And we then learn that Recktall has already capitalized on his vision of masscult writing: “Just recently he started this business of submitting novels to a public opinion board, a cross-section of readers who give their opinions, and the author makes changes accordingly. Best sellers, of course.”

Reading this, I mentally annotated: Ah, Netflix-that’s the novel factory of 2018. And not just Netflix—I mean, clearly, not just Netflix, that’s simply a signal example—but rather the idea of the data-driven artefact, the non-artefact, the copy of a copy of a copy, the narrative entirely derived from atomizing the masscult nostalgia artefacts of 20, 30, 40 years ago, retrofitting them, repackaging them, and selling them as the real thing. Wyatt’s final observation in the passage laments that Recktall Brown, and the emerging late capitalism he represents, is winning a kind of war on culture and imagination. And nothing is funny in this devil’s busy hands: “Everything becomes very . . . real.” Even the fakes. Even the copies. Especially the copies.

Extinction: A Radical History (Book acquired, 3.28.2016)

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I’ve been looking forward to this one. Ashley Dawson’s Extinction: A Radical History is forthcoming from OR Books. Their blurb:

Some thousands of years ago, the world was home to an immense variety of large mammals. From wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers to giant ground sloths and armadillos the size of automobiles, these spectacular creatures roamed freely. Then human beings arrived. Devouring their way down the food chain as they spread across the planet, they began a process of voracious extinction that has continued to the present.

Headlines today are made by the existential threat confronting remaining large animals such as rhinos and pandas. But the devastation summoned by humans extends to humbler realms of creatures including beetles, bats and butterflies. Researchers generally agree that the current extinction rate is nothing short of catastrophic. Currently the earth is losing about a hundred species every day.

This relentless extinction, Ashley Dawson contends in a primer that combines vast scope with elegant precision, is the product of a global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants and creatures, as well as collectively created cultural forms such as language, that have been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole.

This attack has its genesis in the need for capital to expand relentlessly into all spheres of life. Extinction, Dawson argues, cannot be understood in isolation from a critique of our economic system. To achieve this we need to transgress the boundaries between science, environmentalism and radical politics. Extinction: A Radical History performs this task with both brio and brilliance.

Capitalism arose and took off its pajamas (Donald Barthelme)

Capitalism arose and took off its pajamas. Another day, another dollar. Each man is valued at what he will bring in the marketplace. Meaning has been drained from work and assigned instead to remuneration. Unemployment obliterates the world of the unemployed individual. Cultural underdevelopment of the worker, as a technique of domination, is found everywhere under late capitalism. Authentic self-domination by individuals is thwarted. The false consciousness created and catered to by mass culture perpetuates ignorance and powerlessness. Strands of raven hair floating on the surface of the Ganges . . . Why can’t they clean up the Ganges? If the wealthy capitalists who operate the Ganges wig factories could be forced to install sieves, at the mouths of their plants . . . And now the sacred Ganges is choked with hair, and the river no longer knows where to put its flow, and the moonlight on the Ganges is swallowed by the hair, and the water darkens. By Vishnu! This is an intolerable situation! Shouldn’t something be done about it?

From Donald Barthelme’s short story “The Rise of Capitalism.”

Despair/Food (Books Acquired 6.08.2012)

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 Dead Man Working is the latest from Carl Cederström (whose discussions with Simon Critchley became How to Stop Living and Start Worrying) and Peter Fleming. The book explores the existential despair of workers in our post-capitalist age. (It’s funnier than that description might suggest). Publisher Zer0’s blurb:

Capitalism has become strange. Ironically, while the ‘age of work’ seems to have come to an end, working has assumed a total presence – a ‘worker’s society’ in the worst sense of the term – where everyone finds themselves obsessed with it. So what does the worker tell us today? ‘I feel drained, empty – dead’; This book tells the story of the dead man working. It follows this figure through the daily tedium of the office, to the humiliating mandatory team building exercise, to awkward encounters with the funky boss who pretends to hate capitalism and tells you to be authentic. In this society, the experience of work is not of dying…but neither of living. It is one of a living death. And yet, the dead man working is nevertheless compelled to wear the exterior signs of life, to throw a pretty smile, feign enthusiasm and make a half-baked joke. When the corporation has colonized life itself, even our dreams, the question of escape becomes ever more pressing, ever more desperate.

Full review on deck.

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Yes, Chef is Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir. If that name sounds familiar, you might recognize his face:

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Publisher Random House’s blurb:

Marcus Samuelsson was only three years old when he, his mother, and his sister—all battling tuberculosis—walked seventy-five miles to a hospital in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Adaba. Tragically, his mother succumbed to the disease shortly after she arrived, but Marcus and his sister recovered, and one year later they were welcomed into a loving middle-class white family in Göteborg, Sweden. It was there that Marcus’s new grandmother, Helga, sparked in him a lifelong passion for food and cooking with her pan-fried herring, her freshly baked bread, and her signature roast chicken. From a very early age, there was little question what Marcus was going to be when he grew up.

Yes, Chef chronicles Marcus Samuelsson’s remarkable journey from Helga’s humble kitchen to some of the most demanding and cutthroat restaurants in Switzerland and France, from his grueling stints on cruise ships to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a coveted New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four. But Samuelsson’s career of  “chasing flavors,” as he calls it, had only just begun—in the intervening years, there have been White House state dinners, career crises, reality show triumphs and, most important, the opening of the beloved Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fufilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents and prime ministers rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, bus drivers, and nurses. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, living in America, can feel at home.

With disarming honesty and intimacy, Samuelsson also opens up about his failures—the price of ambition, in human terms—and recounts his emotional journey, as a grown man, to meet the father he never knew. Yes, Chef is a tale of personal discovery, unshakable determination, and the passionate, playful pursuit of flavors—one man’s struggle to find a place for himself in the kitchen, and in the world.

Slavoj Žižek: “We Are Approaching a Certain Zero Point”