Even though I haven’t gotten to Minor Angels yet, I went ahead and picked up Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven. Publisher Open Letter’s blurb:
Like with Antoine Volodine’s other works (Minor Angels, We Monks & Soldiers), Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven takes place in a corrupted future where a small group of radical writers—those who practice “post-exoticism”—have been jailed by those in power and are slowly dying off. But before Lutz Bassmann, the last post-exoticist writer, passes away, journalists will try and pry out all the secrets of this powerful literary movement.
With its explanations of several key “post-exoticist” terms that appear in Volodine’s other books, Lesson Eleven provides a crucial entryway into one of the most ambitious literary projects of recent times: a project exploring the revolutionary power of literature.
One out of several humiliating features about writing fiction for a living is that here after all is just about everybody else, all along the capitalist spectrum from piano movers to systems analysts, cheerfully selling their bodies or body parts according to time-honored custom and usage, while it’s only writers, out at the fringes of the entertainment sector, wretched and despised, who are obliged, more intimately and painfully, actually to sell their dreams, yes, dreams these days you’ll find are every bit as commoditized as any pork bellies there on the financial page. To be upbeat about it, though, in most cases it doesn’t present much moral problem, since dreams seldom make it through into print with anything like the original production values anyway. Even if you do good recovery, learning to write legibly in the dark and so forth, there’s still the matter of getting it down in words that can bring back even a little of the clarity and sweep, the intensity of emotion, the transcendent weirdness of the primary experience. So it’s a safe bet that most writers’ dreams, maybe even including the best ones, manage to stay untranslated and private after all.
Barthelme, however, happens to be one of a handful of American authors there to make the rest of us look bad, who know instinctively how to stash the merchandise, bamboozle the inspectors, and smuggle their nocturnal contraband right on past the checkpoints of daylight “reality.” What he called his “secret vice” of “cutting up and pasting together pictures” bears an analogy, at least, to what is supposed to go on in dreams, where images from the public domain are said likewise to combine in unique, private, and, with luck, spiritually useful ways. How exactly Barthelme then got this into print, or for that matter pictorial, form, kept the transitions flowing the way he did and so on, is way too mysterious for me, though out of guild solidarity I probably wouldn’t share it even if I did know. The effect each time, at any rate, is to put us in the presence of something already eerily familiar … to remind us that we have lived in these visionary cities and haunted forests, that the ancient faces we gaze into are faces we know.
George Saunders has a new story called “Little St. Don” in this week’s New Yorker. A satirical hagiography of Donald Trump, “Little St. Don” is a pastiche told in little vignettes, parables roughly allegorical to today’s horrorshow headlines. Here’s an example from early in the story:
Little St. Don was once invited to the birthday party of his best friend, Todd. As the cake was being served, a neighbor, Mr. Aryan, burst in, drunk, threw the cake against the wall, insulted Todd’s mother, and knocked a few toddlers out of their seats, requiring them to get stitches. Then Todd’s dad pushed Mr. Aryan roughly out the front door. Again, Little St. Don mounted a chair, and began to speak, saying what a shame it was that those two nice people had both engaged in violence.
Here, Saunders transposes the racist rally at Charlottesville into a domestic affair, a typical move for the writer. Saunders’ heroes are often hapless fathers besieged by the absurdities of a postmodern world. These figures try to work through all the violence and evil and shit toward a moral redemption, a saving grace or mystical love. Collapsing history and myth into the personal and familiar makes chaos more manageable.
The vignettes in “Little St. Don” follow a somewhat predictable pattern: Little St. Don incites racial violence, Little St. Don makes up juvenile nicknames for his enemies, Little St. Don radically misreads Christ’s central message. Etc.
The story’s ironic-parable formula is utterly inhabited by Donald Trump’s verbal tics and rhythms. Here is Saunders’ Little St. Don channeling Donald Trump:
Gentle, sure, yeah, that’s great. Jesus sounds like a good guy. Pretty famous guy. Huh. Maybe kind of a wimp? Within our school, am I about as famous as Jesus was when alive? Now that he’s dead, sure, he’s super-famous. But, when alive, how did he do? Not so great, I bet. Anyway, I like Saviours who weren’t crucified.
We all know these terrible tics and rhythms too well by now—indeed they have ventriloquized the discourse. In repeating Trump’s rhetorical style, Saunders attempts to sharpen the contrast between the narrative’s hagiographic style and the amorality of the narrative’s central figure. Saunders inserts this absurd language into a genre usually reserved for moral instruction to achieve his satire. The reader is supposed to note the jarring disparity between our culture’s moral ideals and our current political reality. The result though is simply another reiteration of Trump’s rhetoric. George Saunders is not the ventriloquist here. He is being ventriloquized. “Little St. Don” redistributes the very rhetoric it seeks to deride. It spreads the virus.
“Little St. Don” exemplifies just how limited contemporary literature’s toolkit is when it comes to acutely skewering our zeitgeist. Trump’s rhetoric purposefully surpasses absurdity; indeed, Trump’s rhetoric is nihilistically absurd, the ur-huckter’s argot that distills over two centuries of American con-artist culture for a 21st-century mass media environment. Ahistorical and amoral, Trump’s rhetoric oozes outside the bounds of allegorical satire. His rhetoric is already kitsch, part and parcel of a self-ironizing aesthetic that is always only-joking-but-hey-not-really-joking. This rhetorical aesthetic is post-postmodern, and Saunders’ postmodern techniques in “Little St. Don” cannot lance it, deflate it, or expose it—Trump’s rhetoric is already exposed. Saunders here is simply describing it, repeating it, and reframing it within preëxisting literary genres.
Mashing up these genres is a typical 20th-century postmodernist move, one that Saunders’ audience in The New Yorker could expect. Indeed, it seems that connecting with an audience is Saunders’ main concern. But he’s preaching to the choir. The story is like a mediocre cover band’s copy of a terrible greatest hits record. In his mash-up we already know all the tunes, all the rhythms, and all the tones. Hell, we even know the mash-up’s not-so-secret formula. Saunders simply confirms the emotional and intellectual gestures that preëxist in his New Yorker audience. His story is there to assure us of our own moral rectitude.
There is nothing wrong with a writer writing to please his audience. However, Saunders, who won the Booker Prize last year for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, is frequently praised as the greatest satirist of his generation. “Little St. Don” is not great satire, but that is not exactly Saunders’ fault. Again, what the little story does well (and why I find it worth writing about) is show us the limitations of literary fiction’s power to satirize our ultra-absurd age. Reality runs a lap or two on fiction, trampling it a little.
This is not to say that fiction is (or has been) powerless to properly target absurd demagoguery and creeping fascism. A number of fiction writers in the late 20th century anticipated, diagnosed, and analyzed our current zeitgeist. Philip K. Dick, JG Ballard, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Octavia Butler, Ishmael Reed, and Margaret Atwood all come easily to mind. To be fair, these writers were anticipating a new zeitgeist and not always specifically tackling one corroded personality, which is what Saunders is doing in “Little St. Don.” Thomas Pynchon had 700 pages or so of Gravity’s Rainbow to get us to Richard Nixon, night manager of the Orpheus Theater—that’s a pretty big stage of context to skewer the old crook. But Pynchon’s satire is far, far sharper, and more indelible in its strangeness than “Little St. Don.” Pynchon’s satire offers no moral consolation. Similarly, Ishmael Reed’s sustained attack on a postmodern presidency in The Terrible Twos never tries to comfort its audience by suggesting that the reader is in a position of moral superiority to any of the characters. And I don’t know how anyone can top JG Ballard’s “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.”
It might be more fair to look at another short piece from The New Yorker which engaged with the political horrors of its own time. I’m thinking here of Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “The Indian Uprising.” Barthelme creates his own rhetoric in this weird and unsettling story. While “The Indian Uprising” is “about” the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, it is hardly a simple allegory. To match the chaos and disruption of his time, Barthelme repeatedly disorients his audience, making them feel a host of nasty, contradictory, and often terrible feelings. The story requires critical participation, and its parable ultimately refuses to comfort the reader. None of this is particularly easy.
If Saunders’ “Little St. Don” is particularly easy, perhaps that’s because the moral response to Trump’s rhetoric should be particularly easy. That a moral response (and not a rhetorical response anchored in “civility”) is somehow not easy for certain people—those in power, say—is the real problem here. Saunders tries to anchor Trump’s rhetoric to a ballast that should have a moral force, but the gesture is so self-evident that it simply cannot pass for satire, let alone political commentary. Saunders offers instead a kind of mocking (but ultimately too-gentle) scolding. He doesn’t try to disrupt the disruptor, but rather retreats to the consolations of good old-fashioned postmodern literature.
But postmodern perspectives have thoroughly soaked our culture (whether we recognize this our not), and good old-fashioned postmodernism-by-numbers isn’t going to work. “Little St. Don” reveals nothing new to its audience, it simply amplifies what they already know and believe, and does so in the very rhetoric that we need to overpower. Literary satire needs to do more than confirm our own morality while lambasting those who perpetrate evil—it needs to invent its own rhetoric, its own form, its own new language.
Ultimately, Saunders’ genre distortions end up doing the opposite of what I think he intends to do. He wants the reader to look through a lens that turns history into fable, but that perspective assuages through distance, rather than alarming us. The ironic lens detaches us from the immediacy of the present—it mediates what should be slippery, visceral, ugly, vital, felt. Separating children from their parents and detaining them in concentration camps, banning entire groups of people from entering the country, fostering reckless xenophobia and feeding resurgent nativism—logging these atrocities as events that “happened” in a hagiographical history—no matter how ironic—promises a preëxisting, preordained history to come.
There’s a teleological neatness to this way of thinking (History will record!) that is wonderfully comforting in the face of such horror. Throughout his career George Saunders has moved his characters through horror and pain to places of hope and redemption. He loves the characters, and he wants us to love them too. And here, I think, is perhaps the biggest failure of “Little St. Don” — Saunders loves his reader too much. The story wants to make us feel comfortable now, comfortable, at minimum, in our own moral agency and our own moral righteousness. But comfort now will not do.
I watched Martin Scorsese’s 1982 film The King of Comedy last weekend and then added it to a list of examples for a much bigger Thing I’ve been working on for a few years (and hence will never likely finish, unlike these Blog about posts). The much bigger Thing is about the relationship between Comedy and Horror—not purely the formal characteristics that belong to specific genres of literature, film, and art, but rather the relationship between the emotions themselves (with special attention to how literature, film, and art evoke that relationship).
The short thesis for this bigger Thing is that I think that comedy relies strongly on horror, and that the best provocations of horror are tempered in humor. There is a long list of examples in support of this thesis, including Goya and Bolaño and Larry David and Don Quixote and Candide and Thomas Bernhard and Surrealism and Get Out and etc. —-but that’s all for said bigger Thing, and the title of this post seems to promise Something (not a big Thing) on Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film The King of Comedy, which I recently rewatched.
I first saw The King of Comedy in the spring of 1998. I was a freshman at the University of Florida and had quickly discovered their library of films on VHS, which I would imbibe over my four years there. I started with stuff I was already a bit familiar with though. Like every other stupid eighteen-year old, I thought Taxi Driver was A Work of Genius (without fully understanding it), and I’d seen Goodfellas and Casino approximately one thousand times by this point. I started UF’s collection of Scorsese tapes with the neo-neorealism of Raging Bull, a brutal and hence thoroughly comprehensible character study, an ugly film shot in gorgeous black and white. The King of Comedy was next.
The internet in 1998 was not the internet of 2018. What I mean is that we generally learned about films through books and journals and magazines, or really other films, or really, really by word of mouth. I don’t think I had any word of mouth on The King of Comedy—what I mean is that I think I thought the film was a comedy. Which it is. Sort of. I mean, it’s funny—-very funny sometimes. But it’s also very cruel, and often scary and off putting, and generally queasy.
The King of Comedy stars Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin. That ridiculous name is on one hand a running joke, but on the other hand a vein of horror that pulsates throughout the film—an aberrant twitching oddity, a sort of literal curse, both on poor Rupert (who bears that name) and on every person who encounters him. Rupert is a would-be comedian who dreams (literally and often from his mother’s basement) of stardom. He dreams that he’ll achieve this stardom through a spotlight gig on The Jerry Langford Show, a Carson-style late night show hosted by Jerry Langford, played by a wonderfully fed-up Jerry Lewis.
Rupert is an autograph hound, an obsessive type of fan who makes Jerry’s life a literal terror. Rupert’s foil is Masha, a trust-fund baby played by Sandra Bernhard. Masha stalks Jerry with extreme competitive anxiety; her stalking is a lifestyle elevated to art. When Masha goes too far early in the film and hijacks Jerry’s limo, Rupert sees an opening—he saves the day, ousting Masha, but then he invades the limo (proving himself stalker supreme over Masha). In the limo ride, Rupert asks Jerry for help in advancing his career, and Jerry gives generous if general advice, which amounts to Put the work in and pay your dues. Rupert complains that he simply doesn’t have time to invest in doing the real hard grinding work, and basically demands that Jerry give him a shortcut.
In showing a deranged would-be artist who feels he’s entitled to bypass the years of work involved in honing a skill, Scorsese anticipates our current zeitgeist. Rupert Pupkin desires fame, adoration, and applause, but he is far less interested in producing an art that would earn these accolades. The King of Comedy slowly shows us that Pupkin is mentally ill, and that his disease is radically exacerbated by a culture of mass media.
The King of Comedy’s most sarcastic biteis that Rupert is eventually rewarded for his deranged behavior. He and Masha kidnap Jerry as part of a plan to get Rupert an opening set of The Jerry Langford Show. The plan succeeds, and Rupert executes it so that he not only gets to land his dream gig, he also gets to watch himself do it in front of The Girl He Liked in High School:
Rupert’s audacious gambit is part and parcel of a postmodern mass media era that makes only the slightest distinction between fame and infamy. Rupert is famous for doing something famous—and something horrific, kidnapping a beloved TV host. It’s his one bit of work, but it’s enough to land him a book deal, celebrity, and money (and a fairly short prison sentence).
Parts of Rupert’s monologue are funny, but other parts read like the memoir of a damaged soul trying to recover from an abusive childhood. And maybe these parts mix. Again, horror underwrites comedy.
This horror repeats in Scorsese’s framing of Rupert’s routine. There’s a dream-like quality to the monologue, with its television tube frame. This is not the first time we’ve seen this framing in King of Comedy—we get similar TV fantasies via Rupert’s deranged mind—but this time the plot asks us to think of it as “real,” even as Scorsese’s aesthetics suggest that the ending of the film may all be in Pupkin’s warped mind, the unseen clapping audience just another delusion of grandeur.
The same gesture is present at the end of Taxi Driver, which is essentially the twin of The King of Comedy. Travis Bickle—another ridiculous name, another loser—improbably ends up the hero of the narrative. But the conclusion of Taxi Driver has always struck me as the internal fantasy of its reactionary (anti-)hero. Likewise, The King of Comedy concludes in yet another fantasy in Rupert Pupkin’s addled consciousness.
With its metatextual contours and its insinuations of reality-as-mediated-by-mass-media, The King of Comedy is perhaps Scorsese’s most formally postmodern film (although his smaller follow-up After Hours might be his most thematically postmodern). It’s no wonder that the film didn’t land with audiences in 1983. Beyond its postmodern rhythms, The King of Comedy is essentially repulsive—nothing good happens; there is no clear hero; the world it depicts is devoid of any meaning not centered in relation to fame. Its satire is so black no light escapes. In comparison, Scorsese’s later films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street are laugh riots.
The genius of The King of Comedy is something best felt. The film disrupts genre conventions (and audience expectations), pushing a comedy into a horror. Or maybe The King of Comedy is a horror film with comedic overtones. Or, really—I mean, what I really want to say here is:
The King of Comedy isn’t a horror film or a comedy film—like many of Scorsese’s best films, it’s a character study—realistic and engrossing and grotesque in its utter realism. Time has caught up with it. If Rupert Pupkin seemed an extreme example of the kind of derangement and alienation that could be aggravated by a mass media culture in the early 1980s, by today’s standards he’s perhaps charming. And that’s horrifying.
I’m not sure exactly how many nested layers there are to Lydia Davis’s short story “Happiest Moment.” Sometimes I count as many as nine frames to the tale, sometimes only four or five. Sometimes the story seems its own discrete entity. A matryoshka doll could look like one thing or lots of things, I guess, and this matryoskha doll points back at herself: When you open the final doll, the minutest level of narrative, you find that you’ve found the source of the story. The biggest doll is there nesting in the belly of the smallest doll.
But I’m getting ahead, maybe. Break it down:
The title is the first frame, the big doll that declares: This is a story.
The second-person pronoun here is general, sure, but also points directly at you, you reader you. We have here another frame, one outside of the story (because you are the reader) but also bounded inside of it (as the character you).
ask her what is a favorite story she has written,
We’re not into the next frame yet, but we’ve got a new character, a her—a story writer! Like Lydia Davis! The author of this particular story!
she will hesitate for a long time
Still no new frame, but rather the space between layers, the hesitation, the drawing together of thought, judgment, analysis, reflection—Davis doesn’t makes the reader feel any of that rhetorically, instead snappily snapping to the point of this whole deal.
and then say
Okay here’s the next frame. I’m not counting though.
it may be this story that she read in a book once:
Good lord, where to start here. Okay, so, we have another frame, but even more significantly, we have this verbal shift: Our her, our she, our hero-author, who has been asked (hypothetically by interlocutor you) about a favorite story she’s written avers that the favorite story she’s written is a story that she read in a book once.
(To save me the trouble of coming back later: Of course our hero-author is writing the story she read in a book once now; “Happiest Moment” is this performance, kinda, sorta, kindasorta).
an English language teacher in China
There’s a frame.
asked his Chinese student
Another frame (and a second ask).
to say what was the happiest moment in his life.
The student, like the hero-author-has to say his answer (not write it).
The student hesitated for a long time.
(Like the hero-author—note the precise repetition of verbs in this tale).
At last he smiled with embarrassment
(God I love this guy).
and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there,
(We’re getting to our climax folks).
and she often told him about it,
Another frame, another telling.
and he would have to say
Our verb, our answer—
that the happiest moment of his life was her trip and the eating of the duck.
What a sweet, sweet ending.
The Chinese English language student’s wife’s enjoyment of duck in Beijing is his favorite memory, despite it not being a memory at all, but rather the story of a memory, not his own, but his beloved’s. He relays this memory of someone else’s to his English teacher and the memory somehow ends up in a book, which the hero-author of “Happiest Moment” somehow reads, and then attests to be the most favorite story she has written, despite the fact that she makes it clear that this is a story she read and didn’t write—although of course, she wrote it, because it is the story “Happiest Moment.”
Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1982 short story “Schrödinger’s Cat” is a tale about living in radical uncertainty. The story is perhaps one of the finest examples of postmodern literature I’ve ever read. Playful, funny, surreal, philosophical, and a bit terrifying, the story is initially frustrating and ultimately rewarding.
While I think “Schrödinger’s Cat” has a thesis that will present itself to anyone who reads it more than just once or twice, the genius of the story is in Le Guin’s rhetorical construction of her central idea. She gives us a story about radical uncertainty by creating radical uncertainty in her reader, who will likely find the story’s trajectory baffling on first reading. Le Guin doesn’t so much eschew as utterly disrupt the traditional form of a short story in “Schrödinger’s Cat”: setting, characters, and plot are all presented in a terribly uncertain way.
The opening line points to some sort of setting and problem. Our first-person narrator tells us: “As things appear to be coming to some sort of climax, I have withdrawn to this place.” The vagueness of “things,” “some sort,” and “this place” continues throughout the tale, but are mixed with surreal, impossible, and precise images.
The first characters the narrator introduces us to are a “married couple who were coming apart. She had pretty well gone to pieces, but he seemed, at first glance, quite hearty.” The break up here is literal, not just figurative—this couple is actually falling apart, fragmenting into pieces. (Although the story will ultimately place under great suspicion that adverb actually). Le Guin’s linguistic play points to language’s inherent uncertainty, to the undecidability of its power to fully refer. As the wife’s person falls into a heap of limbs, the husband wryly observes, “My wife had great legs.” Horror mixes with comedy here. The pile of fragmented parts seems to challenge the reader to put the pieces together in some new way. “Well, the couple I was telling you about finally broke up,” our narrator says, and then gives us a horrific image of the pair literally broken up:
The pieces of him trotted around bouncing and cheeping, like little chicks; but she was finally reduced to nothing but a mass of nerves: rather like fine chicken wire, in fact, but hopelessly tangled.
Nothing but a mass of nerves hopelessly tangled: one description of the postmodern condition.
The bundle of tangled nerves serves as something that our narrator must resist, and resistance takes the form of storytelling: “Yet the impulse to narrate remains,” we’re told. Narration creates order—a certain kind of certainty—in a radically uncertain world. The first-time reader, meanwhile, searches for a thread to untangle.
Like the first-time reader, our poor narrator is still terribly awfully apocalyptically uncertain. The narrator briefly describes the great minor uncertain grief she feels, a grief without object: “…I don’t know what I grieve for: my wife? my husband? my children, or myself? I can’t remember. My dreams are forgotten…” Is grief without object the problem of the postmodern, post-atomic world? “Schrödinger’s Cat” posits one version of uncertainty as a specific grief , a kind of sorrow for a loss that cannot be named. The story’s conclusion offers hope as an answer to this grief—another kind of uncertainty, but an uncertainty tempered in optimism.
This optimism has to thrive against a surreal apocalyptic backdrop of speed and heat—a world that moves too fast to comprehend, a world in which stove burners can’t be switched Off—we have only heat, fire, entropy. How did folks react? —
In the face of hot stove burners they acted with exemplary coolness. They studied, they observed. They were like the fellow in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, who has clapped his hands over his face in horror as the devils drag him down to Hell—but only over one eye. The other eye is looking. It’s all he can do, but he does it. He observes. Indeed, one wonders if Hell would exist, if he did not look at it.
—Hey, like that’s Le Guin’s mythological take on Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment!—or at least, part of it.
(Hell exists because we keep one eye on it, folks. Look away, maybe).
I have failed to mention the titular cat thus far. Schrödinger’s cat is the Cheshire cat, the ultimate escape artist and trickster par excellence who triggers this tale (tail?!). He shows up to hang out with the narrator.
Le Guin peppers her story with little cat jokes that highlight the instability of language: “They reflect all day, and at night their eyes reflect.” As the thermodynamic heat of the universe cools around our narrator and the feline, the narrator remarks that the story’s setting is cooler— “Here as I said it is cooler; and as a matter of fact, this animal is cool. A real cool cat.” In “Schrödinger’s Cat,” Le Guin doubles her meanings and language bears its own uncertainty.
A dog enters into the mix. Le Guin’s narrator initially thinks he’s a mailman, but then “decides” he is a small dog. The narrator quickly decides that not only is the non-mailman a dog, she also decides that his name is Rover. In naming this entity, the narrator performs an act of agency in a world of entropy—she makes certain (at least momentarily) an uncertain situation.
Our boy Rover immediately calls out Schrödinger’s cat, and gives the narrator (and the reader) a fuzzy precis of the whole experiment, an experiment that will definitely give you a Yes or No answer: The cat is either alive or the cat is not alive at the end of our little quantum boxing. Poor Rover gives us a wonderful endorsement of the experiment: “So it is beautifully demonstrated that if you desire certainty, any certainty, you must create it yourself!” Rover gives us an unintentionally ironic definition of making meaning in a postmodern world. Agency falls to the role of the reader/agent, who must decide (narrate, choose, and write) in this fragmented world.
For Rover, Schrödinger’s thought experiment offers a certain kind of certitude: the cat is alive or dead, a binary, either/or. Rover wants to play out the experiment himself—force the cat into the box and get, like, a definitive answer. But the curious playful narrator pricks a hole in the experiment: “Why don’t we get included in the system?” the narrator questions the dog. It’s too much for him, a layer too weird on an already complex sitch. “I can’t stand this terrible uncertainty,” Rover replies, and then bursts into tears. (Our wordy-clever narrator remarks sympathy for “the poor son of a bitch”).
The narrator doesn’t want Rover to carry out the experiment, but the cat itself jumps into the box. Rover and narrator wait in a moment of nothingness before the somethingness of revelation might happen when they lift the lid. In the meantime, the narrator thinks of Pandora and her box:
I could not quite recall Pandora’s legend. She had let all the plagues and evils out of the box, of course, but there had been something else too. After all the devils were let loose, something quite different, quite unexpected, had been left. What had it been? Hope? A dead cat? I could not remember.
Le Guin tips her hand a bit here, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great dark romantic she is heir to; she hides her answer in ambiguous plain sight. Hope is the answer. But hope is its own radical uncertainty, an attitudinal answer to the postmodern problem—but ultimately a non-answer. The only certainty is non-certainty.
What of the conclusion? Well, spoiler: “The cat was, of course, not there,” when Rover and narrator open the box. But that’s not the end. The last lines of Le Guin’s story see “the roof of the house…lifted off just like the lid of a box” — so the setting of our tale this whole time, as we should have guessed, was inside the apocalyptic thought experiment of Schrödinger. Apocalyptic in all sense of the word—in the connotation of disaster, but also revelation. The revelation though is a revelation of uncertainty. In the final line, the narrator, musing that she will miss the cat, wonders “if he found what it was we lost.”
What I think Le Guin points to here as the “it” that we lost in these hot and fast times is the radical uncertainty of hope.
In this vast space, which seems like nothing so much as a container for emptiness, we sit with our documents always ready, wondering if someone will appear and demand to know who we are, someone in authority, and to be unprepared is to risk serious things.
The terminal at each end is full of categories of inspection to which we must submit, impelling us toward a sense of inwardness, a sense of smallness, a self-exposure we are never prepared for no matter how often we take this journey, the buried journey through categories and definitions and foreign languages, not the other, the sunlit trip to the east which we thought we’d decided to make. The decision we’d unwittingly arrived at is the one that brings us through passport control, through the security check and customs, the one that presents to us the magnetic metal detector, the baggage x-ray machine, the currency declaration, the customs declaration, the cards for embarkation and disembarkation, the flight number, the seat number, the times of departure and arrival.
It does no good to say, as I’ve done a hundred times, it’s just another plane trip, I’ve made a hundred. It’s just another terminal, another country, the same floating seats, the documents of admission, the proofs and identifications.
Air travel reminds us who we are. It’s the means by which we recognize ourselves as modern. The process removes us from the world and sets us apart from each other. We wander in the ambient noise, checking one more time for the flight coupon, the boarding pass, the visa. The process convinces us that at any moment we may have to submit to the force that is implied in all this, the unknown authority behind it, behind the categories, the languages we don’t understand. This vast terminal has been erected to examine souls.
It is not surprising, therefore, to see men with submachine guns, to see vultures squatting on the baggage vehicles set at the end of the tarmac in the airport in Bombay when one arrives after a night flight from Athens.
All of this we choose to forget. We devise a counter-system of elaborate forgetfulness. We agree on this together. And out in the street we see how easy it is, once we’re immersed in the thick crowded paint of things, the bright clothes and massed brown faces. But the experience is no less deep because we’ve agreed to forget it.
All times are changing times, but ours is one of massive, rapid moral and mental transformation. Archetypes turn into millstones, large simplicities get complicated, chaos becomes elegant, and what everybody knows is true turns out to be what some people used to think.
It’s unsettling. For all our delight in the impermanent, the entrancing flicker of electronics, we also long for the unalterable.
We cherish the old stories for their changelessness. Arthur dreams eternally in Avalon. Bilbo can go “there and back again,” and there is always the beloved familiar Shire. Don Quixote sets out forever to kill a windmill… So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.
And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity, an industry.
Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth- telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.
What the commodifiers of fantasy count on and exploit is the insuperable imagination of the reader, child or adult, which gives even these dead things life—of a sort, for a while.
Imagination like all living things lives now, and it lives with, from, on true change. Like all we do and have, it can be co-opted and degraded; but it survives commercial and didactic exploitation. The land outlasts the empires. The conquerors may leave desert where there was forest and meadow, but the rain will fall, the rivers will run to the sea. The unstable, mutable, untruthful realms of Once-upon-a-time are as much a part of human history and thought as the nations in our kaleidoscopic atlases, and some are more enduring.
We have inhabited both the actual and the imaginary realms for a long time. But we don’t live in either place the way our parents or ancestors did. Enchantment alters with age, and with the age.
We know a dozen different Arthurs now, all of them true. The Shire changed irrevocably even in Bilbos lifetime. Don Quixote went riding out to Argentina and met Jorge Luis Borges there. Plus c’est la meme chose, plus fa change.
From Ursula K. LeGuin’s foreword to her 2001 collection Tales from Earthsea.
“For me, the litmus test is always language,” George Saunders told Charlie Rose in a recent interview. “If the sentences are kind of jangly and interesting, then I know how to proceed.”
Saunders composes stories syntactically: his themes and plots and characters emerge from the right jangle, the right discordant note that simultaneously pleases and disturbs. This technique shows in his latest collection Tenth of December, a showcase for Saunders’s estimable verbal prowess and a reminder that he is one of America’s preeminent satirists.
Tenth of December also reveals some of Saunders’s limitations, the biggest of which is that he seems to write the same few stories again and again. Granted, these stories are sharp, funny, puncturing criticisms of American life—satires of corpocracy and the ways commerce infests language (and hence thought); satires of how late capitalism engenders cycles of manufactured desire and very-real despair; satires, ultimately, of how we see ourselves seeing others seeing us in ways that we don’t wish to be seen. Perhaps Saunders writes the same plots repeatedly because he thinks we need to read them repeatedly—and there’s certainly pleasure and humor and pathos in Tenth of December—but there isn’t any territory explored here that would be unfamiliar to anyone who read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Pastoralia.
Take “Escape from Spiderhead,” one of the stronger entries in December. This is pure Saundersville, a story nudging weirdly into a skewed future that might come too-true too soon. Said spiderhead is a prison command center where wardens subject their inmates to language and desire experiments, using drugs like “Verbaluce™, VeriTalk™, ChatEase™” (lord does Saunders love incaps) to manipulate the prisoners’ minds and bodies alike (all with consent, of course).
The story is a biting and often painful exploration of how our desires and actions might be constrained and controlled by others. It’s also an excellent excuse for Saunders to flex some of those verbal muscles of his:
He added some Verbaluce™ to the drip, and soon I was feeling the same things but saying them better. The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight-seeming and the sun made everything stand out? It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become a sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.
“Escape from Spiderhead” is one of several tales in Decemberthat ultimately posit selflessness and empathy as a metaphysical escape hatch, an out to all the post-postmodern awful. It’s a near-perfect little story, which is why it’s too bad when Saunders essentially repeats it (right down to the Verbaluce™/amplified language conceit) in “My Chivalric Fiasco.” (Perhaps “My Chivalric Fiasco” was necessary though; it provides the sole “weird theme park” story requisite to any Saunders collection).
An equal to “Spiderhead” is “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the collection’s strongest condemnation of how capitalism engenders bizarre ethical positions within families, between neighbors—and even countries. The longest story in the collection, “The Semplica Girl Diaries” purports to be a harried middle class father’s diary, a conceit which gives Saunders plenty of space to jangle.
Our poor narrator just wants to keep up with the Joneses, a serious character flaw that often results in hilarious hyperbole. He takes his family to the birthday party of his daughter’s classmate. This classmate’s family is wealthy, perfect, glowing, healthy, innovative, happy:
Just then father (Emmett) appears, holding freshly painted leg from merry-go-round horse, says time for dinner, hopes we like sailfish flown in fresh from Guatemala, prepared with a rare spice found only in one tiny region of Burma, which had to be bribed out, and also he had to design and build a special freshness-ensuring container for the sailfish.
Set against such a pristine backdrop our hapless narrator’s own life seems stressful and shabby:
Household in freefall, future reader. Everything chaotic. Kids, feeling tension, fighting all day. After dinner, Pam caught kids watching “I, Gropius,” (forbidden) = show where guy decides which girl to date based on feeling girls’ breasts through screen with two holes. (Do not actually show breasts. Just guy’s expressions as he feels them and girl’s expression as he feels them and girl’s expression as guy announces his rating. Still: bad show.) Pam blew up at kids: We are in most difficult period ever for family, this how they behave?
I love how Saunders works I, Gropius in there—his dystopian touches work best when they are simultaneously over-the-top (idea) and graceful (delivery of idea). These moments of humor don’t deflate the extreme anxieties that “The Semplica Girl Diaries” produces; rather, the humorous, hyperbolic eruptions add to what turns out to be a horror story.
Like the narrator of “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the eponymous would-be hero of “Al Roosten” is painfully attuned to how others might/do see him. “Al Roosten” is one of several of December’s exercises in how we see others seeing us (set against the backdrop of how we desire others to see us, etc.). The story starts at a charity auction where local businessmen are being auctioned off (including Roosten’s rival Donfrey—an echo of Emmett) and then heads precisely nowhere (or rather, remains entirely in poor Roosten’s skull). First paragraph:
Al Roosten stood waiting behind the paper screen. Was he nervous? Well, he was a little nervous. Although probably a lot less nervous than most people would be. Most people would probably be pissing themselves by now. Was he pissing himself? Not yet. Although, wow, he could understand how someone might actually—
That sentence-interrupting final dash precedes the intrusion of the “real,” phenomenological world into Roosten’s consciousness. There’s much of James Thurber’s “Walter Mitty” in “Al Roosten”—and, indeed, much of Mitty in Saunders generally—perhaps because Saunders’s jangles lead him to explore the strange gaps between thought and action, reality and imagination. It’s worth sharing a few paragraphs of Saunders’s technique:
Frozen in the harsh spotlight, he looked so crazy and old and forlorn and yet residually arrogant that an intense discomfort settled on the room, a discomfort that, in a non-charity situation, might have led to shouted insults or thrown objects but in this case drew a kind of pity whoop from near the salad bar.
Roosten brightened and sent a relieved half wave in the direction of the whoop, and the awkwardness of this gesture—the way it inadvertently revealed how terrified he was—endeared him to the crowd that seconds before had been ready to mock him, and someone else pity-whooped, and Roosten smiled a big loopy grin, which caused a wave of mercy cheers.
Roosten was deaf to the charity in this. What a super level of whoops and cheers. He should do a flex. He would. He did. This caused an increase in the level of whoops and cheers, which, to his ear, were now at least equal in volume to Donfrey’s whoops/cheers. Plus Donfrey had been basically naked. Which meant that technically he’d beaten Donfrey, since Donfrey had needed to get naked just to manage a tie with him, Al Roosten. Ha ha, poor Donfrey! Running around in his skivvies to no avail.
We can note here the transitions between what the world sees (in those first two paragraphs) to how Roosten sees the world seeing him. This is Saunders at perhaps his finest, showcasing a meticulous control of free indirect style; Roosten is simultaneously pathetically endearing and loathsome. He is attractive and repellent precisely because we understand him—what it is to see him, but also what it is to be seen in the way he is being seen.
The titular story, which closes the collection, also offers a Walter Mittyish figure, a “pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms” who sneaks off into the woods to fantasize about the Lilliputian “Nethers” who might try to kidnap his crush Suzanne (whom he’s never addressed, of course). “Somewhere there is a man who likes to play and hug, Suzanne said,” the poor boy imagines. Again, this is Saundersville, where we laugh out loud and then reprimand ourselves for our cruelty and then engage, empathize, say, Hey kid, I’ve been there too…
“Tenth of December” is a sort of rewrite of two stories from Pastoralia, “The End of FIRPO in the World” and “The Falls.” I suppose I don’t mind, but I wish that Saunders’s jangles might lead him to new plots. Despite its rehashing of these earlier stories, “Tenth of December” delivers possibly the strongest case for empathy-as-transcendence in the collection. Our boy gets a shot at actually living up to his haircut—he’ll valiantly help a suicidal terminally ill man, who will, in turn, help him. What the story illustrates best though is how impulse precedes action and action precedes thought, how action can be shot through with memory:
He was on his way down before he knew he’d started. Kid in the pond, kid in the pond, ran repetitively through his head as he minced. Progress was tree to tree. Standing there panting, you got to know a tree well. This one had three knots: eye, eye, nose. This started out as one tree and became two.
Suddenly he was not purely the dying guy who woke nights in the med bed thinking, Make this not true make this not true, but again, partly, the guy who used to put bananas in the freezer, then crack them on the counter and pour chocolate over the broken chunks, the guy who’d once stood outside a classroom window in a rainstorm to see how Jodi was faring with that little red-headed shit who wouldn’t give her a chance at the book table, the guy who used to hand-paint birdfeeders in college and sell them on weekends in Boulder, wearing a jester hat and doing a little juggling routine he’d—
There’s that dash again. Dare I liken it to the dashes of Poe, of Dickinson? Maybe, maybe not.
I’ve shared some highlights of December, which I believe outweigh its weaker spots, unremarkable pieces like “Puppy,” a transparent exercise in how class in America inheres through a system of seeing/not-seeing others, or “Exhortation,” an amusing but forgettable memorandum that reads like Saunders-doing-Saunders.
“Home” is really the only story I would’ve left out of December. It’s the story of a war veteran trying to reintegrate into a society that flatly reiterates “Thank you for your service” while doing precisely nothing to actually thank the vet. Saunders’s sentiments are clearly in the right place, but the story rings false and hollow, its authorial anger overriding the humanity of its characters. At its worst moments, “Home” gives us a world of shuffling grotesques whose quirks preëmpt any possibility for genuine pathos. Saunders, usually in command of language, seems strained here. And it’s not a strain of venturing into new territory; no, all of Saunders’s tricks and traps are on display here (including an unexplained/unexplored substance called MiiVOXmax). Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps there’s too much of the author in the story.
And maybe that’s why I like the short, visceral two-paragraph perfection of “Sticks” so much–it seems freer, sharper. At fewer than four hundred words it’s easily the shortest piece in the collection (and the shortest thing I’ve read by Saunders). “Sticks” condenses the harried middle class hero of almost every Saunders tale into one ur-Dad, stunning, sad, majestic. It’s also the oldest story in the collection, originally published by Harper’s in 1995, which means it predates the publication of all his other collections. I don’t know why Saunders included it in December but I’m glad he did. It breaks up some of his rut.
That rut, by the way, is a pleasure to roll through—a fast, funny pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. Saunders is very good at highlighting our culture’s ugly absurdities, and he usually does so with moving pathos. And if his jangly sentences are their own raison d’être, then so be it. They are harmonious and sour, soaring and searing. Recommended.
[Ed. note—Biblioklept first ran this review in April of 2013]
William Gass: I don’t know whether The Tunnel’s hole is a trope for the Postmodern because I never understood Postmodernism. I’m not a Postmodernist. I only understand that term as it is used in architecture, where it makes some sense to me, and I don’t find the movement of much interest even there, simply eclectic and superficial. My work is probably best characterized as late or decayed Modern end of the road sort of thing, last gasp. All of my principles and models and so forth come from modernism. People may call The Tunnel Postmodern because of certain elements—visual, mostly—but everything I do has been done previously by other people. Even the dislocation and fragmentation is old stuff. Labels reflect the desire many people apparently have to give new life to old ways by conferring upon them new names. All kinds of exciting things are going on in the novel all over the world, and no one work puts an end to the production of another kind.
Jan Castro: Maybe we should trade our definitions of Postmodern. My definition, based on studying a bit with Sartre scholar Michel Rybalka, is the French idea, drawing from the range of sources that have existed both in modernist and in premodernist literatures. Modernism is a fairly strong rejection of the past whereas postmodernism recycles the past without taking it too seriously. According to my definition, you would be in the camp. You evidently have a different definition.
WG: Modernists all rode the recycling bike. The modernist tradition certainly rejects certain parts of the past, but only certain parts. Even when you have someone like Ezra Pound saying “make it new,” he’s going back to Provençal troubadours, to the Greeks. At the same time he’s saying this, he’s off stealing something from Confucius. So you can call, let’s say, Picasso modern, but he’s borrowing from Japanese, African, or other sources. This always takes place. What is important is not whether you are looking back (you had better), but how and for what reason. When you go back as a modernist in architecture, you’re going back to see, for instance, in Palladio, what you can discover about the very foundation of architecture. You can find in an earlier writer like Sterne, the very foundations of fiction—its possibilities. You don’t reach back to imitate them, to use Sterne like little signatures later on so people will say “Sterne!” When an architect suddenly starts using columns or round windows or friezes to remind us of the past, he’s probably only employing pastiche. But to go back to somebody with the idea of discovering what the art is all about, not by copying their style or mode, but by discovering the fundamental principles which they may help you to wield, that is what modernists tried to do at their best. Corbusier goes back to earlier principles to find out what architecture is all about, not to dance the Palladian polka.
I find Postmodernists rarely interested in fundamental things, but only interested in finding qualities of the past which they can decorate a modernist shed with. Most Postmodern buildings are merely modernist buildings wearing a different skirt, to switch the image. There are a few exceptions. Sterling’s Museum in Stuttgart, for example, is a triumph.
So when one returns to an earlier model, it’s not to copy something, it’s to refine the essence of the whole task. You know Cervantes understood fiction more deeply than almost anybody. You go back to find out what he knew if you can. That’s one more reason why certain people like Calvino or Borges or Beckett are so wonderful. They’re wondering what’s fundamental to their art. I undercut certain traditional forms in order to discover that beneath those superficial forms there is something that my novel, as crazy at it may appear, can share with a very well-mannered Jane Austen novel. We’re doing the same thing, basically.
JC: You have been put into the Postmodern camp by your friend Heide Ziegler.
WG:Yes, Heide certainly does, and most critics do. But when a number of us—John Barth and John Hawkes and I—were in Germany some years ago, and the Germans kept calling us postmodernists, we all rejected the label.
I was a big a fan of Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH, so I was excited when I heard about his follow up, The Seventh Function of Language. I was especially excited when I learned that The Seventh Function took the death of Roland Barthes as its starting point and post-structuralism in general as its milieu. I audited the audiobook (translated by Sam Taylor and read with dry wry humor by Bronson Pinchot).
The audiobook is twelve hours. If it had been six hours I might have loved it. But twelve hours was a bit too much.
Wait. Sorry. What is the novel about though? you may ask. This is not a review and I am feeling lazy and not especially passionate about the book, so here is the publisher’s-blurb-as-summary:
Paris, 1980. The literary critic Roland Barthes dies – struck by a laundry van – after lunch with the presidential candidate François Mitterand. The world of letters mourns a tragic accident. But what if it wasn’t an accident at all? What if Barthes was murdered?
In The Seventh Function of Language, Laurent Binet spins a madcap secret history of the French intelligentsia, starring such luminaries as Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva – as well as the hapless police detective Jacques Bayard, whose new case will plunge him into the depths of literary theory. Soon Bayard finds himself in search of a lost manuscript by the linguist Roman Jakobson on the mysterious “seventh function of language.”
Kristeva! Eco! Derrida! All my childhood heroes are here!
So of course, y’know, I was interested. And I’m sure that the twenty-year-old version of me would have flipped out over Binet’s pastiche of postmodern theory and detective pulp fiction. But almost-forty me found the whole thing exhausting, a shaggy dog detective story with patches of the whole continental-philosophy-vs-analytical-philosophy debate sewn in with loose stitches.
The initial intellectual rush of what amounts to a Tel Quel fan fiction/murder-mystery/political thriller hybrid begins to wear thin about halfway through. Binet is smart and he’s writing about smart people, but the cleverness on display becomes irksome, especially when he’s drawing his characters’ big philosophical ideas in the broadest of strokes (Julia Kristeva arrives at her concept of abjection after a floating film on a glass of milk makes her ill).
Binet loves to cram his characters into social situations where they can wax philosophical (in the thinnest possible sense of that verb wax). The Seventh Function is larded with chatty cocktail parties where Kristeva and Foucault can toss out zinger after zinger. One of the novel’s centerpieces, an academic conference at Cornell, serves as an excuse for Binet to riff large (but shallow) on language philosophy. He even brings Chomsky and Searle to the conference to take on Derrida et al. (Binet also squeezes in a postmodern orgy here, in which Detective Bayard has a threesome with Hélène Cixous and Judith Butler). Such scenes are funny but baggy, overlong, and often feel like an excuse for Binet to show how clever he is. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that the novel’s central protagonist worries that he might be a character in a novel).
Binet is more successful at channeling his characters’ intellects during the high-risk debates of a secret society called the Logos Club. The best of these debates showcase thought-in-action, as Binet’s characters deconstruct various topics. Still, as engaging as some elements of the Logos Club debates are, they drag on too long, and the Club’s connection to the political-thriller aspect of the plot is pretty tenuous. Indeed, the novel is so loose that a minor character has to show up at the end and explain how all the elements connect for both the reader and detectives alike.
What’s probably most remarkable about The Seventh Function (despite the fact that it features a who’s-who of postmodern theory for its cast) is just how one-note the novel is. After all, it’s a mashup. As Anthony Domestico puts it in his (proper and insightful) review at The San Francisco Chronicle, “The novel is three parts Tom Clancy to two parts Theory SparkNotes to one part sex romp.” The Seventh Function of Language should be a lot more fun than it is. And it is fun at times, but not enough fun to sustain, say, twelve hours of an audiobook or 359 pages in hardcover.
As HHhH showed, Binet is a talented author, and even though The Seventh Function didn’t work for me, I’m interested to see what he does next. It’s possible that The Seventh Function didn’t float my proverbial boat precisely because I’m the ideal audience for the novel. If anything, it made me want to reread Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum—but The Seventh Function also reminded me that I read Eco’s semiotics-detective story as a much younger man—as a kid in my early twenties who probably would’ve loved Binet’s novel. So maybe I should leave well enough alone.
At first, it was great. Sure. It always is. She cuddled a frog, wishing for more, and—presto! A handsome prince who doted on her. It meant the end of her marriage, of course, but her ex was something of a toad himself, who had a nasty habit of talking with his mouth full and a tongue good for nothing but licking stamps.
The prince was adorable—all the girls at the bridge club, squirming with envy, said so—though you could still see the effects his previous residence had had on him. He had heavy-lidded eyes and a wide mouth like a hand puppet’s, his complexion was a bit off, and his loose-fitting skin was thin and clammy. His semen had a muddy taste, like the pond he came from, and his little apparatus was disappointing, but his tongue was amazing. It could reach the deepest recesses, triggering sensations she’d never known before. His crown was not worn like a hat—it grew out of his head like horns and sometimes got in the way—but his tongue was long enough for detours and tickled other parts on the path in. It gave him not so much a lisp as a consonantal slurp, making gibberish out of his sweet nothings, but talking was never the main thing between them.
Today’s Sunday Comics entry is a page from Chris Ware’s magnificent 2012 novel Building Stories (Pantheon Books).
I had occasion to look through Building Stories again this week. I had to paint a room, which required moving books from shelves, which meant unshelving Building Stories, which unwieldy beast that it is, has been covered in other books for a few years. Building Stories takes the form of 14 different sized books in a box—it’s pretty hard to shelve in any accessible way, which is a shame (but also a pleasure). Ware’s opus seems to me one of the best American novels of the past decade, but I think its greatness tends to get overlooked because a) people are still prejudiced against comics and b) it challenges all the “reading rules” we bring with us to novels—there’s not a “right way” to read the novel. You have to put it together your self, in a sense. Anyway, for me the page above, which is the last page of the chapter called “Disconnect,” is the “conclusion” of the novel, a sort of metacommentary epilogue that (somehow) ties the narrative threads together in a moving and satisfying “end.”