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 episode. The 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).
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.
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.
Louis Armand’s novel (or anti-novel, or whatever) is new from Equus Press.
It’s bigger than a brick.
Lots of footnotes, end notes, different fonts, maps, images, etc. The “text proper” (whatever that means) refuses to begin—epigraphs, notes, an “Overture,” etc.
Here’s the blurb from Equus:
Fiction. Drama. Art. The “European anti-novel” in all its unrepentant glory is here in THE COMBINATIONS, following in the tradition of Sterne, Rabelais, Cervantes, Joyce, Perec.
In 8 octaves, 64 chapters and 888 pages, Louis Armand’s THE COMBINATIONS is an unprecedented “work of attempted fiction” that combines the beauty & intellectual exertion that is chess with the panorama of futility & chaos that is Prague (a.k.a. “Golem City”), across the 20th-century and before/after. Golem City, the ship of fools boarded by the famed D’s (e.g. John) and K’s (e.g. Edward) of the 16th/17th centuries (who attempted and failed to turn lead into gold), and the infamous H’s (e.g. Adolf, e.g. Reinhard) of the 20th (who attempted and succeeded in turning flesh into soap). Armand’s prose weaves together the City’s thousand-and- one fascinating tales with a deeply personal account of one lost soul set adrift amid the early-90s’ awakening from the nightmare that was the previous half-century of communist Mitteleuropa. THE COMBINATIONS is a text whose 1) erudition dazzles, 2) structure humbles, 3) monotony never bores, 4) humour disarms, 5) relentlessness overwhelms, 6) storytelling captivates, 7) poignancy remains poignant, and 8) style simply never exhausts itself. Your move, Reader.
I need to write a proper riff on William Friedkin’s astounding 1977 film Sorcerer—I’m pretty sure I didn’t see a better film this summer—nor have I seen anything that zapped me with that How the hell haven’t I seen this yet? feeling since Michael Mann’s Thief. But as the summer ebbs and a new year of a full teaching load approaches, I’m not sure if I’ve got a spare three hours to watch Sorcerer a third time any time soon (the third viewing was perfect, by the bye). It’s great though. It’s about four dudes, exiles, trying to move nitroglycerin in two old trucks across a mountain in an unnamed South American country.
I had scratched out some notes on the first viewing though, which I won’t bother to cobble together here in anything other than a silly list, which I hope to mine later in Something Bigger on Sorcerer:
- Metaphors of postglobal cooperation in the cause of self-interest.
- Multilingual, but postlingual: Film as language. Sorcerer as its own language.
- Post-WWII; somehow hasn’t absorbed the Vietnam War.
- Like Herzog, here is a depiction of nature that conveys the sublime while stripping from it the romance, leaving only the horror and awe.
- Comments on its own engineering, its own technological processes (like Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo).
- But also, its focus on engineering points backwards (The Bridge on the River Kwai) and forwards (uh, the Fast/Furious franchise? —but not fast here; no: slow).
- (Clearly the double feature of Fitzcarraldo).
- Postglobalism — terror, crime, religion, economics, class, “high” art, — all the shit that’s dealt with in the first 30 min — is subsumed into nature vs techne — a kind of nihilsm against nature pointing at the current century.
- IT’S ALL ABOUT ENGINEERING!
- Unself-concious postmodernism, before postmodernism is properly “postmodernism”: That Friedkin is perhaps working in Modernist idioms (all the noir touches, the irony, the hallucinations, the cuts, etc.), but produces something we might describe as “postmodern.”
- That end — tragic, ironic, pathetic, bathetic—and a loop! (sort of)—Friedkin’s film ironizes the Romantic touches, the Bogart shadows.
- (Watch it again).
After many, many false starts, I’ve finished Stendhal’s 1839 cult classic The Charterhouse of Parma. (I read Richard Howard’s 1999 Modern Library translation).
I really, really wanted to quit around Ch. 25 (of 28). I’ll admit at times I broke a rule I’d made nearly two decades ago, now: I allowed my mind to wander. I thought of other things: A variation on a muffin recipe I was planning to make for my kids. A possible review of William Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer. Lunch. What book I might read next as an antidote to Charterhouse.
The end of the novel is an utter slog. No duels, no escapes. Just courtly intrigues and courtly romances. And ironic sermons. Then, in the last chapter, a new character shows up! Some dandy named Gonzo! Out of nowhere! To move the plot along! (Stendhal pulls a similar stunt in the back half of the novel, when it first starts to really drag—he brings in a lunatic-bandit-poet-assassin named Ferrante).
And then—okay, maybe this is something close to a spoiler, but I don’t think so—and then, Stendhal seems to get bored with his novel. In the last chapter, he skips a few years in a few sentences (this, in a novel where every damn decision each character frets over goes on and on for paragraphs) and then kills everyone (not really. But really, sorta. I mean, the last chapter of The Charterhouse of Parma almost feels like season six of Game of Thrones, where the action is accelerated at a pace that seems to ironize all the previous scheming and plotting).
Stendhal supposedly dictated Charterhouse over 50-something days (I think I read that somewhere…I’ve yet to read Howard’s afterword to the novel, or Balzac’s study…I’ll save those for later, after I remember the best bits of the novel more fondly). But where was I? Oh, yeah: Stendhal supposedly dictated Charterhouse over a two-month period, and I get the feeling he was getting bored with it there at the end. Which is in some ways appropriate, as The Charterhouse of Parma is all about boredom. Phrases like “boring,” “bored,” and “boredom” pop up again and again. There’s something wonderfully modernist (or Modernist) about that.
Of course all that boredom is punctuated with moments of wonderful action—battles and duels! Indeed, Charterhouse never really surpasses its fourth chapter, a strikingly modern depiction of the Battle of Waterloo.
Stendhal is great at conveying action and violence while stripping it from Romantic illusions—and at the same time, he presents those Romantic illusions, making them ironic (again—this is probably one of the first Modern novels, and I’m sure someone has already said that somewhere, but hey).
Stendhal is also wonderfully adept at capturing a human mind thinking. Whether it’s the Machiavellian machinations of Count Mosca, or our (ever)greenhorn hero Fabrizio, or the real hero of Charterhouse, Fabrizio’s aunt Gina, Stendhal takes pains to show his characters thinking through their problems and schemes. Not only do the heroes and villains of The Charterhouse of Parma think, they think about what other characters will think (about what they have thought…). The novel in some ways is about metacognition. But thought about thought may be a product of boredom. And it often produces boredom.
Balzac was a great admirer of Charterhouse, as was Italo Calvino, and countless writers too. Indeed, the novel is, I suppose, a cult favorite for writers, which makes sense: Stendhal crowds each page with such psychological realism, such rich life, that every paragraph seems its own novel. I’ll admit that by page 400 or so I was exhausted though.
I’ve noted here a few times that Charterhouse is a “Modernist” novel; perhaps “proto-Modernist” is the term I need. (Again—I’m sure that countless lit critics have sussed over this; pardon my ignorant American ass). And yet Charterhouse also points back at the novels before it, the serialized novels, the epistolary novels, the romances and histories and etceteras of the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries. My favorite lines of the novel were often our ironic narrator’s brief asides like, “Doubtless the reader grows tired…” or “The conversation went on for hours more in trivial detail…” or “The letter went on for pages more after the same fashion…” (These aren’t actual quotes, dear reader, but I think I offer a fair paraphrase here). Stendhal’s modernism, or Modernism, or prot0-Modernism, or whatever, is his wily irony, his winking at the novel’s formal characteristics. My own failing, then, is to perhaps want more of this. As I wrote last time I riffed on it, what I suppose I want is a postmodern condensation of The Charterhouse of Parma, such as Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “Eugénie Grandet,” which parodied Honoré de Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet.
How much of Balzac’s novel is lovingly leapt through right here?!
This wish of mine is of course my failure, not the novels.
The Charterhouse of Parma is undoubtedly an oddity, a work of genius, often thrilling, and often an utter slog. I suppose I’m glad that I finally finished it after so many years of trying, but I’m not sure if I got what I wanted out of it. The failure is mine.
I’ll close with the novel’s final line though, which I adore:
TO THE HAPPY FEW
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.
[Ed. note: I finished Stanley Elkin’s 1971 novel The Dick Gibson Show a few days ago. I read The Dick Gibson Show immediately after finishing Elkin’s 1976 novel The Franchiser. I want to write something about these novels, which seem of a piece to me, but I also wanted to get a bit more context first, and the most basic of internet searches led me to Elkin’s 1974 interview in The Paris Review with Thomas LeClair.
What follows are selections from the interview in which Elkin kinda sorta analyzes The Dick Gibson Show, providing what I take to be a Very Good and Fascinating Review of the novel.
Look, I went to school for reading books, I learned about the goddamn intentional fallacy and la mort de l’auteur and all that jazz, and I know that the author isn’t supposed to be the goddamn authority on his own work, I know that what follows isn’t a proper review—but I don’t care. I like it.
My assumption is it’s likely that anyone interested enough in a review of The Dick Gibson Show has probably already read Elkin’s Paris Review interview, and would probably prefer, like, something new on the novel. Which I’ll attempt down the line. But for now: Elkin on Elkin—]
INTERVIEWER: I have some questions now about themes or ideas I find in much of your fiction. You have Dick Gibson say, “The point of life was the possibility it always held out for the exceptional.” The heroes in your novels have a tremendous need to be exceptional, to transcend others, to quarrel with the facts of physical existence. Is this a convention—which we’ve just been talking about—or something very basic to your whole view of life?
ELKIN: It is something very basic to my view of life, but in the case of that character it becomes the initial trauma which sets him going. It becomes his priority. Dick Gibson goes on to say that he had believed that the great life was the life of cliché. When I started to write the book, I did not know that was what the book was going to be about, but indeed that is precisely what the book gets to be about as I learned what Dick Gibson’s life meant. Consider the last few pages of the book:
What had his own life been, his interminable apprenticeship which he saw now he could never end? And everyone blameless as himself, everyone doing his best but maddened at last, all, all zealous, all with explanations ready at hand and serving an ideal of truth or beauty or health or grace. Everyone—everyone. It did no good to change policy or fiddle with format. The world pressed in. It opened your windows. All one could hope for was to find his scapegoat . . .
Now, everything that follows this is a cliché:
to wait for him, lurking in alleys, pressed flat against walls, crouched behind doors while the key jiggles in the lock, taking all the melodramatic postures of revenge. To be there in closets when the enemy comes for his hat, or to surprise him with guns in swivel chairs, your legs dapperly crossed when you turn to face him, to pin him down on hillsides or pounce on him from trees as he rides by, to meet him on the roofs of trains roaring on trestles, or leap at him while he stops at red lights, to struggle with him on the smooth faces of cliffs…
and so on. The theme of the novel is that the exceptional life—the only great life—is the trite life. It is something that I believe. It is not something that I am willing to risk bodily injury to myself in order to bring to pass, but to have affairs, to go to Europe, to live the dramatic clichés, all the stuff of which movies are made, would be the great life.
INTERVIEWER: But what if one were aware that they were clichés? Isn’t that what causes so much despair in contemporary fiction—that characters can’t live a life of clichés?
ELKIN: Dick Gibson is aware that they are clichés. What sets him off—what first inspires this notion in him—is his court-martial when he appears before the general and says that he’s taken a burr out of the general’s paw—something that happens in a fairy tale. When Dick realizes what has happened to him, he begins to weep, thinking, oh boy, I’ve got it made—I’m going to have enemies, I’m going to be lonely, I’m going to suffer. That is the theme of that book.
INTERVIEWER: Do the characters in your novels, then, have rather conventional notions of what exceptional is?
ELKIN: Yes, I think so.
Dick can’t stand anybody’s obsession but his own, which is largely the plight of myself and yourself, probably, and everybody. He’s opened a Pandora’s box when he opens his microphones to the people out there. When they find the platform that the Gibson format provides, they just get nuttier and nuttier and wilder and wilder, and this genuinely arouses whatever minimal social consciousness Dick Gibson has. The paradox of the novel is that the enemy that Gibson had been looking for all his life is that audience. The audience is the enemy. Dick builds up in his mind this Behr-Bleibtreau character. That Behr-Bleibtreau is his enemy. That’s baloney paranoia. The enemy is the amorphous public that he is trying to appeal to, that he’s trying to make love to with his voice. Dick Gibson is a bodiless being. He is his voice. That’s why the major scene in the novel is the struggle for Gibson’s voice.
INTERVIEWER: Who is Behr-Bleibtreau? There is a suggestiveness to his name that I can’t articulate.
ELKIN: Neither can I. I used to know a guy named—Bleibtreau. Hyphenating the name made it more sinister than just Bleibtreau itself. You know, you could almost put Count in front of it.
INTERVIEWER: s that why Dick thinks that Behr-Bleibtreau is the enemy—because there is this suggestion of cliché?
ELKIN: That’s right. Behr-Bleibtreau is a charlatan—that’s what he is. He has this theory of the will that is alluded to in the second section of the novel. And he is a hypnotist, exactly the kind of guy who Gibson sees as out to get him. Of course Behr-Bleibtreau isn’t out to get him. When Gibson thinks it is Behr-Bleibtreau calling him from Cincinnati, it isn’t. It’s just Gibson’s own paranoia that creates the conditions for Behr-Bleibtreauism.
INTERVIEWER: Is radio in the novel an index to social change, perhaps the devaluation of language?
ELKIN: That was not my intention. I could make a case that once upon a time there were scripts, a platform and an audience out in front of Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, that radio then was a kind of art form and now it is an artless form in which you get self-promoters and people with theories about curing cancer by swallowing mosquitoes or something. Language, since it is occurring spontaneously rather than thought out, is devalued. But actually, in real life, modern radio talk shows are much more interesting than The Jack Benny Program ever was because you are getting the shoptalk of personality.
INTERVIEWER: Dick is a professional word man, and by the end he is reduced nearly to silence. Is this your “literature of exhaustion” that Barth talks about, a comment on the futility of language…
ELKIN: No. Certainly not.
INTERVIEWER: He does say less and less as the novel moves along.
ELKIN: Right. And the other people say more and more. That is intentional. But Dick makes an effort to get his program back from the sufferers. He starts hanging up on people. Then he gets the biggest charlatan—Nixon—at the end. Wasn’t I clever to invent Nixon before Nixon did?
INTERVIEWER: In bringing together so many stories and storytellers, did you have a thematic unity in mind?
ELKIN: I had in mind, as a matter of fact, The Canterbury Tales, particularly in that second section where the journey to dawn is the journey to Canterbury. Although there are no particular parallels, when I was sending out sections of the novel to magazines, I would call the sections “The Druggist’s Tale” and so on. There is that choral effect of the pilgrims to Canterbury.
A week or so ago, I wrote about the books (specifically novels) that I can’t seem to finish despite beginning them five, six, seven plus times. In that post, I noted that there “are certain books I’ll probably never ‘finish,’ that I have no aim of finishing,” and hence didn’t include in my silly little list. Such titles seemed to need their own post.
“Finish” is probably the wrong verb to use to denote the act of reading, in traditional sequence, all the words on all the pages of a grand great novel. I have never really “finished” the books that I’ve read the most times from cover to cover—books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Blood Meridian, 2666. Something about such books remains somewhere inside of me, unfinished (in contrast to the many, many novels—most often contemporary “literary” fictions—that I truly finish by reading and then jettisoning from memory). The great books that I’ve finished are unfinished. Something of the really great novels wriggles around in the background of consciousness, whispering, howling.
Putting together a little list of books I’m always reading but will likely never finish was not difficult, although I should clarify that I’ve intentionally left off a good number of critical texts—stuff like Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, etc.—as well as the letters, notebooks, and journals of writers that I return to again and again. I tried to stick to novels. But are the works pictured/listed here—Tristram Shandy, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Don Quixote, Finnegans Wake, and 1982, Janine—are these actually novels? The question is complex and productive, but I’ll answer it with the simple, “Yes, but– ”
(And yet, parenthetically: That the novelness of these novels is suspect is perhaps a key to why these are the works that fascinate me, that these unnovelly novels make me stumble; I resort to shelving them, grab for critical interpretations, guides, commentaries, etc.—in the hopes of…of what?)
Joyce’s Finnnegans Wake is a nice starting place for this little list. The novel’s famous opening line (“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs”) actually completes the novel’s “final” (non-)sentence (“A lone a last a loved a long the”). So Finnegans Wake is a loop, an infinite jest. Over the past decade, I’ve dipped into the book again and again, using Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key as a friendly guide. I’ve learned to have fun with Finnegans Wake, taking something from its language, its connections, its syntheses, while abandoning the pretense that I’ve anything to gain by trucking through it at full speed just to “finish” it.
I pick up Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman less often than I used to, having recovered from trying to understand it. The novel seems to me proof that the term “postmodern” is simply a description of a way of seeing, and not a set of aesthetic conditions. Also, I love that Sterne loves the dash—
It’s perhaps a great moral failing on my part that I’ve never made it past the first few chapters of the Second Part of Don Quixote. I’m familiar with it, largely by way of Nabokov’s lectures and summaries. Anyway, I fail to understand Don Quixote; I fail to read it rightly.
Alasdair Gray’s 1982, Janine doesn’t have the same reputation as the other novels I’ve listed here; its inclusion wasn’t so much an afterthought but a realization—I bought it four years ago and have yet to shelve it. It’s always on a coffee table, the edge of a sofa, next to my bed, cooing, Start again. I start reading it and then I skip ahead to its weird black heart, then I read from the end, then I go back to the beginning. Then I put it aside, having made no “progress.”
I don’t know what Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is. Is it a novel? (Wait. I think we went through this above). I first encountered it as a bewildered undergrad, checking out an old huge hardback edition from the library. I made a small dent (aided by Ritalin). All that Latin is Greek to me. In his preface to the NYRB edition, William H. Gass advises, “Be prepared to proceed slowly and you will soon go swiftly enough. Read a member a day; it will chase gloom away.” I have not read a member a day, but I do like to pull Melancholy from the shelf late at night, after a few glasses of wine, and dip into it somewhere. I will never finish it.
And yet I’ve retained more from these unfinished novels than most of the contemporary fiction novels I’ve read. Anna Livia Plurabelle. The priest burning poor Quixote’s beautiful books. The marbled pages, the blacked out pages, the squiggles of Tristram Shandy. The typographic explosions in 1982, Janine. The dirty bits. The lists. The force of language, above all.
In a sense, not “finishing” these grand weird novels keeps them vital to me, present somehow, promising in their possibility, taunting and tantalizing in their pregnant unfinishabilty.