Monthly Archives: April 2010

The Tell

I saw a reference to Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask in Benjamin Kunkel’s LRB essay on Fredric Jameson, and it activated my impulse-buy reflex. I had read nothing by Lipsyte before, but I did glance at some of the Library Thing comments and was intrigued by what would seem to have been a relentless and bleak satire. That it was a satire of academia somehow is what I expected from Kunkel’s reference, which mentioned that the protagonist remembered learning about only two things in college: late capitalism and how to shoot heroin.

It turned out not to be about academia so much. Milo Burke works as in the development office of a university that might be identifiable, though little information is given about it,* and he gets himself fired for mouthing off to a rich student who was treating him too plainly like the help. Milo had painterly aspirations, as it turns out, and has become instead a painful case. It was probably Frye somewhere who wrote about the modern progression of expected readerly attitude towards the protagonist—from heroic and far beyond you, to an idealized self-image, to what is clearly beneath you, with the catch being that you the reader are, of course, just as damned and pathetic; you just haven’t realized it yet. The Ask is of this later type.

Most of the characters, with the possible exceptions of Don’s mother and Milo’s wife and son, are grotesque caricatures, though often hilariously drawn. (Horace, an urchin somewhat mysteriously employed in the same office as Milo, and a Lee Emery-like** Dean Cooley, the Chief Development Officer, are given many of the best lines.) The plot revolves around an undergraduate friend of Milo’s, Purdy Stuart, who was rich then and became significantly richer, and how the university wants to give Milo a second chance by hitting Stuart up for a big gift. Milo then learns that Stuart fathered a child with a woman he knew, and the boy ended up losing his legs to an IED in Iraq and then finding out about his real father. Stuart is worried about the blackmail potential and tells Milo that he wants to hide all of this from his wife.

So Stuart requested that Milo work with him to try to apparently try to get his help with the Don (the son’s name) situation, but it turns out that all is not as it seems. Don has known for some time, as has Stuart’s wife, and the dark suspicions that Milo has of Stuart having had Don’s mother killed or heartlessly transferred to an inferior hospital while in a coma seem to be unfounded. Purdy Stuart apparently wants to be justified, just as the arts that he’s going to fund will, in some manner, justify the money spent on them. The various knowing references to the Frankfurt school, etc. provide an amusing irony here, particularly as Milo is unable to articulate what he may have once learned about late capitalism to understand the situation.

One particularly well-done bit was a long speech by a film producer who hears Milo’s somewhat drunken pitch for a reality tv show about cooks who would prepare the last meals before state executions, articulates the reasoning behind such a show far better than Milo has or would be capable of doing, and then rather devastatingly suggests that such a premise’s only interest is what it reveals about how reality tv has deformed the imagination of its viewers, about which she proposes a documentary. Compared to the treatment of these matters in Wallace’s “The Suffering Channel,” for example, it’s superficial, but still very funny.

*Or was it? I don’t know if I wasn’t paying much attention, but I was never quite sure if the university where he works is the same one he attended as an undergraduate, which both seem at some points to be like NYU, but then not really. Would Cooper Union would fit better with “an expensive and strangely obscure institution, named for its syphilitic Whig founder” ? Not the expensive part? I don’t know.

**See ”I don’t give a slutty snow monkey’s prolapsed uterus for your office politics” (25), etc.

Jagged Little, Brown (on David Lipsky’s Memoir of David Foster Wallace)

I first read Infinite Jest in October of 1996. I had been working for an industrial manufacturing concern after I had graduated in May in a capacity that involved certain manipulations of computers and also the odd bit of filing. I was planning to go to graduate school the next year, and I even retook the GRE that month. It’s possible that the book raised my verbal score significantly, though the fact that I scored worse on the quantitative section by the same amount suggests it might have been accident, or that I wasn’t paying as much attention to the book’s math as I might have. It took me about a month, as I recall, to finish, and this included several daily breaks to go outside and sit in my truck to read it. (I didn’t smoke, and smoking was frowned on around the facility, which utilized several highly volatile and teratogenic compounds in its inscrutable processes; but this was Eastern North Carolina, after all, so smoking was part of the natural order. If labor and other pink collars could spend time smoking, I reasoned, then I could take twenty minute breaks to investigate our present condition. The office manager, an ardent, quixotic Dole supporter, didn’t like this—or me, as it turned out—very much.)

Though I knew no one in Wilmington who had read the book and owned no personal computer and had no dial-up at home (or at the office, other than some primitive theoretical capacity to connect with some GE mainframe or another, which I had been tasked with trying to restore this WOPR-like synchronization earlier in the summer), I clearly felt that the book was important. I can no longer remember where I first read about it, but the media storm that David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace describes in March of 1996 had reached me somehow. (I believe that I had read the Birkerts piece that Wallace was apparently so impressed by, now that I think of it, though I’m sure that there were others. The Kirn article I had also certainly read.) Lipsky had been sent by Rolling Stone to do a feature on Wallace. The Rolling Stone editors were apparently intrigued by Wallace’s rumored drug habit and heroin in general. Lipsky was in fact sent to Seattle to write about heroin addicts there, if I recall this correctly, after the story was killed. (We do find out that Wallace had smoked some black-tar heroin and really liked it, but didn’t have the constitution to maintain a proper drug habit.)

The book contains what would have to be a significant amount of everything that Wallace said during their conversation over these five days or so, and it is clearly an important primary source for scholars interested in him. It also seems clear to me (and to Lipsky, both at the time and certainly in retrospect) that Wallace was exceptionally wary of him and was concealing himself or acting a part in much of their conversation. Lipsky seems to identify this fairly quickly, and a good part of what’s in the book is Wallace’s typically self-reflexive discussion of the various ethical and epistemological issues caused by this preparation of a face to meet the faces you meet, etc. I was somewhat annoyed by how Lipsky wanted to capture the code-switching in Wallace’s speech by phonetic spellings and such. I’m sure that just a mention of a different accent or voice pattern in the bracketed sections would work better than the inconsistent “dudn’t” and “in’”s that distract the reader. (Though I was quite amused to see that Wallace said “he and I’s,” at one point, apparently referring to Vollmann. That he was so easy with this, given how mannered and precise his speech seems to be in the formal interviews I remember, suggests that there was a great deal more distance and humor in the usage essay, for example, than I had given him credit for.)

I have worked intermittently on a longer paper about Infinite Jest as a political novel for several years now, and one of the key things there is what seems to me to be the deliberately absurd quality of much of the future projection. I didn’t read much new about that here, though I do remember a comment about how a lot of the material about subsidized time and so on was intended to be broad, but with a point. That’s pretty self-evident, I suppose, and it doesn’t shed much light on the larger interpretive problems that I wanted to examine. (The Pietsch editorial correspondence probably would. I haven’t looked to see if that’s in the HRC cache yet.) He seems to be very careful about not privileging his own interpretation of the book in discussions both with Lipsky here and elsewhere, though how much of this is sincere and how much is a nodding reference to the thousands of pages of literary theory he had read to justify Broom of the System to his editor is not clear to me. One comment about the book’s structure that I want to note is :

(after being asked if the book is easy or hard). . .I think it’s both. I think it can be read in a way that’s somewhat easy, although there are parts in the middle that I think are fairly challenging just on a line-to-line level. The book was designed to be both, I guess. And for it to be set up so that—it’s a very different book depending on whether you read the endnotes or not. Or whether you read them when the numbers direct you to them or afterwards, or before. There’s just a whole lot of plot stuff that isn’t clear, if you don’t read the endnotes. (271)

Probably most people would have to say that there’s a whole lot of plot stuff that isn’t clear no matter how carefully or when you read the end notes, but I found the idea that he would imagine that someone would actually read the entire thing without reading the end notes somewhat touching. What type of reader is willing to give so much, but leave off the notes? And who would possibly read them all afterwards? (Or before, of all things?) As with many other details in the book, it seems that the simplest explanation is that Wallace was just taking the piss. The Alanis Morrissette poster, the Cosmopolitans, the bit about Elizabeth Wurtzel and all the groupies he was hoping to meet on tour. But almost everything that we know about him suggests that this wasn’t in his personality, at least not at this point in his life.

The house I lived in when I first read Infinite Jest had one of those stickers along the top of wrapped CD case stuck to the side of its screen door for what had seemed an improbable amount of time that summer and fall. It was placed there on some fantastic whim by a departed female roommate, as I recall, and it flappingly advertised Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill. I had initially questioned the reality of this personage and would be haunted by the possibility, at odd intervals during the work day, that the pill in question was a contraceptive and that its jags were metaphorical. That the author of the weighty tome I carried around with me everywhere would have had, for whatever reason, a poster of this chanteuse in his home and would have been very interested in driving to Chicago to meet her on a date was information that I don’t think I could have processed, had it indeed made its way to a Rolling Stone profile, but I’m glad to know it, along with all the rest, now.

Fyodorov and Soviet Cosmonautics

How many people does it take to make a gang? I would guess that it would be more than two, usually, and so I was surprised when Elif Batuman, in a footnote to her amusing and piquant essays, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, mentioned the “gang of thugs” who accost the unfortunate protagonist of Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” I taught this last semester, as it turns out, and my Penguin edition does seem to indicate that it’s two thugs. But then I quickly realized that Batuman has almost certainly read Gogol in Russian, which I have not, and even details her finding errors in other translations. For all I know, this is a translation artifact, and I am completely out of my depth. What am I doing even writing about this book, with its evidence of commitment to comparative literature far beyond what I could imagine (Samarkand, Uzbek) and its somewhat hothouse intellectual atmosphere (particularly in the last chapter)? I feel pleased with myself for reading a German translation of Lem’s “Provocation,” for example, and here I found myself wistfully imagining the vastness of the Hoover collections and the unfettered opulence of a university that allows graduate students $2500 grants for overseas field work—in Slavic literature. We can’t imagine the shape of our fate, that’s for sure.

But the book is very funny. I first read Batuman when I was putting together the Graphs, Maps, Trees discussion (soon to come to you in book form!), and I was filled with envy after reading her essay ”Adventures of a Man of Science”, which manages to be both illuminating and humorous, when all I could do when talking about the book in my little essay was probe ideologemes and morphogenesis. (I’d love to hear what she made of the Empson, though, having gone on quite an Empson kick myself in the last year.) I think it would make an excellent assignment in an “Introduction to Graduate Study” course, for example, or a course designed to introduce English (or, even more appropriately, of course, comparative literature). I’m teaching both of these courses in the fall, as it turns out, so maybe I’ll try it.

I enjoyed the Babel chapter. I was assigned Red Cavalry in a class I took with the writer Kevin Canty my senior year, along with Portrait, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Man in the Holocene, At Swim-Two-Birds, Street of Crocodiles, and a Fellini film. (There were probably other texts, but I can’t bring them to mind at the moment.) There were mostly graduate students in the class, as I remember, and one of them, a kindly woman who wrote lucid feminist editorials for the student newspaper,* gave me a chapbook of the Duino Elegies one day before class. I owned the Mitchell translation, as it turned out, and had even copied one of the Sonnette in a sort of love letter two summers before. (The recipient had pragmatically gone to the Wake Forest library, found the translation, and responded, with what seemed to me to an alarming straightforwardness, about why I would send her something in a language she couldn’t read that she couldn’t have understood to begin with. I was reminded of Mitchell’s remark in his introduction that Rilke was terrified by the idea of mental health [or was it hygiene?])

I bring this up because the way in which literature first orders the lives of those who read it or feel it strongly, and who only later, with experience, begin to learn from it, seems to be one of the ideas that’s explored, with considerable wit and sophistication, in Batuman’s book. Some of it seems very much like an academic essay in parts, especially when she describes her encounter with Girard. The parts that went through the Harper’s or New Yorker editorial process are noticeably different, I think, but this didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book.

*The incongruity of this could best be compared with Brit Hume, say, reading “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” at the beginning of his newscast.

The Panda

An article of mine on John le Carré’s The Secret Pilgrim appears in the latest issue of Clues: A Journal of Detection. Here’s the abstract:

The Secret Pilgrim was John le Carré’s first novel to consider the
end of the Cold War. The author describes how the novel’s embedded
structure reveals le Carré’s political perspective more clearly than
previous works and argues that this narrative frame is an adaptation
to the sudden collapse of le Carré’s traditional subject matter.

There’s a special section of the issue devoted to Chester Himes, which I look forward to reading. The article on le Carré derived from something I did with my master’s thesis, which was mainly a narratological project. There I was mostly interested in the ideological constraints on the text’s embedding; the idea that such transformations would be rule-governed in two different—but analogous—senses interested me greatly at the time and still does. The Secret Pilgrim is an ideal text, so it seemed to me at the time, to explore such transformations because of its political situatedness (which is what the Clues essay mostly explores) and the transparency of its framing narrative. This is yet another text where the editorial correspondence might be fascinating. (Maybe the HRC has already made arrangements for le Carré’s papers; it wouldn’t surprise me.)

In other news, I got a copy of John Bender’s and Michael Marrinan’s The Culture of Diagram (Stanford, 2010) in the mail today. The first thing I’m doing, is I tend to do with scholarly books, is make notes in the bibliography about things I’ve read, have heard of, and/or want to read. I feel that most of the time I can plausibly reconstruct the argument of a scholarly book by reading its bibliography first, and I think it’s a great exercise to get into. (Maybe amazon’s and google’s databases can be used to discover new things about citation patterns. If only there were more readily available APIs. . .)

Early Times

I had trouble reading Suttree in the room with my sleeping infant daughter, as I often couldn’t stop myself from cackling. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve read: probably more funny than Bouvard and Pécuchet, Decline and Fall, Cold Comfort Farm, or any of a variety from Wodehouse, which would be the closest contenders in recent memory. I’ve now taken the step of reading some of the criticism on the book, and I was somewhat surprised that there wasn’t more of it. (I didn’t yet finish the long recent article in Contemporary Literature by J. Douglas Canfield, though I did notice at least one recent University of Alabama book that is available in its entirety from google books, in what I hope is a continuing trend.)

Who thinks Suttree? Free indirect style seems to be used, but it’s implausible to imagine that Suttree’s consciousness operates in the way that the rest of the narrative does. Though he attended university,* he’s never described reading anything except newspapers, magazines, and dime store novels, so lexically, at least, the descriptions in the book are not attributable to his mind during the fact. As a memoir written among consoling dictionaries, an attempt to shape a formless experience with exact words, it has a certain plausibility and logic. I can’t imagine that “murenger” and “macule” leapt unbidden from his wordhoard. “Grumous” and “anthroparians”** share a page (188). McCarthy’s dialogue is not as strong as his descriptive writing, I don’t find, being frequently poisoned by eye dialect. He has to be among the worst offenders ever for using “would of” constructions in dialogue, for example. I once thought that this might be deliberate, in that he was trying to reproduce the inner lexical structure of the words as they would be written by their speakers, but the characters in this book are frequently of dubious literacy, so I’m not sure how far that would go. It’s more likely that he simply hasn’t realized that “would of” and “would’ve” sound the same.***

Toward the end of the book, Suttree, felled by typhoid fever, (which mirrors an unelaborated histoplasmosis fugue that his troglodytic familiar Harrogate suffered earlier), has a series of “Circe”-style hallucinations.

I was drunk, cried Suttree. Seized in a vision of the archetypal patriarch himself unlocking with enormous keys the gates of Hades. A floodtide of screaming fiends and assassins and thieves and hirsute beggars pour forth into the universe, tipping it slightly on its galactic axes. The stars go rolling down the void like redhot marbles. These simmering sinners with their cloaks smoking carry the Logos itself from the tabernacle and bear it through the streets while the absolute prebarbaric mathematick of the western world howls them down and shrouds their ragged biblical forms in oblivion.” (458)

This passage shows something of the complexities of McCarthy’s style, with the mild archaism of “prebarbaric mathematick” evoking both Babel and Heraclitus and then being cannily qualified with “western world.” I remain interested in the politics, if you want to call it that, of McCarthy’s work, which have received significant, often negative, attention in recent years.**** An early article on McCarthy referred to the “ambiguous nihilism” of his work.***** Here it seems that Suttree presents a justification of his descent into the underclass of McAnally Flats before his imagined jury. The Logos has to be smuggled from the tent and born through the streets of the world to purify it.****** There is one and only one Suttree, as he tells the priest, and he has been purified by his descent into the underworld, now being demolished for a superhighway. That poverty and blight are metaphysical conditions—-preterition, even—-and that only a descender from the heavenly realms (upper middle classes) can describe it in thoughts worth having would seem to be an easy criticism to make of the book, as would its apparent scrupulous avoidance of the large-scale socioeconomic forces that have deformed the lives of most of its characters.

Among the items that the Harry Ransom Center acquired for its David Foster Wallace collection was his edition of Suttree. He noted on the title page, alongside an amusing doodle on McCarthy’s author photo, that it starts very slowly. I couldn’t help but think of Wallace when I read this in an interview that McCarthy gave to the WSJ:

But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you’re going to write something like The Brothers Karamazov or Moby-Dick, go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.

I wonder if he mentally included Suttree among those unread works (though only 500 pages.) It’s easily as difficult in its way, but the idea that people’s brains are different is a subject for another post.

*I’m sure this country sheriff’s sentiment would make a fine addition to a University of Tennessee recruitment brochure, for example: “I will say one thing: you’ve opened my eyes. I’ve got two daughters, oldest fourteen, and I’d see them both in hell fore I’d send them up to that university. I’m damned if I wouldn’t” (158).

**Spelled “anthroparion,” this seems to be a Greek word for “homunculus,” which fits the context. See Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China, v. 5, p. 487, viewable at google books.)

***People have disputed this point with me before, though I’m not sure on what grounds.

****There were several disparaging, and to my mind, not very well considered, remarks about McCarthy in the recent “Bad Books” featurette, for example.

*****Vereen M. Bell, “The Ambiguous Nihilism of Cormac McCarthy,” The Southern Literary Journal, 15.2 (Spring 1983): pp. 31-41.

******It has been suggested that this passage was the inspiration for the relevant scene from Indiana Jones.