Archive for December 2008
When I’m around my father, I end up landing in sicker and stupider regions of the television map than I’m used to. He has poor taste, and flips channels quite a lot. Network drama to NHL hockey to, yes, pro wrestling and “ultimate fighting” and the like. There’s now a show – a fake reality show - that deals exclusively with the repossession of peoples’ vehicles. Cars, SUVs, construction equipment, motor cycles, boats, the whole gamut.
I’m not sure whether it matters or not that the show isn’t really a reality show. It’s purportedly a series of “recreations” of actual repossessions, according to a disclaimer that runs at the front of the show. I’m sure that most viewers distractedly take it as real. If that is the case, I’m further sure that this show is as sick and sad but also complex as other programs in the genre. What is the appeal? Schadenfreude, sure, but more than that perhaps. The crime-and-punishment based reality shows have always been a complicated compost of affectual registers. This is for another post.
But one of the interesting things about this show that I was watching is the fact that almost every time the repossession company pulls up (of course, in this case, with cameramen in tow) and the actor playing the owner of the vehicle to be towed away suddenly realizes what is happening and confronts the repossessors, the owner makes a great show of not believing that this is happening. There must be some mistake, I’ve paid my bills, I could show you, yes, but the cancelled checks are at my work, I’m calling the cops – you’re stealing my car! Now, half the time it is meant to be clear that the deliquent owners are lying – these are the less interesting cases. The more interesting cases are those where the scene is written and acted as though, despite the fact that they said to be four, six, twelve months behind on their payments, the actors in question play the scene as if they really do believe that they aren’t. Despite the fact that they obviously on some level know that they are broke, that this day was soon to arrive, at the moment when the tow-truck is pulling their car away, they are clearly one-hundred percent convinced that the note is paid in full, that a huge mistake has been made, and that everything is as it should be – save for the fact that a heavily tattooed thug is driving away with their vehicle. It’s hard to describe how we know this as we watch the show – some particular mixture of anger and confusion, some reality effect that can’t be faked in the grain of the voice – but know it we do. This arc is the primary dramatic arrangement of the show – the rational if swarthy agents of collection are confronted time and again by deluded, nearly hallucinatory, exemplars of the American consumer, absolutely baffled by the fact that the other shoe has just dropped, the bill has finally come due, that it’s too late to ask for an extension and that they now will have to find another way of getting to the office park in the exurbs tomorrow for work.
Operation Repo is a realist show. It’s presuppositions about the way people are and how they act are meant to be our presuppositions about the way people are and how they act….
Today I stopped at a gas station next door to my hotel for water and cigs, and overheard something fascinating while waiting to pay for my stuff. A middle-aged white guy was standing at the counter, taking quite a long time with his transaction. The customer in question looked middle-class, maybe verging on upper middle-class. Decently attired, probably out of the, um, Kohls collection but still. The way that it works at gas stations in the US (almost all self-serve by now) is that you either dip your credit card at the pump or you pay cash in advance inside the station itself. But this guy was inside, having the clerk run and rerun his credit card. It hadn’t worked at the pump, and wasn’t working inside either. He had the clerk run it again to preauthorize only $5 this time instead of $20 as before – still refused. But it became clear, from the conversation, that this is something that he had done yesterday, the day before – something that he’s been doing everyday at the same gas station. He said, “Yeah I can’t understand what it is – this credit card is good. It’s just convenient for me to get gas here. I live around the block. I can’t understand why it isn’t working. Do you have a number for the company to call or something? Man, I just don’t get it.” The exchange with the clerk was polite, perhaps exceedingly so if the story was what he wanted it to be. He had the clerk run the card again, for $5 again. Refused. He took the number of the credit card company and promised to go home and call and get it all sorted out. He did not, as might be expected, present another card so that he could at least get some gas while he was here. Neither did he pay in cash. He left without filling his car. An unfinished sentence streamed through my mind: but if he’s back here, three days in a row, obviously he’s not getting gas elsewhere, it is not the case that the card is working at other gas stations, so… All polite, all everyday and normal. But it’s clear that this is a life that’s quietly come unstrung. He is not stealing, he was not playing a confidence game on anyone other than himself.
One wonders how much gas he has left in his tank, how much longer he will be able to make it to the station for his daily his of self-deceiving self-distraction. I’ll have to call the company, just as soon as I get home. I wonder why….
Fascinating interview with helen dewitt at if:book. HD gets into the mechanics of publishing, self-publishing, blogging and writing books, her personal history, and other interesting stuff.
What is the relative smallness of the Pyramid when seen from an airplane window a symbol of?
What is “baggage claim” a symbol of?
What is a decorated Christmas tree, when erected in a rental car airport office, a symbol of?
What is the rental car and its smell a symbol of?
What is grass that turns light khaki in the winter a symbol of?
What are apartment complexes for elderly baptists a symbol of?
What are aging grandmothers a symbol of?
What are in-laws a symbol of?
What is the fact that it is easier to engage with a dreary world when I constantly snap pictures of it with the camera mounted on my phone a symbol of?
What is the nervous way the white teenagers eye the black teenagers at the mall a symbol of?
What are Christmas presents, when purchased after Christmas, a symbol of?
What are camouflage jackets, when worn by women who are mothers of young children, a symbol of?
What is the fact that, just like London, the primary indigenous fast food in Memphis is fried chicken and french fries, served in a little cardboard box, a symbol of?
What is the woman sitting in the Barnes and Noble cafe at 10:30 PM reading a book about husbands and infidelity a symbol of?
What are the teenage girls who hang around Barnes and Noble’s cafe on Saturday night a symbol of?
What is the solitary displaced academic who reads Bleak House at the Barnes and Noble cafe until it closes a symbol of?
What is Bleak House a symbol of?
What is the $3.99 fee at Barnes and Noble to use the internet a symbol of?
What is the paid use of the internet at Barnes and Noble a symbol of?
What are blog comments a symbol of?
What is the Barnes and Noble cafe in general a symbol of?
What are photoessays a symbol of?
What are Germans visiting Memphis a symbol of?
What is the “country,” where we are going tomorrow, a symbol of?
What is Walmart a symbol of?
What is “they’ve been troubleshooting it for the last two hours, and they should have the wireless internet running again by tomorrow morning” a symbol of?
What are hotel lobbies a symbol of?
Beyond Christ and the two bad men, one less bad than the other, what are the illuminated crosses that hang over the eastern suburbs of the city at night a symbol of?
Just purchased and read in a sitting Harold Pinter’s Betrayal of 1978. It was the only play in stock here at Barnes and Noble; I do not imagine that there’s been a rush this morning and I’m only getting what’s left.
The play moves backward as it progresses, beginning in 1977 and moving backwards to 1968. There are only three characters. Emma and Jerry, who have had or are having (as we move backwards) an affair and Emma’s husband Robert, who is or was Jerry’s best friend.
At the next table, a young man and young woman are talking about the credit reporting firm Equifax and how to contact them, whether they have a webpage and whether the webpage lists a contact number. I want to tell them how you go about contacting them, as it is difficult but I have done it. You get about fifteen seconds on the phone with an operator before they hang up on you. But sometimes, as in my case, they sort out the problem if the problem is sortable.
I do not know whether their problem is sortable or not. Probably not.
I wish Barnes and Noble had some more Pinter for my to buy and read today. I could do with one of the volumes in the four-volume set of his plays.
Earlier today, I read this article about Pinter and his life and loves in the Daily Mail. It delves into the background behind Betrayal in particular.
Apparently, you need permission, you need to contact Judy Daish Associates Ltd., 2 St. Charles Place, London W10 6EG England before you attempt to act out Pinter’s work. You may well need to pay what they call in the business a royalty, whether your troupe is best described as “First-class professional,” “stock,” or “amateur.”
Begley is particularly astute on the bizarre organization of Kafka’s writing day. At the Assicurazioni Generali, Kafka despaired of his twelve-hour shifts that left no time for writing; two years later, promoted to the position of chief clerk at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, he was now on the one-shift system, 8:30 AM until 2:30 PM. And then what? Lunch until 3:30, then sleep until 7:30, then exercises, then a family dinner. After which he started work around 11 PM (as Begley points out, the letter- and diary-writing took up at least an hour a day, and more usually two), and then “depending on my strength, inclination, and luck, until one, two, or three o’clock, once even till six in the morning.” Then “every imaginable effort to go to sleep,” as he fitfully rested before leaving to go to the office once more. This routine left him permanently on the verge of collapse. Yet
when Felice wrote to him…arguing that a more rational organization of his day might be possible, he bristled…. “The present way is the only possible one; if I can’t bear it, so much the worse; but I will bear it somehow.”
It was [Max] Brod’s opinion that Kafka’s parents should gift him a lump sum “so that he could leave the office, go off to some cheap little place on the Riviera to create those works that God, using Franz’s brain, wishes the world to have.” Begley, leaving God out of it, politely disagrees, finding Brod’s wish
probably misguided. Kafka’s failure to make even an attempt to break out of the twin prisons of the Institute and his room at the family apartment may have been nothing less than the choice of the way of life that paradoxically best suited him.
The truth was that he wasted time! The writer’s equivalent of the dater’s revelation: He’s just not that into you. “Having the Institute and the conditions at his parents’ apartment to blame for the long fallow periods when he couldn’t write gave Kafka cover: it enabled him to preserve some of his self-esteem.”
(Zadie Smith, The New York Review of Books, July 17, 2008 (reviewing The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay by Louis Begley.)
Hmmm… Yep. Zadie Smith’s had a good year in the reviews, hasn’t she? Anyway, just for my own / the record, I’ll record how my usual day works.
Wake between 8 – 9 AM, ready myself for work, skipping breakfast usually. Prepare a large thermos of coffee to take with. Check blogs while coffee brews.
Bus and train to work, arriving at approximately 10-11 AM. Of late, I’ve been reading things that I want to read during this period. Other times, it’s the paper. At bad times, it’s music.
Email, teaching, advising activities somewhere mixed in here. If not, preparation for teaching or advising. Frequent breaks for cigarettes outside, phone calls, more email. Sometimes I remember to fetch myself a sandwich, fanta, and treat to eat at my desk. At some point I generally buy the Guardian and another pack of cigarettes.
If I am lucky and good, I leave at 3-3:30 PM to write at my shitty Starbucks on Tottenham Court Road. If I am not lucky, I am teaching or meeting with students. If I am not good, I am still puttering around the internet, pretending to work.
Between 5-6 I generally leave for home. Read free papers on the way.
From 6 or so until 10 PM is dinner / kid / television related time. Oh, and I read the stack of not-free papers I’ve acquired during the day during this period as well.
From 10 pm till 2 AM, again, it depends if I am being good or bad. Good means I read solidly (almost never happens); bad means I fuck about with the internet. I used to pretend to write during this period, but generally that meant drinking beer and feeling very writerly while I do it.
Hmm… This is a bit depressing, no? How should it go?
9:00 reach work, write for two hours if possible
11:00 teaching activities
4:00 reading / writing
6:00 leave for home, family activities
10:00 reading / teaching prep activities if nec.
1:30 to bed
OK. That sounds like a NY Resolution to me. The reading / writing balance would be adjustable – I’m actually more worried about my failure to read than my failure to write in some ways, so it’s best to slant it this way to start.
(Oh and before anyone jumps on me – I’m already only describing here the rare manageable day in which I’m not tied up with teaching / meetings of one sort or another from 10 – 6, or when various childcare issues don’t interrupt etc etc…)
(A faster route toward, erk, efficient time-management would be to abandon the infinitely wasteful practice of incessant cigarette smoking… But that’s a bridge a bit too far at the moment… Can only cut off one semi-debilitating chemical “enhancement” at a time…. But perhaps, down the road, who knows…)
But anyway, all this is to ignore the point that Begley makes and Smith echoes. How long have I nurtured this fantasy that if I were just able to tweak the schedule, marshal my energies, evenly and appropriate distribute my efforts, everything would become easy. How simple it is to ignore the hangups and tics and secret anxieties that underwrite all the timewasting and inefficiency! How would I possibly cope with myself if I were, once and for all, work again as I believe I ought to work?
So I have a friend who organizes her reading when she can such that she reads everything by one author before moving on to the next. I never do this, or only very rarely, but it seems like a good idea for a variety of reasons. So I made myself a pledge that if I were to receive any books for Xmas, I’d do this with the first author I opened.
Oh shit. First and only book received today was Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon.
- The Crime at Lock 14 (1931) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118728-X)
- The Yellow Dog (1931) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118734-4)
- The Madman of Bergerac (1932) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118726-3)
- The Bar on the Seine (1932) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-102588-3)
- Tropic Moon (1933) (New York Review Books Classics, ISBN 1-59017-111-X)
- The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1938) (New York Review Books Classics, ISBN 1-59017-149-7)
- The Strangers in the House (1940) (New York Review Books Classics, ISBN 1-59017-194-2)
- The Hotel Majestic (1942) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118731-X)
- Inspector Cadaver (1943) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118725-5)
- Monsieur Monde Vanishes (1945) (New York Review Books Classics, ISBN 1-59017-096-2)
- Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (1945) (New York Review Books Classics, ISBN 1-59017-044-X)
- Dirty Snow (1948) (New York Review Books Classics, ISBN 1-59017-043-1)
- My Friend Maigret (1949) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-102586-7)
- The Friend of Madame Maigret (1950) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118740-9)
- Maigret’s Memoirs (1951) (English translation 1963, A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, ISBN 0-15-155148-0)
- The Man on the Boulevard (1953) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-102590-5)
- Red Lights (1955) (New York Review Books Classics, ISBN 1-59017-193-4)
- A Man’s Head (1955) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-102589-1)
- Maigret has Scruples (1958) (Harcourt Inc., ISBN 0-15-655160-8)
- The Little Man from Archangel (1957) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118771-9)
- None of Maigret’s Business (1958) (translated by Richard Brain from Maigrets’ Amuse, published for the Crime Club by Dougbleday & Company Inc, Garden City, New York, Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 58-7367)
- The Widower (1959) (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, published 1982, ISBN 0-15-196644-3)
- Maigret in Court (1960) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118729-8)
- Maigret and the Idle Burglar (1961) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118772-7)
- Maigret and the Ghost (1964) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118727-1)
- Maigret and the Bum (1963) (Harcourt Inc., ISBN 0-15-602839-5)
- Maigret’s Boyhood Friend (1968) (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., translation Eileen Ellenbogen, 1970)
- The Bottom of the Bottle (1977) (Hamilton, USA ISBN-10: 0241896819 ISBN-13: 9780241896815) *The Bottom of the Bottle was originally published by Signet New York in 1954.
And those are just the ones easily obtainable in English. “His oeuvre includes nearly 200 novels, over 150 novellas, several autobiographical works, numerous articles, and scores of pulp novels written under more than two dozen pseudonyms.”
I think I’ll call a do-over on this one. Though there’s a way that the sort of person who wrote 60-80 pp (wtf???) per day is exactly the sort of person I need to be spending some time with, yes.
Anyway, merry Xmas, y’all… Seriously – keep your eyes open for the Memphis shit to come. Gonna be something special. In addition to Dirty Snow, received an impossibly fancy camera so…. (I asked my wife if we could go to Graceland again while we’re there. She said no, but I’m working on it. It’s amazing how bringing and using photographic apparati changes your priorities and attention span and tolerance for shitty kitsch!)
Well, I think it’s safe to report back that the Xmastide atmosphere back home is rather bleak. Really bleak. Parents’ friends come around and the discussion centers on kids out of work, kids of friends out of work, friends out of work, foreclosures, and the like. And there’s a guy who is constantly down in the common room watching tv, which is a bit strange, but the story is apparently that he who made his living, if that’s the way to put it, as a real estate flipper, but he’s flipped his last flip. Owns a penthouse and and other apartment on a lower floor, but the latter is in foreclosure, and he can’t make his cable bill and so he spends his days watching free tv downstairs. Right now I’m in the realm of the cushion (as in, “yeah, he’s been out of work for eighteen months, and figures he only has a three year cushion, so he’s starting to get really panicked”) but later this week I’ll be writing you (if there’s ‘net) from a rather different demographic context. My dad and I have moderately intense arguments about the auto industry bailout, and there are little placardy signs when you exit the shopping area parking lots urging you to call a certain number for a “Full area real estate guide / bank foreclosure map.”
Crumble crumble. It’s not fair, I know, to express vague, anticipatory anxiety when there are so many who have unvague, non-anctipatory things to worry about, but I have a wafting, complex feeling that there are or are about to be reasons for me to worry. It may be that I’m catching something from the discusive circle that I’m currently wrapped up in, or it may be something more external and perhaps real. I think it bothers me – and makes me fear the worst is so totally yet to come – when “competent” columnists and business writers start to call a bottom and/or predict improvement at the end of 2009 or beginning of 2010. It’s suddenly become a popular line of prognostication in the press. And it’s a worrying one on a few different levels.
Posts to come on driving, reading lists, subvocal/subconscious critico-theoretical vocabularies, the Mississippi River, Barnes and Noble, and the beach. Maybe. Posts to come on something, definitely.
Whatever. I need to relax. Zeitgeist-sensitive, am I and have always been. I mean in the bad way, or at least both ways.
Synecdoche, N.Y. Well, yes. And there’s lots for me to say about it, I think, but most of it’s still working its way out. And, look, I understand that there’s a certain (hohoho) degree of identification that’s at work in how I watched the thing.
But one thing for now.
One thing that is amazing is how hard Kaufman goes at, among so many others but in particular, Lars Von Trier and David Lynch. With Von Trier: Kaufman enframes the gesture of staging the epical theatrical work on the unfinished floor of the unfinished studio space, in effect thematizing and really psycho/aesthetico-pathologizing the primary formal conceit of LVT’s semi-completed, seemingly-halted two part triology. All of these actors carrying on daily life insanely in an unmarked, inapproriate production space in SNY slips into what it perhaps always was: not just a Brechtian estrangement technique, but more pressingly a seriously belated estrangement technique that slides over into directorial sadism verging on the pervvy interest in making people perform ordinary actions as if unobserved and in inappropriate locales. (The bit where Cotard [spoiler!] sees his daughter performing behind glass would be the underscoring echo here…)
I even wonder if the little tiny traumwitz about the set of twins with three names isn’t a sort of crosshanded smack at Von Trier and the fact that the third part of USA – Land of Opportunities trilogy has a name but no substantial presence. Three names for two films. And throwing Emily Watson into film – who’s never quite lived up to her early performance in Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves – only underscores what Kaufman is working through here….
With Lynch: Kaufman appropriates the movie-as-screen-fantasy-for-inappropriate-desire and relegates it to the status of just one of many possibilities for the ultimate “meaning” of the film. Further, it is distinctly a “relegation” because repressed or not-quite repressed homosexuality of the protagonist is perhaps the least interesting possibility of the many on offer. When (spoiler, I guess) Cotard’s daughter asks him for an apology for running off to have “anal sex” with his homosexual lover, we feel that we’ve arrived at a place where reductive resolution to the questions on offer in the film has been offered to us, and we’re glad when the film moves past it. In short, Synecdoche exposes the ultimate reductive simplicity of Mulholland Drive (lost Hollywood, yes, fucked up love affair, yes, broken career, sure) – which is an incredibly ballsy and unexpected bit of meta-critique, and incredibly effective for its ballsiness and unexpectedness.
(Oh, and the old lady in the hall outside his ex-wife’s apartment is the lady from Mulholland Drive, Coco, right? Sorry – I have crap for internet tonight, so my research opps are a bit crimped…)
He hits these two very, very hard, I think, while at the same time swiping enough from them that the entire film comes to seem to be something paradoxically like a retaliatory homage, a devastating genuflection. There’s lots of other meta-theatrical and cinematic work to talk about, ranging from the small but lovely joke about Harold Pinter at the start of the thing to the amazing homage to Samuel Beckett at the end.
Truly, the metatextual stuff is the easiest thing to talk about – there are way better things to take up. Not the least of which is Kaufman’s presentation of the particular sort of mental / spiritual illness whose primary symptom is having a career that teeters between miserable local productions (whether staged at the Schenectady community playhouse or they feature Nicholas Cage) and impossible ambition bent (but distractedly so) on nothing less than world encompassing hypermimesis (there’s 17 million people in the world and each one of them…) that nonetheless resolves down to death and dating. And further, CK’s contextualization of this malady in turn as a symptom of a particular sort of white male early middle-agedness and early-middle-aged life-situation is, well, similar at least to one of the barely but all-too-visible subthemes of this blog, among many, many other things.
Trying to work this shit out while living in a dying old company town upstate is at once something I’m intimately familar with (I’ve heard the local academics talking seasonal poetry on NPR, yes I have) and a consumately American theme that touches on the less-than-volatile relationship between intellectual and material production in the era of diminishing returns, returns that just keep diminishing and on all fronts at once.
Oh, and how all that there relates to an unstinting preoccupation with dystopian collapse. Yep, that’s there too. Jesus.
More when I can.
“Right now, the overwhelming sentiment is to get this country back to where we were, say, ten years ago, when everything was humming nicely: Clinton nostalgia.”
Yesterday, rolling around (OK on my way to taco fucking bell to pick up lunch for everyone) this came on the radio. Twas strange, passing strange, and felt like a desperate, deluded radiophonic plea, a catastrophic misunderstanding of something by the mass mind.
Shooting so far with the iPhone camera. I think it adds to the effect, but sorry in advance… Imagine it adds to the effect even if it doesn’t!
My daughter, lucky her and thank god, has become urban enough a kid that while she pukes almost automatically in cars, she’s quite content on the train, in this case Gatwick Express. She colors pictures of famous TV pigs instead of throwing up. The ticket guy never came around and so we’re ₤30 up for the trip. As of last night’s rates, that’s almost $12 or €4.
Gatwick was a madhouse!!!!!! Actually, it wasn’t. It was fine. Funny that, on some level, we’ve come to think a strange set of perverse thoughts about things like this. The airport is something less than nightmarishly crowded, and just a week before Xmas! The world will end just after the start of 2009! This is the second to last plane ride I’ll ever take!
The crisis is tough to visualize, to render visible, when strange logics set the score. It’s an ordinarily busy day at the airport / mall / supermarket…. Except that ordinary is extrordinarily bad!
I’ve seen this sort of machine before in the lobby of a very downmarket hotel in Bloombury, but here it is in the US Air depature lounge. Books like candybars, like prophylactics in the men’s room! Obviously, I’m not often in the market for the sort of stuff dispensed – soduku isn’t my game. But I like the idea at back of this. Only I think they should take it further. No author’s names, no titles. Just covers of varying colors, and texts composed by Boolean algorithm to somehow suit the shade in question. The green brings Thoreauvian meditations on pond scum cut with Irvine Welsh describing the inscape of a glaswegian pubpot. Mauve runs you choice bits of homopanic in Victorian novels as well as extrapornolatemiddleaged chic lit. I don’t know – maybe this needs another post. I’m running out of battery and have to move on.
My vacation reading unfortunately doesn’t come out of a machine and includes, more or less exclusively, this 1000 page novel that I a) have never actually read before and b) will intensively teach this term. It’s brilliant but, yeah, long. And so far on this trip I alternate between only three positions: 1) free to read but unable because I am sitting on an airplane and nicotine withdrawal makes attention and retention difficult for me 2) unable to read because I’m busy vacationing and/or 3) unable to read because I’m so fucking tired and/or blogging instead.
Fuck I’m back.
The end of the boom means, perhaps, that there’ll be no one left to put ads in strange spaces. Sixty seconds of prime time during the season finale of I’ll Do Anything For Money! Well, No, Not That. How Much Again? Well OK…. will cost as much as this traytable did to clutter adhesively.
Finally here after 21 hours, door to door. The iPhone’s camera captures only the spectral essence of other condos at night. It’s not a special setting; it’s just that the camera sucks.
There, that’s better. My father took the car keys this morning, so I was forced to walk to Barnes and Noble in order to get my morningly Mayfairs in and to stock up on the daily news. But it’s good – walking allows for better photoessayism.
A portrait of the artist as a shadow on a decorative rock.
The famous Ballard River of southwest Florida. You notice that it sprouts rather unceremoniously out of otherwise normal looking grass and soil, and that it’s too small to be a river or a stream. Things in American quasi-suburban developments are always and at turns either too large or too small. Nothing is ever just the right size.
I used to think of this place in Florida where I keep coming as a sort of American Herculaneum, a beach resort where the sons and daughters of the Empire would frolic, especially in their golden years. It’s all a bit more tame than that, I suppose. And even tamer now, as it’s core constituency is made up of retirees from GM and some of the other car companies. There are Michigan plates all over the place. I should write about it, do a bit of research and write something. But I’d rather photoblog, so, here:
The underworks of American sprawl hide in the bushes. At night, the pipes and plugs slide off their groundings to enact the brutish rituals that keep America running, keep the shit flowing into the sea. I was thinking I’d like to hide in the bushes with them, and was about to until a security van slowed down to figure out why I was holding the iPhone sideways and peering into the bushes…
But the good news is, following from recent events in Greece and at 5th Avenue and 14th Street, a wee little communist republic has declared it’s sovereignty over this patch of very thick grass. Either that or landscapers have recently treated this grass with pesticides that will kill your dog or infant if either steps on it and then licks the appendage in question, as dogs and infants are wont to do.
Where? You’ve got some? Well maybe they currently have it in stock, but just you wait to see what happens if the Fed injections finally do comfort or provoke the banks into lending money to each other and other businesses. Wait, if? I mean when, right? After all, that’s the point of TARP, if I’m not mistaken. When that happens, good old U.S. Trust – in the greenback, in the guys administering the bailout, in Paul Krugman, in ourselves and our way of life – will have to close up shop. Perhaps a dollar ten dollar store will open up in its place.
Ah, here’s the sole pathway through the bushes that gets me from the semi-sidewalk of the five lane road I walk from apartment building to bookstore. Without it, I’d be jumping the hedge – and hedge jumping, you may not know, is illegal in the USA.
Now we’re in the store itself. Ah, Carrie, I know what you mean. I’m eighteen days without a drink and counting. It’s a test being here, what with the parents driving-me-to and the cold beer on offer at the beach. On the other hand, and luckily, all of Florida taken together still contains fewer drinking opportunities than a single block of Tottenham Court Road, so on balance being here is something of a relief.
I have decided that when and if I actually get a book to print I will not be pictured in the guise of any of the many space opera characters I have played. Gotta take your stand somewhere – are you hearing me HUP?
Hey, there’s the boys! Hemingway, Orwell, Nabokov, Joyce and some unnamed chick who loves the coffee… It’s a little known fact that these murals were actually painted on the escalator overhangs by leftist artists employed by the WPA during the Great Depression. Rumor has it that some of us will soon be paid to add new panels featuring present day celebrity authors including Gordon Ramsey, Jewel, Dr. Phil, Bill O’Reilly and, yep, Carrie Fisher.
I bought no books, as I have no time to read anything but the monstrous Bleak House but I did get a stack of papers. Which? Oh, just the NY Times, USA Today (sports section, especially for dad who only reads the sports sections of things), the local paper, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial TImes (better over here, weirdly, than in the UK, because it’s tauter), the NY Post, and, yes, the Daily Mail (choice was this or The Sun… ugh…) The latter is important because, well, now I understand what my GP was up to the other day when he kept asking what year it was and who the current prime minister is. And I was only in for a sinus infection!
BTW. I read each and every one of those papers today, though I’ll admit I skimmed the WSJ. Cost me $11.50 in total! And I’ll buy them all over again tomorrow! Vacation!
Man, are there a lot of fucking churches in America. This despite the fact that 3/4 of them have been turned into condos. Maybe 3/4 of those in turn about to be retrofitted back into churches as the nation comes to grips with its abhorrence in god’s eyes or something…
On the church’s front lawn, they had a mock up of some new form of temporary housing for those whose homes have been repossessed. It’s not as nice as those IKEA prefab apartments that come flatpacked in a box, but they are, from appearances, pet friendly and that’s something as rural Americans love their barnyard companions.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune when, as I made my way back to our place, I found an uncannily perfect image to end this photoessay on. What unforeseeable, romantic comedy-style, luck! A positive case of um
So I’m off tomorrow morning for america. Wish I were going to the parts of it I appreciate the most, instead of those I tolerate and those that are very nearly intolerable. I hope to generate photoessays galore, as that is what the central committee suggests we should do while traveling. Democratic centralism at work! There should be an especially bleak one from, urgghh, Memphis – so look out for that.
Today the Modern Language Association is releasing information on just how bad the situation is: The number of job postings in the MLA’s Job Information List will be down 21 percent in 2008-9, the steepest annual decline in its 34-year history. For English language and literature, the drop will be 22.2 percent and for foreign languages, 19.6 percent. Not all jobs are listed with the MLA, so the figures don’t cover every position, but the MLA’s postings have tracked consistently with national trends, especially for the assistant professor positions that are so desirable to new Ph.D.’s who want to land on the tenure track.
When you consider the fact that most of these lines that are left were approved before the economic crisis had started or at least fully settled in, well, it’s not a happy situation.
Was wondering to myself the other day what it would feel like to be employed in a line of work that was experiencing a period of growth rather than an epoch of steady-tending-to-precipitous decline. During the first two or three years of grad school, theory was still theory and while some were surely worried about the state of affairs, basically it didn’t seem devastatingly stupid or impossibly hubristic to get involved with the study of literature as a lifetime affair. Jobs were still scarce, of course, but the discipline retained a credit line from the heady days of English department imperialism.
How different would our work be if we felt that this had a future? Everything feels like starting an inappropriately portentous line of conversation after the bill’s been requested and settled, the tip is on the table – the cab has been called, the staff is ready to shut up the bar. Did I ever tell you about the time I slept with your partner before you two… Oh, forgot: my father died this week… etc etc etc
The film, she said, was kept locked in a safe during the election campaign so that it could not be used for political purposes. Some polls have suggested that his smoking habit was a bigger barrier to him getting elected than the colour of his skin.
Although Mr Obama was careful to avoid being photographed smoking on the campaign trail, he has acknowledged in recent interviews that despite promising to quit “there were times where I have fallen off the wagon”.
Hmmm… I’m not sure about the “bigger barrier” stuff. Americans, especially those who live on the coasts, are incredibly intolerant of smokers but they also like their celebrities to be flawed in some visible way. I’m trying to figure out whether it matters that it’s a black guy smoking in these pictures, but the fact that it’s a black guy dressed as he is in the photo probably would have caused an overdeterminate breakdown in the minds of those who might have cared (are those menthols? is it weed? is he an upper class douche?)
It’s a strange photo, though, isn’t it? Doesn’t get any more legible the longer you look.
Anyway, not kidding around either: it’s probably not the best time for Barack to quit. I’m sure he knows this already; and I’m sure in the back of his addiction-striped mind he’s thinking the same thing. There’s apparently no smoking in the White House, even the residential parts. But I’d venture to guess that, like me, he’ll pace in his back garden when it’s time for a little extra RPMage in the head or steeliness in the heart.
As a matter of fact, it’s not the best time for me to quit, either, so I won’t. Ah, all that heavy work on my inner portions may have just washed down the drain with the release of this. Definitely, definitely can’t go into the least bit of detail, except to say my little run of hyperblogging and nonblog graphomania may have today come to a jarringly unexpected end. Almost makes me think, if only for a second, that professionally I was better off where I was before – until I remember that things are absolutely fucked there too, even more so today than yesterday.
There’s nothing wrong, I suppose, with some healthy encouragement to get our work out. But my situation, which yesterday seemed so refreshingly sane compared to what it was in the USA, just became in selben Augenblick, all too familiarly stressful. We’ll see how things work out, but for now, yeah, back to work on the boring stuff.
So, off to have a cigarette or several. I’m sure I’ll keep blogging, maybe even at this insane pace – but if I do all of you should leave comments telling me to go work on my f’n monograph.
Benjamin Kunkel has a very fine piece in that most pro-dystopian of little mags, Dissent, on the warehouseload of apocalyptic and dystopian fictions that have appeared over the past ten or so years. (Henry, at Crooked Timber, objects to the piece rather harshly given the counterevidence that he’s mustered contra…) He does a terrific job on the politics (often bad faith) of the books, and what sort of relationship they have to the context out of which they emerged.
There’s just one thing that I’d like to say – I think it’s more additive to than critical of Kunkel. And it has to do with the very smart stuff that he has to say about the blurring of literary fiction and the dystopian/apocalyptic genres and what it has to do with literary character. Here’s a bit of it:
[S]elf-awareness is in short supply in contemporary apocalyptic novels. There self-awareness in general gives way to a savage imperative of survival, and any struggles taking place within people are superseded by the struggles taking place between them. One effect of this approach, noted above, is that the neoliberal apocalypse abandons the field of competing legitimate claims that is the terrain of politics for a stark flat choice between good and evil or else a reign of uniform cruelty. Still, if we can’t take these books seriously from a political standpoint, and their only real theme is love, do they at least succeed as romances? In a way it has always been a virtue of historical romance that its facelessly beautiful or handsome characters are also morally uncomplicated to the point of vacancy. The same is true of the heroes and heroines of our apocalyptic romances; they possess the sentimental virtue of moral perfection in a world otherwise evil, and the biological virtue of attractiveness in a world otherwise ugly. Their unreality as characters makes them ideal objects of fantasy—with only the effect of disqualifying them as objects of love or items of literature. This leaves the neoliberal apocalypse with its constitutive contradiction: exalting the sphere of private life—in modern times the arena for the fullest elaboration of individual personality—it promotes a basically zoological idea of humanity, where mating and survival are all that matter, and these efforts are pursued with an absence of reflection tantamount to instinct. Self-preservation and moral life become identical, and differences of character fade into insignificance: at this level we are all clones.
The main formal consequence, then, of a withered moral imagination has to do not with subject matter (love, crime, the future) but with character. Fictional character derives from moral choices made, contemplated, postponed, or ignored—morality is the page on which the stamp of character appears—and the signal formal trait of genre fiction is nothing so much as its lack of complex characters. This deficit entangles even an acknowledged generic triumph like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968, and the basis of the 1982 movie Blade Runner) in a certain incoherence. The ironic burden of Dick’s novel is to stick up for the warm-blooded humanity of androids (read: clones), and in this way imply the cold-bloodedness of any society that denies fully human status to some category of person. The rub, of course, is that such sci-fi humanism is quickly overcome with another irony, this one unintentional, since it is the hallmark of genre fiction to treat characters instrumentally, putting them through the paces of the plot according to their function as the embodiment of some general psychological or social category and failing or refusing to endow them with the individuality to be found among the livelier inhabitants of the traditional realist novel and, for that matter, the real world.
THIS IS the highly compromised “individualism” promoted by our collection of futuristic novels: individuality here means escape from the bad collective (cannibals, the corporate state) but does not entail real individuation. Our literary sci-fi novels are bereft of strongly individual characters—the apocalyptic ones even more depopulated than they know, the clone narratives at least bespeaking the anxiety that their characters are redundant—and the ongoing merger of genre fiction (where the reader is accustomed to finding no complex characters) with literature (which no one would think to accuse of being indifferent to individuality) has allowed the liquidation of character to pass virtually unnoticed. And this, it seems, is likely to be among the most accurately futuristic features of the “literary” genre novels: they will have been the harbingers of a literary sea change in which complex characters are rejected by critics and ordinary readers alike as morally unattractive (compared to generic heros), hopelessly self-involved (because capable of introspection), and annoyingly irresolute (because subject to deliberation). These prejudices are already articulate and operative whenever fiction is discussed, thanks in large part to the incomplete literature-genre fiction merger, and the prestige such prejudices acquire through that merger allows them to be expressed without the taint of philistinism.
In sum, when the contemporary novelist contemplates the future—including, it seems, the future of the novel—he or she often forfeits the ability to imagine unique and irreplaceable characters, can no longer depict love credibly, and responds to political problems by rejecting politics for personal life, albeit one made meaningless by interchangeable characters and a zoological conception of family and love. The result is political novels without politics, social novels without society, and romances free of love, amounting, in the end, to “literature” that isn’t.
Now, I happen to think that Kunkel’s absolutely right about the recession of the characterness of character once the stars of literature and genre align. I may have something a bit different to say about what it means and how we should take this recession – there’s a wee bit of Tel Quel Maoism on me that might lead me to applaud such a literary development. But that will have to happen another time. For now, I to perform an odd exchange with Kunkel. He’s a novelist writing a fairly scholarly piece of quasi Marxist literary crit here (which is what I do at my day job when I do it), so I’m going be the literary scholar that approaches the issue not via historical context and ideological analysis but rather in terms of the writerly situation at hand and what this shift has to do with it.
Now, I’ll cop to the fact that I’ve been trying to write novels for a long, long time. I don’t – as a rule, so far anyway – send them out because I’m never really satisfied with them. (Or maybe it’s because my parents didn’t congratulate me the day the acceptance letter came from Yale. Who knows…) I do try awfully hard, hard enough to drive me a bit off-kilter, but I’ll probably work it out one day soon once the academic work recedes (ha!) a tad. Anyhow, I’ve basically followed the trajectory in my own halting work from the literary frame (that is to say, heavily interiorized stuff having to do, in Kunkel’s phrase, with the “moral imagination,” etc) toward dystopian or catastropic stuff. (One last time, there’s an abortive start to something I worked on this summer here…)
And there are lots of reasons that this shift in my work has happened. Partly, it’s the fact that I’ve always been invested in this stuff (first two works of literature I owned were 1984 and Purgatorio… the latter, a weird but understandable pick for a Catholic kid) but now, suddenly, it’s become acceptably non-genre to write it, per Kunkel’s description. A desire to write politically engaged fiction also factors; it’s easier at least to seem like that’s what you’re up to even if, as again Kunkel describes, lots of time this stuff goes south when it comes to good faith political response.
But there is something else, beyond or beneath all these other reasons, that I think forms the basis of the ultimate impetus for me to turn to the genre-literary hybrid.
Aside from all the ideological and meta-ideological reasons, aside from the contemporary relevance and the attention grabbing cover art possibilities, one huge reason why the dystopian and apocalyptic registers have traipsed to the center of literary literary production is because, christ almighty, they give you the opportunity to write a proper novel with multiple characters (albeit, sure, you can or structurally must do flat ones, as Kunkel suggests) and a plot, dramatic tension, crises and outcomes. Actual events happen, there are dramatic sequences and meaningful interactions of the protagonist(s) with other people. Or to put it another way – yes, these genres, happily, even gloriously, are incompatible with interiority – especially excessive, neurotic interiority! The characters are actually too busy to think, to have actual thoughts. It’s hard to be depressed or anxious or frustratedly horny when the canibals are trying to cook your son. And if you’re otherwise occupied dashing through Falluja-on-the-North-Sea, one tends to forget about the battle with drink or the middle life crisis, the traumas of high school and the sexual rejection that happened during the ice storm. Whatever.
If you write, and write in the wide and persistent wake of modernism – if you cut your readerly teeth on Woolf and Joyce – you know what your problem is. You want to do interior work; you do it really well, at least better than other things. But when you give your novel-start to a friend to read, they respond, nervously: “You know, the extended section about midnight-masturbation while looking at internet porn is, um, thorough and I’m sure it gets to the bottom of the subject – as does the long bit where the young wife has a silent nervous breakdown about her career prospects, the wrong turn that she made when she chose to major in Fine Arts instead of Chemistry, but… I’ve read your other stuff and I like the bit where, you know, things happen and people talk to each other. You should, you know, have some of that here… It’s all a bit, um, claustrophobic….”
They’re right – you lack for plot… and anything else that’s properly in a novel except the angsty interior work. And for good reason, really. This is where someone comes in and screams that of course there are plots out there, you just have to cast your eyes a yard or two beyond your whitebread world of pocket inteligensia in order to see that shit is happening all the time. Remember this bit in Adaptation:
Sir, what if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world –
The real world?
The real fucking world? First of all, if you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you’ll bore your audience to tears. Secondly: Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day! There’s genocide, war, corruption! Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save somebody else! Every fucking day someone somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else! People find love! People lose it, for Christ’s sake! A child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry! Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman! If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life! And why the fuck are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!
Mckee is, of course, right. But also definitely not. While the better part of me would love to write the great novel of the Bhopal Disaster or of the rise and fall of Allende, I’m not up to it. Neither do I have the knowledge, nor the time to acquire it, nor really (honestly) the inclination. And if we turn back to the standard fare for novelistic deployment in America, we find that many of the old strands and tropes are looking a little depleted. There are only so many discovery of sex cum end of American innocence novels that can be written, and generally speaking they really do need to be set in the 1950s, which most of us don’t remember as we were born in the 60s or 70s (or, urp, 80s). The frontier – even the final one – has long since been closed. Adultery only seems unboring when you spice it with a new, newer, the newest low: a student, a younger student, his brother, all of his brothers at once, all of his frat brothers, old people, really old people. Boring… Lolita preemptively probably took care of entire line right back at the start, everything else is tired variation on a theme. And the Bildungsroman suffers in an era when at the same time meritocratic progression becomes so tedious rote and actual class-shift becomes unlikely if not impossible, that no one but Jonathan Safran Foer knows what to write anymore.
But it’s more than the simple expenditure of motifs. There was something about the 1990s that resisted fictionalization, the way that a high pressure system resists cloud formation. Periods that resist emplotment – both fictional emplotment and wider, socio-cultural sense of directionality and end-orientation – are psychologically tricky for everyone but maybe even trickier for novelists. (This is the point where I refer you to my published work on The Time Machine, a work that complicates Kunkel’s genealogies of the two forms he’s dealing with, as they’re both there at once – it’s knot in the lines that run from gothic to dystopia and from romance to apocalypse…. But oops, I’m a pseudonom-blogger so I can’t link to it… But the 1890s and 1900s, despite the memorable work that we retrospectively recognize now, were perhaps another such period…) The End of History meets the end of the histoire – the two ends are anything but unrelated. They called it decadence at the end of the 19th-century, a word which meant something a bit different then than it does today.
I’d rather not delve into strange causality, paranoid historicist envelope scribbling, but there is something in society that does not love empty time. Don’t ask me what it does about it. I definitely, definitely don’t want to suggest that it handles it by downing its own towers and collapsing its own markets. But that is, however, what its fiction writers start to do. Novelists who not long ago were invested in existentialist thrillers set along the Rio Grande turn to the flash and rumble to get a story started in its aftermath, just as filmakers who were busy with naughty threesomes turn to the extinction of the race and rise of biopolitically-minded fascism.
The apocalyptic and dystopian, in other words, bring plot and event during periods in which plot and event seem to have slipped down the drain of the tub where the boats are busy rising or not rising. In turning the everyday inside out, they expose the implicit, imminent sound of the other shoe dropping, the storyline that must be nestled amidst all this affluent absurdity. And if you need more proof, think about just how invested these works are that Kunkel describes in playing out emergence of the climactic event out of the banally everyday… or even, most hauntingly, the persistence of that everyday despite the start of the endgame, the plot to end all plots. Remember the first scene of Children of Men, where our period’s mostly characteristically ordinary action – fetching coffee on the way to work – gives way to the terrorist bomb blast and the walking wounded missing limbs.
As if bound to gesture towards the unfertile ground from which they grew, the works cycle back, time and again, the the issuelessness of the present that is interrupted by the advent of the catastrophe or the revelation of the inhuman face of power once the veil of liberal democratic upwardness has dropped to the floor. None of this is out of sync, I believe, with Kunkel’s argument – it just points to the way that these fictional developments are determined at the same time by contextual issues and immanent problems of narrative form. And in fact, one more turn of the screw brings us to the realization – one that we have to take care with, not be cheap about – that the contextual issues are themselves in part symptoms of a society-wide crisis in self-narration, an inability to get the story of the present and how it meets a future, or even has a future, straight.
I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering whether the tendency toward dystopian and apocalyptic hybridization of literary fiction and what Kunkel calls B+ movies will continue as the world and its artists confront the very real crises that surely await us all in next few years. It seems improbable that the jobless will want to read fantasies of dramatic joblessness, or the cashless will fantasize about a world without cash. But I’m even more interested, and alternative hopeful and skeptical, to see whether society itself as a whole will begin again to compose its own plots about the path from here to there, its own sequence of events that lead through crisis to development. Still, it’s far from given that these storylines, if they do emerge, are stories that we will want to read, much less take our place as characters in, whether we maintain our interest as individuals, as characters, or not.
I’ve been teaching as regular faculty for 3.5 years, 2 different institutions. You’d think I’d have learned by now that if you sit in your office when term isn’t in session, you will get asked by the chair or head to do things you don’t want to do. Usually there are 30 targets to snipe at; today there are probably 4 or 5. And I just took one for the team. She just went up the hall handing out the work, just enough for each of us…
From now on, the fucking library! Or my crappy starbucks! Idiot!