Archive for June 2007
Don DeLillo’s Falling Man is the first bit of American fiction that I’ve read in quite awhile that I didn’t despise. It’s subtle and sharp, but blunted at the same time (did I promise anything other than impressionism here?), just what the times require. Nearly devoid of action (a husband comes home, an extremely arid affair takes place, kids huddle anxiously, a parent dies, someone finds a new line of work). The characterization is extremely abstract – we catch these people in the middle of things, and we are given very little save for the dry little actions and situations that we watch them march through, and still, in a very deep sense, we totally know who these people are. We live with them everyday – the backstory, as with our neighbors, is redundant. Delillo leaves the landscape out – we are all too familiar with it, and, really, it’s too boring to describe anyway: the upper west side apartment, the community center, the streets of the east side. Why bother?
No chatty kids, no superheros, no invention of funk, no flipbook reversal of the collapse of the towers – what a gloriously dessicated work, just what our desiccated times require if we are not going to lie to ourselves, pretend its all still vivid and colorful and interesting just to cheer ourselves up. I am being a bit perverse, I know, but taste is taste, and my taste is and has long been fixed up those works that defy the generic mandate to vivification during a period when it is hard to believe that anything can be brought back to life.
It’s wonderful to find that Americans once in a while can write a good book, even today, after all the oxygen seems to have been sucked up by the harrowing tragic cycle crashing itself out daily on the news. But… despite the fact that Delillo has written a fine novel, it is one that, alternately subtly and not, repeatedly announces the terminal status of American culture, and in particular the culture of American novel writing. I won’t bore you with transcribed notes from the back of my book, but any work of fiction fixated upon a community center writing activity for Alzheimer’s patients and televised poker games (storytelling about a past that is fizzling away as the brain cells rapidly die off / Constant! Action! that is meaningless and boring and anti-programed by the empty randomness of the carddraw). And on the level of form, the novel delivers a similarly bleak message about the life in the US today by breaking the entire novel into a sort of montage of empty epiphanies. As it draws upon media images (per the title, but elsewhere as well) it strains to announce the fact that it is shuffling them, these photographs and scenes, recombining them randomly in order to render vividly the disjunction of the era.
In fact, he even seems to head into Eliot territory with this tactic, annoncing the image of the “falling man” to be just one card among many that might have been pulled:
She thought it could be the name of a trump card in a tarot deck, Falling Man, name in gothic type, the figure twisting down in a story night sky.
The tarot deck is deployed in Eliot’s The Waste Land as an image of social and epistemological breakdown. Rather than writing a poem that is narratively organized, that follows the parameters of gradual, progressive revelation, Eliot’s conceit is that he is pulling cards (images and scenes) randomly off the deck, thus the disjunctive style of the piece, because there is no principle of social organization arranging the world into the image that he would like to see and believe in. And in a sense, to my mind, Delillo’s project runs in a parallel direction…
In the wake of the Sopranos finale, I must have sifted through a hundred web launched interpretations of what the final scene… Hey, it’s not everyday that a scholar of modernism with a formalist bent is able to feel like the field of his expertise has made it onto the heavy rotation list of the scroll running across the bottom of the screen that is culture. Of course the interpretations were largely rubbish, an index of poor literary training and the persistence of the very attitudes that modernist Entfremdung effects were aimed at slapping. Occasionally you could find a surprisingly sharp reading from an unlikely corner – the Star-Ledger reader who can barely spell who nonetheless writes something sharp about that fade to black.
Many readings fell in between the two poles. One very memorable one was Wax Banks’s effort, which went for a big kill, only to stumble on its own evidence. He saw
Tony and Carmela as a dark ethnic undereducated mirrorworld Bill & Hillary – the physiques, the complicity-in-adultery, the complex negotiated (and negotiable) attitudes toward social welfare, the calculated united-front marriage, the mysterious deaths of friends and coworkers (I kid). The finale’s final scene made that nasty little parallel clearer than ever before.
You can go check out the evidence issue on the site if you like. But whatever it’s problems, and however frustrated I was with the interpretation as an over-reading at first, the idea has stuck with me over the last week. After all, it’s no wonder that a serious show like this one, bent on a quasi-Balzacian analysis of American culture and political economy (actually… I think the last few episodes made it abundantly clear that it was more Flaubertian than Balzac-inspired, and gloriously so…), that found its start in January 1999 would be preoccupied with Clinton and Clintonism. It starts with schizophrenic relationship of both Tony and Bill to their backward backgrounds – they can’t stop diving back into it, can’t stock speaking the patois, but fit in on the golf course better than the BBQ hut or the sausage shop. That McMansion that Tony drives up (distinctly up, right) to in the opening credit sequence may well be the long-term result of Reaganite policy changes in the 80s, but it was during the Clinton administration that they truly started to fill every acre of rural space left in northern NJ. And of course it goes deeper than that: the more-than-complicit relationship to violence and exploitation that comes of a deathstruggle to simply stay on, no matter what the price. The constant threat that Tony will lose his spot at the top (as well as, in his case, his life) formed the operative tension of the show, right down to the last scene. And like Tony, Clinton never knew whether the killing shot would come from the other family or from someone in his own outfit.
Above all else, the Sopranos from the very start was a show that presented itself as a workplace fiction that couldn’t stop going home to check on the wife and kids. Or it was a family-centered sitcom that couldn’t help but bring the issue of where the money for all the SUVs and Ivy-League educations home. Of course, it wasn’t either – it was both at once. And I don’t need to tell you, however you feel about Clinton, that the mould for this conceit was cast during the sinister and stupid era of the Clintons, whose marriage was the driving political issue of my late adolescence and early adulthood. And true to form, if GWB’s initial campaigning and presidency borrowed heavily from the born-again playbook (where alcoholism + refound salvation = a higher approval among key, dry constituencies than if he had never hit the bottle, never fallen, in the first place), it was the language of therapy, marriage counselling, recovery and relapse that Bill and Hillary both drew on so cynically and so effectively in order to slide by the nets set by their worst antagonists – themselves. (In one of the last episodes, Tony’s shrink’s own shrink and mentor warn her that sociopaths tend not to benefit from therapy, at least not in the intended way. Rather, they learn to use the lessons of therapy as rhetorical tools in order to become all the more effective at the game of socio-pathology… Could it get any clearer than that?)
So anyway, Wax Banks is right. It’s there. And how could it not be. Well and good – a more interesting politico-cultural story to allow yourself to spend sometime with than most of what floats to the surface when lit types try to jump the aesthetic / real politics divide nowadays. The stuff of B list conference papers – maybe I’ll write one myself. And not much more. Or so it seemed for a day or two.
And just when I thought it was safe to put the Sopranos to rest for a bit, I get, as it were, pulled back in.
Just too much, this. It’s not really a mystery that the Clintons would watch the show – they are, I imagine, exactly the target demographic: high-performing NYC area pros, middle to late middle age, high income bracket and educational attainment, etc etc. And at this point in the game, where fund-raising is still the predominant issue at hand, the Tony fan is their core demographic as well. No need to finesse the Iowa ethanol-head or the yankee-cranky New Hampshire schoolteacher yet. So it’s a smart ad on that level. (Apparently, the song that they choose as the campaign anthem is some Celine Dion number. I’ll bet if you asked my folks their favorite musical performer, Celine would come out #1. They’ve seen her in concert a bunch of times, and dad, like me, has never missed an episode of the Sopranos…)
But what is a bit baffling and amazing and disgusting all at once is that, despite all that I’ve said, following Wax Banks’s lead, above, the Clintons would nonetheless consent to embrace this conjunction, sit in the diner seats with the fucking Journey song playing in the background. The folks they are impersonating in this ad are, after all, gangsters. Gangsters, yes, with marital problems, who have achieved institutional and financial priority by nefarious means, and all the rest, but in the end gangsters – what are we to make of tbe easy adoption of something that one would think would be the last thing that the Clinton family would get in bed with, given all the stunning connections above between themselves and our friends from Jersey?
And further, if David Chase’s final turn in the show was meant (this is my sense of it anyway) to bring the viewers, so enchanted by the show’s violence, to some sort of sudden awareness of the strange paradox wherein they are horribly disappointed by the fact that their favorite show failed to kill off their favorite character in its final scene – that not only are they gluttons of televisual violence, they have further determined that this guy that they know and love really in some sense deserves to have the contents of his skull splattered all over his wife’s face in an ice cream parlor, Hillary’s ad, in the act of appropriation, sends this whole issue in a totally new direction… In sitting in the booth of the gangster, Hillary and Bill are not simply much informing us of the wide-spread desire to do them harm, but rather the impossibility of doing them harm, the fact that they are free, despite all of the associative sludge that is conjured up by this ad, to do whatever the hell they want to and still pull through. They use the funny but inappropriate ad about being knocked off precisely because they will not be knocked off. They can take the risk of appearing in plain sight only because it is not a risk – they, like the American public, are completely shameless. What is so great about being shameless, of course, is the ability to hide in plain sight. We catch them out precisely because they have chosen to be caught out, to make a game of it, because the stakes are the stakes of a game, and nothing more.
In short, the final fact of the matter, and the fact that we are being slammed with even harder with than we were with the final fade to black of the Sopranos, is the fact that if Hilary wins the 2008 election (as of now, that’s where I’d put my money, unfortunately) and if she serves two terms, the position of American executive will have been shared between two rival families, and two families alone, for a full 28 years. A father and a son, a husband and a wife. This thing of ours indeed… And any one want to take odds on the last name of the top candidates in 2016?
AJ (comfortably clear of his dark preoccupation with “yeets” and the war on terror and the sources of his parents’ wealth) is kicked back on the couch with his underage model girlfriend, cracking up as they watch exactly this:
I imagine what drew Chase’s / the writer’s interest to this clip is the hidden-in-plain-sight nature of the R & T Correspondents Association dinner. The significance of clips like this one (as with Bush’s infamous “Dude, who stole my WMDs” performance) is not of course of the “hey, this is what they’re really like when they’re unguarded on stage” variety. Everyone knows that the material will be taped and disseminated, and this is what informs what’s so horrifically amazing about this material. The dissemination of this stuff – the fact that, seriously, the joke is on you about WMDs, the fact that given the opportunity the head propagandist will smear on black face and hop around the stage – this stuff is meant for distribution, meant to send us a message about what power really means, what it means to have the press in your backpocket, and what it means that you have to (or had to) give Imus a handjob on the air if you wanted to be elected president, or even NJ or CT senator.
Just as the Sopranos was always about forcing us to confront the all too visible sources of wealth that landscapes the green, well-trimmed lawns and lifts the entry-way atriums of the NJ mcmansions, so obvious and insistent from the start that the entirety of culture is bent on making or allowing us to forget it, “MC Rove” crystallizes the political structure that grows in that soil, where we see what we see and we know what we see and we can even say what we see, but that’s it. The screen goes black – there will be no denouement, no final twist. Nothing is slouching towards bethlehem to be born.
(Spoiler-warning – I’m talking here about the final episode of the Sopranos, which aired tonight…)
Wonderful, to think of the ten-million or so viewers shouting “fuck!” because their tv went out at once. (I know we did! “Fucking DVR! Fix it! Fix it!”… Until the credits started to roll… (The baby went down late tonight, so we watched on a 20 minute digital video delay…)
You can’t accomplish this sort of ending with most other media – the reader of the novel can see exactly how many words remain, always know as they read the final sentence of the work “this is the final sentence of the work.”
Chase and his writers, fully aware of the atmosphere they work in today in America, forced forward this season the theme of violence, the media, and audience complicity. The last two episodes have been marked by gross-out sequences that featured ooing and tonight barfing audiences
Phil’s death scene was a little masterpiece of the form. From the two kids in car seats in the back of the SUV, which echos Tony’s fixation on the demolished car seat in the back of Christopher’s car) to the way that the rolling vehicle forces us to make a decision between fixing on Phil’s head about to be crushed by the tires or the fate of the little ones in the back, about to roll into traffic, to the projectile-vomiting on-looker – and back to last week Altman-esque scene with the Bada Bing’s employees and guests admiring the collateral damage in the form of a crushed motorcylist on Rt. 17 – Chase was making a clear point about what it is that he is making, what it costs in terms of genre-mixing to make it, and our own relationship as viewers to the show…
(I’ve read on line that Phil’s death scene was filmed in my old hometown. Which wasn’t an altogether rough place, but wasn’t quite placid suburbia either. There was one night when my buddy and I rolled into a gas station / quickimart for some gas and cigarettes, when we noticed that there was a guy dead by gunshot laying on the tarmac of the parking lot. Being nihilistic (read: stupid) 17 year olds, we went into the quickimart anyway, where the clerk (whose demeanor suggested that he’d seen this sort of thing before) informed us that we couldn’t buy our Mountain Dews, nor our Marlboro Lights, as there was “an ongoing police investigation, dude”.)
Back to the final scene. I have to admit that I was hoping for one of the many variations on “discovery that Tony and Carmela are really only working stiffs / bourgie escapees whose fantasy of a more interesting life we have been viewing,” and in a weird way we almost get there with the end of the show. What are we supposed to take away from the locale of the final scene, all the workingclassers with their flannel and Members Only jackets, the frigging Weeblos with their creepy Scout Leaders, and the like. Where have we, with the family, returned to? No bling, no fancified mobsters – the end of the show takes us back down the hill that Tony’s subdivision is parked on top of, and begs us to paranoically identify almost every person in the restaurant as a potential murderer, while we simultaneously watch as Meadow painstaking parallel parks her Beemer.
Question: can anyone think of good literary or cinematic examples of this sort of ending, the abrupt stop right in the middle of things? I’ve seen a few in various comment threads, and I know there are some novelistic examples, but I’m wondering what all of you can come up with…
more to come…
…the titans of my own personal canon. Here, in an excellent review of new works from Kundera, Coetzee, Sontag, and Mario Vargas Llosa, Jonathan Rée has one of my favorites going after another.
But Coetzee does not confine his attention to novelists, and an outstanding essay on Walt Whitman allows him to explore a conception of democracy that he himself would evidently endorse: democratic politics, he suggests, is “not one of the superficial inventions of human reason but an aspect of the ever-developing human spirit, rooted in eros.” Those who make a fetish out of politics, he implies, are in danger of foreclosing on democracy. Take Walter Benjamin, for example. Coetzee, refusing to treat him with the awed indulgence that has become customary, contends that when Benjamin decided to become a good communist, it was not through an imaginative appraisal of political options, but was simply “an act of choosing sides, morally and historically, against the bourgeoisie and his own bourgeois origins.” And if there was something silly and unconvincing about Benjamin’s Marxism—”something forced about it, something merely reactive”—it could perhaps be attributed to a certain literary narcissism. “As a writer, Benjamin had no gift for evoking other people,” Coetzee says; he had “no talent as a storyteller,” and no capacity for the kind of compassionate intelligence implicit in the art of the novel. In a perverse attempt to opt for political realism rather than literary imagination, Benjamin managed to cut himself off from both.
This is interesting stuff, isn’t it? Coetzee has morphed into a writer who, when set to write fiction turns up with an essay in hand, just as when the situation calls for an essay, he throws fiction. But here, he accuses Benjamin of being neither fish nor fowl: his engagement was only ever forced and Oedipal, and on the other hand when he turns in the other direction he only discovers his own talentlessness.
Despite being a reflexive defender of Coetzee, I actually think he gets it very wrong here in the end. I actually think – and have written and may one day publish – that it is exactly when WB got most literary (in a certain specific way that there’s not really time to explain here, but the “messianic” threads are where I’m headed) that his work skewed toward a sort of portentous uselessness and maybe even something like bad faith.
More to say about this, of course, but then I’d be traipsing into my own real world work, which simply is not done, chez adswithoutproducts. But a few other things from Rée’s essay. Discussing Sontag’s At the Same Time, he notes that Sontag’s
fury at the condition of the US—she speaks of a “culture of shamelessness,” marked by an “increasing acceptance of brutality” in which politics has been obliterated and “replaced by psychotherapy”—seems to have made her forget her own better self.
…which is, I think, exactly the conclusion, in basically exactly the same terms, that the soon-to-be-departed Sopranos has been building to, no?
And finally, what to make of Vargas Llosa’s redeployment of the “democratic” and “pluralistic” ethos of the novel into service (both metaphorical and, according to him, material, historical) of the neoliberal project?
Vargas Llosa’s prose is sometimes slow-paced, but it speeds up when he reflects on the “collectivist ideology” of nationality. “There are no nations,” he says, at least not in a way that could “define individuals through their belonging to a human conglomerate marked out as different from others by certain characteristics such as race, language and religion.” For Vargas Llosa, nationalism is always “a lie,” but its rebuttal is to be found not so much in high-toned internationalist universalism as in the dissociative particularities of literature, and especially in a well-narrated novel. The novel, he thinks, articulates a basic human desire—the desire to be “many people, as many as it would take to assuage the burning desires that possess us.” Alternatively, it stands for a basic human right—the right not to be the same as oneself, let alone the same as other people. And the defiant history of democracy began not in politics but in literature, when Cervantes first tackled “the problem of the narrator,” or the question of who gets to tell the story. No doubt about it: Don Quixote is “a 21st-century novel.”
Another horribly quick answer: I think he might well be right about this. I also think that this is exactly, if indirectly, one of the issues that writers we term “modernist” had with the form from the start of the period / movement. Right from Bovary forward, where Vargas Llosa’s “basic human desire” to identification gets twisted into a very strange knot indeed…