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zany!

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I’ve read an astounding amount of Don DeLillo in the last two weeks – more than is healthy. White Noise, Mao II, Libra, and I’m just this short of finishing Underworld. My first time through for many of these, somehow. I’ve loved all of it except for White Noise, which I’ve read many times before. In fact, I sort of detest White Noise, and while it’s clear why, I’ve been trying to come up with a concise term to explain my antipathy.

Came this morning. There is nothing that I hate more in American fiction than the zany. OK – that’s a bit too much. But do you know what I mean when I say that? Underworld is not zany; Libra isn’t either; White Noise is nothing but. Almost nothing but – there are a few good spots – but even these are tinged with it.

Pynchon is zany through and through, and that’s why I don’t like him. Most of the obsolescent “postmodern” novelists are zany.

David Foster Wallace is very, very zany – zany to the max – but for some reason I can tolerate him at times. Not Infinite Jest – whose very title proclaims the zane right from the book shelf – but Oblivion was quite good. I’ll have to think about why this is so…

This is zany too, and it goes down a bit easier than the print equivalent.

But I’d be probably pretty gaggy were I to get the same in a film about the current or recent police actions. This, for instance, bothers. Not just this scene in particular, but the whole of the film.

The word zany comes from the Italian for, what is it, zanni or zanno, the servant character in commedia dell’arte. And there is something servile about it, something no man’s a hero to their valet, and everyone’s a valet, so throw the Beach Boys on the car radio and roll with it. But there aren’t servants in America, right? So…

Oof. Sorry about that picture. Scares me too. It’s a zanni, or a christmas-treasure statuette of one, available at the website that kindly stamped their image with their addy.

Anyway, sorry, free-associating away, priming the pumps toward full on blog return. But perhaps these are initial notes toward a project on the politico-aesthetics of the turn to and away from the zany. Featured topics will include psychedelia, pranksterism, Kurt Vonnegut (not that I’ll read it or anything, but I’m sure it’ll come up, and the hickup or hangup or tic that makes a candycolored mash (or M.A.S.H.) of grave things like war. Oh, and said project will also take up whatever has replaced the zany here and now, which is the unnamable thing that informs sentences like the following:

Barring a nuclear war or a full-scale economic collapse due to climate change, robot sex is very likely in the cards. (Flak Magazine)

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Written by adswithoutproducts

January 15, 2008 at 8:01 am

Posted in america, novel

15 Responses

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  1. I’m not sure I could so delimit the zany that it squares exactly with the brand of American humor that I detest–usually, the term for me is “whimsy,” or sometimes “twee”–whatever it is that describes people like Wes Anderson and Jonathan Safran Foer.

    But I’m an ardent Pynchon fan, and predictably enough, I can’t stand DeLillo. It’s the didacticism that gets me with DeLil’, the idea/expression means/end matrix. In some people’s books, this gives him a kind of moral seriousness that saves him from the charge that sunk Barth & Co. But not for me–it makes it worse.

    I guess there’s a certain brand of “zany”–the one that matches with the picaresque–that runs from Cervantes, through Sterne, Nabokov, Cortazar, &c. that I like. And though the etymology is interesting, it would seem to hang Shakespeare’s fools (not to mention Beckett) under the term, which would be a loss, no?

    How defend my preference? It’s sort of like when people accuse Wallace Stevens of thoughtlessly repeating the idealistic errors of Romanticism, when in fact he’s taking romanticism as his object and point of departure. That’s how I feel about Pynchon’s relation to American escapism. . . If you keep layering the escapes, eventually you end up back in the real. Or, eventually, American escapism becomes so sedimented that it’s where we live.

    Jasper

    January 15, 2008 at 7:12 pm

  2. Ha! Sorry, I know I’m being bad about Pynchon. We totally agree about Foer (but shhh or else I’ll be writing that piece about Brooklyn writers that appeared in the American Scholar a few months back…) And it’s a good description of DeLillo.

    And ah, wasn’t there a fork in the road of the genealogy that you rightly lay out, where one branch continued through Nabokov et al and another took to Flaubert / Joyce / DeLillo conduit?

    But let’s try to pin this down further, and feel free to tell me if the question doesn’t make sense / doesn’t work for you. Were or are you an American Beauty person or a Magnolia guy? This is how I chose my friends early in grad school. It should be clear enough, right, where my allegiances lie…

    adswithoutproducts

    January 15, 2008 at 7:39 pm

  3. I am pro-zany, though I haven’t read as much Delillo as I should.

    And I can’t get the player-thingies to work, but that may be my slow connection.

    Sisyphus

    January 16, 2008 at 2:42 am

  4. I missed Magnolia, so I can’t really say. I liked American Beauty when I saw it, but I’m not sure what I’d think of it now. I kind of loved Boogie Nights, and Punch-Drunk Love might be as close as you could get to selling me on a romantic comedy, not to mention a movie with Adam Sandler, so I’m guessing that Am. Beauty’s the right answer for you?

    And yes, the fork makes sense. How to account for the difference between the two lines? Perhaps the line leading to DeLillo is more an accommodation to the bildungsroman? But where would that leave Invisible Man? Bildungsroman or picaresque?

    Jasper

    January 16, 2008 at 3:41 am

  5. Sisy,

    Jesus. I’m gonna stop making fabulous youtube posts.

    Jasper,

    No see that’s just the point. The correct answer is Magnolia! It’s so funny – try this thing on your friends and see. (Easier when those movies were current, during my first year or so of grad school – I wonder if there’d be a contemporary equivalent…)

    Invisible Man is a great question, where that falls. I think the fork has to do with ability to sign on to the stance that you described above – “. That’s how I feel about Pynchon’s relation to American escapism. . . If you keep layering the escapes, eventually you end up back in the real. Or, eventually, American escapism becomes so sedimented that it’s where we live.”

    I guess it all depends upon how you feel once you’ve reached the real, such as it is….

    I’m now seeing the whole world in terms of the Zane. Spent the afternoon with the Best of Louise Bourgeois (not zany!), but I kept thinking about the phallic coup de grace with the hardplastic dick statue (borrowed from LB, right? Sure seems like it) in Clockwork Orange. Zany! But British / Kubrickian Zane is a totally different beast, isn’t it?

    adswithoutproducts

    January 16, 2008 at 12:38 pm

  6. OK, my bad. I’ll have to watch Magnolia. Mentioning Louise Bourgeois drives home what I was thinking yesterday, that the terms are strongly gendered, and perhaps somewhat class-bound. Does zany get much applied to women? I think the term there is “cute”, or my choice of “whimsy,” although those terms are more open gender-wise. Louise Bourgeois, who I love, brings in another question, about the place of abjection, the grotesque. There’s also a certain didacticism there, but one that I go for. . .(discussion for another day). BTW, have you seen this article? http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/31n4/vol31n4_ngai.htm. It made me think twice about my use of “cute” as pejorative (although I guess it hasn’t really stuck). My sense is that there will always be some residual space with these affects/stances, such that they can’t be written off as simply mystificatory without exceptions. At least not by me. I remember Ngai mentioning to me that she thought about the “zany”–one of the affects she is interested, apparently–in relation to Ashbery. I don’t know if you read much poetry, but something like “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” or the later Girls on the Run seems like a good test case here.

    How do I feel once I’ve reached the real in Pynchon? More melancholy/alienated than ever. . . But also convinced that there may in fact be an outside in here somewhere.

    Jasper

    January 16, 2008 at 1:28 pm

  7. I mean, American Beauty seems like an attempt to lay zany atop the sentimental novel. Which could work, but for reason I can’t explain, doesn’t. That pretty well defines the shape of the current–“Brooklyn”–dispensation in fiction, from Jonathan Franzen forward, that I’m not so into. . . Anyway, that’s quite far from what I see in Pynchon. There are knives behind behind Dr. Hilarius’s therapeutic grimaces.

    Jasper

    January 16, 2008 at 1:35 pm

  8. Well, I’ll stay out of the Pynchon/DeLillo thing, since I find I have interests and pleasures in both, and my main gripe with DeLillo is that, after a couple decades of at least trying, he wrote the repugnant Underworld, brutally violating his contract with me the reader that he wouldn’t retail his sentimental childhood as a novel; as soon as he did that, he was just a putz.

    But seriously, CR! Magnolia is not the right answer, even if the question is, American Beauty? It’s infantile theology taking a buncha astonishingly clichéd faux-humans as puppets for extracting some tiresome lessons, and can’t even distinguish between “connection” and force majeure.

    But it’s really subtle with the symbolism; I like it when the cop, you know, loses his gun, and he’s all unmanned, but then he gets his gun back and he’s all straightened up. For reals, was that the part that got you, or was it the insistent reference to verses from Exodus that sold you?

    jane

    January 16, 2008 at 10:59 pm

  9. Jasper,

    I mean, American Beauty seems like an attempt to lay zany atop the sentimental novel.

    How weird is it that the “sentimental novel” in question is, um, Ulysses??????

    I agree with your connection of this to the Brooklyn novelists tho.

    Jane,

    Shit, just dropped my gun.

    But seriously. Of course they both suck. The question is of relative rather than absolute value, or their usefulness as exemplars of two similar but distinctive satiric stances. I guess you’re taking American Beauty in this game?

    Come to think of it, the things not to like about Magnolia are very similar to the things I don’t like about White Noise. But that screws up my argument, doesn’t it.

    I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this or not, but the theater around the corner from my house, which is showing excellent stuff like 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, only costs $24 / ticket. Woof. Good thing we don’t have and can’t afford a babysitter.

    Anyway, what else is repugnant about Underworld, beyond the tour of the old neighborhood? Or is that it? I’m still figuring it out, the book, and would love to hear.

    adswithoutproducts

    January 17, 2008 at 5:33 am

  10. Don’t stop with the youtube posts on my account! Did I _tell_ you to, noooo!

    American Beauty was nice, but slick. I’m meh over it. Magnolia I never could watch since Rob said it was his favorite movie and he kinda scares me. (Clockwork Orange, though, always a fave.)

    My friend is presenting on Velvet Goldmine in a few weeks, which I love —- not zany, but dreamlike — does this fit in your whole paradigm here?

    Sisyphus

    January 17, 2008 at 11:20 pm

  11. Salman Rushdie is zany as a novelist, I think. I can’t say that either the zaniness or the ‘old neighborhood talk’ (why would one object to that, the Bronx isn’t all that well-known) in DeLillo, though. I don’t think I’m capable of objectivity regarding DeLillo, as I’ve liked even the things most people think inferior, like ‘Body Artist’ and ‘Cosmopolis’.

    Anonymous

    January 18, 2008 at 12:17 pm

  12. I think the beginning of the Body Artist is something like a master-class in still vital modernist narrative form. And I even liked Cosmopolis too.

    adswithoutproducts

    January 18, 2008 at 8:06 pm

  13. “beginning of the Body Artist is something like a master-class in still vital modernist narrative form.”

    Yes, and his ability to write like this, in this somewhat precious and stylized way, seems to me to make the big, spacious and more ‘humane’ vastnesses, but also ‘human-size’ in the Bronx sections, all the more remarkable. He’s able to do both flesh-and-blood and art-gallery-cerebral.

    But I like your ‘discovery’ of the word ‘zany’, and think it covers something that I most hate about much contemporary fiction. I’d been trying to figure out what it was that I couldn’t stand in things like ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’ (while still liking much in the book because Rushdie is interesting) and ‘The Island of the Day Before’ (while hating it in every possible way.) I can see why you’d find it in ‘White Noise’, but also find it interesting that you’d discover this term through the work of the single novelist (at least who continues to produce, some of the others are merely alive, but refusing to produce ‘zanis’ and somehow not able to produce novels like DeLillo does which embrace what is new without getting that tedious hyped-up sound) who is most capable of avoiding doing it still; maybe ‘White Noise’ stuck out somehow, in relief to the rest of the books. I don’t think Mailer ever succumbed to it, but I haven’t read the thing on Hitler. The Picasso was still Mailer being Mailer, and it’s profound (I don’t think it matters in his case if it’s not strictly fiction). Some of the fiction writers aren’t able to write science fiction per se but end up sounding like it anyway. And the sci-fi writers keep trying to sound like ‘real novelists’ and they make a rather sad showing, I find. ‘Spook Country’ is bad in other ways besides ‘zany’, though.

    It occurs to me that Michel Houllebecq is somewhat zany in that a novel like ‘Platform’ is about a relationship of marriage that quickly disintegrates into episodic pornography. It’s stupid, because then the wife is killed and it’s supposed to be as touching as if they had done something besides threesomes and foursomes and exhibitionistic sex after only a few months of marriage. I don’t know whether that’s quite exactly ‘zany’, or just insane.

    This word is very useful, though, for identifying much of what is very empty in fiction of the last 10-15 years (and perhaps before, but I would have not thought to term ‘White Noise’ zany, just because DeLillo so rarely uses the style.)

    Anonymous

    January 18, 2008 at 8:48 pm

  14. I dunno. America/postmodern reality is pretty damn zany. The best satire, or (heaven forbid!) “didactic” novel need push only a little bit to expose the obscenity and pomposity of it all. Zany.

    Matt

    January 21, 2008 at 8:37 pm

  15. It occurs to me that Michel Houllebecq is somewhat zany in that a novel like ‘Platform’ is about a relationship of marriage that quickly disintegrates into episodic pornography. It’s stupid, because then the wife is killed and it’s supposed to be as touching as if they had done something besides threesomes and foursomes and exhibitionistic sex after only a few months of marriage. I don’t know whether that’s quite exactly ‘zany’, or just insane.

    Ok, now we’re going off into JG Ballard territory, which is not zany at all. “Zany” suggests to me some sort of anarchic comic exuberance, possibly once it’s been defanged or domesticated down to something commercially palatable — but I would use “twee” or “precious” for when zany has worn its edge off.

    “Zany” and “freakily disturbing” don’t seem to go together at all to me. On the other hand, now that I think about some of the sex and the shit-eating scene in Gravity’s Rainbow, I would seem to have messed all my categories up.

    Sisyphus

    January 22, 2008 at 3:27 pm


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