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misdelivered mail

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A story:

1) Receive a text on Saturday from the porter in our old building saying that a “large envelope” has arrived for me. We moved away last October, had our mail forwarded changed address on all the relevant accounts.

2) I proceed to worry because:

a) mail, in today’s day and age, has become an ominous matter. One used to receive so many things, and many of them good (papers and magazines, correspondence) by post. Now it seems like the only thing one gets are epistles bringing bad news – a tax that was left unpaid and that now is in arrears, a legal notice of some sort, a bill on an account that hasn’t been paid etc. That and loads of junk mail – which the porter wouldn’t have called us about. I simply can’t think of what it might be – which only makes the fear grow stronger that it is something awful indeed.

b) I am terrible at not worrying about things that I can’t take care of immediately. Because I found out Saturday at noon, and the porter stops working around noon, I wouldn’t be able to resolve the issue by finding out what was in the mysterious package until Monday morning. My first thought: “this is going to taint the rest of my weekend, not knowing, not being able to act on what ever it is. We’re warned against the “fear of fear itself” – quite reasonably, as it might well be the most frustrating and disabling form of fear – but I can’t seem to help myself.

3) Looking for books to shift from my house to my office, as I had a bit of spare room in my bag this morning and I’m trying to keep the house especially tidy of late, I locate something I recently purchased and had meant to read immediately but had forgotten about. It’s the new book that Coetzee has co-authored with the psychoanalysis Arabella Kurtz, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy.

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I decide to bring it along for me to read on the commute.

4) I read the first 15 pages or so of the book on the bus and then during the one stop on the Underground it takes to reach my old apartment building. As I do, I think about how relevant some of it is to an essay that I have coming out in an American academic anthology on “therapeutic culture.” (I wrote a piece for it on “blogging.”) I wonder momentarily if it’s too late for me to add some of it in – and then remember that the book is already probably in production. Proofs appeared months ago. I also think of the fact that just last week I completed an article for another anthology I was meant to appear in. Unfortunately I completed the essay approximately 6 months late. The afternoon that I finished it, I had a drink with one of the other contributors to the volume. “Do you think it’s too late for me to submit it?” I asked. He clicked at his computer in response and produced a pdf of the full proofs of the edition, which had arrived to him via email that day. Alas.

As I read, I also think about my problematic anxiety about the package – and all the instances of problematically useless worrying that I do all the time. I wonder this book will encourage me to consider therapeutic treatment for this. I also wonder what is at the bottom, psychologically speaking, of such worry.

5) My anxiety mounts as I approach my building, ring the buzzer for the porter, who lets me in and hands me the package in question. The return address is a university press. I still cannot guess what it is – though my heart is now at ease as it’s clear it’s not some sort of terrible message of financial mismanagement or the like.

Outside I open the envelope. It’s a finished and final copy of the selfsame collection on therapeutic culture in which my essay appears, the very one that I had considered attempting to edit just now on the underground. And of course, this revelation – one is tempted to call it an epiphany – leads seconds later to a sort of quiet marvelling at the little helix of psychoanalytically-loaded stuff that had just happened this morning.

6. Had my seemingly accidental re-discovery of Coetzee’s book this morning – and the haphazard decision to bring it along on my trip to work (with a detour to confront this anxiety-inducing envelope) been not so accidental and random after all? Had I, on some level, “known” that the only possible thing that could have arrived in such a package was this book – and thus was some back bit of my mind trying to send a irony-laden to the front bits of my mind by giving me a sort of “hiding in plain sight” clue as to the contents of the envelope? And further, the fact that all of this happened via two books on psychoanalysis itself does seem like a bit of a pirouette on the part of my unconscious mind.

7. Or, on the other hand, is this simply the type of story that we love to tell ourselves – the story of a coincidence that can be congealed into the shape of a narrative, or even of a conspiracy (in this case a conspiracy between my unconscious mind and a set of objects – two books.) There are many other details of my morning that I’ve left out that would have contributed nothing to this story: the coffee that I made myself this morning that turned out to have been made with spoiled milk, the painfully large withdrawal I had to make from the bank to pay for a summer holiday and a tax bill, the huge shit that one of the neighbourhood cats left front and centre in my garden last night.

There are even other parallel stories that I am eliding – potentially more interesting ones: I was bothered by the fact that the stopoff at my old place would require me to take the slower of the two underground lines available to me (Piccadilly rather than Victoria). When I reached the station, there were announcements that the latter (my usual, faster route) was almost completely suspended due to a “person under a train.” Which led me at first, for a second, to feel relief – at least I would have been taking the slow train no matter what. And then to feel slightly ashamed of myself for such a ridiculously callous response to a horrific accident.

8. And what is there, further, to make of the fact, that amidst all of this – a non-trivial portion of which has at least something to do with late submissions – further seemed to me, by the time I made it to my office, to stand as good material for a blogpost. A blogpost that I’m writing right now instead of finishing yet another late article for yet another academic anthology.

 

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July 13, 2015 at 11:44 am

adult play-date: the new statesman back pages

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I used to write for the New Statesman’s “back of the book” relatively frequently. Which was something that I impressed myself by doing – for god’s sake, I had a paper subscription to the thing before I moved to the UK. But editors change, and then, well, the salad days at £275 or whatever per pop are over.

But can someone tell me what the hell is up with the “back pages” columnists? Just picked up this week’s number on the entry-way floor, strummed through it while waiting for my daughters to call so that I can order my Friday-sabbath Pakistani feast (this is satiric performativity by the way – bread and butter tactic of this crowd) and this is what we have:

– Will Self at a bloody Who concert. “many of us share at least some of Tommy’s disabilities – although, unlike the deaf, blind and dumb kid, we’re no longer capable of playing a mean pinball.” Suppose it’s a slight uptick from “Man with a giant thesaurus visits the Stockwell Burger King to, well, verbalise about it.”

– Suzanne Moore telling us about a fling she had with a maybe-IRA bro in the, what, 1980s. She had sex with a guy who took her to a Holloway Road pub. All of her columns, from what I can tell, are about sex in the 1980s with a guy who she met in a North London pub. But this one seems to have used a false name, which is I guess more interesting. Would make a great anecdote, in a North London back garden like mine, over BBQ. But everyone would walk away, as do readers of Moore’s columns, simply thinking, “Hmmm… seems like she needs us to know that she once had a load of bad sex.”

– Tracey Thorn lamenting the fact that her teenage daughter is free and easy enough to borrow the family tent, go to Latitude (wow), and get up to whatever dirtied her “micro shorts.” Good Christ. You should know though that while watching Glasto on the BBC, her highlights were “Mary J Blige and Jessie Ware, and the moment when Pharrell brings some children up on the stage.” She also “gear[ed] herself up for Kanye West.”

– I’ll never make fun of Nick Lezard because 1) he’s literally the only bit of the New Statesman that I read in my lovely hand-delivered copy each week. 2) I’ve gone though a nasty bit of divorce-with-kids like him. 3) Above all, he writes really well. But still: I feel, as opposed to the above, that I’m cringing with him, rather than at him, as he details his weekly struggles with the Marylebone mice, the rising prices of wine at Majestic, the (oh dear) “hefty loan from the daughter.” Mostly the column seems like a worst case “divorced man of letters with kids” plea for help – I suppose the help comes mostly (though this weeks column is about a reader who sent him £50) in the form of cheques from the New Statesman.

At any rate, that’s this week’s back bits. And one can easily (if one wants) imagine the four at a sort of mixed North London, well, if not a dinner party, perhaps one the “better pubs,” where one could play out (as if with our youthful “action figures”) the conversations between the bunch. Does Lezard call Thorn up on the fact that he owns not a tent, let alone the scratch to fund his daughter’s Latitude indulgence? Do Moore and Self query each others hazy (but scriptable, when need be) sense of the 1980s and 1990s?

But the bigger question is: Why does the New Statesman, ostensibly the “soft left” magazine of Britain, feel the need to regale us with the stories of people who were born at a point when they could a) go to university for free b) louche around a bit, even quite a long bit and then c) still find themselves a house in North (or South) London and a healthy sinecure at a paying magazine? Why does it feel the need to stage some sort of horrific Islington adult play-date in its own back pages?

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July 10, 2015 at 8:51 pm

sex in fiction (notes)

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Lightnessw_original

From Michael Hofmann’s rather brilliant piece on Kundera in the new LRB (paywalled, I think). Here, he’s talking about Kundera’s characters and sex.

Kundera has an old – and I would say, a dated – trust in sex. Sex as the expression of or the stand-in for or the earthly (or heavenly) representative of personality or inner life. […] Whoever they are, sex tests them and keeps the score. Do they use rude words or not? Do they prefer darkness or do they like to leave the lights on? Do they shut their eyes or keep them open? Are they thinking of the person they’re with, or of someone else? Kundera is touchingly interested and trusting in what he finds out: they are about the only stage directions you get in his books. Where other observers might contend our species is at its most generic in bed, and any differences we might display there are either faddish or not interesting, that, for example, the way we like to shop is altogether more expressive and revelatory, Kundera takes another view. He deserves the label ‘erotic politician’ more than Jim Morrison ever did.

I’m in the very early stages of trying to write something about the representation of sex in contemporary (and relatively contemporary) novels. One question that I’m asking myself – and asking the works that I will talk about – is a relatively obvious one: how has the representation of sex changed since the arrival of ubiquitous internet pornography. I’m hoping that the answer isn’t as obvious as the question. But Hofmann’s paragraph above expresses perfectly part of what I am thinking – the part that we have left behind.

We no longer believe, or at least have begun to doubt, that sex is personally-revelatory, a pathway to the demonstration of some sort of personal (or interpersonal) quiddity. Perhaps pornography has something to do with this – what at first can seem intriguingly distinct comes to seem something else entirely when it dawns on you that there are hundreds of thousands of these totally unique things. (Every snowflake is different, yes, but the fact that there are so goddamned many of them, each a unique shape of their own, might start to make you wonder whether it matters that each one is different. That is to say, difference become less and less interesting the more that you realise everyone is different, but in an utterly random, meaningless way.)

Fiction, since its modern prose forms arose, has always been tantalised by sex. The romance suppresses it in sublimating it (or maybe it’s the other way around). But maybe now, with everything all out in the open, or at least nearly everything, fiction faces a bit of a problem. And instead of Kundera’s epiphanically-revelatory sexuality, we have the grim grinding of Houellebecq’s (and other’s) characters – grinding aimed at a sort of transcendence, still, but we can’t help but know that the joke, as it was on Emma Bovary, is always on them.

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June 26, 2015 at 9:20 am

Posted in fiction, porn, sex

‘sisyphean epic’

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sisyphus-1549

From this morning’s FT:

Monday’s emergency summit of eurozone leaders is likely to set the tone for markets for the week and could even be the tipping point in the Sisyphean epic being played out between Greece and its creditors.

A ‘Sisyphean epic’ is an interestingly semi-oxymoronic concept. Sisyphus’s whole story in Greek myth is a bit epical – meaning, at least, that it’s a long story, and a rather convoluted one. (Some versions of it have him as the father of Odysseus too – which would at least make him the progenitor of the greatest epical protagonist ever).

But generally when we today refer to Sisyphus, we’re talking about the end of his story, which involves a tragical turn. And in particular, we don’t so much remember the hubris or even the chain of events that lead to his punishment – but only the punishment itself, the perpetually fruitless rock rolling. It’s hard to think of this scene, the only one most of us know, as epical: Coming soon, to a cinema near you – the latest and bestest CGI epic masterpiece: Sisyphus Rolls His Stone, Forever – in 3D. 

But despite – or perhaps because of – its oxymoronic nature, the concept of a ‘Sisyphean epic’ does have a certain ring of truth when it comes to Greece, and its citizens, and citizens around the world who are dealing with life in the age of austerity. Sisyphus receives a form of punishment disproportionate to his crimes, and one that turns the momentary crisis into a perpetual situation. But most importantly, Sisyphus’s end mirrors  the festina lente experience of life under austerity – an ever increasing struggle for ever diminishing possibilities of reward. For what Sisyphus’s problem is is not simply pushing the stone up the hill over and over and over again. It’s also – perhaps more deeply – the fact that he must be aware of the fruitlessness of his task, as well, hellishly, of his inability to do anything other than to continue to participate in this sadistic game.

For, true to the oxymoron, austerity shrouds life in an anti-narrative structure. Not non-narratives: there are stories, struggles, and the like. But, as with Sisyphus as he time and time again dramatically shoulders his stone and once more begins his ascent, the stories and struggles are haunted from the start by an ever decreasing chance of a turn, a resolution, a positive accomplishment at the end. The stories keep running, but for more and more, the efforts that would be chronicled are rendered absurd right from the start. But we, like Sisyphus, are doomed to to keep on playing them out nonetheless.

 

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June 22, 2015 at 8:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

no more evening standard for me

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I read papers. I subscribe to two (in the old fashioned paper version – I subscribe to six on the iPad) which are dropped every early morning through my mailslot in a wake-me-up kind of way. And I read one on the way home – the Evening Standard. I like living in a city that has an evening paper, a rare thing nowadays. And I was happy when it went free, although it did occur to me to consider the horrific changes in my home metropolis’s weekly paper, The Village Voice, when the same happened to it.

But I think I’m about to stop reading The Evening Standard, as much as a habit and sometimes a pleasure it is. What they tried to do to Labour in the city was one thing, despite what happened with the actual vote. And you know, I could do without daily updates on what’s happening in the capital’s poshest private schools. (Doesn’t seem to be on-line, but there’s an article today on page 8 about “muck-up day” at £14,000 a year City of London. Last week, there were two articles in the first 10 pages about Westminster School and its parents and pupils).

But what’s really making me throw the towel in – and make a decision to read something better on the way home tomorrow and for the tomorrows to come – is Lebedev’s, and thus the paper’s, weird edit-free support of the Tory candidate for London mayor, Ivan Massow.

An article praising him seems to appear every day. (As with the potential of a Labour national victory, feels as though Lebedev is a bit terrified of what might happen to him and his extended stay in London were Labour to win, though with the mayoralty, I doubt it’d be anything as bad as the end of the non-dom exemption). Massow seems like an OK guy – despite the fact that he seems to have a lot to get out in front of with today’s article, entitled “I’m a gay, dyslexic ex-alcoholic… vote for me.” (One suspects that a left candidate with the same “credentials” might get a different treatment from the Standard – take for instance the fact that he seems to have impregnated his lesbian roommate. One wonders whether Sadiq Khan would get a calm “explainer” opportunity if that was the case with him.)

But anyway, what’s annoyed me today is a single sentence in the latest puff piece they’ve run for Massow. The paragraph in which it’s contained runs:

“It’s been true since Dick Whittington that anyone can come to London and make it even if they have nothing in their pockets. In New York it’s all about what university you went to. In Paris you have to be Parisian. But London is a city that loves outsiders.”

That sentence about New York is simply a lie. If anyone was editing this rubbish, or even mildly “curating” it, that sentence would have to come out. Let’s take a look at the facts.

London has had two mayors. One was Independent-Labour, who – it is true, never went to university. The other, the Tory, well, yes, he went to Balliol College, Oxford. Which is about as “what university (and secondary school of course) you went to” as you as could possibly get.

On the other hand, let’s do a (relatively) recent list of New York City mayors and their undergrad alma maters:

Bill DeBlasio – New York University

Michael Bloomberg – Johns Hopkins University

Rudy Giuliani – Manhattan College

David Dinkins – Howard University

Ed Koch – City College of New York

Abraham Beame – City College of New York

So we’re back to 1974 with that. There’s one “elite” university on the list (Hopkins- though it’s not really a “king-maker”) and another one (NYU) that’s become very expensive now, but certainly wasn’t considered elite when DeBlasio attended it. In other words, what Massow’s said is complete bullshit – propagandistic bullshit that at once shines his own “self-starter” badge as well as shimmies up to his “aspirational” audience. So… whatever, it’s a throwaway line, right? Well, if I’m going to read a newspaper, and if even if it’s going to pimp for a candidate, I’d like there to be at least a semblance of honesty, objectivity, and backchat-upon-factual-error. Massow’s simply wrong in his claim – and no one at the Standard cares. Or they do, but they’re wise enough to know that crossing their oligarchical boss is probably a very, very bad career move.

I don’t think it would ever be reasonable for us to expect the Standard to present an “unbiased” portrayal of national or local politics, what Lebedev is doing for Massow is over the line. But the point is, they opined against the beliefs the constituency they pretend to journalistically represent. And now, they’re stumping for another one of the same sort. Watch forwhat they’re about to do to any Labour or further left candidates that run for the London office.

For myself, I’ll not be picking up a Standard tomorrow – and won’t be again until the London election is over. I encourage you not to too.

PS. If you want to read a weird wikipedia page, read Lebedev’s. According to it – brief as it is – he’s the strange sort of lucky, but simple, pub owner and restauranteur who also happens to own an 800,000 circulation newspaper. Thinking about buying my local, so that I can do that sort of thing too…

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May 18, 2015 at 6:08 pm

Posted in london

dfw on bureaucratic heroism

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140425122645-hill-street-daniel-j-travanti-story-topI’m re-reading (as much of) Infinite Jest as I can this weekend, as I’m teaching it (for the first time – I’ve before done The Pale King in graduate seminars) on Wednesday. Made it up to page 318 yesterday, no mean feat, and want to do the same sort of numbers if possible today. Ah, the joys of the end of term. I spent the entirety of last weekend reading Midnight’s Children. 

One thing I’m on the look out for this time through Infinite Jest are early signs of the themes of The Pale King. How about this one, on bureaucratic heros. It comes from an essay that Hal Incandenza writes for his Entertainment History class:

Chief Steve McGarrett of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ and Captain Frank Furillo of ‘Hill Street Blues’ are useful for seeing how our North American idea of the hero changed from the B.S. 1970s era of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ to the B.S. 1980s era of ‘Hill Street Blues.’

Chief Steve McGarrett is a classically modern hero of action. He acts out. It is what he does. The camera is always on him. He is hardly ever offscreen. He has just one case per week. The audience knows what the case is and also knows, by the end of Act One, who is guilty. Because the audience knows the truth before Steve McGarrett does, there is no mystery, there is only Steve McGarrett. The drama of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ is watching the hero in action, watching Steve McGarrett stalk and strut, homing in on the truth. Homing in is the essence of what the classic hero of modern action does.

Steve McGarrett is not weighed down by administrative State-Políce-Chief chores, or by females, or friends, or emotions, or any sorts of conflicting demands on his attention. His field of action is bare of diverting clutter. Thus Chief Steve McGarrett single-mindedly acts to refashion a truth the audience already knows into an object of law, justice, modern heroism.

In contrast, Captain Frank Furillo is what used to be designated a ‘post’-modern hero. Viz., a hero whose virtues are suited to a more complex and corporate American era. I.e., a hero of reaction. Captain Frank Furillo does not investigate cases or single- mindedly home in. He commands a precinct. He is a bureaucrat, and his heroism is bureaucratic, with a genius for navigating cluttered fields. In each broadcast episode of ‘Hill Street Blues,’ Captain Frank Furillo is beset by petty distractions on all sides from the very beginning of Act One. Not one but eleven complex cases, each with suspects and snitches and investigating officers and angry community leaders and victims’ families all clamoring for redress. Hundreds of tasks to delegate, egos to massage, promises to make, promises from last week to keep. Two or three cops’ domestic troubles. Payroll vouchers. Duty logs. Corruption to be tempted by and agonized over. A Police Chief who’s a political parody, a hyperactive son, an ex-wife who haunts the frosted-glass cubicle that serves as Frank Furillo’s office (whereas Steve McGarrett’s B.S. 1970s office more closely resembled the libraries of landed gentry, hushed behind two heavy doors and wainscot-ted in thick, tropical oak), plus a coldly attractive Public Defendress who wants to talk about did this suspect get Mirandized in Spanish and can Frank stop coming too soon he came too soon again last night maybe he should get into some kind of stress counselling. Plus all the weekly moral dilemmas and double binds his even-handed bureaucratic heroism gets Captain Frank Furillo into.

Captain Frank Furillo of ‘Hill Street Blues’ is a ‘post’-modern hero, a virtuoso of triage and compromise and administration. Frank Furillo retains his sanity, composure, and superior grooming in the face of a barrage of distracting, unheroic demands that would have left Chief Steve McGarrett slumped, unkempt, and chewing his knuckle in administrative confusion.

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March 22, 2015 at 10:57 am

kundera on the fictional essay

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I sometimes wonder whether we’re not all getting Knausgaard wrong. It’s not the non-impersonality of it that matters, perhaps. It’s the essayism. The fact that he feels free to slip from narrative into essayistic prose more or less at will. Many of the parts that we tend to remember most vividly are from the essayistic portions. Or, to put it another way, imagine what the texts would be like if they left the essayistic material out – if they were straight “memoir.”

But the second question, then, is what the difference is between this “essayism” that I’m describing and “old fashioned” nineteenth-century narration, the sort that we find in Dickens and Eliot for example. If this were the case, then we’ve just slid backwards, back past the innovations of Flaubert and his progeny, into a space of the wisdom-imparting storyteller, and into a realm where the narrative characters simply play out a morality tale as a backdrop to the droning play-by-play of the authorial announcer.

I’ve just, however, come across an interesting reframing of the issue in Milan Kundera’s 1983 interview with the Paris Review. In the course of discussing the polyphonic nature of Hermann Broch’s writing, the interview asks about an “essay” that is inserted into Broch’s The Sleepwalker. 

INTERVIEWER

You have doubts about the way it is incorporated into the novel. Broch relinquishes none of his scientific language, he expresses his views in a straightforward way without hiding behind one of his characters—the way Mann or Musil would do. Isn’t that Broch’s real contribution, his new challenge?

KUNDERA

That is true, and he was well aware of his own courage. But there is also a risk: his essay can be read and understood as the ideological key to the novel, as its “Truth,” and that could transform the rest of the novel into a mere illustration of a thought. Then the novel’s equilibrium is upset; the truth of the essay becomes too heavy and the novel’s subtle architecture is in danger of collapsing. A novel that had no intention of expounding a philosophical thesis (Broch loathed that type of novel!) may wind up being read in exactly that way. How does one incorporate an essay into the novel? It is important to have one basic fact in mind: the very essence of reflection changes the minute it is included in the body of a novel. Outside of the novel, one is in the realm of assertions: everyone’s philosopher, politician, concierge—is sure of what he says. The novel, however, is a territory where one does not make assertions; it is a territory of play and of hypotheses. Reflection within the novel is hypothetical by its very essence.

This might be a place to start for an answer about the specific difference of Knausgaard’s writing – and the sort of writing that I am most interested in reading now. Essayistic, in parts, to be sure. But essayistic in a sense that the essay itself turns “fictional” – isn’t the “ideological key” of the novel but rather an utterance on the same level of “truth” as the narration in which it is submerged.

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March 20, 2015 at 11:35 pm

Posted in fiction, form