Thursday, November 4, 2010

Kafka Nightmares and Freud's Slips: Curtis White

Curtis White's writing is a lot like Franz Kafka's nightmares, i.e. the nightmares I envision Kafka having. I've never witnessed personally any of Kafka's nightmares, though an interesting idea -- oh, if I could (a tangent is building in my own mind, but I'll spare you that).

I like reading the reviews of books because sometimes you come across real gems of people not knowing what they were in for and thus being caught completely unprepared, then writing of their reaction to that. Here's one reader who did not get from Curtis White's "Memories of My Father Watching TV" what he had expected (which might also be the real genius of White's exceedingly innocuous-sounding, evocative title):

My 28 year old daughter gave me this for Father's Day because she knows I like old TV shows. I believe she had no idea about the content. I guess to be chartiable [sic] I will call this an artist's book about fathers.

Yes, well, in the strictest sense, yes, "Memories of My Father Watching TV" was a novel about fathers, skewed through the purview of a particularly humorous and morbid artist.

But, well, why is that such a negative thing? To this Amazonian.commer? If I'm dismissive and self-righteous I say he's a philistine. Maybe he is, but I choose not to be those things, at least whenever avoidable. And so instead I say White's abstract approach to old-time meat-and-potatoes television wasn't what this individual was looking for, and certainly not to the taste of his joie de vivre. (There now, I've certainly achieved full pomposity.) I also wonder if in the commentator's review there isn't a hint of resentment for his daughter's not investigating her gift more carefully. But that is getting beside the point, and I wouldn't ask you who read this to speculate about that without the entire context of the gentleman-in-question's whole review, which I flatly refuse to paste here. Because that would be exceedingly beside the point.

Weirdly, and since I'm culling from divergent, non-traditional sources already, the novel's back cover promotional synopsis reveals a little of what I would agree is more specifically than the preceding the essence of "Memories of My Father Watching TV":

Comic in many ways, Memories is finally a sad lament of a father-son relationship that is painful and tortured, displayed against the background of what they most shared, the watching of television, the universal American experience.
It's a lot like that if you remember to also include very graphic and sometimes incestuous descriptions of sexual intercourse, like think in terms of sex as a violent act. Because to be fair, doing it sometimes is just that, you know, violent. White relishes descriptions of said violence. In re-imagining the real-life television show "Maverick," which I'll make small claim to knowing anything about, he depicts "Blue Maverick," ostensibly tied to the character Bret Maverick played by James Garner (the blueness of White's Maverick having to do with conflating the television show with eastern Indian religion and, in specific, the god Vishnu, all falling into another area in which I will lay no claim of knowing much about), but anyway, in a scenario besting a villainous doppelganger disguised as his sister. How? Like this:

Blue Maverick, however, was quite aware that this was not really his sister Lila . . . and he sensed that her breasts flowed not with milk, but with deadly poison distilled in fact from the horns of a million murdered buffalo . . . Maverick closed his eyes and allowed the beautiful woman to take him on her lap as if he were her infant . . . but when she gave him her tit, Blue Maverick squeezed it between his powerful hands . . . "Whoa, honey, that's a little rough," she said . . . "Simmer down. You know, that can hurt a girl. That's sensitive business in your mitts there. Owee. OWWWEEEE!"
See? Violent! Of course not entirely sexual, but you get the idea. In fact, the weird infantilization and sexuality of the situation, brought together with the fact that Blue Maverick is in fact slaying this creature whatever she be, is itself an orgy of perversion that somehow clicked with me, if for no other reason than its obvious excess. It's like, of course he would kill this entity by robbing it of its life fluid, its poison milk.

And speaking of the novel on the whole, which a very fractured story it is, everything Oedipal is happily conflated in one fell swoop of patricide coupled with the / a protagonist's lecherous preference for his sister more than his mother. Mothers make very few appearances in this story, apparently avoided with purpose or else this conversation between siblings at novel's end is strangely coincidental:

Then Janey said, "What about Mom?"

"Where's Mom?"

"Where has she been all these years?"

"She never does anything with us."

"Let's wait for her."

"Hey, here she comes!"

Indeed it was Mom, hopping across the lawn, laughing, catching up.
If you've never tried a Curtis White story before, I suggest you whet your lack with this short, "The Order of Virility," available for your reading pleasure at, also deserving of mention, ero guro sensu lit magazine (You might recognize a lot of its current imagery as being from the David Cronenberg cult classic, "Scanners," which I just finally saw this past Halloween season for the first time ever! Famous head explosion and all!).

It treaded into Kafkaesque territory, you should know. Sorry to say it, but it did. It's when the father becomes a pontoon bridge on "Combat," and it's necessary for the Americans on the show to blow him to smithereens, to thwart the Nazis.

So is it television? Is it real life? Since Kafka is directly and indirectly referenced in several ways early on in this episode, I needn't endeavor at all to convince you he was, at least, on the author's mind, to whatever extent. For example, here is this explication, rife with questions put forth to and impelled from the reader:

Was my father's fervently held notion . . . that he was a pontoon bridge for the Nazis delusional? Was Gergor Samsa's depressed ideation ("I am a monstrous vermin") delusional? Or were these things metaphors? Is a metaphor a delusion? Does the probability of Franz Kafka's depression require us to think less of him as an artist?
I suppose I most like the question proposing Gregor Samsa is suffering from depression. Lots of fragmented miscellanea abounds, but I have to believe the philosophizing and speculation is with some literal purpose, at least at times. I gather White fancies misdirection and constant invocation of the slow-burning effluvium of an American mind (any mind really, but for the most part, the book deals with American TV). Life merged with TV becomes the reality. But even then, one has no active role in the unfurling action. Waiting. Only waiting. I'll spare you obvious literal rehashing of the fate of White's "father" in this episode. Know that he departs from his predicament no worse for wear, though, if that's something that can really be evaluated within the framework of a story like this one. It certainly seems, as a pontoon bridge, this father was himself unhappy, if not depressed. I would be.

There's not much more I can say of this book, which I liked. It's another frenzy of chaos, of the specter of television and whatever that specter did to assisting in dissolution of human-household relations, of the nuclear family. White's labyrinth here is, of course, not designed to answer questions; that much I can say for certain. It certainly raises questions, but what does it all mean? -- that's worthless here. Maybe 'cause who can say what this means? We've got the catalytic addition of the television and its postmodernity, which of course led the charge of the burgeoning multi-media dispensaries, which can't easily be understood as an effect. We just don't have enough to go on at the present lacuna. Time will tell, so stay tuned -- as if you really have a choice.

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