Wednesday, September 29, 2010

This Time, Baby, "Bullet Park"

Wow, John Cheever, wow. Damn, too, damn, John Cheever, damn. I was not expecting that from you. "Bullet Park" is a strange and fascinating novel. Clearly, I had you pegged incorrectly. Thanks for that.

See, nothing pleases me more than the revelation that I did not give a certain author enough of a chance in my first encounter with his or her work, and that his or her writing could, indeed, please me if only I'd open myself up to that possibility. Thanks, Dr. Suess, lesson learned. However, sometimes you need to be provided certain additional circumstances with your Green Eggs and Ham (both the dish and the children's novel). It's not always as simple as being willing to try them, I mean; you also sometimes need to be in the right mood.

But let's see, Mark Athitakis linked to a pretty useful blog post exhorting readers to beware this novel's description on the backs of book covers of certain editions. Methinks I had the same edition being described because mine does reveal something quite substantial about the plot, which might have served me better not to have been privy to. Still, I don't mind little or vague reveals provided the story is interesting. A similarly significant pithy revelation about its plot might have made reading "Everything is Illuminated" impossible drudgery, in contrast. (I'll get to "Everything is Illuminated" in a forthcoming post.)

So what makes "Bullet Park" good inmyopinion? [From this point forward I can no longer promise there won't be spoilers, read further at your own (potential) peril!] It's a lot like what Nabokov wrote but not derivative in the negative sense, i.e. lacking its own original vision. This pleases me. As you all know, you people who read this blog even merely occasionally, I'm pleased when things I read have a Nabokov-twinge to them. The Nabokov-twinge of "Bullet Park" doesn't make its appearance until part 2 of the novel, told entirely from the first-person perspective of Paul Hammer. Paul Hammer has something like Humbert Humbert or Dr. Kinbote or Hermann Karlovich in him, a strange zeal for upsetting the normative norms that dress life so plainly, in suburbia or wherever, and then reacting to this world in his own meta-beside-the-point way, which may or may not impel some sort of violent clash of sorts at the story's conclusion (which likewise has its Nabokovian feel, obsession being a thing that it is).

"Bullet Park" also begins, for me, a series of the myth of the American Dream novels, as presently I'm reading the lengthy but very good novel "J R" by William Gaddis, whom I was inspired to read in part because of a Big Other post in which Greg Gerke nicely states his thoughts on Gaddis' use of the sun and other elemental imagery in "The Recognitions" and in part because of the frequent mention Gaddis is given in "Wittgenstein's Mistress." A very editorial aside: Gaddis is probably the most underrated though paradoxically highly praised and awarded (2 National Book Awards among his credits) fiction writer of the last fifty years, or at least among the top five. (David Markson might well be up there as well, although I feel I should read more of his work before I affirmatively take that stance.) Also, aside from "Bullet Park" and "J R" I would then add "Revolutionary Road" by Richard Yates. I hear good things about "Revolutionary Road." Things I like hearing.

But to return to "Bullet Park," the novel also concerns Elliot Nailles and his son Tony, the struggle of the minutiae of their day-to-day lives. Tony at one point is shown being much too dependent on TV (or so Elliot decides), and Elliot (who is normally referred to strictly as "Nailles") decides he must rid his son of his dependency by destroying the television set. He does and this act seems to be the beginning of a rift that only grows larger between father and son as time goes on. Hammer speaks of being struck by a "cafard" in his early to mid-twenties, one that he decides can only be ameliorated by a house he becomes infatuated with, almost sensually, and in specific one of its room's yellow walls. Meanwhile, Tony suffers his own cafard, one that renders him completely bedridden and inconsolable. Tony is immune to conventional medicine, it appears, and Nailles and his wife, Nellie, opt to pursue a very different method of recovery (which I won't detail here, although it'll become obvious if you read the novel). This unusual method immediately has the desired effect and Tony seems, for all intents and purposes, cured. Hammer comes to the Bullet Park neighborhood with his wife, Marietta, who treats him badly. Hammer comes to Bullet Park, likewise, with an ulterior motive, which would have been surprising indeed had I not had the version of the book I had.

And on second thought, it would have been far better not to have known what was coming. Keep that in mind if you decide to hunt for "Bullet Park" somewheres. You ought to, hunt, though. Read it, I mean. DO!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"The Myth of Sisyphus" and Other Non-Myth Related Essays of Camus

I'm not an existentialist. I've never read Satre, which I'm pretty sure is antithetical to considering yourself a party to the school of French existentialism. I have read de Beauvoir and she's great. I've also admired the fiction of Albert Camus for quite some time, and he's the philosopher poet of that particular derivation of, well, philosophy. But that said and perhaps bewilderingly considering what he's best known for, I've never thought of Camus in terms of his philosophical background until recently, having read his book of essays, "The Myth of Sisyphus." And now it will probably be difficult to think of him in any other light than that of existentialist, although he's certainly more than the imposition of limits inherent to such categorization.

The posts of the last month or so preceding this one are, I know, rife with allusions if not outright mention of Camus' existentialism. He's a fascinating person, from all I know of his background. His childhood in Algeria, which would color his world view for the rest of his life. His reporting from troubled parts of the African continent. His eventual tragic death in a car accident at age 46, which provided a strange sort of abrupt, exclamatory punctuation to the transience of his own life, and ephemerality being an eventuality which he attributes unflinchingly to all life in his philosophical musings.

To Camus, it was necessary to accept the fact that life was ephemeral, a quick breath above the endlessly deep waters of non-existence. It was also true, to Camus, that life was necessarily absurd, because of the inextricable bond of one's own human consciousness to the world in which (s)he resides, and that neither could exist to the exclusion of the other. ". . . [T]he Absurd is not in man . . . nor in the world, but in their presence together," as Camus himself puts it in "An Absurd Reasoning." Adding also, in the same essay, "I know on what it is founded, this mind and this world straining against each other without being able to embrace each other." These thoughts seem, likewise, similar to certain tenets of those philosophical theorists who preceded the existentialists. I'm thinking of Nietzsche most specifically, but also Kierkegaard of whose philosophy Camus makes a special critique.

For instance Nietzsche sez:

Only very naive people are capable of believing that the nature of man could be transformed into a purely logical one; but if there should be degrees of approximation to this objective, what would not have to be lost if this course were taken! Even the most rational man from time to time needs to recover nature, that is to say his illogical original relationship with all things. [emphasis Nietzsche's]
As Camus endeavors to explain the Absurd in "An Absurd Reasoning" the first essay of the collection, he notes something similar to Nietzsche's above aphorism, to wit:
"It's absurd" means "It's impossible" but also "It's contradictory." If I see a man armed only with a sword attack a group of machine guns, I shall consider this act absurd. But it is solely by virtue of the disproportion between his intention and the reality he will encounter, of the contradiction I notice between his true strength and the aim he has in view.
And being a fiction writer of a certain caliber in his own right, Camus had some thoughts on fiction writers both prior and contemporaneous to him. This I thought was most interesting, his consideration of his peers. His thoughts on Kafka not so much. Kafka, to Camus, was an author whose work betokens a sense of hope, specifically in "The Castle," which does not in the end turn away from "subterfuge." Which then Camus kind of speciously goes to some lengths to argue this and other points, written with the turgid verbosity that only philosophers can conjure. He takes issue with the fact that Kafka has made ". . . this hideous and upsetting world in which the very moles dare to hope." Hope is verboten to Camus' artistic vision, or a kind of hope is, the kind that eschews the reality of the Absurd. And I think that's where Camus' own trouble begins.

Camus also says, "For if nostalgia is the mark of the human, perhaps no one has given such flesh and volume to these phantoms of regret." Further adding, "But at the same time will be sensed what exceptional nobility the absurd work calls for, which is perhaps not found here." I find Camus' aesthetic abstraction troubling here, in part because it seems to come from a place of passion I don't fully understand, but also because it feels so insincerely reasoned. It is this way because this is the way it is, he seems to say with empty question begging that has little else to defend it. And I do believe I really like the nebulous quality of Camus and Kafka's works equally, along with so much else, so this is not an attempt to defend the honor of Kafka or something so puerile. If I felt Kafka were being justly criticized I'd admit this was so. I hope I've got that much credibility here. But instead Camus' exposition in this essay seems a good example of what happens when too much philosophy invades the thinking of the individual. Indeed, Camus is inextricably bound to the Absurd, which may harm his fiction to some small extent in my eyes, although probably it won't at all.

Still, there is so much to like about what he expounds upon. "Don Juan" is thoughtfully reconsidered in his essay, "Absurd Creation."

A man wants to earn money in order to be happy, and his whole effort and the best of a life are devoted to the earning of that money. Happiness is forgotten; the means are the end. Likewise, the whole effort of this conqueror will be diverted to ambition, which was but a way toward a greater life. Don Juan in turn will yield to his fate, be satisfied with that existence whose nobility is of value only through revolt.
You may call Don Juan a libertine, and on that point you may well be correct, but he is living outside of the rules society has mandated and outside of a false morality whose truth it assumes, when who is Don Juan harming? Women must know he cannot be chained down, since his behavior suggests nothing less than that he will not be. If this is so and still they cannot refuse him, that is their choice, as his is to be a libertine. I think the aforesaid is what Camus is essentially saying in this passage, and to that extent, I agree with him.

I don't always agree with him, but I always find him interesting, that Camus.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Italo Calvino is What's Awesome Today: "Cosmicomics"

"If on a winter's night a traveler" is one of my favorite books. It's experimental fiction, to be sure. It's my kind of experimental fiction, to be surer. I had a smallish falling out with the works of Italo Calvino, however, when I hit a dead end with "Invisible Cities." "Invisible Cities" was not my kind of experimental fiction, to be surest.

And so I didn't know what of Calvino's to try next, to rekindle my enthusiasm, until a friend recommended "Cosmicomics." Glad he did. "Cosmicomics" righted my attitude about Calvino's fiction from the outset. The book amounts to a strung-together-in-premise series of short stories. And that premise is, in a nut shell: creation myths and all their usual whimsy bound to a kind of quasi-regard for modern astronomy. In fact, each story is prefaced with a paragraph-long exposition on some astrological (or in a few cases geo-primordial) phenomenon or another (I presume these expositions are factual. Most sound factual, at least). Then each story descends into the madness of Calvino's really pleasing and lyrical prose.

Much of Calvino's work in "Cosmicomics" reminded me of one or a few of Mark Twain's later short stories, in which Twain describes souls screaming across the ethereal realm of outer space, traversing the galaxy and then, often, coming upon Earth. I.e. e.g. "Extract From Captain Stromfield's Visit to Heaven." But this isn't about that, about Twain. It is about Calvino and his similar tales to those of Twain, or so I have argued. Souls or whatever you wish to refer to them as exist in the galaxies of "Cosmicomics" likewise, having names like xzcsds or some such.

"A Signal From Space" was probably my favorite of the collection, although as said, they're all very good. But "A Signal From Space" had something slightly additional, slightly beyond that of the others which resonated with me. It's also the story most concerned with simulacra, said in terms of this strange artful philosophical tract and combining the other two elements I put forth above (i.e. myths and empirical science). I don't want to go all Jean Baudrillard on you, reader(s), but still I feel I must express my interest in the phenomenon of simulacra vis-a-vis semiotics.

The final supposition of the narrator speaks both of the long history of humanity's tendency to interpret surroundings and the end result of attaching our own method for divining all meaning, creating with it our own signs and symbols. (Hell, for evidence of this egocentrism look no further than the fact that I'm assuming the narrator is human, despite the non-human characteristics it possesses (like being probably immortal).) The ending sentence is long and well wrought, going a little something like this:

There was no longer any way to establish a point of reference: the Galaxy went on turning but I could no longer count the revolutions, any point could be the point of departure, any sign heaped up with the others could be mine, but discovering it would have served no purpose, because it was clear that independent of signs, space didn't exist and perhaps never existed.

The question then might be: is everything subject to the same immutable artificiality of signs devoid of meaning? That is, as purely constructs of conscious thought? The story refers only to a sign as the thing in itself throughout the narrative, not what it is beyond that or what it might be as a nuomenon (i.e. as a thing apart from senses)? Does any of this speculative, theoretical hogwash matter? Possibly not, but I enjoy being given the opportunity to think about it in certain occluded locales like that of a written work, and so has Calvino provided for such interpretation in "A Signal From Space."

I realize I have given you very little to chew on here in terms of what the stories are "about." They're all about something less abstract than my ruminating here, but I'm tired in general and uninterested in what all about these stories might be. Read them and you'll see, though uninitiated Calvino readers might also start with "If on a winter's night a traveler."

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Beware of Men Up There in High Castles

So it's official, I'm hooked on Philip K. Dick. I could easily have made a jejune, churlish remark there, meant facetiously of course, but then I wouldn't be able to excoriate myself with the use of all these descriptive and reproving "words of the day" I've learned recently and compiled here. Hence, my disinclination to do so, plus how incomparably draconian must one get for the purpose of arousing some droll, mirthful rise from his readership? So is why I refuse to say: I'm hooked on Dick, although I could have easily said that and engendered a pun of very lewd alternative meaning. I could very well have followed it up by saying I'm thoroughly enjoying Balzac likewise, although I haven't read "Eugenie Grandet," which is the only work of his in my possession, and I've never read anything by him heretofore, what's more. Whence, pardon my untruth for the facile endeavor of being risible and jocund as I have been, although in that endeavor I have contradicted, nay thwarted, my stated original purpose, which I claimed was to be neither of those things, to eschew those things in fact for the sake of decorum and civility. Or rather, I said I did so for the fact that then I wouldn't be able to excoriate myself with words, which in truth I have done. So all is well, actually.

Trekking ever onward . . .

But of the author appearing in the former position of the preceding paragraph, I can say only praising things. (Well, I could possibly say more negatively critical things but I prefer to speak praise first, which drastically outweighs my negative criticism of his work.) "The Man in the High Castle" can only be called a seminal novel of the sub genre of science fiction thus known as: alternative histories. In the novel and indeed its alternative history, the Nazis and Japanese have triumphed over the Allies in World War II, and the globe is split amongst the Axis victors, with the smallest portion offered to Italy, the France of this paradoxical universe.

The story follows multiple characters, the most important of which are: a store owner named Robert Childan specializing in the sale of antique Americana; Frank Frink, a secret Jew and a skilled craftsman who fashions reproductions of period pieces valuable to the Japanese, then after he quits that profession, jewelry of his own contrivance; Juliana Frink, estranged and divorced from her husband, Frank, she wanders the Rocky Mountain buffer searching for a new life, and in so doing, meets and begins to trust an assassin traveling incognito; Nobusuke Tagomi, a trade commissioner who takes on one of the more important roles of the story, in my opinion; and Mr. Baynes, a Swedish salesperson of an industrial plastics corporation who may not be entirely what he seems.

There is also a story within the story called "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" -- also an alternative history novel, which even more paradoxically posits what the world might be like had the Allies won the war. Wikipedia, in a section on its "The Man in the High Castle" page, notes that the Allies' victory in "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" is hardly congruent with the way in which the Allies were victorious in WWII in our historical sense. That is, Russia ends up playing a very minimal role, FDR is not assassinated as he is in "The Man in the High Castle" but survives through his first two terms and then is succeeded by another Democrat, Rexford Tugwell, who stewards the United States through the remainder of the war, and Great Britain returns to its place of preeminence as the world's lone hegemonic superpower.

Nobusuke Tagomi, to focus on one character, epitomizes several of the chief themes of the story. One is, the preference with which Dick opts to present the Japanese. Despite the bellicose nature of their imperialism and recorded treatment of POWs and even opposing populations' civilians during our WWII, the Japanese are -- not surprisingly -- viewed as the lesser of the two extant evils. And to express one quasi-misgiving, this idea is taken to the further extent of a kind of overcompensation on Dick's part in which the Japanese are set upon a pedestal. And though repeatedly tempered by showcases of their human frailty, the Japanese are depicted very often in the light of an awkward veneration for their culture by both the novel's characters and, ostensibly, Dick himself, as exhibited with the frequent nods to the Japanese's Buddhist traditions and their appreciation for that which transcends tangibility, objects possessing auras, the Tao, and so forth. It seemed, to me, at times, a smidgen patronizing, is all I'm saying.

Still, Tagomi's epiphany with respect to this idea, to the religion of the Japanese, is a key moment in the story. Childan learns from a Japanese customer that the jewelry Frink and his partner are producing, while less than pleasing from an aesthetic standpoint, possesses "Wu" -- a Chinese term expressing a supernal sort of knowledge or wisdom, or so says the novel (I've done no independent research). Childan's first impulse is to capitalize on this monetarily, but then he begins to realize his customer is putting him to a test: is American culture just the same vitiated and enterprising consequentialist system that defines Nazi Germany and elsewhere? Or can it appreciate a thing in itself -- can its artists, in effect, produce true art? He realizes this and, apparently desiring something more substantial for the American way of life, rescinds his claim that Frink would be willing to churn out these objects and in whatever way Japanese customers prefer. I think it's possible this is an outcome Dick would have preferred was the case in our America, which seems to have taken Childan's original tack, and produced for what's beside the point, what's to be selfishly gained.

Meanwhile, Tagomi has just killed two German agents sent to, apparently, take Baynes into custody for reasons I will avoid discussing here, and so visits Childan's store with his life in a state of, to put it mildly, disorder. Childan shows Tagomi Frink's jewelry, which Tagomi is indifferent to at first, finding he does not know what, if anything, he believes. But then, hoping that perhaps it could make things suddenly manifest to him, Tagomi buys one small, silver piece, on the condition that he may return it if it doesn't produce the desired effect. It produces an effect, and though not necessarily desired, it brings things into perspective for Tagomi -- gives him a glimpse of a world in which the United States had defeated Japan. It's unclear whether this is as the outcome of the "Grasshopper Lies Heavy" laid out, or whether it's the history we know, or if it was a place altogether different. But that's arbitrary, ultimately, to the fact that Tagomi understands better how easily synthesized these things are. How, then, ostensibly mutually exclusive ideas can exist side by side, in paradox, yes, but also not entirely illogically.

I liked this book. Read it. Read it and see what you think. Then tell me what you think. Or if you have already read it, tell me what you think. Let's discuss!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

"Wittgenstein's Mistress" -- A Writer's Read

Sadly, David Markson died earlier this year. I'd never heard of him before then. Damn you, experimental fiction writers of relative obscurity! I don't know what learning of his work while he was still alive would have done for me, but I feel shortchanged just the same. O, bother!

Nevertheless, probably the best way we can honor writers who've passed is by continuing to read them, which is -- happy to say -- what I've done. You should to, specifically with reference to "Wittgenstein's Mistress." It's the kind of story that surprises you, I think. It's one that might require a certain amount of diligence, but continuing to read pays off fairly quickly. For my own reading, the narrator's philosophical ruminations and mode of conveying these terms took an interval to get acclimated to, but when I was fully acclimated -- O, boy! Things really started to engross, engrossingly, like they had never engrossed before. (An aside: I'm going through a "using the word 'engross' with liberality" phase, presently. It shall hopefully pass soon.)

Actually, truth be told, I'm feeling a bit daunted by reviewing this book, if only for the fact that it has such a rabid and devoted following of writers and scholars, all of whom know it and its author better than I ever will. I've heard Markson described as a writer's writer. After "Wittgenstein's Mistress" that seems like an apt description. So hopefully I have something meaningful to contribute to their profound and heady discussion already in progress, but if I fail in this endeavor just know my heart was in the right place, Markson devotees. -- Can't blame me for trying, is all I'm saying!

Here I try:

As it happens Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of my favorite philosophers, so finding my anchor of relevance within the rapid tides of narrator Kate's sporadic stream of consciousness was rather straightforwardly achieved (or as straightforwardly as a work of this nature allows). This is not necessary, but having an understanding of some-to-many facets of the arts in the western world for the last several hundred years might avail you in your reading of "Wittgenstein." There are plenty of references to most all of the western arts, I mean. (William Gaddis is one oft-cited writer whom it happens I know of and very much enjoy his work, which also helped.)

If there was a single defining characteristic of "Wittgenstein's Mistress," it seemed to me to be the notion of the certain, preordained ephemerality of our signs and symbols, or more precisely: of the sum total of humankind's cultural achievements (and in that regard humanity's achievements of every sort). (An aside: I have to believe existentialists like Camus would have found much to like about "Wittgenstein's Mistress.")

The fact that Kate has little-to-no knowledge (or at least fails to express it if she does) of eastern culture and other places beyond her westernized outlook seems to me to even more pronouncedly support this idea of emphemerality. Without the east and other places' having their own individual "keepers of the flame" or some such, a "Kate" of their own, they have already faded to dust, which is ultimately the destiny of that knowledge which Kate has accrued and shares freely and not always with certitude, what's more.

There's the stink of inevitable death all over Kate's narrative, as it unavoidably must be. Whatever she really is, what we know is that Kate is the end in and of herself. Kate evidences this slow decay of ideas somewhat abruptly when she discovers a cache of books in the basement of the house in which she has taken up residence. The rub is that the books are written almost exclusively in German, of which she has paltry little knowledge. It thus renders them, in this place she resides, superfluous and useless, or in one word: extinct.

Kaputt. Sehr tot. Kein "Sein und Zeit." Kein Heidegger.

But here, let me briefly describe the plot of a novel that hardly relies on its plot (which is why I've saved adumbrating it till now). "Wittgenstein's Mistress" follows narrator Kate who alleges to be the last person left on the planet (and very possibly the last animate being, all told). I might have said the last person "alive" but there doesn't seem to be anyone, living or dead, around. No corpses. Empty automobiles and other human machinery, yes. However, that is it. She's alone, all alone. The mystery of everyone's disappearance (explainable with any of a great number of possibilities) appears to be somewhat beside the point, when judged from the vantage Kate's unique perspective affords.

What's true is the single, stand alone quality of the Absurd. Kate and the world exist for as long as that is the case. Neither will exist when one or the other is ended. That said, there is of course an important missing component to this, the other individuals with whom meaning might have once been shared. They are entirely absent, thus removing a key element of the relevance of culture: that it belongs not to one but many, and can be transmitted to even more who will learn it by birthright or wish to understand it in whatever way they will as outsiders.

Kate, for her own part, becomes the perfect trumpeter of this altered state of humankind, considering these "new" circumstances of existence, as she notes herself, hardly differ from her life previously. She was alone then and remains alone in less abstract terms now. She seems both melancholic and unfazed by this turn, also, moving more towards the former as the narrative reaches its close, as if she laments not taking fuller advantage of some sort of intimate relationship while that was still a possibility. But knowing she cannot, there is a grimness to her accepting the inevitability of her fate. Subsumed by the greater end of the civilization.

If Kate is mad, as she asserts she once was, this is entirely beside the point, too. She may well be mad, but the world of which she describes is the only world she knows, and likewise, it's the only reality we're given as readers. And everything she puts forth might as well be the case. . .