Monday, 15 September 2008

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996)

For obvious reasons I've been thinking about David Foster Wallace and his big book: a book many people hated, some people loved, a book even admirers sometimes couldn't finish. But, you know. Infinite Jest is an annoying novel. Reading through the long stretch of infuriated one-star amazon reviews makes its plain that many many readers have been annoyed; although the more surprising thing is that so many of these readers, having become annoyed and angry with the novel, nevertheless read it all the way through to the end. There’s something in that, I think. This is to say more than the obvious: that it is a wildly uneven piece of fiction, written in prose that is often enjoyable and even brilliant from page to page but which drags monstrously over the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages across which it is stretched. To say that it is overblown and tumorous, that it doesn’t end so much as tail-off, that it is self-indulgent (that it is a kind of self-indulgence raised to the power of self-indulgence) that the characters are unlikeable grotesques, or else flimsy stand-ins. That it's eleven-hundred-fucking-pages long and that al; the pages are printed in tiny eight point fucking type, except for the footnotes which are printed even smaller. All this is true.
[Jonathan Goodwin repudiates the charge of self-indulgence, incidentally, in his understandable desire to defend the book: but this seems me to miss the point. Which is to say, I don't mean 'self-indulgent' as an imprecise, or a throwaway, or even, in context, an especially negative criticism of Wallace. This book is about the distortions of human character, about the tyranny of selfhood, and about what people indulgence under the gravitational tug of their ego. What would Infinite Jest be unless it indulged itself?]

When a writer is criticized a temptation is to reply: ‘but the thing you are criticizing me for is exactly what I was trying to achieve!' Karate, you see, uses the enemy's strength against them. So: ‘your characters are paper thin’: ‘ah, but I was trying precisely to create thin characters!’ ‘Your novel is boring’; ‘I was trying precisely for boring!’ ‘This is a shit book.’ ‘I take that as praise: I was striving throughout to write a shit novel …’

I remember an experience I had as an undergraduate. I was in a seminar discussing Slaughterhouse 5 and one of my fellow students noted that Vonnegut’s habit of appending ‘so it goes’ to any description of a death struck her as intensely annoying. It is annoying, too. One man dies. So it goes. Hundreds of thousands are slaughtered. So it goes. But (quoth the seminar leader) it’s worth at least pondering the possibility that Vonnegut means to be annoying when he rolls out this glib little phrase. And, yes. One of the ways that novel works is precisely by refusing the traditional valences of the representation of death—that it is tragic, for instance; or that it is glorious or heroic, or even that it is comic. Instead Vonnegut styles death as irritating and infuriating, and thereby puts a new and (since, you know, Death is infuriating) fertile spin on his subject.

When I first encountered David Foster Wallace's novel I was going through a phase of thinking that it was competence that was killing the novel as a mode of art. Thousands of new novels are published every year, and almost all of them are written and finished with a professional competence that would have amazed Henry Fielding. It’s a glut. Few of these novels make a lasting impression. Wallace’s novel seemed to me then, and still to an extent seems to me now, one way of breaking this logjam: it is sprawly and uneven on a massive scale, and its weird mixtures of technical brilliance and technical incompetence (what I take to be deliberate, artistic technical incompetence) makes it like no other novel. As if in a world that had previously been flooded only with expertly achieved photorealist art, people were suddenly and for the first time shown a De Kooning.

That is, in itself, a cool thing. Also, it's science fiction, which is also cool.

More. As with Slaughterhouse 5, the treatment bears an organic, if gnarly, relationship to the theme, which is (it’s nothing new to suggest this about Infinite Jest) addiction. Its characters are addicts: addicted (for instance) to drugs or drink, or to the shallow satisfactions of consumer culture, to sport, or to modes of OCD behaviour, or to sex (‘Orin Incandenza like many children of raging alcoholics and OCD-sufferers had internal addictive-sexuality issues’, 289)

Reviewers on the back cover of my paperback copy make this point (‘reading the book is a sort of addiction’ The Spectator; ‘A remarkable satire on American entertainment and addiction … the book’s mixture of maniacal inventiveness and comic brio gradually becomes an addiction itself’ Anthony Quinn, Daily Telegraph) But this isn’t quite right, I think. The point is not that the reader becomes addicted to this novel, although of course she may (and therefore the novel must be exhilarating junk, which Infinite Jest kind-of is). The point is that the novel becomes addicted to itself. It is the self-regard, the narcissism of addiction that is Wallace’s real theme, not the trappings of addiction themselves. Some of the novel’s best moments embroider this theme—the detailed account of the Boston AA meeting during which it starts to dawn on the reader that the participants are effectively addicted to the process of beating their addiction (‘people who cockily decide they don’t wish to abide by the basic suggestions are constantly going back Out There and then wobbling back in with their faces around their knees and confessing from the podium that they didn’t take the suggestions and have paid full price’ 357); or the way Steeply’s father becomes addicted to watching the TV comedy show M*A*S*H (‘Broadcast television. The program in question was called “M*A*S*H”. The title was an acronym, not a command … the fucking thing ran forever, it seemed’, 639); or the way Joelle gets addicted to cleaning (‘Joelle used to like to get really high and then clean. Now she was finding she just liked to clean … she was using Kleenex and stale water from a glass by Kate Gompert’s bed’ 736): that she starts cleaning when high, but then realises that she doesn't actually need the drugs to feed her true addiction.

Then there's sentimentality, something else to which it's too easy to have an addictive relationship. Some deprecate his occasional sentimentality, some have a more ambiguous relationship to it. Some of it is not so much sentimentalism as genuine sensibility (in the eighteenth-century sense). Weirdly offkilter touching stuff. Listening to Linda McCartney singing:
The portrable CD player started in with poor old Linda McCartney as C held Gately and the asst. pharmacist tied him off with an M.D.'s rubber strap. Gately stood there slightly hunched. Fackelmann was making sounds like a long-submerged man coming up for air. C. told Gately to fasten his seatbelt. Urine had turned part of the apt.'s luxury-hardwood floor's finish soft and white, like soap-scum. The CD playing was one C'd played all the fucking time in the car when Gately had been with him in a car: somebody had taken an old disk of McCartney and the Wings—as in the historical Beatles's McCartney—taken and run it through a Kurzweil remixer and removed every track on the songs except the tracks of poor old Mrs. Linda McCartney singing backup and playing tambourine. When the fags called the grass 'Bob' it was confusing because they also called C 'Bob'. Poor old Mrs. Linda McCartney just fucking could not sing, and having her shaky off-key little voice flushed from the cover of the whole slick multitrack corporate sound and pumped up to solo was to Gately unspeakably depressing—her voice sounding so lost, trying to hide and bury itself inside the pro backups' voices; Gately imagined Mrs. Linda McCartney—in his Staff room's wall's picture a kind of craggy-faced blonde—imagined her standing there lost in the sea of her husband's pro noise, feeling low esteem and whispering off key, not knowing quite when to shake her tambourine: C's depressing CD was past cruel, it was somehow sadistic seeming, like drilling a peephole in the wall of a handicapped bathroom. [978]

Poor old Linda McCartney. And in this novel, in our various ways, we're all her. Even the compulsive stylistic play, here, doesn't detract: the 'CD' and 'C'd'; the facetiousness of abbreviating the word 'assistant' to 'asst.' and 'appartment' to 'apt.' in this, one of the least abbreviated novels ever published; the overuse of apostrophes: "Beatles's", "backups'", "his Staff room's wall's picture". There's a core reason (to do with our not-very-good-ness) why addiction, and the compulsion to avoid oneself, is so widespread. This CD is the last artwork to which Infinite Jest makes reference. Not counting, of course, of course, the footnotes.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Three reviews of Ackroyd's Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein (2008)

My reviews have a tendency to elephantiasis, so as a corrective I intend to shrink down what I have to say. Thrice.

The one line review: I have no respect for authors whose works are merely parasitic upon the classics of English Literature.

The comparative review: a retelling of Shelley's Frankenstein that sticks remarkably closely to the original in many regards: Frankenstein himself narrates, makes friends with Shelleys Percy Bysshe and Mary (and Harriet, Shelley's first wife), with Byron and Polidori and with various others. The making of the monster is transferred from Switzerland to Limehouse, a London setting which is nicely evoked (Frankenstein is horrified by conditions in Whitechapel: 'it is monstrous! And it will create monsters. Have you ever seen such squalor?', 41), and the whole tale is moderately diverting, if dilute. But, to speak comparatively, the novel is not a patch upon (not a patch of skin sewn onto the revivified corpse of) Aldiss's Frankenstein Unbound (1973), which was entirely cleverer, more sublime, more erotic and more satisfying.

The spoiler review: the book's twist ending (viz. there is no monster, there is only Frankenstein's schizophrenic alter-ego wrestling with desires his rational scientific mind can't deal with) is pretty weak, and pretty obvious from about half-way in. As with most twist endings it leaves a rather 'meh' feeling in the reader's mind; although in this case the plot is hardly the point. Acutally Ackroyd's subject is male desire and the male body. The monster is buff-esque, in a monstrous way, ('his was the most beautiful corpse I had ever seen...') and, on being animated, his first action is to try and wank himself off.

You think I'm kidding, I suppose. Here: 'He noticed his penis, still erect, and with a groan he began to stimulate himself in front of me. I looked on in absolute astonishment as he laboured to produce the seminal fluid. What monstrous issue might emerge from one who had died and been reborn? His most devoted efforts were unavailable, however.' [133]

I looked on in absolute astonishment, indeed. Don't remember that from the original novel.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Paul Auster, Man in the Dark (2008)

Sort of sciencefictional (behold, I word-coin! Sortasfictional), Auster's new one is a very slight doodle around the subject of violence in the world and the war on terror. It's styled as the first-person narrative of a 72-year old novelist and widower called August Brill who has broken his leg in a car crash and is convalescing with his 47-yr-old daughter and 23-yr granddaughter in their house in Vermont. The granddaughter's boyfriend, Titus, has recently been killed --violently, we discover at the novel's end, a victim of the war on terror. The three generations bond: watch a lot of films together, chat about stuff. Brill suffers from insomnia, and this gives him time to express a great deal of unironic and irritating self-pity combined with a great deal of unoriginal and irritating pontification on the State of Things. The novel's opening sentence is 'I am alone in the dark, turning the world around in my head'. On it goes.

Now, I would rate some of Auster's earlier fictions very highly: the New York Trilogy (1985-6) was a significant text (I could say Significant Text) for lots of lit'ry studenty types of my generation; I liked the film Smoke (1995) a great deal; and some of Auster's other books are very good ... the underrated Leviathan (1992) for instance. So I was perfectly well disposed towards this novel as I picked it up. I might even say I wanted to like it. But the thing that prevented me from liking Man in the Dark was its suckiness. It sucks a golf ball through a hosepipe, that's how sucky it is. It is a tired, weak and old novel: old in the sense of 'unoriginal' and also, from time to time, in the sense of 'rambling-Grandpa-Abe-Simpson'. Above all, and disappointingly for those fans of Auster who have been drawn to him by how very postmodernistically clever he is capable of being, it's a dumb book. The fact that it possesses the odour of earnestness doesn't save it. Heartfelt dumb is still dumb.

So, the Austeresque twist here is the tale-within-a-tale. Brill is writing a novel about a character called Owen Brick. For the first 120 pages of this 180 page book Brick's narrative gets about as much space as Brill's own -- Brick wakes, in a hole, amnesiac, in a corporal's uniform in a parallel reality version of the USA. In this alt-reality the twin towers never fell; instead the USA broke into two states that embarked upon a bloody civil war after the contested 2000 election. But the alternative world is hardly built at all (there are few cars, the secessionist states are governed by a prime minister, [say-what?-etc], eggs cost $5 each ... that's about it, really). This is how one character explains the concept of parallel worlds: ‘there are many worlds, and they all are parallel to one another’ [69]. Brick is given the mission to assassinate Brill himself, since the writer is responsible for the war:
You're saying it’s a story, that a man is writing a story, and we’re all part of it.
Something like that.
And after he’s killed, then what? The war ends, but what about us?
Everything goes back to normal.
Or maybe we just die.
Maybe. [10]
I may be making this sound more exciting than it is. Since Brick never completes his Escher-esque mission, we never find out what the consequences for the alt-America would be of Brill's demise: on p.118 Auster disposes of Brick, and that's that. As author of the author, Auster does almost nothing with his premise, or concept, except let it down. Everything here is second-hand: the novel-within-a-novel idea is overly over-familiar; the alt-reality stuff is from a Phil Dick boot sale; the fictional character set to kill his real creator idea is from an Oxfam charity shop; the pseudo-Beckettian old man telling himself stories and going over his life is from Age Concern and the various observations on how horrid life has gotten are a job-lot from Sue Ryder Care.

Otherwise this thin wedge of paper and ink contains a great deal of feeble second-hand sententiousness ('horniness is a human constant, the engine that drives the world' 142), accounts of pissing in a bottle ('stick my pecker in the hole and let the pee come pouring out', 44), moments of agonizing stylistic misjudgment ('I don't know, I say, doing my best to imitate a cockney accent. It just popped into me little ole 'ed' 131), a deal of sylistic cliché ('he died because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time' 164), an account of Hawthorne's daughter's unlucky life, and lots and lots of plot-recapitulations of and discussion about famous films (The Bicycle Thief, Le Grand Illusion, Apu etc).

There's a technical term writers use to describe this sort of thing. It's called pad-ding.

The point of this novel, I take it, is to register a degree of horror at the nastiness that is in the world: bad people do bad things (it seems heresy to describe the recycled stories Auster's narrator gives us of atrocities in concentration camps, young women being pulled into quarters by jeeps and so on, as padding, but that's kind-of what it is), and some of the bad people are us. We have steeled ourselves so as to wage war against terror and terrorists, but it turns out that we are capable of terrible things too. Perhaps this feels like genuine insight to an affluent New Yorker. It's not, though.

Auster is travelling in the same direction as, and using alt-history in similar ways to, Ken MacLeod's 2007 The Execution Channel. He's just not doing it nearly so well. If MacLeod gets all the way round to Super Tax and Mayfair, Auster barely makes it to the Angel Islington.