A Year in Reading: Bennett Sims

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The two books I’ve been recommending the most this year are both by Michael Clune. Now an English professor and a literary critic, Clune spent his grad-school years as a self-described heroin junkie at Johns Hopkins, an experience he documents in his brilliant memoir, White Out (Hazelden, 2013). Structured as a conventional recovery narrative (Clune hits bottom, goes to jail, gets sent to rehab, and gets better), the book doubles as a phenomenological description of addiction: of what heroin does to memory, perception, attention, and time.

Clune’s central Proustian metaphor is that addiction is a “memory disease.” Unable to forget the first time he did heroin, the addict keeps doing heroin as a way of returning to that past moment. “At every instant,” he writes, “the addict inhabits at least two times at once: the first time he did it and the next time he will do it. Right now is the switchboard.” The drug emerges, in the book, as a kind of mesmerizing madeleine: the addict can’t even look at it without falling into a memory trance (the “vial of dope” is just a “pane of clear glass, and he’s watching his first time through it”). But this is less a matter of nostalgia, Clune insists, than of permanent novelty. Being addicted means never getting used to the sight of the drug. It remains endlessly vivid and transfixing, every single time you see it. Unlike other objects — which eventually grow familiar and dull and “disappear inside our habits” — heroin is “immune to habit”: “Something that’s always new…that never gets old.” For Clune, “the white tops are still as new and fresh as the first time. It still is the first time in the white of the white tops. There’s a deep rip in my memory.”

Clune’s meditations on this time-traveling whiteness — rendered throughout in hypnotic, staccato sentences — yield some of the book’s most sublime and beautiful writing. His attempts to convey the timelessness, and eternity, and dilated duration of dope consciousness occasionally resemble mystic poetry: e.g., his dope brain “has roots that reach through time and drink from everywhere;” his dope eye “doesn’t have any bottom” (“and I see into the bottomlessness of things”); the dope powder “carries the white down into the tiny neural tunnels where the body manufactures time.”

In addition to these dithyrambic passages, the book contains laugh-out-loud scenes with junkies, dealers, and a defense lawyer; charming childhood memories involving Candyland; and moving accounts of Clune’s daily practice of sobriety (“The only way to recover from the memory disease is to forget yourself…You must make forgetfulness into a habit. Like a waterwheel that continually pours forgetfulness over your life”). Harrowing and hilarious as a recovery memoir, White Out is also a memorably lovely essay on memory: it maps a mind that’s haunted — as most minds are — by nostalgia, time, and whiteness.

After finishing White Out, I ordered the other book Clune published this year, a scholarly study titled Writing Against Time (Stanford University Press). Like his memoir, this book is concerned with the possibility of permanent novelty: namely, with sensory and aesthetic experiences that never get old, no matter how many times you enjoy them. “Time poisons perception,’”he writes in the opening chapter. “No existing technique has proven effective in inoculating images against time.” Following the literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky, Clune proposes that one of the roles of art is to fashion time-resistant images: by presenting familiar objects in surprising ways, art rescues them from habit. Or, in Shklovsky’s famous phrase (from his essay “Art as Technique”), art can “make a stone feel stony.”

The problem for Clune is that, in the real world, even artworks aren’t immune to time: the catchy pop song, the captivating painting, the visionary poem — with repeated exposure, they all end up fading. So Writing Against Time looks at works of literature that imagine hypothetical, habit-proof objects, virtual models for what endless novelty might actually feel like. In one chapter, Clune analyzes “imaginary music” throughout literature, ranging from Vinteuil’s compositions in Proust to Apollo’s melodies in Keats. In a chapter on Lolita, he demonstrates how nymphets function for Humbert Humbert as “addictive images,” in exactly the same way that opium does in De Quincey’s Confessions (or that heroin does in White Out): every time Humbert Humbert sees a nymphet, it’s like the first time he’s seeing a nymphet.

The book keeps pursuing this project in surprising places, from John Ashbery’s poetry to classic sci-fi novels. In a bravura chapter on 1984, Clune identifies a Shklovskian agenda in Oceania’s propaganda, which consistently misrepresents reality (Winston has to remind himself that “stones are hard, water is wet”). When Winston drinks from a bottle labeled “Gin,” he’s shocked that it tastes like “nitric acid;” ditto the “Chocolate” bar that tastes like “the smoke of a rubbish fire.” Because Winston never knows what to expect, every sensory experience is heightened. For Clune, this is a case of fascist phenomenology: the government is imposing “a set of false expectations of the world” to frame people’s perceptions. As a result, “doublethink exposes the citizens of Oceania to constant intense, unfamiliar, unexpected, and shocking sensations.”

There’s an analogy here for Clune’s methodology: by framing familiar books in unexpected ways, he shocks the reader into seeing them differently. They become new again and freshly pleasurable. In this respect, each example of vivid novelty serves — for the reader — as an experience of vivid novelty, and several times the ingenuity of Clune’s close reading made me want to stand up and cheer. Along with White Out, Writing Against Time was the best thing I discovered in 2013. Taken together, they complete a profound portrait of how people use art, drugs, sex, and meditation to slide outside of memory and “arrest the flow of neurobiological time.”

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The Humbling: Philip Roth’s Bleak Theater


In his 1968 study Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the sociologist Erving Goffman famously adopted a “dramaturgical perspective” as his method of description, restricting himself to a theatrical vocabulary when interpreting social relations. Accounting for the behavior of a waitress, he might take care to refer to the “costume” she wore, the “performance” she delivered before her “audience,” the “props” she manipulated, and so on, with the result that dramaturgical scare quotes come to enclose every action in an ozone of artifice. The book, at times, can be a bleak read: it begins to look as if spontaneous, authentic, unperformed relations between people are impossible.

An identical bleakness is at work in Philip Roth’s new novel, The Humbling, which reads in places like the diary of a madman who believes he’s trapped inside Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Roth’s thirtieth, The Humbling charts the mental dissolution of the senescent ex-actor Simon Axler, whose end-of-career unemployment and irremediable actor’s block have driven him, at the book’s open, to thoughts of suicide. His problem is one of crippling Goffmanian self-consciousness: he suffers from the delusion that he’s acting at all times, performing in the play of his own life. “The only role available to him was the role of someone playing a role,” Roth writes. “[E]very word he uttered seemed acted instead of spoken.”

Onstage, Axler had once been able to transcend acting and truly “inhabit” a role, to “make the imagined real” and be Macbeth; now, after a double-bill butchering of both Macbeth and Prospero at the Kennedy Center, he’s so racked by doubt and self-alienation that he has trouble just being Axler. A stagy unreality has leached into his everyday experience of selfhood. Even his nervous breakdown seems like a performance—“an act, a bad act”—as if he were merely “playing the role of [his] own demise”:

He could not convince himself he was mad any more than he’d been able to convince himself or anyone else he was Prospero or Macbeth. He was an artificial madman too…A sane man playing an insane man…In the mornings he hid in bed for hours, but instead of hiding from the role he was merely playing the role…[A]ll he could think about was suicide… A man who wanted to live playing a man who wanted to die.

The attraction of suicide, for Axler, is that it constitutes a last opportunity to “make the imagined real,” an escape hatch out of everyday theatricality into an authentically inhabited experience. “Suicide is the role that you write for yourself,” he explains. “You inhabit it and you enact it. All carefully staged—where they will find you and how they will find you…But one performance only.” This is why so many characters in plays commit suicide, he thinks: self-annihilation is central to the experience of performativity, and vice versa, “as though [suicide] were a formula fundamental to drama,…dictated by the workings of the genre itself.” That is, dramatic characters resort to suicide as an exit strategy for the same reason Axler would—they are trapped in plays.

If Axler sounds like a Bernhard character here, expatiating feverishly on the nature of suicide, it’s because The Humbling is, at bottom, a madman novel. Axler is a pathologically alienated monomaniac, whose obsessive fear is that he’s locked inside a drama, and the job of the madman novel is to convince him he’s right—to poke and prod him, push him to the limit, to corroborate his delusion and thereby usher him to its logical conclusion. In this, Roth doesn’t disappoint: dutifully he subjects his madman to a series of increasingly play-like situations, each tragically calibrated to make Axler lose his mind. When Axler enters a psychiatric ward, for example, the group-therapy sessions there are structured exactly like dress rehearsals: the patients with their round-robin monologues remind him of character actors, “rehearsing…the ancient themes of dramatic literature: incest, betrayal, injustice, cruelty, vengeance, jealously, rivalry, desire, loss, dishonor, grief;” chiming in himself, Axler soon realizes he’s “perform[ing] before his largest audience since he’d given up acting.” All the world’s a stage! (Wincingly, a doctor even refers to his grief as a “stage” of misery.) Eventually Axler leaves the hospital, but fares no batter back home. In his yard he spots a possum, the one animal guaranteed to remind him of “playing dead”: for days Axler watches as the marsupial, “nature’s little caricature of him,” prepares a hovel in the snow to die in.

Occasionally the narrator will play along, confirming at the level of word choice the reality of Axler’s “dramaturgical perspective.” Indeed, part of the pleasure of the novel is the Goffmanian ruthlessness with which Roth hews to a theatrical vocabulary. When Axler stakes his happiness on a last-ditch sexual fling, for instance, the narrator describes the fling as follows: “He was here. She was here. Everyone’s possibilities had changed dramatically.” Is it even possible to read that sentence as, “Everyone’s possibilities had changed a lot”? Maybe in a different novel. But Axler’s obsession italicizes “dramatically,” even if Roth’s typeset doesn’t.

Naturally, the lover Axler chooses is tragically ill-considered. What he needs is a relationship that won’t feel scripted or staged; what he gets is a woman precision-engineered to convince him that he’s performing at the deepest levels of himself. A middle-aged lesbian, moreover a butch who “owned little that couldn’t be worn by a sixteen-year-old boy,” Pegeen dresses and even walks like a man when Axler first seduces her. They tacitly agree that she must “become a heterosexual female,” and her conversion is treated (along with everything else) as a matter of performance: Axler takes her on a series of transformative shopping sprees, buying her Prada pumps, smart skirts, and expensive jewelry. Nor is her performance of femininity, or his role as costume director, lost on him. “Wasn’t he making her pretend to be someone other…?” he wonders. “Wasn’t he dressing her up in a costume?”

There’s a lability of sexuality and gender in this novel, everywhere depicted in terms of performativity. Pegeen “becomes” a heterosexual female as easily as her former lover, undergoing hormone treatment and surgical breast removal, “became” a heterosexual male. Pegeen “becomes” a male herself whenever she dons her green strap-on dildo, which Axler thinks of, characteristically, as “a mask on her genitals.” Axler, too, performs his sexuality, and not at all subtly—when he and Pegeen bring home a drunk woman for a three-way, he joins the fray thusly: “‘Three children got together,’ he said, ‘and decided to put on a play,’ whereupon his performance began.”

None of this, obviously, helps Axler shake the feeling that he’s playing a role—least of all when he and Pegeen “role-play” in bed. Dating her, he doesn’t escape from the role, only manages to “dig himself deeper into an unreal world.” And that’s before you even factor in Pegeen’s dramaturgical lineage. The daughter of some old theater friends of Axler’s, Pegeen Mike is named after a character in Playboy of the Western World, a play that Axler got his start in: while Pegeen’s mother, just pregnant with Pegeen, played Pegeen, Axler played the title role, opposite Pegeen1 (the character) and Pegeen2 (the fertilized egg and, unbeknownst to him, his future lover). This leads to a metafictionally vertiginous sequence in which Axler, arguing with Pegeen2, begins addressing her as if she were the character in the play: “‘Perhaps, Pegeen Mike,’ he said, falling into the Irish accent he hadn’t used since acting in Playboy…” Of course, it’s fatalistically engineered—and somewhat overdetermined—that he and Pegeen should begin dating forty years after that performance: he really is “playing a role” by dating her, a character from a play, and it’s one of the oldest roles he knows. He even lapses into lines from the script!

This is the point that critics are missing when they complain that Pegeen is too sketchily drawn; that, if you try to read her as a realistically motivated character, it’s not always clear why she (a middle-aged lesbian) is even with Axler (an old man) in the first place. But Pegeen’s plainly not a realistically motivated character, any more than the possum was, and she should be read as fulfilling the same function as the possum: she’s visiting Axler—Roth is inflicting her on him—as a destroying angel of thematic appositeness. She’s not his most credible sexual partner, just as Jocasta wasn’t Oedipus’s: she’s the shortest route to the ripping out of Axler’s eyeballs. And as a narrative device designed to ratify Axler’s nightmare and precipitate his suicide, she reads splendidly.

When she leaves him, as she must, he calls her parents to discover where she’s gone, but feels more than ever as if he’s merely reading off a script. What follows is a fever dream of self-consciousness, and the entire sinuous movement of the novel can be glimpsed, in miniature, in the peristalsis of Axler’s thought patterns here—from the alienated experience of his “self” as a role, to his resolution to commit suicide:

His voice was trembling and his heartbeat had quickened…It was very like the way he’d felt [at the Kennedy Center]…If he were given this role to act in a play, how would he do it?…He could no more figure out how to play the [abandoned] elderly lover…than he’d been able to figure out how to play Macbeth. Shouldn’t he just have blown his brains out while [Pegeen’s mother] was at the other end listening? Wouldn’t that have been the best way to play it?

The reader perks up at the line, “No more than he’d been able to play Macbeth.” A hundred and fifty pages earlier, this was just how he described the hollow fraudulence of his breakdown: he’s left at the same impasse, with the same recourse. Not long after hanging up the phone, Axler does commit suicide, and it’s the only suicide available to him: that of a character in a play. Pretending that “the attic [is] a theater” and that he’s the character Konstantin Gavrilovich from Chekhov’s The Seagull, he takes down his hunting rifle and sets the stage for a final performance. No encores. His suicide note contains only the play’s parting line of dialogue: “The fact is, Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself.”

It is a black, ambivalent ending. How to read Axler’s “transformation” into Konstantin Gavrilovich? Either the bullet that breached his skull breached the dramaturgical scare quotes, too, freeing Axler, one last time, from the imagined into the real; or else he’s entered more radically than ever before into the artificiality of a play, embedded in Chekhov’s The Seagull like Zod in his crystal prison, hurtling through the void of some Goffmanian Phantom Zone. The novel itself concludes ambivalently, on a note either of ovation or irony, with a line like a theater critic’s review of a performance: “He had brought it off,” it reads, “the well-established stage star, once so widely heralded for his force as an actor, whom in his heyday people would flock to the theater to see.”