9 Ways of Looking at a Single Paragraph

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It was during the summer of 2009 that I first read the opening paragraph to German novelist Peter Handke’s 1970 novel, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. It remains the most tantalizingly confusing paragraph I’ve ever read:
When Joseph Bloch, a construction worker who had once been a well-known soccer goalie, reported for work that morning, he was told that he was fired. At least that was how he interpreted the fact that no one except the foreman looked up from his coffee break when he appeared at the door of the construction shack, where the workers happened to be at that moment, and Bloch left the building site. Out on the street he raised his arm, but the car that drove past — even though Bloch hadn’t been hailing a cab — was not a cab. Then he heard the sound of brakes in front of him. Bloch looked around: behind him there was a cab; its driver started swearing. Bloch turned around, got in, and told the driver to take him to the Naschmarkt.
In this paragraph, the reader finds a narrative method that feels like a double-negative, with all those nots. Bloch’s been fired, but only in his head. And yet he seems to lose his job anyway when he walks out of the construction shack. Termination happens without the pink slip. Except that it doesn’t. If that doesn’t feel like a true crossing of narrative wires (since Bloch might be “crazy” and therefore delusionally imagining the events of the story), it gets weirder. On the street, Bloch raises his hand, but not to hail a cab, and though the car he seemed to be hailing wasn’t a cab, a cab arrives anyway. When Bloch gets in, he immediately has a place in mind, a place he seems to have wanted to go. What I’m thinking is this: arrive early at a concert, and there’s a soundcheck—or, better, when I come early to an orchestral performance, I hear the violins and the cellos tuning up. The musicians test out notes. They try out their bows, adjusting the tension. They try out the gestures of musicians before performing. Handke’s opening salvo in The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick seems like a tuning-up. The gestures get tried out and then mean something a second later. The hand shoots into the air. Then it becomes a hand hailing a cab. The opening paragraph of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick throws a little touch of rehearsal into its performance.

That can’t be right. The book stays weird. Near the end, it uses simple, word-sized pictures instead of words to describe Bloch’s actions. So, Handke doesn’t eliminate the sense of a rehearsal’s effort, but it doesn’t feel like effort. The novel’s opening paragraph is stone-faced. Its confidence has no air of practice. A point of comparison seems in order. The end of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel, Breakfast of Champions, features a hand-drawn picture — a cartoon, really — of Vonnegut himself, with a single tear running down his cheek. Just a few pages previous, the novel has concluded with a meeting between Vonnegut and his own character, Kilgore Trout. He grants Trout free will — he wants to free all the characters who have served him “loyally” over the years, but is only telling Trout — but as the narrator/Vonnegut disappears into the void, he hears Trout exclaim, desperately: Make me young, make me young, make me young! This is the opposition that exists in an unstated fashion between Handke and Bloch, right? And if so, what does that mean?

Characters, it seems, are pawns. They are creatures raised to the status of automatons by “acting” the way their creators want them to. In one sense (the classic analytic sense by which literature is held to be mimetic, i.e. imitative of actual life), this state of affairs leaves characters in one hell of a pickle. Supposedly, their emotional lives resemble the emotional lives of readers, but characters have been programmed. In a weird way, then, all literary characters are undead. Imbued with the qualities of life (certain kinds of movement), but lacking the autonomy of real people, they stagger through the landscapes of the novels and stories they appear in, following the paths laid out for them like idiot zombies cornered in a dead end. What Vonnegut suggests is that this is abuse. Characters, were they really free, would want the chance to have back what Trout wants back: to start from the beginning on his own. At the beginning of Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, this is why there isn’t any true sense of practice. When Bloch raises his arm, the narration begins to say But the car that drove past wasn’t a cab, but then has to quickly add that Bloch wasn’t hailing a cab. It’s as though Bloch is resisting the position he’s been put in. After all, he seems to decide he is fired all by himself. Reversing the usual relation between character and narrative, Handke seems to find Bloch slippery in his grasp. There’s no practice, just trouble.

For part of May and June in 2009, I was living in Iowa City, attending a summer writing program at the Iowa Writers Workshop. It was a relatively short commitment, just three weeks, and I rented a tiny bedroom in a strange apartment complex on a hill near the university’s campus. On the complex was a house where, I was told, Vonnegut had once lived. There was no bed in my room, though there was an ugly green couch. I slept on an air mattress that deflated every single night, slowly lowering me to the ground as I slept. It was like those cartoons where someone’s spirit-self settles carefully back into the sleeping or dead body so that the person can get up, except that I would wake in the morning at roughly eye level with the ugliest bluish carpet I had ever seen. The mini-fridge in the room had swirls of brown stains that I tried to clean, but couldn’t scrub into the proper degree of oblivion. For some reason, I bought a package of bologna at a corner store, thinking that this time and place was the exact moment in my life when I should finally try bologna. As I sat in that hot room, trying to be in physical contact with as few surfaces as possible, I read a series of books, including The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. My living situation at that time is fun for me to write about now, of course; it has the touch of squalor that makes the writing I did at the time seem grounded in a kind of discomfort that’s stupidly perfect for a wannabe writer. Except, that’s all a sham. The second weekend, I retreated back to Minneapolis for two days, mostly so I could sleep with the woman I was seeing at the time. What I like about Bloch is his apparent flashing between different intentions: now he means one thing, now another. What I dislike about myself when I look back at a strange period of desperation in my mid-twenties is that I was so remarkably consistent. Must remain in relationship, no matter the cost may very well have been my motto. If I had accidentally hailed a cab back then, I wouldn’t have told it to take me anywhere at all.

These are questionable conclusions. Sure, my loneliness at the time felt a bit impressive to me. It always feels unusual to go multiple days in a row without speaking to anyone. It wasn’t glum, however. Yes, the room was small enough that I could feel my laptop making it hotter. No, there was no internet. But, the communal kitchen was surprisingly clean. The kicker was that the word “DEAD” was stenciled backwards on the thin, wood-paneled wall of the room and through the wall I could hear my immediate neighbor, who seemed to be a permanent resident, watching MacGuyver. This is the key to Bloch’s situation at the beginning of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick: it’s really very silly.

Handke’s novel is a murderer’s tale. Bloch goes out and kills a woman within the first few pages of the book. His homicidal actions have the same disconnect as that double-negative spirit that sweeps through the first paragraph. What is Bloch’s role, then? What’s his responsibility? Murderers sometimes have alibis, but not really. Since the killers are the ones who did the killing, their alibis — if they even have them — are inevitably false. If Bloch had an alibi, though, it would feel true even when it was a lie. Handke puts the question to the idea of Bloch’s responsibility in a peculiarly uncomfortable way. A man who hails a cab by waving randomly at a car that is not a cab seems caught in the teeth of some machine that liberates him even as it clamps down. So it’s not that the first paragraph of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is silly haha; it’s silly because the idea that Bloch works his way through the world in this fashion, with the alibi of his own irresponsibility, puts us back in a naïve reading of Handke’s novel, the reading that says Joseph Bloch is crazy, that he’s a psycho, a jangled weirdo who decides he’s been fired and accidentally hails a cab before deciding, I’ll go to the Naschmarkt. If he’s crazy, and if the book simply wants to convey that keyed-up insanity, the opening paragraph is silly because it doesn’t seem to tell us we should be laughing. It’s not funny.

Laughter is not the only kind of funny. In his short essay on Kafka, David Foster Wallace comments that part of what makes it difficult for his students to appreciate the humor in Kafka’s stories is that “the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle” — and that, Wallace writes, is comical. The trouble is that trouble is our only business: ha! ha! Handke’s paragraph on Bloch has the same sense of comedy. I can think of no other piece of writing that so simply and richly conveys that sensation where one feels both deeply responsible for and irresistibly forced into one’s actions. For example, imagine how funny it would be if Death came to you and said, Hey, it’s time for you to die, sorry and you said, Haha, not this time, Grim Reaper and then ran straight off a cliff, Wile E. Coyote-style. Obviously, that’s completely hilarious. And so is Joseph Bloch.

It’s not until the ending of Handke’s novel that the book’s opening paragraph seems to be explained. By tale’s end, Bloch is intently watching a penalty kick. He rehearses in his head all the thoughts that must be nagging the goalie, who doesn’t know where the kicker will try to put the ball. Then:
The kicker suddenly started his run. The goal-keeper, who was wearing a bright yellow jersey, stood absolutely still, and the penalty kicker shot the ball directly into his hands.
Apologies, I know I’m jumping ahead; these are the last sentences of the novel. The suspense of consideration — the goalie wonders whether he should dive this way or that and whether the penalty kicker will be counting on his diving this way or that — was all for naught. If the problem in the opening of the novel was that Bloch’s gestures didn’t line up with clear intentions, the gesture of the penalty kick is perfectly in sync with a hoped-for meaning. The ball goes right into the goalie’s hands. The gesture of kick and catch line up exactly. There is no lag between kicker and goalie, character and author. What a wonderful world. But it is not Bloch’s world at all.

We only have words for things that bother us. Language is anxiety given material form. Or, rather, words designate those things about which it is possible to think, those things we have to deal with. If things were inert, not worthy of notice, we wouldn’t mention them and wouldn’t be able to. There’d be no words. That there is a word indicates a snag, a hitch we have to consider. In the opening paragraph of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Handke’s narration presumes the meaning of Bloch’s raising his arm before really understanding the intent. Bloch was, after all, just raising his arm. What does anyone know about what that gesture means? What is the word for it? “Hailing”? But, of course, Bloch ended up hailing a cab anyway. The point is: what do Bloch’s intentions matter? Language doesn’t care about us. Conventional meanings are always at the ready. Perhaps it is not so much that the narration is lagging behind Bloch’s actions as lagging around Bloch’s actions. The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, being a novel, will record the forward momentum of a plot in which Bloch goes some “where,” does something, murders someone, wanders some “where” again. But even if a fictional narrative is the case and the context, Handke’s opening paragraph suggests Bloch’s alienation from the plot in which he’s helplessly snared. He tries the gestures for reasons other than their meaning. It’s a stretching of muscles. But it’s raising your hand or opening your mouth that gets you in the worst kinds of trouble.


Image courtesy the author

Good Luck, Memory

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Late last summer, I read Nicholson Baker’s U & I, which, though I can’t recall the reasons, I can’t recommend enough. Published in 1991, U & I chronicles Baker’s obsessive fascination with that most pale of prose geniuses, John Updike, even while admitting he is by no means a completist and hasn’t read all of Updike’s books. I was visiting my then-girlfriend in New York while reading U & I, and from the first sentence I was so devoted that one day I carried it onto the subway between Manhattan and Brooklyn, where I was meeting an old friend to watch football and drink beer. I could barely endure the torturously hot subway station, though, and as I waited for my train in the heat I felt like I had hot coals tucked into my armpits. The subway car, by contrast, was so cool and Baker’s self-deprecations so engrossing that I remember this brief period (probably something like a half hour) as one of the most pleasurable reading experiences of my entire life.

The problem now is my absent memory of Baker’s book. I can conjure up an image of its cover, which isn’t, frankly, all that memorable, but my mental storage unit is empty when I go looking for eloquent Bakerisms. Second, even the “plot,” such as it is with Nicholson Baker, escapes me. I vaguely remember Baker explaining how his mother had a conniption fit laughing at some humorous essay of Updike’s, a piece where he described a divot in a golf course being “big as a t-shirt.” I also have a foggy memory of Baker meeting Updike at some Harvard gathering, where he allows Updike to believe that he—Baker—also attended that august institution. It goes further. I can’t remember Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine, either, although I read it last summer, too. His most recent novel, The Anthologist, which I devoured after A Box of Matches, another Baker book, also remains mostly sunk, like an iceberg, in the warming waters of my brain. All that is solid melts into air, as Marx (or whoever) said. I supposedly read these four Nicholson Baker books less than twelve months ago, and now my dominant memory is a section in The Mezzanine that describes the various sounds adult men make while defecating in corporate bathrooms. I recall that the word “spatterings” appears in all its horrifying, onomatopoeic glory, but remember the poop joke is not my most cherished literary principle.

There isn’t any inherent reason to worry about forgetfulness, of course. Reading is reading; what you remember can seem a gift and what you forget just one of many things that, slipping away, never did you any harm. But—as a reader, as a teacher, and as a PhD student in the thick of preparations for my comprehensive exams—a large part of the pleasure (and struggle) I experience with books relates directly to my capacity to remember the words that appear in them. And despite the fine arguments of writers like Joshua Foer in his recent Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, I’m not looking for brute memorization, i.e. Xeroxing Shakespeare’s complete works with my brain. I keep notes when it counts, after all.

Perhaps it’s from reading too much (lately, it’s felt like too much, as I burn through a booklist that is supposed to represent the foundation for my future academic career), but the best tactic is to rely on the accidental art of memory, which patterns information organically, without much pre-set strategy. When I recently read an essay on ruins by Geoff Dyer, for example, his comment that the remains of ancient buildings suggest the triumph of space over time reminded me immediately of a passage from W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz that I thought I had forgotten: “We know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.” Now, I hope, I’ll remember both these poetic conclusions. This kind of recall depends, actually, on the same digressive energy that both Dyer and Sebald lean on in their writing. And anyway, the great virtue of underlining sentences in the books you read is the opposite of what it seems to be: you’re giving yourself permission to forget all the non-underlined bits. As I become more comfortable with the forgetting, I realize the shape of the remembering.

The situation actually seems both grimmer and more hopeful when I glance at the list of books I’ve already read thus far in 2011. There are 31 books there, and I can remember, on average, a single line or phrase from probably 11 of them. For others—particularly for books which make a sustained argument—I can remember the logic of the thinking, but would have to go back to my notes to recall the specific turns of vocabulary that make the arguments stick. On the one hand, it seems like terrific luck to have retained particular lines at all. On the other, I can’t help but feel sad in the face Harold Bloom’s prodigious memory. In a recent video interview with The New York Times, Bloom reeled off some lines of Hart Crane’s poetry with such perfect rhythm and confidence I felt equal parts charmed and inspired to jealous rage, which is not the point of (most) Modernist poetry.

But if the issue is my happiness as a reader, I take comfort in a quotation provided by critic Eric Santner in his 2006 book, On Creaturely Life, a study of, among other writers, W.G. Sebald. Santner mentions, as an aside, a comment from philosopher Jonathan Lear, who writes that “…we need to go back to an older English usage of happiness in terms of happenstance: the experience of chance things working out well rather than badly.” Happiness as good luck makes perfect sense, particularly if you think of the word hapless, which roughly means luckless, without hap. So, by contrast, to be lucky, is—by substitution—to be happy. In other languages, like German and Dutch, lucky and happy already go by the same word. That I or anyone else is fortunate enough to remember whatever books we’ve read therefore appears to be a textbook case of happiness. Even so glorious a wet blanket as Friedrich Nietzsche already had some sense of happiness as this game of chance. In Beyond Good and Evil, he comments, “a thought comes when ‘it’ wants, not when ‘I’ want.” Thought, like memory, has its own life; we are just its devotees. If a German philosopher who proclaimed the death of God can find the exit door here, then I’ll take the accidental hap of memory, if nothing else.

This is all such a stupid luxury, of course, hand-wringing over the proper way to read and remember. And the picture of the reading life and its haunted memory that I prefer now is from the book I have just finished: Geoff Dyer’s novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. In the second half of the novel, the unnamed narrator observes two fellow travelers and friends and comments, “Earlier that day, as I was coming back from Manikarnika in a boat, I’d glanced up at the terrace of the Lotus Lounge and seen them there, arms round each other. As the boat skulked upstream, I looked up from time to time like some sad fuck in a Henry James novel, relieved that they’d not seen me seeing them.” Even if he can’t remember which sad fuck, the narrator’s memory tells him that he’s part of a grand tradition. How lucky.

(Image by C. Max Magee)

Philip K. Dick and the Pleasures of Unquotable Prose

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What does it mean when a great writer like Philip K. Dick is considered to have an occasionally terrible prose style? Even so brilliant and well-regarded a defender of Dick’s novels as author Jonathan Lethem has referred, in a 2007 interview with the online journal Article for example, to Dick’s “howlingly bad” patches of prose. Lethem also made these sentiments clear in an interview that accompanied the publication of Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s by the Modern Library of America. (Lethem edited this and subsequent volumes.) In that interview, Lethem says [pdf] that Dick’s style is not a sentence-level style at all, but has more to do with scene construction and wild and crazy tonal shifting. Like any reader of Dick’s anxiously inventive fiction, however, Lethem knows that the writing is generally fine and occasionally excellent. It’s just that there are spots (sometimes lengthy) of distractingly awkward description, or silly interior monologue, or creaky exposition. As a genre writer who produced over 44 novels and something like 121 short stories, Dick’s prose style seems to disappoint, at least a little bit, his literary-minded devotees, myself included, of course. What are we to do?

For starters, we need a clear example of the bad prose in question. In this case, the howler will be coming to us from the dangerous and forbidden land of the sex scene, a writer’s booby trap (no pun intended) if ever there were one. Dick’s attempt, however, in his 1964 masterpiece, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, closes out the lovemaking with a poetic flourish that turns into something unusually horrific:

A long silence, then. Then, “Oof.” She leaped, galvanized as if lost to the shock of a formal experiment. His pale, dignified, unclothed possession: become a tall and very thin greenless nervous system of a frog; probed to life by outside means. Victim of a current not her own but not protested, in any way. Lucid and real, accepting. Ready this long time.

Take a minute to read this passage closely. You may not have noticed, but Dick has just compared a naked woman in the throes of orgasm to an electrified frog. Yet the description is so out-of-nowhere unexpected and ambiguously communicated that the first time I read it I thought Dick was comparing a penis to a jolted frog leg (“become tall and thin…”). There’s also the weird, dehumanizing way that the woman here is labeled a “possession,” a description given some obvious counterweight—one can sense Dick hoping—by the word “dignified.” And the adjective “greenless” is stupefyingly strange in this instance (and would be in a lot of other instances).

The usual defense of the disappointments in Dick’s sentences is: ignore the bad patches; just keep reading. But why worry, really? Yes, there are moments in Dick’s best novels that seem like unrevised first draft material, but there’s something essential about the inconsistency of Dick’s writing. It is important, I think, that Dick’s novels are not particularly quotable. I certainly wouldn’t show off the frog-experiment sex scene to any of my friends. So maybe the way to grasp the intricate philosophical craziness of one of Dick’s books is to think maximally, in terms of plot structure and narrative scheme. Forget looking for the pithy quote, which is a sham. Embrace the plot summary, which is real work.

Paradoxically, plot summary can be exactly the opposite of what we usually assume it is: reductive. What’s really reductive is excerpting a writer’s nice sentence on a blog. Thinking in terms of plot summary when praising a novel by Philip K. Dick does something else. In Dick’s novels, his plots are like thinking machines. You have to operate them like a piece of equipment to understand what they do, not expose one gear and say, Wow, it’s spinning so fast.

Take Ubik, a novel that Lethem loves yet chides (lovingly) in his interview with Article for its excessive and weird descriptions of characters’ clothing. One man in the novel is said to be “square and puffy like an overweight brick, wearing his usual mohair poncho, apricot-colored hat, argyle ski socks and carpet slippers,” a description that sounds funny out-of-context. But it’s actually one of an increasingly exhausting number of character sketches that seem pointless even when they aren’t overlong.

Ubik takes place in a world where psychics are common and commonly hated and feared. An entire industry of “prudence organizations” has sprung up to counteract mind-reading, precognitive prediction, etc. This is also a world in which the dead are kept alive, more or less, in what is called “half-life” or “cold-pac.” Their brains slowly dying, the dead are installed in freezing chambers which their next of kin can visit in order to telepathically commune with them. The dead even give business advice, though they spend much of their time in cold-pac experiencing some sort of alternate version of reality. A final layer of mind-fuckery comes in the form of Pat, who has the ability to revise the present and take people back to other versions of actuality. Those subjected to her revisions seem to get a sense that something is off, but the novel suggests more than once that no one is sure when or if her ability has kicked in. The decisive plot point of the book is an explosion that either kills a single character or all the characters but that individual. Either way, people’s bodies start spontaneously disintegrating. Then time starts devolving, too, until out of nowhere it is 1939.

Now the point of Ubik’s plot is manifold. The persistence of death looms large in the novel, its churning plot suggesting the human talent for denying life’s unrevisability—the fact that we remember the past, not the future, and think this gives us power, that we don’t always recognize the decay of our relationships as readily as their growth, that we insist we’re conscious of our circumstances, the warp and woof of cause and effect. But I’ve left out two key parts of the machine. In the world of Ubik, everything is coin-operated, even—and this is one of Dick’s great comic swipes—the door to a debt-ridden character’s apartment. He can’t get out unless he pays the door a nickel. And his refrigerator won’t let him have any food. Finally, there is Ubik itself, a spray can that, when used, restores decaying bodies to their survivable form. As a ubiquitously advertised consumer product (ubiquitous = Ubik), Ubik is the ultimate purchase in a world where everything works only for a price. Everything needs to be activated, like so much dead machinery. And in a series of worlds struggling against decay, the coin- and Ubik-operated realities of Dick’s novel reminds readers that consumer culture loves novelty because it’s devoted to obsolescence. Not to get all Werner Herzog, but decay is the engine of life. Moreover, Ubik suggests that economic transaction embarrasses human dignity. After all, if getting deli meat from your refrigerator requires a deposit of a few cents, your life has all the spiritual richness of standing in front of a vending machine. And buying your life one step at a time sounds a lot like fake resurrection (assuming, of course, that the idea of resurrection is not already some kind of fake).

In other words, the plot of Ubik is not a function of fantastic prose. There are funny, incredible passages that would, of course, be worth quoting. But that would be to miss the point of Philip K. Dick’s particular charm. If you take a writer like Annie Dillard, you can be constantly amazed. She can and does write single paragraphs so beautiful and diamond-sharp that to read them is to feel finished. That, I have thought more than once while going back over a passage of Dillard’s writing, is the absolutely conclusive statement about the metaphysical significance of giant water bugs.

But with Dick it’s different. With Dick, you have no conclusive statements, not really. Instead, you read unending reports about the casual imprisonments—emotional, spiritual, and pharmaceutical—that organize human experience. So many characters take mind-altering drugs in Dick’s novels that he manages to explore the crossover between addiction and conscious commitment. That is one of the key dilemmas in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Likewise, Dick’s plots require something more than just attention. You keep track. You lie in wait for the next quirk of invention, ignoring all the times Dick uses a tinny “Jeez!” as expression of a character’s interior turmoil. Pithiness was not Dick’s bailiwick; his work, I think, was in honor of confusion, not answers.

Dick’s paragraphs are sometimes scintillating, but rarely in the representative-feeling way that a more lyrical author might write. Dick isn’t out to crystallize a particular sentiment. He does not aim to be quotable—to be, in a word, reducible. Instead, his novels feel like labor, as though they are tabulating the results of some desperate experiment. So, it isn’t the prose style, but the plot assembly that gases up the moving parts of Dick’s fiction. This isn’t to say that his characters, dialogue, and description are somehow mere tools of the greater narrative, but rather that you don’t quote Philip K. Dick. You read him.