In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.” What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk? That it won’t kill you? That it does not taste completely terrible? That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright? “Bud Light keeps it coming.” Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable. It’ll do, I guess. The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients. Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure. One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer — “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” — seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist. (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.) Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it. “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring.
I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.” Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.” The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include). A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read. What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process. Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor. Not too much description, or abstraction, or style. A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary. To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up. A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix. (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.)
“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.
It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads. But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all. “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard. Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one. Maybe you’re with me so far — in the abstract, that is to say. But now it’s time to name names. The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer. All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable. None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught. A provisional definition of literature: that which does.
It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: “compulsively readable.” You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.” Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.” Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose. (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.) Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary. For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another. The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead. But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment. Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.” “Yet:” style and readability as contraries.
What novels are not readable? Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs? (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.) Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish. William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it. Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable. I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think. After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it. These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies.
Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones. Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however. It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world. Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages. A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world. But these are the sorts of books we need. To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser. But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had. It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available. The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill. So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller. So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should. It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too. Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser. Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders. Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics. Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass. Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon. Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters. What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world. They have new ideas, and images, and phrases. What matters is that they are good. You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Reading a novel by Dana Spiotta is a dynamic experience because you’re never quite sure what tiny storytelling miracles it will offer next. The tone might shift, or the story might reveal something wholly unexpected. You might be pushed forward in time, or given sudden intimacy to a character that was held at a distance for so long. Every time I immerse myself in her work, I am reminded what a novel can do. There are no rules for storytelling, only instincts, emotion, and the brainy brain. Spiotta’s latest book, Innocents and Others, is about two female filmmakers, friends since attending high school in L.A., and a third woman who forges her most meaningful relationships over the phone with men she’s never met. How the three women’s lives intersect is one of the book’s little miracles. But there is also so much more to this book that defies quick summary: technology and how it creates, bolsters, and distorts identity; making and consuming art; the responsibility and trespassing of representation; friendship; imagination; the fear of being unoriginal. The week I was reading Innocents and Others, I kept saying to my husband, “I love Dana Spiotta!” To my new baby I’d sing, “Spiotta! Spiotta!” in a weird squeaky voice. To my four-year-old, I’d say, “Leave me alone, I’m reading.” It’s telling that I, a person who has never loved movies, loved this movie-loving novel.
The Millions: Lately I’ve been interested in books that are readable but also create suspense in non-traditional ways. Innocents and Others fulfills this requirement: the shifts in narration, and the way the pieces fit together, create drama while bypassing the typical cause-and-effect-to-climax formula. In your books there are often a lot of structural surprises, such as a switch in perspective or time frame, or, even, a shift to a different narrative mode, be it a description of a movie scene, or an essay on a website, and so on. I love this! It keeps me from being able to categorize or truly know the narrative until I am finished and can step back and see it as a whole. Do you set out to write a book with these kinds of shifts and disruptions, or are they a byproduct of your process? I also wondered if you bring this point of view to your classes as a writing teacher. What are your thoughts on plot, for instance?
Dana Spiotta: You just gave a very perceptive description of some of my narrative strategies. And I like what you say about not knowing the book until you are finished and can see it as a whole. I do think a lot about structure: structural analogies and the engineering of the book as an integrated object. I think much of the deeper meaning in a novel is created by these kinds of formal decisions. It is one of the things I love about writing novels, truly. In the novels that have stayed with me, when I get to the end I want to go back and read the book all over again. You can only understand a novel’s shape when you reach the ending and see all the connections, the repetitions with variations. The rhythm and juxtapositions. All of that ideally will accumulate and resonate as much as the narrative itself. I don’t know how successful I am at creating meaningful novel shapes, and I am sure my idiosyncratic structures annoy plenty of readers. But I try to be organic about it and let the structure emerge as I work. Then as I revise, I become more deliberate about shaping it for meaning, but I always try to resist too much neatness and symmetry, or easy correlations. It has a lot to do with intuition, and what you find interesting as you are writing, I think. I use this Samuel Beckett quote for my own purposes when I talk to students (and myself) about structure: “The danger lies in the neatness of identifications.”
I don’t focus on plot in particular, but I do focus on character and conflict, though, and that leads to plot complications. And like some other novelists (and filmmakers), I sometimes skip important events and show the aftermath before I show the event. I did it in this novel because it felt right in the moment. And then I kept it in because it created something interesting to me. Dischronology works in a similar way to how cutting between various threads in a novel creates side-to-side momentum, not simply forward momentum. But it should never seem arbitrary, and I am always aware of the risks. One doesn’t want to feel that something is withheld simply to create narrative suspense. You better have some other, deeper reason for doing that. In Innocents and Others, maybe I was more interested in the consequences of actions than in actions themselves. I wanted the action refracted by the fallout from the action.
TM: For a novel that’s largely about film, there aren’t that many straight scenes (as there are in movies). Here, there are first-person essays, descriptions of movies made by the characters, retrospective musings on past relationships, and so on — time is nimble and elastic, and the narrative controls and contorts in a way that feels distinctly (and wonderfully) novelistic. As in: this could only work in a book. And yet, Innocents and Others feels really cinematic: there are distinct details, bright and memorable moments, and they are artful. People say that about your work, right, that it’s cinematic? What does that word mean to you, and to your writing? And what is the difference for you, between the art of film and the art of novels? The similarities?
DS: I do describe some imaginary films in the novel, and within those films dramatic things happen. So I get more conventional scenes and action within the film story as well as in the “real” world of the novel. But they are filtered/framed through something: the consciousness of the viewer or a technological device or some other distortion.
I am not sure what cinematic means when applied to novels. I wanted to play with the grammar of film and visual culture, and I think applying ideas from one medium to another one is a way to discover new ways of making meaning. But I agree with the cliché that the best novels make the worst films. I think that fiction is concerned with language and consciousness in a way that film can’t be. Voice, consciousness — cinema can do a voice over, but it usually feels very performative, too talky, a bit artificial. Private thought, consciousness, is evoked visually: usually an actor’s face, a POV shot, images remembered in a montage. Language play and repetition — the way a word or a sentence or a even just similar syntax separated by 50 pages can make subtle and mysterious connections — that only works in a novel.
I do like to write about the experience of watching. In this book, and in my others, I wanted to explore what it feels like, in the body and mind, when we watch a film (or listen to music, or surf the Internet, etc). How our own subjectivity distorts what we see or how we understand what we see. I am interested in the primacy of visual information. And the deceptiveness of various technological mediations: movies, phones, the Internet, etc. And I am deeply interested in the thingyness of technology — how it shapes us both in body and mind.
TM: Stone Arabia ends with a first-person memory from 1972, and Innocent and Others also ends in an unexpected way, with a scene of someone the reader has only met once: a minor character whom we suddenly get this intense and beautiful access to — and even now, I’m not sure if it’s a filtered representation of her or as “real” as one can get in fiction. My husband said it was like how Don DeLillo’s Americana ends — with a scene that is quite different than what comes before, and is not commented upon or totally explained. (Full disclosure: I don’t remember the last scene in DeLillo’s novel, but my husband’s description was pretty entertaining.) Can you talk about your novel endings (without spoilers, I suppose…?), and how you come to them? How do you want your reader to feel when they finish one of your books?
DS: Your interpretation of and reaction to the end of Innocents and Others is spot on, wonderfully keen about what I was attempting. The ending of a novel is the most important aspect to me. As a reader, I have studied the ends of my favorite novels. The ending has to be of the case but also not predictable. It has to have a satisfying closure for the reader, but it doesn’t have to answer anything or shut it down. Instead it can open up or circle back. For example, my favorite ending is the famous ending of Ulysses. It works on a formal level, a narrative level, and a character level. We get an interior monologue, which is of a piece with but also an escalation of the stream of consciousness we get in the first third of the book. It fits the odyssey organizing principle, so in an important way it is inevitable. At long last we get to be intimate with Molly, someone we have heard about for the entire book, but this is the first time we hear from her mind directly. So on a narrative level we are primed and excited to hear from her. We really want it! She gives us another perspective on her son’s death, on her marriage, on her daughter, on her infidelity, on her body. It builds on the book’s way of seeing things from multiple perspectives. And finally, it ends on a moment of joy and love (that famous “Yes”) but it is a memory of a past moment, so it is poignant and resonates in multiple ways. It has a satisfying closure, a sure beauty, but it also changes how you look at the whole book (and this very particular relationship). So that, I think, is the gold standard of landing a book. Everything put in motion has to pertain. But it still has to swerve and avoid being too neat or schematic.
As for my own work, I try to surprise myself (and my reader) but still be true to the built-up meaning. I try to remember everything that has come before, both in form and content. Often I work by reading over everything that I have written so far before adding to it. When I get to writing the end of the novel, I have read it over and over and over. So it is all in my mind as I write, which I hope gives it the density of accumulated meaning that I strive for. I feel it is necessary to take a risk at the end, to reach beyond the previous borders you have set for yourself, to wild it up a little.
TM: There’s a lot about imagination in Innocents and Others. For instance, the imagined films of young Meadow Mori that don’t exist — and, yet, are there, sparkling in the land of potential. And Jelly, who loves to call men just to talk, muses how meeting one of her phone friends would only lead to disappointment: “the failures of the actual to meet the contours of the imaginary.” Of course I want to connect these two. Is art-making like that: is our future, unmade work perfect because it doesn’t exist yet, doesn’t have to face the harshness of the real? What parallels to writing are there here for you, either with Meadow’s filmmaking or Jelly’s phone calls?
DS: I wanted those things (making films or making phone calls) to be very specifically what they are and not a stand in for writing novels. But I think it would be disingenuous to say I don’t share some of the agonies of imagination vs. reality that these characters experience. Perhaps I am interested, broadly, in how people respond to the enormities of the wider world, or even the harsh realities of a local, quiet life. In Eat the Document, the question of how to respond (or answer back, or resist) was political and focused outward, with all the complications and consequences of those actions. In Stone Arabia, Denise tries to overcome her paralysis so she can connect in some way while her brother Nik retreats to his own private world, much like Jelly or Sarah in Innocents and Others. Meadow and Carrie make art. Most responses feel inadequate, failed in some way. And many of the things we attempt we later see as failures and mistakes. But there is something poignant and beautiful in those fractures in your ordinary life, the moments when you realize that you were mistaken or insufficient or what you did had an unintended consequence. The clarifying and humbling experience of shedding your delusions. (At one point, Meadow says she doesn’t mind that she might be a bad person, but she would hate not to know it.) But then what? I’m not so interested in truly “bad” characters. I’m interested in bruised idealists. And the ruptures that make you question yourself, that make you implicate yourself in your own life. These are when people are at their most human, I think. It is about questions, not judgments, and letting people be as complex and contradictory as they genuinely are. And I am curious about what people do after these moments. Especially over time as the days and years go by.
TM: I love the female friendship here between Meadow and Carrie, two very different people and filmmakers. Carrie remarks, “Unlike marriage, which must be fulfilling and a goddamn mutual miracle, a friendship could be twisted and one-sided and make no sense at all, but if it had years and years behind it, a friendship could not be discarded.” Man oh man I love this line and I’m not even sure I agree with it! Can you talk about characterizing these two women and their relationship? Also, what do you think about the rise in stories lately about female friendships, be it by Elena Ferrante, or on TV shows like Broad City. Any thoughts on why these stories are capturing us right now? What interests you about this kind of relationship?
DS: You have zeroed in on the quote that captures who Carrie is, and I am not sure I agree with her either. I like writing about non-romantic connections, writing about other kinds of relationships. The ones that endure and hum through our whole lives: siblings, parent-child, and long-held friendships. Maybe because there is no real mechanism for ending them? And because of that, you end up with someone in your life who is very different from you, who made very different choices. I like unconditional love as an idea. There are some friends that if I met them today, we might not become friends because we no longer have a lot in common. If we were married, we would get divorced because we “grew apart.” But I love those kinds of friends — they keep you honest and humble. They remind you of what you used to be and what you used to want. They are a form of memory.
TM: Because The Millions is a book site, I must ask, What’s the last great book you read? And because you are Dana Spiotta, I must ask, What’s the last great movie you saw?
DS: Several come to mind. The Joy Williams collection of essays, Ill Nature, is a radicalizing, provocative book. She argues with true passion and urgency. I found it tremendously persuasive — and, as always with Joy Williams, the sentences are flawless. I also loved The Visiting Privilege, the collected stories of Joy Williams. Her novels have taught me so much about writing, and to go back and read her stories makes you realize how extraordinary her work is, how accomplished and how mysterious. She is in a category of her own creation. Don DeLillo’s Zero K is a compassionate and radiant novel. The questions it asks about death (“Isn’t it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate?”) hit me very hard because I have been slowly losing my own father. I love DeLillo’s celebration of the “shaky complications of body, mind and personal circumstances,” his wonder at the details of the quotidian every day, and his joy in language and the mystery of words. The intensity of his noticing is epic. Did I mention that it is also funny — the dialogue in the first half is classic funny DeLillo. What else? It has the word “scatterlife” in it. It also has this one-sentence paragraph in it: “The world hum.”
The last great movie I saw was Force of Evil, which was directed by Abraham Polonsky in 1949 and stars John Garfield. Polonsky and Garfield were both blacklisted by HUAC shortly after this film came out. I have seen it many times and recently watched it with a friend who had not seen it. In Polonsky’s view, the system makes it impossible for any man to be good. Everyone in this movie is trapped and money makes it impossible to not be somewhat corrupt. But Polonsky shows us that even within the compromised morality of capitalism, there are moral choices. One can be less corrupt, less craven, or one can be more. The sort-of hero in this story, John Garfield, is a man who honestly admits his greed. He has that, a lack of self-delusion. But the insidious thing, the trap, is that all men must sink to the lowest possible point. The system rewards only the worst behavior. He tries to do one good thing for his brother out of guilt or loyalty. The two of them try to remain human, and they suffer for it. The system will crush everyone, however some will keep their dignity. Plus it has an iconic final scene on the pylons of the George Washington Bridge. But maybe the real greatness lies in the sad and beautiful face of John Garfield.
In one scene from Americana, Don DeLillo’s 1971 debut novel, narrator David Bell turns off a light and turns on a radio:
Sound filled the room, huge noise, bass and drums booming out of the speaker, beating and scratching, then the sting of a fierce needling trumpet. In the darkness that trumpet had a deeper beauty, filling space, leaving time behind, a difficult sound departing and returning, and I did not feel I was in a room with four walls. A note hung at eye level, dim speck on the railroad horizon, then vanished into a long silence shaded by the revving bass.
It is not surprising that a writer so in love with the sounds of language — someone who titled a novel White Noise — would embrace the power of radio as narrative. Yet, like other talented novelists, DeLillo manages to surprise us with the familiar. Elsewhere in the novel, Bell describes a “three-antenna marine-band hi-fi portable radio” belonging to another character. The radio transmitted a “never-ending squall of disc jockey babytalk, commercials for death, upstate bluegrass Jesus, and as we drove through the cloverleaf bedlams and past the morbid gray towns I perceived that all was in harmony, the stunned land feeding the convulsive radio, every acre of the night bursting with a kinetic unity, the logic beyond delirium.”
It is sometimes refreshing to ditch the convenience of playlists and clarity of satellite stations and embrace the surprise of terrestrial radio. The shifting genres of FM. The droning emptiness of AM. I am reminded of “Route 7 Outside Nacogdoches, Texas” by Joe Wilkins, about a long drive down the road, and the narrator’s “good pain inside distance.” There, “the night gone liquor black, / radio catching miles / of static, there was only / the ache of cicadas and wind / and leaves in the wind, / and I did not know I was driving / to you. I was driving.”
Radio is elegiac. Radio is the theater of the mind: our eyes are free to look elsewhere, but the sound bounces in our brains. Two mediums that elicit imagination and subjective experience, radios and literature go well together. As another theater of the mind, literature requires more active listener participation than visual entertainment. Often the synthesis of the two makes narrative magic.
Mucho Mass, the husband of Oedipa Maas, in The Crying of Lot 49 is a disc jockey for KCUF, a California radio station. The novel is suffused with sound. Mucho was previously a used car salesman, but unlike other hucksters, did not use pencil shavings “for hushing sick transmissions.” Oedipa is haunted by disembodied voices: late-night prank phone calls from her billionaire ex-boyfriend, who disguises his voice as The Shadow, a radio character from the 1930s. Lapsed Catholic he is, Thomas Pynchon makes the radio sacramental: Oedipa imagines Mucho “looking through the soundproof glass at one of his colleagues with a headset clamped on and cueing the next record with movements stylized as the handling of chrism, censer, chalice, might be for a holy man, yet really tuned in to the voice, voices, the music, its message, surrounded by it, digging it, as were all the faithful it went out to.”
We want to be surrounded by sound: speakers in front, above, and behind. Literature puts the speakers inside of us. Julian Murphet has considered William Faulkner’s experimentation with levels and layers of “voice” in his novels. Murphet is correct to note that “Faulkner’s career as a novelist is coeval with the rise of one of the most astonishing cultural events in any nation’s history: the present-tense linking up of American cities from coast to coast, thanks to syndication and electromagnetic propagation, through voices speaking into living rooms and office spaces ‘out of the air’ and directly into the resonant chambers of the soul.” Murphet quotes Theodor Adorno’s Current of Music to supplement the point: “The absence of visible persons makes the ‘radio voice’ appear more objective and infallible than a live voice; and the mystery of a machine which can speak may be felt in atavistic layers of our psychical life.” In Faulkner’s work, Murphet sees “how the art of the novel is adapted, in a state of emergency, to absorb these new, disembodied voices of radio and gramophone, not as alien impositions on the living speech and dialogic richness of an expanding nation but precisely as the transfiguration through mechanical mediation” of our selves and souls.
As I Lay Dying — perhaps Faulkner’s finest and most sonorous work — ends with a chapter narrated by Cash, the apostolic carpenter son. The chapter’s first sentence: “So when we stopped there to borrow the shovels we heard the graphophone playing in the house.” As the chapter goes on, Cash notes when the music plays, and when it stops: “So we set in the wagon, but the music wasn’t playing now. I reckon it’s a good thing we aint got ere a one of them. I reckon I wouldn’t never get no work done a-tall for listening to it. I dont know if a little music aint about the nicest thing a fellow can have.”
The family is about to meet the new Ms. Bundren. She is holding a graphophone. As the novel ends, Cash thinks how “everytime a new record would come from the mail order and us setting in the house in the winter, listening to it, I would think what a shame Darl couldn’t be to enjoy it too.” Faulkner chose to have Cash articulate his emotional and spiritual distance from his brother through their inability to share sound.
In John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio,” Jim and Irene Westcott share sound, until “One Sunday afternoon, in the middle of a Schubert quartet, the music faded away altogether.” Broken, the radio was replaced with a “large gumwood cabinet” that occupied their apartment “like an aggressive intruder.” A clear and pure tone is later replaced with crackling and rustling, as the radio begins transmitting the surrounding world. Private and intimate conversations whisper from the radio. Also: “a monologue on salmon fishing in Canada, a bridge game, running comments on home movies of what had apparently been a fortnight at Sea Island, and a bitter family quarrel about an overdraft at the bank.” Soon the “hideous cabinet,” the ugly God of a machine tunes into the Westcott’s own sins and fears.
We learn how to live through radios. Within Eduardo Corral’s poem “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes,” the father “learned English / by listening to the radio. The first four words / he memorized: In God We Trust.” Radio delivers us news, both public and personal. In “Easter, 1960” by Sharon Olds, a hospital uses an “ancient boarding-school radio” to announce that the speaker’s boyfriend was one of two men brought to the emergency room after a car crash: “one of them / critical, one of them dead.”
Back to DeLillo’s Americana, where the “radio was announcing a sale on ground round steak and then some old-time rock came on, lush and mystical, cockney voices wailing through a prayer wheel of electric sitars.” Radio is like literature, like our thoughts: moving, shifting, often clouded in static, and yet sometimes out of the maddening noise comes clarity.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
With the increasingly important role of intelligent machines in all phases of our lives–military, medical, economic and financial, political–it is odd to keep reading articles with titles such as Whatever Happened to Artificial Intelligence? This is a phenomenon that Turing had predicted: that machine intelligence would become so pervasive, so comfortable, and so well integrated into our information-based economy that people would fail even to notice it.
—Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines
1. Things are in the Saddle
Sometime in the sixth century, Saint Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictine monastery in Italy, required his monks to pray at seven scheduled times throughout the day. Given this rather assiduous prayer regimen, it is perhaps unsurprising that Christian monks — requiring a more exact form of timekeeping — were the ones who propelled innovations in clock technologies. Ultimately, the mechanism they produced would have unexpected consequences on the world outside the hallowed confines of the monastery. By the fourteenth century, the mechanical clock was a staple of the European urban landscape, a clanging device that monitored the hours and announced the day’s exigencies. Applying new pressures of punctuality and scheduling to life, the clock dramatically revamped how people worked and traveled and leisured. It operated as a haunting reminder of time’s inexorable progress. As T.S. Eliot said, “Because I know that time is always time/and place is always and only place/And what is actual is actual only for one time and only for one place.” A simple ticking device changed reality.
Throughout history the best minds have debated about the ways in which technology has impressed itself on humanity. In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr outlines the argument rather nicely. On one side are “technological determinists” who believe that the technologies we use autonomously determine the type of people we become, without our consent. By way of example, one could point to the invention of the clock, or other seminal technologies. Marx wrote, “The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” Emerson posited, “Things are in the saddle/ And ride mankind.” On the other end of the debate are “technological instrumentalists” who contend that our technologies are “the means to achieve our ends; they have no ends of their own.” In the post-millennial world, the debate is one of paramount importance, but is rarely given serious attention and compelling dramatization in the contemporary literary novel. This is not to say that contemporary novelists aren’t interested in the subject (see Jonathan Franzen’s “Liking is for Cowards: Go for What Hurts” or Zadie Smith’s “Generation Why”). Or that historians and sociologists haven’t turned the subject into something of an intellectual G-spot (see Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, Sherry Turkel’s Alone Together, or Carr’s The Shallows).
2. A Master of a Language that Never Rears its Head
Such questions about technological determinism occupy a vital space in the artistic medulla of the Portuguese novelist Gonçalo M. Tavares. Since 2001, Tavares has been publishing plays, story collections, essays, and novels while concomitantly snagging a whole bevy of literary prizes. Born in 1970, the Portuguese novelist’s Jerusalem won the 2005 Jose Saramago Prize and inspired the Nobel Prize-winning Saramago himself to rather hyperbolically state that “in thirty years’ time, if not before, [Tavares] will win the Nobel Prize, and I’m sure my prediction will come true…Tavares has no right to be writing so well at the age of 35. One feels like punching him.” It is perhaps unsurprising then that I approached Tavares’ books with equal amounts of skepticism and expectation, since there was simply no way a writer who’s only in his early 40s could be generating this kind of revelatory and cornea-brightening work without my having heard whisper and murmur of it. Turns out I was wrong. His books made me want to throw an envy-inspired uppercut, too.
His novels Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, Klaus Klump: A Man, and Joseph Walser’s Machine (out this month in paperback from Dalkey Archive Press) constitute the twisted and ruminative series called The Kingdom, which explores the pathology of political ambition, the logic of human cruelty, the collateral damage of madness, and the senescence of morality in the technological age. Though soul-withered and psychotic, his characters are also breathtakingly smart and often interrupt the narrative action to pontificate on moral relativism, power, politics, and the telos of the individual. Combine the villainous unction of Hannibal Lecter with the grisly impulses of Patrick Bateman and you’ll have a composite psychological sketch of Tavares’s more disturbing creations. His less menacing characters range from the schizophrenic and mentally unstable to the pathologically detached. But his characters aren’t simply fictional renderings of Oliver Sacks’s patients. Instead, Tavares creates an assemblage of people who take the prevailing ethics and logics of society — capitalism, corporatism, and intellectual technology — and radicalize them in an effort to muse about what would happen to humanity if our political and economic efficacy trumped the importance of our souls.
3. As if Humans Were Substances that Thought, Substances with Souls
Joseph Walser’s Machine is a slender though pithy meditation on the ways in which systemic routines — economic, medical, industrial, and political — scour the human psyche to a bloodless husk. Like all Tavares’ novels, Machine is set an unidentified European city and is populated by characters with vaguely Germanic-sounding names. The year is unknown, but the psychic aura of the book suggests late-millennium panic. An odd hybrid of social critique, philosophical tract, and black comedy, Machine opens with an oblique snapshot of Joseph Walser’s life. “He was a strange man… He wore a simple pair of pants, almost like a peasant’s, and his hazel-colored shoes were absolutely out of style… Walser was a collector. Of what? It’s too early to say.” His days are existentially moored by routines: He gets up in the morning, shaves, eats a sensible breakfast, goes to his job in a factory owned by the most important business man in the city, reprieves for lunch around two, and walks home around six. Walser maintains a somnambulant existence in which the events of the outside world constitute a predictable landscape, a scheduled set change on a choreographed stage. Everything is ordinary, nothing spontaneous. Even the threat of war that looms over his city gets regarded as just another variable in the cyclical rhythms of history: “The technique of influencing men by frightening them about things that don’t exist yet is ancient. It’s happening again. There’s talk of a military unit approaching with great appetite.” Numb to these expected political events, Walser similarly views other people — his wife Margha, his boss Klober Muller, and his friends — with pathological blankness. Consider Walser’s impassive discovery of his wife’s affair with Muller. He fails to confront either of them and instead resumes the quiet fulfillment of the rote. Another staple of his routine is the weekly Dice Game he plays with his coworkers, some of whom eventually plan and execute an act of terrorism against the occupying army, which, even though it’s intended to be a catalyst for disorder, only further confirms that this type of violent resistance is to be expected during wartime. Because the Dice Game allows the men to gamble on chance, it seemingly offers a necessary break from the deadening routines of daily life. But the omniscient narrator explains the paradox of the game: “There was nothing lacking, everything was there already, in the game, nothing new could crop up to disrupt the proceedings. There were six numbers struck to the die and they weren’t going anywhere. There was no seventh cipher, no seventh hypothesis. Six was the limit.” It seems then the habitual decision to submit to chance and unpredictability every week is, for Walser, just another kind of routine. All this perhaps explains why his emotional potential amounts to that of a storefront mannequin. Other people misconstrue his silence and carelessness toward the outside world as a faculty for proletarian obedience.
Walser’s relationship with his machine is the only bond in his life that demands his precise attention:
Walser had long since operated the machine with unceasing concentration, since, from the beginning, he’d realized the following: if the machine could, in the worst case, as a result of a mistake, kill him, him the honorable citizen Joseph Walser, in peacetime, the most tranquil of times, while lazy children played in the parks on Sundays, then he, Joseph Walser, was, after all, at war, for he was dealing with a dangerous friend, a friend that was potentially an enemy, a mortal enemy, because it could — not in a few months or a couple of days, but in a second — turn into that which seeks to inflict bodily harm. The foundation of his very existence — this machine — which supported his family and was, therefore, what saved him, day after day, from being some other person, eventually his own negative, the opposite of the Man that he thought himself to be… but in saving him day after day, the machine also constantly threatened him, without abeyance.
This almost symbiotic relationship with his machine imbues Walser’s life with meaning. In fact, whenever he turns it off, he is overcome by an acute apprehension, wondering whether his own heart has stopped. Eventually, the machine makes good on its threat and severs Walser’s index finger, a gruesome incident that occurs while his friends from the factory detonate a bomb on a nearby street, which momentarily sends the city into hysterics. In the face of such chaos, the citizens begin the expected triage and abide a municipally enforced emotional prudence — carrying out routines to create some semblance of normal life. Walser’s own routine involves collecting shards of metals broken off from various mechanisms and storing them in his study as a kind of shrine to technological rationality. It is his way of constructing meaning — a personal logic — out of entropy. Despite the backdrop of war and the privations of his personal life, Walser all the while behaves with the chilly equanimity of a heart surgeon. At one point, he considers himself to be a great man because he is “prepared to not love anyone…” Such a formulation of human greatness allows him to commit twisted actions — having sex with his dead friend’s wife, stealing the belt off the corpse of recently murdered man, which he adds to his metal collection — the consequences of which converge in one of the strangest endings to a novel I’ve read, up there with Don Delillo’s Americana, Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones, or Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.
What should by now be rather obvious is that Joseph Walser isn’t intended to strike us as a flesh-and-blood human being. This is not to suggest that Machine eschews the aesthetics of Realism, though. Instead, Tavares plumbs the internal life of a character who has or is slowly metamorphosing into a machine, a type of person whose morality is not a divine deliberation of how best to live, but is a mechanical operation. If the requested action is executed successfully — regardless of whether we find that action laudable or opprobrious — then the action is good. Such is the compassionless morality of Tavares’s Kingdom, where people value machines more than they do human beings. These characters are atomized individuals who are slaves to their own base desires, who fail to see themselves as part of a collective.
I teach literature and writing at a small college in Wisconsin, and oftentimes center my composition courses on discussions about how digital technologies are changing our definitions of communication, friendship, love, and morality. We read Jaron Lanier and Nicholas Carr, Martin Buber and Ray Kurzweil. APA studies about how Facebook increases narcissistic tendencies among its users, a documentary about Internet Addiction Recovery Camps in Asia, and Thomas de Zengotita’s essay from Harper’s about “the numbing of the American mind” are a few examples of the vast catalog of arguments we encounter throughout the semester. Thoughtful and at times intimidatingly smart, my students have curious reactions to these texts. They at once confirm the desensitization to reality and the ablation of serious thought that digital technologies eventuate, while at the same time praising the convenience, efficiency, and sleekness of their smartphones, which they often utilize in class to fact-check my lectures (a practice that fills me with a kind of searing dread). Recently, my students and I were discussing the ways in which texting and Facebook posts and Instant Messaging reduce our expectations of human interaction — one should note that the majority of my students absolutely abhor making actual, vox-a-vox phone calls. They related anecdotes about text message conversations gone awry (“I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic!” or “I thought she was pissed at me!”). One student recalled a face-to-face conversation she recently had with her friend. She had said that friend is the kind of funny where whenever you’re around her you find yourself clutching your stomach and begging her to stop. Anyways, the friend told a joke, and instead of laughing, instead of giving the friend some expressive indication that she thought the joke was that delicious blend of irreverence and wisdom, my student sat there stone-faced and saw a familiar acronym fill up the IMAX of her head. It read: “LOL.” As she bravely recounted the anecdote, speaking with that special intensity that attends a kind of personal revelation, she seemed preoccupied in a haunted way.
Now, I’m not saying that my student bears even a remote likeness to a single one of Tavares’ characters. In fact, she’s a terribly nice person who I have faith will do important things with her life. But we shouldn’t disregard the seriousness of the incident, for it speaks to the subtle and disturbing ways in which technologies sometimes limit or reduce our appreciation of reality, our ability to sensitively apprehend and partake in reality. While it’s easy to sneer or bristle at Tavares’ characters, to close his books and say, “Boy, that was weird,” I don’t think these are meant to be portraits of the cold and the sociopathic, the damaged and the damned. What makes these books necessary, urgent, and arguably genius is Tavares’ unapologetic presentation of characters who follow contemporary society’s prevailing ethics—the ethics of efficient machines—to their logical and devastating ends: a world without what Tavares calls “the efficient distribution of divine breath.” Told in pellucid prose, Joseph Walser’s Machine is a terrifying and mesmeric novel, offering a dark premonition of where we might be headed and what we might become.
I know it’s inauspicious to say this at the advent of our new site design, but I’m on a losing streak. Sometimes I’m on a winning streak, and everything I read is delightful and I stay up late to finish one novel after another, and at the end of the month I feel sublime and like I am infinitesimally closer to my goal of reading everything. But sometimes I read a novel that drags, and then another that drags, and then another, and before long I have spurned books in favor of internet television, Calvin and Hobbes, and puerile blogs. It’s not that the novels are bad, necessarily; a bad novel is easy to shake. It’s that they aren’t enjoyable. They don’t make me feel happy, or pleasantly sad, or smarter. Perhaps I ask too much. And perhaps it’s unfair to blame the novels for what is in fact the ebb and flow of human enthusiasm and serotonin levels, but outside of the reading problem I feel quite chipper (or rather, no more curmudgeonly than usual).
I think it’s the books. Here are the culprits, feel free to judge:
A Bend in the River: Technically this should get its own Modern Library Revue, but I’m not sure that I have enough to say. After A House for Mr. Biswas, a picaresque delight which I read in my previous web-carnation as Widmerpool, I was unprepared for the more subtle charms of A Bend in the River. It made me feel like I had taken a painkiller, laid down for a malarial nap in an unpleasant climate, and watched a revolution on TV. Maybe I am just an unsubtle person, better suited to the theatrics of Mr. Biswas, because this novel seemed a touch slow to me. It did impart a dull sense of dread, but dull only; the implications of what Naipaul was saying, the realities of the situation he described, did not feel real to me. Maybe that was Naipaul’s intention. More probably, I have a very limited frame of reference. I did really like the last page. So much, in fact, that it made me reconsider my feelings about all of the preceding pages. Maybe I’ll read it again, when I’m feeling more charitable.
London Fields: As I have said before on this site, I really like the books by Martin Amis that I have read. Nonetheless, I felt like he could have done with the aforementioned painkiller and nap, instead of whatever it was that he did when he was writing this novel. (Uppers, maybe.) To be fair (unfair?), I haven’t finished the book, but part of the reason that I haven’t finished it is that it’s kind of a chore. It’s like going on an elaborate and fast-paced scavenger hunt arranged by someone whom you suspect dislikes you. You don’t know what’s at the end, but you can’t be sure that it will be something nice, and it’s an awful lot of effort in the meantime. When I wrote about The Rachel Papers, I mentioned Grass and Nabokov. I feel them rattling around this novel too, except here they seem to have had a lovechild with Don Delillo’s Americana (another book I didn’t care for). It’s exhausting, and I just want it to be over.
The Golden Notebook: When I saw this in the book shop, I flung myself upon it, feeling like I had identified a massive, hitherto nameless gap in my education, a gap shaped like Doris Lessing. I thought I was going to be enthralled and entertained. Instead, I was depressed for rather a lot of days. The experience is not one I would describe as entertaining in the way that lying down in a basket of kittens or reading The Stand is entertaining. I found it powerful, but unpleasant.
I really admired what Lessing did in this novel. Among other things, she did an uncanny job of creating a malaise that was actually infectious. It oozed right off the page and into my own spirit. I started dragging around, inventing emotional maladies, worrying about my life, and contemplating my uterus. When I finished the novel the malaise lifted, and I felt I had been through a mild illness. That’s impressive, but it wasn’t fun. What is fun is to think that Doris Lessing, by writing this novel that I found tedious and sad-making, about a lady who I found tedious and sad-making, is actually one of many reasons that I am able to feel happy, as a lady! How about that?
Additionally, The Golden Notebook did serve as a nice, I guess, illustration of something I have been mulling over lately. Last month I noticed that there were a lot of articles about marriage on various news and “culture” websites. First there were articles and books and annoying blog posts saying that marriage is boring and against nature, which lead to even more annoying personal pieces about allegedly successful marriages and how superb they are for everyone (either that, or Our Problems and How We Solved Them). When I read things like this, I think, probably unkindly, “Hmm, love to hear from your spouse about all this” and “Shut up.” But my point, other than that people should stop talking about their significant others on the internet, is that advocates of “romance” and drama (cf Christina Nehring, A Vindication of Love) should read The Golden Notebook, and get back to me on the advantages of hot passion. As a matter of fact, advocates of marriage (their own marriages, mostly, and specifically I mean that smug fellow on Salon), could give it a read too. Nowhere have hot passion and marriage alike (human relationships in general, actually, and the Communist Party) seemed so utterly defeating and sad as they do in The Golden Notebook.
The Skating Rink: Sigh. I was so looking forward to this. I even pre-ordered, and I never pre-order. But it was lacklustre. It lacked lustre, and heart, like a last-minute writing exercise from a promising MFA student. Compared to the shocking experience of The Savage Detectives and 2666, this was very flat. If I had read it in a magazine I would have liked it more, I think. Being bound in boards makes everything so weighty. So does pre-ordering.
Those are my companions in the rut, friends. I had a couple things lined up for the rest of the month, but given the length of this losing streak, I’m not sure they are suitable. First, The Black Book. I like Pamuk, but I’m not sure he is the one to end a losing streak. The man is married to melancholy. Then a William Vollmann novel (my first), Europe Central. But it looks heavy (like, heavy). I’m going to the beach next week. Will my location be incompatible with my reading material? I’m sort of considering acquiring (preferably through theft) a copy of Twilight. I read the first few chapters at a party, and it raised some thrilling questions. What of the crude nationalistic symbolism of Bella’s pick-up truck? Why is Edward, like, so mad at Bella when he doesn’t even know her? Will my own accursed pallor be trendy this season, thanks to these sexy underaged people from Forks, Washington? How much will I hate myself if I spend money on this book?
I’ll do anything to get out of this goddamned rut.