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The End of the Self Is the End of the Universe

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“Isolation, solitude, secret planning,” Don DeLillo once prescribed. “A novel is a secret that a writer may keep for years before he lets it out of his room.” DeLillo’s description of his plot for Great Jones Street strikes a similar note: “a man in a small room, a man who has shut himself away, and this is something that happens in my work — the man hiding from acts of violence or planning acts of violence, or the individual reduced to silence by the forces around him.” Mao II, Libra, even DeLillo’s misunderstood football novel, End Zone, include characters who have receded from the world to be reborn.

Some might call that paranoia. When the public world fails to reveal its meanings to us, we retreat into our private rooms, our private minds, where there are infinite schemas and explanations. We are the only skeptics of our own souls. A secret is only as good as its ability to be exclusive, and yet a conspiracy theory is only as good as its ability to be inclusive. Whereas his contemporary Thomas Pynchon might share these sentiments, Pynchon has chosen to be a jester, while DeLillo has a deadly serious endgame.

Years ago, a Jesuit told me that he had the same journalism professor as DeLillo when he studied at Fordham. The professor showed the Jesuit one of DeLillo’s term papers. I never asked about the paper’s content or style; it felt like I had been given a slice of a secret, and that was enough. It turned out to have been an open secret: the professor, Edward A. Walsh, had kept the paper to show budding writers. Yet the tension of a secret that somehow can also be easily found captures the DeLillo mystique. He writes but he does not teach. He gives interviews, but they are clipped and often vague. He lives in the city but seems to somehow live outside of it. He is not hiding, but he is certainly not trying to be found.

Zero K, DeLillo’s newest novel, is like one of those open secrets. To say that it is not groundbreaking would be to misread the purpose and progression of his canon. The major constellations of DeLillo’s work are White Noise and Underworld; the former for its ability to capture his culture’s paranoid moment, and the latter for a son of the Bronx to finally, and fully, examine the place of his birth and youth. Zero K is an extension of DeLillo’s developing themes, but it places a darker color upon them.

Billionaire Ross Lockhart, his second wife, Artis, and his son Jeff are the three central characters of the novel. Ross says “everybody wants to own the end of the world.” It soon becomes clear that he means the end of our own world, but for a man like Ross, the end of the self is the end of the universe. Artis, much younger than Ross, is terminally ill. Ross has been financing a mysterious project that includes “cryonic suspension,” something he admits is not a new idea, but one “that is now approaching full realization.” The project is called The Convergence.

Reading DeLillo without understanding the themes and concerns of a Jesuit education is like walking onto a basketball court thinking you can run the ball without dribbling. DeLillo joked that he slept through Cardinal Hayes High School, and that the Fordham Jesuits taught him how to be a “failed ascetic.” This is exactly the type of thing an Italian-American from the Bronx would say (I would know). One of DeLillo’s running influences has been Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, whose concept of the Omega Point posits that the universe is evolving toward an ultimate convergence of systems, a perfect consciousness. DeLillo examined the concept in End Zone through the obsessions of narrator Gary Harkness. As Stephen J. Burn notes, DeLillo returned to Teilhard’s writings for Ratner’s Star, and even considered titling four other novels Point Omega (the inversion means the same) — Mao II, Underworld, The Body Artist and Cosmopolis — before using the title for his short 2010 novel.

This is not to say that Zero K is a Jesuit or Catholic book. Zero K might be DeLillo’s most agnostic novel, a work that takes Teilhard’s superstructure and strips it of God and Christ and other signifiers. If anyone portends to be God in Zero K, it is Ross, or the mysterious Stenmark Twins, whose philosophies about war, death, and the afterlife put flesh on the skeleton of the Convergence.

If Ross needs men like the Stenmark Twins to offer a narrative to his cryonic project, he needs his son to bear witness. Jeff soon realizes that Ross wants him to be there with him when Artis dies. It is a strange tinge of vulnerability for a man who left Jeff and his mother when Jeff was 13: “I was doing my trigonometry homework when he told me.” Jeff has never quite forgiven him, but is able to keep both his mother, Madeline, and Artis in high esteem.

The facility is full of screens that lower from the ceiling and play silent images of destruction and suffering. This is another of DeLillo’s trends: the screen as projection for the man in his small room. Players opens with a screen: the showing of an on-flight film, which includes golfers attacked by terrorists. A 24-hour gallery repeat of Psycho opens Point Omega. Then there is the metaphorical screen of End Zone, the canvas blinds that are wrapped around the Logos College practice field so that Coach Creed can hide his players.

The desert facility is otherwise described in spare terms, which does make for a rather slow first half to the novel. Patient readers are rewarded when DeLillo develops the dynamic between father and son, which is surprisingly refined by Jeff’s relationship with Artis. She seems unafraid of her unknown future, and that unsettles Jeff. An archeologist, she thinks of finding her own self at her reawakening. Artis, in a true way, needs the Convergence to give her a second chance. Others opt for Zero K, a “special unit” of the facility” that is “predicated on the subject’s willingness to make a certain kind of transition to the next level.”

The same method that slowed the first half of the book gives a surreal quality to its second half. As Jeff describes it, the Convergence facility exists outside of time, “time compressed, time drawn tight, overlapping time, dayless, nightless, many doors, no windows.” I have always thought DeLillo is at his most masterful when he starts changing our atmosphere, when he puts us in the “dense environmental texture” of the supermarket in White Noise. It usually happens halfway through is novels, and Zero K is no exception. At the midway point we realize that Ross has a deeper plan for the Convergence and his son, and its drama pushes the book toward its conclusion. Sadness might seem too sincere an emotion to ascribe to a novel written by a postmodernist, but Zero K pushes its readers to feel. It is almost impossible to not. With its confluence of screens, strange artwork, empty rooms, long hallways, and shaved hands of those soon to be frozen, Zero K creates an experiment, and we, its subjects, feel pulled to interact.

A man in a small room, obsessed with the present and yet somehow existing outside the scope of time: this is DeLillo’s concern. “Isolation is not a drawback to those who understand that isolation is the point,” one character says in Zero K. DeLillo’s new novel, particularly its end, is a slight pivot for the novelist. Yet when a writer is able to capture so many of our anxieties on his pages, a pivot can be profound.

Praise the Colophon: Twenty Notes on Type

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Writers, praise the typographers and designers: our words are in their hands.

Bookshelves line the walls of my office. The room is small, and with the door closed, it feels comfortably claustrophobic with words. Lately my twin daughters pull books from the bottom shelves. They laugh while forming piles of prose and poetry. Transformations by Anne Sexton is splayed next to The Origin of the Brunists by Robert Coover, which smothers The Comedians by Graham Greene. My girls smile, then run away while I assess the wreckage. While returning the books to the shelves, I found Players by Don DeLillo opened to “A Note on the Type.” A colophon.

Colophons are sometimes the last words of books; the Greek origin of the word means “finishing stroke.” They are the end credits of literature. Colophons are the ticket out of the imagined world and back to the world of late trains and heating bills. Although often formal and informative, colophons are also peppered with personality. Handwritten colophons first appeared in 6th century manuscripts. The first printed colophon appeared in the second book printed by movable type, the Mainz Psalter, created by Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer in 1457. The original colophon appears below, in Latin. Here is the translation by Douglas C. McMurtrie, from his comprehensive history: The Book: the Story of Printing & Bookmaking.
The present copy of the Psalms, adorned with beauty of capital letters, and sufficiently marked out with rubrics, has been thus fashioned by an ingenious invention of printing and stamping without any driving of the pen, and to the worship of God has been diligently brought to completion by Johann Fust, a citizen of Mainz, and Peter Schoeffer of Gernsheim, in the year of the Lord 1457, on the vigil of the Feast of the Assumption.

Three years later, the colophon for Catholicon, a 13th century Latin dictionary written by Joannes Balbus, asserts it was printed “without help of reed, stylus, or pen, but by the wondrous agreement, proportion, and harmony of punches and types.” Wonder. Harmony. Letters.

Players was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1977. Fifty years earlier, an essay “Cult of the Colophon” appeared in Publishers Weekly. Skillin & Gay’s Words into Type notes that “In the early days of bookmaking, the colophon appeared on the last page of the book and gave most of the details now shown on the title page,” which accounts for the word’s other usage “for publisher’s device, trademark, or symbol” — elements that have now migrated from the end of the book to the spine and title page. Think The Modern Library colophon of a torchbearer. Jay Satterfield notes the “colophon’s twentieth-century revitalization as a quality trademark was symptomatic of literature’s commodification, although it drew on a tradition of fine printing consciously detached from commercial interests by its aesthetic progenitors.” Usage of colophons “by trade publishers illuminates a modern melding of interests: publishing sought to maintain an air of disinterested dignity associated with art and literature, yet also yearned for sales potential modern commercialization promised.”

Knopf said “a good-looking and well-made book will never do its author any harm anywhere at any time.” He attracted some of the nation’s finest typographers, although in Beauty and the Book, her consideration of fine book ownership in America, Megan Benton shows how some of those typographers thought that the Knopf colophons were “contrived.” William Addison Dwiggins, who coined the term “graphic designer,” said colophons were “shop talk.” He thought that readers “don’t care to know and they don’t need to know.” Benton also quotes Carl Rollins, who thought colophons were appeals to a book “buyer’s vanity;” a form of “free advertising for the paper merchant, the edition binder, the man who cast the rollers, and the provenance of the pressman’s pants.”

Through her particular consideration of finer texts, Benton notes that 20th-century colophons served two purposes. The first appealed to the “growing number of bibliophiles who were knowledgeable or at least curious about the particulars of bookmaking.” From a marketing standpoint, colophons “shrewdly enabled publishers to point out the craft-based aspects of production that distinguished fine bookmaking from ordinary:” the eternal tension of the book as art and product.

Players begins with an unidentified character’s speech, but quickly fades into the preparation for an in-flight movie. As the plane’s lights dim and the piano bar becomes still, the passengers seem to realize “for the first time how many systems of mechanical and electric components, what exact management of stresses, power units, consolidated thrust and energy it has taken to reduce their sensation of flight to this rudimentary tremble.” How beautiful, really, that only “One second of darkness” is “enough to intensify the implied bond which, more than distance, speed or destination, makes each journey something of a mystery to be worked out by the combined talents of the travelers, all gradually aware of each other’s code of recognition.” An appreciation for type is acknowledgment that good design enables enjoyment. The “one second of darkness” that is the union of reader, writer, and designer creates a form of literary communion.

When asked about the “raw materials” of his fiction, DeLillo thinks small. “I construct sentences,” he says, with the ritual sense of the Latin Mass of his youth. He continues: “There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look.” DeLillo says he is “completely willing to let language press meaning upon me.” Press, of course. Letters pushed into the page. A mark, a tattoo, a scar. He concludes:
Watching the way in which words match up, keeping the balance in a sentence — these are sensuous pleasures. I might want very and only in the same sentence, spaced a particular way, exactly so far apart. I might want rapture matched with danger — I like to match word endings. I type rather than write longhand because I like the way the words and letters look when they come off the hammers onto the page—finished, printed, beautifully formed.
Remember that books are crafted. Remember that books are words, words, words.

When writing about books — a world within a world — I always feel as if I am writing to save something. I might attribute this salvific sentiment to the self-importance all writers suffer from, the feeling that we are saying something worth noting. Or the origin might be my Catholic sense, the wish to transform and transfigure. Either way, a comparably venial sin in the service of something greater.

I spoke with Leah Carlson-Stanisic, associate director of design for HarperCollins, who thinks the decision to include a colophon is an important one, “because book publishing isn’t just the making and selling of something for the sake of consumerism.” Colophons — and the spirit behind them — are particularly essential now “during an important transitional period in terms of technology and how it is ever affecting our world and my industry.” In that vein, the colophon is a way to “reference and remember” the typographical tradition.

I am less than a novice in terms of design. My experience is confined to one undergraduate course, a few months of introductory work with weeks devoted to typography. I remember zooming in on the contour of letters, and how that closeness felt like looking into someone’s eyes. Afterward, I browsed books in the university library. A bit embarrassed, I found a study room tucked in the upper floor, and nearly put my face in books. I was convinced that I had discovered something new.

I love the right-justified colophon of Knopf’s The Stories of John Cheever. It looks like a pared wing. Part of a George Herbert poem.

Carlson-Stanisic explained her method in selecting a typeface. Historical Fell or Tribute might be appropriate for a manuscript dated by time period: both “are heavy and ornamental.” If a manuscript “is dense with elements [such as] lists, dialogues, e-mails,” she selects a “clean font with very crisp, readable serifs, that has a variety of weights so that I can distinguish all of the elements.” And “I always want a font that has a beautiful italic. I am a snob that way.” Beyond content translated to form, Carlson-Stanisic stresses the need for clarity: “If you set the leading too tight, and the lines are too close together, the page will overwhelm you. I want to select a typeface that is proportional, isn’t too fine but certainly not bulky, and that doesn’t have anything too stylistically unique about it that certain characters stand out too much and distract.” Her ideal is “a beautiful workhorse with an elegant italic.” Her favorites: Fournier, Filosofia, Perrywood, Garamond.

William Addison Dwiggins, for all of his aforementioned reservations about reader interest in colophons, is noted in many. My copy of Circling the Drain, the only book by Amanda Davis, ends with a terse colophon.

Dwiggins returns in my copy of Thomas Mann’s The Black Swan, a discard from the VA Hospital in Lebanon, Penn. His own trademark at the end is a nice touch.

This colophon appears at the end of Crossing the Threshold of Hope. In 1993, Pope John Paul II had to cancel a planned live interview on Italian radio and television, but surprised the reporter by developing his responses into a full manuscript. Not every typeface earns the name of Dante.

I call for the return of colophons. The battle of the book is not to be won or lost in preferences of print or digital. The page will always remain. Letters will always remain. Colophons can send us back into books for another level of reading. If we love books, that second reading might be ecstatic in the same way good writing can lift us. Colophons are reminders that books are bigger than their writers alone. They are the measured exhale at the end of a satisfying experience. The sentence has end punctuation; the book has a colophon.

It is dangerous for a note on type to run too long, so even this appreciation must be truncated. The last words on type should go to a designer, so here is Carlson-Stanisic again:
Form and function is so important to us on every level — and people say that it is best when you don’t notice it — but I think design-oriented people will always stop to observe and appreciate it. There is something so sensual and so similar to the way we appreciate the curve of an arm on a well-designed chair, the elongated neck of a dancer, or the graceful curvature of a lower cased f set in Fournier italic. How could we survive without any of that beauty?

An Ode to Photocopies: 50 Versions

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1. I make too many copies.

2. When using even the best machines, including those newly serviced and primed, a double-sided job is a risk. I say prayers while the sheets are sucked through the feeder. Hail Mary, full of grace (the sheets disappear), the Lord is with thee (the originals reappear on the other side of the feeder, safe), blessed art thou among women (the copies begin to move through the machine’s hidden innards), and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus (the stapler engages), holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now (the first packet exits, secure), and at the hour of our death (more packets follow, until the first tray is out of paper, and the machine shifts, slowly, to the second tray), Amen.

3. I am a high school English teacher. I give my students books, but they can’t mark-up those bound pages. Yellow and pink Post-its flap from the sides, but after they finish an essay on Beloved, the notes are torn out, stacked, and tossed.

4. Except for that one student who arranged her notes for The Sun Also Rises so that her marks formed Ernest Hemingway’s face.

5. Which is a copy, itself.

6. I like the word “photocopy,” but not as much as the word “mimeograph.”

7. I have one prep period a day, which means 40 minutes to pause, drink water, but mostly make copies. I hog the machine. I teach AP literature and two levels of creative writing.

8. There are a lot of words worth sharing. Photocopies are my contribution to this literary communion.

9. We used to enter a personal code so that the district could track our copies. Teachers would leech off those who did not log-out. I will neither admit nor deny my own participation.

10. I pull a chair to the front of my classroom. Students open the door, and each day there are fresh copies piled, waiting to be plucked. They are an announcement: it is time for work.

11. “Do you have an extra copy of __________? I lost mine.” Yes. But I always keep two copies for my files. Siblings to be saved.

12. I tell my AP literature students that I might be the last English teacher they will ever have. If they score well on the exam, they will gain college credit and never again read about the “inscrutable house” of Elizabeth Bishop.

13. Which means I am not going down without a fight.

14. Or, without making copies.

15. One of my first summer jobs was destroying photocopies of courthouse records that had become computerized. I fed the sheets into an industrial shredder that chomped staples and clips as easily as paper.

16. Teachers often ask if they can put-in the next job, creating a chain of words that wheel through the overworked machine. It can handle that play in the morning, when tired students trudge to first period and tired teachers down coffee and tired bus drivers chat in the lobby. But come noon, that litany of literature slogs the machine, and it clunks to a stop.

17. Breaths are held.

18. The status screen lights up, red scattered among the machine’s skeleton. Someone takes a knee, opens the door, and performs mechanical surgery.

19. Recent copies: “Is it O.K. to Be a Luddite?” by Thomas Pynchon (essay). “Antarctica” by James Hoch (poem). “The Visit” by Amanda Davis (story). “No One’s a Mystery” (pdf) by Elizabeth Tallent (story). “The Way It Has to Be” by Breece Pancake (story). “Stained Glass” by Charles Baxter (story). “Whaling out West” by Charles D’Ambrosio (essay). “Jacob and His Friends Work Out the Difference Between Post and Modern” by Jacob Paul (essay). “The Dinner” by Clarice Lispector (story). “Fiat Lux” by Traci Brimhall (poem). “Cameo” by Natasha Trethewey (poem).

20. Teachers from other departments drift to our building, their eyes wide, originals leaning from their hands. They want to use our machine. They want to know if we have staples.

21. Students expect packets to be stapled.

22. Students shouldn’t expect anything. They are cared for in high school, but that care will end, soon. I ease them off the care, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be very caring.

23. My desks are in rows. 5 copies of 5. Like formal verse, I find that the greatest freedom and eccentricity occurs within structure.

24. Other than creative works culled from books or PDFs, my handouts are homegrown, peppered with metafictive asides and references. Those phrases are buried within contextual information about William Faulkner’s Mississippi or sample annotations for “Out, Out” by Robert Frost. A smirk means they found it. A blank stare means they didn’t read, or they found it and are not amused.

25. Whether I mean to or not, my students copy my style of reading.

26. How could they not? They share the room with me for 180 days, 40 minutes a day.

27. But they are never the same as me. Each copy has a smudge, a misplaced staple, a loss of toner, the gain of individuality.

28. Copies for the next week are piled along a cabinet or tucked into plastic shelves.

29. Teaching is all about planning, along with the awareness that plans should often defer to realities. If I meant to talk about how Hemingway hid the subject of the conversation in “Hills Like White Elephants,” but if my students are speaking with passion and insight about the rhythm of the couple’s speech, do I stop them?

30. Photocopying is often a subversive act. I do not mean the breaking of copyright. Fair use is fair. I mean that before quick clicks from smartphone cameras, photocopies were ways of lifting pages from reference libraries and locked offices and spreading them into the outside world.

31. So every photocopy is a manipulation, a copy of a copy.

32. Of course I copy Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

33. “One might subsume the eliminated element in the term ‘aura’ and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.”

34. Literature dies when it becomes the means toward the ends of absent politicians and distant state departments of educations. The role of the high school English teacher is also not to create a legion of English majors — God help us — but rather to pause a student’s hectic and harried day and get them thinking about words.

35. Their own words, and the words of others.

36. To get them thinking about auras.

37. Because one argument for literature that should find supporters in both conservative and progressive traditions is that the arrangement of beautiful words into beautiful shapes has intrinsic worth, and that artistic beauty can do something to the soul.

38. Something that might not be catalogued on a rubric, or on a standardized exam.

39. Both of which, ultimately, exit a copy machine and enter less-than-willing hands.

40. “Vilar was a little bomb-happy for my taste. But there it is. And George in the meantime was wearing out the Xerox.”

“Not knowing.”

“I liked George. We got along. George was an interesting man. We spent time together.”

“What did you do with the material he copied?”

“It was worthless.”

“A lot of waxy paper.” from Players by Don DeLillo.

41. I have likely copied more words by or about DeLillo than any other single writer.

42. “If anyone is guilty of turning modern Americans into Xerox copies, it is Don DeLillo.” — Bruce Bawer.

43. I disagree with Bawer, but some of my students might agree with him. What I love about photocopies is that they flatten the spines of books; they wrestle authority from the author for a moment, and give the students a chance to participate.

44. I want them to push back against Bawer and DeLillo. At first, they are knocked down; they swing wildly, without reason. But the firmer their critical sense is cultivated, the sooner they become readers who can mark-up their photocopies with annotations that are not merely “personification” but “Gary Harkness needs Taft Robinson, but Robinson does not need Gary; this scene in the dorm room reveals it.” They become readers who commune with literature.

45. I have saved photocopies from college. Handouts that somehow retain the blue-purple tinge of a typewriter.

46. My daughters are identical twins. They have been called “multiples.”

47. “Identical twins are not exactly alike. They begin in the womb, at conception, with a single egg and sperm. Twins are made after the egg is fertilized and splits. Similarity is a result of how long the egg takes to divide. The longer it takes for the egg to split, the more alike a set of twins will look. We must have split early. My feet and nose were larger than Cara’s. As adults she usually outweighed me by fifteen pounds. Identical twins share the same DNA but do not have identical DNA. The egg splits into two halves to form identical twins, but the DNA does not divide equally between the two cells. We were like an apple sliced in half: two halves of the same fruit, one with more seeds, one with fewer.” from Her by Christa Parravani.

48. I read Christa’s memoir while in manuscript, and wrote notes after notes on those workshop copies. I hoped that those copies became a book, and they did.

49. My wife and I are always asked how we tell our twin daughters apart. There is a tension in that question that perhaps only an English teacher would worry about: why do we often begin with a desire to separate? My girls are not copies, but they are connected. I see how they look at each other. They share something.

50. I hold the fresh photocopies against my shirt, and they are warm like my daughters’ pajamas from the dryer. Each copy is made with the hope that words will reach hands and eyes that will consider them, if only for the long moments of class. That is enough.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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