Don DeLillo is a famously unprolific interviewee. He does a certain amount of publicity, though you suspect he calculates exactly how little he can get away with while still remaining in good standing with his publishers. He’s never come close to being a Pynchon-level recluse, but he’s also avoided becoming anything like a Public Author; despite being in many ways a deeply political writer — and in all ways one of the most significant of living English-language novelists — he’s not someone with whose opinions we’re routinely furnished. (Which is to say that he is not, for instance, Martin Amis, or Joyce Carol Oates, or Jonathan Franzen.)
It probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to even seek an interview with DeLillo if the topic of his new book, Zero K, had not been one I’d spent much of the last two years researching and writing about for a non-fiction book of my own: the desire to achieve physical immortality through technology. Zero K is a haunting story — both sharp and opaque, in the way of DeLillo’s late style — about an aging billionaire named Ross Lockhart who arranges, under the auspices of a techno-utopian quasi-cult called The Convergence, to have himself cryonically suspended along with his terminally ill younger wife, in the hope that the scientists of the future will resurrect them both and enable them to live indefinitely. In a sense, it seems a strange sort of topic for DeLillo, the stuff of broad sci-fi; but it’s worth bearing in mind that technology and the terror of death have been converging topics in his work for many years. “This is the whole point of technology,” as one character put it in 1985’s White Noise. “It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.”
I was somewhat taken aback that this interview happened at all. The appropriate word here, I suppose, would be “granted.” We didn’t speak at any great length — we were only getting going on the topic of the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination, I regret to say, when the interview had exhausted its allotted time slot. (Although it’s probably true to say that you could talk to Don DeLillo about the Zapruder film for the rest of your natural, un-cryonically extended life, and you’d only ever be getting going on the topic.) I called him at his hotel room in Washington D.C. (“of all places,” as he somewhat mysteriously put it). For the first five minutes or so of our conversation I had trouble focusing on what either of us was saying, on account of not quite being able to get over the fact that I was on the blower to the guy who wrote Libra, and Underworld, and White Noise, and God knows how many of the best sentences I’ve ever read.
My voice recorder, thankfully, had the wherewithal to document what was being said. It went, apparently, as follows.
The Millions: Just over a year ago, I visited a place called Alcor, a cryonics facility in Arizona, for a book I’ve been writing about futurists who want to live indefinitely. And one of the things I kept asking myself was “What would DeLillo make of this stuff?” It was very strange to have that question answered in such a direct way when I read Zero K. I’ve been wondering about the level of research you did for the book, how deep you went into the whole area of cryonics.
Don DeLillo: It’s curious, I know about that place in Arizona. I know it’s there, but I know very little else about it. I did limit my research on this novel, simply because there would be an endless amount of it to be done, and I wanted to start work on it. It’s a work of fiction, so as I started the work, I started to imagine. You might be in a good position to say how accurate everything is. You’re probably a better position than I am.
TM: I do think the book reflects in an uncanny and oblique way the culture of radical optimism that emanates from Silicon Valley. I’m curious as to how aware you of that culture, and how much that fed into the book.
DD: I’m not deeply aware of it. I know that certainly it exists and that it’s part of this whole area of cryonics that I’m writing about. But I made a point not to funnel that path too deeply. Even Ross Lockhart, the father of the narrator, is of course interested himself in becoming a man in a pod. But I don’t know that he expresses any particular optimism. He thinks it’ll work, yes, but I think he’s a fairly realistic individual. What he wants is to accompany his wife. This is a genuine feeling on his part.
TM: That aspect of the novel brought me back to White Noise, in particular, where the relationship between Jack and Babette is characterized by this anxiety about who will die first.
DD: It’s funny, I have a very dim memory of White Noise. I’ve never had reason to re-read it. It was, I don’t know, 30 years ago. I don’t know much of what happens in that book. I even had a little difficulty recently trying to remember the main character’s name. I understand what you’re saying, of course. But it’s pure coincidence, the connection between these two books.
TM: So is it a strange thing for you, looking back over these books you’ve written, to see these kinds of connections being made by other people?
DD: Yes, it’s a strange feeling. I’ve been thinking lately, I’m not sure why, about my earlier novels, and I’m quite surprised how little I recall of them. I don’t know whether it’s liberating or worrying. Even The Names, which was set in Greece. Much of it, at least in terms of the travel in the novel, came out of personal experience. And even that seems very distant to me now. And Point Omega, my last novel — of course I know, essentially, what was going on there. But I could not have a serious discussion about it, I don’t think. Not at this point.
TM: One of the things that struck me about Zero K, and I suppose all your recent work, is the extent to which it seems saturated with the texture of contemporary culture, with technology in particular. There’s a very haunting passage toward the end of the book, where one of the leaders of The Convergence talks about “the devices you use, the ones you carry everywhere, room to room, minute to minute, inescapably.” She talks about “All the linked data designed to incorporate you into the megadata.” It really gets at this sense of being “unfleshed” that comes from being online all the time, as so many of us are now. But my understanding is that you yourself are not online all the time. You write on a typewriter. I’m curious as to how you absorb this texture of technological anxiety.
DD: This is correct. I have an iPad that I use for research, but I’m not online at all really. I don’t own a cell phone. I was just discussing this with the people I’m traveling with here, people from my publishers. I simply feel more comfortable without these things. But one feels it and sees it. It’s been around me for much of the day today, because the people I’m traveling with, one in particular has trouble with her cell phone. There’s something wrong with it. She doesn’t know who’s trying to get in touch with her, what it is they want to say to her. It’s a minor thing, yes, but it’s worrying and frustrating her. And she’s unhappy.
TM: How do you see the novel as a form fitting in with this technological culture you write about in Zero K? How do you see it speaking to or against it?
DD: The novel still exists. And to my mind it still can be called a flourishing form. There are so many good younger writers. It’s clear people are drawn towards the form — people who want to write are drawn toward the novel. It’s the most accommodating form, certainly within fiction, and the most challenging. And it’s very heartening to see so many good young writers. Don’t ask me for names. But I do know the work of some of them, and I do know the opinions of people I respect who read more than I do. So I don’t feel any dismay concerning the form itself.
TM: Do you make a point of staying current with younger writers, with what’s happening now, or do you find yourself as you get older re-reading more?
DD: No, I’m in touch with younger writers. I do read the work, when I can. In general I don’t read as much as I used to. But I haven’t gone back to the past either. My book shelves are filled with books that I have enormous respect for, but I don’t find myself rereading very often, if at all. I assume that’s just another function of getting older. And speaking of that, it took me nearly four years to write this novel. It’s only a book of average size, and that’s kind of surprising to me. On the other hand, this is what the book wanted, and I just followed where I was being led.
TM: Do you find yourself liberated in some ways, as a writer, by getting older?
DD: I find that being active as a fiction writer propels one toward the future, in a way. I’m hoping to find enough time one of these days to start work on a short story. And I’m eager to do so. It’s just been somewhat difficult, but I’ll get there.
TM: The new novel, like Point Omega before it, is permeated by a kind of eschatological mood. The opening line is “Everybody wants to own the end of the world.” And there’s a sense in the book, and in your work generally, of capitalism moving into an apocalyptic endgame. Is the prospect of future catastrophe — the reality of climate change, for instance — something that preoccupies you as you get older?
DD: I wouldn’t say these things preoccupy me. I would say that I’m aware of a level of concern that didn’t exist before. For a very long time, nuclear war was the thing that people were concerned with, at some level of consciousness. And that seemed to vanish at a certain point, but even that has a tendency to return in one way or another. Nuclear accidents, or all-out war between two or more countries. The concern is there certainly, and it can be almost palpable at times. Particularly when you see film footage or photographs of certain areas of the globe, in which enormous changes are taking place.
TM: This is a motif that recurs throughout your work, filmed imagery of catastrophe and violence. It’s there in quite a focused way in Zero K, in frequent interludes where the protagonist Jeff watches footage in the cryonics compound of terrorist atrocities and self-immolations and natural disasters and so on. How do you account for this recurrence of filmed disaster, filmed violence, in your work?
DD: There’s always been a level of film in my writing. And I think at some point it became associated with violence or with destruction of some kind, environmental destruction. I wonder whether it all started with Libra, when I was writing about the assassination of President Kennedy? Is that the act of violence on film, the Zapruder film, that put me in that particular lane of awareness? There are no definite answers, I don’t think. I think in Mao II, there are conversations with people that concern terrorism, and elsewhere as well. It just happened because it is part of the culture. My wife and I lived in Athens for about three years, and it was everywhere around us. Aircraft hijackings. People fleeing certain countries. And many of them coming to Athens. And elsewhere too. Entire governments falling. Revolution in Iran. It had an effect on me, because it was palpable. It was right there. And it’s had an effect on my work ever since.
TM: Now that you’ve brought up Libra and the Kennedy assassination, I may as well tell you that reading Zero K, and thinking about you and your work for this interview, led me to watching the Zapruder film on YouTube. It felt inevitable, in a way. And it struck me that that footage at the time, and when you were writing Libra, was a kind of secret text. People knew of it, but you couldn’t just sit down and watch it. And now you can watch it a hundred different ways on your phone, on your laptop. You sit through an ad for life insurance or whatever, then you watch JFK getting shot in the head at your leisure.
DD: Yes, that’s true. Although I can tell you that when I was writing Libra, I managed to get in touch with a guy in Quebec who was advertising this kind of material, which he kept in his garage. And he sent me the Zapruder film, and some other footage as well. So I had it before it became legal to look at the film. Believe it or not, in fact, I was told this morning that Zapruder’s daughter Alexandra is finishing a book about the film itself. So it’s still in the air.
TM: My feeling is you’ll almost certainly be asked to blurb that book.
DD: Yes. No doubt I will be asked.
[Strained laughter. Voices off. Exit DeLillo.]
“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.
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.
Unless you’re inhuman or illiterate, you’ve felt the frisson of joy delivered by an instance of perfect mimesis in fiction — that moment when a writer gets something so recognizably right that the act of recognition itself seems to confer a new reality upon the experience. Yes! you might say, that’s exactly how it is, and underscoring your pleasure there might be recognition of another sort: the writer’s recognition of your own experience of the world.
Then there’s the convincing depiction of experience that’s recognizable, yet once-removed. For simplicity’s sake, for the moment let’s stick with experience or behavior rather than natural occurrence. Someone you might not have known or seen or heard firsthand becomes, through the deftness of the writer’s rendering, distinctly and convincingly familiar. Yes, you might say in this case, that’s what it must be to be someone like that. That’s how he would talk. That’s just what would happen. Reading Zadie Smith’s NW, for instance, when a distressed Natalie (Keisha) wanders the streets of her old neighborhood with Nathan, who’s never managed to escape its dire demographics, you might — if you were someone like me — never have known someone quite like Nathan, but now you do. You can hear him say, as surely as if he’d been standing next to you, “Everyone loves a bredrin when he’s ten…After that he’s a problem…That’s how it is…There’s no way to live in this country when you’re grown.”
Or another type, one you’ve observed in one form or another, might become not just credible but comprehensible, as in the work of Curtis Sittenfeld in American Wife. You might have asked yourself (again, if you’re like me, sadly), How is it possible to be Laura Bush? A smart, educated, seemingly enlightened woman as the self-affirmed conjugal flak of a spoiled, failed child of privilege turned evangelical war-mongering anti-intellectual politician on the world stage? And in Sittenfeld’s fiction you might find an answer that resonates.
Move one step further away from what you know, and you may be confronted with a character who’s conceivable even though he or she might not exist. Yes, you say in this case, it’s entirely credible that a character might be made up of such components — now I see her! — yes! — that’s what she’d say or do! She might be Oedipa Maas of The Crying of Lot 49. Or Jack Gladney, pioneering the field of Hitler Studies in White Noise. Or David Foster Wallace’s Orin Incandenza. Or Charles Dickens’s Mr. Dick.
But what about experience that’s inconceivable to most of us — an act of genius, a moment of utmost extremity, a visit to the moon, a chat with Kim Jong-un, falling to the guillotine, challenging Julius Caesar? Anyone who has read The Iliad and understood that the pouting Achilles was a hero to Homer’s audience must know that what we understand to be verisimilitude, let alone storytelling and heroism, is in some philosophical, even existential way uncommunicable across time and culture. And when we realize that nothing resembling what we understand to be a novel was written in the West before the 1600s or in the East before 11th century, we have to concede that fiction as a conveyance of experience, a depiction of reality, a connection between writer and reader is susceptible to time and interpretation.
What do we want from it anyway, aside from the oh-get-me-from-here-to-there-already of plot, a perfectly acceptable demand for the satisfactions of seeing things make sense? This was a question that — oddly, perhaps — came up for me as I was reading Ethan Canin’s new novel, A Doubter’s Almanac. Canin is, in the old-fashioned sense, as Henry James said of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “a beautiful writer.” His clear predecessor is the F. Scott Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby, as he can so perfectly capture a thought, a gesture, a look, a detail, or an event as it means something to a character whose reflections he’s so precisely and evocatively conveyed that it means something to us. In this new book, the narrator is something of a mathematical savant, son of the not-at-all-somewhat mathematical genius whose story the first half tells and the second half retells from another perspective.
This is fiction that captures reality in a way that’s quite different from what I’ve described so far, because the reality that Canin is depicting is, for the most part, philosophical. The novel is steeped in a mathematical sensibility. In his father’s mind, Hans, the narrator, tells us, “all the other academic disciplines — including the physical sciences …were irrevocably tainted by their debt to substance.” And again and again we are asked to view the world as someone like Hans’s father, Milo, might — purely, you might say, without reference to its physical coordinates, though the physical coordinates are what orient Milo and make him aware of his gift, as we see when we first witness his extraordinary “positional aptitude” — his uncanny ability to know precisely where he is on the “plane of the earth” — a “sort of intrinsic, spatial mapping.”
“Mathematics is an invented science,” Milo tells Hans. “But strangely,” he continues, “the inventions of mathematics, which are wholly constructions of the mind, are in turn able to yield other inventions. That is why they seem more like discoveries than creations. In fact the distinction remains a debate…I also believe that this is why so many mathematicians feel that they have been privy to the language of God.”
He thought for a moment. ‘Although I should also say that I’ve thought of it in other ways, too. As the language of the mind, for example. Or even’—here he turned to me more thoughtfully — ‘as the language of language. The underlier of grammar. The skeleton of cognition. The rails on which the train of human advance steams up and down, one hill after the next.’
At this point, a mulberry twig falls onto the lawn in front of father and son. “Squirrels,” Hans says, looking up. The squirrels, of course, are the point. “Mathematics,” Milo says, “is like carving a wooden doll…and then, one day, you watch as your wooden doll gives birth to another wooden doll.” In its form and its fashion, the novel raises the question: do we look to fiction for the wooden doll or the squirrel?
In A Doubter’s Almanac, Ethan Canin gives us a truly convincing picture of what it’s like to experience the world as most of us, probably, don’t. This is life in the abstract, which, predictably, doesn’t work out very well for those who are privy to this intellectually elevated existence. When Milo has failed in worldly terms: “His mind, he realized, was his only friend.”
Though Canin wants us to care about Milo and his mathematically gifted children and grandchildren, what’s far more convincing is what’s familiar: “We watched a pair of red ants pitilessly drag a thrashing inchworm across the sand. It was like the ending of a great novel.”
An inchworm or mayflies or lily pads: Canin takes us back to that moment of mimesis that reminds us of our connection to someone else’s vision or experience of the world:
My mother looked up at the cloud of wings and feelers. ‘Mayflies,’ she said.
‘They seem to be committing suicide in pairs.’
’You’re right.’ She leaned back and let out a sigh. ‘They’re mating.’
There is in this novel a strange tension that makes me, at any rate, wonder what we ask of fiction anymore. Does it, as in the work of Lydia Davis or Diane Williams or perhaps even Jenny Offill, ask us to question how we experience reality — or whether we experience it differently than others might? Or does it allow us to confirm what we think we know? In A Doubter’s Almanac we have two worlds, and two forms of fiction, in uneasy coexistence, one that psychologist Jerome Bruner says establishes “not truth but verisimilitude” and one that — in Bruner’s view not fiction but argument — “verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof.”
Just as, in a world that contains photography, a painter must reconsider the value of representationalism, a fiction writer in an age of the extraordinary documentation of television and the Internet, where every last little feature of reality might be found and viewed from virtually every angle, must reevaluate the merit of capturing every detail, every moment, of a story. Is that exquisite word picture of a person, a gesture, an instant — that yes! of recognition — what we want? Or do we want something different, something new, some sense that, with the same words, in the same world, we might, through the workings of fiction, find a way to rethink reality — and to find the familiar strange, the world an ever bigger, more interesting place?
Observing his daughter, the next generation of mathematical genius, admiring the carpet of lily pads on a slow spot in the river, Canin’s narrator remarks,
I think Emmy likes the mystery of the spot, too, the way she knows from the undulation of the green that the water is there but never actually sees it. The feeling is much like the joy of mathematics itself, the original secret of the guild: that the miracle of the universe can be worshipped without actually witnessing the divine.
I also think she might be counting the lily pads.
Worship the miracle of the universe, witness the divine, count the lily pads: what do we, as readers of fiction, want to do?
Thirty years after its initial publication, Don DeLillo’s White Noise is still every bit the hilarious, uncannily prescient classic that everyone believed it was. White nailed the whole “America poisoned by reality and the humming glow of computer screens” angle better than almost anyone. For more DeLillo, here’s what its like to re-read White Noise.
John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is the perfect read for the waning days of summer, when early evening thunderstorms break the heat, and when children play under moonlight — knowing their freedom will soon end. In the more than 50 years since it was originally published in The New Yorker, Cheever’s tale has become an undergraduate rite-of-passage, a staple of graduate writing programs, and a favorite of readers long out of the classroom. In the same way that James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” are often relegated to shorthand, Cheever’s tale has its own summary: a man’s decision to swim home is not what it seems. The genius of Cheever’s narrative is how it courts, but ultimately resists, myth. The story gestures toward The Odyssey, but remains painfully provincial and absolutely suburban.
When a story reaches iconic status, we trade the actual text for its themes. Granted, the thematic considerations of “The Swimmer” are nearly endless. It is a love letter to youth and sport; document of mid-century Protestant despair; a metaphor for our seemingly perpetual American economic downturn. “The Swimmer” could be put into conversation with Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, contrasted with the Lisbon family’s superstitious suburban Catholicism in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, or perhaps best paired with Laurie Colwin’s fine story “Wet,” another tale of secrecy and swimming. It is also a quite teachable tale: no other work of short fiction better examples John Gardner’s potamological concept of fictional profluence than a story the main character of which travels by water.
“The Swimmer” begins passively enough: “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’” “Midsummer Sundays” is so lithe and hopeful that it carries into the “whispers” about hangovers in the second sentence. The town church, golf course, tennis courts, and wildlife preserve are all full of the talk. Most blame it on the wine. The opening paragraph’s haze blurs into the location of the story’s first scene at the Westerhazy’s pool.
“The Swimmer” is a sad story, but its sadness is particular. Neddy’s story is surreal and finite. He is handsome, confident, and athletic, and yet a footstep away from the fiction of Thomas Pynchon. When Cheever writes that Neddy “was not a practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure,” the tongue is out of the writer’s cheek and pointed at the reader. Average comic writers pine for laughs. Brilliant comic writers embrace tragedy.
Cheever takes his time with tragedy. At the Bunkers’ pool, “water refracted the sound of voices and laughter and seemed to suspend it in midair.” Ned exists on another, mystical, almost psychotropic plane. He would get along well with Oedipa Maas. Of the party, Neddy “felt a passing affection for the scene, a tenderness for the gathering, as if it was something he might touch,” yet he does not wish to be deterred by the party chatter.
He soon reaches the Levy’s home. There are few architectures more soulless than an empty suburban space, and Cheever captures it: “All the doors and windows of the big house were open but there were no signs of life; not even a dog barked.” Having crossed eight pools — half of his intended journey — Neddy “felt tired, clean, and pleased at that moment to be alone; pleased with everything.”
Then comes the storm:
It was suddenly growing dark; it was that moment when the pin-headed birds seem to organize their song into some acute and knowledgeable recognition of the storm’s approach. Then there was a fine noise of rushing water from the crown of an oak at his back, as if a spigot there had been turned. Then the noise of fountains came from the crowns of all the tall trees. Why did he love storms, what was the meaning of his excitement when the door sprang open and the rain wind fled rudely up the stairs, why had the simple task of shutting the windows of an old house seemed fitting and urgent, why did the first watery notes of a storm wind have for him the unmistakable sound of good news, cheer, glad tidings?
There is a hint of the supernatural in this prosaic world. Michael Chabon has called “The Swimmer” a ghost story, and he is correct. All suburban stories are ghost stories.
Neddy leaves the cover of the Levys’ gazebo to see red and yellow leaves scattered across the grass and the pool, and “felt a peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn.” It is easy to read such lines and think that this wealthy man who lives in a wealthy area — he needs to cross a backyard riding ring on his way to the next pool — is not worthy of even our comic sympathy, but Cheever’s story has mysterious ways. Neddy is a pathetic soul. He is not simply a failure — he is unaware of his failure.
Look back to the first page of “The Swimmer.” From the dreary, town-wide hangover of Sunday morning emerges Neddy. His introduction follows the most syntactically simple sentence in all of valorized literature — “The sun was hot” — and his first action is sliding down a banister and giving “the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room.” Neddy is sound in mind and body. He greets the reader with a smirk.
While talking about the story, A.M. Homes notes “Life is incredibly surrealistic…So many things are so odd. You just have to be aware of it.” Homes sees the same literary moves occur in the fiction of Don DeLillo, particularly White Noise. Sarah Churchwell, likening Homes’s own work to the fiction of Cheever, explains that the latter’s “power comes from the bait and switch: he lures you into a complacent chuckle and then stabs you in the ribs.” Even Cheever felt that pain. He thought “The Swimmer” was a “terribly difficult story to write…Because I couldn’t ever show my hand. Night was falling, the year was dying. It wasn’t a question of technical problems, but one of imponderables.” Cheever “felt dark and cold for some time after I finished that story” — a lament the syntax and soul of which is baked into the syntax of “The Swimmer.”
The story’s second half contains a naked “elderly couple of enormous wealth who seemed to bask in the suspicion that they might be Communists,” Neddy’s athletic exhaustion, a visit to a “stagnant” public pool, changing constellations — and yet so much more. Don’t take my affectionate word for it. Find a copy of The Stories of John Cheever, sit in front of a window on a cloudy day, and re-read “The Swimmer.” Allow the story to bring you back to the temporary innocence of July and August. Experience the deep melancholy of its final paragraph as you get ready for the cold months ahead, but don’t worry: there is always next summer.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Thirty years after Don DeLillo’s White Noise comes Wasp Box, the debut novel by Jason Ockert. The novels vary greatly in tone, but share the theme of unusual events intruding upon daily existence. The aftermath of the “airborne toxic event” in White Noise creates the need for constant simulation evacuations and comprehensive data collection of citizens. (DeLillo might be a lapsed Roman Catholic, but he is a practicing prophet). Afterward, even domestic disturbances are ominous: “The time of spiders arrived. Spiders in high corners of rooms. Cocoons wrapped in spiderwork. Silvery dancing strands that seemed the pure play of light, light as evanescent news, ideas borne on light.”
Wasp Box begins with William Gent, a veteran back in the states. Gent hops off a moving train and runs through the woods, tearing through spider webs. Ockert trades domestic arachnids for foreign insects: “Something is scuttling around inside his skull, and no matter how deeply he digs he just can’t root it out.” The soldier hopes for a fresh start — “It’s unwise to carry ghosts across the ocean” — but instead falls to his knees and hacks what look like prunes into his hands. Eyes tearing, he struggles to watch “tiny red-tinted wings unfurl and the creatures unsteadily take flight.” Instead of being afraid, “For a baffling moment, the soldier thinks this is all rather beautiful. He has made something here.”
What he has made, or rather incubated, are wasps. They fly from his mouth “like wicked words — the soldier’s confession — made manifest. They rise away and whisper to the moon.” Ockert’s opening chapter manages to be both lyric and menacing. Gent physically disappears from the novel, but he has brought a nightmare to New York state. Nolan Baxter, divorced from his wife, lives on the Muller family vineyard in the Finger Lakes. Nolan’s son Hudson comes to stay for the summer, and his younger step-brother, Speck, comes along. Hudson is there to work, while Speck “could use the fresh country air.” World War II veteran Gus Muller, now widowed, lives with his daughter and granddaughter, Madison. Gus straddles the line between quirky and strange, crossing into the latter when he pinches his wife’s ashes into a glass of Pinot.
Hudson is attracted to Madison, but she hides the secret of her suicide attempt. In fact, Hudson’s interest in Madison takes time and energy away from Nolan, who thought this summer would repair his relationship with this son. When not thinking of Madison, Hudson takes his brother into a forest that abuts the vineyard. Ockert’s description is atmospheric:
Hudson climbs into a faded yellow harvesting truck and sits behind the wheel. He lets the smell of oil, gasoline, baked-in sweat, and the faint waft of cigarette smoke seep in. The cushion has been slashed and stuffing spills around the pedals. Plastic on the dashboard is peeling off. The glove box handle is hot to the touch. Hudson uses the tips of his fingers to open it. Inside are a half-dozen charred Barbie dolls that have melted into one grotesque body. All of the hair has been singed, and the faces are smooth and expressionless.
Wasp Box reads like a sequence of graveyards; the portrait of a place and family that is headed toward trouble.
On one journey through the forest, Speck drifts off with the Mullen family dogs. He finds a nest of wasps, the entire tree “infested and thrumming.” The wasps descend and blanket the dogs, who flee. Speck has been stung, but seems to be spared the worst. The dogs are not so fortunate. This attack, coupled with the novel’s ominous opening, made me think Wasp Box would become apocalyptic, the latest novel in a successful litany of recent airbone toxic events. Ockert’s focus is a bit more narrow. The wasps thrash, but they are boxed in, bound to the slow science of spreading. This allows Ockert to tell a taut but evolving story with many threads. Hudson’s subplots are the most interesting, including his attraction to Madison, his uneasy relationship with his father, and his fear of Crowley, his co-worker for the summer who is increasingly unstable. Hudson’s narration is so charged and profluent that Nolan becomes a bit lost in the novel. It is almost as if Hudson has already become his own man.
Nolan gives Speck a journal that he claims was thrown from a train. The journal belonged to William Gent, the infected soldier who brought this plague to the region. Ockert often excerpts the journal in the novel, though this parallel narrative is less effective than the more subtle touches of the book. Scenes showing the frenetic, almost cunning wasps are the moments of the novel that hearken to DeLillo’s White Noise. The sections are written in an essayistic voice, and despite their coming dread, are somehow calmer than the tension of the novel’s main characters. In one section, the “vibration along the tracks disrupts the wasps long before the Amtrak train arrives.” While some wasps merely “bounce among the passenger cars,” some more “determined insects” sneak into cracked windows:
while the brief, terrorizing five minutes of distraction on the train causes baffled travelers to shake their heads in wonder, and several victims are treated by the on-board nurse for the minor stings on their arms, this incident will not be merely anecdotal — you’re not going to believe what happened on the train ride — because one of the workers made good. All the stinging and bussing is a distraction. To fell the giant simply takes a single, Q-tip-sized queen that, during the melee, dropped down onto a shirt collar.
Ockert calmly describes the coming moments of the queen wasp’s “soft, unassuming, anesthetic bites,” which will deposit an egg sac in a woman’s ear canal. This is controlled, not detached, prose. There have been several fine novels in recent years that sketch the coming apocalypse, whether arriving by land or by air. The wasps make their mark in Wasp Box, but Ockert has some surprises in store for the reader in the novel’s final acts.
At 179 tight pages, Wasp Box is an argument for the short novel in the vein of The Burning House by Paul Lisicky and A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison. There’s not an ounce of bloat in this book. Ockert’s masterful usage of first person contributes to the story’s immediacy. Ockert suggests that the wasps’ agitation merely elevate the swarm that resides within all of us. By exercising control over his prose and his content — by making the focus of the book how Hudson’s search for independence pushes against his father’s desire to strengthen their relationship — Ockert manages to tall a narrow tale that pulses wide. Wasp Box is a measured documentation of destruction. In one scene representative of the novel’s tone, “Nolan has no way of knowing that three days ago a curious red fox was attacked by a small platoon of wasps that had advanced from the railroad,” nor did he know that the fox died beneath ripening grapes, or that one of the Mullen dogs had been rolling in the fox’s remains when itself was attacked. Ockert reveals how sometimes evil arrives not with a bang or a whimper, but with the calming buzz of the inevitable.
“In the silence, there is solitude. In the solitude, there is silence. This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.” Don DeLillo, author of White Noise, “reviews” Taylor Swift’s white noise for The Atlantic.
When Walker Evans accompanied James Agee on an assignment for Fortune in 1936, the two came to a certain realization that the bounds of magazine journalism would not permit a full portrayal of the Woods, the Gudgers, and the Ricketts — three families of poor white tenant farmers. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men grew out of that realization. Evans’s portraits of these families sit at the very front of the book, head-on shots of weathered faces, dark eyes, freckles, cheekbones. They are without text, without description. Agee’s prose flows out of and after these photos in deep contrast. It is luminous, cosmic, rhetorical, poetic. Tragic and lyrical, dense. It is direct. It speaks to the reader; it says care for these people, please.
No one bought this book. It floundered and flopped until resurrected in the years after Agee’s untimely death.
In 2007, the contemporary poet and photo historian John Wood published a book of photos and poems titled Endurance and Suffering: Narratives of Disease in the 19th Century. The photos are of the various patients of renowned 19th-century dermatologist George Henry Fox, photographed by O.G. Mason. They are horrifying. Psoriasis that plasters over the skin of a bearded man. An American man covered in 40 tumors, some kind of sarcoma that slowly whittled him to death. A young girl with scabies, her hands across her breast, praying in some kind of half-light.
Wood uncovered these photos and writes in a tender, probing, honest way about each of them. A poem accompanies each photo, and some deal explicitly with the visceral reaction of seeing the photo, simply — that moment before empathy comes, if it ever does. The poem that accompanies the photo of the American man with sarcoma begins, “What happened here?” It is told innocently, as if Wood wrote with a hand covering his eyes, some small slit through which he could barely see. The opening stanza of the poem about the young girl with scabies is defiant, reminiscent of Agee’s earnest and passionate defense of the divinity apparent in all humanity: “Forget medical history. / Imagine she was stung / While robbing a hive of honey. / Such beauty should be sung / Into pastoral poetry.” Similarly, the opening line of a poem about a 19-year-old girl with a severe case of elephantiasis, her legs swelled and pillowed and bloated, are simple, moving, haunting: “Do not say to me that she is not beautiful.”
However, like the then-experimental project of Evans and Agee, Wood’s book, published by Galerie Vevais, a German photography publisher, did not receive the critical recognition it deserved, especially in the United States, where Wood, the founder of the MFA program at McNeese State and the two-time winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, tried to publish it but failed. No American publisher wanted it, he says, in an interview with 21st Editions.
Why, though? In the same interview with 21st Editions, Wood asserts that the photographs of Fox’s patients repelled even him, the poet, stating, “I had long known those photographs that inspired the poems in Endurance and Suffering, but they repelled me, and I couldn’t understand why anyone but a historian of medicine would even look at them. But one of them, the naked girl with elephantiasis, stayed in my head like some cruel story, the sort you’ve heard, hate to recall, and would never tell someone you love.”
But it took time, and effort, and the slow dwelling on and carrying of things before that first line–– do not say to me that she is not beautiful — came to Wood in an honest way. Readers do not have to sit with that. No one is requiring us to. So we come to photos that repel us, and we turn the page, put our hands in front of our eyes, leave no slit through which we can allow some word or image of something-that-could-be-beautiful seep into our being. Evans’s photos occupy that same landscape. His tenant farmers do not shy away from the lens. They stare through the page, and their hurt immediately pushes the pressure points of human guilt and responsibility.
Now, though, the Midwest-based small publisher, Coffee House Press, is releasing a novel, House of Coates, by Brad Zellar, assisted by Alec Soth, who The Guardian in 2010 compared to both Walker Evans and Stephen Shore, placing Soth in a tradition of American open-road portraiture photography. What makes House of Coates interesting is its claim to fiction, and what that means and how that places it in the context of photography and prose collaborations. Centering on a few days in the life of a homeless drifter, Lester B. Morrison, the short novel is written with a certain authority, at times expounding the values of the drifting life, and the photographs are grainy film ones of simple things, simple homes, snow banks and sunsets, roadside diners, and clutters of abandoned trash. The photos serve as a sort of image map, and they are supposedly, for the sake of the work, taken by Morrison himself, grounding the reader in the true context of the story. There is the sense of stumbling upon a scrapbook, something collected and only important because we hold it in our hands.
What adds to the mystique of the novel is the constant, recurring notion that Lester Morrison actually exists — not merely in the fictional world, but in the actual one. House of Coates was first published by Soth’s photography-based publishing house, Little Brown Mushroom, which specializes in one-of-a-kind, limited-run art books. After its release, a Minnesota Public Radio article articulated the mystery of Lester Morrison. In the article, Soth states that he is not, as some readers attest, Lester Morrison, but the answer is still vague and generously unclear. Both Soth and Zellar claim to know Lester in a deeply nuanced way. They claim to know the results of a psychiatric test he took in 2009. And they claim, on the Little Brown Mushroom website, that the photos in House of Coatex were sent from Lester to them in a duct-taped shoebox. But Lester, by all accounts, is a now-gone mystery, and his presence, fictional or not, only exists in the pages of House of Coates, and in many ways, whether Lester exists is not the question at large. The true issue is why he matters. And, too, why all the Lesters of the world matter. Zellar knows this. In a 2012 Minnesota Post interview, he says, “Because the Lesters of the world tend to be largely inaccessible and tremendously unreliable characters, I had to make my own version of his story.”
Soth’s photos (it is my belief that they are Soth’s) contribute to that continual duality between the real and fictional Lester, for in this work he abandons his normal beauty-in-the-banal style of portraiture, eliminating the human face from the frame, putting a fictional eye behind the viewfinder. It serves to suspend belief at times. It is the literary shaky-cam, the found image. And though the story is haunting and lovely and artful, it is not repelling in the same way that Fox’s medical patients were. If we are put off by it, we can hide behind the fiction. If we are willing to hear the story of a man we might be willing to forget or never encounter in the first place, then we sit with the story, and the photos, and the romantic prose, and we allow it to encompass us in our own time, allow the real to merge with the surreal until we are unsure but still empathetic, held in the white space between fiction and nonfiction but at least at some semblance of ease with that suspended state.
The aim of House of Coates is similar to the aims of both Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Endurance and Suffering — to tell the story of the never-told, to delve into the underworld of society and come out with something human, tender, heartfelt. And, like these two other works, House of Coates is still considered an experimental work, despite the fact that we are a society of the image. The compiled image. The moving image. The flashing image, the pixelated one.
In a letter to the reader of the galley copy of House of Coates, Christopher Fischbach, the publisher of Coffee House Press, discusses how the original edition of the work, published by Little Brown Mushroom, was collected, not read. It was presented as a spiral-bound and limited-edition art book, and not circulated widely. It was a cherished thing. It was not passed along, given out, read, written over, read again. Fischbach says, in this letter, that House of Coates “deserves better.” Because of the story it aims to tell, and how it tells it, because of the hunting down of the never told and the taking stock of the never seen, it does. In the same way that Agee and Evans deserved better upon their initial publication. In the same way that John Wood deserved better upon his attempt at publication.
Despite this, House of Coates won’t garner a great deal of national attention, though it is a jewel of a book, a ghostly one. Zellar’s prose is authoritative and incantatory and gripping. But what is more telling is that this collaborative medium between prose and photography, poetry and photography, also deserves a more established home in the spectrum of the literary world, and I worry that it will not get there, because some might not find it necessary, because others might find it too much. But consider the reliance on the photographic image in Rachel Kushner’s dynamic and powerful novel The Flamethrowers, or the scene from Don DeLillo’s White Noise where Murray and Jack stand at the most photographed barn in America, and Murray states, “We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one.” If that is the aim of the writer — to keep an image circulating in the consciousness of the reader, long after the sentence has ended — then it still must be the aim of the photographer, indeed, the aim of all artists at large. Murray’s questions at the end of that scene are the universal questions of artistry, of why photographers choose to photograph an object, a person, why writers chose to pick away at a story: “What was the barn like before it was photographed?…What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?”
The writer and the photographer are not at any sort of odds. One form does not negate the other. They are both probing the world behind the limitations of their instruments, and, perhaps more importantly, behind the limitations of their individual ability for compassion, empathy, and tenderness. To place both forms of artistry within the same bound book allows for the engagement of multiple senses and for the opportunity of more catharsis, more movement, more truth. It sounds floozy, doesn’t it? But take out Evans’s photos from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and you have a young earnest man trying so hard to make us feel what he feels. We might dismiss Agee so quickly without Evans’s careful eye. But without Agee, Evans’s photos might only be human, and never divine.
House of Coates seems to be one small step in the direction that allows for a renewed attempt in combining the art of writing with the art of photography in a fulfilled literary sense. Not in the same sense as, for example, Jack Kerouac’s famed introduction to Robert Frank’s The Americans, but rather as something more dynamic, reliant on the other. The photos in House of Coates reinforce the potential reality of the story, allowing us to probe if we want to, but giving us permission to suspend belief if we feel we must. In that sense, we, as readers, are secure. The hope, though, is that we sit just a little longer, each time, in whatever reality we find ourselves, and then a little longer still, until we are affirmed in some kind of beauty, whether it be in the turn of a line or the movement of syntax or the freckle on a high cheekbone or a grain of color layered upon film, or in those things combined, pointing them to a fellow reader, a friend, saying, asserting: do not tell me that this is not beautiful.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
Despite being tucked away three-quarters into the calendar, September is the start of many things: school, fall, football, the biggest publishing season, the return to work after the end of summer. It’s also the beginning of months whose awkwardly Latinate names rhyme with little except themselves. Some poets, understandably, have neglected them: in all his works, for instance, Shakespeare makes no mention of September, October, or November (he refers to March, April, and May dozens of times). But in a title “September” can stand squarely; it’s weightier and more declarative than the short and flighty names of the summer and spring months. There’s “September, 1819,” for instance, in which Wordsworth found spring and summer “unfaded, yet prepared to fade.” Transposing two digits in her title a century later in “September, 1918,” Amy Lowell caught the familiar beauties of early fall—including an afternoon that’s “the colour of water falling through sunlight”—but she stored them away without tasting them, like a harvest of berries. With the world war not yet over, she was too busy balancing herself “upon a broken world” to enjoy them yet.
The best-known September poem also was born in a broken world, at the beginning of the next world war. In the days after Germany invaded Poland, at the “end of a low dishonest decade,” W. H. Auden wrote “September 1, 1939,” in which an “unmentionable odour of death…offends the September night” even far from the fighting in his newly adopted home of New York City. Auden spent the rest of his life disowning the poem and its popularity, or at least “loathing” the “trash” of its hopeful line “We must love one another or die,” which he quickly came to see as self-congratulatory (in one later version he substituted “We must love one another and die”). But that line, among others, is what has brought people back to the poem in later Septembers. Lyndon Johnson paraphrased it, ending his apocalyptic “Daisy” ad (which aired just once, on September 7, 1964) with the words “We must either love each other, or we must die.” And the entire poem began circulating again in mass media and in forwarded e-mails in September 2001, when its visions of “blind skyscrapers” and death in September, along with its final call for an “affirming flame,” felt suddenly, movingly contemporary.
I don’t know about you, but this September the world seems broken too. Let’s read one another nevertheless.
Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660-69; 1825)
Part of the pleasure of the British naval administrator’s journals is their witty and open portrait of the everydayness of life, but they are deservedly famous as well for their dramatic peaks, including the great fire that engulfed London in the early days of September 1666, in which pigeons, Pepys noticed, hovered by their burning homes for so long their wings were singed.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) by Beatrix Potter
Potter’s tales for children began with two illustrated letters she sent to the sons of a friend on September 4 and 5, 1893: the first the story of a mischievous bunny and the second, written the next day so the younger brother wouldn’t feel left out, of a frog who dines on “roasted grasshopper with lady-bird sauce.”
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)
September is early in the New York social season, but for Lily Bart it’s already getting a little late. She still has her beauty, but she’s twenty-nine and has no money of her own, and the decisions she makes—and doesn’t make—in the first month of Wharton’s great novel will set her course for its remainder.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (1933)
“I may say,” Alice B. Toklas was made to say in this book by Gertrude Stein, “that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken”: Pablo Picasso, Alfred North Whitehead, and Stein herself, “a golden brown presence” in a “warm brown corduroy suit,” whom Toklas met in September 1907 after arriving in Paris from San Francisco.
Act One by Moss Hart (1959)
One of the most dazzlingly entertaining of all backstage memoirs comes to its climactic curtain at the September opening night of Once in a Lifetime, the collaboration between Broadway veteran George S. Kaufman and the young Hart, who is transformed in that moment from a poor, stage-struck nobody into a hit playwright.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)
“JANIE GETS STRANGER EVERY YEAR. MISS WHITEHEAD’S FEET LOOK LARGER THIS YEAR.” Return to school with Harriet M. Welsch, self-appointed sixth-grade spy and future writer, who reckoned with the slippery ethics of observing and reporting long before Janet Malcolm wrote The Journalist and the Murderer.
Stoner by John Williams (1965)
The “campus novel” is almost always a comedy, but Stoner, long overlooked but now becoming a classic, is a campus tragedy, and not less of one because of the petty academic quarrels, which in other hands might be turned into farce, that drive its hero’s inexorable disappointment.
Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer (1968)
There had been few glimpses into the mind of an offensive lineman (in fact, few suspected lineman had minds) before Kramer, the all-pro right guard of the Green Bay Packers, published this diary of the 1967 season, in which he quoted Shakespeare without shame, analyzed the motivational genius of his coach, Vince Lombardi, and observed the NFL growing from a part-time job into the beginnings of the entertainment leviathan it has since become.
Levels of the Game by John McPhee (1969)
A few years after launching his career by profiling Bill Bradley at Princeton, McPhee painted a double portrait of two American tennis stars via their U.S. Open semifinal match at Forest Hills, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, opposites on the court and off: black and white, liberal and conservative, artistic and businesslike, free-swinging and stiff, cool and anxious.
Deliverance by James Dickey (1970)
It’s a little weekend trip for four men from the suburbs into the nearby wilderness, canoeing down a Georgia river about to be dammed. If everything goes right, they’ll get back in time for the second half of the Sunday football game on TV. In the meantime, they might get in touch with something real.
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984)
All is gray: the garden, the lake beyond, “spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible farther shore.” It’s late September, well into the off-season, with reduced rates for the few visitors to the Hotel du Lac, where Edith, a romance novelist with a romance problem of her own, escapes for a “mild form of sanctuary.” We’re in Switzerland, but we’re also in Brookner country, home of isolation, disappointment, and quiet determination.
White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985)
Every September the station wagons—they’d now be minivans—arrive on campus, disgorging tanned kids and dorm supplies in a ritual that begins the school year at DeLillo’s generic midwestern college, where education has become untethered from any meaning beyond a nervous self-consciousness.
The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm (1990)
The central document in Malcolm’s ruthless vivisection of the seductions and betrayals of journalism is a September letter in which reporter Joe McGinniss wrote to his subject, the just-convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald–long after McGinniss was convinced of MacDonald’s guilt–“It’s a hell of a thing–spend the summer making a new friend and then the bastards come along and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey–not for long.”
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (1992)
It’s not only in the U.S. that the end of summer means the start of football season, and for 11-year-old Nick Hornby, made vulnerable by divorce, a new home, and a new school, his first professional soccer match, at Arsenal’s home ground in September 1968, began the glorious and inexplicable tyranny that Arsenal football has held over his life ever since.
Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shuh-Lien Bynum (2008)
Every September Ms. Hempel turns to write on the blackboard, “First Assignment,” and soon, as in each of her other fall semesters, the American colonists will rebel and their revolution will be won. Not much older than the middle-school kids she’s instructing in history, and not much more sure of what she’s becoming, Bynum’s raw young teacher is open to experience and, most thrillingly, unprotected from it.
Building Stories by Chris Ware (2012)
There are many layers of time and space diagrammed in the fourteen books and pamphlets contained in Ware’s big box of comics about a small Chicago apartment building, but one pamphlet narrows his tales to a single September day, a quiet Saturday the seems so morosely typical that it spins the building’s inhabitants into despair until, for one of them at least, it becomes an anniversary to remember.
Image via rvoegtli/Flickr
Before I ever wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a ufologist. My final research paper for AP US History II was titled “The United States Government Cover-Up of Information Pertaining to Unidentified Flying Objects.” Improperly formatted but ambitious, it was fifteen pages over the suggested limit. I was seventeen, and sometime between basketball practices and basement parties, I built a cross-cited catalog of thousands of UFO reports stored on a sleeve of floppy discs. My interlibrary loan requests included dissertations on propulsion systems from the University of Texas at Austin, primers on Russian folklore, and Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned. I combed Project Blue Book’s list of unidentified sightings and critiqued the University of Colorado’s skeptical and skewed Condon Report. I replayed a 1950 recording of white lights floating over Centene Stadium in Great Falls, Montana. The longer I stared, the more those lights maneuvered like guided discs. I wanted to believe.
I learned that a former official from the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena lived in my town. Like Nicodemus, I contacted him in secret, hoping that he could guide my unconventional career path. He told me to study archeology; specifically, Egyptology. But he also said coursework in astronomy would be invaluable. I had always watched the skies. I would recline along a beach chair on our deck and stare until the dark above became a deep blue. Other than J. Allen Hynek, most astronomers would balk at my pseudoscientific interests, but a study of the stars felt like a legitimate way to reach toward the mysterious heavens. Astronomy was the marriage of science, mathematics, and theology. It was the study of worlds and objects I could never touch. It required faith.
I attended Susquehanna University, where astronomy was not a major but tucked into the physics department. I fell in love with writing fiction. I thrived in workshop classes led by generous instructors, and pored over Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. I traded cataloging UFO reports from Hobbs, New Mexico to Allagash, Maine for the aerial phenomena in White Noise. I was predisposed to appreciate how Officer Walker’s encounter led to “sightings all over the area. An energizing mental current, a shaky glow, seemed to pass from town to town. It didn’t matter whether you believed in these things or not. They were an excitement, a wave, a tremor. Some voice or noise would crack across the sky and we would be lifted out of death.”
Fear and wonder pulled me toward both astronomy and writing. If the world does not create awe in us, we will neuter the beautiful and complex. The profound becomes prosaic. Although I have drifted toward the science of syntax, I think about the positives of studying content that is not literary. My concern here is not whether creative writing can be taught; a decade in the classroom has proven to me that young writers can evolve from good to excellent with guidance. Yet it would be inconsistent with the Humanities, a tradition suffused with inquiry and self-reflection, to demand that the workshop model is the only plausible method. Anis Shivani’s examinations (pdf) of the guild model as a precedent for the contemporary workshop are necessary; whether or not one agrees with all of his points, he has helped the conversation move forward. How can we expect our students to produce original work if we do not critique our own forms and functions?
There are many paths toward becoming a writer, including ones that do not pass through a creative writing classroom. But I am particularly interested in writers who continued on the route I began, but ultimately diverted from: an undergraduate course of study outside of the Humanities. Consider such writers collected within a post at Zola Books: Jonathan Franzen (studied physics before shifting to German), Rebecca Skloot (biology), Robert Ludlum (theater), Sue Monk Kidd (nursing), Michael Crichton (biological anthropology), John Grisham (accounting), Barbara Kingsolver (biology), and Norman Mailer (aeronautical engineering). This unconventional tradition continues: I spoke with several writers about their own paths to the page.
Joe Wilkins, author of the memoir The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry (Counterpoint)
B.S. Computer Engineering, Gonzaga University
Although he had a great calculus teacher in high school, the real reason Wilkins chose his major had to do with family: “I wanted to do something that would be stable and profitable. After my father died, my mother’s part-time schoolteacher salary barely made ends meet. I didn’t want that.” Engineering helped Wilkins think more systematically about writing: “I’m a relentless reviser, questioning every syllable, and I know some of that came from the time and attention I once had to pay to writing machine code.”
Andrea Kneeland, author of forthcoming story collection Birds & the Beasts (The Lit Pub)
B.A. Anthropology, San Francisco State University
Kneeland had practical considerations for studying anthropology: she was “broke,” and “saw that it would take the least amount of money and time” to complete. She also “initially found ethnographies fascinating,” and thought “studying cultural anthropology was a great complement to writing.” The result was curious: “I used to say that fiction was a way of taking stories that never happened and making them seem real, and the discipline of cultural anthropology was dedicated to taking things that happened and making them seem not real.” Although Kneeland took several creative writing courses as an undergraduate, they “seemed like a lot of navel-gazing and review of really basic craft elements. At that stage, I feel like you can learn different craft forms just from reading, and that navel-gazing is not necessarily the best source of material. How are you supposed to write something that can be meaningful to other people if you never look outward? And it probably would have taken me a lot longer to discover Foucault if I was mostly taking creative writing classes.”
Amber Sparks, author of the story collection May We Shed These Human Bodies (Curbside Splendor)
B.A. Theatre, University of Minnesota (Twin Cities)
Sparks originally planned on a psychology major, but was “cast in a play and said, the hell with it, I want to be an actor.” She finds acting and writing very similar: “You have to understand your character, and their relationships to all the other characters, but you don’t need to know everything. You need to know enough to give the illusion of there being an everything. Acting, and reading so many plays gave me, I think, a good grounding in how to write non-floating characters – characters with business and purpose and agency. It also helped a lot with understanding dialogue. It also turned me into a short story writer. I was a poet before I became an actor.” She did not read traditional workshop fare like Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, and Flannery O’Connor; rather, she was finding her voice while reading Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Harold Pinter, and “of course, a ton of Shakespeare.”
Sarah Blake, author of forthcoming book of poems, Mr. West (Wesleyan University Press)
B.S. Mathematics, The College of New Jersey
Blake minored in creative writing, and thanks “the amazing Cathy Day and Catie Rosemurgy” for their guidance, but chose math as a major because it was practical, and would lead to employment. Her first poem accepted for publication was steeped in math: “infinities, knot theory, topology!” Since then, math has appeared less directly in her poems, but she can still feel the influence: “I often find myself thinking about my work in terms of logic. I see a lot of other poets repeating the same sentiment in a poem, but with different words, because they value the second set of words as much as the first. That sort of repetition is very difficult for me. If the poem has said it, then I want the poem to push forward like it’s following points in a very strange proof. (An example — I was writing a poem where I had A=B and B=C, and I followed with A=C. But then I debated whether I should have A=C because it’s obvious, and it was already in the poem, and I want to trust the reader implicitly. Ultimately it stayed because it was more like B≈C, so saying A=C was interesting, a little bold. And while I was considering all this, I definitely thought, Am I the only poet who does this? I know the answer is, Probably not, but I’d like to meet the others!”
Michael J. Seidlinger, author of the novel The Laughter of Strangers (Lazy Fascist Press)
B.A. Sociology, University of Central Florida
Seidlinger writes: “As a failed musician without any options, I didn’t want to be in college and I didn’t know what major to pick. During the first semester, I started out undeclared. I took a handful of classes including one on deviant behavior. It was the least obnoxious of the bunch and maybe a little bit interesting. Turns out it was linked to a sociology program so I went with that.” He found sociology to be revelatory, and “helped a ton with coming up with ideas for stories.” Having never been in a workshop environment, “the lack of formal training both helped and hindered my writing. I am what I’ve become, and I just hope what I’ve become isn’t beyond repair.”
Edward Nudelman, Nudelman’s second full-length collection of poems is forthcoming from Harbor Mountain Press.
B.S. Biology, B.S. Biochemistry; University of Washington
Nudelman was a “pre-med major [who] was accepted and attended a Medical School in Iowa on a military scholarship, but attended for only one month.” He returned to “a research lab position, which allowed me to pursue my dream in basic cancer research.” He published “over 70 papers in top-tier, peer-reviewed cancer journals.” His research career “has greatly impacted the way I see the world and given me a kind of voice in my poetry I don’t think I ever would have had without that kind of rigorous scientific training, both in the classroom and in the laboratory. My dual career in scientific research and poetry has been a welcomed exercise in cognitional balance. My training in basic research has taught my mind to reasonably doubt almost any conjecture, to put it up to testing, and to withhold conclusion until the data is preponderant enough to demand a viable conclusion. In my writing, however, I strive to say something outside of linear thought. It has been a challenge, but fortunately it has proved to be a great outlet, and as a result, I think a kind of poetic counterpoint has resulted, melding both physical and metaphysical worlds.” In addition to publishing books of poetry and art bibliographies, Nudelman has also owned and operated a rare bookshop since 1980.
Stuart Rojstaczer, author of the forthcoming novel, The Mathematician’s Shiva (Penguin)
B. S. Geology, University of Wisconsin
Rojstaczer earned an M.S. in Geology from the University of Illinois, and a Ph.D. in Applied Earth Sciences. He taught geophysics as a tenured professor at Duke University. The reasons for his major were simple: “I love the outdoors and I love math. Geophysics was a way of combining that.” Rojstaczer took literature courses as an undergraduate, “but mostly learned about fiction and poetry by hanging out in the stacks of the library and being an autodidact.” The Mathematician’s Shiva “is about a group of mathematicians mourning the loss of one of their own and at the same time trying to solve a math problem, and would not have been possible to write without knowing some high level math and without understanding how nerd (and I’m a proud nerd) culture works. It also helps me understand how math and science types emote.”
Image via Kenneth Lu/Flickr
For more than a century, filmmakers have been plundering world literature for source material. Countless works by ancient, medieval, renaissance, enlightenment, Elizabethan, Victorian, modern, post-modern, and futuristic writers, working in every imaginable form and genre, have been transported from page to screen. Every once in a long while an ingenious writer upends this time-tested formula and uses a movie as a springboard for a book. Recently I came upon instances of three very different writers drawing on three very different movies to produce three odd and wondrous little books. The writers are Geoff Dyer, Don DeLillo, and Jonathan Lethem, who, for all their differences, have one thing in common. Each became bewitched by a movie that spoke so forcefully to him that he watched it again and again until it revealed all of its secrets and meanings, until he grasped what might be called the movie’s deep tissues. Here are three case studies of the fruits of their obsessions:
Case Study #1: Geoff Dyer on Andrei Tarkovsky
Last summer I got to interview one of my favorite writers, the English novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer. The occasion was the American publication of The Missing of the Somme, Dyer’s intricate meditation on the ways the dead of the First World War are memorialized and remembered. As our conversation was winding down, I asked Dyer the obligatory parting question: “Do you have a new book in the works?”
“I have a book coming out in January or February,” he replied. “It’s a very detailed study of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which is the film that I’ve seen more than any other. It has really stayed with me for the thirty years since I first saw it. This book is an unbelievably detailed study of that film…(and) hopefully people will buy it because it’s by me, irrespective of the fact that they’ve not seen the film, or perhaps not even heard of it.”
Well, my ignorance of Russian cinema is so immaculate that I had not heard of Stalker and, yes, I’m one of those people who will read a book simply because it was written by Geoff Dyer. So I took Dyer at his word and read his new book before I watched the movie that inspired it. The book is called Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, and from its very first line we’re inside Tarkovksy’s 1979 film, seeing what the camera sees and listening to what Dyer was thinking as he watched the movie, again and again, over the course of three decades. Dyer describes the book as “an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.”
Fair enough, and yet the book does take the movie apart, all 142 shots of it, with some sharp instruments. As always, Dyer brings ferocious curiosity and intelligence to the job, guiding us through Tarkovsky’s strange world by bouncing his own thoughts off writers of literature and criticism, cinema and psychology, including Flaubert, Wordsworth, Camus, Barthes, Bresson, DeLillo, Tony Judt, Stanislaw Lem, Rilke, Heidegger, Jung, Slavoj Zizek, and, of course, Tarkovsky himself.
If you like your movies with a plot synopsis, here goes: A guide (Stalker) takes two men (Writer and Professor) into a forbidden and mysterious area called the Zone, at the heart of which is the Room, where your deepest wish will come true. Period. How, you might ask, can anyone spin a 228-page book out of remembering and misremembering that? The simple answer is that Dyer, much like Tarkovsky, recalibrates our sense of time. He doesn’t merely slow things down, he sometimes freezes them, the better to examine them under his microscope. Instructively, Dyer quotes Tarkovsky here: “If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.”
“This,” Dyer writes, “is Tarkovsky’s aesthetiic in a nutshell. At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky-time and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky-time towards moron-time in which nothing can last – and no one can concentrate on anything – for more than about two seconds…. Tarkovsky is saying to the audience: Forget about previous ideas of time. Stop looking at your watches.”
Dyer makes the case that every work of art – like life itself? – is best appreciated by those who have the patience to look, look again, and keep looking: “The Zone is a place – a state – of heightened alertness to everything.”
The film’s script was written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, adapted from their short science-fiction novel, Roadside Picnic. (So, yet another movie that sprang from a work of literature.) It was shot in Estonia, in and around an abandoned hydroelectric power station that possesses an ethereal beauty similar to what you witness while passing through the petrochemical badlands on the New Jersey Turnpike, those same toxic fogs, sludgy waters, and dripping pipes, minus the methane spurts. An early caption informs us that the Zone might (or might not) be the result of some kind of meteorite or alien invasion, and Dyer duly notes that the setting foreshadows the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown in the Ukraine in 1986 (he calls Tarkovsky “a prophet”), and that the Zone also echoes Stalin’s gulags. Citing Wordsworth, he addresses the importance of such man-made landscapes: “It is when there is some kind of human interaction with landscape, when the landscape, having been manufactured or altered, is in the process of being reclaimed by nature – a source of abiding fascination for Tarkovsky – that its ‘inward meaning’ is most powerfully felt.”
By the end of their journey, Stalker, Writer, and Professor have learned that the Zone “is not a place of hope so much as a place where hope turns in on itself, resigns itself to the way things are.” Not exactly a heart-warming takeaway, but as soon as I finished Dyer’s book, I watched the movie for the first time. I suppose only two questions remain: 1.) Is Stalker, as Dyer contends, “the reason cinema was invented”? And, 2.) How did Dyer’s book affect my experience of watching Tarkovsky’s movie?
My answers are, 1.) No, I would go with the much more conventional view that the reason cinema was invented is Citizen Kane. Beyond that, I’ll man up and admit that Tarkovsky-time got a little boring in spots. Even Dyer confesses that “it was not a case of love at first sight: the first time I saw Stalker I was slightly bored and unmoved.” Which might just mean that I need to see the movie a few dozen more times. And, 2.) Dyer’s book enriched the experience of watching the movie in ways I can’t count, but most basically because it reminded me that we will always be repaid for a heightened alertness to everything – the sounds of birdsong, the changing of light, the smoky nature of our hopes, the riches that are spread out before our eyes if only we have the patience to see.
Cormac McCarthy once said, “The ugly fact is, books are made out of books.” Well, no and yes, you’ll conclude after reading this astonishing book about a film about a book about a journey to a room.
Case Study #2: Don DeLillo on Douglas Gordon on Alfred Hitchcock
In 2010 Don DeLillo published Point Omega, a novel that begins with a short overture and ends with a short coda, titled, respectively, “Anonymity” and “Anonymity 2.” Both tell the story of an unnamed man who has come to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the summer of 2006 to watch a video by the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. It’s called 24 Hour Psycho and that’s precisely what it is – Alfred Hitchcock’s classic slowed down from its original 109 minutes and turned into a crawling, day-long taffy pull.
Like many people who visited MoMA to see Gordon’s movie, I came away thinking that a little bit of this sort of thing goes a long way. (Ditto Andy Warhol’s 1964 movie, Empire, which consists of a fixed camera gazing out a window at the Empire State Building for eight unblinking hours.) Indeed, most of the museum-goers in Point Omega watch Gordon’s slowed-down movie for a few minutes and then flee, looking at the museum guard on their way out the door hoping for eye contact that will validate their “bafflement.”
DeLillo’s nameless moviegoer is no such impatient dilettante. He spends countless hours on six successive days absorbed by the movie, going deeper and deeper in search of its meanings. What he discovers would resonate with Dyer and Tarkovsky:
The nature of the film permitted total concentration and also depended on it. The film’s merciless pacing had no meaning without a corresponding watchfulness, the individual whose absolute alertness did not betray what was demanded. He stood and looked. In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much. But it was impossible to see too much. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion… It takes close attention to see what’s happening in front of you. It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at.
This, it seems to me, is the mission of all true art – to enrich our lives by making us alive to what is happening as it is happening to us. We’re back to Tarkovsky’s “special intensity of attention” and Dyer’s “heightened alertness to everything.”
Between DeLillo’s cinematic overture and coda lies a thin novel about an encounter between two men at a remote house “somewhere south of nowhere” in the Sonoran desert. These two men, we’ll learn, were among the people who came to see 24 Hour Psycho in New York but fled after a few minutes. One is Richard Elster, an academic, a “defense intellectual” (perfect DeLillo job title!), who was involved in the preparations for the invasion of Iraq. He has come to the desert to detox from the experience. With him is the novel’s narrator, Jim Finley, a filmmaker who is trying to persuade Elster to be the subject of a documentary. (So, a novel that springs from a movie about a movie and wants to produce yet another movie.) Finley’s documentary will consist of one unblinking shot (think of Empire, or the single-take Russian Ark): Elster standing in front of a blank wall talking about what he did inside the Pentagon. Finley wants Elster to reveal “what you know that no one knows.” Elster has already confided, vaguely, that his job was “to conceptualize…to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as deployment and counter-insurgency.” This, he admits without shame, involved a certain amount of lying. “Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resemble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability…I wanted a haiku war. I wanted a war in three lines.”
Presumably he came up with this lethal lie:
We are deep in DeLillo country here, the land of smoky operators who work the barely visible levers that control the two great engines driving contemporary American life: anxiety and dread. Geoff Dyer summed up DeLillo’s achievement in his superb collection of essays and reviews from 2011, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition. DeLillo, Dyer wrote, “has reconfigured things, or our perception of them, to such an extent that DeLillo is now implied in the things themselves… Like Hemingway, DeLillo has imprinted his syntax on reality…”
True, but the thing that stuck with me about this slight novel – slight, at least, compared to such meatier DeLillo masterworks as White Noise, Libra, and Underworld – was not Richard Elster’s contribution to the lies that brought on our nation’s longest war. What stuck with me was that nameless man in the museum watching the slowed-down movie and reminding me of the pious effort that’s required to see, to truly see, what’s happening in front of us every minute of our lives.
Case Study #3: Jonathan Lethem on John Carpenter
In 2010 Jonathan Lethem published a monograph, They Live, about a most unlikely subject. Or maybe it wasn’t so unlikely, given the yin-yang mashup of Lethem’s influences, high and low, including DeLillo and Philip K. Dick, Mailer and J.G. Ballard, comics, the movies of John Cassavetes. So in a way it makes perfect sense that Lethem devoted a whole book to a close analysis of John Carpenter’s They Live, a low-budget genre movie by a director the Hollywood establishment barely gives a B rating.
Like Dyer and DeLillo, Lethem brings a sharp intellect and vast tool kit to his chosen movie. And, like them, he argues persuasively that what we see is far less important than how we see it. Taking this a step further, everything can be interesting, including the marginal, especially the marginal, if we’re willing to make a pious effort and bring to bear a frame of reference, informed tastes, education (preferably self-education, in the view of this autodidact), and imagination. And so, like Dyer, Lethem calls on an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and the works of diverse thinkers, including the artists Jenny Holzer and Robert Smithson, the writers and philosophers H.F. Saint, David Thomson, G.K. Chesterton, Poe, Lovecraft, Bret Easton Ellis, George W.S. Trow, Greil Marcus, Darko Suvin, Barthes, Slavoj Zizek, and Stanislaw Lem. Note the overlaps with Dyer’s reading list.
Might as well get the plot summary out of the way: A down-on-his-luck construction worker named Nada (the pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper) wanders into a Los Angeles homeless encampment called Justiceville. After the cops raze the camp, Nada discovers a cache of magic sunglasses that enable him to see that many “normal” people are actually hideous alien ghouls who have mounted a sophisticated mind-control campaign to keep humans complicit and subdued. This includes subliminal billboards and televised commands to OBEY, MARRY AND REPRODUCE, WATCH TV, BUY, STAY ASLEEP. Nada realizes he needs to set this shit straight. And so, strolling into a bank wearing shades and armed with an automatic rifle, he states his mission: “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”
Lethem leads us on a delirious tour of this “self-conscious B movie,” with time codes serving as mile markers. It’s a close, highly informed reading that never feels precious or claustrophobic because Lethem admits that the movie is “howlingly blatant on many levels,” and yet “it grows marvelously slippery and paradoxical at its depths. Watch something enough times and all you see are the holes, much like a word whose meaning dissolves because you’ve said it aloud too many times in a row… Out of holes, a whole.”
Carpenter comes in for high praise from Lethem for shunning Hollywood’s compromising cash and going the noble low-budget route. “They Live,” Lethem writes approvingly, “ignores the presence of the film industry” and instead mounts a critique of television and consumerism as brain-killing propaganda tools. Carpenter has even less use for the local dream factory than it has for him. He’s proud of the fact that his budget requires him to cut every corner he comes to. This ranges from the movie’s blue-collar leading man, with his acne scars, mullet hairdo, and oak-tree neck, to the cheapo props, droning musical score, and skeezy (Lethem’s word) ghoul make-up and wigs. A friend watching the movie with Lethem was delighted to see that a garbage truck was filled with confetti: “They couldn’t afford real garbage!” Even the magic sunglasses, Lethem notes with approval, look like $2 Ray Ban knockoffs. When the movie flirts with porn scenarios (something Carpenter did more than flirt with earlier in his screenwriting career), there are no winks and nods. Carpenter has moved way beyond post-modern irony, all the way to unapologetic self-awareness. He knows that his film is, on one level, a protracted joke, but he doesn’t bother to acknowledge that he’s in on it. “Carpenter really doesn’t care whether or not you get that he gets it,” Lethem writes. “He’d far sooner be mistaken for an audience-laughing-at-you-not-with-you artist than slow the pace of his film, or wreck its tone, by underlining the jokes.”
They Live was based on a short story called “Eight o’clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, a minor science fiction writer who had the distinction of being one of just two authors ever to collaborate with Lethem’s hero, Philip K. Dick. (So, this time we have a book about a movie about a short story.) The movie was released in November 1988, just as Ronald Reagan was passing the decade’s greed-is-good baton to George H.W. Bush. The previous summer, Tompkins Square Park in New York’s East Village had erupted in riots when police forcibly removed homeless squatters, a la Justiceville, a dustup that gave birth to the invective Die, Yuppie Scum! It’s not hard to see the link between “Yuppie Scum” and the wealthiest “1 percent” reviled by Occupy Wall Street protesters who were recently cleared from their campsite in lower Manhattan, a la Tompkins Square Park. But Lethem, to his credit, points out a crucial difference between Tompkins Square (and, by extension, Zuccotti Park) on the one hand, and Justiceville on the other: the squatters in Tompkins Square included defiant drug users, anti-gentrification protesters, and “interested witnesses from the ranks of the middle-bohemian class” (including Allen Ginsberg), while the homeless in Justiceville are for the most part “sheepish, demoralized, obedient” losers content to “zone out and ponder television.” In other words, feel free to read They Live as an indictment of Reaganomics, as many have done, but be careful about turning it into an endorsement of Tompkins Square or a prophecy of Occupy Wall Street.
I had seen They Live years ago, and I watched it a second time after finishing Lethem’s book. The second viewing was definitely better, richer, thanks to the way Lethem opened my eyes to the liberation that comes with doing things on the cheap – and not apologizing for it. They Live, both the movie and the book, are examples of what Manny Farber called “termite” art, as opposed to overblown, ostentatious “white elephant” art. “A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art,” Farber wrote, “is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
And that kind of activity, as Carpenter and his great advocate Lethem have proven, is everything a tuned-in moviegoer or book lover can ask for.
It wasn’t until I’d finished digesting these three books that I was able to see what ties them together. It is, for lack of a better word, their anti-Kaelishness. In his new biography of the celebrated New Yorker movie critic, Brian Kellow notes that Pauline Kael watched a movie just once before reviewing it because “she felt the need to write in the flush of her initial, immediate response…. If she waited too long, and pondered the film over repeated viewings, she felt she might be in danger of coming up with something that wouldn’t be her truest response.”
Lethem, who seems to be aware of everything, is aware of his own anti-Kaelishness: “I’m Pauline Kael’s ultimate opposite here: I’ve watched the entirety of my subject film a dozen times at least, and many individual scenes countless times more (Kael used to brag of seeing each film only once).” It could be argued that a weekly magazine deadline robbed Kael of the luxury of watching a movie a dozen times before writing about it, but she made a conscious choice to see each movie just once. She trusted her instincts over her intellect. Her gut over her brain. And she bragged about it.
Kael, to borrow a Malcolm Gladwell-ism, went with blink. Dyer, DeLillo, and Lethem, to their credit and their readers’ unending benefit, go the opposite route: they look closely, they keep looking, and then they think, think, think.
Don DeLillo builds his novels and stories out of glittering set pieces. The long baseball scene that opens Underworld (reprinted in a standalone edition called Pafko at the Wall), the mass Moonie marriage in the prologue of Mao II, and the encounter with the Airborne Toxic Event in White Noise are all brilliantly conceived and expertly rendered, stretched taut between the real and the surreal. These set pieces are the most memorable parts of his work, but it’s the places between, among, and beneath them from which the transcendent and the ineffable emerge.
From the abduction of a child in a park at dusk, to an earthquake ripping through sweltering Athens and two strangers meeting in a gallery of paintings depicting the fates of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists, each of the nine stories in The Angel Esmeralda (collected for the first time from original publications dating back to 1979), is wrapped tightly around its own diamond-cut set piece.
Almost all of the stories privilege quiet, introspective spaces within and underneath the insane bustle of the modern city — an art gallery, a convent, a philosophy course, a white-collar prison. In “The Starveling” (the collection’s only new story), a man spends his days haunting a network of New York movie theaters, where he ruminates on the interplay of light and dark, in life and onscreen, wondering, “was it about the universe and our remote and fleeting place as earthlings? Or was it something much more intimate, people in rooms…?” Once inside these sanctuaries, the characters seek contact with a more ancient and immutable form of existence, one that the city obscures but cannot extinguish.
They find their way into these modern sanctuaries through a desire to escape from the chaos of the city outside, and yet only by opening a door to a deeper, more innate chaos, beyond the stories’ perfectionist architecture and impeccable phrasing, does the transcendent emerge palpably onto the page. In the moments when it does, the stories achieve the staggering beauty and strangeness of DeLillo’s best work.
All told, The Angel Esmeralda contains three stories in which the transcendent succeeds in breaking through. In these instances, we’re right there along with the characters, in the place of apparition, watching as the secularism of modern society, and the hyper-refined veneer of DeLillo’s prose, vanish like sand blowing off a tomb in the desert.
In “Human Moments in World War III” (1983), two men orbit the earth in a military satellite. As a reprieve from the job’s boredom, one of them takes to looking out the window, back at the Earth where, “The view is endlessly fulfilling…it satisfies every childlike curiosity, every muted desire, whatever there is in him of the scientist, the poet, the primitive seer, the watcher of fire and shooting stars…the neural pulse of some wilder awareness…whatever indolent and sybaritic leanings — lotus-eater, smoker of grasses and herbs, blue-eyed gazer into space — all these are satisfied, all collected and massed in that living body, the sight he sees from the window.” There’s nowhere to look in the satellite except out the window, and yet the character’s decision to do so and the Earth’s appearance when he does come as hard-earned and long-denied revelations.
In “The Ivory Acrobat” (1988), an American woman in Athens in the aftermath of an earthquake examines a carved Minoan figure of an acrobat leaping over a bull. As she tries to reckon with this alien object, she feels the broken record of her self-consciousness slowing to a halt: “There was nothing that might connect her to the mind inside the work…[to] a knowable past, some shared theater of being. The Minoans were outside all this…lost across vales of language and magic, across dream cosmologies…her self-awareness ended where the acrobat began.” In the middle of her paranoid expat existence, she sees a void open that history and language cannot fill.
In the title story (1994), the final pages of which rival any DeLillo has written, two nuns who’ve devoted themselves to what often looks like an irredeemable Bronx neighborhood see the shape of a murdered girl appear as an angel on a billboard advertising orange juice. “Her presence was a verifying force, a figure from a universal church…it had being and disposition, there was someone living in the image, a distinguishing spirit and character…a force at some deep level of lament that made [the nun] feel inseparable from…the awestruck who stood in tidal traffic…”
These are rare moments when the ancient and the infinite erupt out of human production — a spacecraft, an artifact, a billboard, and, of course, DeLillo’s own writing. He sets his stories in technological arenas that assert the victory of human reason over universal chaos, and yet, in the crucial religious moment, chaos looms back up, subverting the tools that humans have built to use against it.
These appearances give way to disappearance and disappointment, but there are two kinds of disappointment here: disappointment in a reality that the story has meaningfully conveyed, and disappointment in the story for having shirked that reality’s magnitude. These three stories evoke the first and more cathartic disappointment. Leaving the place where the angel appeared, the nuns wonder, “…what do you remember, finally, when everyone has gone home and the streets are empty of devotion and hope, swept by river wind? Is the memory thin and bitter and does it shame you with its fundamental untruth…or does the power of transcendence linger, the sense of an event that violates natural forces…stand against your doubts?”
In these three stories, you’re right there with the characters, shuddering with the shockwaves of impossible events, as sudden and devastating as a detonated bomb.
All of the stories in this collection, even those that don’t reach these shivery highs, abound with brilliant ideas. But brilliant ideas alone are not enough to make them all work. Many feel stranded, like parts of a larger project that doesn’t exist.
This is because DeLillo’s writing really comes alive not from the quality of its individual ideas, but from their shadows and echoes, the resonances of their “white noise,” magnified across a vast psychic and visual plane. In all of his novels, but not in all of his stories, these shadows and echoes mount into a chaotic force, rippling both across and underneath the surface.
As it does, his vision spreads outward, encompassing ever more of the nuances and frequencies of an urbanized West that has maxed out on chatter and distraction, gorging itself on anxieties about the vanishing past, the splintering present, and the accelerating emergence of the future. It has to expand like this in order to express the burden of shepherding a lone self through a world of mass-consciousness, ruled by media and money, where terror is the only form of awe that has not been stripped and sold for parts.
The novels’ plots are so all-encompassing that they send out and respond to hidden currents running through the heart of our culture, as dangerous and vital as the plots of terrorists — as DeLillo imagines them — have become. In Mao II, he writes, “…isn’t it the novelist…above all people, above all writers…who knows in his soul what the terrorist thinks and feels? Through history it’s the novelist who has felt affinity for the violent man who lives in the dark.”
This is not to say that a great novelist like Don DeLillo shouldn’t write short stories, but I do think that his novelistic vision is ill-served by the story form, and that The Angel Esmeralda is not the product of a different, authentically story-sized vision. For all of their interest in apparitions breaking into the world, the stories permit few breaks in their own conceptual rigging, and thus often exclude the very forces they’ve summoned.
What does appear, if one reads the collection in chronological order, is a portrait of DeLillo himself, as the author who most compellingly captured the mental life of the Western world in the late 20th century. In both the novels and the stories from this period, one can hear a city, maybe a whole civilization, speaking and even thinking through him.
It’s no coincidence that the collection’s three best stories date from the ’80s and ’90s. In these stories, as in Libra, White Noise, Mao II, and Underworld (spanning the period 1985-1997), there are passages that move beyond the synthetic and into the prophetic. One gets the sense that he not only saw what was going on at that time, on an absurdly grand scale, but that he saw into it, farther in than anyone else could. These passages feel like the incarnation of something way beyond the scope of an individual mind.
For all the control and precision in his language, chaos breaks through in these passages. In his famous crowd scenes — at sports games, political rallies, fanatic religious ceremonies, and panoramas of mass squalor and degradation — human consciousness breaks down and is overcome by something non-human, a singular psychic totality that exists beyond the infinite. In “The Ivory Acrobat,” a line of traffic in Athens “resembled some landscape in the dreaming part of us, what the city teaches us to fear.” A new state of being emerges from the mob and the traffic jam, from the novelist conjuring up ghost cities and the terrorist burning down real ones.
This more primal chaos, underneath the daily chaos of the city, ends finally in unity, and perhaps also in peace.
DeLillo will always be a master stylist, but this only magnifies the difference between the times when this spirit breaks through his style, and the times when it does not. As the West’s relation to terror and art, and to mass communication and solitary insight, shifts in the early 21st century, this prophetic voice has shifted away from DeLillo. In retrospect, his best work shares the billboard angel’s overwhelming but transitory power: impossible to deny when it’s there, impossible to believe when it’s gone.
Before I opened William Gibson’s new novel, Zero History, I sat down to a second viewing of Cyberpunk, a documentary film made in the late 1980s, when Gibson was writing his legend as avatar of a movement that was revivifying the comatose science fiction genre. In the film, Gibson sports a fluffy cloud of hair that would have looked right at home on a Duran Duran album cover, and he comes across as a glib and brainy sound-bite machine.
“Science fiction is the golden ghetto,” he says. “I think we’re moving toward a world where all the consumers under a certain age will probably tend to identify more with their consumer status – the products they consume – than with any antiquated notion of nationality,” he says. “We are technology … people are interchangeable … information wants to be free … the future has already happened…”
While there’s nutritious food for thought in every one of these pronouncements, the thing that struck me on my second viewing of the documentary was the expression on Gibson’s face. He wore a constant grin that can only be described as a smirk. That smirk said, in no uncertain terms, I’ve figured out stuff you haven’t even begun to imagine – because I’m way smarter than you’ll ever be.
In the author photo on the back of the Zero History dust jacket, Gibson’s hair is cropped close. But the old smirk is, figuratively speaking, evident on every page of the novel, which is less concerned with the implications of cyber-technology than with the talismanic powers of the products people consume.
The novel opens badly. There are windy descriptions of hotel lobbies, bathroom fixtures, gift shop kitsch, computer game arcades, things that do nothing to advance the story but merely attempt to show off Gibson’s chops. Here he is on the content of a BBC newscast: “Early twenty-first-century quotidian, death-spiral subtexts kept well down in the mix.” I have no idea what “quotidian, death-spiral subtexts” are. There are dozens of examples of this sort of opacity, and they all point to a writer trying way too hard to be hip and wise and, far worse, allowing the effort to show. No smirk in the world can cover that kind of misstep.
Once Gibson gets out of the way and lets his two parallel narratives come together, the novel finally takes off. Hollis Henry, who appeared in Gibson’s prior novel, Spook Country, is a former singer turned writer who is being wooed by a London advertising mogul with the implausible name of Hubertus Bigend, who also appeared in Spook Country and in its predecessor, Pattern Recognition. “We aren’t just an advertising agency,” Bigend tells Hollis. “We do brand revision transmission, trend forecasting, vendor management, youth market recon, strategic planning in general.” To use a coinage from Pattern Recognition, he’s a coolhunter.
Bigend pairs Hollis with Milgrim, a recovering tranquilizer junkie (who also appeared in Spook Country), to hunt down the coolest thing on the street – a new brand of denim called Gabriel Hounds that’s so mysterious, so rare, so hard to find that people absolutely must have it. And Bigend thinks there are massive profits to be made by using it in military contracts.
A stealthy seller tries to explain the ineffable allure of Gabriel Hounds: “It’s about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialization of novelty. It’s about deeper code.”
This sounds like discount Don DeLillo to me. But no matter how many $10 words Gibson uses, this is, first and last, a story about … jeans.
In the novel’s better moments, denim clothing actually serves as a workable metaphor for the thing Gibson is after. He has always been fascinated by fashion, not only as an expression of personal style (that is, a shorthand way of reading character), but as a place where technology and advertising work together, on a global scale, to create and feed human appetites in the name of corporate profits. As he correctly predicted a quarter of a century ago in Cyberpunk, people under a certain age today identify more with the products they consume than with any antiquated notions of nationality.
This is a worthy theme, and Gibson sometimes works it to dazzling effect. He’s especially good on Milgrim’s paranoia when he discovers he’s being shadowed by Bigend’s competitors. And there is some unforgettable writing, such as an 18th-century townhouse with a facade that looks like “the face of someone starting to fall asleep on the subway.” Or the way drug addictions start out as “magical pets, pocket monsters,” but wind up being “less intelligent than goldfish.”
But Gibson doesn’t seem to have faith in his own story. Halfway through the book he injects a kidnapping, which leads to the deus ex machina arrival of Hollis’s old flame, and a denouement that barely rises to the level of a competent espionage novel.
Gibson’s great strength in his early books – and the source of his global following – is that he made readers want to inhabit the worlds he has imagined. But now he strikes me as a prospector who’s working an exhausted vein. If he hasn’t exactly watched too many of his predictions come true, maybe he has watched too many others fail to make them come true. He correctly imagined the inter-connectedness of cyberspace, but it did not, as he’d envisioned it, swallow us in three dimensions. His concept of a matrix hasn’t amounted to much more than a lucrative movie franchise. And the things his coolhunters have lately been hunting don’t strike me as all that unbearably cool.
The root of Gibson’s problem is that he has set up shop in the future, and the future, as he himself put it, has already happened. Again Don DeLillo comes to mind. His brilliant earlier novels, especially White Noise, Mao II and Underworld, didn’t so much predict the 9-11 terrorist attacks as make it possible for us to dread them; since the attacks, DeLillo’s writing has come unmoored. As Andrew O’Hagan asked in an unfavorable review of DeLillo’s 2007 novel Falling Man in the New York Review of Books: “What is a prophet once his fiery words become deed? People still speak of the anxiety of influence, but what of a novelist’s anxiety about his past work’s influence on himself?”
Based on the evidence of his three most recent novels, I think Gibson is suffering from this very anxiety – and if he’s not, he should be. His early fascination with technology, a source of so much fresh writing, has curdled into a sort of arch hipper-than-thou pose. It’s time for this writer of boundless talent to strike out for new territories, to break free of his past work’s influence on himself, to go back to a new future, or deeper into the present, or all the way into the past. Or, possibly, all of the above, all at once.
And while he’s on his way to wherever he decides to go, Gibson needs to wipe that smirk off his face.
The London Review of Books Blog reports that the personal library of late novelist David Markson has been scattered among the stacks at New York’s Strand bookstore, filled with notes, check marks and underlined passages. Some comments found scrawled in his copy of DeLillo’s White Noise: “oh god the pomposity, the bullshit!” and “oh i get it, it’s a sci-fi novel!”
“They seem to have things under control,” I said.
“Whoever’s in charge out there.”
“Who’s in charge?”
Despite having closely followed the disastrous events in the Gulf for over a month with something akin to self-flagellatory devotion, growing increasingly angry and disillusioned with each failed attempt to contain the stricken oil well, I recently booked a South Caribbean cruise for my honeymoon in January. It was only after the plans had been finalized that I realized how little the oil spill had actually affected me: I operated under the assumption that someone—the government, BP, someone—would have the “situation” resolved, cleaned up, and concluded before it could intrude on my vacation. I had blithely researched and planned the cruise, never considering that the worst manmade natural disaster in our nation’s history might have real repercussions for me. This naïve self-assurance gave me pause and, like many avid readers, I turned to what literature might teach me about such hubris.
Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise narrates the events of a manmade disaster so eerily similar to the Gulf oil spill in some of its details that it has an aura of prognostication. The novel is narrated by Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies at College-on-the-Hill in Blacksmith, a quiet town somewhere in the U.S. Jack is an incredibly empathetic character. Contrary to what we might predict for the professor who founded an academic discipline devoted to studying the most heinous figure in modern history, Jack is a good husband and father, kind to his coworkers, and generally affable. Even his idiosyncrasies are endearing: he wears dark-tinted sunglasses on campus, changes his professional name to J. A. K. Gladney, and gains weight to bulk out his frame, each pose an attempt to acquire the gravitas expected of him by students and fellow professors. The careful cultivation of his public persona is matched by his need to provide answers for his family, to be a source of knowledge and assurance to his adolescent son, and to appear to have control over events outside his field of expertise.
When an accident in a nearby train yard spills 35,000 gallons of “Nyodene Derivative” (a fictional, highly toxic byproduct of commercial insecticides), creating an amorphous black cloud quickly named an “airborne toxic event,” Jack assures his family that they will be safe without fleeing home: “These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters. People in low-lying areas get the floods, people in shanties get the hurricanes and tornados. I’m a college professor. Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods?” Even as the air currents threaten to send the toxic cloud toward his neighborhood, Jack insists that alarm would be out of step with his professional position, saying “I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event.”
Jack’s self assurance can be maintained only through an illusion of control. He assumes that the weather, government, and his socio-economic status will all contrive to protect him from the threatening black cloud. But this illusion is wrested from him after he learns that his two minute exposure to the toxin will likely jeopardize his health, though it will be fifteen years before the symptoms begin to manifest. “Scheduled to die,” Jack’s fear of death encroaches upon his ability to see himself among the living. Confiding to a fellow professor, he speaks of the trap he finds himself in: “It’s almost as though our fear is what brings it on. If we could learn not to be afraid, we could live forever.” Caught between the living and the dead, fear and uncertainty drive all of Jack’s actions after the exposure.
The victims of the Gulf oil spill are now trapped in the same epistemic gap in which Jack finds himself. Possibly the most confounding aspect of the disaster is that after two months there is still no certainty as to the extent of the damage. It is not merely a problem of tracking the massive, miles-long invisible plumes of oil that are suspected to be floating below the surface. A more essential problem is that the government and BP have been unable to determine how much oil is leaking from the well. There are only best and worst case scenarios separated by tens of thousands of barrels per day (as of this writing, it was estimated that between 12,600 and 40,000 barrels per day were bleeding into the Gulf before the riser was cut, and between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels per day afterwards).
Being unable to fathom such quantities, we are in a situation similar to Jack’s: things are bad, danger is lurking, but we don’t know its full extent. Like Jack’s, our exposure has been consummate, and fatal for the health and economic stability of many, but the final tally is not yet in.
Much of the novel’s pathos derives from Jack’s attempts to regain control of his life while living in the gap—living with the uncertainty of certain death. First, he alters his routine and begins to obsessively see his doctor and search for a miracle cure for his fear of death, a drug called Dylar. In the end, he violently steals the drug, consciously plotting his movements, the effort to superimpose order on his actions altering his narrative voice from the avuncular professor to the conniving criminal. The reversal of Jack’s fortunes is classically tragic, resulting from his flawed self-assurance. He both fears and longs for a conclusion to the uncertainty, desiring the resolution inevitable at the conclusion of any plot. It is as if he had read Aristotle’s Poetics and now awaits the catharsis available at the ending.
Keeping in mind E.M. Forster’s comments in Aspects of the Novel on the difference between “plot” in drama and the modern novel—the latter of which gives much greater emphasis to character development and action which derives organically from that development— Aristotle’s well-known emphasis on the unity and parts of a plot reveals what we as readers seek in narrative. Turning on either (though ideally both) a recognition on the part of a character or a reversal of his fortunes, the best plots are those which elicit sympathy and pity for the characters, resulting in catharsis for the audience. But the emotional payoff can come only at the conclusion, the result of both identifying with the characters and realizing that though you could be in their situation, you are not.
DeLillo not only masterfully plots White Noise, his characters also speaks eloquently of “plots.” Lecturing to his class, Jack opines that “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.” In other words, plotting is a way of reaching an end, the conclusion, and resolving whatever degree of mystery is left in a narrative or life. A plot gives structure to messy and meaningless facts by tying them together but in so doing, requires that the telling be curtailed, sometimes prematurely (for instance, the litigation and environmental cleanup from the oil spill will undoubtedly be with us for years to come, but the “narrative” of events that our culture will construct—in the media and in court—will likely provide an ending that doesn’t account for these lingering signs of the spill).
Aware that death is growing inside him, Jack has essentially short-circuited his life’s “plot.” There is no mystery left. Asked if he would like to know the exact date of his death, he says “Absolutely not. It’s bad enough to fear the unknown. Faced with the unknown, we can pretend it isn’t there. Exact dates would drive many to suicide, if only to beat the system.”
As writers and readers, we are bound to what Forster called the “tyranny of the plot.” Obligated to tie up loose ends, the writer must often sacrifice true characterization, curtailing the organic development of his characters (often with a “contrived” death or marriage, though obvious exceptions are the modernist ambiguous ending and the postmodern fragmented narrative). Forster questions the necessity false endings: “Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? Alas, he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is at work, and our final impression of them is through deadness.” Why must all things move “plotwards”? How can the “deadness” of the characters (both creatively and in the plot) be accounted for? It is as if writers are compelled to sacrifice their characters to the reader’s need for catharsis and redemption, found in the resolution of the plot. This, I believe, is the answer given by Aristotle. We need endings to reassert our own humanity and to find life even in death.
In this way, there is something life affirming in even the greatest disasters. But only after they have ended: only after the tale of survival has been concluded and can be retold, filling in the gaps in a way that brings logic to bear on the messiness of life, creating a narrative that allows those not directly affected (the “audience” of the disaster) to live with fear by rehearsing disaster through its displacement. As stated by one of the characters in the novel, “The more we rehearse disaster, the safer we’ll be from the real thing.”
But we live in the gap, in that middle section of the novel where nothing is resolved and everything is at stake. Rereading White Noise, I recognized that plotting and planning are just ways in which I try to project order onto chaos. This is where fiction departs most drastically from life. In reading fiction, we must learn to willingly suspend disbelieve. But the beauty of living in the middle is the ability to will ourselves to believe that in these moments of suspension there is opportunity for human action.
In March of this year, the writer Steve Almond penned a brief article in the LA Times waxing nostalgic about the 70s, when listening to music was an “activity in and of itself… and not just another channel on our ever-expanding dial of distractions.” Almond attributes this evolution of our listening habits to the usual suspects, namely technology and the devices and software that fall under the iPod/iTunes umbrella. Because music listening, says Almond, has become less a “concerted sonic and emotional event” and more a pragmatic function of our increasingly digital lifestyles, we as a music listening culture are missing out on opportunities for a sacred and spiritual interaction with our music. For sure, Mr. Almond is right to say that our relationship with music has been profoundly influenced by taking our music out of the living room, away from the stationary turntable and component stereo system, and inserting it into nearly every activity and event of our days. However, it’s grossly inaccurate to dismiss this impact as sacrilegious or impoverishing when what technology has in fact done for us as a music listening culture is quite positive, something close to liberating, and dangerously powerful.
Track 01: “Take Pills” by Panda Bear
While the methods by which we now acquire our music have had an impact, to a degree, on our experience of music listening, they have remained markedly less influential than the evolutions in the design and application of what we use to listen to our music. In 2008 and 2009, close to 100 million iPods were purchased globally. The widespread use of personal mp3 players and, more importantly, the headphones attached to those players, have gone on to facilitate for a significant percentage of the population a kind of relationship that has never before occurred between music listener and music.
Join the public space and look around: It takes only a brief moment to locate an individual plugged in and headphoned up. Like using an umbrella, headphones serve a particular function, shielding us from the nuisances of the world. Hop on any form of public transportation, plug in, and no longer must you suffer the coughing, sneezing, dry throat clearing, cell phone texting, loud speaker announcing, sneaker squeaking, nervous leg tapping, neighbor yawning, Doritos eating, water bottle dropping and newspaper shuffling that is the shuttle, train, or bus around you. Step off and into the street and headphones continue to serve you well. Why subject yourself to the car honking, police whistle blowing and sidewalk chattering of the urban space when you don’t have to?
Track 02: “Sunshine and Clouds (and Everything Proud)” by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Headphones though have a function superior to being simply a buffer to keep out the annoyances of the modern world. They quickly and conveniently facilitate our music listening habit, an activity with a potent high. As the neurologist Oliver Sacks says of music, it can call to both parts of our basic nature—the emotional and intellectual. (Throw in physical satisfaction and music might be the perfect mate.) If you’re in search of a superficial engagement, you can find a basic emotional solace at the threshold of a song’s sound; take it in at its surface level and feel satisfied with the instrumental performance and/or the tonal qualities of the words sung or spoken. Listen deeper—to the song’s narrative, meaning, and themes—and you will locate the ideas and concepts that provide the intellectual stimulation Sacks speaks of. If you allow it, music can strike you in the heart as well as in the head. But any music fan knew this already.
Track 03: “We Will Never Die” by Bon Iver
The result of having taken this emotionally and intellectually stimulating habit on the road, away from the home stereo and into everywhere, is that we have become Hollywood directors soundtrack-editing in real time the films of our lives. Maybe we can’t chop out a tedious 45-minute bus commute from our day, but with the addition of our favorite albums or playlists we can certainly make it speak to us in powerful ways. With the right soundtrack, a movie director can heighten tension, add irony, or inject a scene with some deeper meaning. With our headphones on, we become directors who can enrich even the most boring activities of our lives with provoking music. Think, for example, of a hypothetical Charlie buying fruit in the produce aisle while he listens to Talking Heads “This Must Be The Place.”
He works through the bins of fruit, he’s squeezing oranges, and his mind wanders: I am buying these oranges, my fiancé will eat one while standing in our apartment kitchen, the apartment that we live in, the apartment that we call home, in the community that we call our own; a community with supermarkets like this one, with offices nearby, offices like mine, where I earn a salary that affords me things like an apartment and oranges and… With headphones on and the right song playing, Charlie’s banal produce experience becomes, depending on his receptivity to sentimental thoughts, a fertile stream of ideas and emotions about his concepts of home, family, and community. If present, willing, and plugged in, we like Charlie can influence the emotional and intellectual tenor of our public moments of solitude. We are no longer subject, for example, to the soul numbing commercial ambiance of a supermarket—of what Delillo described in White Noise as “toneless systems” and a “dull unlocatable roar.” Instead, we inject into our shopping experiences and mundane errands evocations of our strongest felt memories, relationships, and wants.
Track 04: “Pink Stones” by Memory Tapes
Headphones liberate us from being distracted by the thumping sonic assault of corporate businesses and the audio debris broadcast by others in the public space. (Both are on display in their worst ways at chain fitness gyms: The loudspeaker announcements for hybrid pilate-mixed martial arts-yoga-spin classes showering down over a roomful of grunting, heaving, chatting neighbors.) When we facilitate our liberation, wherever we are, we gain a particular brand of insight into ourselves. The French scholar Michel de Certeau observes a similar gain of perspicacity when we travel on a train. He proposes that when we are behind a train window and observe landscapes of almost blurry trees, buildings, and chunks of towns, we are seeing and moving through familiar things but yet remain totally separated from them. It’s a bit of a paradox—to be removed from something while being immersed in it at the same time—but this is a process we undertake more often than we think, especially when we use our memories. For example, when we think back and remember our high school graduation, we are not there anymore, in the stuffy summer auditorium or under the buggy football stadium lights, but our minds move us through the distant memories just as if we were. When we travel on a train, what’s far away seems strange in the same way as when we think of our high school friends at graduation, those odd and younger versions of the adults we might not now recognize, warped by the velocity of so many years. Likewise, from behind a train window, trees lose their leaf-edge detail, street lamps and parked cars appear as quickly as they vanish. And in this magician’s trick of speed and sleight of movement, fences, trees, and cars become shadow objects, provoking and echoing objects from our memories, dreams, and secrets. Moving quickly along the railway, always away from these shadow objects, we see briefly vague hints of what we normally furnish our mind with and this estrangement from our own internal mental horizon puts us into a meditative mood of speculative thinking. De Certeau cleverly terms this as “losing one’s footing” from the reality around us and something quite similar happens to us when we plug into our mp3 players and tune out.
Track 05: “Here Come De Honey Man” by Clark Terry
Headphones, like the train window, create a distance between us and that which is around us. The music in this case acts like the train itself, propelling us forward, moving us through that which we are no longer a part of. We walk along a crowded city sidewalk, participate in the dense humanity as it throbs up and down the street, but are oblivious to the sounds that populate such a scene because our ears are plugged up. It’s as if the train’s two-dimensional windowpane has gone 3-D, enveloping us in a glass box of music, a pope-mobile like protection from the audio infiltrations of the city space. The music, in this way, takes us somewhere else. We are relieved from our position as a member of the dense humanity and we are able to view it, and our place within it, from somewhere else. This death of the present moment is, as De Certeau says, “necessary for the birth, outside of these things but not without them, of unknown landscapes and the strange fables of our private stories.” We again become the movie directors of the films of our lives, except now we have a script: The New York city street we walk is reappropriated for our personal fantasies of narrative; the silent others around us become the film extras, the characters of our memories become the stars, and we, for once, get to say action and cut.
Track 06: “Building Steam with A Grain of Salt” by DJ Shadow
The ultimate effect of having quick and frequent access to private moments during which we can meditate on our memories and ideas—even while in the public space—is that we develop a better and richer understanding of ourselves (if we’re receptive to it). This occurs in large part because our memories and ideas undergo a modulation each time they are put to use. For example, when we read a headline about Michael Jackson dangling his baby over a railing, our ideas about a whole litany of things change. Our understanding about Father, Baby, Dangling, Child Care, Bizarre, Celebrity, Career Train Wreaks, and every other simple component of that story about MJ getting weird takes on a new shape. This is precisely what is going on when we’re listening attentively to emotionally and intellectually stimulating music. When we tune in, we call upon ideas and memories in our minds—let’s say three weeks ago via some song in particular, and then again a few days ago with that same song—and we gain a new perspective on whatever it is that song provokes within us. Why? Because we have a “then and now” to compare and contrast. Even if a song evokes a very particular memory, a tune that reminds us of a cruise ship vacation, for example, we will inevitably think of that vacation differently if only in the slightest way when viewed through the music-filtered perspective of three weeks ago versus a few days ago. Because we can never be in precisely the same mindset at two different times—there are always subtle if not significant differences in what is floating around in our heads at any given moment—we gain two different points of view on the memory of that cruise ship vacation, just like how we had a before and after perspective on the idea of Celebrity Children before and after reading about Michael Jackson and the baby. Music, in this way, serves us like a personalized Lucky Google search of our internal inventories, digging up rare or popular gems from the archives of our lives. By creating moments pregnant for improving our understanding of ourselves, we essentially gain an opportunity for a better understanding of the world as well.
Track 07: “Anywhere Anyone” by Dntel
Up to this point, my focus has been on the advances in technology that have afforded us the ability to bring our music with us wherever we can carry along our phones or mp3 players. It’s important to note though that there’s another kind of technological portability that has been almost as influential on our music listening habits: Playlists. In the move away from artist and label determined track sequences towards complete user control, the modern music listener has taken over as the primary music curator, able to move songs around at will. The tracks I used to title these sections, for example, were plucked from a playlist of songs I can write to (playlist title: “Songs w/ Little Words”). Most of these tracks are from albums I enjoy immensely in their originally intended track sequences. However, I have also found value in re-contextualizing these songs into new arrangements with other selections of my choice.
10 years ago, this sort of playlist creation was clumsy and slow, requiring cassette tapes or the still emerging mix CDs and burn software. Because of torrent sites, high speed internet, and the mp3’s victory as the format of choice, mp3 player technology has had to keep pace; now, nearly anyone can become a music curator, selecting tracks from various artists, genres, and time periods to create playlists and portable music libraries that are unique and incredibly personal. In taking charge of the order in which we arrange our music, we develop a more vested interest in our music. Like a renter who becomes a home owner, we care about the small details: the opening song as a first impression, the transition between tracks, the playlist title that probably no one else cares about. We become not just curators of music but curators of connections, evaluating not simply songs or albums on their own terms but also how albums and songs relate to one another. In making playlists, we come to understand our music in a more sophisticated way.