I wrote this essay about 12 Monkeys that has several factual errors! Marginal Gloss already spotted one. I didn’t title this essay—my editors did. I am eternally thankful. I wonder about ‘CRAZY’, <— that comma right there, on the outside. Using all caps titles forces certain typography decisions creating euphony on the screen/page. But, let us march forward Christian Socialists. We are the last dynamos of the American Marxists. So onwards.
Most of my UK followers—obviously—will be in the stands along the mâll awaiting the carriages and so forth. Best of luck. Eat some fish and chips por moi.
Continuing the Longest, Most Self-Serving Duck Beating to Date, for Which, Regrettably, the Administrator of Duck Beater Is Contractually Obliged to Publish, Spoilers Intact
Mortals, through the duration of its description of Ray and his wife Iris’ disintegrating marriage, presents the activities of a dying love as similar in form to an interrogation, to the work of spies and thugs. Questions become punishments, silence induces suspicion, pain takes on a crucial role, and the ordinary turns unspeakably strange as violence and death subsume the slightest gestures.
Because the novel is told from Ray’s perspective, we are privy to all the signs he takes to mean his wife is cheating on him with her doctor, Davis Morel. Ray fusses tremendously. “At least whatever was wrong was recent, Ray kept telling himself, he realized,” is the novel’s opening sentence. The paranoid litany continues as he traces Iris’ infidelity, which for three-quarters of the novel remains a construction in his depressed, jealous head. His soul is rent by the prospect of her infidelity. When Ray speaks to Iris about love, when he professes how dear she is to him, usually the two are richly conversing around the tenderness of their perceptions, their diverging worldviews. They are finding that though they know each other intimately, and adore one another, this affection has impelled them further away from a shared life.
Rush treats secrets philosophically. They function in his narrative to level devastation; they operate ironically. Ray’s involvement with the CIA ensures that an aspect of his life, the activity of his vocation, is locked away from his wife, his mate; her resentment of this at first seems like the caricatured resentment we all feel about the unknowables in our lover’s life, those subjects that have been excised from the warm familiarity of a strong and empathic relationship, willful or accidental. Iris understands that Ray’s vocation naturally manifests in the remaining aspects of his person, whether he admits to it or not, and so the philosophical heft of his commitment to secrecy, to serving a world power’s intelligence, may make his core morally weak or, rather, spiritually dry. In a middle passage, after a funeral, Ray is ruminating on Iris’ charity: “She liked to correct things. She thought the world was more pliable than it is. Every time she saw the cordon of prostitutes around the entrance to the Sun, her mind ran in the direction of what could be done for them.” This tenet of Iris’ interior, her innate capacity towards good action, is stunted by the relentless pressures of Ray’s vocation, and also the smothering way his vocation is mixed with the intensity of his affection for her:
She had a general impulse toward social helpfulness that somehow never resulted in organized action, like working with the gleaners the way Alice Wemberg had, actually getting out of the house and going to the site of the iniquity. He knew what she would say about that. She would say, if they were ever able to discuss it honestly, that he discouraged it, in part because it would raise their profile, which was always to be avoided, and in part because … he needed her so inordinately. For example, he always wanted to know where she was and that wherever she was it was a reasonable place to be, a safe place. Because the fact was that without her the world would be unintelligible to him. That much was true.
Ray’s need to keep tabs on his wife, to know her location or limit her movement, is indeed the repulsive tendency of an overly-needy husband, but it is also the tendency of a man who lives by participating in the shadowy control of other people. Ray is a spy. Iris accepts this. What she cannot accept is when her husband’s love becomes indistinguishable from spying. And eventually Ray uses CIA resources to spy on the doctor he presumes to be his wife’s lover.
Neither Ray nor Iris (nor especially Rush) is religious and so I hesitate to evoke a higher power beyond the secular agency of humanism. “The Apostle of Reason,” a long chapter in the novel’s center, acts as an anti-catechism. Dr. Davis Morel is indoctrinating Gaborone youth against Christianity and other systems of religious belief, and Ray has a tape recording of the proceedings. The chapter is electric. It sounds before Dostoyevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” and Bulgakov’s own perversion of that chapter in The Master and Margarita, “Pontius Pilate,” to stand beside the finale of José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Mortals is an agitated book, shaken by injustices in Africa, often clawing for purchase, angrily, on topics such as AIDS seropositivity across the continent, the disgusting political situation of apartheid South Africa, of drought and famine. On religion, Rush is all the more relentless. The blush of his fury does not fray the meaning of his book, but ornaments it, enlivens it. Davis announces one meaning of the novel’s title in the middle of his tirade:
And I explained how faith is a toxin, a peculiar and dangerous toxin because even in dilution it waits in the blood to blaze back into madness under the right conditions of fear and trembling. In its most virulent forms, it prevents the host from knowing that it is going to die, to die forever, that the host is a dying animal, that we are merely mortals, and that death is our common fate, the fact of life that should make brothers and sisters of us all. And I tried to show you how even in dilution religion addles and undoes our ability to see death, how even in dilution it sweetens death, allows it to be denied, allows the death of others to be made casual.
Ray doesn’t believe in a god but he does believe in Tennyson, Hopkins, and of course Milton; he believes in heroic evil, he believes in the examples of righteousness drawn from the literary canon, and Iris, absorbing Ray’s reading life for their almost thirty years of marriage, she shares his beliefs in a supreme literature of good (even though, eventually, she does abandon her husband’s book recommendations). Because of this charged poetics, Ray and Iris perceive a saturating metaphysics in love, which may be a mystical ethics, and Ray’s continued allegiance to the CIA betrays this binding ethics. Ray is sensitive to judgment. He busies himself with defending his motives, and the background noise of his brain is half Iris is having an affair! as much as it is I am one of the good guys. Because he is so good it is inconceivable that Iris is having an affair. He indulges in circular logic and it blinds him. He is so blinded by the paradox of his good faith and hopeless paranoia, that he plays an integral part in settings events in motion that will land him in the center of a small civil war in Botswana’s northeast corner, where enemies will abduct him, tie him to a chair and beat him.
I wrote what others have generously described as an “emo” film piece for A Bright Wall in a Dark Room. If you do not feel like reading it—my sense is that many will not want to read it—but you still want to talk about it with the twenty-plus people who have read it (including my brother—he liked it!), here is a tidy summa:
Liberal arts major is growing older and doesn’t feel sexy
Watches Black Narcissus while sick with flu
Describes nuns, their habits
Calls Roland Barthes a “dumb prick”
Describes panting during Avatar and does not defend this statement
Enumerates involvement with Methodist church youth group
Contributes to the argument that careerism has diminished the historical avant-garde
Mentions exercise bulimia
Offers a sensible reason why high school wrestlers cry so much
Discusses formal characteristics, almost, of film under discussion
Ruminates on the relationship between electronic music and students in graduate school
Defends claim of asceticism by invoking fitness culture
Folds above into a nominal acceptance of failure
And here are some sample talking points:
"This is written in vernacular Mating. ‘Why not?’ is the last sentence of the novel.”
"Probably since reading Susie Linfield’s take on photographs of political atrocities, he’s come against Barthes. But they should like one another. I mean, they’re both gay."
"The guy who wrote ‘Organica’ was described in theTron: Legacy essay. Thomas is a hovering presence in Evan’s criticism.”
"Most of the religious vocabulary was supplied by Amy Hungerford’s Postmodern Belief, a book Evan read in December. He read that book and made a list of the religious vocabulary he did not understand, words like encyclical. He wanted to pad ‘Why Not?’ with the texture of these words.”
“Moby-Dick is a hovering presence in Evan’s criticism, regards his crush on Caleb Crain.”
“‘The manufacture of meaning using any dialectically-fronted aperçus is worthless, especially if you care about a credit rating, and if you are attempting to consolidate said continent of student loan debt you must care about your credit rating.’ Hey, that’s true!”
The Longest, Most Self-Serving Duck Beating to Date, for Which, Regrettably, the Administrator of Duck Beater Is Contractually Obliged to Publish, Spoilers Intact
I am reading Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain to understand a long torture sequence in Norman Rush’s novel Mortals.
I thought I was reading The Body in Pain because of being in some kind of pain that was keeping me from writing fiction—namely, my relationship to my employers, which was hostile and toxic, and required enormous reserves of energy to sustain its patina of sanity. I thought, If I can understand this I might find a way to write around it. I wanted to read the most extreme case to deflate my own. I was desperate for a check. One half of Scarry’s celebrated thesis elaborates on the idea that pain destroys consciousness; when we can no longer conceive of the world we lose the ability to articulate the world, and so pain destroys the material world. The other half of Scarry’s study, which I’ve not got to yet, argues the world-making problem of pain, how pain’s inexpressibility is central to its obverse, creation. I thought, Ah ha! The bulk of her research relies on transcripts of interviews with victims of torture obtained from the archives of Amnesty International. I mean no disrespect when I speak of my “pain” alongside the pain of torture victims; obviously it’s embarrassing to ally my circumstances with people kept in stress-positions for nights and days, with people gagging on feces, with people electrocuted or eviscerated. I had my last day of work while making my way through the first half of Scarry’s book. In the future I may package the vertiginous stupidity of the two-year experience into a tidy summa. I am thankful to report.
My mind has been tracking pain most of winter and now into spring. I was reading more of Scarry’s book today and I remembered that in fact, I had such a strong and confounding reaction to the slow insanity of Rush’s torture sequence last month that I had wanted someone authoritative to offer me a supplementary account; to account for the virtuosity of Rush’s writing, and also to account for the layers of humiliation, shame, anger and sadness that I was experiencing while reading the torture sequence and the 120 pages or so of drifting mayhem, various interrogations and painful revelations the torture sequence is nestled within. The reason I am reading The Body in Pain is because Mortals is painful.
I should note that Rush’s writing is not maudlin, bathetic, over-visceral, sickeningly descriptive in clinical statements about torture or pain, and I don’t think “pain” or “humiliation” is what the writing purports to elicit in readers, only in this reader was it primary. As we track Ray Finch’s consciousness, I think we are meant to experience the disintegration of his world as a product of the disintegration of his married life in conflation with the disintegration of his professional ambitions in the CIA and the political situation of Botswana; it is romantic and melancholic and serious. All this is handled with the utmost grace. Humor and verve are characteristic of Rush, and his generosity as an author funds deep characterization and deeper ideas. The main character of Mortals is a Milton scholar. For 700 pages Ray tries to understand what his love has wrought. It seems incomprehensible what his love has wrought.
Usually I write about these things because I am keeping a record, seemingly for posterity, of what I am reading and how this is shaping my worldview and skill-set as a human being and artist. But this is more along the lines of understanding a very specific relationship in my life and why I behaved in it the way I did. I don’t want to locate my deeper attachment to this text as purely narcissistic or gratifying in its particular way of personal revelation, namely because I do not find solace in this reading or much in the way of comprehending myself, nor has it moved me towards a redeeming act (though I may act; writing this may be acting). I have been opened up as on an operating table; it is messy, and under this surgeon’s light you can see the great thrust of all my stupid parts attempting to sustain some external nicety. (Because I am not a surgeon, even looking at the stupid parts means I often don’t know what I’m looking at or how to look.) I will express how The Body in Pain informs my reading of Mortals in the third installment of this long and self-serving book review-cum-auto-analysis.
A few days ago, BWDR posted my review of Sucker Punch (which was not favourable). Fellow BWDR scribe Evan Bryson took issue with a few of my points and made his views known in the comment section. I, in turn, took issue with the issues he took, and posted a reply (hopefully) furthering the debate. I don’t yet know if Evan will respond, but it’s all in good natured fun, so here’s hoping!
This is an issue in which I have a great deal of interest, so if you want to observe or better yet, take part in the debate, click on over and have a look-see!
What Andrew Root doesn’t know is that my appearance in any internet thing sounds the death knell of anyone else’s interest in that thing. Like, it’s almost a secret mutant gift I have for quelling joy. But. I guess I can try.
“Writers would not so resent publishers if the relationship were only about royalties and advances; but it’s also about deep and terrible emotions, to do with acceptability and rejection and the awful impossibility of ever getting it right. Most writers know the horror of the impending deadline, the jointed mechanical hand reaching out to snatch away one’s poor tender little creature, submitting it to the flaying eye of critical judgment, the swirling knives of the marketplace, the blunted machete of the consensus view. ‘It’s bad, very bad to deal with the biz, but it has to be done,’ as Your Name Here has it; and ‘it has to be done’ because, until very recently, tradition and expediency have deemed the work not in the world until the jointed hand has done its abominable work. Publication is unavoidably painful, and not just because the ‘Biz’ may be cloth-eared and exploitative and dumb. By self-publishing, is DeWitt trying to avoid that excruciation? And what does that avoidance do to the work?”—Jenny Turner reviewingYour Name Here. Noemi Press is publishing the work in bookform this October.
Phone pic sent to me from Todd, brother now living with girlfriend on Key Largo:
Accompanying text exchange:
Todd: narrator todd. Ha people are dropping like flys around here so i have to narrate
Evan: Oh my god. Like, sick?
Todd: Yes and lots of people have quit the job around here so im mate and narrator now not fun
Evan: Haaaaa!!! Wowza. You look like a space agent; also, so relaxes. Maybe your getting too much sun?
Todd: Prob little to much sun ive been applying lots of sun screen though
Later in the evening I realized Todd is occupying the philosophically intrepid position of Ishmael on the Pequod! MATE AND NARRATOR! But Todd’s not whaling. He lords over the tour boat’s limited snack bar and explains to seasick passengers the ecological clusterfuck that is the flora and fauna of the keys. He could probably say it better. Sometimes he makes appearances in the comments sections to clarify things.
I don’t like to pick favorite brothers, but Todd is definitely in the top three.
Excerpted from "The Five Percent Paradox: excerpts from an interview with Gary Indiana"
Don’t kid yourself, journals like McSweeney’s and n+1 are just mafias jockeying for turf, full of replacement envy of the really big showboats in the culture and their best and brightest would be laughed out of town in any European capital and most anywhere else—except the United States. I don’t mean those mafias are unintelligent; they’ve been trained at the best schools, they know how to do an impressive tittup on their teeny public stages. Unfortunately our best schools generally produce a lot of arrogant thugs with no authentic experience of living in any world that doesn’t support their narcissism; they live in abstraction. In the rare instances where they venture out of the abstraction they revert to the same emotionalism and sentimentality that you see in the culture at large.
David Kline conducted said tidbit January 1-2, 2010, New York City. Indiana’s words are separated some seven pages away from (founding co-editor of n+1) Keith Gessen’s words, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, an organ of Dalkey Archive Press. The Failure Issue, guest edited by Joshua Cohen, is an increasingly devastating account of America’s print tradition, with poisonous portraits of the publishing industry, neutron-bomb paranoia of internet literacy/electronic media, and some ballyhoo about Bernhard and Markson, again. The reading, despite the bitchiness of the enterprise (Sorrentino’s opening document, “Selected Bitchery from the Gilbert Sorrentino/Dalkey Archive Correspondence 1,” is pitch-perfect), and the seemingly unending sadness soon to engulf this Peak Oil world unless solar democracies materialize, well, still, it’s all nourishing. Stultifying. Masturbatory. Enervating. Ecstatic. Thus Helen DeWitt, thus Seymour Krim! God damn it!
Indiana’s tetchy remarks about emotionalism and abstraction are ironically framed by Gessen’s preceding summation. Tidy, cool, with little in the way of name dropping (but clearly he describes A. S. Hamrah and Benjamin Kunkle), Gessen locates Markson’s failure to capture national adulation inside the tradition of other unsung artist-heroes in their times, like Baudelaire, like Melville. Indiana is overly fond of producing maximal critique by evoking top-down culture industry conspiracies—they float around; they’re real: the IMF is fucking up things, Obama has no force at the Hague, Kluge owns a TV channel. But these are abstractions, too, especially for a man whose meteoric ascent to the hearts and minds of Americans was cockblocked by a hideous agent/editor menage over a book about Andy Warhol. Gessen concretely evokes Pierre Bourdieu—the sociologist entered n+1’s bailiwick about three issues ago. (Greif and Saval are particularly enamored of Bourdieu. Now I am, too. Everyone is. Boltanski’s excerpt in Dual Power is off the chain, really enhancing Bourdieu’s bulge.) Obviously Gary Indiana is a goddess, I’m not denying the man his bidet—but has he even read The Believer?
My head is also exploding thinking about Gessen’s preface to Kirill Medvedev’s “The Situation of the Writer in Russia: The Individual Project and ‘New Emotionalism,’” translated by Mark Krotov and published in a Dissent from three years ago.
But all of this pales in comparison to the Failure Issue’s most sublime presence: that of the Wright Bros. crumpled Model A Flyer, on the review’s front cover. I’m uncertain that this pungently argues towards failure qua failure, as this failed flight represents several fecund narrative strains in the tall tales of the Wright flying escapades during the years of 1908 and 1909, when they were demonstrating the prowess of their machines before the French and American military industrial complex. (Effectively when they were selling their souls in a way only Paul Virillio has had the poise to remark upon.) The death of Army lieutenant Thomas Selfridge has always struck me as somewhat poetical, not least because it is the first death of motor flight, moreso because Selfridge was an insufferable boor as concerns the Wright patents on their machines. He balked several times during the course of the brothers’ major research and manufacturing exchanges, claiming certain of their discoveries and advances as rightfully his own. He was an asswipe. Taking a flight with dandy Orville must have reeked deliciously of reality, of defeat. Before he died, one wonders if Orville didn’t keel the plane just-so. Kiss the air. In my dreams I have seen Selfridge blacking out from terror as the gray sky evacuates to meet the rotting gray earth below, rising until he meets it with his teeth.