William Gass’s The Tunnel is really too big to write about coherently in small chunks. It crosses genres (including drawing, history, memoir, diary, quotation, encomium, rant, fiction, doggerel, epic invocation, and others) and is, by design, a confusion of ideas and modes of thought and means of expression. It’s a maddening, ugly book but is at times also a true and lovely book so far. I’m about halfway through it. If you’re interested in longer and better analysis of the book, follow along over at Conversational Reading, where for the first week’s reading, the topic of truth comes up.
The topic I thought I’d write a few words about today is confession. The Tunnel is essentially a diary, and diaries are essentially confessions. This is not to say that they’re true confessions, though. I was recently reading back through some old journal entries from my college days, and although there was plenty of earnest yearning for meaning about the world and about what I was reading and writing, there was also plenty of posturing. After all, maybe I would grow up to be a famous writer one day, my scribbled journals carefully photographed for archival and then typeset and lent out so that the world might know whence my later genius sprang.
Even in more recent things I’ve written for myself, I think I pose more than I really ought, though not, I think, in quite so naively calculating a way, and I hope not with quite as much silliness and laughable gravitas. Still, now as when I was younger, there is a question of whom exactly I’m writing for and what I want from the effort. I write primarily about my reading and writing, for example. I don’t, as folks used to, catalogue my food intake and bowel movements. I don’t generally write about my family. So if I constrain my writing generally to the literary topics, even if I’m not consciously writing for an imagined future audience, there’s room for questions about why I stick to letters and what that says about what’s important to me and whether I don’t still quietly hope for a scholarly audience for these supposed private ramblings one day after all and why I see fit to scribble my thoughts in the first place.
Well, writing of course helps us work through our thoughts, and in my case — I’m dreadfully forgetful — it helps me have a way of getting back to elusive thoughts later. But writing, and especially diaristic writing, is also a sort of confession. Gass’s Kohler is surely a learned man, but he doesn’t stick to the literary in his diary. We learn about his affairs with younger women, about his being fondled by a young boy, about his pretty thorough dislike of his wife, and other things. So for Kohler, the diary’s undoubtedly a space for confession as much as for literary endeavor. He even addresses the topic head on in a couple of places. Take this bit from page 21:
Gide meant: could he confess upon the page; put into the writer’s pretty paper world some creatures whose troubled breathing would betray the fact they were not fictions; record a few feelings in an ink our blood would flow through like a vein? Sincerity — this Christmas wrap around a rascal — could he dispense with even its concealments and reach reality, expose himself to his own eye?
And this, also on 21:
[I]t is often easier to confess to a capital crime, so long as its sentences sing and its features rhyme, than to admit you like to fondle-off into a bottle (to cite an honest-sounding instance)… words nailed like shingles to the page, the earnest straightforward bite of the spike, is the one which suits sincerity; sincerity cannot gamble, cannot play, cannot hedge its bets, forswear a wager, bear to lose; sincerity is tidy; it shits in a paper sack to pretend it’s innocent of food…
In that one, he even suggests that the confession he writes about isn’t in fact a real one but sounds like the sort of thing one might confess, undermining our ability to believe that even the things he writes that seem honest in fact are.
Later, on 106, he confesses, “I would hate to have my wife see this.” In fact, he hides his diary among the pages of his long manuscript on Nazi Germany, which has a conveniently confessional title Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. And he worries that his soft touch on the topic will be perceived as a sort of confession of Nazi sympathy (which, well, is he maybe a little sympathetic?).
He blends his concerns about both the personal and the historical writerly impulse on page 106:
When I write about the Third Reich, or now, when I write about myself, is it truly the truth I want? What do I want? to find out who I am? What is the good of that? I want to feel a little less uneasy.
He peppers his diary with limericks (mostly written by colleague Culp, I believe), overwhelmingly starting with variations on the formula “I once went to bed with a nun.” Well, nuns are Catholic, and Catholics dig confession. Moreover, the content of these limericks itself is framed as a sort of confession.
So, I’ve spent a lot of words here to say that this diaristic work seems to be full, as diaries are, of confession. Well duh. What’s more interesting within the context of the book is the nature of truth in confession. That is, is confession a sort of Heisenbergian act in that the fact of knowing that you’re saying or writing something that others will (or at least may) consume alters how you say it, so that confession is by its nature meta-confession, written here in Kohler’s singing sentences and altered subtly in the process? Which is to ask whether you can take confession at face value, ever. Can a trip to the confessional in which you admit “impure thoughts” but fail to mention an inclination toward pederasty really count for anything? Or, to go the other way, can over-confessing so that you make yourself out to be worse than you are as a sort of absolution through self-immolation really suffice? Is true confession really even possible? Or in confession, are we — as a commenter at Conversational Reading suggests more broadly and as becomes more and more important through this book about how we create and receive history — just fooling ourselves?
As noted the other day, there’s currently a group reread of Infinite Jest in progress on the wallace-l mailing list. We’re only on the second week of it, so there’s time to catch up if you’re interested. I introduced pages 49 – 87 last night and have pasted in my introduction below. If you find it at all enticing, be sure to tune in via the list, as the discussion that follows these intro posts tends to be really good. If you fall asleep or die before you manage to get to the end of this thing, I’ll hardly blame you. Since this is a reread, the spoiler rule’s out the window.
Main things that happen and concepts that appear in this section:
- Hal gets covertly high.
- Oh look, an underworld in the form of tunnels (even including a sort of limbo for the poor protectors).
- Gately dons a toothbrush.
- A weird detached list on page 60 that I didn’t give any attention to below but that maybe merits some attention for its weird detachedness.
- Note 21, the first of a series of inter-referential notes.
- A face in the floor (and other nightmares).
- Note 24, the filmography (brace yourself).
- Orin in cardinal gear, reluctantly.
- Pemulis teaches his little buddies about shrooms.
- Kate Gompert, reluctant to admit to a pot addiction, wants ECT.
- The medical attaché’s wife comes home to find him enthralled. Others follow.
- Schtitt and Mario go for ice cream.
- Tiny Ewell goes to detox.
I actually write about very little of that stuff below.
A theme that runs through this section and in fact through the whole book so far is failure to communicate. It begins of course with Hal at the university and moves back through time to Hal being interviewed by a father who doesn’t believe he speaks. But we also see it in things like Erdeddy’s inability to choose between answering the phone and the door, his habit of cutting off communication with anyone he’s dealt with before to get pot. We see it also in Gompert, who for example displays sometimes a flat affect and sometimes forced facial expressions (recall Hal at the beginning) while speaking with a singsongy voice that leaves the doctor (also trying hard to communicate using both voice and mannerism) confused.
I think there’s also some interesting stuff pertaining to communication going on in the end notes. For one thing, they are themselves a sort of barrier to direct communication, and even today I think sometimes about skimming the ones that just give drug info or don’t seem to relate in terribly important ways to the main story. In the big note 24, the matter of communication gets really out of hand, though. The editors of the book that the note quotes haven’t seen some of the films they describe, for example (some of which weren’t ever filmed), and yet they write about them, communicating in some cases non-information, which if you think about it is very strange indeed.
Consider the film Annular Amplified Light: Some Reflections. Well, its title is a silly pun, first off, but that’s superficial. It’s got sound and is sign-interpreted for the deaf, but although it purports to be a “nontechnical explanation of the applications of cooled-photon lasers in DT-cycle lithiumized annular fusion,” it’s hard to imagine that one could do such a topic any justice in a nontechnical film, much less in one whose almost certainly specialized language it’s hard to imagine could be signed efficiently.
And: Union of Nurses in Berkeley, silent and closed-captioned interviews with hearing-impaired RNs and LPNs. I suppose it’s silent either to elicit a sort of empathy with the interviewees or maybe to avoid what could be a comical treatment of audible interviews of people whose pronunciation and enunciation may have suffered thanks to their hearing impairment. It’s a strange audiovisual blend, at any rate, that seems to be fooling around with ways in which people communicate.
And: Cage II in which a blind convict and a deaf-mute convict placed in solitary confinement attempt to figure out ways of communicating with one another. This is a bad joke, of course (and calls to mind the old Wilder/Prior movie), but it also demonstrates a concern with how people manage to connect. It’s a wonder this one wasn’t at least captioned if not signed.
And: Death in Scarsdale, in color, silent, with closed-caption subtitles, which almost becomes hard to visualize once you’ve got all this business on the brain. In this one, an endocrinologist begins to sweat excessively while treating a boy who sweats excessively, which again, with this stuff on the brain and maybe under no other circumstance, makes me think of things like how you never stutter until you find yourself speaking with somebody who stutters, when you suddenly start channeling Porky Pig out of maybe sympathy or self-consciousness.
A couple of the other films are sign-interpreted as well, and in general, JOI’s films demonstrate an awareness of the interplay between sight and sound, different ways of perceiving things, of being perceived, and of being perceived while perceiving things such that you morph from subject into object and back into subject again.
All of this of course is mediated through films and (usually) soundtracks themselves devised by makers whose communication with you is from the past and not at all personal, which can be a little creepy if you think about it too much. And all of that is further mediated through a book of fiction and yet further through end notes that put it at an even greater distance.
Early in the book we’re exposed to Hal’s precocity with respect to grammar and usage, given to him by good old Avril. She and Steven Pinker make appearances in the filmography in a silent, closed-captioned film documenting a grammar convention. This strikes me as kind of funny and really quite interesting, since closed-captioning would have the effect of memorializing in print the words spoken by the grammarians. Grammar being generally a little looser for even the strident among us when speaking aloud than when writing formally, the idea of capturing in print any non grammatical speech by these super-grammarians would be kind of tantalizing, and of course I can imagine that making the viewers of the film read the language while connecting it to the images moving onscreen could have a weird effect (in the way that watching subtitled films if you’re not accustomed to doing so can make a movie a lot of work and hard to trust that you’ve really grokked). I guess it’s worth noting that though Hal speaks, his father hears no words coming from him, and this film seems to capture the effect.
Grammar of course is just a map of our language. Descriptivists will say that if it’s spoken naturally by a native speaker, it’s grammatical and ought to be recorded, while prescriptivists tend more to demand adherence to an existing set of written rules. (This is a gross oversimplification, I know.) In either case, we can see grammar as a sort of map of language, and the main thing at issue is whether the map ought to change along with the terrain or not. “Map” and “terrain” turn out to be loaded terms when talking about IJ, of course, and they make appearances in the filmography, if obliquely. In the most oblique treatment, we see Every Inch of Disney Leith, in which the eponymous man has his innards mapped. Comically, the title uses the Imperial measure, while in the film he listens to a forum on metricization in North America, which is another way of communicating the same things using different terms. Later, in No Troy, we learn about the erasure of Troy, NY from both terrain and map (by, explicitly, cartographers). Sort of humorously, archivists don’t list the title by the name given here but variously use the names The Violet City and The Violet Ex-City.
So then to me the threads of language as communication, language as a construct (i.e., grammar), and map/terrain — which roughly corresponds to the relationship between language as construct and language as communication — begin to become intertwined very early in the novel in the notes about the filmography, which is itself, of course, nothing if not a map whose aim is to relate the technical features of JOI’s films with what they communicated across his career.
Every time I read the filmography, I spot some new fun detail I had either overlooked or forgotten or just not given enough thought to on previous reads.This time it was the appearance of C.N. (presumably Charles Nelson) Reilly as a narrator in a couple of the early, sign-interpreted documentaries. The idea of CNR as a narrator on a documentary (even a whimsically titled, nontechnical one) is kind of a laugh, and then the idea of someone trying to interpret his self-interrupting, story-nesting style for the deaf is even more comical. Maybe he’d stick a bit closer to the cards in a documentary, though. But it’s also worth noting that CNR was basically ubiquitous in the 70s and 80s, crossing stage, film, and TV shows in the form of game shows, talk show appearances, and television series, so that it’s hardly inconceivable that an aging CNR would dip his wick into the documentary wax late in life (and yet no less the funnier). This inter-”text”-uality all seems kind of relevant to the sort of things Wallace was considering in “E Unibus Pluram,” which of course informs a lot of IJ.
I also love how you can see little sub-plots within the filmography if you pay attention to the names. For example, P.A. Heaven becomes Paul Anthony and then goes back to using initials, and one wonders why. And Soma Richardson-Levy apparently marries an O-Byrne and later a Chawaf (also credited within the filmography) and just keeps collecting hyphenated suffixes to her name. Then of course there’s the interplay of the films with things happening in JOI’s life and at ETA.
Now moving away from the end notes for a bit, I’ll note that I like how Wallace is already setting us up for things to come with little one-off references to things like the O.S.U.O.S, cartridges (note 18, page 58), DMZ/M.P. (note 8), DuPlessis, experialism, and annular hyperfloration cycles. These things are easy to read past but all become pretty important later, so it’s neat on a reread to see where he’s left these little breadcrumbs.
It’d be just short of criminal not to at least mention the face in the floor dream even if I don’t say much about it. I love that whole passage, and the way he just slips the face in there is horrifying and I suppose embodies the thing we’ve read before about how the thing that’s great about Lynch’s surrealistic horror is that almost everything has to seem normal for the really bad thing to be really bad.
I haven’t even touched on Schtitt and Mario or on similarities between some of the things we learn about Erdeddy and Gompert, but I’m really just out of wind, and so, I imagine, are you. I feel like the filmography tends to get short shrift, so maybe I’ve corrected that some (however clumsily and single-purposedly) and others can fill in the other huge gaps I’ve left.
A couple of years ago, I got a copy of William Gass’s The Tunnel and burned through the first 100 or 200 pages of it before some shiny object distracted me and I put the book down. I had considered starting up a group read here sometime to force myself to pick the book back up and finish it. In fact, it was included among options for future reads on a poll I posted after the Gravity’s Rainbow read. Well, Scott Esposito over at Conversational Reading has scheduled a group read on the coattails of Gaddis’s J R. If you’re game, you can see the (I think) ambitious schedule here. Although I doubt I’ll have it in me to write much about the book, I hope at least to read along.
In progress on the wallace-l mailing list is a reread of Infinite Jest. This reread is part of why I won’t be putting as much time as I’d like into The Tunnel. I haven’t reread IJ since Infinite Summer a few years ago, and I had been wanting to. When D.T. Max’s biography came out, it made me really want to dig back into Wallace’s book again. And then the wallace-l reread was proposed and I was hooked. You can get a peek at the schedule here. I’ll be introducing the second chunk on the mailing list in a couple of days. It won’t be a group read proper here at IZ, so if you want to play, I encourage you to subscribe to the mailing list, where you’ll get a broader and smarter range of opinions and interpretations than mine anyway.
I hate that these reads are happening at the same time, as the result’ll be that I’ll do kind of half-assed reads of both. I’ve been through IJ enough times that I can afford to half-ass it, but The Tunnel‘s a different story. Still, I can’t resist trying to keep up with IJ too.
An entry posted here in this blog in error. Pardon me. Perhaps someone should disable me here so that it does happen again.
Over the weekend, I read D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace entitled Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. If you’re reading this, it seems vanishingly unlikely that you haven’t first heard about the biography elsewhere. So in a way, I feel silly even mentioning it because my doing so seems a little bit like cheering for a game that’s already over. All the people whose opinions people want to hear have already spoken up. But it’s a book about stuff that’s important to me, so I also feel weird just not saying anything at all.
I had written a long rambly thing connecting my affinity with Wallace’s work when I first encountered it in the form of Infinite Jest 15 years ago to an affinity that Holden Caulfield expresses for Thomas Hardy and Ring Lardner. It was self-indulgent and stupid and all a round-about way of saying that Wallace’s work has been a major influence on the way I read, write, think (and think about thinking), and live.
Unsatisfied with the long preface I had written for what would be a very brief review of Max’s book, I put it aside and thought about abandoning it. But then a few comments about the book landed on the wallace-l email list, one of which curtly described the book as “thin.” A follow-up comment expanded by saying that the biography gave us little that we didn’t already pretty much know from Wallace’s own words in his books and interviews.
Well, this is partially true. But I think it also misses the point. You can’t exactly pry secrets from a ghost, and there’s something grave-robberish about digging for too much grit from family and friends for whom Wallace’s death is still no doubt a bit of a wound. Although Max does give a fair amount of background about Wallace’s early struggles both personal and authorial, it tapers off substantially as we move to Wallace’s years post-Infinite Jest. If you’re hoping to read Wallace’s suicide note or to learn lots of new information about the circumstances of his last decline and death, you’ll be disappointed; there’s very little substantially new information here about his last days beyond what came out in a couple of long articles shortly after Wallace’s death.
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a book more about drawing broad lines between things that happened in Wallace’s life and things that appeared in his writing than about divulging every nasty or saintly thing he ever did. Although the author of the “thin” comment seems to have wanted the latter, I’m grateful that Max gave us the former. I feel like it helped me to better understand Wallace’s Gately-ish transformation as both he and his work matured, which made me feel good about where Wallace had been headed, if also really sad about where he wound up.
I think a book divulging many more details of Wallace’s life would have been simply sordid. And a book doing much more in the way of line-drawing and analysis would have been tiresome and speculative. What Max gives us instead is a book that provides a comfortable balance of detail and analysis. It’s a sympathetic and gentle book in the way that David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself was, and like Lipsky’s book, I think Max’s is a sort of gift.
I. The Problem
I lost my copy of J R. It is in my house somewhere, but I cannot find it. Here is what happened.
After my last post, my wife and I went on vacation to the panhandle of Florida. We drive from Virginia, so it takes us a few days to wind our way through the South. We are off of the interstate much of the way, sailing along the back roads of rural Alabama and Florida. The dried up farms and abandoned curio shops and collapsing porches make you feel like you are in Night of the Hunter. Though I brought J R to read at the beach, the first several weeks of dedicated reading and writing made me want to take a break. One of my favorite bookstores is in a neighboring town from where we vacation, so I decided to buy a few new things to read for the week and enjoy myself. I read Satantango by László Krasznahorkai and began Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, with which I very quickly fell in love.
My first mistake was taking a break from J R. Though I’ve read J R before, it is not the kind of novel that allows for easy returns after time away. It is difficult to rejoin the choir mid-song. My second mistake was taking up a novel like Life and Fate, which is over 800 pages long and contains so many characters that it requires a seven page appendix of names to keep them straight. Add to this the fact that the novel is really good and completely engrossing, and it was almost inevitable that I would fall victim to my own bad decisions.
The Wednesday after my wife and I returned home from the beach, we closed on the purchase of our first house. In the days leading up to the closing, we were frantically packing and dealing with the last minute problems of home ownership. It was a thrilling, though exhausting, time, but it led to a third problem. When I returned home from work, I didn’t have time to read in the evenings like I usually do. I am not a reader that can read small snatches here and there. I require a few hours at a time to sink into a novel and splash about. It wasn’t possible for me to spend the time I usually take each night to read Life and Fate and J R. I didn’t read all week, falling even farther behind in my J R duties and at the same time, completely losing the thread of Life and Fate. So at this point I have two novels–one of which I love and have a duty to write about and another that I am really enjoying–that I have completely lost the thread of, hanging from my neck like stones.
So then we moved and spent hours carrying boxes and filling boxes and stacking and unstacking boxes and somewhere along the way I lost J R. I have no idea where it is. I’ve looked through every box I own and it is nowhere to be found. I spent over a week looking for it in the new house and when I finally confessed that is was lost, my wife was nice enough to purchase a new copy for me on her Kindle (we live in a rural area and I cannot easily buy a new physical copy).
And so after nearly a month of not reading, I tried to pick J R up again on an e-reader and learned that it is not the right book to read as your first e-book. While its undivided ribbon of text seems like it would be a perfect fit for the electronic age, it is really difficult to keep track of where I am. I don’t mean that I forget what page I am on–the machine keeps track of that for me–but that I have no sense of where I am in the book. With my physical copy, I am able to flip back and forth and find what I am looking for almost instantly because I remember where it was on a page and how far along I was. The machine has a search function, which works wonders when I want to search for a certain term, but for finding something I have a general recollection about, it doesn’t quite work. And so, not only have I lost J R, but I am not lost in J R.
I do not want to give the impression that I am leveling some dust-covered lament against technology. E-readers, like books, are tools to deliver a reading experience. They are different experiences, just as a paperback differs from a hardback, but they are only tools. For me, I think it is maybe the wrong tool for this book.
II. Worry and Shame
In the end, though, my inability to keep up with reading the novel has nothing to do with the machine and everything to do with me. J R is one of my favorite books, but I was lazy and got away from it and my mind moved on. I intend to finish it again and write more, but I fear I’ve lost the spark. I read and comprehend and enjoy, but the part of me that had something to say a month ago, has fallen silent. I am not a book blogger and though I read a great deal, I rarely discuss what I’ve read with anyone or write about what I’ve read. Perhaps I don’t have anything to say of any importance at all. Perhaps I am trying to hide that lack of something to say behind a series of comic excuses. The beach, the closing, the move, losing the book, the e-reader–none of them are really stopping me from sitting down in the evening and reading and thinking and writing. The only thing stopping me is the empty sound of wind blowing through my brain when I look at the pixels spread out before me.
And then comes the shame. Getting interrupted while reading a book and being unable to jump back in is something that happens to everyone. When it happens to me, I begin to feel guilty that I have this book that I bought and haven’t finished. I want to find something new to read, something that I have that sudden flush of curiosity and excitement about, but the unfinished book sits there on a nightstand, half-alive, like a reproach to my profligate ways. So then I spend hours and days that I could be reading—could have been reading—my unfinished book, looking for a new book to read and I am unable to even do that. Each book that I could pick up just reminds me of another book I haven’t read that I should read first. Suddenly there are too many options and I am stymied and spend hours sitting in the semi-dark, calling out for my mother. It really is a terrible scene. Having finished J R before, I don’t have the same welling of shame for not finishing it, but I have agreed to blog about it and I’m not doing that now, and that failure is public. Again, to the semi-dark to call out for my mother.
III. The Art of Failure
My failures as a reader remind me of the failures of the artist in J R. Unfinished novels sitting in a squalid apartments. Composers composing for money. Painters selling blood for paint. J R is the only artist who is thriving. Normally, we don’t think of financial transactions and the accumulation of capital as an art form, but the way that J R practices his trade, they become an art.
Think of the tropes of the Romantic Artist: living in poverty, pursuing an absurd and unattainable goal with unstoppable passion, creating an masterpiece through genius and willpower. These indicators of Artistness all apply to J R. He is poor. He wears the same worn clothes all the time. His mother works long hours and is never home. His father is completely absent. Bast is the son of a famous composer, but has so far failed to succeed. Gibbs has worked on his novel for years and been unable to finish. Yet, J R, a 12 year old child, through nothing more than his inability to understand that what he wants is impossible, creates an empire out of junk and trash and that which the adult world has cast-off. He follows his muse despite being told by his friend and by his teachers that his object is unattainable or not worth his time. Like an artist, the world that J R creates revolves around him even though he is invisible to most of those involved. Gaddis created J R, but his characters don’t see him. It is the same with J R and his empire.
Why does J R succeed where Bast, Gibbs, and I fail? We failures waste our time thinking about how we would like to write a great novel or compose a great symphony or read all of the great novels in the world, time that is wasted, time that should be spent writing and composing and reading. J R is not bound by such worry. He does not contemplate his failure. He only moves forward, unafraid of seeming foolish or seeing what he wants left in ruins. Or worse, incomplete.
So, we’re well into the book now, significantly past the halfway point, and chances are that if you’ve put in the time and effort to get this far, you won’t be turning back. I am curious whether anybody else is finding the length of the book, and especially of some passages, to be taxing.
I find that the portions of the book that take place in boardrooms and offices or on the phone between people situated in these locales get old pretty quickly. Gaddis really beats the horse to death and back again. I don’t know how many pages of this stuff we get, but it takes only a couple of good long scenes of this sort of satire for me to get the point. Yet he keeps hitting us with it at great length, and I can tell you (having finished the book a bit early the other night) that it doesn’t really let up. So why does he do it?
Well, maybe it’s a matter of pacing, for the other thing he really rams down our throats is the anger and bitterness that Gibbs and Eigen express as they try to make it through their grubby workaday lives while abandoning (or being abandoned by) the writerly pursuits they think are worthwhile. If he didn’t give us a comic (if infuriating) break from these sections, we’d all pull a Schramm.
And then of course there’s poor Bast, stuck between the two godawful types of scene.
It’s at about this point in the book that I tend to become almost overcome with despair, for though it is the kind of book that leaves you clutching your belly with laughter, it’s also a ghastly work of hopelessness. Take for example this forecast from page 359:
See he worked here [says Norman Angel] for a while just before I came, just real brilliant but, I don’t know but just to give you an idea, one time when we’d all three had lunch and he’d taken a few drinks a bum came up to us on the street with his hand out and the wind blowing his torn coat, a whole wreck of a man that couldn’t hardly see us anyway, but Jack all of a sudden reached out and gave him a dollar and that really, well you know a long time after that I said something about it once to Stella and all she said was she said he did it because what he saw coming toward him was himself.
What an outlook for poor Gibbs, and it doesn’t seem at all off the mark.
This is a book about art and artists. If what Gibbs and Eigen and Schramm and Schepperman and Bast have experienced is what artists have to look forward to, well, it’s little wonder that Gaddis wrote such a bitter second novel. The reception of his first novel was very much, after all, like the reception of Eigen’s first important but little-read novel.
Jonathan Franzen got not much farther than our current milestone in J R before he famously gave up on the book, a fact he mentions in an essay titled “Mr. Difficult.” It’s worth a read, particularly if you’re wondering whether you can see your way to the end of this book (and even if — maybe especially if — like me, you wouldn’t spit on Franzen if he were on fire unless you spat high-octane gasoline). The problem with Franzen’s critique is that he didn’t finish the damn book. That’s not to say that the book turns around to end with a Puckish intervention and weddings all around. But writing a long essay criticizing a book you haven’t finished is irresponsible if nothing else.
Which brings me back to the curiosity I mentioned up there above the fold. How’re you holding up? Do you think you can manage 265 more pages of bitterness and anger? Does the humor make it all worthwhile? Or does Gaddis go on too long and too repetitively? Is the book striking you so far as more a comic novel or a tragic one, or something else altogether? If you’re reading it as a comic novel, is the comedy itself a worthwhile endeavor? And what exactly does it mean to be worthwhile?
A quick program interruption here to announce Infinite Boston, in which a fan of David Foster Wallace’s work shares photos of some of the real life places in Boston that we find referenced (some modified, some not) in Infinite Jest. So far, he’s covered the Enfield Marine Public Health Center, Ennet House, Comm. Ave., the Green Line’s T-Stop, Enfield Tennis Academy, and several other spots. If you played along with Infinite Summer a few years ago or are just a fan of Wallace’s work, it’s definitely worth a look.
As early as page 45, we see a reference to the presocratic philosopher Empedocles, who was responsible for things like the notion of the four elements and the idea that sight was the product of beams of light streaming out of our eyes. He also happened to basically go crazy and fling himself to his death in a volcano if the legends are to be believed. And he wrote about combatting forces Love and Strife, which basically battled to bring about mixtures of the four elements to form things in the world, many of which were strange and short-lived, but some of which were good combinations and stuck around to become things like human beings. I’m paraphrasing from the Wikipedia article here, though I confirmed some of it by skimming bits and pieces of The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts, available here.
The first mention of Empedocles in J R falls from the mouth of Jack Gibbs, who goes on as follows (ellipses both mine and Gaddis’s):
– I think it’s a fragment from the second generation of his cosmogony, maybe even the first . . .
– When limbs and parts of bodies were wandering around everywhere separately heads without necks, arms without shoulders, unattached eyes looking for foreheads . . .
– Never read it? In the second generation these parts are joining up by chance, form creatures with countless hands, faces looking in different directions . . .
This is in the midst of the chaos surrounding Bast’s televised lesson on Mozart, and that word chaos is really the crux of J R, both its content and its form. In fact, even earlier in the book, way back on pages 20 and 21, we have this from Gibbs:
Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from outside. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .
He goes on to try to define for his class the term “entropy,” which of course has a meaning specific to thermodynamics but also pertains to measurements of both disorder and loss of information in a transmitted message, both of which escalate to the point of hysteria in the book. (Curiously, the more fragmented information Gaddis flings at you in the mounting maelstrom, the more certain bits of the plot begin to come together in spite of it all.)
I’m reading ahead a bit and am going to go ahead and quote ahead a little, but not in a spoily way. On page 403, Gibbs again:
. . . read Wiener on communication, more complicated the message more God damned chance for errors, take a few years of marriage such a God damned complex of messages going both ways can’t get a God damned thing across, God damned much entropy going on . . .
And on 406:
. . . looks like the God damned dawn of the world in here necks without heads arms seeking shoulders, only God damned person live here’s Empedocles . . .
And again on 407:
– Point God damned point only audience sit through it’s Empedocles, shambling creatures with countless hands eyes wandering around looking for a God damned forehead parts joining up all wrong make a hell of a musical just telling Bast . . .
So, love and strife, chaos molded into a sort of order from a stew of disparate parts, and that cacophony of voices that we as readers begin over time to assemble into something meaningful. It’s neat how all of this comes together, and it makes me think that while I had previously figured a reading of the myths that informed Wagner’s Ring might be central to an even cursory understanding of J R, maybe it’s more important to go back to some of the old Greek philosophers.
–Like a novelist? Only problem is a novelist has to understand women.
–Apparently not, from all the…turned full to share her smile he found it gone, only her eyes wide through the lenses. –What’s the matter.
–I wish you hadn’t said that, she said looking away as quickly.
Does William Gaddis understand women? Are the women in J R living characters drawn with the same depth as the male characters or are they caricatures and plot devices for the men in the novel? The first difficulty we face in answering this question is the fact that the novel is completely devoid of psychological interior. Gaddis reveals nothing of the characters’ interior lives; readers must discern each person’s character exclusively through their words, and the few actions that other characters may remark on. In a comic novel such as J R, without an indication of what is happening inside a character’s mind, it can be difficult to create a fully rounded, complex character. Yet, because Gaddis is a capable artist, many of the characters in the novel transcend the sea of talk and become fully fleshed and alive. We believe Gibbs’s rage and Bast’s failure and J R’s naïve ambition. They are not just targets for Gaddis’s spleen, but are human and demand our sympathy, or at least our understanding. Is Gaddis able to bring any of the women in the novel to life in the same way?
As I mentioned previously, Amy Joubert exists at the center of J R’s many noisy worlds. She teaches at J R’s school and is the daughter of the head of Typhon International. She is acquainted, by my reckoning, with most of the novel’s major characters. When she isn’t present, other characters often refer to her, and to her breasts in particular. Much like J R himself, Amy Joubert is a character around which many of the novel’s characters revolve.
In the scene where she wakes to find her husband and child gone, Amy Joubert becomes real. Prior to this moment, she has simply served as a component of Gaddis’s savage commentary on the ruination wrought by money. With her championing of “buying a share in America” and pushing the students toward an understanding of America a nothing more than a collection of corporations, Amy Joubert has been heretofore a two-dimensional parody; someone to be made fun of. And yet, in a span of two pages, in one of the novel’s few extended scenes of narration, Gaddis suddenly brings her to life. We see her broken marriage. We learn about her worry that her husband will take their son to Geneva. The feeling of sadness and loneliness when she wakes and they are gone is overwhelming. When she reads the goodbye note from her son three times in the taxi, we can feel her heartbreak and loss.
Previously, her size of Mrs. Joubert’s breasts has been something of a running joke. Mrs. DiCephalis accuses her husband of sabotaging her tele-class so that the men could stare at Amy Joubert, calling her “Miss Moneybags” with the “bazooms.” Principal Whiteback, among others, makes oblique references to her body. Yet, when she rides the elevator up to the Typhon International offices that morning, it is through the nameless young man with the open shirt that all of these people staring at her suddenly become extremely threatening.
In the short transitional moments of narration, Gaddis changes from the direct and ultra-realistic mode of the dialogue to a languid and poetic style. He deploys this style for nearly a page, the longest use of it to this point in the novel, to describe the elevator ride and this technique lends the scene a dreamy and surreal feel. A young man, with a shirt unbuttoned to the waist, gets on and stares at Mrs. Joubert’s chest for two floors, then gets off and pushes all of the buttons so the elevator will stop on every floor. She gets off and tries another elevator, only to end up on the elevator with the youth again, after he sticks his hand in and stops the doors from closing. She tries not to look at his sweaty chest, but he puts his arm by her waist and asks –You like to give head?
Gaddis initially lures us into seeing Amy Joubert through a very male point-of-view. At first, we see her in these broad, comic terms—peppy pro-corporations teacher, hot young woman that all the men want gawk at and talk about. Between the serious critiques of capitalism and art and education, the humor related to Amy Joubert seems light. But in that scene, he turns it on us. Suddenly, the woman we’ve thought of as less than a real person becomes a wounded human with unhappiness that we can understand. We become uncomfortably aware that what had prior seemed like nothing more serious than common male comic bravado about her body is something that is terribly uncomfortable for her; something she has to deal with on a daily basis in a world where she probably gets called “little lady.”
It is interesting that Gaddis has to change his technique here to make this point. This scene is not one that Amy Joubert could describe in a passage of dialogue. Though she talks to Beaton about her worries about her son, she isn’t going to tell him that she reread the boy’s letter several times in the taxi. She isn’t going to tell someone about the man in the elevator, and even if she did, it wouldn’t have the same power to unsettle as Gaddis’s own narration. By departing from the novel’s primary style for that scene, it is clear that Gaddis wants to make us feel sympathy for Amy Joubert and to share in the discomfort that she feels. It is in this moment that he makes us reconsider what we’ve seen, and perhaps chuckled at, previously.
The creeping creepiness of the obsession with women’s body parts is underscored by the novel’s repeated references to women’s body parts. On a couple of occasions, someone remarks on J R’s catalogs, which contain adult advertisements, and J R responds –What. That tit? (J R, being who he is, seems to care little for the flesh on display.) When the children are on their class trip to Manhattan and Edward Bast accidentally leads them past several adult movie houses, the students marvel at the parade of nudity around them. At first, Gaddis presents these moments in a humorous light. While everything everyone in the novel says is a critique of itself, these moments start off seeming lighter—closer to sitcom style humor than a serious criticism of misogyny and the objectification of women.
What makes this work so well, for me, is that many of the criticisms of the novel are easy for me to avoid feeling implicated in. I am not the director of a corporation. I am not on a school committee that values the budget over the students. I am not an artist allowing my work to be ruined by money. Yet, I am a man and I do laugh at these jokes. Gaddis draws me in and when he changes the perspective and suddenly shows me Amy in the elevator with the sweating, bare-chested man, I am implicated. After the terrifying elevator ride, Gaddis casts the characters’ obsession with Amy Joubert’s body in a new light. He casts that new light on me as well.
But what of the other women in the novel? Do the Bast Sisters rise above their dotty misunderstandings? Does Mrs. DiCephalis rise above her nagging and complaining? Does Stella Angel becomes something more than just Norman’s wife and Thomas’s daughter? Did Gaddis breathe the breath of life into them as well?