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The Appearance of Control

Joelle says on page 534:

Well Mr. Gately what people don’t get about being hideously or improbably deformed is that the urge to hide is offset by a gigantic sense of shame about your urge to hide… [Y]ou know that hiding yourself away out of fear of gazes is really giving in to a shame that is not required and that will keep you from the kind of life you deserve as much as the next girl… You’re supposed to be strong enough to exert some control over how much you want to hide, and you’re so desperate to feel some kind of control that you settle for the appearance of control.

The passage in which these severely elided quotes appear makes me think of a story within the story of The Broom of the System. Throughout the book, editor Rick Vigorous tells protagonist and girlfriend Lenore Beadsman stories that have come across his desk for potential publication. The first of these that we’re privy to is one Vigorous (of the firm Frequent and Vigorous) gives some context by talking about second-order vanity. This is the sort of vanity a lot of us know kind of a lot about, in which you do care at least to some degree what you look like, but it’s important to you not to seem as if you care. So maybe while you’re at the gym, you take great pains to avoid looking at the wall of mirrors at your kind of hot masculine and freshly pumped muscles lest somebody catch you at it and think you care, but when you’re at home, working, say, on a blog post about some book or another that you’re reading, and you happen after a quick trip to the bathroom to catch a flash of yourself in the mirror stuck to the wall behind your home office door, maybe you stop for a second and lift up the old shirt-tail and lean back a little or maybe give just a little twist so that the newly minted concavity of the slightest little bit of abdominal definition shows up and you feel like maybe it’s just a little worth the daily 45-minute elliptical horror show and the repetitive strained exercises and the rather more strict than usual diet after all. For example.

So but the story Vigorous has had to read and shares, early in TBOTS, with Lenore is about one of these second-order vain folk, a guy with a particularly bad case of second-order vanity who one day discovers a gray patch of skin on his leg. It begins to spread, and he goes to his doctor after a while, and the doctor tells him that the stuff will keep spreading and make him carbuncular and gray and twisted and gross all over unless he pays for a procedure abroad that would wipe out the life savings he shares jointly with his girlfriend, whom he hasn’t told about the gray patch because he’s so vain and yet also doesn’t want to let her know that he’s vain enough about it that he has gone secretly to have it looked at. He’s sufficiently paralyzed by his second-order vanity that he winds up alienating his girlfriend, making up weird excuses to cover, for example, his whole scaly leg, etc. He withdraws completely and, when he finally decides to come clean and put his vanity about his vanity aside for the sake of not losing his one true love, she doesn’t answer his call and we’re left with nothing but ominous suspicions about the outcome. Joelle and others in the U.H.I.D, confronted with deformity, are simply embracing the fact that they care, giving in to the fact that they do want to hide, being in a way more honest about their deformities, though it comes off as if they’re being less honest in their hiding.

The passage I quote also makes me think of Hal, with his compulsion to hide his pot smoking. I think Joelle has it right. In an environment in which nearly every waking moment is scheduled, Hal runs down to the pump room or hides himself in the bathroom blowing thin smoke up at the vent not because he’s especially worried about being caught (being caught by a fellow indulger would hardly, on its own, be much of a worry). It’s to provide for himself a feeling of control, or at least the appearance of it. Of course, what he perhaps doesn’t realize is that this control is ultimately inverted, as the desire to exert control over something turns into his being controlled (to some degree) by it, to the extent that he’ll skip a meal with a pal to run down into the pump room to get high. The appearance of control becomes the appearance of control.

  1. steven
    August 11, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    This section, from 531-538 is one of the most interesting parts so far. It’s a discussion between Gately, the recovering alcoholic who’s on the staff at Ennet House, and Joelle Van Dyne a.k.a. Madam Psychosis, Orin’s and possibly James O’s former girlfriend, who’s a resident at Ennet House.

    She’s the most screwed-up person in the book. She has a cocaine addiction, she’s suicidal, and she’s scopophobic, or, in other words, she’s afraid of being looked at. As if that weren’t enough, she belongs to the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, even though she’s unbelievably beautiful. She considers beauty a deformity.

    And finally, she patronizes Gately by transferring her own inadequacies onto him by reassuring him that he shouldn’t feel ashamed of (what she deems to be) his low IQ: “you think you’re not bright but you’re not.” Luckily, he doesn’t fall for it.

    So this section is about the differences between AA and U.H.I.D and the similarities between “masking” in video telophony and wearing the “veil” as U.H.I.D. members do.

    Interestingly, the “Dunbarian mask” and the “Du Boisian veil” are two of the main metaphors for race relations in the U.S. in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

  2. steven
    August 11, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    I think there’s something autobiographical about Joelle’s dilemma. David Wallace, God bless him, was, as we all know, a very bright cat as well as an accomplished junior athlete and a good-looking guy.

    The Hideously and Improbably Deformed, on the other hand, are Joelle’s audience at M.I.T. radio: the beautiful minds with nerdy, geeky bodies, skin rashes, etc. the social outcasts. That’s not Hal’s predicament either.

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