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Of Course You Can’t Trust Him—He’s Narrating

June 5, 2010 9 comments

“Art, whose honesty must work through artifice, cannot avoid cheating truth.”

Adrienne Rich.

It’s funny the way this book works on me: It spends 35 chapters deferring any revelations on the plot, and just as it finally establishes what’s really at stake, I go haring off after the narrator. Specifically, I want to look at the way our whole second section of the book communicates the extent to which the story is mediated through Ishmael’s narration.

Obviously, I’m not saying anything controversial when I note that no narration can be taken at face value. For all that some literature tries to pretend otherwise, there is no such thing as pure, direct truth in any narration; narration is always the result of choices and omissions that inevitably shape it. (Like I said, not controversial.) But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing interesting in the ways a narration differs from The Truth. And in Ishmael’s case, we get such a self-consciously artificial narration that I think it fairly makes the case for meaning as mostly constructed, rather than transcendentally existent.

Paul carefully traces the buildup of suspense about Ahab, and I agree with him, but I think it’s also important to recognize it as part of Ishmael’s narrative strategy. Melville foregrounds the mediated nature of the book by beginning with a narrator who refuses to vouch for the name he gives us. This is explicitly going to be Ishmael’s arrangement of events and his conclusions on their import. Paul describes Ahab as Melville’s “master creation,” which is true, but Ahab is only ever depicted as Ishmael’s creation. The whole book is Ishmael’s telling, the whole story Ishmael’s dramaturgy.

And I use the word “dramaturgy” advisedly—chapters 36 through 40 are all explicitly theatrical. “The Quarter-Deck” (ch. 36), which is by far the most eventful and dramatic chapter up to that point, begins with a stage direction. Then we get three monologues and an unwelcome premonition of Ulysses‘s interminable “Circe” episode, fully formatted as a play. At first I found this chunk of text almost inexplicably strange. I went along for the ride and enjoyed it, but I didn’t know where it came from. Then I looked back and saw that Ishmael had been patiently laying his groundwork for a couple dozen pages at least. Chapter 29 is the first with a stage direction (“Enter Ahab; to him, Stubb”), and as a title, no less. Two pages later comes the “Cetology” chapter (of which more anon)—which truthfully doesn’t much advance my dramaturgy argument, although it does foreground the artificiality of the narrative (that wasn’t the anon I was talking about)—and then at the end of chapter 33, “The Specksynder,” Ishmael gives us a straight-up statement of his mission:

Nor, will the tragic dramatist who would depict mortal indomitableness in its fullest sweep and direst swing, ever forget a hint, incidentally so important in his art, as the one now alluded to.

But Ahab, my Captain, still moves before me in all his Nantucket grimness and shagginess; and in this episode touching Emperors and Kings, I must not conceal that I have only to do with a poor old whale-hunter like him; and, therefore, all outward majestical trappings and housings are denied me. Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!

“I will invent what I have to,” Ishmael says, “to tell the story I want.”

And then a whole chapter that he must have invented! “The Cabin-Table” (ch. 34) describes a whole scene that Ishmael is forbidden to attend. He gives himself a possible out with a throwaway line about “peep[ing] at Flask through the cabin sky-light,” but I’m not convinced. (Chapter 35, “The Mast-Head,” avails me nothing in the line I’m taking, so I have nothing to say about it outside these parentheses.) After all that preparation for the dramaturgical angle Ishmael intends to approach on, I shouldn’t really have been surprised to see overt drama.

Now: “Cetology.” I love this chapter, because it’s so assured and almost absurd at the same time, and because it’s so obsessively detailed, and because it’s so delightfully bibliophilically artificial. The man categorizes whales by size like paper, and breaks his categorization down by books and chapters. The note on the classification scheme is a pure pleasure: “Why this [Octavo] book of whales is not denominated the Quarto is very plain. Because, while the whales of this order, though smaller than those of the former order, nevertheless retain a proportionate likeness to them in figure, yet the bookbinder’s Quarto volume in its diminished form does not preserve the shape of the Folio volume, but the Octavo volume does.” The whole scheme is arbitrary; Ishmael announces a definition of “whale,” then proceeds to lay down a division without any express authority. It’s pure ipse dixit, presented as science. This cetological plan is only barely more organized or sensible than the classification in the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. If Moby-Dick, as I’ve asserted before, wants to be about everything, within that ambition is an anti-totalizing recognition that meaning is always constructed, no matter how comprehensive it aims to be. The “Cetology” chapter stands as a perfect symbol of that tension, which is why it’s always meant so much more to me than just a dry taxonomy.

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The Part about the Critics as Comedy

February 11, 2010 6 comments

In her post for this week, Sarah says, probably correctly, that if this part of 2666 had been published on its own as Bolaño had instructed his heirs to do, it would have been something of a disappointment. Chatter generally has been that though the critics themselves have seemed kind of aimless and homogeneous, the writing is pleasant enough. Still, is vaguely pleasant writing enough to sustain a book in which the characters aren’t really all that compelling?

After reading Sarah’s post, I read Jeff’s comment on my long piece about the dreams. He says:

When I finished the Part About the Critics, I thought I was unsurprised to find Norton with Morini because I had no expectations to be overturned—the characterization had been so opaque that I didn’t have any feeling of what might have been out of character or unpredictable.

Suddenly it occurred to me — what if we regard this section of 2666 as a comedy , not in the Seinfeldian sense (necessarily, though it often enough applies) but in a literary sense?

Consider the following excerpted matter from the passage about comedies of manners in A Handbook to Literature:

The stylized fashions and manners of [members of an artificial, highly sophisticated society] dominate the surface and determine the pace and tone of this sort of comedy. Characters are more likely to be types than individuals. Plot, though often involving a clever handling of situation and intrigue, is less important than atmosphere, dialogue, and satire… Satire is directed in the main against the follies and deficiencies of typical characters… A distinguishing characteristic of the comedy of manners is its emphasis on an illicit love duel, involving at least one pair of witty and often amoral lovers.

Just try to tell me we don’t see a lot of these things in 2666 so far!

My college Shakespeare professor described comedy in the Elizabethan sense as the sort of literature in which there is some problem in the beginning (e.g. mismatched pairs of lovers, political problems) that can be resolved by a the proper alignment of and marriage of a pair or pairs of lovers. (Tragedy, by contrast, is when there’s a problem that a strategic marriage would solve that goes unsolved when the marriage falls through; Romeo and Juliet, within this set of definitions, is comedy turned tragedy.) All’s Well that Ends Well, which describes the nature of the Shakespearean comedy in its title, is a comedy. As You Like It is another. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is yet another.

Dreams in the summerish climate of Mexico are what finally tie Norton and Morini together after several attempts at mismatched relationships within 2666. In comedy, there really are, to borrow a phrase from Jeff, no expectations to be overturned.  Shakespeare’s plays are pretty transparent from the beginning about which pairs should and will line up and get married at the end to resolve the central conflict.  Bolaño isn’t up front about the proper pairing, but upon analysis of the dream content binding Norton and Morini together, it becomes obvious (I contend, if obvious only in retrospect and with a bit of digging, which I suppose isn’t in fact all that obvious after all) that they are destined from the beginning to come together. Whether or not their union resolves any central conflict besides the Pelletier/Espinoza/Norton love triangle is debatable.

(Consider comedy on the big screen today, though. I defy you to name a Hugh Grant or Julia Roberts movie in which the characters you know in the beginning will get together don’t get together in the end. These movies pay lip service to there being some larger central conflict — a life ruined by tabloid photographers, a chain store edging the little guy out of business, etc. — but they are ultimately about resolution of the relationship. I suppose we want to expect more of Bolaño, but maybe we shouldn’t; maybe the point for him is that focus on atmosphere and satire that the venerable editors of the Handbook describe.)

In any case, Bolaño seems in some way to be influenced by the old convention here. I wonder, then, if it’s not useful to think of this part of the book as a sort of comedy in that old sense (I also raised the question in a comment somewhere of whether or not part 1 was something of a picaresque). If so, I wonder also if each part of the book will emerge as a take on another subgenre of literature, and I wonder how those parts will play together.

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Blithering Idiots

October 24, 2009 5 comments

I’ve read a couple of posts expressing frustration with how the menfolk in Dracula handle Mina after they resolve to take care of Dracula themselves. It’s absurd, really, another of those “what were you thinking?” things not, in ways, terribly unlike what we saw from Harker in the book’s opening and from Seward and Van Helsing when handling Lucy’s case. Reading what amounts to banishment of Mina from the inner circle (and straight to bed) specifically calls to mind the repeated mishandling of Lucy’s case. Whether the men’s view of the women would be viewed as sexist in today’s world or not, you’d think they’d have learned not to stick the desirable girl alone in her room with a vampire aprowl.

Even granting the differences in society and decorum over the last hundred years, it all begins to feel a bit heavy handed, doesn’t it? The cultural reference that came to mind for me as the incompetence built and built was the Keystone Cops. It began to occur to me that when behavior persists in seeming absurd, perhaps it is done for a good reason. Perhaps, that is, Stoker aimed not merely to write a story in which the men grossly mishandled the situation at hand, but that he sought to do so in such a way that the mishandling became parodic or satirical. Well, when writers do this, they tend to be writing about things external to the story. Take Swift, for example, to whom I’ve suggested Stoker may owe a hat tip. The petty Lilliputian and Brobdingnagian politicians had specific referents external to Gulliver’s story, after all.

As I’ve said before, I don’t know enough about Irish history to say anything with much authority about it. But the notes to my edition suggest that Stoker treats of the landlord conflict in Ireland that persisted through the 19th century. And that conflict could be expressed simplistically as the removal of autonomy from one people by another that thinks that, by virtue of its place in society, it is somehow entitled to or well-equipped to control the other. Or: A bunch of rich white dudes telling other people at a societal disadvantage (e.g. women) where to go and what to do.

Of course, with respect to the landlord conflict, it’s easy to see the aristocratic blood-sucking Dracula as representative of the landlords and his poor victims as the poor people they mistreated. But what about these other gentlemen? The notes to my edition point I think too enthusiastically to certain things that suggest that both Harker and Van Helsing are Dracula’s doppelgangers (think, for example, of the mirror scene early in the book, in which Harker looks in the mirror expecting to see Dracula but sees only himself). I’m really not at all convinced that the twinhood is all that pronounced. Still, for the sake of providing a more complex allegory, it’s not unreasonable for Stoker to have given both his good guys and his bad guy characteristics or behaviors resonant with those of the Irish landlords.

Again, I don’t know the history well enough to make any bold assertions about Stoker’s attempt to write an allegory about the landlord conflict, but I did get the sense as I moved forward in the story that the men’s behavior was too idiotic to be taken entirely at face value. I’m inclined to give Stoker some credit for trying to say something in artful or nuanced ways rather than simply writing him off as a ham-handed chronicler of the society of his day. Is that fair or is it over-permissive, I wonder?

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Infinite Downshift – Infinite Jest to Dracula is like shifting from 5th to 1st at 75 mph without double-clutching

October 5, 2009 3 comments

Fellow Infinite-Zombie Daryl L.L. Houston sez “One of the things I’ll be looking for in the book is style vs. story.”

Infinite Jest to Dracula.  Style vs. story.  That’s some heavy lifting.

While I wouldn’t be too quick to relegate Dracula to the polite charms of the quasi-epistolary novel – and I don’t think Daryl is either – Stoker’s book is hardly the juggling act that Jest was.  Three – five major plot lines vs. one, maybe two.  A cast of some two dozen characters versus Dracula’s seven or eight.  And a post-modern/pre-apocalypse/fin-de-siecle author who set out to tell a story AND confound the mechanics of the modern novel in Wallace versus a guy who wanted to tell a good story in Stoker.  In short, it’s hard not to get caught up in a struggle of style v. story.

fussy chairsHowever, if I put myself in the fussy, uncomfortable, distinctly not-sensual seat of the Victorian reader, however, the style begins to make much more sense.  The epistolary novel – or a letter within standard novels –  has always been an ideal vehicle to expose a story through deliberate brush strokes, keeping both writer and recipient in the dark about the true nature of things.

And if, as Beresford asserts in his Demons to Dracula, Stoker’s story represented to first widely circulated telling of a story that combined folk tales from Eastern Europe, his audience wouldn’t have been as inculcated with the whole Vampire Thing as we are.  So the novel might end up reading like some sort of gothic horror strip tease, where one gruesome, erotic layer is removed at a time. Only instead of knowing what we, the collective Modern Reader, are going to see next, every letter exposes something new, thrilling and a tiny bit naughty.

“We are not amused,” Queen Victoria might have said of Stoker’s book.  “But We are intrigued and not a little titillated.”

About the Post Title: So I got caught up with 3 back episodes of “Top Gear” the weekend to clear off the DVR.  Sue me.

A Very Peculiar Man

Toward the end of chapter two, noting that he hasn’t yet seen the Count eat or drink, Harker remarks that Dracula is a very peculiar man. You said it, Bub. Parts of the first two chapters read to me the way the beginning of the movie Scream unfolds. Like the teenagers in the movie, Harker ignores many signs that things may be amiss. And, one assumes, things will wind up going as badly for Harker as for the teenagers. But there is a difference in what’s behind their attitudes, I think. The teenagers are carefree, daring, rash, and enjoying the gift of perceived immortality afforded to the youthful. Whether Harker is merely naive or is guilty of a rather less endearing tendency to write off the natives of the country he’s in as simple and superstitious I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps he’s both, for a tendency to underestimate people can itself be in a way naive.

In any case, it’s a little funny to read. Here’s my condensed treatment of Harker’s observations:

How strange: The landlord suddenly won’t speak to me about the Count even though it’s just achingly obvious that he can communicate adequately with me. Meh, it’s probably nothing.

What’s with the hysterical old lady with the crucifix?

Wonder why the coach driver and the landlady are whispering together about devils and hell and witches and looking at me frantically. Weirdos.

Wow, this coach driver sure is in a hurry. Sure wish he’d let me down to pee. And what’s with the blessings and gifts the other passengers are giving me?

My new driver sure has some crazy teeth.

Goddamn wolves!

Why are we driving around in circles? And what about these blue flames?

Those wolves sure seem to like my driver with the crazy teeth.

I think I blacked out for a while there. Anyway, we seem to be at the castle, but my driver just took off and left me here in the dark. Guess I’ll just wait here calmly.

This Dracula guy seems kind of dead.

Oh, and he sure has some crazy teeth and seems to love those wolves.

Dracula disappeared mysteriously for an hour, and when he came back, my dinner was ready. Oddly, there seem to be no servants at all.

I’m starting to feel a little lonely and creeped out.

Hey, Dracula seems not to have a reflection, and he grabbed my throat when he saw blood from where I cut myself shaving. Asshole. It’s ok, though — when he touched the crucifix that crazy old lady gave me, he backed off.

I still haven’t seen the Count eat or drink. He must be a very peculiar man!

Think I’ll have a look around. Wait a minute… this place feels a little like a prison. Wonder if something fishy’s going on here.

Did Stoker make Harker deliberately dim, I wonder, or is this a clumsy attempt to layer suspense in one detail at a time?

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Ezra Klein and Too Little Fun

Ezra Klein over at A Supposedly Fun Blog had this to say of this week’s milestone:

But my enjoyment of the book is not outpacing my growing frustration with it. I ignore most of the footnotes. If you want to know why I ignore most of the footnotes, check out footnote 216. Yeah, fuck you too, David.

I guess what I would ask is what happens when you run across a word whose precise definition you don’t know (in any book). Do you just skip over it or figure that the context will iron it out? I know I often skip and figure. Good readers (and I’m not claiming to be one — see the comment just prior) will stop and look up the word. When you see an unfamiliar word (e.g. “Coatlicue”) that has an end note saying “No clue” (e.g. note 216), you are being told pretty clearly to go look the word up. I guess the note could say “Hey, you might want to look this up” rather than the more whimsical “No clue,” but then a reader like Ezra would be pissed that Wallace didn’t just include the word’s definition in the note (but he’d be pissed if Wallace did include it because it’d be too much extra information that he (= Klein) doesn’t care about because he’s got TPS reports to file or whatever). The note isn’t a fuck you. It’s an invitation to go outside the boundaries of the text to bring some deeper understanding back into the text. It’s a chance to learn something.

I’m not going to get in as big a funk over this as I did over Avery’s post of a couple of weeks ago. Klein doesn’t have time to commit himself to reading the book, and that’s understandable. I don’t really have the time, frankly (I’m missing lots of Cubs baseball games to read and write about the book). I do wish that naysayers like Klein (who has been disposed to dislike the book from the beginning) and Avery would own some agency (ie, that they have other priorities they rate higher than reading IJ) rather than couching their difficulty with the book in terms of some sort of agency on Wallace’s part (ie, he’s wasting their time and antagonizing them). It’s a little silly. It’s like going to the gym and being frustrated that you have to lift the weights to see any benefit. Sometimes you have to do more than just show up to reap any reward.

Avery Edison Hurt my Feelings

I think I’m generally considered by those who know me personally to be like Vulcan-level rational, often to a fault. Rational thought tends to supercede feeling, to the point that I wind up hurting people’s feelings by demanding (or at least expecting, and balking at the lack of) distanced, objective consideration of things that are really more or better felt than considered.

So imagine my surprise when I read Avery Edison’s Infinite Summer post yesterday and found myself becoming defensive and doing this weird rare thing that I think may have been emoting. She doesn’t like the book. She’s reading it with distaste and figures it’s a waste of time. She disdains the style and yearns for more explicit and I suppose active plot rather than what she describes as portraits. When I read (and reread) her post, I find myself getting flushed, feeling angry. She doesn’t deserve this book. She’s somehow profaning the book by owning a copy of it and having these opinions. I wish she’d stop reading it, stop taking pot-shots at it. Why doesn’t she just go get the latest Grisham (not much but plot in those, is there?) or maybe a Harlequin romance? Is she fucking retarded?

Silly, huh? I know rationally that her position is valid and shared by many (for many express similar sentiments in the comments to her post). I know that there are simple matters of taste in literature. And I don’t mean taste as in snobby wine drinkers who’ll buy only from boutique wine shops vs. those of us who are happy enough to drink a Yellow Tail. I mean taste simply as in some people like broccoli and some people don’t, and there’s nothing wrong with either position. I know this. When I read Portrait of a Lady many years ago, I had much the same reaction to it that Avery had to Infinite Jest. Rationally, I understand that this book, and probably most of Wallace’s work, just isn’t for Avery, and I know objectively that that’s ok and doesn’t in any way detract from the book’s value for me.

But still, I feel like she’s denigrating one of my children, or unjustly defaming one of my heroes. It’s hard to get past. And here’s the thing: I don’t feel this way about any other author. I’m a great admirer of the work of William Gaddis, but if somebody told me they couldn’t get past page 4 of JR, I’d be neither surprised nor bothered. I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Pynchon’s work; it took me three or four tries to get through Gravity’s Rainbow, and I’ve false started a couple of his others a couple of times too. I haven’t made it more than halfway through Ulysses yet (despite several tries). Steinbeck is another favorite of mine. He’s more traditional and human, in a way, than these postmodern giants. Where I have no real sense of personal admiration for Gaddis or Pynchon (it’s their work I’m on board with), I feel like Steinbeck was a nice, sort of approachable guy, and I sort of like him. Yet if somebody says they don’t like his work, it doesn’t bother me. No hard feelings.

What is it, then, about this disdain for Infinite Jest that sticks in my craw? I do admire who Wallace seemed to be. I think he was probably a good, nourishing person to know personally. But I didn’t know him personally, so I can’t chalk my hurt feelings up to that. Maybe it’s because he died, but then Steinbeck is dead too. Maybe it’s because he’s the first real author whose prime occurred during my active reading/intellectual prime, and whose life ended during mine. That does make it all more personal to me. I had looked forward to many more books from Wallace, to many more years of not only enjoying his work, but of watching it develop in something more like real-time than for these old or dead authors whose work I admire mostly looking back in time. Reading Wallace’s work has been, in a way, almost like watching a child grow up (though I’m not comfortable with the sort of superior or parental role that simile places me in, so let’s discard that part of it). And now that work is done.

There’s a reference somewhere in Infinite Jest to a character (I think a past boyfriend of Molly Notkin’s) who believes that there’s a finite number of orgasms available in the world, and so he’s crippled by the fear of consuming one of them and thus depriving another person of one of them (side note: it just occurs to me that this orgasm limit and selflessness ties in with the whole can-of-soup discussion Marathe and Steeply have at the end of this week’s milestone). Although I know it’s irrational, I feel almost that way about reading Infinite Jest. If somebody’s going to read it at arm’s length or with a sneer or a frown of distaste, I don’t want her to read it. It’s almost like she’s wasting its time (rather than its wasting hers) or preventing some other person from enjoying this major piece of what sadly turns out to be a finite (and far less prolific than I’d desire) body of work. It’s irrational and stupid, I know, but it’s how I feel. Hashing it out here has helped me step back a little bit, so that I can get past the weird flash of anger or resentment I feel when I think about Avery’s post (and similar reactions), but it still all hurts my feelings a little, makes me feel sad and further bereft.

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