Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Occupy Gaddis: A Mongolian Detour

Didn't read any of J R today. A terror-inducing line outside the Shedd aquarium doomed us to an afternoon at the Field Museum, which has a temporary exhibit about Gengis Khan, the most fascinating  historical figure of all time. The exhibit had plenty of interesting shit about the "how" of the rapid and violent expansion of the Mongolian empire (short answer: technological advantages, which included superior longbows, stirrups and badass siege machinery, including a version of the giant crossbow on wheels from Warcraft II, which the exhibit had a delightful scale model of; a carefully-oragized military, a total lack of moral scruples and, you know, just wanting it more). But what about the "why?" Why does a band of illiterate nomads decide that forcibly incorporating the entire known world into a well-organized crypto-cosmopolitan, semi-bureacratic state is like, worth the effort? How does the idea occur to them? Like where does this kind of ambition even come from? I mean this in the literal (as well as philosophical) sense--with modern colonial powers the expansionist impulse is fairly straightforward to understand: there's a drive for resources, political clout and foreign markets, not to mention ideologies of racial and cultural supremacism. But the Mongols didn't care about resources--hell, they even introduced an early version of fiat money. They had no civilizing drive; the reason the empire got so enormous so quickly is that they didn't fuck around with imposing their values on the conquered. In a weird way, the Mongols were open-minded and semi-tolerant because they were motivated purely by tribalism, which is emotional and inward-facing, rather than ideology or religion, which is systematic, expansionist and inherently arrogant. The Mongols weren't involved in any generational political struggles when they kicked this thing off either. They weren't locked into a mutually-destructive long game with the Russians or the Arabs or the Chinese (all of whom they would eventually conquer). They were just kinda roaming the steppes, tending their horses, minding their own business. Then something changed. But what? Why go through the headache? Thoughts?

So I didn't read today, but these people probably did: Infinite Zombies writes about the money-art nexus, with a nifty take on the bust-drowning on page 1. Chazz Formichella on humor in the novel.

Occupy Gaddis pp 51-60: Brooklyn Telephone Directory

Stray thoughts regarding a journey from Chicago to the Schaumberg Ikea and back:

-We board the Metra. It is 10:30. The train passes a baroque church, domes like the lid of an antique candy jar. We get to Des Plaines, which we mistakenly believe is pronounced D-ee Play-ne. It is not. The place name, though Francophonic, reverts to more familiar, phonetic pronunciation. Forty-five minutes from Ogilvie, Chicago is a theory, a previous point on an unfamiliar railway line that leads to...

-Des Plaines. When I heard the words "train to a bus to an Ikea," I immediately pictured some weed-eaten parking lot adjacent to a whooshing highway underpass. This is not the case. Des Plaines has a theater. It has a library newer and nicer than that of  my former college. It has a Thai restaurant. Inexplicably--for our own individual benefit almost--it has excellent public transportation. It has Civilization. It has...

-The bus. It swoops around worrying and unexpected curves, it stops to change drivers for some fucking reason, it huffs its way down Golf Road, which, perhaps coincidentally, abuts a golf course of sorts, or at least it abuts a driving range. It is a straight road, an arrow of a road, fucking a flat frontier of green and corn and two-level houses and cyclists and inflatable swimming pools. Speaking of cyclists, I spot a woman hauling one of those child carriages--and a child--behind her bike on a perilous four-lane road, a road without a bike lane, I should add. Is this person a fucking moron, or is this mode of transportation imposed by economic necessity, rather than idiocy, per se? The bus approaches an office park. This is our stop. For...

-The flag of St. Gustavus flutters proudly in the breeze. Ikea is a foreign outpost of another nation's nationalism. This nation is Sweden, so who gives a fuck. At lunch, I am served a platter of 15 meatballs, with a Swedish flag impaling the central ball. Said impalement was committed by a wasted-looking female employee in her late 20s, a woman whose ancestry might not have been particularly Swedish. Is this an example of Swedish Soft Power, or is it a more sinister indicator of the postmodern erosion of the Nation State as a morally and practically viable idea, even within our emblematically-American heartland? Or maybe this doesn't demean us Americans so much as it demeans the Swedish nation, which was once something of a regional and even imperial power, a conqueror of men, rather than furniture stores and meatball platters. My brother (whose apartment we are furnishing) and father go tie up some loose ends, which mostly involve paying for our furniture--our Bjorns and Halaks and Anders Behring Breviks--and arranging its safe delivery to downtown Chicago. I read ten pages of J R, a novel I will not be writing about in this blog post. Although earlier...

-Our helpful Co-Worker was Jeffery. No, not Jeffrey--Jeffery. Much joking will later be made on his account. Were his parents drunk in the delivery room? Or, more tantalizingly, more romantically--were his great great grandparents drunk on corn liquor in the delivery room/wagon/tent; was their clerical error lovingly reproduced throughout the generations, was it enshrined even a century later, carried forward by their Ikea-employed progeny? Jeffery was an English major at some earlier and perhaps more hopeful station in life. He knows every fold-out couch by name. He says that he hasn't sold any of his college books. For a moment, I imagine that J R is one of them.

-We finally leave. We encounter a Greek, or maybe an Armenian. For money he drives on a highway, in a direction that we're unsure of, towards the city, maybe away from it. We stand at a prairie railway station, staring at the backside of the Arlington Park grandstand. I mention how flat everything is here, how straight. There are no hills, no distinguishing buildings even, it's one sprawling expanse of flat, checkerboarded by straight-ahead roads converging at the occasional 90-degree wedge. The wind picks up, and I'm reminded that tornadoes are a common occurrence around here. Don't worry, my brother tells me. Clouds gather before a tornado hits. It it is clear. I have no idea which way the city lies. In matters directional, only God can help you--the sun is already setting in the west.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Occupy Gaddis, pp 29-51: What Democracy in the Arts is All About

I was in Book Court today when the proprietor, a shaggy and appropriately well, bookish-looking middle-aged guy noticed my Nationals cap, and offered consolation as regards the 14-inning heartbreak of the previous afternoon, during which the Nats were one blown call away from beating the universally-hated (even in Brooklyn!) New York Yankees. In the 8th inning, Tyler Moore scored what should have been--what was, as replay would immediately reveal--the go-ahead run in a close play at the plate. He was called out. Fuck everything.

Philosophical question: how often does it (sports, life, whatever) come down to Just One Thing? The game did not come down to One Thing--The Nats stranded Ryan Zimmerman at 3rd in the bottom of the 13th, and Craig Stammen pitched three perfect innings in extras, just to be pulled in favor of the recently-injured and all-of-a-sudden washed-up Brad Lidge. But the game did come down to Just One Thing--it is not as if the home plate umpire observed the collision at home plate, peered through the temporal mists, considered, for a moment, the Nats' upcoming failures to manufacture runs and manage their pitching staff, and decided to preemptively punish them by deliberately fucking up the game's deciding call. No. This did not happen. What happened was the temporary breakdown of some fairly basic assumptions. Baseball is played with an expectation of a pristine, overriding order. The balls are balls, the strikes are strikes, etc. You cannot manage anything--sports, life, whatever--if chaos governs your assumptions. Things have to work the way you expect them to. The calls have to be right.

The One Thing that screwed my Nationals was the suspension of this higher order. But fuck it, what is this higher order? Isn't it nothing more--or less--than the arbitrary tyranny of rules, and the people and institutions that uphold and impose them? It's late, and I spent almost my entire post-Book Court day traveling to Chicago, so I'm not gonna wade too deep into the actual reading today (a shame cuz it's an important section: little JR, dressed in an ugly sweater and ditching his Tim and Eric-esque glam rock Wagnerian community theatre interpretive dance routine in order to go commit RICO-level wire fraud using a government-owned phone, the devious bastard, makes his first appearance). But order and the imposition of order is a crucial aspect of the book so far, and most of our characters are adults sitting in a room somewhere, using television screens to remotely control invisible groups of mindless, impressionable children. It's sort of creepy! These are petty, mediocre people that demand loyalty oaths and believe in punchcard-based social engineering schemes--in their hands, even high art becomes a kind of dysentery. They are almost fascists, although not really--although, come to think of it, whether they are or not, and whether Gaddis is trying to evoke a sort of Cold War-bred, distinctly American brand of authoritarianism would be a ripe topic for a future post. My little baseball example proves that this arrogant positivism ("arrogant positivists" strikes me as a more accurate description here than "fascists," but hey, where do you draw the line?) can only hide its facile and constructed nature for so long, and I hope that one of the pleasures of this book will be seeing a sixth-grader upend and destroy the systems and assumptions that envelop him. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Occupy Gaddis, pp 16-29: What America is All About

Mr. Coen (Cohen) eventually shuts up and leaves, and the bottom of page 17 through the top of page 18 represent the longest dialogue-free chunk of novel so far. It describes a world that's immediately familiar to me: "open acres flowing in funereal abundance" give way to a "suburban labyrinth," which sounds like just a fuckin' horrible place: the local World War II memorial is already a "crumbling eyesore," the fire department's (literally funereal) crepe-paper is packed away like an old soda advertisement--if I read the top paragraph of 18 correctly, there's a single, wasting farmhouse marooned in a gingerbread-flat expanse of fresh-paved parking lot. I grew up in the Washington, DC suburbs, near the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and Randolph Road. At that intersection there are shopping complexes on either side of Randolph, but until about two years ago there were also a pair of crumbling and decidedly agricultural-looking three-level homes with gables and wood siding and even a small veranda, squished between the nail salons and fast-fooderies, homes made poignantly homeless by the urbanizing onslaught, begging, just like fucking begging to be torn down. One of them was replaced with a Wendy's; the other simply rotted away until its ragged wooden bones were quietly disposed of.

So until recently, there was evidence that my old neighborhood--if it could even be called that--was once something much different. It was agricultural; the road once demarcated property boundaries, and Washington DC felt, and was, very far away. There was no beltway, no ICC, no Metro, no El Salvadorians, no dignified yet mass-produced starter homes, no RideOn buses or belching SUVs. This wasn't like, 100 years ago or anything. This was like, 50 or 60 years ago. And it wasn't necessarily better back then. In fact, life was horribly unfair: in those days, did anyone living in that corner of the DC metro area (if they even called it that back then...) ever dream that Ethiopians and Koreans and Jews would be living in enormous yet affordable houses and sending their kids to the best public schools in the country and taking advantage of a vast public transit system, and that the daily toil and existential uncertainty of farming would be systematized and finally outsourced to places where it actually like, made sense to set aside enormous tracts of land for the sole purpose of agricultural production? I'm thinking probably not! A world as logical and egalitarian and non-racist as ours seemed Utopian or even absurd back then, and the destruction of my neighborhood's agrarian past--indeed its total effacement from the physical landscape--is actually a sign of progress.

But here (in the novel I mean) we have the dark side of this revolutionary and positive transformation. Yes, there's the replacement of bucolic uselessness (the replacement of some bullshit agrarian myth) with something more equitable, progress-oriented and democratic. But progress is a monster, and this particular section is jam-packed with moments of comic monsterousness: a cartoon Cold War military man wants to  integrate his town's cultural initiative with the local school's duck and cover drills. Show the kids a real bomb shelter, he says--show them what America's all about. The kids, meanwhile, are being taught using televisions, and are so incapable of original or critical thought that Mr. Gibbs's speech at the bottom of page 20 ("Order is simply a thin, perilous condition...") is meant to be like, funny. And it is! Speaking of funny, there's this great exchange on page 25:

--And there's this twelve thousand dollars item for books.

--That's supposed to be twelve hundred, the twelve thousand should be paper towels.

Progress is a monster, but maybe it doesn't have to be. In the novel's first 30 pages, we've sat in on two very jargon heavy, very procedural, and actually very boring meetings that have to do with financial and legal minutia that aren't really explained to us. We are waiting on some humanity to appear, someone we can cling to, a character or a voice (there are only voices at this point in the novel--no characters) that will tame or control or even redeem the pulverizing monster of post-war American progress. Maybe it's Edward, who's appeared in this novel (around page 16, I think) without (curiously enough) actually saying anything. Maybe it's the titular JR. Maybe there's no redemption to be had, and we're in for 720 more pages of pure po-mo apocalpyticism. We'll see.

A couple stray observations: Ms. Flesch (great name) keeps talking about "her Ring," referring to a local performance of music from Wagner's Ring cycle. In Elizabethan English, "ring" is slang for virginity. My ring! a sexually pent up (Ms!) schoolteacher keeps exclaiming during a budgetary meeting in the mid-50s. Heh.

And finally: some of the descriptions are already tending towards the unintelligible. There are points where the language seems like it's on the brink of total breakdown. Page 22:

"...loomed worsted with a bluish tinge in arbitrary sway over the pastel arrangement behind the desk, cordially drawing Mister diCephalis half out of a sleeve of knife edge pressed nondescript."

This prose is practically cubist. The physical descriptions in this book are just impossible sometimes.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Occupy Gaddis, pp 1-15: Money, In a Voice That Rustled

As best I can tell, William Gaddis's JR is a single uninterrupted block of text, with no chapter breaks or divisions of any type. You know what else is a similarly unified, formally coherent, uninterrupted block? Life itself. Hah.

Anyway, my first exposure to Gaddis was Agape Agape, which I purchased on a Saturday night during my restless and sexless highschool years. I bought it from Kramerbooks and Afterword, a  pretentious and overpriced book shop near Dupont Circle. I had spent a disappointing evening visiting with a friend of mine from my previous summer's trip to Israel. He was in town for a model UN conference, which was being held at the same hotel where Ronald Reagan had nearly been assassinated in 1981. We couldn't stray far from the hotel; nuclear war could break out at any moment, yes even on a Saturday night; lives and college applications were on the line, and over-earnest 10th graders in dress shirts had no choice, just no choice other than staying within a five minute walk of the place. So we reminisced, watched some Olympic ski jumping--a physical absurdity whose repetitiousness hardly detracts and probably even adds to its undeniably hypnotic quality--and went to a Fuddruckers.

I want to say that my night was salvaged by the chance purchase of a book that somehow changed or at least slightly enlarged my world, or that has stuck with me in some way or another, but this is not the case. Gaddis was an unfamiliar name to me, and the book was short and struck me as at least vaguely potentially intriguing, for reasons I can't really recall. Perhaps the cover blurb or the opening pages indulged or vindicated whatever disaffectedness I was feeling at the time--maybe they explained or more likely deepened the psychic displacement of being cold and alone and like, an hour and half from home, and acutely aware of just how futile and unsatisfying the performance of basic social obligations could be, even the ones that you consider to be real, self-imposed, meaningful obligations. Even those could leave you milling around an expensive bookstore for reasons you're not quite sure of, looking for something or possibly anything, even an incomprehensible 100-page rant about player pianos, just anything that will deepen this awareness of the meaningless and the random that's suddenly and seemingly inexplicably descended upon you. The English seminar po-mo symbolism of the player piano was totally lost on the purer, gloriously unfertilized, just blazingly original mind I carried around back then (the last time in my life that I blogged on a consistent, even bi or tri-weekly basis), and while I can remember the formative books of my high school years (Dos Passos, Faulkner, Whitman, Abdelrahman Munif and Hunter S. Thompson all figure prominently) I wouldn't include Agape Agape among them. My ownership of that book is a physical tribute to a brief and still bizarrely vivid moment of deep juvenile frustration and dread, nothing more or less.

Is there inherent coherency and meaning to something that's presented in a single, intimidating block of text, or is any coherency and meaning necessarily imposed upon it by expectation? This is a question that immediately presents itself in JR. Two details from the first page: "We never saw paper money till we came east." East from where? Coincidentally, the very friend I was meeting at the Reagan assasination hotel the night I first discovered William Gaddis was the descendent of Russian Jews who fled to China and then immigrated to the west coast of the United States before settling in Cleveland (they spent several months in Shanghai, which once had a surprisingly not-inconsiderable Jewish population). This is to say that the historical experince of "coming east" is not a common one in this country of ours. Typically you go west--you only "come east" if you've gone west and either you or fortune changed its mind at some point or another--or if east is the direction you're moving in the first place, as per my friend's family's novel experience.

Then a few lines later: "There was never a bust of father, Anne. And I don't recall his ever being in Australia." This is connected to some anecdote related earlier in the conversation, but it's not one that You the Reader are privy to. Or maybe it's related to "moving east?" Who knows. My point in this is that actual, real life is made real by the lack of external, objective signifiers or signposts--no one is telling you what's happening, YOU are tell you what's happening, all the time, right now, while reading this even. In that sense your life is consistent, coherent. In the end, you're alone in there. Depressing! Empowering! Does JR have a similar unity of perspective? It would seem so.

Yet: the first fifteen pages of this book are geographically diffuse: summers in Cairo, awards recieved in Europe, busts drowned in Vancouver bay, mysterious stints in Australia, permenant moves east. Indiana, which isn't local. And yet the action is totally trapped. It is claustrophobic, with physical, environmental details deliberately withheld: "Sunlight, pocketted in a cloud..." is the only desciprtoin we get on the first page. The action inhabits a world beyond physicality: these are voices from nowhere. The action is happening far, far away, as if on the other end of a telephone conversation (I think a lot of the novel actually is a telephone conversation? Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself). This talk of bastardy and dividends and business interests doesn't seem to apply to anything or anyone, just a series of dissociated names, spoken by three very odd people. Because there are no chapter breaks, there's no hint of when or if these people will be transitioned out of the story. It's all a bit like the Circe chapter in Ulysses, isn't it?

This dissociation is deliberate. One of the first things that jumped out at me was that Thomas's company makes piano rolls, or cylinders(?) that are inserted in player pianos. James is a composer, a "real" musician, in other words. You'd think that there's sort of a symbiotic relationship between the two brothers' pursuits: James writes piano pieces, Thomas repackages them as piano rolls; James can share his music with masses while Thomas can profit off of his piano rolls. Why it's the dawn of popular music, or art as a mass product. But this is not the case: very quickly, we learn that Thomas and James are not particularly close, which is to say that the creation of music and the mass-production of music are not particularly close, at least not now. They embody personality types that can't really get along, in other words, even if they should get along. I don't know if Gaddis is trying to set up a kind of polar opposition between two clashing artistic or aesthetic value systems--doubtful; I'm only 15 pages into this, and I'm guessing the player pianos are left behind before too long, and the kind of disembodiment and dislocation of Art (did you know you can watch  Metropolitan Opera performances in movie theaters now?!?) will seem like a quaint and obscure little matter by the time the American Dream is turned inside out or whatever the heck this book is famous for doing. For now: we have voices chattering about something we can't place, in a location we can't really envision, in what's probably a midwestern but nevertheless comparatively "eastern" part of the country. Matters of money--the ultimate totem of arbitrary assigned value, the emblematic collective fiction of this and really every age--is the sole topic of discussion, although other things (family, a broken button, a broken chair) keep getting in the way. Now, and for however long I stick with this (I'm planning on blogging every day, or as close to it as possible--hold me to it!) we're adrift in a massive block of text, adrift in something approximating life.