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.

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