Friday, July 6, 2012

Occupy Gaddis, pp 175-205: Coitus Splint

Thank the Great Cosmic Owl that tomorrow is my last day as a New Yorker. We've been through a lot together, this city and I. I've eaten veal heart in Queens and been inside the original CBGB's back when it was still actually CBGB's. I've stood on the southern tip of the Rockaways; I've been run out of a beach co-op on the southern tip of the Rockaways. I've been harassed by bored, off-duty cops. I've been in the attic of St. John the Divine. I've seen the Pupin Cyclotron, which is now scrap metal. I have wistful, nostalgic memories of about a half-dozen music venues that no longer exist--I can drift into "back-in-my-day"-like reminiscences without a shred of irony or pretentiousness, and with a real, unimpeachable longing for the old Market Hotel, the old Knitting Factory, the old McCarren Pool. Not to mention the restaurants that have closed since I got here--P&W Sandwich Shop on 110th, the kosher felafel stand in front of Borough Hall, El Toro Partido on 138th. Dreams have a very short lifecycle in this town, because this is a mean, status-obsessed, law-and-order oriented sort of town. It's a town of rules and obstacles, a town where the police are creepily ubiquitous in the rich parts of  the city and a fucking occupation army in the poor parts. It's a city where you can't drink or ride a bicycle or smoke without exposing yourself to nattering yet potentially serious legal consequences. It's a city where it's impossible to have fun at a rock show, because for most people rock shows are actually a kind of work, more about the joyless slog of status-driven self-making than cultural or individual enrichment. It's a city where you're expected to overpay for everything, just for the supposed privilege of physically inhabiting said city. It's a city that pretends to care about art and creativity, when what it's really obsessed with are patterns of consumption. It's a city where designer-attired men in Babybjorns flag down taxis at 3 in the afternoon on a Tuesday. Six years of this shit is enough. I'm happy to leave this city and its myriad annoyances and anxieties to people with stronger nerves and thicker bankbooks than myself. I'm over it, which is part of the reason why I'll be starting a new job in Washington, DC on Monday.

An unglamorous and socio-economically striated New York is the setting of J R, and my God do I recognize the place. It's an unglamorous New York, but it isn't cinematically unglamorous in the tradition "Taxi Driver" or Don DiLillo's Underworld. The obsession with status is coded into the city's DNA, threaded through the novel with almost overpowering subtlety. The city's darkness operates on a microbial level--the novel has very few impressionistic touches when it comes to evoking the city-as-postmodern-hellscape, and it's possible to blink past Gaddis's almost-cubistic illustrations of the city's soullessness. New York is a city of tweed-jacketed men plotting scams and takeovers and foreign invasions from penthouse offices lined with stuffed zebra heads. But more than that, it's a city whose tiniest, most throwaway details are consistent with a tweed-jacketed, top-down world of normalized unfairness and criminality.

The long paragraph on pages 193-4 is a case in point. The paragraph brings together two of Gaddis's recurring motifs--time (as expressed in the upward progress of the elevator) and sound (the Light Cavalry Overture, the Spanish rhythm). I have read no other book that goes so out of it way to evoke the artificiality and oppressiveness of the contemporary soundscape. The inane conversations of the novel's characters, disconnected bits of radio chatter, the music playing at the bank on Burgoyne Street 30 pages into the novel--it's as if Gaddis is narrativizing the constant junk noise that most of us just tune out or accept. In a weird way, this is a novel of ambience. So the long paragraph in the elevator is like a tidal wave of inane detail. There's little punctuation to guide you; the aural and visual and sensory noise just sort of sweeps you along, until you reach the literal Hell (and Hell it indeed is--check out the references to Virgil, Dante etc.) of the Diamond Cable offices.

Before then, you're given an almost chillingly casual snippet of untoward sexual pursuit, a scene made normal by the headrush of ambient details the reader is bombarded with:

" idly scratching hand thrust down the front of the denims burnished where it moved hidden as the other, empty, rose behind her gasped against the waist high rail there for -- You like to give head? posed in a tone as vacant as a face..."
I'm willing to bet that no adjective appears in this book as often as "vacant." This is actually kind of a funny scene, from one angle: Mrs Joubert(?) is propositioned for oral sex on an elevator; this being the sleepwalking, static-choked world of J R, vacancy ensues. And it's also a very disturbing scene: Mrs. Joubert is subjected to perversion and creepiness that is are normal, so coded into the chemistry of everyday life, that it warrants nothing other than vacancy--which is another way of say that everything warrants vacancy. The world of J R is one of darkly comic passivity. Everyone and everything is completely paralyzed, reified, for you Marxists out there--a condition that enables and even justifies the systems of control that the novel satirizes.

I made a similar point a few posts back, that it remains to be seen if the titular J R will be the avenging angel in all of this. Of course, he might also be a horrible demon child, a monster built by these systems of control, rather than the one figure who can challenge or even dismantle them. The two adult protagonists who could inhabit this role have been hilariously inadequate to it thus far--Gibbs and Bast's complete impotence is played for laughs in these 30 pages, and the "Zebra music" scene and Gibbs's train adventure are two of the funnier episodes in the novel thus far. Perhaps significantly, J R hasn't been held up as an object of ridicule in the book's first 200 pages.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Occupy Gaddis, pp 150-175: Nobody Has to See Anybody

Whilst procrastinating en route to today's J R reading, I finally willed myself through the pilot of "The Newsroom" and holy fuck is this show fucking awful. And it's awful in a way that actually ties in nicely with today's reading! See what really grated me about "The Newsroom" wasn't its haughty, even paternalistic construction of the relationship between the Fourth Estate and the viewing public (OK, that grated me), or the fart-sniffing self-righteousness of nearly every single character (that also really grated me) or "The Newsroom's" seemingly-magical and totally unctuous ability to piece together one of the most complex stories in recent years--a story that the New Yorker's Raffi Katchedourain only wrote about like, a year after the fact--in like what, 15 minutes (THIS REALLY GRATED ME!). What outraged me the most about The Newsroom was the fact that it depicts people who are good at and who actually really like their jobs.

Is this how life typically works? Do things actually function so smoothly, so seamlessly? Is morale always this high? Are most people constantly possessed with an unquenchable sense of purpose, which sense is expressed in eight hour or ten hour increments five days a week? There is something uncanny, even something disturbing, about such a sleek depiction of such motivated and unwrinkled professional existences. I prefer "The Office," or "Larry Sanders," or even "Louie"--I prefer struggle. The elusiveness of fulfillment, the inner battles with one's limited competencies, and, by extension, one's limited capabilities (i.e. one's inadequacies) as both a professional and a human being--these conflicts are seemingly absent from "The Newsroom." There's struggle, but its stupid, politically-located struggle--struggle against the vacuousness of the newsmedia and the idiocy of the American public, mostly. These conflicts are bullshit, and the characters are more bullshit still. They love their jobs too much, and they love themselves too much.

Which brings me to the the first ten pages of today's reading, where days--perhaps weeks--pass within the confines of an office in Queens. In a novel of changing leaves and ticking clocks, the scenes in the General Roll offices are notably disconnected from any temporal signifiers. And yet time is constantly being mentioned: take a late lunch, because it will make the afternoon seem shorter. Get a plant to liven up the office, because that's where you spend half your life (not half your time--half your life). A weekend goes by. Angel leaves for a business trip; Angel comes back from a business trip. People come and go. A female employee is on her period.

Both the reader and the office hacks are acutely aware of how time is passing, but they're unaware of just how much time is passing. And it's passing quite quickly, by the novel's standards: the book's first day takes what, 80 pages? Here, we go through a week in the space of a few thousand words. And it's a week in which very little happens. Much of this novel is dedicated to scenes in which nothing really seems to happen: it's dedicated to obscure, bureaucratic discussions, to technical jargon or legalese, to deep conversations on complex matters that have been foregrounded with little and in many cases no previous exposition. The office scene is a poignantly low-stakes version of that. Time is hastened by virtue of the banality of the conversation filling it. There's frustration and sadness as the bottom of this--Time passes, nothing happens. It's a common and all too human frustration, and Gaddis evokes it brilliantly.

He evokes it for sound, thematic reasons as well. On page 172, Our Hero explains what I'll simplistically describe as the disembodiment of capital. Money flies around without debtors or creditors understanding who's sending it or who's receiving it or where it's going or why. The paths that it travels are not random, but there's no way of conclusively pinpointing its behavior. Shakespeare makes a similar argument in Act 4 of Timon of Athens, when the title character reflects upon the seemingly mystical quality of gold, a substance that can cancel the predicted course of nature, and that even the gods are enslaved to:

[To the gold] 2085
O thou sweet king-killer, and dear divorce
'Twixt natural son and sire! thou bright defiler
Of Hymen's purest bed! thou valiant Mars!
Thou ever young, fresh, loved and delicate wooer,
Whose blush doth thaw the consecrated snow
That lies on Dian's lap! thou visible god,
That solder'st close impossibilities,
And makest them kiss! that speak'st with
every tongue,
To every purpose! O thou touch of hearts!
Think, thy slave man rebels, and by thy virtue
Set them into confounding odds, that beasts
May have the world in empire! 

Of course, the mysticism of capital is different from the mysticism of specie--capital implies an intricate system of debits and credits; gold is simply money, a more straightforward signifier and enabler of wealth. Gold is a noble and valuable thing; capital, in contrast, can be the absence of value, or the promise of future value. Which is why the office scene is so vital: the office is where value is created; it's where things are made and produced, the tangible side of the crypto-black box economy that J R unwittingly describes. In these 25 pages, we get something of a full look at Gaddis's notion of contemporary capitalism, in all its quiet frustrations and absurdities, in all its mystical banality. It is something less noble, less worthy of high poetry than the notion of capitalism that Timon rails against. This is no bright defiler of Hymen's purest blood, and maybe in the next 500 pages, we'll find that it's something altogether darker--and altogether more familiar to us.