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.

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