Sunday, June 1, 2008


There was a fairly amusing piece in The New York Times Book Review today, about the rigors of reading “jumbo lit” and the toll it takes on one’s day to day life. Joe Queenan talks about using Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften as a way to avoid dealing with things like getting his car repaired. I’m in complete agreement with the spirit of his piece except it’s a bit too much a name-dropping exercise. Nothing in the piece indicates any value from the reading experience other than distracting oneself from the quotidian. There is, certainly, a sense in which reading things like Musil or Proust or Gaddis or Pynchon or Joyce is tantamount to immersing oneself in the National Baseball League and its endlessly repetitive endless games, or trying again and again to get to the next level in some unspeakably difficult video game, or even mastering a foreign language or chess or the piano, or what have you. People have been known to drop out of relationships and housekeeping for the sake of cyberlives or relentless TV watching. You don’t need Musil for that. So, what do you need Musil for? I’m not sure, but I’m hoping to get through Der Mann this summer, so, drop in again later and I may have something to say on that score.

A novel I’ve just finished reading is Robert Coover’s Gerald’s Party (1985). Not that long, as novels go, but a disconcerting reading experience in many ways. Coover is of that “old school” avant-garde, which is to say that his work came of age in the era of what is sometimes called metafiction or hyperfiction -- the late ‘60s, early ‘70s -- and this novel, surfacing in the mid ‘80s just after the punk-New Wave surge of new school avant-gardes, shows a writer so fully in command of his technique and his vision as to be utterly daunting -- the way a few other novels of the ‘80s are daunting, like Gaddis’ American Gothic (1985), like McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), like Morrison’s Beloved (1987), like DeLillo’s The Names (1982) -- and also more engaged than any of those I’ve just mentioned with what we might call the theater of social behavior. And Coover is quite successful, ultimately, at convincing me (did I ever really doubt it?) that that is what the novel is and should be about.

Leave it to others to explore the deformations of place and race and language. Coover has his eye on theater as the ancient and unavoidably modern site of all configurations of the self -- particularly the social and sexual self. The party is on at Gerald’s house, but so is murder and a murder investigation, and various liaisons, and a cacophony of voices crisscrossing and stepping on each other’s lines, and numerous sex acts and acts of food preparation and consumption and costume changes and tellings of jokes and stories and dreams, also filming and play-acting and paintings and gangbangs and a stopped-up toilet and straight-faced farce and slapstick death.

Coover’s narrator -- Gerald -- is attuned to the rhythms of human interaction to a degree that . . . well, one way to say it might be to think of how Henry James’ narrators handle consciousness and try to imagine that applied to furiously busy action and party conversation. In other words, Gerald’s consciousness is a fabric of what is happening at any moment, moving through the rooms of his house and the incidents occurring there in the chaos of the party as an ambulatory recording device never fully grasping or elucidating what is actually happening. It takes some getting used to, but my encounter with reading it had the effect of making life -- my own or some version thereof -- cognitively accessible to that manner of telling. It’s something that happens when reading DeLillo too, I’ve noticed: the way the world around one suddenly begins to “speak” with the voice of that kind of narrative.

“What had he said? ‘It was as if the very geography of the world had shifted.’ Yes, ‘something anarchical and dangerous’ -- it was coming back to me.”

Anarchical and dangerous, yes, that’s the feel of the party, which devolves upon the role we so often play in this world, that of spectator, or audience, or reader, or observer of the pageant, the play, the drama, the ritual, inevitably the dance of death that keeps us, well, nothing if not attentive . . . and apprehensive, and maybe responsive and at times depressed, amused, indifferent, and so on, much like our experience of the party and the investigation. (The brilliance of the murder plot is in the fact that it’s unresolvable -- like any act of ‘blame’ for death -- but also in the fact that, as staged so familiarly in any number of entertainments, it always implicates everyone present (including the reader) in the roles -- or let’s say acts -- of victim and murderer.)

“To be a member of the audience, then (so many thoughts, one after another, I staggered on, feeling myself consumed by my own consciousness), was a form of martyrdom . . . .”

Once again I find myself thinking of Joyce's phrase "cruelfiction" as a sense that fiction at this level is a crucifixion, which is to say it partakes of the religious purpose of theater (the death of the god for the sake of the audience who are in turn martyred for the sake of ritual enactment), much as the ritual purpose of sex is always "a death" that denies death. And Coover grasps better than most the feeling that no two people having sex are only or merely two people having sex, but are rather enactments of a human, perhaps even a metaphysical, condition.

"Central to the art of love, I knew [...] as to the art of theater, was the essential fusion of process and product, an acknowledgment of the inherent doubleness -- one's particularity, one' s universality, one's self, one's persona -- of the actor/lover." Say as well "of the act (art) of reading/writing."

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