Monthly Archives: May 2016

Post-Soviet America and Don DeLillo’s ‘Underworld’

Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld opens in 1951, at a famous or infamous baseball game, (depending on whether you care more about the Brooklyn Dodgers or the New York Giants) where Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and J. Edgar Hoover sit in the stands and watch. One of the novel’s many characters, Cotter Martin, playing hooky from school in order to attend, has a blithe conversation with Bill Waterson, across racial divides, in 1951 of all times. The tone throughout is stately, smooth and as good as DeLillo gets. Is this a novel about Old America, pre the frequently articulated loss of American innocence? A great American novel about great American people in all their ordinary humanness, through which an underplayed redemption is obtained? A nostalgic paean to pre-counter-culture, old New York? Yes, and at the same time, absolutely not, there is nothing about ordinary, white bread, milquetoast America in this novel, and the closest we get to a ‘nuclear’ family is the most distorted, upsetting, Stepford-y sections in the text.

This is for the reason that DeLillo’s prose, and I mean this as praise, simply will not allow real life in:

“Then they were everywhere at once again, looped about each other, everything new for the second time, and she closed her eyes to see them together, which she could almost do, which she could do for the sheerest time, bodies turned and edged and sidled, one way and the other, this and that concurrent, here but also there, like back-fronted Picasso lovers.”

Sometimes the only response worth outlining to a quotation is, well, there it is. This is one such occasion.

But one of the many things that makes Underworld so gratifying, is, if it is straddling the Great American Baggage, it is also resisting the obvious potential response, the sort of counter-cultural, Anglo-Dutch patronymics, scattered, dispersed, yet totally connected plots and clockwork characters of Thomas Pynchon. James Wood describes Underworld as a ‘post-paranoid novel,’ and he is not suggesting, when he does so, that the novel has somehow moved beyond paranoia. One would have to be an inferior literary critic to claim that in the two-year span that produced Underworld, Infinite Jest and Mason & Dixon that the contemporary American novel was in some way done with paranoia, but he is pointing to a component of Underworld, DeLillo’s subversion of what some of his mates might be up to.

DeLillo has expressed nostalgia for the Old America of the fifties, but as was said, this is not something that Underworld expresses baldly. For many of its characters in retrospect, the Cold War was a time of certainty, one knew who the enemy was, and who you were. The good guys. When this all falls away, when Kennedy is shot, when the Zapruder film is released, when the civil rights movement exposes white supremacy, the answer is a lot less clear. Messrs Pynchon, Foster Wallace have tended to align a critique on not totally dissimilar lines along with the rise of consumerism, and these things certainly aren’t unrelated, but DeLillo has a more interesting take on the matter, and the vast, uncomprehendable quantity of waste that it produces. DeLillo’s descriptions of such things are tinged with religiosity and rather than slinging a sardonic eye the way of piled-up garbage, reaches a pitch of intense profundity, saying that we may judge our progress as a civilisation by charting our relationship with our own waste: “Civilisation did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilisation in response, in self-defense.”

Further, the character of Marvin, the collector of baseball memorabilia, and one of the owners of the famous baseball that threads itself through the novel seems to me to be a satire of Pynchon’s metaphor-for-narrative narratives: “Marvin said, ‘’Which the whole thing is interesting because when they make an atomic bomb, listen to this, they make the radioactive core the exact same size as a baseball.’ Through the narration, the whole wandering epic, skimmed here, protracted there, Brian was confident that the man was slipshod only in the telling. The search itself had clearly been hard, fierce, thorough and consuming.’ Marvin’s submersion in his past, determined to trace the baseball’s origin story, and relate it to the bomb, is the real nostalgia, almost as if DeLillo is getting one over and getting past the paranoid maximalism of his peers. By investigating the effects of capital influx into post-Soviet Russia in the epilogue, and the new dispensation that exists between the two states in an age of invisible ideology, De Lillo is attending to something more vivid and fundamental.

This quotation gives some sense of one aspect of what it is that the Underworld of the title refers to, you’d have to read the book to get at all of them. It is a novel about subterranean connections and invisible intersections. As the novel continues, one finds oneself increasingly noticing, drawing analogies, knowing that you’re missing others that might only reveal themselves the second time around. This is Underworld’s underworld; more so than many other novels from the time, it is pointing you again and again to what is beyond the page, to what’s beneath the words. You could go mental doing it, wonder why some chapters would be more aptly named with the title that a different chapter has, in what precise order the baseball passes from one character to another, which I suppose is only fitting for a novel in which a baseball is semi-seriously analogous to the equally mythologised magic bullet. But don’t spend all your time trying to read past Underworld, not when the prose is this this:

“This was a statement she couldn’t make, partly out of personality but also because she could not feel the ordinary contentment of things the way she used to. She could not feel favoured or charmed.

He’d replaced her life with his leaving. The voice running through her head was not the voice she used to hear before he left…There was less of her now and more of other people. She was becoming other people. Maybe that’s why they called her Rose.”

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John Banville’s ‘The Book of Evidence’ and Anglo-Irish Nostalgia

Every time I read a John Banville novel, I wish that it were the first time that I was reading a John Banville novel because, taken in a vacuum, each one is a work of great invention. Banville has a capacity to infuse into his high narratives of failed epistemology features of non-high literature (an impulse that Banville now channels into his Benjamin Black persona), and his post-Nabokovian reveries are surely among the most compelling of their kind but, having read about four them, a pattern begins to stand out and here we come to the less appealing aspects of his writing.

  • The perpetually waning, ethereal, always-described-relative-to-their-physical-features female ‘characters.’
  • The aging, reprehensibly lecherous but aesthetically-atuned middle-aged or old men at each of the novel’s centres.
  • The deconstruction of the novel’s artifice every page or so.
  • Four or five points at which it is suggested that the plot in its entirety is contrived.
  • The quiet twist in the text’s last four or five pages.

I could go on, and say a lot of other things that annoy me but the London Review of Books pretty well covered it in its review of his most recent novel The Blue Guitar. So I’ll just say that The Infinities featuring an omniscient God-narrator rather rather than a mortal one, allowed the usual course of his writings to be unsettled and re-vitalised in a way. Still a shame about Helen Godley, as sketchily characterised as she is attractive. Similarly, Banville remains a good sentencer, with a firm grasp on underplayed humour and The Book of Evidence had more than the average amount of good phrases and the momentary diversions of his baroque prose style is generally enough to get me through one of his books.

However, there was more than just this to keep my interest throughout The Book of Evidence, and that was the main character’s apparent nostalgia for the departed world of Georgian Dublin, through the prism of the Anglo-Irish ruling class. Freddie Montgomery is of upper-middle class Catholic stock, though his household, when he returns to Ireland, seems to have Gone Down, as big houses in Irish books will do. Montgomery remembers his father’s attitude to modern Irish history in the following terms: ‘the world, the only worthwhile world, had ended with the last viceroy’s departure from these shores. After that it was all just a wrangle among peasants.’ He even calls Dún Laoghaire Kingstown. This nostalgic treatment of seventeenth-century Ireland is familiar within Irish literature, as one can see from the works of W.B. Yeats and Elizabeth Bowen. One can perhaps just about glimpse the emergent rhythms of Banville’s prose style in the following quote from Bowen’s Court:

‘The great bold rooms, the high doors imposed an order on life. Sun blazed in at the windows, fires roared in the grates. There was a sweet, fresh-paned smell from the floors. Life still kept a touch of colonial vigour; at the same time, because of the glory of everything, it was bound up in the quality of a dream.’

Some of Banville’s thematic preoccupations seem to be gestured towards here also, the faint oscillation of unreality beneath appearance, the intensity of things just in their raw being-ness and the wealth on the backs of colonial subjects without the compromising fact of their existence relates to Banville’s capacity to keep his distance from the interiority of others, and perhaps from the interiority of protagonists themselves. We see also an attraction to surface and a repudiation of tacky actualness.

Roy Foster sees the eighteenth-century pursuit of a high-style in all things from buildings, public works and overwrought, intricate furbelows in their neo-classical architecture as a try-hard pathology in response to their self-perception, a recognition of their colonial status with the attempt to construct a better capital with better public buildings than the English. Foster writes that many contemporary visitors to Dublin expected a provincial town and were confronted with a totally inappropriate level of architectural and civic grandeur. One, in a mode that is not entirely un-Banvillean mode writes that visiting Dublin was like being ‘at table with a man who serves me Burgundy, but whose attendant is a bailiff disguised in livery.’ This pretentiousness emerges from Georgian Dublin’s precarious sense of itself and relates meaningfully to Banville’s high style, as a compensation for the insufficiency of one’s identity. Montgomery’s dreams, his notions, his self are even more dream like, than they at first seem, as they are constructed on a misinterpretation of history.

Ten Year Anniversary of Garrett Phelan’s Black Brain Radio @IMMA

Content warning: Post contains excessive, undue use of the first person pronoun.

I really like Arts Tonight on RTÉ. Its quiet pace, insider baseball language and uncompromising commitment to taking a deliberate, intellectual approach to the arts would be easy to parody, but because of its informativeness and tendency to source academics for its panels, it is among the best arts programmes in radio, and I mean the best from both RTÉ and the BBC. I find that the BBC, In Our Time aside, too often goes in for either Today Programme ebullience, in demanding straightforward-one-word, no-nonsense answers to weighty abstract questions or a whimsically boisterous tone, in pursuit of an imagined layman. It is sadly the case that it may be the among the only remaining serious arts programme left on the radio.

On a recent episode, on the subject of a book taking a retrospective view on five hundred years of Irish sculpture, Vincent Woods spoke on a particular work he once saw. What seems to have made this piece distinctive for Woods was its temporary nature and this allowed him to strike a personal note, which is welcome, and definitely rare in a programme that wears its occasional staidness with pride. Woods described ‘a sculpture trail in Achill, I think it was in 1996…I was lucky enough to see it and I’ll never forget, even some of the sounds, the sound of a cement mixer in an abandoned concrete house on the Edgewood Cliff…and a series of mirrors on Corrie Lake which just sat like petals, floating on the water…those sorts of images stay.’

Woods’ comments made me think of my own relationship with art that engages with its spatial component to such an extent that it often can’t be replicated elsewhere, or at least without inducing a logistical nightmare, such as site-specific or public art. I can always pick up a Yeats poem that made me feel something, or recall a sentence in The Green Road that makes something cold break over my spine and disseminate itself in my nerves, but I can’t summon up the way that Owen Roe reads an Oscar Wilde story, or Barry McGovern performs Beckett. Installation has that effect too, perhaps accentuated because of my relative ignorance when it comes to contemporary art in general, which may be an asset, because I haven’t yet lost that sense of challenge that confronts one when standing in a space with a thing that has a mass, that one has to mobilise oneself around, perhaps through, in order to grapple with it adequately.

With this in mind, around this time ten years ago I went to IMMA, and saw an installation that I’ve probably been thinking about ever since. The installation occupied one of the many white, airy rooms in the museum and it was on this occasion, that it was sparsely adorned and contained only a vintage-seeming radio, perched on a makeshift metal platform. One of the corners of the room was spray-painted black.

The installation was Black brain radio, and in a wider sense, beyond the confines of the room, it was a sequence of audio pieces recorded, collated and arranged by the artist Garrett Phelan. The pieces were broadcast for about thirty days in early 2006 on the 89.9 FM frequency and touched on topics as varied as the presidency of George W. Bush, the evolution/creationism debate and self-actualisation, albeit in each case, very obliquely. Phelan recorded himself reading reams of material from newspapers, books, or transcribed conversations from commercial radio. However, Phelan didn’t inflect his speech to suit what it was that he was reading, nor did he ‘produce’ his recording in the usual sense. His recordings were no-frills, highlighted by time he took to cough, yawn into the microphone or stop in the middle of a sentence.

I listened to it constantly for as long as it was broadcast, struck primarily by its strangeness and motivated by some desire to understand what the broadcast was adding up to. I think I knew it was mostly nonsense, or too fragmentary to be a whole, but I didn’t realise the extent of its aleatory qualities at the time. Phelan had cut his recordings into two-minute chunks, and randomised the broadcast on an MP3 player, so whatever sequentiality Black brain radio developed was always accidental, always provisional.

Since becoming conscious of how possible it is to purchase just about anything on the internet, I’ve been searching for some hard copy of Black brain radio, and I was thrilled to eventually find it on Discogs; a guy in Holland owned one of the 200 pressings of the broadcast issued by Nine Point records. I was disappointed to realise that the CD doesn’t contain the entire broadcast, but of course, that would’ve been too easy and insufficiently conceptual. My copy has two, apparently random, 30 minute chunks.

The product itself contains a fairly lengthy essay in its sleeve which makes some gesture towards enclosing the meaning or significance of Black brain radio. Of course, it makes no such claims for itself, but it’s hard not to regard it as a manifesto for the work, outfitted with Dadaistic murals and slogans, positing radio as a more immanent mode of dissemination than television; its history more implicated with the opposed forces of revolution and fascism. It’s a slightly essentialist history, it claims radio has a power to foster community while running counter to globalisation, but it’s a well-written and a competent anatomising of the project, and how it aims to transcend fascistic taste-makers of art and democratise its appreciation. Now I will criticise it. I don’t think that Black brain radio quite rose to the heights of anti-globalisation, de-naturation of self and disarticulation of the simulated nature of community that the essay posits, nor do I see the kind of engagement with manufactured consent, the point at which opinions are generated by our encounters with mass-media outlets. Rather, I see it as definitively located within a critique of the artifice of commercial radio.

Ben Anderson praises the vitality and capacity of radio to create communities through voice, but Black brain radio seems far too drained, or doubled back on itself to be indicative of a community spirit being generated in this way. Rather, I see or behold in Black brain radio an antiquarian anxiously parsing transcripts of an irretrievably lost past with no sense of its context, or even how it should be read. Phelan speaks in a cold, blank drawl and what springs to mind of course is Beckett’s radio plays, but without Beckett’s rhythm or bursts of lyricism. This is highlighted all the more by the sardonic intrusions of the overplayed radio hits of the day used occasionally as an audio bed (albeit without the high standard of production one would expect from a ‘normal’ broadcast). Snoop Dogg’s tune Signs (feat. Justin Timberlake & Charlie Wilson) features, followed by the usual senseless over-production, overheard from FM 104 that Phelan leaves on while he’s recording, that leavens mass-media artefacts. ‘Fun fact’ type segments wherein tedious information is rehearsed also, interspersed with milquetoast banter from co-hosts in the same lifeless, blank tone of an over-long exhalation.

Five years and counting of higher education, have prepared me to approach all manifestations of a creative impulse with a scalpel, murdering to dissect and to have a thing to say, for fear of coming away feeling like a dope. In his introduction to William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, William Gass offers the critic an alternative:

“No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation…would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes…Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms.”

This is increasingly coming to my mind when I listen to academic papers, Arts Tonight or when I read the essay that accompanies the CD, written by Sarah Pierce. It doesn’t matter what’s under discussion, the history of the Irish Sea, Leda and the Swan, or the errant jotters of Leonardo da Vinci, almost everything discussed features some variation on limits, peripheries, narratives, stereotypes, re-conceptualisations, differential networks of meaning, straw man paradoxes, etc, this programmatic patter that smothers what is unique about everything, and makes it the same tortured play of nothing. I’m not opposed to criticism, I never will be, but I’m sure we all recognise the patterns of reductionism, and recognise too, real, dynamic, elevating critiques every bit as vital as their subject.

This sense of wonder, this physical reaction that certain works of art can engender in us is not a mysterious quintessence antithetical to its explanation; criticism as its best can intensify, even prompt it. These received routes of understanding should be eschewed and replaced by something amazing.

Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Poor Mouth’ and the Altitudinous Authenticity of the Gael

Flann O’Brien’s satirical, picaresque novel The Poor Mouth was written in Irish and a decent English translation was a long time in the making. O’Brien was deeply informed on the subject of Irish literature; his M.A. Thesis was entitled Nature Poetry in Irish. An Béal Bocht, to give it its original title, took its inspiration from the semi-fictionalised autobiographical memoir foisted on Irish schoolchildren, authored by Peig Sayers, or Tomás Ó Criomhthain. As a lifelong lover of the language, aswell as a not unskilled prose stylist in his own right, O’Brien seems uncannily capable of emulating the same understatedly ariose, yet monotonous and repetitive qualities that comprises the diction of these pieces. Capturing the very particularity of the pastiche that O’Brien was conveying with a straight face as far as the content itself goes, must have been a staggering task for a would-be translator. I’m glad it exists.

 
O’Brien’s satire takes particular aim at the essentialist notions of those who would hold the native Irish speakers up as being ‘the most Irish,’ of deserving beatification in the Irish Free State for their lack of engagement with the fiendish Saxons. Such notions are of course ahistorical; O’Brien names his protagonist Bonaparte O’Coonassa, reaching back to the failed revolution of the late eighteenth century in Ireland, and the assistance received from the French against the English. For this Napoleon was rewarded with canonical status in manifold artifacts from the Irish folk tradition, along the lines of enemy of my enemy is &c. rationale. If you’re into Irish folk/want to hear more along these lines here’s a link to an archived episode of The Rolling Wave from RTÉ Lyric FM on the subject.

The worst offenders against O’Brien’s sensibilities are the antiquarian, self-identified Gaeilgeoir academics who invade O’Coonassa’s region of Corca Dhorcha. In these scenes we see O’Brien re-treading the ethnographic trips of John Millington Synge and his ilk who beheld the inhabitants of the West of Ireland, in their prodigious poverty, a more meaningful or authentic Irishness, allowing the Irish Literary Imagination and those responsible for it to culturally agitate for self-determination, while retaining their disregard for the urban poor.

In these sequences, there remains the familiar trope of the native being completely misunderstood by the credulous would-be ethnographer, who, when seeking to record one of the many stories the islanders are known to have in their repertoires, instead becomes an internationally renowned and decorated scholar for recording the inchoate grunts of a pig dressed in a suit, dressed as such by the natives to game the government into providing them with cash for the welfare of their kids.

O’Brien is unsparing too in his treatment of the Gaelic, who he, in one of his correspondences, derided as being in many cases, a ‘moronic’ people. One should note that O’Brien modulates the ethnography trope slightly in that the subjects of the study are not getting one over on the interloper, but merely sit mute in darkness, unable to summon up a narrative for the benefit of the scholar. The pig merely takes the initiative. The backward indigence and fatalism of the natives comes in for O’Brien’s scorn, in one particular sequence in which Sitric O’Sanassa seems to be an object of some envy among his neighbours for the extremity of his starvation and poverty, makes a memorable request of his onlookers, which confirms the multi-directionality of O’Brien’s satire:

 
“would ye carry me to the seaside and throw me into the sea? There’s not the weight of a rabbit in me and ‘twould be small deed for well-fed sound men to throw me over a cliff.”