Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Irish Writing Boom

Good discussion with a number of people involved in Irish publishing on the Granta podcast, such as Joanna Walsh, Sarah Davis-Goff, Amy Herron and Susan Tomaselli. Touches upon how the climate has changed for Irish women’s writing and how journals can encourage more experimental prose.

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D.T. Max on David Foster Wallace

D.T. Max having an extended discussion on the Granta podcast about what he learned about David Foster Wallace after having written a biography on the man, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.

Don DeLillo at Shakespeare and Company

Don DeLillo put in an appearance at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop n Paris on the publicity trail for his newest novel Zero K. In the first he talks about Underworld and reads a short story based on his experience of the 9/11 attacks, and in the second he talks in detail about Zero K.

 

Ben Lerner reads John Berger’s ‘Woven, Sir’

Ben Lerner and John Berger have been two guys on my to-read list for a very long time, and here one of them is, reading a short story by the other. Short story is very good, though I might say the post and pre-reading discussion is even better.

http://www.newyorker.com/podcast/fiction/ben-lerner-reads-john-berger

The Eugenics Theme in J.G. Farrell’s ‘Troubles’

I’m usually loathe to read an Irish novel exclusively as a national allegory, having been drilled during my degree to avoid such lazy readings, but occasionally a novel will come along that absolutely begs a particular reading, along otherwise retrograde lines. J.G. Farrell’s novel Troubles is one such text. First, its deceptively simple title refuses to make the distinction between the troubles that are then beginning to take root across Ireland during the war of independence, and the more interior troubles of one Major Brendan Archer, a veteran of the first world war, journeying to and taking up residence in Killnalough, County Wexford.

It is there that he meets his fiancée, Angela, her father Edward, and a number of other old-aristocracy Protestant eccentrics, marooned in a disused hotel at a time when history, modernity and political upheaval looks to be deposing them into irrelevance. The house begins to crumble at its foundations, trees grow in under the floorboards, the young and old all seem to be afflicted with either cognitive or physical ailments, and worst of all, a statue of Queen Victoria is detonated by a local Shinner’s IED.

As we can see, the way is clear to see Troubles as a allegorical look at the fallen state of the Protestant, Anglo-Irish upper middle class. To accentuate this, Farrell intersperses the narrative with a number of newspaper reports and parliamentary exchanges, inviting us to see Archer’s attempts to maintain the Majestic hotel, the building and its inhabitants both in a state of disrepair in conjunction with the turmoil engulfing both Europe and Ireland, then under assault from the Black and Tans.

The effect of being faced with an existential threat posed to those of a certain class is one of the crucial facets of the novel, and that is the effect that it seems to have on the libidinal impulses of the men. It is clear from the outset that the Majestic is a synecdoche of a kind of a failed state, even only from a demographic point of view; most of the men and women are aged and beset by physical and mental ailments; with Angela’s death and Archer’s passivity, emotional isolation (a subtle by-product of his post-traumatic stress disorder) , it is fairly obvious that the Majestic will be, from the perspective of its population, non-viable fairly soon. This is highlighted in a scene in which Edward and Archer stage a social at the house, attempting to bring the Majestic back to its glory days. Archer takes a long, considered look at his guest’s appearances:

“This was the fact of Anglo-Ireland, the inbred Protestant aristocracy, the face, progressively refining itself into a separate, luxurious species, which had ruled Ireland for almost five hundred years: the wispy fair hair, the eyes too close together, the long nose and protruding teeth…”

Yet this does not prevent the fact that the primary dramatic conflict in the text is between Edward and Archer, essentially sparring one another for control over, and sexual access to, Sarah Devlin, a local Catholic girl.

This lack of viable options for the men, leads to a perpetuation of the sort of incestuous, (and, indeed, paedophilic, at times) practices alluded to in the above quotation. Angela has two younger sisters, the twins, Faith and Charity, who are nearing adolescence. At one stage in the novel, they recover some records, and convince Archer to dance with them, keen to practice their waltzes and suchlike. Finding himself unable, he decides to watch them, along with Mr Norton, who appears in the novel as a kind of comic-relief pervert, which might have been funny in the seventies, when the novel was published, but now reads as yuck:

“(the Major changed the needle and wound up the gramophone as quickly as he could, so that they would not stop this enjoyable display) they gradually became flushed and flirtatious. Their eyes sparkled. They flashed lingering smiles at the Major as they danced round. They licked their lips with delightful pink tongues”

etc. etc. etc, for about a page.

Mr. Norton’s attraction to, and flirtations with, the children are written off as the caprice of an older man trying to hold onto his youth, but it is not this, nor the fundamental weirdness of someone fancying the underage that slights the esteem in which Archer holds Norton. Rather, it is Norton’s mistaken belief that he, rather than Archer, who is the target of the girls’ affection. He allows the dance to proceed, confident in the knowledge that it is the girls who fancy him.

This is a synecdoche of the wider plot, wherein Archer believes himself to be a sure match for Sarah Devlin, only to find that she has been having an affair with Edward. Nothing lasting comes of the relationship, but the age-gap, in both contexts, twenty to thirty years at least, reveals the desperation at the heart of this segment of Irish society, and its bleak prospects for assuming the role of ‘the ruling class’ over the course of the next century.

The creepy habits of those in charge, of course, mostly remain intact going forward.

Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ and the difficulty of endings

For novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, or novels within the tradition of novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, where the length or complexity thereof acts to a certain extent as a deterrent, endings are difficult things. Finnegans Wake, Ulysses or Infinite Jest are densely referential, intricate and occasionally intractable narratives and the very notion of ending them can seem antithetical to the impulse that motivates an author to write a book that brushes up against a thousand pages.

For each of the novels I’ve named above, different strategies are adopted where the notion of an ending is elided or dodged. Those who are familiar with Finnegans Wake will know that Joyce deliberately constructed the novel to have a circular structure, where the ending, in theory, brings the reader back to the beginning. I say ‘in theory.’ I have to doubt myself that any reader who, having made her way through the Wake in its entirety finds herself now naively leafing back to the front page, on and on ad infinitum. This is to leave aside Joyce’s final inscriptions on Ulysses and the Wake with the city he wrote the novel in, and the years spent writing it. As such, the circularity of the Wake can only really be conceptual. All novels have to end, so it is, as I said, a dodge. But an interesting dodge.

The final lines of the Wake read as follows:

“We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved along the”

The beginning reads:

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

If we were to read these lines sequentially, we can detect a definite shift in tone, the ending is told in almost a fervent hush, lots of haitch sounds and staccato repetitions. I’m never usually one for syllabic analysis, but ‘grass behush the bush to’ seems to insist on a certain mutedness, a sense of petering out. So too the elegiac ‘Coming, far! End here. Us then’ Equally I suppose, it could summon memories of Father Ted‘s ‘small, far away’ schema. The final ‘sentence’ ‘a way a lone a last,’ seems particularly evocative, rather than serving an adjectival function, as in ‘alone’ or ‘away,’ they become nouns, alone-ness or last-ness incarnated, before we are rushed forward into the panorama of Dublin Bay once again, Howth Castle and Environs where Bloom proposed to Molly, and at the same time evoking the generative, fertile image of H.C.E., which stands for a lot of things in the course of the Wake, but may as well, for the moment, mean Here Comes Everybody.

Speaking of the Blooms, in Ulysses, Molly is permitted to close things out, with an extended soliloquy of sixty some pages, with about eight full-stops. It’s an ingenious structural technique, especially after the comparatively ‘dry’ episodes that precede the final ‘Penelope’ episode, ‘Eumaeus,’ and ‘Ithaca,’ the latter of which takes the form of a series of questions and answers that seem to pride themselves on the cool detachment, pedantry of their tone. In this way, Molly’s closing sentences seem more like a celebration of the fecundity of language and the body, without wishing to get too Earth Mother about it.

“then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

One should note that Molly have Bloom’s proposal in mind as she thinks this, equally, she might be thinking about her other great love when she was younger in Gibraltar. Either this is an affirmation of her relationship with Bloom, that there may be hope for them to re-kindle their ailing (depends on how you look at it, all the same) relationship, or she might continue to feel nostalgia for past loves, what might have been. Or both. They’re not mutually exclusive. On a final note, that ‘s’ sound transmutes fairly easily into the opening salvo, ‘Stately plump Buck &c.’

Infinite Jest presents us with an interesting negotiation of this issue, its one hundred pages of footnotes means we have a choice when deciding what ‘the ending’ is. I don’t have a copy to hand right now, but I think I remember the last footnote being arch and self-aware in some way. The final sentence of the prose narrative proper, takes place I think a few years, maybe a decade before the thrust of the actual narrative gets underway, it consists of a flashback of a extended drug binge the venerable Don Gately indulges on in some point during his years spent in the Massachusetts drug scene. But Foster Wallace has us in deciding on a beginning too, the start of the novel takes place a few months after the main events of Infinite Jest have concluded, long after the Quebecois separatists have shown up at the Enfield Tennis Academy and after the dust has settled with everything regarding the samizdat, that great scene with Hal Incandenza failing to make himself understood to a panel of interviewers working in the University of Arizona. With all these conflicting, interwoven chronotopes based around establishing the novel’s beginning or ending, Foster Wallace seems to have pulled off a successful elision of finishing Infinite Jest; the novel ends more or less arbitrarily, leaving the reader to try and figure out the chronology of the action-packed climax that the novel has supposedly been building to. Not only does Infinite Jest not have a proer beginning or end-point, there isn’t really a coherent middle-point to speak of either.

The ending to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow takes a different, no less self-conscious tack. Much of the novel’s arc is concerned with Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop’s attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery of an experimental V-2 rocket, and a component thereof known as the Schwarzgerät, or ‘black device.’ Many, many other things happen too, this being a Pynchon novel, but I will endeavour to keep myself focused on the ending, which relates the actual launching of the device at a cinema, a real-life actual event in Antwerp, where 567 people were killed. Just as the rocket is about to strike, the jovial correspondent narrator halts its momentum in mid-air:

“And it is just here, just at this dark and silent frame, that the pointed tip of the Rocket, falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely forever and forever without sound, reaches its last unmeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t.

There is time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs…or, if a song must find you…here’s one…sung to a simple and pleasant air of the period. Follow the bouncing ball:

There is a Hand to turn the time,

Though thy Glass to day be run,

Till the Light that hath brough the Towers low

Find the last poor Pret’rite one…

Till the Riders sleep by ev’ry road,

All through our crippl’d Zone,

With a face on ev’ry mountainside,

And a soul in ev’ry stone…

Now everybody-“

I don’t think it’s too extravagant to view these last two words as an invective to the reader, to every potential reader, to partake in the communal sing-song, one that is quite morbid, not to mention laden with references to the narrative that precedes it. The fact that it takes place in the briefest moment before the rocket’s impact adds to the poignancy, and casts all the other apparently whimsical vaudeville old-Hollywood sing-alongs in an altogether different pall, perhaps they are just for the purposes of distracting ourselves from our own demise, whether it be for the onanist or the happily coupled. In the pages leading up to this, we get a throwaway reflection on the nature of endings:

“He thinks of their love in illustrations for children, in last thin pages fluttering closed, a line gently, passively unfinished,”

which is of course what we get in the above hyphen. It would be a straightforward matter, also, to link this with the Hansel & Gretel pantomime that Roger Mexico and Jerssica Mossmoon attend with Jessica’s nieces, during the production, (significantly, just before Gretel is about to dispose of the witch by beating her into the furnace) the Germans bomb a building down the street. The children become distressed, and the actor playing Gretel leads the crowd in another, seemingly innocent tune, which addresses the fact of our existences as transitory and contingent:

“And the lamps up the stairway are dying,

It’s the season just after the ball…

Oh the palm trees whisper on a beach somewhere,

And the lifesaver’s heaving a sigh,

And the voices you hear, Girl and Boy of the Year,

Are of children who are learning to die…”

This is only an excerpt of the song, and there is plenty of it to unpack, but I’ll stick to the topic for the moment. The fact that Gravity’s Rainbow‘s ending is caught in a moment of indefinite postponement, a kind of narrative caprice, is crucial, bearing in mind what Pynchon encourages the reader to dwell upon in the moments leading up to it, and in sections of the novel that anticipate the ending. Namely, death. Which is omnipresent, and inescapable. We all know this, and singing songs about it are all very well and good to distract us, but Pynchon seems to be focusing on the ending as an instrument through which we can re-assimilate our understanding. Death is an ending, of course, but an ending doesn’t have to be death. It, like the moment of Molly Bloom’s yes, can be just as affirmative and celebratory as a story’s beginning.

WD Clarke’s ‘White Mythology’ & The Unbearable Loneliness of Books

David Foster Wallace liked to make the point that books can act as a cure for loneliness. I found a longer version of the quotation in a place, the source of which I cannot verify:

“Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.”

            Foster Wallace talks about curing loneliness via self-forgetfulness or transcendence, by first expanding the curative power of books beyond just the words on thin slices of tree soup, to art in general. Regarding the drugs or sex, I probably can’t quibble.

But I would quibble with the idea that fiction allows us to not be lonely. I can’t buy it. It reminds me too much of other Brainpickings sort of things I read about books, the ability that novels supposedly allows us to connect with another human, no matter how far removed we are from them by time, space, other variables. But ultimately, the reading of a book is a one-way dialogue and it’s not so much a cure for loneliness as a cosmetic treatment of a symptom.

We might consider this when reading WD Clarke’s two novellas, White Mythology, and the role that books, especially novels as distinct from books or narrative, play in the text. The first novella, ‘Skinner Boxed,’ is protagonised by Dr. Ed, a psychiatrist and a biological determinist. The novella documents Dr. Ed’s travails as the formerly neatly compartmentalised sections of his life become unsettled; his wife disappears, a son he didn’t know he had shows up on his doorstep and clinical trials of a new drug seem to not be going to plan. In this first half of White Mythology, the narrative voice blends with Dr. Ed’s own process of rationalising his experience of the world, and, as many satires of reason’s process are prone to be, the wording soon becomes recursive:

“The short term appeared to be so-not good that his long-term prospects were unchartable. The short-term chart was so very contra-positive that even the notion, even the suggestion of a ‘long’ term, as far as Max was concerned, was a dream originating in an opium pipe stocked with extraordinary psychotropic powers indeed.”

Dr. Ed’s peculiar distance from his own existence can be attributed to a formative experience at the hands of a Jesuit teacher, who offers him the moral lesson to be found in Great Expectations:

“If you visited Wemmick at the strange, miniature castle that was his home…he would have appeared to you to be the most generous and hospitable man you had ever met, and one full of colour, full of life. However, if you had the misfortune of visiting him at work, at the office of the ultracompetitive and successful lawyer Jaggers, for whom he toiled ceaselessly, you would have encountered an entirely different being…here was a man who worked in a black and white, in a world of instrumental reason…”

Dr. Matthews is opening the young Dr. Ed to the capitalist critique within Dickens, the play-acting and mechanisation that capitalism occasions in its participants, particularly in their working lives. However, Dr. Ed seems to have taken the intended whack of the lesson rather differently, and finds, while reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, that he can ‘turn off’ his ‘emotions’ by ‘flicking’ a ‘switch’ inside his head. The inverted commas deployed whenever he does so ironise the event sufficiently, and bode ill for his capacity to detect when his son might be reaching out for his attention, when he mentions that the novel he’s reading, Great Expectations again, is about ‘an orphan.’

His scepticism regarding the writings of Sigmund Freud should be viewed in a similar light. Bearing in mind that he finds himself plagued by dreams, apparently about eggs, and the emotions that he’s worked so hard to repress are coming to revenge themselves upon him, he could conceivably locate within Freud a more sustaining interpretative schema than what lies on the ‘More drugs, less talk’ end of the discipline.

It could be argued that it is in the second novella, the less chronological and more populous ‘Love’s Alchemy’ posits an alternative in its being slightly lighter on the literary references, (some good Donne lines appear) and being more dialogue driven. It makes an interesting contrast with the tortured ratiocination of Dr. Ed, aswell as providing a vehicle for the telling of stories within stories, particularly ones about childhood and generally formative ones from adulthood.

It may be that novels are more vehicles for confirming our own solipsism and outlook. We can talk about the death of the author all we want, our interpretations will never inflect a work’s DNA, but it is through narrative and storytelling, books without covers, that we can get outside, that we can feel less alone.