At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

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Watched AJ’s The Holy Mountain again yesterday. The triumphant “Zoom back, camera!” conclusion is earned not just by the preposterousness of the story, nor the constant interplay between levels of fantasy and reality throughout, but also by the film’s core of sincerity. THM is a savage takedown of societies that have become tolerant of and cooperative with fascistic commerciality, trivialisation of history, perversion of progressive ideals, and artistic degeneration; on some level it’s a sympathetic though appropriative adaptation of old mystical manuals that advocates a regenerated social self-consciousness. The meta rupture is consistent with the barmy genius and sleight of hand throughout THM but also with its sense of urgent appeal.

ASTB is a milestone in metafiction, indulging almost from its first page in multi-narrative intertwinement and intrusion, though, like THM, there’s a sense of climax in the trial scene. Like THM, it’s barmy and dripping with talent, as in the deft evocations of traditional verse and legends. Its humour is mostly lyrical, particularly in the timing and the believable Dublin registers – the middle section covering the Pooka’s journey with the Fairy to the birthday celebrations becomes increasingly farcical. The profanity, while derided on publication, is always funny too, from the first page’s description of Finn MacCool’s prodigious bulk: “three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain-pass.” It’s not funny the whole way through though, and again I think this is in part because of an underlying urgency.

It’s possible I’m just weighed down by the density. Joyce comparisons are of course apt and appropriate but Ulysses is comparatively nimble, in some of its registers. While there are frequent interruptions from imported adverts and reference works, the predominant authorial voice here is latinate, polysyllabic, declarative; sense from the beginning of legal documentation attempting to establish objectivity (there’s some chat at one point about author’s failing to make their characters distinct, giving them all the same voice). Fits also with the structure of titled sections. There’s lighthearted satire of Joycean predispositions to academic discussion in both the internal characters and the students, but the concluding section is a bitterly tragic musing on superstition. Throughout, the difficulty of finding a position from which to speak (suggestions on wiki of polysemy as postcolonial anxiety seem very interesting).

This instability is tackled most honestly, at plot-level, at the plane on which I most enjoyed spending time: the lazy, often literally supine student. Definitely something of the (much funnier) Lucky Jim about his sozzled, sociable destitution, literary absenteeism and quietly troubling tendency to retreat into private imagination – ASTB may not be the “portrayal of Dublin to compare with Joyce’s Ulysses“, as it is proclaimed to be by Mr Penguin Editor, but it is perhaps a kind of Merrie Ireland. The insecurity is also a literary one, with a stinging attack on the novel form on p.25 standing out as a portable truth, presaging (in its suggestion of the novel as a reference work for already-written characters) the aporetic conclusion(s).

In all, looking back through what followed it, I don’t think it’s travelled entirely well. We need less formal smartarsery in 2017. Its two-pronged attack, consisting of merciless disregard for closure and capricious indulgences in quantity (scanning almost entirely as deadpan, except for one hilarious undercutting of poetic filibustering on 129), is hardly welcoming. Read it again, and read about it before you do. At the very least you can take home A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN in your back pocket.

7

Heshel’s Kingdom (1998)

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Fist time with Dan Jacobson. Certainly clear why Sebald found it thought-provoking enough to write Aust, though DJ’s style is more level (less uniformly melancholic), despite some excursions into passionate questioning (eg. 180). Also a lighter touch (“His Britannic Majesty’s Lieutenant-Colonel Wholly Illegible” 51), with some Brysonian travel moments on 115 and 175. Some pretty devastating meditations and vignettes on 39, 104, 178, 189, etc. Overall just as elusively intergeneric as WGS, being a blend of travel writing, history and auto/biography. Plenty on witnessing, exile, photography (and representation more generally), distances (geographical, psychological, vital/mortal), religious (Jewish, exclusively) constitution of these issues, commemoration and museums.

  • Xi Unreachable history. Human creation
  • 3 witnessing for H. I can speak of him and he cannot answer. 5 task and gift of the living. 219 impossibility of giving testimony. 234 I did not know how to speak of him
  • 6 h is death before and after life
  • 7 more spatial metaphors for death 52 17
  • 8 Jewish nationalistic view of immortality
  • 12 exile at home in Lith. 35 L strange world, obscure moral. 55 to ask for a cup of tea is an adventure, alienating the familiar. 72 only world SA post exile is narrativised. 170 arty world of Lith. 181 reciprocal distance
    • 30 DJ himself feels stranded between poles
  • 13-4 vulnerability of the face to face
  • 15 looking through his glasses, Aust
  • 19 homesickness is universally similar
  • 39 historical similarity only backwards. 47 Hs emphasis on continuity
  • 51 light touch Colonel. 115 bill bryson travel 175
  • 64-5 lives set out, dispersed from point of H death
  • 67 cunning of unreason
  • 69 DJ through train window
  • 75 Lith was like a wound within me. Returning is uncanny
    • 77-8 old world like a womb fled. Dj spoken for in literature. 96 inarticulation
  • 91 holocaust hard to believe though known to have happened, “quasi-fictional”
  • 92 barrier in history
  • 94 compulsion to return
  • 98 spacelessness and timelessness of Jewish experience
  • 104 night terrors
  • 112 WGS underpopulation, 115 witnessing
  • 126 Polyvalence of place names
  • 129-30 ethics of photography. 143 nazi synagogue museums
  • 149 survivors like deaf
  • 158 spatiality of evil
  • 176 quasi revenants
  • 178 welled up a bit at the negotiations of responsibility. 180 passionate criticism of Austria
  • 189 death of a cemetery
  • 208 mundanity replaces the abyss
  • 217-9 ease of blaming victims. Impossility of secular extraction from J teleology
  • 230 dormancy
  • 234 see above

 

The Devils (1871)

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Second time with Dostoyevsky after The Brothers Karamazov.

Effectively dealing with the undermining of ascendant and characteristic Russian “higher liberalism” – “liberalism without any aim whatsoever” (47) – by a group of reactive and destructive young nihilists, socialists, etc. At the centre (supposedly) of the plot is Mr Nicolas Stavrogin, a man whose superficial beauty masks potentially horrifying secrets in the manner of Dorian Gray:

Our dandies regarded him with envy, and were completely eclipsed in his presence. I was also struck by his face: his hair was just a little too black, his light-coloured eyes a little too calm and clear, his complexion a little too tender and white … he would seem to be a paragon of beauty,yet at the same time there was something hideous about him. (56-7)

This initial portrait follows 50 pages of introduction, which themselves focus on the pitiful but pitiable Stepan Verkhovensky, professor, admirer of S’s mother, and windbag exemplar of that “higher liberalism” in his ridiculous pretentiousness and grandiloquent proclamations (undercut frequently by his dearest associate, our narrator). V embodies the kind of baroque and waffly sociability of the town, punctured by S’s wordlessly mocking acts of iniquity, such as comically assaulting a beloved captain. David Magarshack’s fustily labouring translation from the 50s enhances the magnetism of S’s indecencies, as the relentless social pussyfooting around him becomes indistinguishably beige.

There’s a running theme in this early section – pre a significant congregation at which S makes a scene which precipitates agitation throughout the town and initiates plot momentum – dealing with Russia’s self-ignorance. Mrs S hatches the idea for a periodical omnibus which would preserves newsworthy events in the national memory, facts published in journals which “make an impression and are remembered by the public, but then forgotten.” (137; here one echo, among many, of The Secret Agent). These are mirrored by the reams of ineffectual political leaflets which are distributed by unwilling lackeys (275).

Result is that the political insurrections can bubble occultly. The first half is peppered with mysterious events, usually heralded by the narrator as then-inexplicable and summarised with a depiction of the confusion that follows. Increasingly frustrating; narrator’s feelings are ironically mine: “all this led me to believe that something had happened before my arrival, something I knew nothing about, and that, consequently, I was not wanted and that it was none of my business.” (143) V’s son Peter takes centre stage as the mob’s ringleader, exercising a pied-piper influence over the manipulable townsfolk. He stirs up trouble and disingenuously frames this in the same terms as the narrator – “all of you know something and … I’m the only one who does not know that something.” (207-8) He trades in ignorance as currency: he intentionally inflates S’s public persona (323) while himself under his spell.

The reentry of S, at that congregation, is deftly paced; this is definitely the point at which the air of mystery is most alluring in TD. By this point (190) I was eager for S to fill the screen, to sideline the increasingly indistinguishable extras. While we get an alluring section entitled ‘Night’ where we follow S like a shade visiting and bewitching his associates, the focus (contra my synopsis) shifts instead to PV’s cabal of Four Lions-esque nihilists (less funny obviously). At first they are empty but deadly (250) but as we spend more time with Virginsky, Shatov, Lyamkin and Kirilov they get less and less interesting and less and less memorable.

Reduced to a thin series of highlights: Mary Lebyatkin’s introduction is eerie and alluring; the fête is amusingly chaotic and a good centrepiece; Shatov’s assassination is suitably black. There was one moment in the entire book which I loved: PV’s pursuit of Kirilov, the atheistic would-be suicide. It descends into a terrifyingly wordless confrontation, in which K is driven to a kind of statuesque madness, as if paralysed before the possibility of accomplishing or failing in his mission to attain the status of a god through willed self-destruction. 619.

Writing about TD is tiring. Thinking back to The Way of All Flesh – perhaps I don’t have the attention-span or patience for these Victorian wedges any more. It’s fine; definitely not Karamazov (Elder Zossima gets a shoutout 268!). Stavrogin is interesting but unsatisfying; PV is pretty annoying; Kirilov is eventually the most alluring. The chorography is opaque and the social portrait stodgy. The interruption of peasants at the end is an unsatisfactory compromise: TD could certainly do with more life (more Alyosha K etc.). More in note. Next!

5

Skylark (2010)

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Picked up because of the publisher and the author’s name. Was actually written around 1923.

A surprising little tale: gently comic but with the eerie atmosphere of a faded photograph. First chapter introduces the bustling parents, the thick and blinded reliance on habitual duty which dominates their daily activities. They prepare to see their daughter off on a rare holiday with family, leaving them alone for a week – an almost intolerably irregular prospect. Skylark (apparently the girl, although in fact in her 30s) has the purity of heart but absent passivity of Esther Summerson – derived, however, from her extreme lack of external beauty. At the chapter’s close her father cannot meet her gaze after all the devotion evident in his attentions.

The subject of the novel practically in name only, S casts a shadow over the lives of her parents as they struggle blinking back into the world of the town they had long-since abandoned for the society of their child. She has rendered her father, especially, a ghost: “alive” only “here in the past”, in his private studies of heraldry and national historic continuity (24), looking forward only to “his approaching death” (27). S takes on a Gorey-esque domestic-gothic mythos: she returns to him in his dreams as the subject of disquieting nightmares (35) and later haunts him as an apparition after a drunken spree (165), an accusatory manifestation of conscience like Banquo.

S plays with the tension between the parents’ perception of their child and S’s own self-understanding, which is upsettingly snatched at in an account of her hysterics on the departing train; in the end her ghostly, reluctant appearance in a family photograph – in which “she appeared to be reaching out for protection from something that frightened her” (213) – manifests her outward mysteriousness as a product of this inner turmoil. She exudes human frailty and insecurity, but she’s also small as a character; I think we’re encouraged to read her this way by the faintly ridiculous image of the foppish and failed poet Ijas who “dramatised [his] minor literary disappointment into a more general and deeply rooted fin-de-siècle melancholy” before formulating the image of S and her tottering parents as the subject of a new work.

The beginning section prior to the departure is understated and slips by without much fanfare, but the reintroduction of the couple into the world of the town is intoxicating and quite poignant. Food is a central theme, internalised attitudes to luxury challenged by sights and smells. The mundane world is that of the “warm, sour milk” and grumbled complaints of the local market (37) which nevertheless blooms with colour like a Netherlandish communal scene. The town itself bustles with a teutonic regularity – as in the itinerary of appearances in the square (101) – while each character sings their own tarot identities like the types of Russian fiction (this Hungarian/Serbian world does seem an interesting confluence of western and eastern influences, which is reflected in the tastes and prejudices of the townsfolk). At the centre of the community is the King of Hungary restaurant, whose menu entices the couple into health:

Ákos straightened his back and breathed the air deep into his lungs. A sudden warmth spread through his limbs as his digestive system set to work. The food he had eaten was already filtering its fortifying goodness into his circulation. (51)

It’s as if they’ve been wound into clockwork life, ready to rejoin the rhythmic parade of the town (there are rebirth metaphors too, as in “the old man sucked at his cigar with all the voraciousness of a baby at the breast” 72). Á still interprets his desires as sin, though, as in a brilliantly amusing section of food fantasies (61) like blind Pi on the boat. The most indulgent, sensational residents of the town are like the actress Olga Orosz, drunk on the decay inherent within decadence:

Her flesh was powdery and voluptuously weary, as if tenderised by all the different beds and arms in which it had lain. Her face was as soft as the pulpy flesh of an overripe banana, her breasts like two tiny bunches of grapes. She exuded a certain seedy charm, a poetry of premature corruption and decay. (94)

There’s a generous, falstaffian humour throughout, as in the wry observation of the grace of the drunkard: “A drunkard never walks where he can fly … Nor shall the inebriate come to any harm, for the blessed Virgin carries them in an apron. But opening the gate was another matter.” (154)

The drunkard is also outside of time, time which appears to represent the world of labour: the temporal fixing of the opening description of manual preparations returns as an “inexplicable melancholy” after Á is reminded of his frivolity, late in his wild evening, by a glance at a clock (140). This runs in contrast to a kind of cultural deep time, invoked in the card game Taroc (“its roots reach way back into the past” 136) and traditional music (the landowner crying despite his wealth; “who could tell what ancient memories of wedding feasts and long-abandoned reveries the music stirred within him?” 143) This temporal shifting and sliding increases the sense of S as an expansion of Bloom’s night out in Ulysses: this is 1899 and forever, a modern moment in which life and death are at risk on personal, national and human scales. DK’s overriding preoccupation is, though, with death, and the return of S signals an “insidious” autumn (208) and a reminder of that decay lurking inside every pleasure.

8

My Struggle: Book 3 (2015)

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Why is this the only one in FSG’s series that doesn’t have a picture of Knausgaard on the front, just some pensive stock-photo kid?

Flicked through 2 after finishing this and was surprised at the amount of philosophical musing I’d bookmarked (ready to concede that I probably remember startlingly little of the second volume, my favourite of the series so far, which I admittedly finished at least a year ago now. After I’m currently 1,484 pages or about 5 shelf-inches into MS.) The first note follows this conundrum:

From my own childhood I remember only a handful of incidents, all of which I regarded as momentous, but which I now understand were a few events among many, which completely expunges their meaning, for how can I know that those particular episodes that lodged themselves in my mind were decisive, and not all the others of which I remember nothing? (2: 17)

3 begins with a captivating discussion about photography and memory (ideas including that personal photographs document an era rather than an individual, because they represent only exteriority [10]; there is also a beautifully Proustian taxonomy of memory on 12) and a blank space where the first six years of his life should be: nothing until the age of six was memorable; all self-knowledge comes from anecdotes. 3 proceeds to tackle the next six years until the move to Kristiansand which connects the story to the chronological start of 1. Strange, then, that K claims at the end of 3 that

little did I know then that every detail of this landscape, and every single person living in it, would forever be lodged in my memory with a ring as true as perfect pitch. (451)

This is in contrast to the figures that populate his life on the island, who are branded with the same wilful memory alluded to in the quote from 2 above. Connecting these passages indicates the extent to which perfect recall is an embellishment employed to give the rest of the fiction – the colouring inside the lines which constitutes the bulk of MS‘s prose – a haunted air. Karl is, supposedly, condemned to remember.

A running symbolic theme throughout 3 – certainly, otherwise, the most straight-faced and mimetic instalment so far – is the interplay of two worlds, often one of light versus one of shadow. The young K’s fear of “seeing your own reflection in the black windowpane and thinking, that image is not me, but a ghoul staring at me” from “beyond” (22) subconsciously recalls the terrifying apparition of a face in the sea on a TV report near the beginning of 1. In 3 the empirical observation, coupled with the relative free reign permitted both to the young boy and his imagination, leads him to interpret crepuscular shadows as reaching from “a parallel reality of darkness, with dark-fences, dark-trees, dark-houses, populated by dark-people,” a world quickly allied with night-time and a fear of the inhuman often derived from comics or TV (48-9, see also 110-1). One of 3‘s most illuminating passages is the account of a book which tells of a boy wizard who conjures up a shadow from the world of death, a shadow which pursues him until it becomes apparent that “the shadow was himself.” (308-10) That this bit occurs after years of maturation from the formative night terrors above suggests that the notion will stick with K; indeed it also suggests that MS is a process not just of attaining maturity but of plumbing the dark side of human nature, even that MS has painted a picture of a “dark-K” which he must learn to identify with himself. Recall the end of 1:

And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor. (1: 441)

It follows that the two-worlds image is often transplanted, in 3, onto the engrossing interplay between childhood and adult life, “parallel lives that never meet” (FSG synopsis). K’s blooming fascination with clothing appears impelled by the synthetic smell of expensive sportswear which “didn’t seem to belong to this world,” (74) the “distant and utterly radiant” world of comics aimed at older kids (76). After splitting “two worlds” between boy and girl friends (200), K later apprehends duality in his pre-pubscesent interest in pornography: “within me there were two incompatible entities,” good and bad, the latter of which “was fantastic, it was terrible, it was the world opening and hell revealing itself, the light shining and the darkness falling…” (295) The increasing focus on sexuality leads towards an orgiastic party on the first day of summer, evoking some unnerving mass pupation, a seasonal attainment of maturity and a curious abdication of K’s individuality (MS at its most ritualistic; see also seasonal aspect of inside/outside world duality on 293).

Of course the strands of terror and maturity connect at a nexus which again forms the text’s gravitational centre: K’s father. K illustrates the personality of the man who haunts 1 and gives us an insight into their poisoned relationship which is engrossing after reading 1 and 2. Having seared his system of discipline into the young K’s mind he becomes omnipresent:

Dad might be behind the house, might come round the corner at any second. Might be waiting for me in the hall, might be in his study, and tear the door open when he heard me. Might be standing at the kitchen window waiting for me to appear. (131)

He sometimes appears in K’s image (as in his “notori[ety] for manipulating the truth”, 261), sometimes its negative (“he wanted to dispel from his mind everything that existed around him”, 211) We see K try to develop away from him – his young Christianity is presented as a reaction against secular paternal authority (286) – until we reach the suggestion that MS as a project is a means of finally attaining control over him, “in the much acclaimed mind and imagination.” (345) The absolute standout passage is a rare secession from character, a resumption of K’s present-day voice to passionately insist upon his overriding desire in life:

I am alive, I have my own children, and with them I have tried to achieve only one aim: that they shouldn’t be afraid of their father. (260)

In this light, K’s father appears as a kind of “dark-K”, a shadow that pursues him everywhere.

What struggles to germinate under the shadow of his father is K’s childishly poetic vision. The versatility and potency of young imaginations is signalled early, as in 67’s delineation of all the scenarios that could arise from the discovery of an abandoned car in the forest. The forest passages are the text’s best, K’s most convincing inhabitation of a young mind; they are also often quite romantic, as in the wordsworthian account of a race through the trees: “it was a good thought, a good feeling, and I tried to hold on to it for as long as possible.” (83) I read Hopkins, too, in the way the trees – like shadows – “seemed to stretch out to whoever looked at them. And that was all they spoke about, what they were, nothing else.” (81) This obviously connects to the issue of attaining singular identity, as in the identifiable characteristics of each kid at school: “each one of us had something of his or her own.” (97) This is also of course the struggle for self-determination beneath K’s father – one which, interestingly (after Louis’ The End of Eddy) elaborates frequently on issues of traditional masculinity and childhood, with K struggling to negotiate his way around his father’s expectations and the taunts of his friends.

K’s humour is often drier in 3, particularly when dealing with his own past. The anecdote about him being warned to respect the privacy of others (159) is a wry inclusion; it also grows into K’s insensitive inability to reconcile truth and prudent empathy (see 225). The childhood subject does afford plenty of opportunity for disgusting and embarrassing (but sometimes uncomfortably recognisable) stories (of which the most striking is probably the discussion of shitting on 105-6; cf. White Noise on going through human waste). The masochism of the self-revelation in MS is often vaunted; there’s a particularly interesting Mannian moment when the boy K is engrossed in a program about surgery, concluding with a shudder that “the heart should not be seen, it should be allowed to beat in secret.” (176) The episode with the pranked gym teacher (368) suggests that the kind of exhibitionism which has made K’s name is endemic to children or derived from childish curiosity.

The themes outlined here surface and are submerged gradually and rhythmically: most of the book details personal experience, expanding and contracting as conclusions suggest themselves, slowly accumulating as K develops as a person and a personality. I like this passage as representative of the natural ease with which K moves through ambient detail and behaviouristic observation:

When we emerged from the shop, each with a small bag in hand, there were just four minutes to go before the bus left. But that was enough time, we told each other, running down the stairs. The steps, covered with hard-trodden snow and ice, were slippery, so we had to hold on to the banisters, which was at odds with the speed we were after. beneath us lay the town, the white streets appearing almost yellow in the reflection from the lamps, the bus station, where the buses skidded in an out like sleds in the snow, and the tall church with the red tiles and green spire. The black sky arched above everything, strewn with twinkling stars. When there were only ten to fifteen steps left Geir let go of the banister and set off at a sprint. After a couple of strides he lost balance and his only chance to stay upright was to run as fast as he could. He swept down the hill at a blistering pace. Then he had more momentum, he was pitched forward and plunged headlong into the drift beside the road. it has all happened so fast that I didn’t start laughing until he was lying in the snow. (325)

is not without inconsistency, even failure. Occasionally leakage between child and adult voices leads to some quite superficially pretentious reflections (“the problem is not so much that the world limits your imagination as your imagination limits the world.” 385). Sometimes the  experiences are so universally recognisable as to merely vocalise the already over-familiar; it feels less like an attempt to elevate the mundane than a requirement to exorcise uninteresting memories (reflecting an unflattering sense of logorrhoea onto that aforementioned compulsion to recollect). 3‘s final third is a kind of extended meditation on pubescent maturation, whose processes of experimentation can wash over each other and feel less formative than inconsequential. However K subtly begins to introduce the darker aspects of developing masculine sexuality until that almost entomological transformation.

Profits from a break from the theorising. A sustained investigation of memory and experiential formativeness. Again balances universal observation and particular biography. A definitive study of childhood to match 2‘s definitive study of modern parenthood – perhaps its shadow.

8

The God Of Small Things (1997)

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Picked this up amid the buzz around Arundhati Roy’s new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Title refers to the subsumption of personal grievance into the “Worse Things” that happen on a national level. The impossibility of stacking our own needs and pleas against a mass of traditional and political movements.

So Small God laughed a hollow laugh, and skipped away cheerfully. … He whistled, kicked stones. The source of his brittle elation was the relative smallness of his misfortune. He climbed into people’s eyes and became an exasperating expression. (19)

Here framed as Larry’s inability to comprehend an expression on the face of his wife Rahel, central character. Thus this disparity helps introduce friction from cultural clashes both domestic (most notably caste, religion) and international (Anglo-Indian). Successful love (even if temporary) is framed, in TGoST, as a focus on Small Things, even if (especially if) temporarily so.

The Big Things ever lurked inside. they knew that there was nowhere for them to go. They had nothing. No future. So they stuck to the small things. (338)

This also helps decode Roy’s distinctively empirical style. Nearly every chapter is introduced with Conradian scenery (HoD is an explicit touchstone, but I thought also of the peripheral isolation and partial porosity of Almayer’s Folly‘s outpost), as if the scenery imposes itself upon its inhabitants. Minor observational details stick, become extended metaphors that build into a kaleidoscopic symbolic vocabulary for complicated personal histories. Perhaps excluding the climactic final third, this modal cascading makes Roy’s novel a kind of minimalist tone poem. This irreducible, rhythmic quality sometimes threatens to rise and overwhelm the narrative (compare, as I had to, Midnight’s Children, with its narratively micromanaged tapestry of foreshadowing and callbacks. AR does do well to confound expectations, though, playing with character perspectives to reveal initially unseen truths: Balliol alum Uncle Chacko is presented as a liberal intervention into ignorant patriarchal violence (48) before being shown to hypocritically manipulate laws of property to cement his own masculine ascendency (57).). However, the tonality ties in to the running theme of childish perspective and interpretation of relationships and events, which is dominated by (sometimes inaccurately) rote-learned, capitalised concepts and phrases – Small Things take on supreme, constitutional importance.

Baby Kochamma, principle villain, serves to distort Big Things through her own personal worries as avarice and spite. She has become isolated, imposed upon by grander forces (“She viewed ethnic cleansing, famine and genocide as direct threats to her furniture” 28) but not above manipulating them to maintain her status quo. She is an agent for the conservative forces which heartbreakingly pin Estha and Rahel in their places, as when they are unable to constitute themselves as victims rather than perpetrators.

The pressure and heat warps family relations, introducing the theme of forbidden love which reacts with frailty against convention, at least until the empowering final chapter (it is the twins’ mother Ammu’s romantic rebellions that primarily compel BK to light the fuse). Untouchable carpenter Velutha is central here; his crime is one of attitude:

It was not what he said, but the way he said it. Not what he did, but the way he did it. (76)

Interesting to consider alongside The End of Eddy, in which EL’s crimes are not of action but of appearance and description. V’s horrifying punishment – the consummation of a thread of tragedy that extends from the death of Ammu (161) which ranks with Nabokov’s Luzhin’s father for cold pathos – is horrifyingly matter of fact, a weighing-in of history upon individual life, a reassertion of order through authority. It is amid these later incomprehensible terrors that the childish perspective blooms as an effective device evoking regressive traumatised responses: their families are rendered as the grieving parents of Hamelin in their plans to abscond through terrified reaction against Ammu’s condemnation (292), but they come home to roost in the History House like “Hansel and Gretel in a ghastly fairy tale in which their dreams will be captured and redreamed.” (293) Throughout, however, imagination is preserved as a precious defence-system, a flickering vestal flame:

The twins climbed into the vallom and rowed across vast, choppy waters.
With a Thaiy thaiy thaka thaiy thaiy thome. And a jewelled Jesus watching.
He walked on water. Perhaps. But could He have swum on land?
In matching knickers and dark glasses? With his Fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo? In pointy shoes and a puff? Would He have had the imagination? (211)

Roy’s style is very distinctive but sometimes distracting, as mentioned, and occasionally the fey misunderstandings feel uncomfortably persistent (childish, even). The story can verge on mawkish, if shocking, melodrama. But the telescopic scoping is handled seamlessly, with the interrelation of Big and Small events integral both to the worldview and the plot. Definitely a keen eye for detail, synesthetic description of a beautiful and broken world. The sort of book that rewards more the more you invest in it.

7

White Noise (1985)

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Second time with DeLillo after Underworld.

Definitely continuity with U. Flows of information, products, entertainment, waste. The “darkness” and “foreboding” of objects from previous lives, previous marriages, that fill up your house (6). 33-4 introduces the garbage compactor that becomes a kind of de-scrambler, a horrid machine that exposes the continuity of our operations, consumptions, hobbies and ablutions (“Is garbage so private? Does it glow at the core with personal heat, with signs of one’s deepest nature, clues to secret yearnings, humiliating flaws?” 259). White Noise functions quite like this, returning our lives to us repackaged and digested, sifting through our trash to drag up evidence of the stuff we’d like to forget. (also in the populations, the crowds  “assembled in the name of death” like Pafko At The Wall (73).)

But this is much funnier than U, with a stronger narrative voice that carries much more irony. I was laughing by 9’s depiction of the American Environments faculty: “all his teachers are male, wear rumpled clothes, need haircuts, cough into their armpits. Together they look like teamster officials assembled to identify the body of a mutilated colleague” (this natural imagistic creativity is elsewhere deployed to make us reexamine objects from daily life, elsewhere to restore the poignancy of the natural beauty of a sunset or sleeping children). I’ve also gotta paste part of the story about a near-miss aircraft tragedy:

Objects were rolling out of the galley, the aisles were full of drinking glasses, utensils, coats and blankets. A stewardess pinned to the bulkhead by the sharp angle of descent was trying to find the relevant passage in a handbook titled “Manual of Disasters”. Then there was a second male voice from the flight deck, this one remarkably calm and precise, making the passengers believe there was someone in charge after all, an element of hope: “This is American two-one-three to the cockpit voice recorder. Now we know what it’s like. It is worse than we’d ever imagined. They didn’t prepare us for this at the death simulator in Denver. Our fear is pure, so totally stripped of distractions and pressures as to be a form of transcendental meditation. In less than three minutes we will touch down, so to speak. They will find our bodies in some smoking field, strewn about in the grisly attitudes of death. I love you, Lance.” This time there was a brief pause before the mass wailing recommenced. Lance? What kind of people were in control of this aircraft? The crying took on a bitter and disillusioned tone. (90-1)

The real theme is the pre-internet streams of information, data. I kept thinking of Tom Noonan on his porch in Heat, telling Robert Deniro about how he got the blueprints to the bank:

McCauley: How do you get this information?
Kelso: It just comes to you. This stuff just flies through the air. They send this information out, I mean it’s just beamed out all over the fuckin place. You just gotta know how to grab it. See I know how to grab it.

See Murray on 51:

You have to learn how to look. You have to open yourself to the data. TV offers incredible amounts of psychic data. It opens ancient memories of world birth, it welcomes us into the grid, the network of little buzzing dots that make up the picture pattern … Look at the wealth of data concealed in the grid, in the bright packaging, the jingles, the slice-of-life commercials, the products hurtling out of the darkness, the coded messages and endless repetitions, like chants, like mantras. … The medium practically overflows with sacred formulas if we can remember how to respond innocently and get past our irritation, weariness and disgust. (51)

Heimlich, seemingly paranoid, later (174) phrases the concern that this world of bombardment raises: carcinogenic blasting waves, not from obvious sources but from all around us. The Airborne Toxic Event is like the “nebulous mass” that it induces in Jack: they are both just manifestations, dark and unknowable ext/internalisations of pervasive effects. Like the storm at the end of A Serious Man (see esp. 127 looming cloud, “our fear was accompanied by a sense of awe that bordered on the religious”). 104 Babette subsumed into the celestial televisual matrix is like the emergent conclusion to U (connecting, as all over the place here, with Synecdoche New York)

The data flows are beyond our control; they create structures and dynamics that pin us and extort a kind of quietistic compliance or a thirst for validation: see 46 Jack’s “waves of relief and gratitude” at the “support and approval” of an ATM that justifies his estimated finances, 76 health as beating the hospital, 118 table manners to appease a siren. Again prophetic on the internet in terms of outsourcing our most basic functions and memories to systemic storage; “knowledge changes every day” says B in justification of teaching a class about how to eat. Most Lo and Behold in H chiding J about how proximity to knowledge does not equal understanding:

If you came awake tomorrow in the Middle Ages and there was an epidemic raging, what could you do to stop it, knowing what you know about the progress of medicines and diseases? Here it is practically the twenty-first century and you’ve read hundreds of books and magazines and seen a hundred TV shows about science and medicine. Could you tell those people one little crucial thing that might save a million and a half lives? (148)

What is most unsettling is the way we actually rely on systemic uncertainty as a safety net against proper knowledge: M disputes the notion that we might prefer to have the circumstances of our deaths revealed to us; “exact dates would drive many to suicide, if only to beat the system.” (285)

At points the observation is American modernist, Paterson particularly in the domestic rhythms, habits (“blue jeans tumbled in the dryer” 18). But much of the style seems an update of Woolf, particularly The Waves in the porous family experiences:

When I could not decide between two shirts, they encouraged me to buy both. When I said I was hungry, they fed me pretzels, beer, souvlaki. The two girls scouted ahead, spotting things that they thought I might want or need, running back to get me, to clutch my arms, plead with me to follow. They were my guides to endless well-being. People swarmed through the boutiques and garment shops. Organ music rose from the great court. We smelled chocolate, popcorn, cologne; we smelled rugs and furs, hanging salamis and deathly vinyl. My family gloried in the event. I was one of them, shopping, at last. (83)

(Wilder becomes a kind of archetypal woolfian child; he is “selfish without being grasping, selfish in a totally unbounded and natural way,” dropping and grabbing, able to “appreciate special moments [and] occasions” in the way others are not (209). See above, Murray on the need to regress to a childish apprehension of culturally imbedded messages? (also 67) See 312 “I knew what red was” – moment of woolfian epiphany at the point of killing Gray, Mary’s room. [I also thought of philosophy in the Under The Net-style conversations between J and M)

Definitely a hauntological sense. “We drove through a warehouse district, more deserted streets, a bleakness and anonymity that registered in the mind as a ghostly longing for something that was far beyond retrieval.” (88) J’s observations are diachronic: “the world is full of abandoned meanings. In the commonplace I find unexpected themes and intensities.” I can’t remember where I read something like this but it definitely rings a bell: J telling M about Speer’s plan to build edifices that would decay gracefully, “the ruin is built into the creation.” (258) It is out of this observational tendency that J’s mania for disposing of trash comes from: “there was an immensity of things, an overburdening weight, a connection, a mortality.” (262)

During the Event, J sees an abandoned petrol station: “…the attendants had fled suddenly, leaving things intriguingly as they were, like the tools and pottery of some pueblo civilisation…” (127) The catastrophe is hollowing out structures, revealing the ruin inside the edifice – its like Vesuvius, or the x-ray machine in The Magic Mountain which reveals the hollow world inside Hans Castorp through unsettlingly modern technology – see 141 the computer revealing the “nebulous mass” inside J:

I think I felt as I would if a doctor had held an X-ray to the light showing a star-shaped hole at the centre of one of my vital organs. … It is when death is rendered graphically, is televised so to speak, that you sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself. A network of symbols has been introduced, an entire awesome technology wrested from the gods. It makes you feel like a stranger in your own dying. (141-2)

Two points here: firstly this image helps cast the empiricism as observation of some natural catastrophe (“Stark upheavals bring out every sort of quaint aberration by the very suddenness of their coming. Dashes of colour and idiosyncrasy marked the scene…” 138), which WN seems itself to be acting as. Secondly this intrusion of a symbolic framework is the opposite effect to that produced by Dylar, which undoes the signification relationship of signifiance, erasing the distinction between word and thing (193).

All sorts of stuff about simulations, simulacra. Thought of McCarthy’s Remainder. “Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?” (139) I particularly loved the image of the old couple lost in the mall (59); the supermarket as a sort of mausoleum, a portal to the next life, a point at which we can access the matrix which builds death into the system.

This is also more wholesome than U. Part of the success of the ironic voice can be attributed to the relatable poignancy of the family, a beautiful incubator: “Heat, noise, looks, words, gestures, personalities, appliances. A colloquial density that makes family life the one medium of sense knowledge in which an astonishment of heart is routinely contained.” (117)

Some of the interjections of “manual” voice seem a little outdated, post-Palahniuk schoolboy disaffection. But it all hangs together as an amusing and vivid historical cross-section. A polythene tapestry

This is a mess because I made too many notes:

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