29 June 2009


I played golf last week with my father. He's 85. Can almost shoot his age. That, to me, is a kind of accomplishment akin, in regular guys who are not professional athletes devoted body and soul to their sport, to winning a major. Shooting your age. 72 at 72, e.g. 80 at 80. A couple of birdie putts dropping, a truer seven iron from the rough: that sort of thing would have done it for him. Remarkable. Anyway, we were early off the starting tee. Nobody in front of us for a few holes and nobody behind us. It looked to be a leisurely round. Play. Rehit (for funsies, for sure) those putts that didn't break the way you thought they were supposed to—and always making them. Make fun of my brother, the best golfer of the three of us. In our own time. At our own pace. I mean the guy's 85 after all. Why hurry when you're having fun. Anyway. Just as we're about to tee off on six, a foursome of cigar-chomping thirty-somethings go buzzing by us in their carts to seven. Then we see (and hear) another foursome piling on on the fifth tee. They were having some sort of tournament, and instead of everybody starting off seriatim on the first tee or even doing first and tenth tees, they were scrambling: that is to say playing eighteen, but starting on all the odd tees all at once in order to get it done more quickly. So much for our leisurely pace. We were sandwiched between them for the rest of the morning.

And that's what the first hundred pages or so of Infinite Jest feels like. A scramble. A whole bunch of characters starting off on different holes at the same time. Looks like to me they're all about to play eighteen, and we'll just have to keep up with all their strokes along the way (I guess that last carried the metaphor too far, huh?). May need a database (or database-like mind) just to keep up. Do they all morph in some way or another (or choose not to)? Do their story arcs parallel, intersect, mirror, converge? We'll have to read on to see.

All-in-all, off to a good start.

Lots of other folks are participating in Infinite Summer. This guy pointed me to this guy's reading.

21 June 2009

Summer Solstice

Once again, I shall be off-line for a few days visiting family.  I'm going to take the opportunity to get a head start on Infinite Jest.

I just proofed the galleys of my first short story which will be published soon.  What a terrific feeling.  More later.

Jim H.

18 June 2009

Days of Yorick

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? (Hamlet, V.i)

With a tip of the hat to Bud Parr at the fine Chekhov's Mistress, this looks interesting: a Summer of Jest. No, no, check that, an Infinite Summer: an on-line group read of David Foster Wallace's monumental Infinite Jest.

Sad to say, I've never read it. This just might be my opportunity. Here's the reading schedule, lifted from their site:

Date Page Location % Complete

Fri, Jun 26 63 1522 6%
Jun 29 94 2233 9%
Jul 03 137 3236 13%
Jul 06 168 3900 17%
Jul 10 210 4844 21%
Jul 13 242 5561 24%
Jul 17 284 6545 28%
Jul 20 316 7250 32%
Jul 24 358 8174 36%
Jul 27 390 8869 39%
Jul 31 432 9832 44%
Aug 03 464 10556 47%
Aug 07 506 11510 51%
Aug 10 537 12243 54%
Aug 14 580 13233 59%
Aug 17 611 13925 62%
Aug 21 653 14900 66%
Aug 24 685 15628 69%
Aug 28 727 16554 74%
Aug 31 759 17293 77%
Sep 04 801 18315 81%
Sep 07 833 19021 84%
Sep 11 875 19972 89%
Sep 14 907 20767 92%
Sep 18 949 21708 96%
Sep 21 981 22403 100%

Not really all that arduous—even including the endnotes.  (N.b.:  But don't take my listing the locations above as an implied endorsement of Kindle as to which I'm neutral at this point.  If, however, the Kindle has the effect of actually reinvigorating the moribund publishing industry and providing me with the opportunity to find an agent who is actually taking new authors and get my novel published, well...I just might be tempted to take sides!)

Anybody with me? Of course, that means I might have to blog about my experience.

Or, maybe we could all just take tennis lessons.

16 June 2009

Childhood's End

This is not Jim H. sliding down a waterfall in Gorges State Park in Western N.C. this weekend.

This post on Nicholson Baker's Mezzanine generated far and away the most comments of any post of mine here at WoW. It was spirited and probing, the kind of discussion one wishes every post would generate. You bloggers know what I mean.

The leader of the dissenting commenters, Steven Augustine, has now posted a worthwhile look at Baker's complex little book over at Dan Green's new critical journal Critical Distance. I encourage you to check it out.

He situates Mezzanine as a coming-of-age epiphany, sort of like a Catcher in the Rye without the attitude. The money quote:
"it isn’t at midpoint between birth and death that Howie finds himself on the escalator of life, but half-way on his journey towards middle age, which he projects (with a numerical value of 40 years) as the point at which he “would finally have amassed enough miscellaneous new mature thoughts to outweigh and outvote all of those childish ones,” a reflection that colors most of the book, which trades extravagantly in the illuminated detritus of a happy, precocious childhood. The book is largely a eulogy to Howie’s childhood."
It's a solid reading.

At the same time, Augustine sees Baker's book as a rhapsodic eulogy for the artifacts of the Industrial Revolution, an era Baker (though not Howie) knows has passed.

Is there a connection between the two?

11 June 2009

Out of Pocket

I will be out-of-pocket for a few days, recharging my batteries in the NC mountains. Feel free to browse the archives in my absence, dust off an old post you find interesting, and see if it still has any currency.

I know I owe a few readers and blogger colleagues a comment or two or a response to a thoughtful comment here. I apologize. Since I'll be out of internet range, I'll get back to you shortly after I return mid-week.

Thanks, as always, for reading! Be wise.

Jim H.

Ur-story: The Death of Meaning (Part 3)

"For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries." 1 Corinthians 14:2
The central trope around which Don Delillo's The Names revolves is a mysterious cult. It is unnamed, though Axton has reason to suspect it might be called "The Names"—ta onomata, in Greek—when he finds these two words painted on a remote boulder in the Peloponese, then subsequently painted over.

The pursuit of this cult by Owen Brademas, an archaeologist, and by Frank Volterra, a filmmaker, comprise the plot. OB winds up lacking the stomach for the truth of the cult. FV never actually gets to experience them directly.

James Axton, the POV character, manages to sort out the modus operandi of the cult. But true to unreliable narrator form, he does not infer the significance of the cult's activities, even as he is nearly murdered or assassinated (in a parallel subplot) by what he believes to be a revolutionary group as he is jogging through Athens (get it? Axton: Athens).

Yet, Axton does not fully capture the mystery. The reader alone is left to put together the images, the facts of the novel.

Axton follows OB's description of his encounter with the cult closely, even letting OB's own voice come through the narrative. OB breaks off his tale to relate to Axton an incident from his childhood, a memory which was touched off by the grain silo where he enwombs himself as the members of the cult, ta onomata, set off to consummate their murderous rite.

OB has made a life's work of learning ancient, dead languages and, more particularly, alphabets in order to be able to decipher inscriptions at various digs around the world. He speaks many languages. So do the members of the cult. Their universal greeting seems to be "How many languages do you speak?" And they always try to communicate in the language of the region where they have set up shop, no matter how obscure.

We learn in OB's flashback some of what motivated him to become so obsessed with languages. When he was a young child, he took part in evangelical "tongue speaking" services with his parents and the adults of his prairie home community. Yet, he could not speak in tongues.

Now, in charismatic evangelical churches there is a sort of hierarchy of spirituality. Those most spirit-filled are able to give over their rational selves to the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues. Others are able to interpret their gibberish. Those who can't do either are often considered "unsaved", not filled with the spirit. They do not experience true religion. Indeed, this is OB's predicament young and old: neither can he experience the cultic sacrifice of ta onomata.

Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is the spontaneous utterance of random, meaningless sounds that seem to imitate the cadences and concatenations of sounds of real languages. It often occurs when people are in a trancelike state. The spoken languages are claimed to be the tongues of angels or spiritual languages that only the elect can interpret.

In Delillo, glossolalia is the second powerful image/metaphor for language itself. The first, of course, is the cult with its ritual murders of innocent victims who happen to wander into towns which, again, happen to have the same initials as their names. Arbitrariness, contingency, randomness are all implicated here as the cult attempts almost to hammer out a meaningful relationship of these chance occurrences.

Glossolalia is a complementary image that implicates another, almost Wittgensteinian gloss on the nature of language. Human languages in all their diverse forms are merely concatenations of sounds. That they have something resembling meanings is ultimately a contingent thing, precarious, dependent on a community of agreeable speakers.

OB describes his youthful encounter with glossolalia to Axton almost as an afterthought to his description of his encounter with ta onomata. But it is young Tap, Axton's son, who has interviewed OB extensively, created a sort of pig-latin language called "ob" in which the syllable -ob- is inserted in each word, and written a 'non-fiction novel' about one 'Orville Benton' who brings these images home, who makes us feel the true power of language.

OB, in his study of ancient languages and archaeology, is backward-looking and exhausted. He doesn't have the stomach for brute reality. Nor is he capable of spiritual experience. James Axton, by contrast, is a risk assessor. His work is entirely forward looking. Young Tap, however, lives entirely in the present. He is not concerned with grammatical correctness or valid translation. He is not concerned with the uses of language to understand the future. He is merely attempting to capture the feeling of the moment, its emotional truth.

The last chapter of The Names is Tap Axton's chapter on Owen Brademas's failed attempt to speak in tongues: the great disappointment of the literalist who can never know the ecstasy of the spirit. Its grammar and spelling are atrocious, but honest. We might even say that the language is Joycean or Faulknerian.
"I reread Tap's pages that night. They were full of small incidents, moments of discovery, things the young hero sees and wonders about. But nothing mattered so much on this second reading as a number of spirited misspellings. I found these mangled words exhilarating. He'd made them new again, made me see how they worked, what they really were. They were ancient things, secret, reshapable." (313)

"He felt retched, he mumbled in his mind. 'Yeeld' came another voice and it was none but the old cantankerus man with the crooked face and laim leg, known as a nefariot skeemer and rummy, natural born for bone picking. 'Yeeld' he followed up. Everywhere the others were speaking, but he didn't know what they were saying. The strange language burst out of them, like people out of breath and breathing words instead of air. But what words, what were they saying? Right next to him was his father bursting forth in secret language which the boy could not decifer in the least. It sounded like a man who talks to owls. ... 'Yeeld' his mother said to him with a wiry look that was like a rathful warning to mind his manners, there was company coming. He wanted to yeeld. This is the point! There was nothing in the world he wanted than to yeeld totaly, to go across to them, to speak as they were speaking.

'Do whatever your tongue finds to do! Seal the old language and loose the new.'" (335-6)
It is through language that we connect—or, as in the case of the fictional OB, fail to connect. Language is religion. Language is culture. Language is civilization. And yet, it is based on such precarious contingencies, such fragile agreements.
"When he tried, it was poor at best. All his words were poor clattery English like a stutterer at the front of the class. He didn't even know how to begin, where was the whurl of his ignorant tongue. A spidery despair loomed over him. It seemed as if all the worlds ills and evils had come screaming into his head. ...

He tried to stifle his sobbs. He felt done in and then some. It was a dream but not dream. The gift was not his, the whole language of the spirit which was greater than Latin or French was not to be seized in his pityfull mouth. His tongue was a rock, his ears were rocks." (337-38)
The young OB panics and flees into the night, a prairie night of thunder and lightning, rain and deepening mud.
"Why couldn't he understand and speak? There was no answer that the living could give. Tongue tied! His fait was signed. He ran into the rainy distance, smaller and smaller. This was worse than a retched nightmare. It was the nightmare of real things, the fallen wonder of the world." (339)
The Names works at the level of images, not logic. Profoundly.

The Ur-story, the term I've used in this on-going series of literary posts, concerns the meaning of death. Delillo turns this concern on its head: the central theme of The Names is the death of meaning. Meaning is a precarious thing, a dream but not a dream, dependent like civilization wholly on our willingness to yield to it and to each other. Our spirit of cooperation. And, like the relationship between James Axton and his estranged wife, Kathryn, it is easily sundered where this spirit is missing.

10 June 2009

Ur-story: The Death of Meaning (Part 2)

"It will often prove useful in philosophy to say to ourselves: naming something is like attaching a label to a thing." (§ 15)

"We may say: only someone who already knows how to do something with it can significantly ask a name." (§ 31)

"And now, I think, we can say: Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one." (§ 32)

"This is connected with the conception of naming as, so to speak, an occult process. Naming appears as a queer connexion of a word with an object." (§ 38)

"a name ought really to signify a simple." (§ 39)

"For naming and describing do not stand on the same level: naming is a preparation for description. Naming is so far not a move in the language-game—any more than putting a piece in its place on the board is a move in chess. We may say: nothing has so far been done, when a thing has been named. It has not even got a name except in the language-game. This was what Frege meant too, when he said that a word had meaning only as part of a sentence." (§ 49) L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

"for the letter killeth..." 2 Corinthians 3:6.
Wittgenstein wanted to show how problematic the relationship between language and reality truly is, how meaning is by no means a simple, necessary thing. As we all know, language is slippery. Languages evolve over time, incorporating other languages, and die. Within a given language, entropy reigns: the meanings of words change over time and across space and, if we follow Frege, with usage—one thinks here, e.g., of the simple semantic slippage in the usage of the word 'enormity' from meaning strictly 'great evil' or 'extreme wickedness' to meaning 'large' or 'of great size' by virtue only of its similarity to the word 'enormous'.

Likewise, things change; they evolve (as does our understanding of them), they come into being and pass out of existence. Situations change and contexts alter things. There can be, in other words, no necessary relation between the names we use for things and the things themselves. There is no foundation in reality for meaning—where, by foundation, we mean an actual point of connection between reality and language—only our agreement or mutual consensus.

This is language demystified, deromanticized, deconstructed.

The haggard cult at the heart of Don Delillo's The Names exists in reaction to this contingency and has devised, albeit intuitively, a solution to this quandary. The cult, believed by the POV, James Axton, to be called the Names, or Ta onomata in Greek, has really only one rite: human sacrifice. They settle in some remote, desolate area (an island, a mountain, a desert) where there are few legal or institutional structures in place, identify a potential victim—usually someone lame or retarded or mad and near to death, learn his/her name, keep up with their victim's whereabouts, and wait for the victim to enter a town that has the same initials as the victim's name where they ritually kill the victim by smashing in his/her skull with such primitive tools as hammers or stones.

It is as if they are attempting to affix the person to the place, based solely on the quite arbitrary coincidence of the initials. In the context of the novel, this is a larger metaphor for stemming the ineluctable leakage of meaning. Naming, which Wittgenstein (and Frege before him) identified as at the heart of meaning, should somehow be necessary to the thing, to the person, this bedraggled cult seems to be crying.

It's really quite simple. This connection between the victim's initials and the site of their ritual sacrifice is the central truth of ta onomata.

Two key characters make it their mission to uncover this obscure cult. One is Frank Volterra, an indie filmmaker. The other is Owen Brademas, an archaeologist interested in deciphering ancient writings and inscriptions. A shorthand way of viewing these characters is to think of Volterra as Francis Ford Coppola filming "Apocalypse Now" based on Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and to think of Brademas as an aging, world-weary Indiana Jones.

Delillo makes a point of showing us how Volterra is unable to penetrate the mysteries of the cult. He never actually locates them, though he does manage to meet an escapee. Volterra wants to film the cult in the midst of its grisly ritual from the air. An aerial shot, with the wash of helicopter blades kicking up dust and sand, held steady on the group as they do their deed. This would be the crowning filmic commentary on the Twentieth Century.
"He had no plans to shoot in sequence except for the ending. The ending would be the last thing he'd shoot. He told me how he'd do it. He wanted a helicopter. He wanted the cult members and their victim arranged for the murder. The pattern has been followed to this point, the special knowledge you talk about. The old shepherd is in place and the murderers are in place, with sharpened stones in their hands. Frank shoots down from as close in as the helicopter can safely get. He wants the wind blast, the blast from the rotor blades. They murder the old man. They kill him with stones. Cut him, beat him. The dust is flying, the bushes and scrub are flattened out by the rotor. No sound in this scene. He wants the wind blast only as a visual element. The severe angle. The men clutched together. The turbulence, the silent rippling of the bushes and stunted trees. I can quote him almost word for word. He wants the frenzy of the rotor wash, the terrible urgency, but soundless, totally. They kill him. They remain true to themselves, Jeem. That's it. It ends. He doesn't want the helicopter gaining altitude to signal the end is here. He doesn't want the figures to fade into the landscape. This is sentimental. It just ends. It ends up-close with the men in a circle, hair and clothes blowing, after they finish the killing."

I stayed in the living room for a while after she went to bed. I thought of Volterra in the mountains, hunched in his khaki field jacket, the deep pockets full of maps, the sky massing behind him. Sentimental. I didn't believe a word she'd said. He wouldn't follow it that far. He'd followed other things, gone the limit, abused people, made enemies, but this hovering was implausible to me, his camera clamped to the door frame. The aerial master, the filmed century. He wouldn't let them kill a man, he wouldn't film it if they did. We have to draw back at times, study our own involvement. The situation teaches that. Even in his drivenness he would see this, I believed." (248-49)
The filmic art, Delillo seems to be saying, stops short of reality. It objectifies—and nicely—that which the camera sees, but it does not and, more importantly, cannot capture our own complicity in the reality it seeks to present. This is the novelistic art, the prerequisite for meaning.

And Brademas, though he ultimately finds the cult and stays with them and learns their secrets, cannot bring himself to join them or, for that matter, even witness the act.
"The world has become self-referring. You know this. This thing has seeped into the texture of the world. The world for thousands of years was our escape, was our refuge. Men hid from themselves in the world. We hid from God or death. The wrold was where we lived, the self was where we went mad and died. But now the world has made a self of its own. Why, how, never mind. What happens to us now that the world has a self? How do we say the simplest thing without falling into a trap? Where do we go, how do we live, who do we believe? This is my vision, a self-referring world, a world in which there is no escape." (297) ...

[As the men of the cult head out for the kill] Owen entered one of the silos and sat in the dark. It was the smallest of the structures, five feet high, and he watched the night sky rapidly deepen, stars pinching through the haze. That was the universe tonight, a rectangle two and a half feet high, three feet long. At the lower edge of the opening he could see a narrow band of earth losing its texture to the night. (303) ...

"You stayed in the silo through the night."

"Yes, of course. Why would I come out, to watch them kill him? These killings mock us. They mock our need to structure and classify, to build a system against the terror in our souls. They make the system equal to the terror. The means to contend with death has become death. Did I always know this? It took the desert to make it clear to me. Clear and simple, to answer the question you asked me earlier. All questions are answered today."

"Is this what the cult intended all the time, this mockery?"

"Of course not. They intended nothing, they meant nothing. They only matched the letters. What beautiful names. Hawa Mandir. Hamir Mazmudar." (308)
The archaeologist, the scholar is afraid to confront life, death. Affronted. He hides from things, picks up hints from afar, tries to infer meaning, and tells us as best he can what they mean, though from his narrow, indirect perspective: "If you wanted to compose a mighty Homeric text on my life and fortunes, I might suggest a suitable first line. 'This is the story of a man who was not serious.'" (300)

Life just is this hammering out of meaning, and scholastic practice, though necessary, is disengaged. Unserious. The reality of life and death cannot be allowed to penetrate the silo of systems and structures he has surrounded himself with and curled up into for comfort and shelter.

[to be continued]

08 June 2009

Ur-story: The Death of Meaning (Part 1)

Jacobus, James, Hamish, Seamus, Jaime, Jamie, Jimmy, Hymie, Hamie, Ham, Shem, Jim, Gem.

Vladimir Nabokov famously said:
"It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass." Vladimir Nabokov, "Good Readers and Good Writers," in Lectures on Literature pp. 5-6.
The latest novel to send that telltale tingle up my spine is The Names, by Don Delillo. I remember reading it soon after it was first published. I remember some of the characters. I remember some of the images. I remember the sense of mystery and foreboding. I remember not being quite able to put my finger on what was going on. But, mostly, I remember that, after a certain point, the novel grabbed me by the spine and did not let go until the very last page. It lingered in my imagination all these years. It also solidified my appreciation of Delillo's artistry—it made me a fan.

Immediately after The Names (1982), Delillo published arguably his four most important novels: White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Mao II (1991), and Underworld (1997). That's a line-up you can stack up against just about anybody's run of four novels. The Names tends to get overshadowed by this incredible series of novels, swallowed up in the veritable critical cottage industries these four books have spawned. Still, one can make a pretty strong argument that The Names sets the table for their reception, prefiguring some of the themes. And it remains one of my favorites of his books. Perhaps it's time for a re-evaluation.

After the laser intensity of Carpenter's Gothic, The Names is like a palate cleanser or, better, a decompression chamber. At first. There is context. There are explanations. There are character descriptions. Characters have histories. There are settings, meaningfully depicted. The action is almost languid. The dialogue is direct—though, make no mistake about it, original. There is continuity. Compared to the Gaddis, the language is lush, practically lyrical—though not overwritten. Where the Gaddis feels focused and systematic, The Names comes across as the proverbial Jamesian "large loose baggy monster." Until the last chapter, that is.

And what a last chapter it is. At first, it seems almost superfluous. A gewgaw, a bauble. Nearly illiterate. But, upon reflection, it is absolutely essential to the text. It pulls the diverse strands together in a profound way. But, I get ahead of myself.

The first substantive choice the writer has to make deals with form: What form will my book take? Delillo seems to have located The Names formally somewhere between The Great Gatsby and Heart of Darkness, with a little smidgen of Helter Skelter thrown in for good measure. In The Names, James Axton is Nick Carraway to Owen Brademas's Jay Gatsby. And Brademas is Marlow to the unnamed [?] mysterious, murderous cult's Kurtz.

It helps to understand this going in, because the narrative works mostly by indirection until its rousing denouement.

The next choice the writer has to make is a technical one: Who is best positioned to relate the relevant facts of this narrative? Delillo has chosen to tell The Names from the unreliable, first person POV of one James Axton (a/k/a Jim), an ex-pat American centered in Athens. He is separated (though not divorced) from his wife, Kathryn, whom he still loves. She has custody of their son, Thomas a/k/a Tap. Jim is, or has been a freelance writer. He describes his current job as a risk assessor for a large, multinational insurance company. He travels all over the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Northern Africa gathering facts in order to determine the risks to businesses seeking to invest or set up operations in those countries.

In an interesting, ironic subplot, he is mistaken for a CIA agent by a mysterious Greek who is having an affair with one of Axton's friend's wives. This Greek, Eliades, is either an intelligence agent himself or a revolutionary journalist seeking to expose the operations of the CIA in support of the corrupt, brutal Greek junta of colonels. (See Richard Welch) We never find out which, though it hardly matters: the damage has been done. As it turns out, Axton turns out to have been an unwitting asset of the Agency because the information he has been gathering about all these countries has been sold or otherwise turned over to the CIA by his corporate bosses. And, just as the raw data Axton digs up is turned into coherent, operative intelligence in the hands of the Company, so the facts of his narrative cohere in our minds, creating a meaning he is incapable of grasping.

Only twice (by my count) does the narrative stray from Axton's POV, once when Brademas is relating his last encounter with the cult in India and then in the last chapter where we read a brief chapter of Tap's "non-fiction novel" about Brademas's youthful encounter glossolalics in Iowa. And in both of these instances, Axton gets out of the way and lets the speaker/writer speak for himself, a Delilloan nod to the free indirect style.

[to be continued]