A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN by David Foster Wallace / David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer

An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia

I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts.  His métier was, perhaps, mathematics.  David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).

Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed.  I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997).  Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.

In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can.  He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38).  Perish the thought!

Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television.  Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television.  Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):

1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.

Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).

“Trust what is familiar!” in other words.  “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase.  Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television.  David Foster Wallace was wrong.  No, writers should NOT trust television.  No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see.  The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.

There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste.  That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s.  Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65).  He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time.  They did not, of course.  One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification.  To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television.  But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?

It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist.  Let me enlarge an earlier statement.  Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer.  It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32).  Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it.  Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them.  We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.).  Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  That is your false dilemma.  If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY.  Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.

Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection.  There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism.  There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.

Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).

To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance.  The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990).  Did Wallace never see this film?  How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart?  Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?

To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence.  No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political.  How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness?  How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets?  And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?

Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are.  Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book.  It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.

Joseph Suglia

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A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Three: Both Flesh and Not

 

A review of BOTH FLESH AND NOT (David Foster Wallace)
By Dr. Joseph Suglia

Published four years after David Foster Wallace’s career-advancing suicide (a despicable suicide that was an assaultive act against his widow Karen Green), Both Flesh and Not (2012) reprints essays and squibs that were originally written for various newspapers, magazines, and journals; one of the texts appeared as the introduction to an anthology of essays, another was appended to a thesaurus.  Both online and print sources are represented.  Through the collection threads a list of words and definitions that Wallace kept on his desktop computer.

The vocabulary list troubles me more than anything else assembled in this volume.  Someone who professed to care very much about Standard Written American Usage, Wallace abuses many words himself.

Wallace thinks that “art nouveau” refers to a “decorative style of early 20th c. using leaves and flowers in flowing sinuous lines, like on vases, columns, etc.” [34].  This is innocence and nonsense.  Jugendstil was much different than that.  Beardsley didn’t always use “leaves” and “flowers”!

Wallace thinks that “birl” means to “cause to spin rapidly with feet (as with logrolling)” [35].  But “birl” also means, intransitively, to “whirl”; for instance, you may say that hot dogs or sausages birl on spits.

Yes, Wallace is right to think that “distemper” might denote “a kind of paint-job using watered paint” [165], but it can also mean “to throw out of order” or “bad mood” and could denote a viral disease that affects dogs and cats.

Wallace thinks that an “ecdysiast” is a “striptease artist” [165], but this has only been the case since Gypsy.  An “ecdysiast,” etymologically speaking, refers to something that molts or sheds its skin, such as certain birds, insects, and crustaceans.

Wallace doesn’t know that Grand Guignol was horror theatre before ever it was “cinema” [190].

Throughout, there are many such compositional errors.

Wallace had abysmal taste in literature.  It is good to see Steps on a list of “five direly underappreciated U.S. novels” since 1960, but it ought to be stated that this novel, which is attributed to Jerzy Kosinski, was collaboratively written.  Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West has interesting content—the sort of content that one might expect to discover in an early- or middle-period film directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky—but its prose style is a mere pastiche of Faulkner.  I don’t know what to say about a person who thinks that Denis Johnson is a serious writer.

Both Flesh and Not is a disastrous humiliation.  Republishing these essays and squibs was not a good idea and besmirches the reputation of Wallace even more than D.T. Max’s horripilative biography does.  Though he had many virtues, the ability to form strong sentences was not one of them.  David Foster Wallace could not write a decent sentence to save his life.

Joseph Suglia

 

Slap Something Together: Sixteen Bad Sentences from Chuck Palahniuk’s MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD / Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer

 

Slap Something Together: Sixteen Abysmal Quotations from Chuck Palahniuk’s MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD

by Joseph Suglia

1.) MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD

Every work of fiction is, by definition, something that is “made up.”  The word fiction is derived from the Latin fictio, which means “to fashion,” “to craft.”  If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, its lesson is that nothing that has been read can be unread.  The title of the book contains a redundancy and a statement of the obvious.  Or a statement that would be obvious to even a slightly educated person.  The book would have been better titled Slap Something Together: Stories No Thinking Person Should Ever Read.

2.) “My old man, he makes everything into a Big Joke” [1].

Elementary-school children learn that double subjects are bad grammar. chuckpalahniuk, who is fifty-three years old as I write these words, is still unaware of this fact. There is nothing wrong with appositives, but this is not an appositive: “My old man, he” is a double subject. The use of the double subject is not merely ungrammatical; it is irritating and unnecessary. And why capitalize “big joke,” if it is preceded by an indefinite article?

3.) “Me, I didn’t get it” [2].

No literate person begins a sentence with a double subject. Nor does he or she begin sentences with objective pronouns.

4.) “Me, my teachers still haven’t covered long division and all the multiple-cation tables so it’s not my old man’s fault I don’t know what’s ‘c**’” [3].

One might claim that the narrator is a child and would not know the proper spelling of multiplication, but the narrator is identified as a “grown-up son” on the fourth page.

5.) “This Stage Four cancer guy forces himself to laugh nonstop at Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy and those Marx brothers, and he gets healed by the end-orphans [sic] and oxy-generated [sic] blood” [4].

Even though the misspellings are purposeful, only someone with brain damage would write in such a manner.  There are purposeful misspellings in the writing of Anita Loos, but none is witless. chuckpalahniuk is capable of nothing but witlessisms.

6.) “The bartender smiles so nice and says, ‘What? You don’t like Michelob no more?’” [5].

That should read “so nicely,” of course; the Chuckies and the Chuckettes have the tendency to confuse adverbs and adjectives.  “So nice” is chuckpalahniuk’s ham-fisted way of trying to make his narrator (and himself) appear charming.  Unhappily, chuckpalahniuk is not merely charmless; he is uncharmable.  This sentence, incidentally, occurs toward the end of a rape joke.  I would defend to the death the right of writers to describe whatever they please, but anyone who finds rape amusing is either a sociopath or a psychopath.  The unenviable readers of Beautiful You already know that chuckpalahniuk finds rape a fit subject for humor.  chuckpalahniuk’s approach to the sexual violation of women is both slapdash and slaphappy.  It is a distasteful quality in the writer and not a little insane.

7.) “The old man’s gasping his big toothless mouth like he can’t get enough air, crying big tears down the wrinkles of both cheeks, just soaking his pillow” [6].

While it is the case that to gasp may be a transitive verb, the mouth is what is doing the gasping.  People might gasp, but they do not “gasp their mouths.”  “Like” is used conjunctionally, and the sentence is a non-parallel construction.  A less analphabetic way of writing the sentence would be: “The old man is gasping through his big toothless mouth, as if he couldn’t get enough air, crying big tears that stream down the wrinkles of both cheeks and soak his pillow.”

8.) “And he’s STILL dying, the old man’s leaving me not knowing the answer to anything. He’s abandoning me while I’m still so f***ing stupid” [7].

Ignorance is not stupidity.  Ignorance is the absence of knowledge, whereas stupidity is the inability to process ideas.  chuckpalahniuk thinks that stupidity and ignorance are interchangeable and that “stupidity” comes and goes.  In the case of chuckpalahniuk, however, stupidity is a chronic condition.

9.) “The old goobers stop chewing on their tobacco” [8].

Educated people know that to chew means “to bite on” and that “to chew on” is therefore an analphabetism.  The sentence should read: “The old goobers [if one must use that idiotic pseudo-word] stop chewing their tobacco.”

10.) “And finally one old barbershop codger, he says in barely a tobacco whisper, so soft you can hardly hear him, he asks, ‘Who’s there?’” [9].

While it is true that smoking can degrade the vocal system, “tobacco whisper” is an asinine coinage.  Perhaps one of chuckpalahniuk’s disciples could write a teleplay entitled Tobacco Whisperer, modeled on the Jennifer Love Hewitt vehicle Ghost Whisperer.  Notice that two subjects are not enough for the pseudo-author chuckpalahniuk.  He adds a third.

11.) “In grocery stores or department stores, Monkey offered cubes of sausage skewered with toothpicks” [18].

To whom, precisely, did Monkey offer cubes of sausages skewered with toothpicks?  Does the narrator not know in which realms Monkey offered cubes of sausages skewered with toothpicks?  The phrase should read, “grocery stores AND department stores,” not “grocery stores OR department stores,” unless the narrator is unaware of the kind of spaces in which Monkey offered cubes of sausages skewered with toothpicks.

12.) “Monkey offered dollops of apple pie served in tiny paper cups, or paper napkins cradling sample bites of tofu” [Ibid.].

This is a railway accident of a sentence.  A dollop is a small amount of soft food, and yet the crust of apple pie, as every infant knows, is hard.  Commas should not be used to separate dependent clauses, and “sample bites” is tautological.

13.) “Monkey hadn’t noticed at first, perhaps her nose had been blunted by selling perfume and cigarettes, but the cheese smelled disgusting” [20].

If Monkey’s actual nose had been blunted, this could mean that Monkey had an aquiline nose that had been flattened in the act of selling perfume and cigarettes.

14.) “Yet all night Monkey lay awake in bed, listening to Rabbit doing it with Mink in the next motel room, and fretting that, despite her advanced degree in Communications, she’d be stuck below a glass ceiling, getting sniffed by Moose for the rest of her career” [21].

Though I suppose it is possible that rabbit couple with mink, it seems unlikely, given that rabbit are lagomorphs and mink belong to the weasel family.  Do I really need to point out that “glass ceiling” is a mind-deflating cliché?

15.) “In Miss Chen’s English class, we learned, ‘To be or not to be…’ but there’s a big gray area in between. Maybe in Shakespeare times people only had two options” [29].

chuckpalahniuk appears to have stumbled into someone else’s interesting idea that being is not an absolute concept.  Indeed, transitional forms between being and nonbeing are thinkable.  Perhaps holograms and other forms of virtualization exist between being and nonbeing.  After this ill-worded yet provocative suggestion, chuckpalahniuk, predictably, writes about something entirely different: “Griffin Wilson, he knew that the SATs were just the gateway to a big lifetime of b*******.”  chuckpalahniuk is like a stupefied bumpkin who gapes at an idea that is too profound for him and then quickly diverts his attention to the Chick-fil-A across the street.  “Shakespeare” is a dolt’s only reference point to “the past,” as “Hitler” is a dolt’s only reference point to “evil.”  chuckpalahniuk’s condescension is astounding.  The difference between chuckpalahniuk and Shakespeare is analogous to the difference between a puddle of fermented wolverine urine and the Atlantic Ocean.

16.) “The problem with being Talented And Gifted is sometimes you get too smart” [29].

To unmuddle some of the confusions of this utterance: “Talented” and “gifted” should not be separated, and there is absolutely no reason to capitalize “and.”  In the squalid wastelands of Mr. Palahniuk’s Planet, intelligence is regarded as a vice and stupidity is regarded as a virtue.  This explains the writer’s appeal to high-school stoners of all ages.

17.) Every book by chuckpalahniuk is a frognado of idiocy.

Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy / My analysis was cited in the Pennsylvania State University Press journal STYLE

My analysis was cited in Marco Caracciolo’s article “Narrative Space and Readers’ Responses to Stories: A Phenomenological Account,” Style. Vol. 47, No. 4, Narrative, Social Neuroscience, Plus Essays on Hecht’s Poetry, Hardy’s Fiction, and Kathy Acker (Winter 2013), pp. 425-444. Print.

An Analysis of THE ROAD (Cormac McCarthy) by Joseph Suglia

“When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had colons and semi-colons to do with it…”

—Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (1985) is something of an undergraduate exercise.  It is a Faulknerian pastiche and, above all, hedonistic.  Hedonism, as far as I’m concerned, is an enemy of art.  Whereas Blood Meridian is verbally expansive, the language of McCarthy’s The Road (2006) is strictly delimited.

We follow a nameless father and son as they wander through a post-American void, a “blastosphere,” to use J.G. Ballard’s term.  (Blastosphere = Not the blastula, but the “implicit shape of the way matter is perturbed by an explosion” (Will Self)).  They scavenge for food and tools.  They encounter those who seemingly show their seamiest impulses and who behave in an unseemly manner.

And yet I suspect that this is less a novel about a post-apocalyptic future than it is one about our atheological present.  It is a theological allegory about a world from which the gods are manifestly absent.  Eine gottesverlassene und gottesvergessene Welt.

We find grounds for this supposition in those passages in which the grey waste is described as “godless” [4] and “coldly secular” [274] and wastes of human flesh are named “creedless” [28].

“On this road there are no godspoke men” [32].

The worst thing that could be written about The Road is that it is a sappy religious allegory.  Nabokov wrote of Faulkner’s Light in August:

“The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand–a phoney gloom which also spoils Mauriac’s work.”

I would write of McCarthy’s The Road:

The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand–a phoney gloom which does not pervade Faulkner’s work.

This does not mean that the book is unredeemable, however.  What might have been a pedestrian trifle in the hands of a lesser writer has become something genuinely pedestrian with author McCarthy.  The most distinctive feature of The Road is not the story that is told, but the manner in which McCarthy tells it: that is to say, the narrative.  He writes so magically that a grey empty world is summoned forth vividly before our eyes.

It needs to be said and emphasized that McCarthy has almost completely superseded standard English punctuation in the writing of this novel.  He strategically, willfully omits periods, commas, semicolons, and apostrophes throughout the work in order to equivocate, in order to multiply meanings, in order to enlarge the literary possibilities of language.

The relative absence of punctuation in the novel makes the words appear as if they were the things themselves.  Of course, one could seize upon the conscious, literal meaning of the words.  But does language not slip away from us?  Are its meanings not dependent on the interpretive framework of the listener, of the reader?  And is it not conceivable that the linguistic elisions reflect the consciousness of the central character?

Proper punctuation would disambiguate and thus flatten the sentences–sentences that are, liberated from such restrictions, both benign and lethal.  We have before us a rhetorically complex novel, a work of literature that is rife with ambiguity.

And the non-punctuation makes us feel.  If the “sentences” were punctuated in the traditional manner, we, as readers, would feel nothing.  We would not feel, viscerally and viciously, the nightmarish world into which father and son have precipitated.  We would not be infused with the chill of post-civilization.

The absence of standard punctuation in The Road is a fruitful, productive absence.  It is a writerly, stylistic choice.

I hope I have persuaded my readers that McCarthy’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation is stylized.  It most certainly is not unnecessary.  One of the lessons that we can derive from the novels of McCarthy is how to apply typography in literary craftsmanship.  Punctuation opens or closes the doors of meaning.  Let me invent my own ambiguously commaless sentence for the purposes of elucidation.  If I write, “I want to eat my parrot William,” this would seem to signify that I want to eat a parrot named William, a parrot that belongs to me.  However, what happens if the comma is explicitly absent?  Three contradictory interpretations are then possible: 1.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her, a parrot named William; 2.) The narrator, apparently, wants to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her and is addressing this remark to someone named William (“I want to eat my parrot, William”); 3.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat in general, and this comment is directed at his or her parrot, the name of which is William (“I want to eat, my parrot William”).  Punctuation, depending on how it is used, can restrict or expand meaning.  Commas articulate, determine meaning.  The absence of a comma, on the other hand, opens up semantic possibilities inherent to language.  Its absence opens the doors of ambiguity.

As I suggested above, McCarthy’s refusal to punctuate in the conventional manner is also intimately connected to the internal struggles of the main character and, perhaps, the psychology of the author.  The narrator eschews commas because he fears death.  I suspect that, similarly, McCarthy’s aversion to punctuation bespeaks a futile desire to escape his mortality–a charmingly fragile and recognizably human desire.

“[E]ver is no time at all” [28].

The ephemerality of the instant.  Hence, the relative commalessness of McCarthy’s statements.  A comma would pause an enunciation, rupture its continuity, the incessant flow of language, the drift of language into the future.  What, after all, is a comma if not the graphic equivalent of a turn in breath, of an exhalation or an inhalation?  Commas do not merely articulate a sentence.  Commas stall, they defer, they postpone, they interrupt without stopping.  A speaking that speaks ceaselessly, without commas, in order to outstrip the nightmare of history.  McCarthy’s language moves forward endlessly, without giving readers a chance to catch their breath.  This is a writing that is unidirectional and decidedly equivocal.

The thrusting momentum of McCarthy’s language fertilizes my suspicion that The Road is also a book about time.  More precisely, a book about time’s three impossibilities: the impossibility of ridding oneself of the past completely, the impossibility of eternalizing the present, and the impossibility of encompassing the future.

The future is essentially unpredictable for the son, and the reader has no idea, at the novel’s close, what will become of him.  Will the son survive?  Will he be bred for cannibal meat, for anthropophagous delicacies?  An infinitude of possibilities…  And here we come to yet another strange intimacy between McCarthy’s singular style of punctuating and not punctuating and one of the leitmotifs of his novel: The eerily open-ended “conclusion” of THE ROAD is no conclusion at all, a conclusion without a period.  And the novel lives on inside of the reader’s head and heart, growing within as if it were a vicious monster fungus.

Joseph Suglia

A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Two: A Supposedly Fun Thing That I Will Never Do Again / “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” / “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” / “David Lynch Keeps His Head”

An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia

I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts.  His métier was, perhaps, mathematics.  David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).

Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed.  I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997).  Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.

In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can.  He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38).  Perish the thought!

Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television.  Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television.  Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):

1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.

Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).

“Trust what is familiar!” in other words.  “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase.  Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television.  David Foster Wallace was wrong.  No, writers should NOT trust television.  No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see.  The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.

There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste.  That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s.  Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65).  He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time.  They did not, of course.  One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification.  To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television.  But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?

It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist.  Let me enlarge an earlier statement.  Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer.  It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32).  Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it.  Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them.  We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.).  Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  That is your false dilemma.  If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY.  Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.

Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection.  There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism.  There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.

Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).

To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance.  The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990).  Did Wallace never see this film?  How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart?  Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?

To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence.  No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political.  How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness?  How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets?  And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?

Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are.  Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book.  It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

FIGHT CLUB by Chuck Palahniuk – A Review by Dr. Joseph Suglia / Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer

 

 

An Analysis of FIGHT CLUB (Chuck Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia

Before discussing the form of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996), I would like to reconstruct its political content.

* * * * *

The thirty-year-old narrator of Fight Club feels alive only when surrounded by decrepitude and death.  He attends testicular-cancer support groups in order to enhance his vitality: By distinguishing himself as much as possible from the sick, he attempts to wrest himself away from a consumerist culture that suppresses death; by exposing himself to the mortality of others (which grants him the knowledge that he also is going to die), every moment in his life becomes more valuable.  One of the infinite number of go-betweens in this culture (his job is to determine the expenses of recalling lethally defective automobiles), the narrator yearns to die in an airplane crash in order to free himself from the superficiality of a world that trivializes death and immortalizes the unliving commodity (a “necrophilous” culture, as Erich Fromm would say).  Only what he imagines to be a direct experience of death grants him a real and intense sense of life, and, as the novel proceeds, violence will come to be his salvation.

[Let me remark parenthetically: the word “violence,” etymologically, means “life.”]

And yet Western culture manufactures not merely inclinations and proclivities, but also aversions and forms of disgust: Particularly relevant to a discussion of Palahniuk’s novel is the aversion toward violence and mortality that the narrator attempts to unlearn.

The narrator’s desires are prefabricated.  As countless others in a consumerist society, his selfhood is defined by the merchandise that he purchases: His “perfect life” is constituted by “his” Swedish furniture, “his” quilt cover set, “his” Hemlig hatboxes, and the IKEA catalogues that serve as the foundation of his “identity.”  He is the member of a generation of men who identify themselves with commodities (“Everything, the lamp, the chairs, the rugs were me” [111]), commodities that, according to the Marx of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, serve as extensions of one’s personality in the capitalist world.

Enter Tyler Durden (a man who is, apparently, the same age as the narrator).  Aggressive, virile, and charming, Durden represents alternative possibilities that the narrator could assume.  Tyler is radically opposed to the progressive “improvement” of the self that has been so valorized by capitalist societies; he claims that the drive toward “perfection” has led to the loss of manhood and has transformed men into feminized purchasers and consumers who slave away in life-draining jobs.

By randomly destroying property (with which members of consumerist society identify), Tyler intends to explode the foundations of capitalist “identity.”  Since Rousseau and Hegel, it has been assumed that the bourgeois self is divided into civil and private dimensions: the citizen and the “true” individual.  Here we encounter two analogous versions of a single self: Whenever the narrator (who subserves capitalist society) falls asleep, Tyler Durden (who represents the “authentic” self) inhabits his body.

Tyler and the narrator form a masculine unit that exists apart from the feminized support groups that are populated by man-women such as Bob, an estrogen-saturated former weight-lifter who sprouts what appear to be mammary glands, as well as Marla Singer (associated, at one point, with the narrator’s mother), who appropriates the narrator’s support groups and eventually unsettles the homoerotic / homosocial bond between the two men.

Tyler founds “fight club,” an underground boxing organization and a perverse version of the support group attended by the narrator.  The split between the bourgeois and authentic selves is replicated in the difference between one’s work existence and fight club: “Who guys are in fight club is not who they are in the real world” [49].  Fight club thus opens up a separate space, one that is divorced from the dependency and servility of the world of exchange; it posits a self-sufficient universe in which control and mastery, sovereignty and force are achieved, paradoxically, through self-destruction.  The fights are not based on personal acrimony but on the exercise of power.  It is the fight that is pure; it is through the fight that one’s human implications are drawn out.  Norms learned from television (that mass accumulation is life’s goal, that success is equatable with financial success, that violence must be shunned)—all of these values are reversed in fight club, the sole objective of which is the reclamation of one’s manhood, which has been diminished in the feminizing world of capitalism (hence the phallic imagery that crystallizes throughout the novel).

The constituents of fight club (copy-center clerks, box boys, etc.) are members of the Lumpenproletariat, those who labor without a productive or positive relation to work, who are estranged from their own slavery, and who are excluded from every social totality.  Even those on the higher levels of the bourgeoisie, it seems, conform to the same model.  Their strength is vitiated; they, too, function as the refuse of a society that refuses to acknowledge them.  Dying in offices where their lives are never challenged (and therefore lacking anything with which to contrast with life), they are the mere shadows of the proletariat, deprived of access not merely to the fortunes of the capitalist world, but also to consciousness of their own oppression: They are “[g]enerations [that] have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need” [49].

Eventually, fight club transcends and operates independently of the individuals who produced it (following Tyler’s anti-individualist creed) and becomes wholly acephalic: “The new rule is that nobody should be the center of fight club” [142].  Fight club thus transmutes into Project Mayhem, a revolutionary group that begins with acts of vandalism and food contamination and eventually expands into full-blown guerilla terrorism.  Its aim is regression: to reduce all of history to ground zero.  Project Mayhem wants to blow the capitalist world to smithereens in order to give birth to a new form of humanity.  What fight club did for selfhood and individuality (the formation of a new “identity” apart from the one mandated by capitalist society), Project Mayhem would do for capitalist society itself.  In the same manner that fight club destroys capitalist “identity,” Project Mayhem aims to destroy Western civilization in order to “make something better of the world” [125]—a world in which manhood would intensify through a non-moral relation to violence.

Here we are in territory already elaborated—much more richly—by J.G. Ballard.  And John Zerzan, Portland anarchist.

Washing oneself clean, returning to one’s hidden origin, primitivism, regressionism, cleansing, and sacrifice…  Soap, which Freud named “the yardstick of civilization,” is here emblematic of a reduction to primal manhood.  The meaning of soap is not, in this context, propriety (as Freud would have it), nor, unfortunately, the ebullitions of language (Francis Ponge), nor, following Roland Barthes, the luxury of foaminess.  Soap is indissociable from sacrifice.

[Fight Club does not merely imply, but states in the most obvious manner that bare-knuckled fist-fighting makes one more virile, more masculine.  Palahniuk’s jock-fascism is jockalicious.]

If Western culture, as Freud claims in Unbehagen in der Kultur, is a culture of soap (sanitizing one from the awareness of death), the accustomed meaning of saponification is here transformed into its opposite.  Western culture represses the sacrifices that were its origins through a process of cleansing: Soap here would indicate a return to those repressed sources.  Violence must be re-vived in order to reclaim the self, now unclean.

The dream of capitalism complements the dream of fascism: “We wanted to blast the world free of history” [124].  Their common project is dehistoricization.  By attempting to destroy history, Project Mayhem pretends to break with the capitalist world but ends up mirroring it.  Capitalist culture homogenizes all of its inhabitants until individuality is lost—its alternative, communism, would lead, theoretically, to the redistribution of wealth and the elimination of rank.  Neither is accepted by Fight Club.  Nor, for that matter, are the utopian primitivism and fascistic terrorism represented by Project Mayhem.  The refusal of the capitalist / communist / fascist alternatives does not imply nihilism, either.  Fight Club posits nothing other than the impossibility of a way out.  This is evident in the text.  When the narrator attempts to demolish the fascist version of his self, his phantom double remerges.  Neither capitalism nor its double is overcome.  Tragedy is not death, the liberation from all forms of the political; it is, rather, the impossibility of dying.

* * * * *

A few words on the form of Fight Club (the only section of this review that will be read).

This could have been an excellent novel.

Any strong writer knows that a dead page–a dead paragraph, a dead sentence, a dead word–is unacceptable.  Every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word should be electric, vibrant, vivacious.  Fight Club moves in the exact opposite direction: Its prose is soul-deadening, life-negating, dull.  It is a prose that neither confronts nor challenges.

Chuck Palahniuk does not have an easy way with words.  The language of this book is metallic, anti-poetic, and illiterate.

The writer claims to write in the way that “people talk.”

This would be good advice if we lived in an age in which people knew how to talk.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

 

Is THE TAMING OF THE SHREW misogynistic? Is THE TAMING OF THE SHREW sexist?

An analysis of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (William Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

“Happy Birthday, Mr. President! / Happy Birthday to you!”

–Marilyn Monroe, 19 May 1962

With all of the graciousness of a Wall Street businessman offering a homeless man a wine bottle bubbling with urine, a noble lord orchestrates a play for the amusement of drunkard and wastrel Christopher Sly, who is deceived into believing that he is a noble lord himself.  This meta-narrative, called the “Induction,” does not exactly frame the play that we are watching or reading, since the meta-narrative only reappears briefly in the first scene of the first act and does not resurface after the play is over.  (It should be remarked parenthetically that Christopher Sly is pushed above his social station, in the same way the servant Traino will be pushed above his social station when he impersonates his master Lucentio.)

The play in question is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1590-1592), if Shakespeare did indeed compose the text (I have my doubts), and critics have wondered about the relation (or non-relation) between the Induction and the play itself.  The word induction comes from the Latin inducere, which means “to lead into,” and indeed the Induction does feed through the play.  A close reading would bear this out.

Petruchio, Veronese drifter, travels to Padua to find a dowry and a wife (in that order).  A disgustingly selfish person, he courts acid-tongued bachelorette Katherine Minola when he learns how much money he can get from her father, the wealthy Baptista.  Much in the same way that Christopher Sly is deceived into believing that he is a noble lord, Petruchio will be deceived into believing that he is a master and shrew-tamer.  As Christopher Sly, Petruchio is trapped in his own illusions.

Like a triad of lascivious lizards, the suitors Lucentio, Gremio, and Hortensio encircle Katherine’s younger sister, the vacuous narcissist Bianca.  The courters seem genuinely attracted to Bianca and genuinely repelled by Katherine.  No man will have access to Bianca until or unless Katherine is sold to a suitor.  This, however, cannot be said to be the challenge of the play, since Baptista easily gives his eldest daughter to Petruchio.  The courtship of Katherine, such as it is, is insultingly brief.  Katherine feels the insult deeply, and we know this when she says that she was “woo’d in haste” [III:ii].  The challenge of the play is rather: How will Petruchio tame the shrewish Katherine?  How will Petruchio subdue her tongue and force her to submit to his husbandly will?

Let there be no mistake: Katherine is a shrewd shrew.  She is abrasive and hurtful.  In a clear sense, she is the precursor of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, who also uses verbal aggressiveness to camouflage her erotic desires.  Verbal aggressiveness, for both women, is a defensive mechanism.  Both the divine Beatrice and her predecessor Katherine reserve their sharpest rebukes and barbs for the men they love.  It is not fortuitous that Katherine’s opening salvo terminates with the provocative reference to a taboo sex act [see Act Two: Scene One].  Katherine is hardly indifferent to Petruchio.  Her verbal violence is a symptom of her desire for the man.

Whereas Katherine’s desire for Petruchio is passionately real, Petruchio appears to have, at least initially, a purely financial interest in the shrew.  As the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Petruchio seems to have a purely financial interest in women in general.  Petruchio makes his intentions plain when he asks Hortensio if he knows of an eligible bachelorette with a rich dowry:

[I]f thou know / One rich enough to be Petruchio’s wife, / As wealth is burden of my wooing dance… / I come to wive it wealthily in Padua; / If wealthily, then happily in Padua [I:ii].

It is all about the dowry for Petruchio.  Not about love, not even about sex.  Katherine, understandably, sees herself as more than merchandise and resents Petruchio’s attempts to erase her human spontaneity and transform her into a thing of ownership among other things of ownership.

There are differences between the iterations of the Hebraic tablets known as “The Ten Commandments” in Exodus and Deuteronomy, but in all versions, the Tenth Commandment is the same.  In the tenth of the divinely chiseled commandments, women are leveled to the status of real estate, of servants, of livestock: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.”  The Tenth Commandment resonates through Petruchio’s description of Katherine:

She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing [III:ii].

Even the language is the same as the language in Exodus and Deuteronomy: the “house,” the “ox,” the “ass,” the “any thing.”

And how does Petruchio get poor Katherine to bow to his will?  The disgusting brute jilts her on their wedding day, famishes her, and disturbs her sleep.  Emotional abuse, starvation, sleep deprivation: The brute denies his wife her basic emotional and psychological needs.  Instead of indulging in uxorious excesses, Petruchio treats his bride disgracefully.  Even a threat of physical violence against Katherine emerges from the mouth of his servant Gremio: “Will [Petruchio] woo her?  Ay, or I’ll hang her” [I:ii].

Whereas Petruchio uses force to get his way, Katherine is a mistress of seduction and subtle manipulation.  Katherine’s revenge is to carnify Petruchio’s power-mirages.  She will become everything that Petruchio wants her to be: pliable, docile, servile.  Katherine remains the shrew—such is her essence—while assuming the disguise of the docile housewife.  She is separable from the disguises that she assumes and ironically dramatizes the role of the submissive bride.  Shakespearean philosophy—that life is dramaturgy, that the world is a stage and we are all performers—would corroborate this suspicion.  From the beginning of the play until its end, Katherine remains the malevolent termagant.  In a play in which characters impersonate one another (Traino impersonates Lucentio, Lucentio impersonates the Reading Tutor Cambio, Hortensio impersonates the Music Tutor Licio), Katherine plays the part of a repentant shrew and plays her part well.  Let us overhear the strength and the irony in her closing address to the big-minded female guests at Lucentio’s dinner party:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience [V:ii].

In these words, Katherine subtly rejects the role that Petruchio tries to impose and superimpose upon her.  If I am mistaken about this (and I am not), how does one explain the fact that we have never seen Petruchio do anything that Katherine says that husbands do?  She is the perfect parody of servility and docility.  Her becoming-parody is absolutely evident in the following conversation:

PETRUCHIO

Come on, i’ God’s name; once more toward our father’s.
Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!

KATHERINA

The moon! the sun: it is not moonlight now.

PETRUCHIO

I say it is the moon that shines so bright.

KATHERINA

I know it is the sun that shines so bright.

PETRUCHIO

Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,
Or ere I journey to your father’s house.
Go on, and fetch our horses back again.
Evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d!

HORTENSIO

Say as he says, or we shall never go.

KATHERINA

Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please:
An if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.

PETRUCHIO

I say it is the moon.

KATHERINA

I know it is the moon.

PETRUCHIO

Nay, then you lie: it is the blessed sun.

KATHERINA

Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun:
But sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it named, even that it is;
And so it shall be so for Katherina [IV:v].

In other words: If I [Petruchio] say that the Moon is the Sun, then the Moon is the Sun.  If I say that the Sun is the Moon, then the Sun is the Moon.  If I say that two plus two equals five, then two plus two equals five.  The fact that Katherine assents to Petruchio’s capriciousness and silliness only highlights the absurdity of what he is saying.  By simulating Petruchio’s fantasy of mastery, she plays out the undoing of his presumptions of mastery.

Who IS Katherine, precisely?  Is she a reluctant conformist?  Is she an inconsiderate conformist?  Is she a vigorous conformist?  To Petruchio, she is the replica of his desires for supremacy, but this is not Katherine’s essence: She presents a ceaselessly multiplying play of masks.  Her self-multiplications enlarge infinitely.  Purely mutative, purely transformative—who is she, really, in herself?  The shrew has multiple names, and this means that she wears multiple guises.  The plurality of her personae is absolutely evident in this passage:

KATHERINA

They call me Katherine that do talk of me.

PETRUCHIO

You lie, in faith, for you are call’d plain Kate, / And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst; / Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom, / Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate, / For dainties are all Kates… [II:i].

The plurality of personae is what provokes Petruchio’s desire; the impossibility of ever mastering her totality is what makes Katherine so bewitchingly shrewish.  If she were vapidly selfsame, as Bianca is, Petruchio would likely not want her.  No matter how old she becomes, even when her luminosity dims, it is probable that she will be desirable to Petruchio.  Because she is never reducible to One Thing.  Which leaves us with these questions: Is it truly the case that Kate has been domesticated?  Has Petruchio not been Kated?  Has the shrew indeed been tamed, or has not Petruchio been beshrewed?

Joseph Suglia