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Sunday, 2017-10-22, 10:00 AM
The Death of the Writer Part II
This swamp is the Styx. This swamp is literary fiction. Horrific fragments of Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist surround me. Ticker tape runs across a blood-red moon saying, ‘The word for moonlight is moonlight.’ These words are emblazoned on a black sky: ‘Something is happening. It has happened. It will happen.’
Spotlights with no obvious origin pick out slow-moving storm clouds and project vivid red letters onto them. They spell out one of DeLillo’s typically absurd sentences. ‘It was necessary because she needed to do it. This is what made it necessary.’
Sure, Don. Tautology was the subject you majored in, wasn’t it? Hey, Don, I hear you never use a computer. Why does that not surprise me? You never quite made it into the modern world, did you?
Mysterious birds appear with exotic plumage. Spelled out on their wings are DeLilloist sentences such as, ‘Somehow. The weakest word in the language. And more or less. And maybe. Always maybe. She was always maybeing.’
If I shit myself, smear the crap all over my fingers and then start writing a novella with excrement instead of ink, will I be the new Don DeLillo? Would urine be more suitable? Sounds too much like taking the piss, perhaps?
All the while, I ask myself if my writing has improved because of the Contemporary American Fiction module. Sure it has. I learned a cornucopia of techniques to avoid at all costs. (Well, literary fiction had to be useful for something.) But, hey, Carrie was great, Alan Ball’s American Beauty a revelation; even Sherman Alexie’s The Lone-Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven had its few moments. (OK, very few.) But I have to bow before Blood Meridian. Who could forget the judge, the kid, the priest and Glanton? You see, Cormac McCarthy has cracked it. Memorable characters, an unforgettable journey and fine writing into the bargain. Can you beat it? It’s just a pity the book had such a deplorable beginning; literary writing at its most off-putting. And it’s an even bigger pity that I won’t be able to show off any of my new-found skills because my fellow students have incinerated me and I’m now trapped for eternity in literary hell.
CMT is slapping my feet in relentless rotation with the ten thousand books written by Joyce Carol Oates (including all the pseudonymous efforts that, unsurprisingly, are every bit as tedious as those bearing her real name). All the while, screeching seagulls shed their droppings like splashing phosphor.
Oates doesn’t get it; DeLillo doesn’t get it; Tyler doesn’t get it; Morrison doesn’t get it. In fifty years, no one will read or remember their books. But The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling will still have audiences everywhere. Why? Because fiction is story telling and a good story will beat literary casuistry, Jesuitical wordplay and verbal legerdemain any day. Stories live on, not dreary overwritten musings on dreary underlived lives. When will literary writers get real?
From What has any of this got to do with Joyce Carol Oates? An interview with Gavin Cologne-Brookes:
Oh, the combusting student? Well, some people get overheated, don’t they? I think it’s healthy for students to be passionate about what they read. Well, perhaps healthy isn’t quite the right word in this particular case. Oh, did I mention that I have first editions of Madame Bovary, Sophie’s Choice and Blonde. I keep them in a special room.
If you’re good, someday I’ll take you there.
With apologies to Stephen King for my feeble impression of Carrie. With apologies to my Contemporary American Writing class – they were a nice bunch, really. Not a bunch of murderous psychos (not all the time anyway). With apologies to CMT. At least he got half way through The Da Vinci Code.
The Word Inferno
From Proceedings of the Infernal Literary Tribunal (chaired by Joyce Carol Oates) in the case against Mr Michael Hockney.
Recollections of the defendant
Joyce Carol Oates sits before me in the courtroom, with her bulging eyes and bizarre hairstyle from some indeterminate period in American history, skilfully contrived to make people think: Ah, there goes a writer – who else has hair so weird?
‘Surely you’re in no doubt where you are,’ JCO says in a high, painfully shy, whining voice. She has the blue-white paleness of a woman who never leaves her writing room, except to give talks at universities to other writers.
‘Literary hell,’ I answer confidently. All around me are floating bookcases stuffed with thick, unreadable tomes, mostly by JCO herself.
‘That’s right,’ she says, ‘the wordly inferno, the verbal conflagration, the firestorm of beautiful writing.’ She smiles creepily at her two companions in the tribunal and both of them nod back at her with suitable sagacity. On her right is Anne Tyler, on the left Toni Morrison.
A well-balanced tribunal, they believe. A hanging gang, I think. I will get no justice here. How on earth can Toni Morrison be present? It was the fury that seized me while I was trying to work out how to read her novel Beloved that precipitated my fiery departure from my previous life.
Was her book to be read by rotating it by 180 degrees? Did the reader have to be wearing anti-gravity books and be suspended upside down with blood rushing to the head in order to glimpse it’s meaning? Perhaps Beloved was to be read from right to left, as though written in Japanese. Maybe the Bletchley Park codebreakers devised this form of writing to fox the Nazis. Even Navaho windtalkers were more comprehensible than this.
JCO acknowledges two others present in the courtroom. Don DeLillo is my primary accuser as a consequence of my assault on his literary ‘masterpiece’ The Body Artist , which I have labelled the worst book ever published. Of course, to add symbolic power, he is not actually allowed to speak.
His legal assistant is one Mr Tuttle, a time-traveller perhaps, maybe an inhabitant of Kant’s noumenal universe where the laws of space and time no longer apply. At any rate he’s bald (in fact there’s not a single hair anywhere on his body), wears a nappy and has a paunch. A giant baby, really. And he talks like one, insofar as you can’t understand anything he says, unless you’re a member of the ‘literary’ world, in which case you understand him perfectly. He continually disappears, or changes into other objects, or does, or becomes, or is, in accordance with the non-rules of his either/or existence, mediated by the imaginary number, the square root of minus one. Merely to contemplate him is to be bewildered and to start formulating senseless sentences that seem to carry great import but are actually random pretentiousness.
‘We have a dilemma, Mr Hockney,’ JCO announces. ‘Owing to the precise nature of your death, we are unsure whether you should be consigned to Circle Five or Circle Ten of the literary Inferno. The immediate cause of your spontaneous combustion was your deplorable reaction to Beloved by my esteemed colleague Toni Morrison. (A half smile/half frown and a little nod/shake of the head are exchanged.) That was merely the latest in a long list of crimes against the literary world. You proclaimed how much you loathed Anne Tyler’s magnificent Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and you particularly reviled Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist. I don’t even wish to contemplate that you claimed I’ll Take You There was girlish neurotic nonsense.’
I can’t help sniggering as I watch her shuddering. I briefly wonder if you can have two gerunds so close together, and both beginning with ‘s’.
After sipping some water to recover her composure, JCO says, ‘Sinners in Dante’s Inferno are assigned their particular position on the basis of the principle of contrapasso – a soul’s punishment must reflect the sins it committed on earth, ensuring that it will never forget its crime against God.
‘We are undecided if you are guilty of wrath or heresy. That is the question this tribunal is here to examine. We therefore wish to rehearse your preposterous opinions concerning The Body Artist.’
As she finishes speaking, Mr Tuttle flashes in and out of existence. Am I right in thinking that he grins in the few moments when he can be observed in this reality? He utters some sounds, but he might as well have a gobstopper in his mouth for all the sense he makes. Mr DeLillo shoots me a furious look and pounds away on a manual typewriter. I dread to think what new nonsense he is shaping.
‘DeLillo himself knows how bad this book is,’ I begin, my comment instantly promoting a synchronised shaking of heads amongst the tribunal. ‘In fact, he makes a pathetic attempt to get his retaliation in first by issuing pre-emptive excuses that are supposed to make the reader feel stupid if they don’t get it.’
‘And where’s your evidence for this outrageous calumny?’ JCO squeaks.
‘I have it right here,’ I reply breezily, raising up the offensive book. ‘Go to page 104. Like I say, DeLillo actually tells us how bad the book is going to be, how most of us will give up, bored to tears. He writes:
Hartke clearly wanted her audience to feel time go by, viscerally, even painfully. This is what happened, causing walkouts amongst the less committed.
They missed the best stuff.
‘The best stuff? Yeah, right, Mr DeLillo.’ I wink at the sad old typewriter operator and then grin provocatively at JCO. ‘You see, Hartke and DeLillo are one and the same. The whole book is an act of performance art. Hartke’s performance at the end of the novella is nothing but a tedious regurgitation of the tedium that has preceded it. With all the subtlety of an elephant in a doll’s house, DeLillo is laboriously explaining to us that the reason we have found this book so dull is… that it was precisely what he intended.’
JCO furiously raises her hand to stop me. ‘Are you denying that the first twenty-five pages of The Body Artist represent an exquisite rendering of the essential banality of life?’
‘The first twenty-five pages are about a boring couple who can hardly string a sentence together having a boring breakfast in a boring kitchen on a boring day. The moment at which a writer designs to write boringly is the same moment at which it’s no longer possible to distinguish good writing from bad.
‘On the same page,’ I continue, ‘DeLillo gives away what the title of this book ought to have been:
The piece, called Body Time, sneaked into towns for three nights…
‘It may be called The Body Artist, but there’s no artist and no art in this novella. It’s a tiresome sub-philosophical work about the relationship between time and the body. One need only examine the first and last lines for confirmation:
First line: Time seems to pass. (Profound, or what? This is how to have the reader on the edge of his seat right from the get-go.)
Last line: She wanted to feel the sea tang on her face and the flow of time in her body, to tell her who she was.
‘So, the moral of this story is… time passing is an illusion but it’s precisely that illusion which defines us.
‘It appears that poor Mr DeLillo read a fragment of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and completely failed to understand it.’
DeLillo glances up at me and angrily clatters away on his manual typewriter.
‘In an interview DeLillo gave to Michael Silverblatt, he says of Mr Tuttle:
This character lives in time as it truly exists. Einstein said time is a fiction. And by that, I think what he meant is that our perception of time is not a genuine description of the way in which the structure of time exists in the universe around us. And this man, Mr. Tuttle, it seems to me, lives in time in an unprotected way. He’s not able to protect himself as we do thru our misperception of the nature of time. It’s the only way we can live. He can barely live. He can’t speak clearly. He moves in a jerky sort of manner. He’s totally lost in the world. Which could only mean that he is in the real world. Not in the world we have built with our self-protective mechanisms. We don’t know what the universe is truly like. This is my reading of what certain scientists, certain cosmologists, seem to be saying. So my idea was simply to try to imagine a character in this terrible dilemma. One of the things he seems to be able to do is to move forward and backward in time. Although he certainly doesn’t do this willingly. And I’m not quite sure if he does it physically or not.
‘Of course, Einstein never said that time was a fiction. He said that time was what you measured with a clock. True, his Theory of Relativity says there are no such things as absolute time and absolute space, but that’s an entirely different claim from DeLillo’s that we misperceive time. Within any particular frame of reference, time and space are well defined. It’s when results from different frames of reference are compared that complexity appears, but it’s never a question of misperception; merely of different perceptions.’
I can see the tribunal scratching their heads. DeLillo’s fingers are slamming against the typewriter keys. It’s time to kick these fuckers while they’re down.
‘DeLillo has in fact blundered into Immanuel Kant’s territory. Kant said that there was a noumenal world of things as they really are and a phenomenal world of things as they apparently are. Humans possess minds that impose on the noumenal world a particular structure, a fake structure, that gives rise to the phenomenal world. Space and time belong as forms of perception only in the fake world of phenomena.
‘DeLillo’s comment that Mr Tuttle seems to be able to move forward and backward in time, and his supporting observations that he certainly doesn’t do this willingly and that he’s not quite sure if he does it physically or not, reveal how incompletely and badly thought through this whole concept is. If the writer himself doesn’t know the precise nature of Mr Tuttle then how can the reader possibly know? Or are we being invited to create our own Mr Tuttle? Hey, why don’t we write the book ourselves? Who needs the middle man?’
At this point, I can see Mr Tuttle’s head splitting into two, the top half rotating clockwise at high speed while the other half moves counterclockwise at a leisurely, fitful pace. Mr Tuttle looks far from happy. As for DeLillo… if that typing gets any louder he’ll be joining a metal band.
‘If DeLillo were genuinely interested in this subject, in this dilemma that Mr Tuttle finds himself in, the novella should be from Mr Tuttle’s point of view so that his unique take on the world can be explored.
‘Anyway, there’s a huge logical problem with Mr Tuttle. If he’s a time traveller in the sense of relating to time in a different way from everyone else (including Hartke), why should that affect Hartke’s perceptions (or misperceptions) of him? In her terms, Mr Tuttle should be nothing more than a normal person with mental health issues.’
‘I object,’ JCO proclaims, but then fails to actually raise any objection.
‘This novella is nonsensical on practically every level,’ I go on, ‘which is precisely why some people are able to make the preposterous claim that it’s a ghost story for the twenty-first century (quote on front of book). On the other hand, perhaps it’s a masterly portrait of the impact of death on those who live (quote on back cover). How about a meditation on love, time and human perception (another quote on back cover)? The reality is that it’s experimental fiction at its very worst – a literary Rorschach test in which readers of a particularly pretentious ilk can read into it whatever they like.
‘It’s not as if any formal meaning can be assigned to sentences such as [p.99]:
There has to be an imaginary point, a nonplace where language intersects with our perceptions of time and space, and he is a stranger at this crossing, without words or bearings.
But what did she know? Nothing. This is the rule of time. It is the thing you know nothing about.
‘This is obscurantism. No one who is scientifically and philosophically literate could tolerate this kind of meaningless mumbo jumbo.
‘I couldn’t care less what reputation DeLillo has. Everyone is judged anew with each new work they put in the public domain. Not even a BSUC MA student would write a collection of sentences as awful as[p.124]:
She walked into the room and went to the window. She opened it. She threw the window open. She didn’t know why she did this.
‘Everyone knows you can’t get away with writing four consecutive sentences each beginning with the same pronoun. Is DeLillo trying to say that the joke’s on us for taking this work seriously? Is he the Emperor in his new clothes, fully aware that he’s stark naked but mesmerised by how many hagiographers, hierophants and sycophants stand there in all seriousness telling him how dazzling this book is?
‘More fool them.’
There’s an explosion of coughing and spluttering from the tribunal, but I have no patience for interruptions.
‘We learn on the last page,’ I continue…
Her mother died when she was nine. It wasn’t her fault. It had nothing to do with her.
‘What competent writer saves this revelation for the last page, where it can’t serve any purpose, and, what’s more, writes it so boringly?
‘On p.116, he writes…
Why shouldn’t the death of a person you love bring you into lurid ruin?
‘This book did anything but induce a feeling of lurid ruin in me. When a renowned writer aims for grief but produces boredom, he ought to be taken aside by his agent and editor and have the riot act read to him.’
Silver tickertape suddenly emerges from Mr Tuttle’s nostrils, inscribed with random combinations of words…
p.83: Maybe he falls, he slides, if that is a useful word, from his experience of an objective world, the deepest description of space-time, where he does not feel a sense of future direction – he slides into her experience, everyone’s, the standard sun-kissed chronology of events.
p.83: If there is no sequential order except for what we engender to make us safe in the world, then maybe it is possible, what, to cross from one nameless state to another, except that it clearly isn’t.
p.74: Coming and going I am leaving. I will go and come. Leaving has come to me. We all, shall all, will all be left. Because I am here and where. And I will go or not or never. And I have seen what I will see. If I am where I will be. Because nothing comes between me.
And so it goes on, gibberish divided by unintelligibility squared.
‘Let me summarise this book,’ I announce, trying to bring these unjust proceedings to an end. ‘It’s about the impossibility of communicating with others. Rey failed to communicate with Hartke, so he killed himself. Hartke couldn’t communicate with Mr Tuttle. In fact, Mr Tuttle is the personification of non-communication. Hartke couldn’t communicate with her audience and they walked out. Above all, the author failed to communicate with the reader and, who knows, perhaps that was precisely what he intended. After all, in the wacky, storyless world of literary fiction, anything goes.’
‘Heresy,’ Tyler screeches, opening her mouth for the first time.
‘Hardly,’ I say. ‘I never believed in your literary religion in the first place. I want good story-telling, fast-moving plots, plenty of action, fabulous twists, an emotional journey.
‘People have the impudence and "intellectual” arrogance to ridicule The Da Vinci Code, but there are virtually no levels on which the The Body Artist is superior to Dan Brown’s masterwork. In fact The Body Artist may well be the worst book ever published. That it was published at all derives solely from the identity of its author. The cynical agents, the publisher’s marketing machine, the undeserved awards – they’re all part of the slick con, the literary hustle, the sycophants’ shuffle.’
There’s a second outburst of coughing, so loud that even I have to shut up. JCO bangs her gavel. Anne Tyler has fainted. Toni Morrison’s back is turned to me in protest. I look in vain for Mr Tuttle – he’s vanished up his own fundament, it seems. As for Mr DeLillo himself, he’s hunched over his old typewriter, still clacking away.
‘After careful examination of the facts, it’s clear that the sin you have committed is neither wrath nor heresy, Mr Hockney,’ JCO declares. ‘You’re not even a sower of discord, though there is much of that in you. No, your true sin is treason against your benefactor. Literary Fiction is the one true God and you have betrayed and reviled Him at every turn. You have sided with the arch enemy, Dan Brown. Judecca is reserved for you, and your eternal companions will be Brutus, Cassius and, above all, Judas.
‘Your punishment will be to eternally denied the benefits of literary fiction. You will have nothing to read but science fiction, crime, horror, fantasy, mystery and endless thrillers.’
JCO seems mystified by the smile that has spread over my face. So bright is it that it might illuminate the whole of hell and summon the very angels from heaven.
‘Well, you know what they say,’ I remark, winking at her, ‘Every cloud…’
***** The Body Artist by Don DeLillo; published in paperback in the UK by Picador 2002