Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘DeLillo

Saturday Night

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* Paul Rosenberg has your omnibus case against Elena Kagan. I have to say that at this point this feels a bit like pissing into the wind.

* Secret history: DeLillo as SF writer.

* Photographer Chris Jordan, whose fantastic “Running the Numbers” series on American consumerism you may have seen before, talks to the New York Review of Books about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the sad photos he recently took at Midway Island of dead birds, their stomachs laden with plastic debris.

* When the Soviets almost nuked China. Via LGM, who thinks this story is probably greatly exaggerated.

* io9 reports on the original script for Empire Strikes Back.

* And Shia LaBeouf admits he ruined Indiana Jones forever. Apology not accepted.

Tuesday!

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July 28, 2009 at 2:10 pm

‘David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and the Littlest Literary Hoax’

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I first noticed the fake review in 2005, when one of my students unwittingly cited the review as real research. I had puzzled over it and decided that if I waited long enough, somebody (in Modernism/Modernity circles, in Wallace circles, in DeLillo circles) would come forward and take credit for something I’m sure they thought nobody would be fooled by. Time passed and I forgot about the fake review. Until recently. I’ve done some digging around and discovered that the hoax has gone unnoticed, though the review hasn’t. The review is only ever considered as serious, peer-reviewed research. For example, in addition to my embarrassed student, I’ve found the review cited in several graduate theses, with no acknowledgment that the review is fake. The troubling blindness to contextuality and intertextuality (how could any 20th century Americanist, whether modernist or postmodernist, fail to see the references to perhaps one of the most important novels of the past fifty years) — this troubling blindness on both students and their advisors’ part turns a fun fake review into something much more telling about the state of academia.

‘David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and the Littlest Literary Hoax.’ Via Fimoculous. (P.S. The story has an update.)

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July 20, 2009 at 1:13 am

Infinite Summer #3: No Matter How Smart You Thought You Were, You Are Actually Way Less Smart Than That

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(This one turned out a little longer than expected.)

There have been two references so far in Infinite Jest to “the M.I.T. language riots of B.S. 1997,” a reference so slight it hardly seems worth the trouble of tracking down. The first we find in James O. Incandenza’s massive filmography on pg. 987n24, linked from pg. 64:

Union of Theoretical Grammarians in Cambridge. B.S. Meniscus Films, Ltd. Documentary cast; 35 mm.;26 minutes; color; silent with heavy use of computerized distortion in facial close-ups. Documentary and closed-caption interviews with participants in the public Steven Pinker-Avril M. Incandenza debate on the political implications of prescriptive grammar during the infamous Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts convention credited with helping incite the M.I.T. language riots of B.S. 1997.

Forty footnotes later, on 996n60, we get this about “the near-new M.I.T. student union” (184):

Replacing the old neo-Georgian J. A. Stratton Student Center, right off Mass. Ave. and gutted with C4 during the so-called M.I.T. Language Riots of twelve years past.

Glossing over the difference in capitalization, taken together these two footnotes place the “present” of the novel as exactly now: 2009.

We don’t know much about what has happened in the intervening decade, and as was discussed in the comments to the last post I don’t think Infinite Jest is productively read as predictive fiction. (Instead it should be understood as always twenty minutes into the future.) We get, for instance, a quiet reference to the Kemp administration on pg. 177, a moderately reasonable prognostication for DFW to make in 1996 (though Jack Kemp was widely considered a failure as Dole’s running mate at the time)—but it’s paired with a no-chance-in-hell Limbaugh administration that is clearly satiric. (Both references are somewhat suspect, in any event, as they originate in-dialogue from a character at the Ennet House who euphemistically admits they have “some trouble recalling certain intervals” during these periods. So maybe it’s a joke within a joke.) We know Vermont has become the Great Concavity—where feral hamsters rule unchecked!—and that videophones have come and gone, and that broadcast television has ended in favor of TPs, apparently some sort of on-demand service not unlike Netflix.

But we don’t know much, because these sorts of predictions just aren’t the point.

So enough of that—back to the M.I.T. language riots. This is an allusion to Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star (1976), a novel which shares some affinities with Infinite Jest, including a boy-genius plotline, multivocal narrative, deep suspicion about the reliability of both personal subjectivity and bureaucratic institutions, and intense theoretical interest in the inner workings of language. The riots are covered in their entirely on pages 31-33 of Ratner’s Star in a short bit of dialogue from J. Graham Hummer, “widely known as the instigator of the MIT language riots”:

“Tell us about the MIT business,” Mimsy said. “I’ve never heard the details.”

“There are no details.”

“Did people really throw stones at each other and overturn cars and the like? I mean was there actual killing in the streets?”

“I was simply trying to assert that what there is in common between a particular fact and the sentence that asserts this fact can itself be put into a sentence.

“And this led to rioting?”

This weird, obscure moment, which could be slotted into Infinite Jest itself without a tremendous amount of revision, introduces the problem of cognitive reflexivity that structures a lot of both Ratner’s Star and IJ. It centers around what is in essence, the Gödel paradox, the problematic fact that statements-about-statements are themselves statements, that there is no self-consistent exterior vantage point from which we can look objectively at our own subjective experiences of the world—that as soon as we attempt to think or speak about the way we think and speak we become hopelessly lost in paradox, in indecidability, and in confusing and shadowy incompleteness. And I hope it isn’t too much of a stretch to assert that this is exactly the problem we face when we confront addict subjectivity:

That most Substance-addiction people are also addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking. That the cute Boston AA term for addictive-type thinking is Analysis-Paralysis.

…That 99% of compulsive thinkers’ thinking is about themselves; that 99% of this self-directed thinking consists of imagining and then getting ready for things that are going to happen to them; and then, weirdly, that if they stop to think about it, that 100% of the things they spend 99% of their time and energy imagining and trying to prepare for all the contingencies and consequence of are never good. That this connects interestingly with the early-sobriety urge to pray for the literal loss of one’s mind. In short that 99% of the head’s thinking activity consists of trying to scare the everliving shit out of oneself… (203-204)

The strange compulsion towards endlessly looping cognitive reflexivity—thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking…—leads in the end to that terrible desire that is central to addiction, the desire for one’s consciousness to be obliterated altogether:

…a little-mentioned paradox of Substance addiction is: that once you are sufficiently enslaved by a Sustance to need to quit the substance in order to save your life, the enslaving Substance has become so deeply important to you that you will all but lose your mind when it is taken away from you. Or that sometime after your Substance has just been taken away from you in order to save your life, as you hunker down for required A.M. and P.M. prayers, you will find yourself beginning to pray to be allowed literally to lose your mind, to be able to wrap your mind in an old newspaper or something and leave it in an alley to shift for itself, without you. (201)

This is, that is, the desire for suicide that haunts so much of Infinite Jest, that in the wake of 9/13/08 threatens to consume the book altogether. Reading The Bell Jar is like this; knowing that Sylvia Plath committed suicide a month after its publication destroys our ability to believe its assertions of an apparently happy ending for its Sylvia-stand-in, Esther. Knowing what happened to DFW—what he did to himself—deeply unsettles our ability to believe “[t]hat no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable” (204), which seems now, in retrospect, less like truth, and more like the prayer of a person who hopes they might someday believe it.

Culture Links

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My unhealthy obsession with the presidential race has been crowding out the literature and pop culture blogging I normally do. Here’s a linkdump to try and correct that balance:

* The Washington Post visits the Manhattan of Mad Men, c. 1962.

* How to land a 747.

* Don DeLillo (fake) blogs politics at the Onion, while the incredible José Saramago—whose excellent Blindess is both the best book I’ve read in months and a new motion picture out this Friday despite the fact that it is quite literally unfilmable—(real) blogs in Portuguese and Spanish. Via MeFi and Alex Greenberg.

* Salon looks at David Foster Wallace’s sad last days, while Boston.com has a map of Infinite Jest.

* Survive the Outbreak: a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure zombie movie. Via MeFi. More zombie fun here.

* Grave sites of famous science fiction authors.

* Concept art from the upcoming Green Lantern movie. More at MeFi.

* Michael Moore’s latest movie, Slacker Uprising, is available for free online. “This film, really isn’t for anybody other than the choir,” said Moore. “But that’s because I believe the choir needs a song to sing every now and then.” So the film’s not very good, is that it? Via MeFi.

* The Evil League of Evil is hiring.

* Stephen Colbert is about to team up with Spider-Man.

* And Neanderthals loved sushi. Who doesn’t?

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“I don’t know this America anymore. I don’t recognize it,” he said. “There’s an empty space where America used to be.”

Maybe it’s because I don’t read Don DeLillo novels hoping to connect with the characters, or maybe I was just born to be a contrarian, but I liked Falling Man quite a bit more than the reviewers seemed to. I thought it was probably his best book since Underworld, and maybe earlier. As is often the case with DeLillo, the characters are not real people, and barely even qualify as simulacra of real people—but for this book, at least, about the psychic aftermath of 9/11, that emptiness and stilted disconnectedness made a great deal of sense. It’s interesting that once again, as in Libra, DeLillo’s best character work is in representing those consciousnesses that might popularly be considered unrepresentable: here, the minds of the terrorists.

I’m not sure what 9/11 novel people were hoping DeLillo might write, but a novel about PTSD was more or less what I was expecting. Honestly I think it’s probably the only sort of 9/11 novel that is capable of being either written or widely published, at least for a couple decades—which is just one of the reasons why DeLillo has thus far been the only exception to my rigorous personal ban on all 9/11 novels.

You have to look for them a bit—and I think the fact of that looking was one of the things the reviewers didn’t care for—but DeLillo still manages to get in a few nice DeLilloesque grand pronouncements, though he’s careful always to put them into the mouths of his characters rather than in untagged text, almost as if even six years later he still needs the protection of a proxy to talk about these things:

“But that’s why you built the towers, isn’t it? Weren’t the towers built as fantasies of wealth and power that would one day become fantasies of destruction? You build a thing like that so you can see it come down. The provocation is obvious. What other reason would there be to go so high and then to double it, do it twice? It’s a fantasy, so why not do it twice? You are saying, Here it is, bring it down.”

and

He said,”It still looks like an accident, the first one. Even from this distance, way outside the thing, how many days later, I’m standing here thinking it’s an accident.”

“Because it has to be.”

“It has to be,” she said.

“The way the camera sort of shows surprise.”

“But only the first one.”

“Only the first,” she said.

“The second plane, by the time the second plane appears,” he said, “we’re all a bit older and wiser.”

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August 8, 2007 at 11:58 am

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Reading Falling Man, one often feels that DeLillo’s formerly superlative intuition has become a form of ignorance: he dangles uncertainly between what he knows of that day from pictures and what of it he predicted in his novels.

The New York Review of Books pans Falling Man, but in the nicest possible way.

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June 8, 2007 at 3:12 pm

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