When he spoke, all she heard was a distant hum, something like the dull resonance of the big bang, or the whine from the empty center of the Milky Way. She knew he was saying words, could see his lips moving, knew he was talking to her about the Benz, the mortgage on the lake house, a vacation to the Mayan Riviera, their daughter’s credit card, his mother’s third divorce, but she couldn’t hear him, hadn’t been able to hear him for months. While she watched his lips move, she thought about the feel of the terrycloth robe on her back, and the way the material irritated her nipples, making them erect. She saw him looking and immediately pulled the robe tighter around herself. She thought maybe he was now talking about who had last taken the trash out. She thought that was his job. She thought she didn’t care about the trash. But she certainly cared when it started to stink, and shouldn’t the man take care of things when they started to smell bad? As a pastiche, I’m not sure the above is entirely fair to the source text. Another not entirely fair thing I thought/wrote about the book in question was: I have not read any John Updike, but now feel as though I have.
Obviously Benjamin, and he is also namechecked. But also Beckett in the way the slowly fading mind meanders within the broken body. Beckett and Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän by Max Frisch. But then also somehow Babyficker by Urs Allemann, because, and obviously, both concern a first-person narrator in a bed exploring an obsession in a kind of fugue (state) where themes are repeated to the point of becoming leitmotifs. But then, in the way Gaddis’ narrator “hallucinates,” begins to flip or meld the standard “what is outside of me is reality / what I think is not,” there is also Pynchon, there is Doc Sportello never quite sure if his connections are justified or simply an effect of the drug (in the case of Agapé, prednisone). And if there is Inherent Vice, there is, and again, Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night. Just look at all these white men. What there is not, and what was then surprising about a book initially conceived as a history of the player piano (but which quickly, and at the end of Gaddis’ life, became a meditation on art vs. mechanization (and here we are back at Benjamin)), is that there is no Conlon Nancarrow. And because there is no Conlon Nancarrow, the composer who put the human back into the player piano by attacking the thing from the other end, he is thus placed here:
Reading a borrowed book, one in which I am unable to mark or write, means that my memory of it is then compromised. Before opening this book, I would have sworn to you that I had never read any Didion, but somewhere in the middle of the book, about the point I was getting a little frustrated with Ms. Didion’s strangely strident tone and her obvious privilege (which, in the 70s, would not have been perceived as such, and so why am I even mentioning it?), I had a semi-distinct memory of having read her story about Jim Morrison lowering a lit match to his vinyl-clad crotch. I would like to be able to say, here, that that image is somehow emblematic of my reading of this book, but it is not. This book is not sex and death. This book is stubborn perseverance in the face of the grinding, albeit privileged quotidian. There isn’t much particularly sexy about that. And but then there’s the cover image. I had the book with me at my place of work one day, and one of my co-workers saw the cover and said, “Wow, that is an incredibly sexy woman who looks as though she’s been through some kind of harrowing psychic experience and come through strangely both stronger and more fragile.” I asked him if he was familiar with Didion. He said no. So I read him her psych evaluation from the title essay.
I'm not sure Feiffer's illustration style, which I know primarily from his work with Norton Juster, is sustainable over a whole novel, nor am I certain that his messy line is suitable for noir, which I think of as clean. The revelation at the end about the imaginary mother "Chelsea" felt deus-ex-machinal and/or unnecessary; Annie's change of heart in the face of danger/loss made sense without "Chelsea." On the other hand, the way Feiffer braids and then ties together the various strands of the plot, with at least one big surprise, is masterfully done. Perhaps I shouldn’t have read this book immediately after finishing Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.
This book’s similarities to Cities of the Red Night by William S. Burroughs are uncanny. Both contain/deal with: the transmigration of the soul; paranoia (the freedom in finding connections between seemingly unrelated things and how too much of that finding becomes a constraint (fear)); the mourning/celebration of a freedom we, as a culture, almost had (life under Captain Mission’s articles in Burroughs, the psychedelic 60s in Pynchon); drugs (and the tension between freedom and control they create); sex (random? in Pynchon, ritualistic in Burroughs (but, and again, in both books, a fulcrum point between freedom and control)); a pirate ship (which may or may not be bringing a release from (a kind of) slavery); and private detectives (who are both, ultimately, investigating the same loss of freedom, how we almost achieved it, how it was taken or given away). It is possible that these are simply (some of) the main themes taken up by Post-Modernism, but that idea may just be the fear end of what began as a useful paranoia.
The one image I keep coming back to happens late in the book: The narrator is showering, realizes he has not drunk any water in a long time, and so stands there and drinks. While I was reading this book, I saw the film Whiplash twice. I don’t know why I keep coming back to that image of the narrator in the shower. Is it similar to Andrew Neiman plunging his bleeding hand into ice water? Is it similar to the change that occurs on Neiman’s father’s face as he watches his son from the wings of Carnegie Hall? I’m also not sure why, as I write this, Lerner’s book and Whiplash seem so closely related. I finished reading the book well over a week ago and have had all sorts of trouble motivating myself to write this.
Love can be manufactured. A body can be manufactured. Sensation can be manufactured. There is the body. There are the body’s processes. There is the reality of touch. Sight is a kind of touch. We have learned not to trust our sight. That touch is a reality would seem to contradict this. Mobs with axes, pitchforks, and torches are performing touch. Mobs with axes, pitchforks, and torches are performing a kind of love, an erotics of fear. The assistant is usually overlooked, has a life of its own, wants also to be the actor, the processor, the manufacturer. When the assistant is not overlooked, it becomes the mob’s love object. How dare anyone manufacture? How dare anyone love? Hey . . .
This book, which manages to balance a compelling and relentless narration of one life’s quotidian minutiae against the rather less quotidian thought processes that attend those minutiae, or at least the author of this book (and that is another interesting tension: the book purports to be the life of its author, therefore to be the author itself in some ways, but the back of the book says fiction, and of course it is) is convinced that examining minutiae destroys the very thing which one wanted to examine in the first place. It is as though the atoms of our lives are given weight by the protons of our thoughts and the electrons can either have location or velocity, but not both. In fact, the author says so multiple times:
p76 “Or was it perhaps that the light which illuminated the world and made everything comprehensible also drained it of meaning?” p414 “The eye which gave meaning to the world was a constant possibility, but we almost always decided against it. . . .” p487 “This was the problem with all representation, of course, for no eye is uncontaminated, no gaze is blank, nothing is seen the way it is. And in this encounter the question of art’s meaning as a whole was forced to the surface.” p503 “But the stars twinkle above our heads, the sun shines, the grass grows and the earth, yes, the earth, it swallows all life and eradicates all vestige of it, spews out new life in a cascade of limbs and eyes, leaves and nails, hair and tails, cheeks and fur and guts, and swallows it up again. And what we never really comprehend, or don’t want to comprehend, is that this happens outside us, that we ourselves have no part in it, that we are only that which grows and dies, as blind as the waves in the sea are blind.”
A picture of a white slit. A picture of two bones tied together at a 120º angle. A picture of a broken bottle. A picture of a rip in the skin? A picture of the moon. A picture of a slit in a foot. A picture of a marijuana bud. A picture of a sharpened stick. A picture of a half-eaten burger. A picture of a tab of acid between two strips of tape. A picture of a sprinkling of stars. A picture of two thorny twigs intertwined to make a slit shape. A picture of a broken double popsicle. A picture of a tiny-toothed mouth (sideways slit). A picture of a picture of Rob. A picture of sperm cells swarming around a giant egg. A picture of a friend chicken leg. A picture of an orange. A picture of a flaming slit. The End. “Is it a mirror? Just a crack at first . . . a thin sliver of light. . . . and then it spreads, opens up. I don’t understand. Why does it have to be like this? Why do I have to go through all of this shit?” One hemisphere composed of an orange, a pipe shaped like a compact skeleton, shreds of paper, bits of bone, a length of rope or some segments of worm, a tail or a vine, a bottle cap, dried leaves, a book of matches, a bag of weed, a twig or two, a broken bottle. Another hemisphere composed of the moon, a cigarette, a picture of Rob, twigs and leaves, shards of glass, a bone with a bit of string tied around it, a baloney sandwich with one bite missing, a frog, a handgun. Our galaxy is a slit and a spiral at the same time.
On page seven of issue seven, the professor character refers to the spaces that have grown up under the Trees as “interzones,” an obvious reference to William S. Burroughs, but the professor characterizes these interzones negatively, saying, “Nothing good grows in the shadow of a Tree.” Lots of things grow in the shadows of the Trees over the course of the first 8 issues of Ellis and Howard’s graphic novel, not all of them bad. The community under the Chinese Tree, for example, seems to be the sort of utopian interzone Burroughs had envisioned, a place where one can “live differently . . . be comfortable and safe” and not “work for a living.” But can one think of Burroughs’ visions as utopian, or does he mix utopia and dystopia in much the same way Ellis then does: The bad gets worse and the good gets destroyed (every place in The Cities of the Red Night that starts out living under the Articles eventually sinks into depravity, right (or do they start out depraved?)?)? It’s not yet clear what destruction means in the case of Trees. It might mean just that, or it might mean rebirth, which could, if one is honest, be much, much worse.