Saturday, November 22, 2008

06:43 Several Perceptions / 07:43 Remainder

Several Perceptions
Angela Carter

I bought this previously unknown book at The Strand because I love Angela Carter’s work and because the cover features the tarot card from which this website gets its name and that I have permanently marked on my body. It was a sign.

The slim novel takes place in late 1960s London, but it’s not the groovy hippie Sixties. It is a time when social turmoil is happening elsewhere but has left characters everywhere lost and unsure of what to do. The main character Joseph is reminiscent of the directionless and angry young men Dostoyeski wrote about and Carter is able to nail the waste of his nihilism in one sentence: “Joseph had the chance of a fine education but threw it away; he had free choice on the self-service counter and voluntarily selected shit.” He attempts suicide but fails, and the rest of the novel is the rather shaggy-dog story about how he loses his death wish.

It’s the sort of novel in which a large party at the end pairs up various characters, reveals secrets and ties up storylines. It doesn’t come across as contrived due to Carter’s skill and compassion for her characters, even the most unlikable. However, it’s a fairly realistic novel and I missed the rich imagination evident in Carter’s later fantasy or folk-tale based work.

Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is also about a man disconnected from the world and his curious attempts to interact. The settlement from a never-explained accident has left the unnamed main character with over 8 million pounds. He spends the money recreating visions and moments of déjà vu, making sure the re-enactments are accurate down to the smallest detail. A simple moment of looking out the window of his apartment becomes a major production involving the purchase of the building, hiring actors to recreate what occurred in his field of vision and other actors to make the ambient noise heard. Everyone is then paid to repeat these actions nonstop, whether they are frying liver or practicing the piano, so that the main character can enter this déjà vu any time he wants.

McCarthy’s work is similar to J. G. Ballard’s novels about men who pursue their unique obsessions in a rational, almost scientific manner. The language of the novel seems quintessentially British: informed and eccentric, surprised by emotions. “Forensic procedure is an art form, nothing less. No, I’ll go further: it’s higher, more refined, than any art form. Why? Because it’s real.” This passage goes to compare forensic procedures to abstract paintings, butterfly wings and cricket. The unnamed main character is obsessed with the real and towards this end, keeps staging imitations. But he doesn’t want the “real” as in the everyday, but the “real” as in transcendent, the feeling gotten during déjà vu in which you are hyper-conscious and aware of everything around you.

Unfortunately, this hyper-consciousness can lead to passages like the following:

“Each time a gun is fired the whole history of engineering comes into play. Of politics, too: war, assassination, revolution, terror. Guns aren’t just history’s props and agents: they’re history itself, spinning alternate futures in their chamber, hurling the present from their barrel, casting aside the empty shells of the past.”

I hate this kind of writing in fiction. Hate it. It shows the influence of Don Delillo, who fills his novels with his “profound” ruminations about What Things Mean. His ideas have never impressed me and strike me as less insightful than they are self-serving and annoying.

Authors who begin with strange premises can trap themselves. Once the premise is explained and disbelief satisfactorily suspended, what then? Return the story to the “normal” and realistic and repudiate what was strange and unique? Repeat, perhaps try to top the oddity that began the story? McCarthy and his character repeat, moving on to new reenactments, and you sense that they are both hoping that some meaning will become apparent. Instead, it just leads to a Very Bad Idea (recreating a bank robbery) that manages to close the novel on a note of suspense rather than philosophizing.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

What's New

Beyond the obvious (I voted for him) there's another reason why I'm glad Barack Obama won.

Unlike McCain, Obama ran a campaign without mudslinging, free of dirty tricks. He focused on issues and specifically what he wanted to do if elected, rather than on cynical publicity stunts to impress his party's base and the base in all of us. He treated his listeners as if they were intelligent adults rather than easily frightened children.

Part of our basic moral code as humans is that if you are honest and play fair, you will be rewarded. But such sentiments have no place in politics where it seems those who win are those most clever at deceit and manipulation and are willing to sacrifice anything in their pursuit of power. But every once in a while, I need to see the triumph of those who play fair.

When McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate and subsequently received a rise in the polls (not a double-entendre), the Obama campaign played it smart. Rather than attack her, they bided their time and let her self-destruct as it soon became apparent that, chuztpah aside, she was not qualified for high office.

Watching someone take the high road can sometimes be frustrating. Whenever William Ayers' name was brought up, I thought "why aren't the Democrats making more about Palin's husband belonging to a secessionist organization as recently as two years ago?" Everytime Obama or Biden had to pay lip service to John McCain as a great American, only to be met with McCain's barely hidden contempt and Palin's sarcasm, I wondered "when are they going to stop praising their opponent? That can't be helping." But Obama had to play it cool. Any display of anger or extreme emotion (think of Howard Dean's yell) might have branded him as the Scary Angry Black Man -- lock up the women and children! -- and the election would have been over. It must have been difficult for him at times.

You could argue that Obama never had to play dirty since he was leading in the polls since mid-September; that McCain's tactics were born of desperation (as McCain claimed "if he had just agreed to my proposed town hall meetings, I wouldn't have had to go negative"). But after the last eight years, it's nice to make decisions based on hope rather than fear or despair. Fear is a legitimate reaction in life, but it is not healthy for individuals or societies to live that way for long. Hope and the belief that we can make things better is the more psychologically healthy way to live. Perhaps now we can have the paradigm shift that should have occurred on September 12, 2001 but did not. I'm horrified by all that's happened to bring us to this state (as The Onion puts it: "Nation Finally Shitty Enough To Make Social Progress") but for the first time in eight years, I feel as if being good has triumphed over being cynical.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008