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In which Netty tunes into DeLillo’s White Noise … and likes what she hears. Like, a lot.

July 30, 2014

noise-picI’m a big fan of white noise. I use white noise apps and machines on a daily basis: anywhere and everywhere I need to block out the incessant din of other people and the oft-annoying frequencies they generate, knowingly or otherwise. It’s not for everyone, but the distorted, all-encompassing buzz is both a source of comfort and salvation for this urban dweller (for anyone interested I recommend Simply Noise, and no – this is not an advertisement!).

Don DeLillo’s eighth novel, White Noise was published in 1985, well predating such devices. It wasn’t even his original title – electronics giant Panasonic vetoed DeLillo’s proposed use of its name as the book’s moniker. It’s widely considered DeLillo’s breakthrough novel – the book that, after a decade and a half, took him from a cultish underground following into the literary mainstream and won the first of many important awards to boot.

This being the fifth DeLillo novel I have read – and with three more to come in this mini-challenge – I feel like I’ve settled into his groove now. I go in knowing what to expect from this author – dense and difficult themes explored in clear and concise language, told in first or third person by complicated and complex male narrators/characters, and with no obvious indicators of where the plot is heading or how it is going to be resolved. No one could ever accuse DeLillo of being an easy read, but the rewards are manifest and many for doing so.

And I can safely say White Noise is my favourite thus far in my journey through DeLillo’s back catalogue, although I freely acknowledge I’m only just under a third of the way there. And – oddly for a DeLillo – the first third of the book was a surprisingly easy read, with the pages just flying by (I note he redeemed himself in the latter stages of the book).

As White Noise opens, Professor Jack (J.A.K.) Gladney, North America’s pre-eminent Hitler scholar, is teaching his (somewhat controversial, I would have thought!) subject of choice and happily raising his blended brood of four with his fourth wife (his fifth marriage overall), Babette, in a small American Midwestern college town.

The smart and snappy first section, Waves and Radiation, introduces this eminently likeable, idiosyncratic, modern-day Brady Bunch. Heinrich and Steffie (Jack’s kids) and Denise and Wilder (Babette’s) have settled into reasonable domestic harmony; Jack and Babette also have other children who don’t live with them (Jack’s daughter Bee makes a brief, hardly noticeable appearance in the first section). It is heavily dialogue-driven, sizzling with a satirical sass that quickly pulls in the reader and almost lulls him/her into a false sense of security.

Life is hectic, but good. Scratch the surface and look again. Jack suffers from insomnia, while Babette fights a constant battle against middle-age bulge; both are terrified at the thought of their respective deaths and each other’s, with poignant nocturnal conversations and musings that stretch into the wee hours. Denise, a wary, watchful tween, obsessively monitors her mother’s health and ingestions (with good reason, as it turns out), while her whip-smart, brooding stepbrother Heinrich turns his gaze outwards from the domestic arena.

It is Heinrich, decked out in camouflage, armed with binoculars and perched on a second-story ledge at the family home, who first notices the “airbourne toxic event” that heralds the novel’s second section. It forces the township to evacuate their homes, during which Jack is inadvertently exposed to the noxious cloud of gas while filling the family car’s petrol tank. Tests carried out at the emergency centre lead Jack to believe the exposure will hasten his death, adding another layer to his deep-set paranoia, while it turns out that Babette has drastically and irrevocably taken matters into her own hands when it comes to facing down her fears, as revealed in the third and final section, Dylarama.

While the Gladney clan are front and centre throughout the novel, mention must be made of Jack’s academic colleagues, particularly recent lecturer recruit Murray Jay Siskind, with whom Jack shares friendship and deep philosophical conversations. Siskind is a frequent and often funny presence throughout these pages, popping up in some unlikely situations and circumstances – and a pivotal discussion between the pair late in the book becomes a call-to-arms spur for Jack that threatens to bring about a seemingly unavoidable culmination of events to that point. Nope, no spoilers from me!

This is a canny and astute meditation on modern life and death in late twentieth-century America, from where it had come and where it was going. During one heated family conversation, after the airborne toxic event (there is a US band, still going today, who took the phrase as its name), an exasperated Heinrich warns: “The real issue is the kind of radiation that surrounds us every day … forget spills, fallouts, leakages. It’s the things right around you in your own house that’ll get you sooner or later.” While Jack and Babette are going to extreme measures to outrun their fear of their eventual demise, Murray muses on the real reason behind Jack’s professional focus on Hitler: “(He is) larger than death. You thought he would protect you … the overwhelming horror would leave no room for your own death … ‘Submerge me … absorb my fear’.” Another of Jack’s colleagues, scientist Winnie Richards, crucially reminds him: “It’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need?” DeLillo was closing in on the big five-oh! when the novel was first published, so it’s easy to see from where these preoccupations might have been coming.

Overall White Noise is a brilliant read – pretty much flawless in plot, characterisation and especially dialogue. At only one point towards the end did the potential “wrapping up” of the plot seem a little too obvious to me (something of which one could rarely accuse DeLillo!), but that is a minor quibble. This is a book that stays with you and makes you go on wondering long after you finished the final page.

So. I would have to say if you’re only going to read one DeLillo, make it this one. Of course, I may well a different view in another one, two, three books’ time. Stay tuned!

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Bad Behavior – Andy gets down and dirty with Mary Gaitskill

July 20, 2014

“Hate” may be too strong a word for Netty’s reaction to these stories. “Contempt” probably isn’t. She certainly didn’t like them, did she? I didn’t like them so much I’ve already ordered in Gaitskill’s other two collections of stories (she is not widely available in Australia). I don’t think I’d heard of the writer before Netty mentioned her late last year. I’m quite glad she got the name wrong.

This is the first image that comes up when you google "bad behavior"

This is the first image that comes up when you google “bad behavior”

On one level Netty’s criticisms have some grounds – the stories are autobiographical and self-indulgent, the woman in most if not all of them is essentially a version of Gaitskill, and some of  what she experiences and does is duplicated in a story here and a story there. I suppose I can understand why someone might find these things irritating. I didn’t. I loved it.

Maybe I’m reading something into these stories that isn’t there, or maybe Netty missed it, or maybe Netty didn’t miss it, maybe it’s there and she detected it and it annoyed here even more. But there’s an irony at work in most of these stories, a self-deprecatory distance that compensates for the stories’ self-indulgence. Yes, Mary says, I’m writing about myself. But god, was I a prat or what? If these stories are, for the most part, autobiographical, I don’t think Gaitskill necessarily has that much time for herself as she recounts the situations in which she has found herself in the past. That might be too strong. There is authorial empathy, but also disdain.

The snatch of WH Auden (Auden’s snatch! Ooh err vicar!) that opens Bad Behavior is a tad beguiling. September 1, 1939 was the day Germany invaded Poland and is generally regarded as the day World War II began. Mingling words like “conventions” and “furniture” and “home” with words like “conspire” and “fort” suggests, to me at least, conflict on the home front – the battle of the sexes, perhaps? – while “lost in a haunted wood” perfectly conjures New York’s “blackboard jungle” (sans teachers, natch). “Children afraid of the night/Who have never been happy or good” arguably describes every character in this collection.

"I mean, like, I totes get irony, I mean, like, obvs."

“I mean, like, I totes get irony, I mean, like, obvs.”

Not all of the stories impressed equally; among my favourites would be A Romantic Weekend, which is a truly hilarious account of complete breakdown in communication between a woman who thinks she is a masochist but probably just feels a bit sorry for herself and a man who thinks he’s a sadist and probably is, but is also a total dick. They get to a point late in the story where they begin to understand each other, and then, by story’s end, are pretty much back exactly where they started. The two most explicit sex-work stories, Something Nice and Trying to Be, were also favourites (prostituion may be mentioned in a couple of other stories, but in these two it’s central). Something Nice is written from a male perspective, as is the first story, Daisy’s Valentine, which is good but not as impressive. This shift of perspective adds another level to the collection, and the final scene of Something Nice is fabulous. Secretary is also memorable, as is Heaven, the final story, and I disagree with Netty about that story’s final scene – it’s actually wonderful and heartbreaking, given what’s come before.

In among the occasionally sado-masochistic sex, and the more often run-of-the-mill sex, the booze and the drugs, the wannabe writers, the prostitution, the most horrible workplaces, the mostly horrible parties, the mostly horrible apartments, the mostly horrible people, there’s another dominant theme in at least a couple of stories: the alienated best friend. Clearly during her first years in New York Gaitskill’s friendships were occasionally fraught. Perhaps the friendships referenced in Bad Behavior boil down to just the one, or maybe Mary was a tad contrary and alienated a bunch of people. Either way, it’s almost as obvious a motif in the collection as sex work.

I will acknowledge there are a couple of factors that might cloud my judgment of these stories. The first is that they are all very New York, a city I’ve never visited, a city I must. must visit sometime soon. I don’t know why I’m so goddamned obsessed with it but I am. And obviously I’ll be disappointed as all fuck when I finally get there, because it can’t possibly live up to my expectations, but get there I must. These stories are set in a New York I suspect no longer exists – written in the 70s, I believe, published in the 80s. Doesn’t matter. I want.

The other factor is that the stories I write myself, and very occasionally manage to get published, are autobiographical and self-indulgent and quite often rather filthy and at least (I hope) slightly ironic and self-deprecating. So I guess, you know, Gaitskill might’ve struck a chord of some sort, on that level. Although mine are all waaaaay shorter, and not remotely as good.

In closing, I would like to inform the woman on the front cover of my edition, and also Netty’s: That is not how you plank. If you want an exercise that hits your abs, kindly refer to a workout manual. Thank you.

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In which Netty comes to the conclusion that Bad Behavior should have dispensed with the “behaviour” bit …

July 16, 2014

gaitskill-cover
It wasn’t till afterwards that I realised I’d done it again. As in, mixed up authors. Chose one author when I actually meant to choose another. It happened once before in the Reading Challenge, in, I think, the second year – Andy and I read Raymond Carver when I thought we were reading Raymond Chandler. Doyen of the American short story versus hard-boiled mystery writer. Ah, yep …

Of course, that turned out to be a masterstroke – I still think, seven years down the track, that of all the authors we’ve read during that time, close to 100 now!, that Carver is my favourite by a country mile. And I say that in full knowledge that we’ve read some absolute corkers in that time. We’ve also read some absolute clunkers, thankfully far fewer in number.

So, yeah, Mary Gaitskill was my choice; I was enthusing to Andy that finally we’d be reading a female member of the ‘90s American literary brat pack (“I think she even went out with David Foster Wallace,” I exclaimed). Memo to self: do your research first: it was actually Mary Karr who dated Wallace and hung out with Franzen, Eugenides, Moody, et al. She writes literary memoirs, I guess kind of like Elizabeth Wurtzel – same era, too. Now, Wurtzel (who also, incidentally, dated Wallace once – or maybe just had a fling with him) is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m a big, big fan. Maybe I could be a big fan of Karr’s too. Maybe we can find out in another instalment of the Reading Challenge, coming to you in the not-too-distant future.

Harking back to the corkers versus clunkers debate, I’m afraid to say for me, Gaitskill is more the latter than the former. I didn’t really enjoy Bad Behavior, her (critically acclaimed – she even gets a shout-out from Alice Munro on the sleeve) 1988 collection of short stories. In fact, I kept getting nasty flashbacks to another collection of short stories I read just last year, Frederick Barthelme’s Moon Deluxe (you can read what I had to say about that here). The two have much in common – unmemorable characters in stories that don’t really go anywhere and have unsatisfactory endings.

For all the ill-will I felt towards Moon Deluxe, I will say this for it – at least those stories had variety of both characters and plot. Bad Behavior was Gaitskill’s first published work, written in her early twenties, but not making it into print until she was in her mid-thirties (hardly prolific, she has since published two novels and two collection of short stories (or, as she styles it, just “stories”) in the ensuing two and a half decades). And you can tell – it’s very much the first, largely autobiographical work of a writer, telling and retelling the same stories about the same character: namely herself. And that gets real old, real fast. ‘Cos at the end of the day, there’s not much very interesting about a young woman, with tendencies towards depression and masochism (and sheer, tedious whininess), moving to New York City and wanting to make it as a writer, working to make ends meet – often as a prostitute (but hey, no judgement) – while fighting off apathy, procrastination and writer’s block.

Ho hum.

Granted, not all of the stories rehash this character and scenario, but most of them do (reaching a nadir with “Connection”) in one way or another. Gaitskill has been quite open about the fact that she worked as a call girl and a stripper while trying to establish herself as a writer; possibly that is one of the least interesting things about her. Often her stories mine sado-masochism (included in this collection is “Secretary”, which was later made into the not-very-good 2002 movie of the same name, significantly tweaked and starring the awesome Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, which should have made it very good indeedy) – and I’m sorry, but in Gaitskill’s hands, this is not very interesting. The Marquis de Sade, she is not (although, to her credit, she is not Fifty Shades of Grey awful either). Witness “A Romantic Weekend”, which is – both plot and character-wise – just dreadful.

It’s not that Gaitskill can’t write. She can. And she knows how to structure a story. (Then again, so can the aforementioned Barthelme.) But geez, this collection is just a drag. I got to the final story “Heaven” and thought my luck finally might have changed – it traces a family of two adults and four children across two states and three decades, and is actually interesting and holds your attention. But then it peters out as unsatisfactorily as its precursors, with a ridiculously naff ending.

Seriously, this book is the literary equivalent of having (rather dull) sex without reaching a climax. You walk away at the end wondering why you bothered and knowing you could do a much better job yourself.

PS: Make sure you read Andy’s views on Bad Behavior, coming to this blog very soon. He has a very, very different take on it to yours truly!

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A Severed Head – Andy and Aunty Iris have a naughty night in

July 14, 2014

A Severed Head, published in 1961, is one of Iris Murdoch’s most popular novels – understandably. It’s about sex, it’s very funny, it’s clever, it’s about sex, it’s satirical and farcical and very funny, it’s brilliantly constructed… did I mention it’s about sex?

a-severed-headMartin Lynch-Gibbon (snorkle), 41, is married to the slightly older Antonia, and having an apparently carefree affair with the much younger Georgie. Antonia is in therapy with the slightly older (than her) American, Palmer Anderson, a very good friend of Martin’s. Martin finds the whole therapy thing slightly frivolous, but accepts his wife seems to find some benefit in it. Martin heads home from a pre-Christmas romp with Georgie, expecting to spend a perfectly average evening with Antonia, only to be told – by Antonia – that she is in love with Palmer, has been having an affair with Palmer for some time, and wants a divorce.

I won’t give much more away that that. There are a couple of other characters in the mix – Martin’s brother Alexander, a sculptor, whose studio features a likeness of Antonia as well as an unfinished head – and Palmer’s half-sister Honor. Between them, these six characters – Martin, Georgie, Antonia, Palmer, Honor and Alexander – weave a wondrous, ridiculous erotic pastiche. While these six do not partake of same-sex activities among themselves they do talk about it a bit, and Martin’s two lesbian secretaries are probably in the only stable relationship in the entire book.

A Severed Head is widely regarded as a “harbinger” of the sexual revolution of the 60s. I’m not convinced by this. Most of the novel’s characters are middle-aged, for a start, while the supposed revolution of the 60s was driven by “the youth”. They’re mostly also terribly middle-class, and terribly fond of the trappings of a middle-class existence; these are exactly the things the 60s – supposedly – rejected.

One aspect, and a hilarious one, that perhaps does presage the sexual revolution is the insistence, on Antonia and Palmer’s part, that Martin be, not only not angry with them, but happy that they have found happiness, and continue to be a part of their lives. And they, of course, will be happy for him, whenever he finds happiness … Wherever he finds it. This fuggly cuddly nonsense does strike me as terribly 60s, and it is terribly, hysterically well done. Antonia and Palmer are at their obnoxious best in these scenes.

The “severed head” of the novel’s title is referenced a couple of times in the book – Alexander has a couple of heads in his studio, and towards the novel’s end Honor – a professor of anthropology – discusses the severed heads of “savage” tribes around the world. Perhaps I’m a bit obsessed, but the only severed head I could think of as I read this book was the severed head of the cuckolded husband – Martin, who, psychically at least, has had his dick cut off.

This leads me to one of the few aspects of the novel that bothered me. Martin is described early on, by Honor, as a violent man. Martin doesn’t seem too unhappy about this. While there are far too many violent men around in 2014 I’m not sure there are that many educated, middle-class, middle-aged run-of-the-mill chaps out there who’d be happy to hear a woman tell them they are violent. Before Honor says this to Martin he has already threatened to break his wife’s neck. After she says it he violently assaults three people – two of them women. There is no suggestion the last three events deserve the attention of the police, and as Martin threatens to break Antonia’s neck he jokes he’d probably only get a few years in jail for it if he did. The women take Martin’s violence in their stride, although both are obviously unimpressed. I think Murdoch is probably very subtly critiquing this behaviour; it’s kind of tragic that, at the beginning of the decade that supposedly liberated us all (ha, ha ha…) she felt the need to be so subtle.

This is a weakness, for me. The other is that, towards the end, the bed-jumping becomes too ridiculous. And that’s me, talking in 2014, about a novel that was published in 1961. It works as comedy, but it doesn’t work as literature, and Murdoch was writing a comic, literary novel. She succeeds on one level, and fails – though only just – on another, The Bell is definitely a superior novel, as possibly is Under the Net, and certainly The Black Prince,

A Severed Head is hugely enjoyable, and you should totally read it, but – despite what they say – it’s not Murdoch’s best novel.

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In which Netty discovers that all that glitters is not The Golden Notebook …

June 24, 2014

lessing-picI’ve never written a book – well, nothing that has ever seen the light of the day (and for that, dear friends and family, you should be eternally grateful). However, I imagine that for those who have, there can be few things more irksome than having your work misinterpreted.

Now, I’m not saying that the late Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is not a feminist tract of some distinction. Of course it is. If you’re going to bang out a 600-page tome on women who are independent on the financial, political and sexual fronts and get said tome published on the dawn of the sexual revolution (The Golden Notebook was first released in 1962), well, you’re just asking for it, right?

I have surmised, throughout the years, that is best not to read the introductions, etc, before delving between the covers, and so it was again in this case – although Lessing’s slightly cantankerous 1971 preface referenced what I had already worked out for myself, although in my case I have the benefit of reading The Golden Notebook in 2014, with five decades of ensuing progress and tumult in hindsight. So the things that probably most stood out to the 1960s reader – namely sex and Communism – were met with a yeah, so? from me. To me – and to Lessing, obviously irked that readers were latching on to the (not so salacious) sex scattered throughout – the core of the book is mental illness in its myriad forms. And also writer’s block.

More on this later.

The book’s achingly post-modern structure (which wouldn’t have been at the time) did not annoy me, although I am glad I resisted my initial thought that I would read each separated section as a whole (as I did – and got some flak for having done so – with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas). That approach would not have worked here, instead resulting in considerable misunderstanding and head-scratching. The Golden Notebook is, effectively, six books in one – or perhaps five books, and a novella.

Free Women introduces the reader to writer Anna Wulfe and her long-time friend, theatrical actress Molly Jacobs. The women, both divorcees and single mothers of one in their late thirties, are – in the context of 1950s England, the decade across which the novel is set – worldly gals, monetarily independent and politically far-left wing, being ex-members of the British Communist Party. While they are nowhere near the realm of Erica Jong’s “zipless fuck”, they freely take lovers – although not without emotional consequences (and also, oddly, with no references to contraception – or none that I recall, at any rate).

Wulfe, who has a daughter Janet, aged around seven as the book commences, has for some time coasted on the success of her novel Frontiers of War, a fictionalised account of her time as a young woman in southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), set during the latter stages of World War II. (Iranian-born Lessing herself resided there as a young girl; one assumes a certain amount of fictionalisation of Lessing’s own life, with Wulfe perhaps serving as her alter ego.) Wulfe dismisses queries of a follow-up, but in reality she is suffering severe writer’s block, which she tries to ease through the simultaneous keeping of four notebooks – black for writing, red for politics, yellow for relationships, and blue for everyday existence. Obviously the material overlaps and the notebooks feed into each other. Early on it becomes apparent that the yellow notebook is recording, in fictionalised form, using the nom de plume Ella, Wulfe’s affairs – particularly with Michael (Paul) and later with Milt (Saul). There are four sections comprising Free Women and each of the notebooks (which are presented with very brief notations, as per a work of non-fiction) before the golden notebook and the final section of Free Women.

I suppose whether or not you like this book is whether or not you like, or can relate to, or can empathise with, or can stand (and by those last 100 pages, she was severely pushing my boundaries) its main protagonist. I didn’t much like Anna Wulfe as a character (although she’s more fun in her younger guise, trapsing around colonial-era South Africa with her wild and woolly posse), but I could empathise with her and her situation, if not the soul-destroying relationships with awful men (particularly Milt/Saul. Dear lord, that one – documented in the final instalment of the blue notebook, and reprised in the golden notebook – almost did me in. Seriously, at more than one stage I yelled out loud, “Ferfuckssake”, and once I even hurled the book to the floor, contemplating if I could bring myself to finishing it). Wulfe heavily, if not always willingly, relies on her shrink (Mrs Marks/Mother Sugar), but the years seemingly bring her no closer to self-realisation. Only, the golden notebook suggests, the cataclysm of one of the most hideously needy, co-dependent relationships ever committed to ink can do that.

Which brings me back to what I felt was the true heart of the novel – that it is the catalogue of one modern woman’s breakdown. As per Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises – “How did you go bankrupt?”/“Gradually, and then suddenly” – so too is the process of Wulfe’s mental disintegration. So horrendous are the descriptions of her emotional madness in the final blue notebook that it is truly a painful thing to bear witness to the character (?) hitting absolute rock bottom. Which then leads to a final pulling together of all the novel’s various threads, which for me was achieved in a less-than-satisfactory manner that I felt was a slight letdown. But hey, after almost 600 pages, well …

Of course, just because a novel is “worthy” doesn’t necessarily mean you should read it. I didn’t love The Golden Notebook, but I think it is right up there in classic feminist literature – because even though Lessing didn’t set out to write such a book, by default she did – and that takes nothing away from its true intent. This is one to be shelved next to Greer’s The Female Eunuch and De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex – and Plath’s The Bell Jar. Embrace the cunt and the craziness, and apologise for neither.

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The Golden Notebook – Andy finds, sadly, that Lessing is not more

June 16, 2014

Of the surprising number of Nobel-winning writers Netty and I have read over the years (Llosa! White! Pinter! Pamuk! Heaney! Hemingway! Morrison! Marquez! Mahfouz! Beckett! B … Okay, I’ll have to stop there) I’m afraid Doris Lessing languishes in the bottom two. Nadine Gordimer is a less engaging writer, and I enjoyed The Golden Notebook more than The Conservationist, but neither of them left me burning to read more of their work. (Netty will strongly disagree with this on a number of grounds, most obviously that Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores is among the worst books we’ve read in the Challenge. This may be true, but I’ve also read One Hundred Years of Solitude, and regard his late novella as an appalling geriatric stumble.)

the-golden-notebookThere’s a lot I enjoyed in The Golden Notebook. As a slice-of-life peek at life in London in the ’50s it has many fascinating aspects (although it’s a big slice, clocking in not too shy of 600 pages, and so it’s not exactly a peek, either). The communist stuff for me was probably the most interesting, being an only slightly reformed vaguely anarchisty type myself. The realisation, long known but brutally suppressed, that Russia and its leaders were less light on the hill and more psychotically unhinged fool on the hill is nicely done, and these sections of the book were probably the ones I enjoyed the most. The depiction of domestic life in the ’50s was also fascinating. Divorced, single mothers, having casual-ish sex, living lives financially independent of men – this is not the image of the ’50s we’ve been expected to imagine, mostly. Post-World War II, pre-’60s war of the sexes (although the term had, I think, already been coined), mid-Cold War – it’s a fascinating period of history, and Lessing succeeds in capturing a lot of what was fascinating about it. Although that wasn’t what she was trying to do here, obviously. She wasn’t creating a time capsule, although she’s done that quite well. She was writing a novel, and I don’t think she done that well at all.

The novel’s meta-fictive structure doesn’t work for me, although like a lot of this book it must have seemed revolutionary (boom boom) at the time it was published. I haven”t read much of the analysis of the book because, well, I’m not that interested. But as Lessing herself has said, it consists of a “conventional” novel – Free Women – interspersed with excerpts from the notebooks of that conventional novel’s main character, Anna Wulf, modelled pretty closely on Lessing herself. But how these two strands of the novel knit together is not very clear.The stories don’t mirror each other perfectly, which is actually quite cleverly done, but it begs the question – who is the “real” Anna Wulf? The one in the novel? Are the notebooks the fictitious notebooks of a fictitious character? Or are the notebooks supposed to be the “real” version of events and the novel is novelist Anna Wulf’s reimagining of them? It doesn”t really matter, obviously, because the whole thing’s written by Doris Lessing, and it’s all a fictitious reimagining of her life. And perhaps it would all make sense on re-reading (ha!) or further study. But really …

Other irritating elements include the yawning great swathes dedicated to psychoanalysis, or psychotherapy, or whatever (“No, sorry, you daft bint, your dreams mean JACK SHIT.” Now there’s some valuable advice), I’m sure these sections have many, many admirers, but they left me in the sort of eye-rolling state of dismissive contempt I usually reserve for born-again Christians. On a related subject, the novel’s surprisingly homophobic – early sections set in Africa seem at least vaguely gay-friendly, but it later becomes clear that – ]like many “enlightened” types of her time – Lessing regarded same-sex attraction as a psychologically explicable aberration that could be “fixed”. To which I reply, with eminent grace, Fuck you bitch. Thirty or so years earlier, in one of his novels that wasn’t The Great Gatsby (The Beautiful and the Damned? Tender is the Night?) Fitzgerald has a therapist tell a horrified mother (I think, maybe a dad, maybe both, maybe even the patient himself) that same-sex attraction (not the term he, or Lessing, used, obviously) was “incurable”. F. Scott was probably a homophobe, but at least he was also a realist.

So no. Lessing is not more. But I’m glad I got around to reading this book. I remember seeing it on the shelves of Maffra High School’s library, and wondering about it, for reasons I cannot possibly fathom today. And I refuse to believe a single student in that school in the ’80s actually read it, cover to cover. I mean … Seriously.

 

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In which Netty goes searching for the Omega Point, but will settle for the Mojave Desert any day …

May 26, 2014

ImageThe omega point is a theory, postulated by early 20th century French priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that the universe is evolving towards a maximum level of complexity and consciousness. It’s a weighty concept far beyond my meagre scientific understanding of the cosmos, but possibly not that of Don DeLillo, whose most recent novel – Point Omega, published in 2010 – bears its moniker.

DeLillo turns 78 later this year, and while he is yet to do a Roth (fellow American author Philip Roth announced, just shy of his 80th birthday, that he had “retired” from writing books), he has not published any new novels in four years (a short story collection came out in 2011). After the opuses released in the decade from 1988 to 1998, his noughties output became increasingly less prolific and more sparse – amounting to just four novellas (including Point Omega) during that time. Of these, I have also read Cosmopolis (2003) and The Falling Man (2007); the so-called “late-phase DeLillo”.

It was not my original intention to read Point Omega this early into my DeLillo min-challenge – and I certainly hope that there are more novels to come before he shuffles off to that great library in the sky. But it inadvertently turned out to be a serendipitous move, as there are certain unmistakeable parallels between this and DeLillo’s debut Americana (you can read what I had to say about that here). Superficially, both concern film, with major characters who are attempting to either frame their lives, or make a statement, via the medium.

In Americana, it was 28-year-old TV executive-cum-wannabe filmmaker David Bell. In Point Omega, it is 35-year-old Jim Finley, also a New Yorker. Following a lecture in NYC, Finley approaches septuagenarian scholar Richard Elster, who was co-opted by the US Government to advise on and contribute to the intellectual strategy behind its war efforts, after he published a provocative essay called Renditions.

Finley wants to make a one-take film (“just a man and a wall”) about Elster’s time in government and, ipso facto, his involvement in the military complex (“the blat and stammer of Iraq”). Elster point-blank refuses, but nonetheless invites Finley to join him at his holiday retreat (“somewhere south of nowhere in the Sonoran Desert or maybe it was the Mojave Desert”). It is Elster’s “spiritual retreat”; “Time slows down when I’m here. Time becomes blind … I never know what day it is. I never know if a minute has passed or an hour. I don’t get old here,” he asserts.

Finley joins Elster for a visit he envisages will last two or three days at the most, but the days soon become weeks as the younger man settles into life in the desert – omelettes for breakfast; scotch on the porch in the evenings; talk, reverie, remembrance, philosophising. At one point (no pun intended!), Elster mentions he studied the work of Teilhard de Chardin as a student, and poses the question to his young charge: “Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field”.

Twentysomething Jessie arrives at the house, despatched from NYC by her mother, Elster’s estranged wife Galina, who is worried about their daughter’s involvement with a man. As her stay lengthens, Finley finds himself increasingly, but quietly, attracted to Jessie, culiminating in a night where he stands at her bedroom door, watching her as she ostensibly sleeps. The following day, Finley and Elster return from a supplies expedition into town to discover that Jessie has disappeared without a trace. The two men, the younger frantic and frenetic, the older quietly despairing and slowly withdrawing, call in the authorities; in a conversation with Finley, the local sheriff notes that people come to the desert to commit suicide. With the ongoing searches proving fruitless, and Elster increasingly retreating into himself, Finley decides they have to return to NYC, even though he knows deep down the answers are as unlikely to be found there as in the Californian desert.

I know what you’re thinking: sounds like a reasonably straightforward mystery. But this is DeLillo, so you can throw that out the window. Point Omega is bookended by two sections wherein a lone, unnamed man spends two days in early September standing in NYC gallery MOMA, watching an installation entitled 24 Hour Psycho – the famous Alfred Hitchcock film slowed down to two frames per second, meaning the 109-minute movie takes a full 24 hours to screen (DeLillo has said in interviews that he inadvertently saw this 1993 work, by British artist Douglas Gordon, at MOMA in 2006). In the opening section, the unnamed man observes two men, one older, one younger – whom he assumes are filmographers – enter the gallery space and watch the installation; he experiences something akin to annoyance when they leave after about 10 minutes. In the closing section, as the lone, unnamed man again watches the installation, a solitary, unnoticed woman approaches him and asks, “What am I looking at?” They converse for a while, she leaves, he follows her and asks for her number, before he returns to the gallery to continue watching the installation.

Again, seemingly straightforward. But things are never really as they seem in DeLillo’s world. And perhaps, like the character who returns to MOMA day after day to watch Psycho, the key to the riddle is in repetitious viewing in slow-motion until we reach our own omega point. As The X Files’ Fox Mulder would say, the truth is out there. As Teilhard de Chardin might have it, it is beyond human consciousness.

Point Omega is a stunning, multi-faceted work that rewards re-reading – easy enough to do in the context of its brevity. But, as always, one man’s meat is another man’s poisson. I easily can see how someone else would find the book a frustrating, ponderous, pompous literary wank. You probably already know which category you fall into. If you’re in the former, then jump right in; if not, well, maybe you’d prefer something in the ilk of a Dan Brown. Horses for courses, as they say. Count me on board for this ride, long may it last.

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