David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: architecture (page 2 of 2)

Christopher Priest: The Affirmation

I started rereading this book while in the middle of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s far more difficult War and War, without consciously realizing the similarities between the two. Both concern rather addled men and manuscripts to which they are too close. Because I haven’t quite figured out what to say about the Krasznahorkai book just yet (other than that you should read it), I thought I would write on Priest’s, and maybe it would help me focus on the other. (There is irony in their relation.)

Priest is about to gain some notoriety since his later work The Prestige is the subject of Christopher Nolan’s next film. But even in his own right, Priest has done some major, underrated work around the science-fiction genre, from the surreal Inverted World (the famous first line: “I had reached the age of 650 miles”) to the proto-VR A Dream of Wessex. His later work makes heavy use of unreliable narrators, though unlike Gene Wolfe, the unreliability generally becomes explicit and is structural rather than narrative: the lies and revelations of such form the underlying architecture of the book. Nowhere moreso than in The Affirmation. It is among the most relentlessly self-referential books I have ever read, and it puts the self-conscious metafictions of Barth and Coover to shame.

The setup is simple: spurred by his girlfriend’s suicide attempt, Peter Sinclair runs away from her and London, holing up in a country house to write–or rewrite–the story of his life. He quickly announces, however, that he is making changes to the facts, altering names and moving the setting to an imaginary city called Jethra, intended to substitute for London. And his Jethra counterpart has just won a nationwide lottery for which the prize is immortality, though at the price of total retrograde amnesia.

It becomes apparent quickly, though, that the book itself is nothing more and nothing less than the manuscript Sinclair describes himself as writing, and that Sinclair’s actual state is as unstable as the narrative of the book/manuscript. This results in a series of disorienting figure-ground reversals, where the figure is the supposed narrative and characters and the ground is the text and physical manuscript itself…or vice versa. Priest piles on complications until one has no choice but to read parallel asynchronous narratives into the single text of the novel. It is useful to imagine the book as two funhouse mirrors facing one another.

With such a book whose goal, like that of Dick’s best work, is a psychological confusion in the reader, it is difficult to read into the text itself because it is so focused on a particular effect. But it’s a marvelous achievement in story, even if the book, like Sinclair, ultimately folds in on itself and collapses into a black hole.

What I didn’t think about when I first read The Affirmation ten years ago was how amnesia and immortality analogize one another in it, and I was shocked to realize on rereading how I had buried that theme, albeit in very different form, in the novel I’m currently writing. Never underestimate the resources of the unconscious.

John Crowley: Great Work of Time

In reviewing Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth, John Clute points out that complex time travel stories (not simply going to some other time, but changing the past and having it affect the future, paradox, etc.) have evolved as such a genre into themselves that writing one is difficult: either a writer will retread territory already covered, or the writer will assume a background knowledge of time travel tropes that only a seasoned science-fiction reader will know:

Indeed, for those unfamiliar with the fantastic as a whole, the premises, assumptions, narrative strategies, affect chaos, paradox-mongering convolutions and general abandon of the time travel story make it almost unreadable. (Bones is a lot less contorted than most, but it is still no book to give to a stranger.)

Stanislaw Lem wrote an essay on the architecture of time-travel stories, or rather, the two architectures of time-travel stories. It would need expanding today, but its fundamental premises have remained the same. And so I find myself wondering, in reviewing Crowley’s brilliant, monstrous (120 page) time-travel story, whether I should target the science-fiction reader or the general reader. And I wonder what Crowley thought when he constructed this story, because it comes a good way towards meeting each side halfway. Or so it seems to me; I was schooled on Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” and “–All You Zombies–“, so I can’t speak for the novice.

At any rate, Crowley uses the time travel plot and its attendant tropes–characters meeting future/past versions of themselves, alternate timelines, the negation of the past–but mitigates it in two ways. The first is a long introductory section presenting a simple excursion to the past by a man who goes back in time and mails a rare stamp to his grandfather, followed by an explicit description of the time-travel model Crowley is using. In short, it’s the many-universes model; i.e., each change to the past simply causes a fully alternate timeline wholly divergent from the original. The second mitigating factor is that Crowley uses the entirety of time travel allegorically, as a metaphor for British colonialism.

The British entrepreneur and African colonialist Cecil Rhodes left money after his death for a secret society to work to preserve the British empire in all perpetuity. Crowley runs with this idea: the conceit is that the society thrived and, through surgically changing the past, has enabled the British empire to survive while minimizing certain horrors. World War I is made less tragic by preventing the invention of the machine gun. The second World War never occurs, and Jews are deported from Germany, not massacred. (A friend asks if this means that Crowley shares Daniel Goldhagen’s position on innate German anti-semitism.) The British Empire remains ascendant. The world is more pleasant and much more colonial.

The subsequent breakdown of this world, manifested in lizards, dragons, and an ironic vision of the Perpetual Peace Rhodes dreamed of, exists in tension with the allegorical structure of the novella. At the literal level, Crowley presents the colonial effort towards order as a nullifying force; in adjusting the past to create a preferable future, the secret society creates an ever-expanding explosion of chaotic degeneration. Allegorically, the message is that the attempt of the empire to exert control over fate has the opposite effect. Their hubris is polluted by tiny imperfections and variations, which unravels their own plans. The time machinations do not need to be compreshended precisely to reveal the thrust of the story: time and empire are not compatible; empire collapses under its own ever-expanding weight. It unmakes itself.

Crowley does not privilege the allegorical over the literal or vice versa; the story remains true to both to the very end, leaving an unresolved complexity when the two levels overlap but do not quite correspond. Like another masterpiece of allegory-telling, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Crowley uses science fiction tropes as novel analogies for history, and the result is far deeper than the often limited analogical vocabulary of science fiction, where the science-fiction content so often only allegorizes trite sentiments about love, power, and other conventional wisdom.

Thoughts on Genre: Blogs and Practice

Some responses to the earlier entries brought up the issue that many blogs (and indeed mine) utilize a very essayistic format, and so the contrast I set up between autonomous work and the stream of blogging isn’t so black and white. I partly agree with this, but I want to keep the focus on the blog qua blog; locating a blog entry as an essay via Google does not in any way distinguish a web site as a blog. What defines the blog is its day-by-day composition, and the effects that this composition has on the work produced.

This emphasis–on new material rather than revision of old, on small incremental pieces rather than self-contained monsters–affects how bloggers tend to write. Blog entries are by nature quickly written, quickly published, quickly forgotten. They are not posted in a “final” state, in that finality implies that it be remembered for posterity. Given the short horizon of the content, any revision after the initial posting will only be noticed by a fraction of the blog’s readers. When blogging, the question of “Is this exactly how I want it?” is less important than in writing a book; if it’s not, you can always try again after the entry has receded into the distance.

Revision makes itself known through future entries. This leads to the content redundancy that I mentioned earlier, where bloggers tend to overpost rather than underpost, but it allows for more dynamic restatements than if the original content were fixed in view.

Blog entries, then, never reach a final state. This is most likely what drives some bloggers to complain that blogging is a waste of their time: the lack of clear finished product. But ultimately it potentially provides virtue as well. In the absence of the finished product, in the absence of a primary authorial personality, there remains two things: one, the ever-becoming practice of writing, and second, the continuity of the practice.

As the entries blend together in a stream, what becomes visible is an unfinished, open stream of information. No matter how open-ended a book might be, how many questions it raises, at the end of the day you still close the book and archive it in your mind. Not so with a blog, which, as long as you keep reading it, will maintain its continuity of topic until those abstractions settle in your mind and are brought up again when you next read it. The gestalt is never fully formed, always open to revision. And unless bloggers have an endless stream of new ideas, they need to engage in revision of their own previous thought to keep posting.

A few authors have adopted the open-ended revision model in the past. Wittgenstein in his late work is an exploding polyphony of fallible interrogators and tentative responses. Stephen Dixon’s fiction examines a certain strain of modern American life from conflicting, mutating vantage points. Kim Deitch has built towering edifices out of small pieces of trash culture, and continues a career-long pullback that continually redesigns the architecture of all his previous work. [These are only the three that first spring to mind; there are surely great examples that I’m overlooking.] Even in these cases, the chunking of their work into discrete books and/or collections is initially deceptive, implying a closure that is not actually present. Blogging declares the closure to be void.

It does so by requiring frequent work. In the absence of continuous practice, blogs do die, and collapse into low-pagerank white dwarfs of content only to be found via lucky web searchers. It requires the author’s constant effort (and the readers’ responses) to remain viable. To declare a blog finished is to declare it dead. It is the open-ended form that defines blogging.

Now a personal word from me: I said that the blog medium wasn’t particularly germane to what I wrote, since I figured I’d write the same sort of thing regardless of the format. I was wrong. It was the unfinished-ness of the blog that allowed me to write in this way in the first place, and it has been quite productive. Egos fly around blog genres, as they do in any other publishing venture, but I find them easier to deal with. People aren’t resting on their laurels after having a finished piece published in magazine X or Y. Instead, the question we ask each other is this: are you blogging? Are you continuing towards the unreachable end point of your work, and keeping your work alive?

1.3.1 Swann in Love: Images

Paris, years earlier, as Marcel (the narrator and the author are nearly undifferentiable in this section) recounts the story of Swann’s unpleasant affair with Odette, a not-terribly-deep woman who is as incapable of returning his affections as she is of understanding them. So say Proust and Swann, in baroque language Odette probably couldn’t understand. Odette herself plays up her ignorance, calling herself “an ignorant woman with a taste for beautiful things.” Swann, unsurprisingly, falls for her and confounds himself with jealousy, and generally makes himself miserable over her long after she’s lost interest. This goes on for a while.
Despite the fact (it’s presented as objectively as can be) that Odette is beneath him, intellectually and socially, Proust presents Swann’s attraction to her as explicable, if only because the explanation takes up a good chunk of the two hundred pages of “Swann in Love.” Despite some editorializing that makes it clear that Proust is most in sympathy with Swann, the sympathetic air mostly arises from the description of the tiny details that captivate Swann, that keep his obsession going even as it wrecks his social standing.
It’s not a rational response that Swann has, obviously, but I’ve rarely read such a detailed itemization of the particulars that cause an irrational response. Part of this is my own bias: I’ve never been interested in stories that grow out of two characters’ de facto attraction to each other and consist of little but the misery they make for each other. Maybe I’ve been lucky to avoid experiences that would make me empathetic. Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (the title is ironic) spends two hours showing a couple repeatedly breaking up and getting back together as soon as they forget why they broke up. They forget fast. The movie bored me. So the “hopeless love” angle isn’t one that I’m going to touch.
Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fe spends five hundred pages talking about how a bookish older man and his library are destroyed by his incredibly base housekeeper, whom he falls in love with and marries. It’s supposed to serve as a symbolic representation of nihilism destroying the cultured mores of the educated classes, but the book doesn’t work: the characters aren’t convincing, and the relationship less so.
Proust is better than that. Swann is foolish, he’s arbitrary, and he’s inconsistent, but for all the details, he seems sui generis; there’s never been someone who fell for another person quite in the way he does, though I’m sure some have come fairly close. Even when Proust goes off into theorizing, it is always about the particulars of Swann’s pathology, not about the sorrows of humanity. So Swann is as large to readers as he is to himself. There is so much detail about his particular tastes and preferences, particularly his attention to a single, small passage of music that he comes to associate with his love for Odette, that he’s not just another “mad love” character out of Ariosto behaving stupidly, but someone for whom his every action is justifiable, and someone whom I find reasonably comprehensible. He makes a mental image of that passage, knowing little about music or even about the piece’s overall structure:

He had before him something that was no longer pure music, but rather design, architecture, thought and which allowed the actual music to be recalled. This time he had distinguished quite clearly a phrase which emerged for a few moments above the waves of sound. It had at once suggested to him a world of inexpressible delights, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing else could initiate him.

The phrase is not just music but is itself sui generis, as is Swann himself, as presented. The arbitratiness of his tastes, as with the choice of musical notes, is akin to the establishment of a private reality, not just the whims of an aristocrat. Whether his tastes are explicable is not meaningful, since they govern him like natural laws.
This approach accomodates one other crucial thing, which is inconstancy. Generally, even in someone like Flaubert, when a character changes a core opinion, it’s presented as a fulcrum, something that tips the balance and causes the novel to progress. That doesn’t happen here; inconstancy is made part of Swann’s being. He changes his mind about Odette several times; he gets fed up with her, he falls back in love with her, he allows himself to forget what she’s done, he replaces her with his ideal. The changes are rapid, but the constantly (and drastically) evolving mental processes of Swann don’t change much in his relationship with Odette; it’s only by the microscopic examination of his thoughts that you’re aware that his opinions are changing as much as they are. This could come off as arbitrary or inexplicable, but again, rationality is not the order of the day. Natural law is.

Oulipo: Existentialismos, John Barth, Georges Perec

Once upon a time there was an author named John Barth, and he wrote a book called The Floating Opera, in which a very nihilistic young man does the Colin Wilson/Arthur Schopenhauer thing and declares there is no purpose in living, acting, or doing, and to prove it he plots to blow up the titular boat, before coming to his revised conclusion: “There’s no final reason for living (or for suicide).” This constitutes the climax of the book. The two descriptors that best apply to the precocious (at least for a man in his mid-20’s in the 1950’s) book are callous and callow, and if not for the fluency of the imagery and environment, the book would just be a signpost on the way to Michel Houellebecq and Bret Easton Ellis.

The basic ethos is mirrored in his second novel, The End of the Road, in which the formula is much the same. Perhaps a little less solipsistic, as the lookalike narrator is given a girlfriend (who dies during an abortion) and more significantly, an existential mentor named the Doctor:

Why don’t you read Sartre and become an existentialist? It will keep you moving until we find something more suitable for you. Study the World Almanac: it is to be your breviary for a while…Take long walks, but always to a previously determined destination, and when you get there, walk right home again, briskly…Above all, act impulsively: don’t let yourself get stuck between alternatives, or you’re lost. You’re not that strong. If the alternatives are side by side, choose the one on the left; if they’re consecutive in time, choose the earlier. If neither of these applies, choose the alternative whose name begins with the earlier letter of the alphabet. These are the principles of Sinistrality, Antecedence, and Alphabetical Priority–there are others, and they’re arbitrary, but useful.

I’ve tried to trim down the Doctor’s obnoxious oratory; it’s internally consistent but seems a little naive in being presented as so contemporary. I’ve known people who used nearly the same argument to justify adherence to the more quotidian tenets of Orthodox Judaism.

(Quoth Rabbi Paysach Krohn:

The Torah extends more prominence to the right hand than it does to the left hand. However with regard to the act of tying, the prominence shifts to the left hand because tefillin are usually tied on the left arm. Therefore although both right-handers and left-handers put on their right shoe first (because of prominence to the right side), there is a difference with regard to tying their laces. The right-hander should tie his left shoe first (because it is on that side that he wears his tefillin) whereas the left-hander ties his right shoe first.

But I digress….)

I’m not particularly interested in how the nihilism turned into the existentialism, but it’s certainly a more generative strategy for the book and for action, any action, on the part of the narrator. And that brings up the question, could the same technique have worked for Barth? (Since it also could have generated the decision, “Let’s have Terry Southern write the screenplay adaptation of The End of the Road, some adjustments may have been required.)

Barth would, only two years later, write the mega-novel The Sot-Weed Factor, totally different than what went before and driven not by any philosophical ideology as the drive to excavate his world until he popped out the other side. This would lead to metafictional excursions like Lost in the Funhouse and especially Letters, a gigantic mess where characters from all his other novels shoot letters to each other and to Barth. The former actually stands taller as a statement of purpose, since Barth makes it very clear that storytelling and storytellers are everything, and he has stuck with that focus ever since. But if I look back on his work and its permutations of fourth-wall-breakages, mythological revisionism, and old-style deconstructionism, the chosen architecture of his conceits seems a bit arbitrary. I don’t use the word prejudicially–Robert Coover’s Pinocchio in Venice has some obvious and less obvious revisions of the Pinocchio symbolism that are fine regardless of the fact that other interpretations were possible and some more obvious–but for an author as generative as Barth, his lack of ideological reasoning behind individual architectural choices is as much a dogmatic tenet as his focus on narratology. And isn’t this starting to sound a bit like the Doctor?

The analogue that I draw on for evidence is Georges Perec, the quintessential Oulipo author, whose novels followed the same path as Barth’s. His early A Man Asleep is the story of a man who is very, very apathetic and dissociative (and, I daresay, depressed). By Life: A User’s Manual (and others, but this is the key one), he’s on to stories of people who have rituals in their own lives: puzzles, cults, writing, etc. The evolution is the imposition of arbitrary structure. You can look at this as experimental, challenging, and unexpected, and you can also see it, as early Barth does, as existential.

And this gets back to the question of the Oulipo and whether, for example, the urge to create complex characters, offer psychological insight, or illuminate mores is fundamentally different from the urge to write REALLY BIG PALINDROMES. I think it has something to do with exactly what the arbitrary structure ethic is. I believe, without conclusive proof, that many of these authors do adopt a defensive, existential mindset, avoiding justifications of their arbitrary method because (1) there is none, it’s arbitrary after all, and (2) the very act of justifying the ethic would cause a regression to the earlier, nihilistic/dissociative state.

Classically, structural decisions are made with reference to advancing a plot or character; with an existentialist writing ethic, this becomes dishonest. It’s preferable to parade the arbitrariness as prima facie.

Ray Davis says something similar:

Embodying this recognition of survival’s triviality in the very work of survival is the point and foundation of the works’ significance.

But I believe the examples he references, Roubaud and Beckett, are in the minority. In most existentially-created works of this sort more commonly would reject this statement, as the statement itself is meaningless under the precepts of the work’s creation. You only get significance of this sort if you return to the nihilistic stage that most of the books work so hard to avoid.

More commonly, Barth’s approach, as with the more mechanistic approach espoused by the Oulipo, generates its significance because it works: it generates books. Lots of books. Lots of poems. This isn’t to denigrate the existential writing approach. But there are certain types of “significance” that its works often can’t contain, or admit.

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