Monday, March 9, 2009

mottled in the cosmos

Opening to any randomly chosen page in Tom McCarthy's Remainder is sufficient to capture the novel's excruciatingly pristine depiction of the resonant spaces that dwell in daily life. Following an accident our narrator cannot recall (and a settlement, the details of which he cannot disclose), he goes about methodically re-enacting minor events, repeatedly staging the ephemeral experiences normally catalogued in one's subconscious throughout a day's routine.

My building was in there, being carried along somewhere in the complex interlacings. I caught glimpses of it as it slipped behind another building and was whisked away again to reappear somewhere else. It would show itself to me then slip away again. The belts were like magicians' fingers shuffling cards: they were shuffling the city, flashing my card, my building, at me and then burying it in the deck again. They were challenging me to shout "Stop!" at the exact moment it was showing: if I could do that, I'd win. That was the deal. 

"Stop!" I shouted. Then again: "Stop ...Stop!" But I timed each shout just wrong...

What the novel works at, with its formless protagonist honing in further on these unseen machinations of the urban fabric, is the continuing effort to shout Stop! at just the right moment. He worries at tokens of the ineffable until they are well-worn: small talk with a neighbor in the hall, a pianist neighbor making a mistake, then slowly playing through again, the smell of cooking fat wafting through a window. It is only when these events recur with a certain singular exactitude that our man can feel any pleasure, but this pleasure is pure.

This plot conceit would be a tiresome meddling under the hood of the postmodern psyche were it not for McCarthy's rendering of the protagonist as something of a reborn child. As he recovers from his accident, we watch him enduring physical therapy, relearning actions as simple as eating a carrot as a series of micro-moments; muscles clutch and release, joints tense and flex, limbs move through air. Seemingly scrubbed clean of any self-consciousness, our man experiences these coordinations free of their typical context. He is an outside observer in his own body. As he moves out of the clinic and into the outside world, he continues in this way, acutely aware of everyone around him putting on airs, going through their inauthentic movements. 

But he does not stop here, at this intersection of Sartre's phenomenology of dread, Gombrowicz's playful repurposing of the inanimate,  and the alien body capture narrative of sci-fi. Our man's fixations deepen, his re-enactments incite stronger reveries, he becomes ever more demanding and insistent on his actors getting certain details just right. As Zadie Smith puts it, he "seeks to dominate matter, the better to disembody it." His mind unable, or unwilling, to associate the objects he sees with their everyday usage, they instead become infused with a portentousness. A crack in a plaster wall becomes an evolving cipher, a map; a bit of parking lot tar which cannot be destroyed; a liter of windshield fluid, which, upon disappearing inside his car, becomes a metaphor for transubstantiation; a carpet's wrinkle becomes the axis on which an entire room rotates. Normally heavily relied on by most novelists to supply meanings, people are, on the other hand, interchangeable. Some are so insignificant as to be little more than space occupiers; they are told to say nothing, and wear blank masks. They are hired and arranged, then replaced, or worse.

Monday, March 2, 2009

i hold you like a gun

When the TV has not been commandeered for the purposes of Thomas the Tank Engine, I do my best to put myself off my coffee by watching as many slivers of the Sunday talk shows as I can, sandwiched as they are between golf tourney promos and pharmaceutical ads. It's never been clear to me what the true import these shows have for their audience; they're a holdover, I suppose, from a time in which the political cognoscenti weren't brined in the blogosphere at every possible moment, but rather waited, with some civility, until the Sabbath day to settle the week's scores. They now are little more than an ongoing case study in circular obsequiousness; the hosts forever gracious for their granted access, feigning probity and smiling at each deflection; the guests caffeinated and taciturn, folding their hands across the armrests of an imaginary throne. It's here that SecDef Robert Gates, his presence disturbing not even the particles in the air, can blithely describe the difference between Presidents Bush and Obama as one being "slightly more analytical" than the other, even taking as bold a step as to contrast their methods in calling on colleagues in meetings (the limits of televised discourse being what they are, he did not make it to the wild deviation in the two men's middle names, or that they prefer different aftershaves). Host David Gregory, knowing when to say when, winced into a smile, his furrowed brow and dimpled cheeks forming a sad oval.

And then there is Fox News, in a class by themselves as far as wallering in an invented reality goes. After inviting on a Republican and a Republican to discuss the Obama budget, it was on to the panel for a rousing civics salon. Brit Hume, the basset-toned analyst who has been making A-Rod money since the Clinton era, railed against the normalization of the tax code like a NoDoz'd freshman scribbling a paper on Atlas Shrugged. "I often feel that liberals would rather have everybody equally poor rather than unequally rich." Unequally rich. A coinage so pithy, and yet so vast as to contain the whole world. Hume - apparently unaware that there are people out there who eat cat food, families whose dinner consists of cans of spaghettios, people who would take a bite out of Brit Hume's ass if it came to it - went on to demur that the more equally rich affected by the new plan will just duck the reforms by stashing money in tax shelters and buying gold anyway. How he knew this, he didn't say, but good on him to explain to the rest of us the rules of the game. This discussion had all been for show.