Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Taking David Foster Wallace's English 170R: Class #7 (Play It As It Lays, Finish)

Hi all. Here's the last class of 2014. I'll be talking about Didion's Play It As It Lays. So Merry Christmas, I'll see you next year, and I hope you all have a great holiday.



   Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays is about disconnection and loneliness. This should come as no surprise considering the milieu, which is centered around the emotional wastelands of Hollywood and Las Vegas. While these locales have been mined repeatedly for the kind of anomie described in the book, Didion manages to keep our interest in a couple different ways.
   The first is her writing style. It is spare and direct, but with enough craft and artistry that it can’t be accused of simply holding up a mirror, stylistically, to the world it describes. The prose levels with us, making us trust it, and we are confident that it will not “b.s.” us. This is very important in a novel of this sort. It does not sugarcoat the sordid events that occur, nor does it offer up the hardcore, “unflinching” look at the world that can be its own kind of dishonesty (when it is used to merely shock and titillate, for example). Didion presents the material simply, without too much comment. The reader is not totally left to “come to her own conclusions,” however. Didion definitely has an authorial point of view, though this comes through in the way the novel is structured, rather than the actual prose. She shuffles events in and out, and where they begin and end is important to the overall scheme. This resonates with one of the book’s themes: if there are answers/meaning to be found, they are not in the character’s day-to-day existence, but seem to reside in what happens before and after events, in their dreams, in the “white spaces” of their lives.
   Another way Didion keeps us engaged is through the qualities she gives to the main character, Maria. This is a character that we have seen many times before, someone lost and rudderless trying to navigate through a pitiless world. She also borders on being self-loathing, and those can be feelings that are sometimes (unintentionally) shared by the reader. But Didion prevents Maria from crossing over to pure contemptuousness, for either herself or her surroundings. If anything, she is extremely self-critical, and always expecting the other shoe to drop. A line on pg. 73, “Maria did not particularly believe in rewards, only in punishments, swift and personal,” sums up her character almost too neatly. This is followed by: “The notion of general devastation had for Maria a certain sedative effect…suggested an instant in which all anxieties would be abruptly gratified…she felt a kind of resigned tranquility.” (pg. 104) Even mundane things she does like not having a phone could lead to disaster: “There was no one to whom she wanted to talk but she had to have a telephone. If she could not be reached it would happen, the peril would find Kate.” There is no doubt that she is narcissistic, but she beats herself up so much that it feels almost cruel to think unkindly of her; it’d be almost like kicking an injured puppy. And even though a big chunk of the book deals with the rigmarole of getting a then-illicit abortion (the book was published in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade), we are still affected by Maria being haunted by the procedure. The imagery of her nightmares and thoughts (“All that day Maria thought of fetuses in the East River, translucent as jellyfish, floating past the big sewage outfalls with the orange peels.” (pg. 116)) are still striking in 2014.
   Ultimately, Maria’s disconnection is one that will never be rectified. This is dramatized by the ending of the book, when the closest thing she has to a kindred spirit, the movie producer BZ, suggests that she take a suicidal amount of Seconal pills with him. He has been led to believe that she’s just as sick of the world they live in as he is, that she feels just as acutely the pain he feels. But he is wrong. She does not take what he has to offer, and even misunderstands his intentions toward the end. (“  Don’t.’ After she had said it she opened her eyes.”) With the person most likely to understand her gone, Maria loses what seems to be her last chance at connection, and her contention on the last page that she “[knows] what ‘nothing’ means” is heartbreaking, despite (or even because of) her resolve to “keep on playing.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Taking David Foster Wallace's English 170R: Class #6 (Play It As It Lays, pp. 1-125)

Sorry everyone, my tablet ate the recording of today's class and I don't have the patience to re-record it. I will instead post my notes on today's assigned reading. I'll try to ensure this doesn't happen again.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Taking David Foster Wallace's English 170R: Class #5 (Nightwood pp. 84-End)

So it might seem I'm falling behind but I actually recorded this class a week ago and am just getting around to putting it up. I will admit that it took me a couple extra days to finish my minipaper, though. (Also, I have the sinking suspicion I would be failing these minipapers, as I feel they aren't very good and might not even fulfill the "page-long" requirement. Oh well.) This class discussion goes long because I'm joined by two friends, Rebecca and Jeff. Nightwood is Rebecca's favorite book and she had a lot of insightful things to say about it. Everything she says is probably worth a listen.

Before we get to my minipaper, a couple of things: Soundcloud has a 180 minute upload limit so I'm having to delete some of the earlier discussions. I'll be saving them and probably posting them to YouTube at the conclusion of the class and sticking all the minipapers and stuff in a tab on the blog. Also the next book is Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays and I'll be doing the first class for that tomorrow and wrapping that up on Monday since I won't have any time immediately before and after Christmas. Luckily it's pretty short.

Nightwood discussion: https://soundcloud.com/dhsayer/20141213_110029-mp3

Nightwood minipaper:

   Those attempting a critical assessment of the themes in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood are confronted with an embarrassment of riches. There are myriad thematic elements at play, and many ways to discuss them and the unusual ways they manifest in the novel.
   Even the simplest discussion of the book would be incomplete without addressing the style of the writing, which oftentimes only faintly resembles prose. It is, as T.S. Eliot mentions in his introduction, a highly poetic language, packed with imagery and allusive signifiers. Even the basic task of identifying the protagonist requires more unpacking than would be required in a traditional narrative. The book begins with the family history of Felix Volkbein, though he comes in and out of the narrative as the story progresses. Robin Vote seems to be the cynosure around which the other characters revolve, though she is arguably the least developed character in terms of actual description on the page. She remains somewhat elusive, as even the people around her admit that they “never did have a really clear idea of her at any time.” [pg. 119]
   We see Robin mostly through the eyes of the other characters, and her arc consists in large part of the various interactions she has with them. This is of a piece with the theme of duality that weaves through the book. There are numerous couplings as Robin goes from one partner to the next, and other characters come together in lengthy commiseration. The novel’s structure is akin to that of a dance between two people, with partners spinning off together for a while before trading partners. Each section of the book seems to concentrate on these one-on-one interactions. There are also references to characters being shadows of one another, as well as mirror images. In that space between two characters—the words they toss back and forth, often without registering what the other is saying—is where both of them are elucidated, to the reader if not to each other.
  The book is very plotted, but the events are described obliquely. If poetry is the art of creating effect without the use of explicit language, then a lot of Nightwood’s passages qualify as such. Relationships form and crumble in the course of the story, but these are carried out in unusual ways. We are as likely to read about a courtship involving rage and a lashing out as we are to read about a breakup that has components of weird tenderness. Take the meeting between Nora and Robin, for example. They meet at a circus where Robin has a mysterious confrontation with a lioness. The animal regards Robin through the bars, “her eyes flowed in tears that never reached the surface.” After that encounter Nora and Robin form a relationship whose bond seems contingent on— or at least somehow connected to—this face-to-face Robin had with an animal, an interaction that is unclear and open to interpretation, though one does not doubt the impact of the event in the same way that one would place great importance on a traditional dramatic event (a catastrophe, a mutually witnessed tragedy, etc.) in the bonding of two characters in a regular narrative. This is a way of saying that in Nightwood you find the basic conceits of the conventions of traditional narrative (character development, behavior tied to and explained by dramatic events, peripeteia) done in a poetic, indirect way, but being just as impactful as those conventions would be in a traditional narrative. It allows the novel to represent those things found in a good narrative but also retain its oblique stylization.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Taking David Foster Wallace's English 170R: Class #4 (Nightwood, Intros, pp. 3-83)

On to the next book, Nightwood. I'll be talking about the first half today, and then this weekend I'll finish up and have a nice treat to post. I'll be talking with a friend of mine whose favorite book just happens to be Nightwood. So it'll be cool to have a conversation about the book with someone who's lived with it for years. That'll be posted by Sunday, along with the minipaper. Everyone keeping up? Good :)


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Taking David Foster Wallace's English 170R: Class #3 (The Man Who Loved Children, pp. 366-End, Minipaper)

Ok, last day of discussing Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, and also time to turn in the minipaper. Here's mine:

   That Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children is about family, there is zero doubt. The way it expounds on this theme is atypical, however. Instead of being developed by the events of a traditional narrative, the idiosyncratic Pollit family is brought to life mainly through the private language they share. This language—made up of sobriquets, pidgin constructions, and nonsense words—originates from the family’s patriarch, Sam. It is suggested that this way of communicating was congenital, as his side of the family shares many of his traits. The Pollit’s idioglossia not only makes them an insular and contained family unit, but also sets up the other defining characteristic of the family—and a theme that becomes a leitmotif throughout the novel—and that is one of opposition.
   Whenever their private language breaks down, due to weariness, willful refusal to participate, or the adopting of another language, the family undergoes a crisis of identity that confuses and enrages its members. The oppositions within the family are always related to language, as when Sam and Hennie refuse to talk to each other, or when Louie creates her own language to explain to her father how oppressive she finds life in their family. These very specific instances of conflict—husband vs. wife, man vs. daughter—are the more granular versions of this theme of opposition, which is elevated to grand levels at various points in the text, so that we see it in terms of Autocracy vs. Autonomy, Man vs. Woman (Sam: “Women is trouble; women is cussed; you have got to learn to run women” [pg.472], Hennie: “Oh why shouldn’t I live with Sam?—he’s as good to me as any man would be: men are all the same” [pg.456]), the nuclear family vs. the extended family, and Bureaucracy vs. Truth. The family members fluidly slide from one set of oppositions to another, and are defined at any given moment by which conflict they are in.
   Another subtler theme of the novel is the embracing of spirituality in the face of overwhelming events. At various points, the family members, all of whom are not religious (Sam, in particular, is staunchly agnostic), are forced to appeal to a high power, though this is not done through traditional means (prayer, attending church service, etc.). Instead, this is conveyed through language, which has been integrally tied to the family’s identity. When Sam is being slandered at his work, he says, “God helps those who help themselves,” and, “All things work together for the good of them who love the Lord,” which the text immediately clarifies: “By ‘the Lord’ he only meant an obscure creature of his imagination, possibly ‘the Public Good,’ or even just his own will.” [pg. 310] Later, when Louie is on the verge of being directly responsible for killing her mother, she thinks “Oh, God, I nearly was caught,” and it’s the “first time she ever used that word.” [pg. 505] These of course aren’t the traditional views of God and religion, but for this family it has the feeling of spiritual enlightenment, and in general rings true as to how that enlightenment would manifest itself to an agnostic. The words—no matter who uses them—and imagery—no matter who sees them—have incontrovertible weight and meaning, so that when Louie finally leaves the household in the end and in doing so she sees herself “on the other side of a fence; there was a garden through the chinks that she had once been in but could never be in again,” the implication is both undeniable and powerful.