Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Few Thoughts on THE GREAT GATSBY

Three of the greatest American novels--Moby Dick; Absalom, Absalom! and The Great Gatsby--can be easily interpreted as variations on a single 'deep' narrative: the failed quest for an obscure object of desire. In the cases of Melville and Fitzgerald, this is quite obvious, while for Faulkner's novel the interpretation would be more complex, as the book contains multiple questers and objects (including Quentin Compson, seeking a truth he can only create in the telling--somewhat like Nick Carraway during his last-page rhapsody, perhaps).

The tragedy of Gatsby, as I reinterpret it now upon my umpteenth reading, lies in the fact that the self young James Gatz creates is a pure subject of desire for a single object. His desire for Daisy is obsessive, fanatical, and as he attempts to mold himself into the object of his (mis)understanding of her desire (like all infatuated lovers, he assumes her desire to be the mirror of his), he creates a self so single-mindedly object-oriented, so inhuman, that it inevitably shatters--not, as Nick thinks, on the brutal hardness of Tom's personality, but on the human complexity and contradictions of Daisy's messy self.

Aside from these more 'theoretical' concerns, it must be noted that Gatsby is, of course, a fantastically well-written and extremely well-constructed novel. (Because it's so often read in U.S. high schools, these qualities are usually taken for granted; they shouldn't be.) The first chapter is a nearly perfect opening: a brief prologue establishes the narrative voice and teases us into desire for the story to come; the next section admirably sets the geographical and social scene; the dinner scene introduces all the major characters and many of their conflicts; and the ending shows us Gatsby as the self he has constructed, a pure subject of pure desire, beckoning toward the desire of his object, willing Daisy  to turn her desire permanently his way, like the green light on the end of her dock. This is what nearly perfect narrative fiction looks like. As Hunter S. Thompson, who shared a language and an addiction or two with Fitzgerald, appreciated, The Great Gatsby is a great course in novel-writing. And it's one hell of a lot cheaper than an MFA. One of the book's principal lessons is "shock the formula." One wouldn't guess from Gatsby's opening that this Jamesian / Horatio Alger narrative would transmute into a melodrama of gangsters and bootlegging and multiple killings before modulating into pathos and tragedy. But that's the winding road Fitzgerald speeds us down. After many re-readings one loses the shock of the Fitzgeraldian new, but for its first readers, Gatsby must have been a deeply surprising novel, a high-speed collision of Whartonian rhetoric and Jamesian irony with the blood-drenched gangster stories of the gutter press. It is a measure of Fitzgerald's artistry that he can, with seeming effortlessness, turn such an unlikely collision into a novel both moving and beautiful.

Ontological Dream, Metaphysical Nightmare

Last Christmas night I had the ontological dream, the metaphysical nightmare. I dreamed I awoke in the middle of the night and felt my way blindly through the coaldark house to the brightly lighted kitchen. The incongruity of a ceiling light burning sunlike in the middle of the night, while the silent house slept, unsettled my dreamself to the extent of setting off a fit of metaphysical anxiety. Like so many Nabokov characters, I began to suspect the hyper-reality of my seamlessly mimetic world. Maybe I'm not awake, I dreamthought. Maybe this is a dream. To test the oneiric nature of this 'reality,' I reached up to the lightswitch chain, thinking, If this is a dream, the light won't turn off. I pulled the chain. Nothing happened. I pulled again. Nothing happened. The house around me, to the horizon of the light, rested in absolutely convincing mimesis. I pulled the switch yet again. No change. A frenzied panic flowed into me as I repeatedly jerked the chain to no avail. I was trapped in a dream from which I could not awake, even as I madly told myself, This is a dream! This is a dream! and continued pulling the lightchain. My memory of the dream ends here, trapped in terror.

The dream was horrifying in its simplicity, unbearable in its banality, unheimlich in its utter familiarity. As Kafka knew, the familiar is the place from which terror most effectively erupts.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Only Paul Thomas Anderson Interview You Will Ever Need...

After New Year's resolving to waste less time online, I spent nearly two hours yesterday evening listening to Marc Maron's marvelous WTF interview with director Paul Thomas Anderson. (In my own defense, I've contracted a respiratory virus and have been a Dayquil zombie for the past few days, so I wasn't really capable of doing much beyond veging in front of the intertube.) Among the surprises revealed: while Anderson was a student at Emerson College (Boston) in the early 1990s, one of his English teachers was the not-yet-Charlie-Rosed David Foster Wallace (that's one for the 'Small World' file); Anderson's father was Tim Conway's straight man in the early 1960s, and Anderson grew up around the cast of the Carol Burnett Show; the elder Anderson was also a Cleveland, Ohio local TV personality who hosted horror movies under the name of 'Ghoulardi'; the reason why Anderson's first feature, Sidney, was released under the title Hard Eight (a good movie by any name); Anderson speaks at length about Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice, and he pointedly refuses to say anything about any personal contact he might have had with Thomas Pynchon. He also mentions that if he had a time machine, he would use it to travel backward a few decades and work with Sterling Hayden.