Wednesday, December 21, 2016


The Bed Moved, Rebecca Schiff

Infinite Distraction, Dominic Pettman

Dark Money, Jane Mayer

How Will Capitalism End? Wolfgang Streeck

"White Christmas," directed by Michael Curtiz

"In becoming a habit, distraction becomes a tool for dissolving regimes of thought, modes of understanding, by admitting an empirical moment into the transcendental structure of apperception."
Paul North, quoted by Dominic Pettman (133)


Professor North is referring to Kant's discussion of the seemingly insurmountable complications we face in making sense of the world, of sorting through the myriad and dense layers of sense impressions that bombard us, of making what is inchoate a part of the quiet inner story that is our consciousness. Distractions further complicate this process; perhaps distractions make making"sense" of our lives an impossible project. And yet we seek out distractions, as Dominic Pettman suggests in Infinite Distraction, precisely to obfuscate a world that is not only too diffuse to comprehend, but too disturbing. Pettman speaks of "pervasive bewilderment and insecurity," of a loss of "shared chronology, direction, or purpose." I would add our willful jettisoning of facts, of empathy, of a common humanity. A decade ago we were assured that those in power "made up their own facts." It's now common knowledge that there are no facts whatsoever. Ironically, it was a pack of mordant Frenchmen who were accused of destroying traditional values in favor of an amoral "post-modern" vision. Now it's the pols, the media, and Organization Men who have taken up the cry: "Truth is dead, and we killed it!"  


Sick of Brooklyn? The restaurants, the craft beers, the renovations, the self-regard? The authors? The book jackets weighted down with gush from other Brooklyn writers? Is anyone in Brooklyn not a writer? Case in point, The Bed Moved, a collection of stories by Rebecca Schiff. A book my eyes passed over but which touched me not at all...

Adam Wilson, another young writer who lives in Brooklyn, is convinced that Schiff is the real deal. Mr. Wilson feels that the era of authors like Proust and Virginia Woolf is over. But on the subject of Schiff he is unequivocal.  "If you see a bald man running through the streets of Brooklyn screaming Rebecca Schiff's name, do not fear for her life--it's just me, after one too many, singing the gospel of Schiff!" The Gospel of Schiff. Just the sort of thing Edmund Wilson might have written.

Or Claire Luchette's (also from Brooklyn. Her motto? "I write for bummed folks." She interviewed Schiff for Politico or some such. For all we know these people all drink at the same bar.) take on Schiff's "tart, powerful, sexy, and very, very funny stories":  "What I loved most about these stories is how stripped they are of all the often-clunky narrative stuff that shows up in more traditional stories, where it can seem like character, biographical details and situational context are dumped into the text" (my emphasis). 

Chekhov's clunky character details? Having to wade through all that "stuff" in a story by Cheever? Or Yates, or Charles Baxter? Character! Who has time for a story of more than a thousand words? A Schiff story is hip, a shtick, a routine, patter. It's a Netflix series full of hipsters and sex and one-liners that are very, very funny. No Schiff character has a face, a body, a tone of voice, a personality--nobody does anything but quip. Are quips literature? Will Woody Allen get the Nobel Prize next year? I'm trying as I read these stories to get it, to get why someone would run drunken through the streets of Brooklyn over these skeletal, affectless vignettes. To figure out why they are witty. Proust makes me giddy with pleasure; Bernhard makes me laugh until I weep; any story by Alice Munro makes me shake my head in awe of the woman's craft; Yates and Cheever I could read all day for their psychological insights, their humanity. But these dabs of prose--I kept circling Hamlet's "words, words, words" as I made my way through the book:

     "'There were film majors in my bed--they talked about film. There were poets, coxswains, guys trying to grow beards.'
     'Kids get really scared when their Dad grows a beard,' I said." (from "The Bed Moved").

     "'The ad said "I will rate your vagina," so I sent it in. It got two. Warts.'" ("Rate Me")

     "They said keep an eye on it, they said it was nothing, they took a picture, took a sample, they burned it, they froze it, they biopsied it, they told me to come back in a year, they winced when they saw me coming, they wrote down everything I said or dictated it to a woman who had to be in the room for legal reasons, they wrote me a prescription, they said, "You write fiction, that must be interesting."
     In fiction, it's never benign."  ("Keep and Eye on It" in its entirety)

I read the whole book. Two hours and twenty minutes. Published by Knopf--Alfred A.

What is this book about, really?

(Very) Late Capitalism

In her brilliant and disturbing Dark Money, Jane Mayer, perhaps without meaning to do so, demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that in twenty-first century America, even consciousness is for sale. Example after example shows that calculating, amoral, rapacious billionaires can actually get people to think things that are not only untrue, but actually hurtful to them (e.g. that mine safety in West Virginia is a bad idea for miners; that pollution is actually good). So money isn't just able to purchase newspapers, book publishers, politicians, and "think" tanks, but it can also, readily, be the medium though which human consciousness--yours and mine--is defined. 

What is capitalism? A form of human intercourse based upon the premise that everything--everything!--is reducible to quantifiable value and can, therefore, be exchanged in the framework of an entirely artificial space called "the market," which is, in fact, nothing more than the reification of any person's basest motives--fear, envy, pride, and lust ("cupidity" in the old days).

Almost every word of Pettman's Infinite Distraction is nonsense (see, e.g. p. 116), but here's the pearl amongst the sand: "....we are being systematically deprived not only of human freedoms, but our own capacity to be subjects of our own lives." Yes, this is just how one feels. Not only that we are being duped into buying objects we don't wish to own, but that we are being enticed into thinking thoughts that are beneath us, that diminish our humanity.

The phrase from Streeck's How Will Capitalism End? that has stuck with me is this: "...the nightmare of elites confident that they will outlive the social system that is making them rich." (p. 68)

The game is over. "Social life in an age of entropy is necessarily individualistic." (p. 40) But not quite, since the individualism that Streeck describes and that Jane Mayer's libertarians yearn to impose on the rest of us isn't individualistic in the sense of defending individual rights or parsing the value of a human being's consciousness, but rather individual in the sense of imposing a view of human nature that privileges 'fulfillment' (a vague notion) above all else. My students all believe that "human beings are basically selfish." And when I ask them what leads them to this Darwinian conclusion they have no answer--they've absorbed the message with the air they breath. They too understand that our habits of consumption define what used to be called character but is now thought of as a "profile." That's why it's a waste of time to create characters in literature or to write stories with psychological depth. The notion of a person as a nexus of complex yearnings, of hopes and dreams and inexpressible feelings is antiquated in just the way that stories about virgins pining after wealthy English landowners are antiquated. One could still write Pride and Prejudice but what would be the point?

The Bed Moved:

It turns out that Schiff is right. All we have is yearning and sex and distractions. If you read her book you will see that not paying attention is the only intelligent response to our world. Kant was right to see apperception as an impossible project--and he was writing in a candle-lit world. But then again, in reading interviews and reviews for this post, I couldn't help but think that the younger generation of writers was selling literature short, giving up not only on the beauty of art, but on its subversive qualities. Somewhere Pettman quotes an Italian theorist who says "we are cowards." That's it.

Bing at the Window

In "White Christmas," Bing returns from the Good War to go into show business with Danny Kaye. He meets Rosemary Clooney and falls in love. He and his Army buddies put on a show at a snowy inn in Vermont. A story that in some odd way feels familiar even if you've never seen the film--not the romance of it or the plot that's just an excuse for songs and dances (as in all those glorious Fred Astaire films). What grabs you, or should, is the comfort of it, the maudlin claustrophobic feeling that when Bing turns back into the room and looks at the fake tree and the bows on the packages he will feel a sense of happiness and security that we will never feel. And if you're writing stories these days, if you're the age of Rebecca Schiff or Adam Wilson or my older daughter, you may never have had this feeling. And if you've never felt in your bones, never felt to the core of your being, that the world isn't but could be, and should be, and will, on some snowy Christmas day in Vermont, in fact be benign and decent and humane--what can you be expected to make of stories and poems that have the nerve to play pretend, that set out to fool you, to turn your gaze away from the fact that all we've got is joyless sex, the lust for money, on-line communities, and the kind of sad wit that isn't so much shallow as hollow? What's left is a scrim of words on a page or a screen that is added to everything else whose only purpose is to distract us from the emptiness we feel, day after day. 

Happy holidays.

 George Ovitt (12/21/2016)



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