Articles by nympheline

I think Andy Warhol is possibly the most insightful life-commentator that I know of.

I really like what Diaz has done with this novel. The way it spans time and space without sacrificing perspective—in the sense that frequently when the narrator takes us to a different moment in time in the narrative, he places us directly in it more so than keeping us in the frame of a “present” looking back on a “past”—is skillfully done, and I enjoyed the sort of limbo feel it lent to the novel. I did not, however, enjoy the footnotes quite so much. While interesting and entertaining enough in their own right, I found them often too long—and therefore too distracting from the main body of the narrative—to function smoothly with the collective whole. I liked the idea of using footnotes in general, as additions and side notes to the text, and the feel they gave of a person looking back on his own narration and amending and reflecting upon it. It seems to follow the Socratic idea that “the unexamined life is not worth living” in the narrator’s returning to the work after first writing it, and also in that the work itself deals with revisiting past writings and past lives.

What I found, however, was that while the narrative purported to be focused mainly on Oscar—even the title of the novel makes him the star—I could not identify with him in many ways. I could understand him, yes—sure, it sucks to be a fat geek who can’t get any; yeah, I can see where this story is going—but I could not really identify with him. I could identify to some extent with Yunior, because he seemed the most real of all the characters. I suppose you could argue that this “realness” is in some ways inherent in his being the narrator. However, I most identified with Lola. I’m not sure if this is because I found her story the most convincing, or because I could relate to her relationships with the people around her more than I could to, say, Oscar’s. In any case, I did start wondering why Diaz would have chosen a character like Oscar to place at the center of his novel. What, really, was he trying to accomplish in Oscar?

In retrospect, I think the problem that comes up with reading this novel is that it cannot be approached from the usual means/angles/whathaveyous that most works are approached through today. I think this novel attempts to function at a point beyond its own characters; maybe it can be classified as modern, “experimental” fiction. Actually, there is a class being taught at my previous institution, the University of Chicago, this winter (and which, in fact, I’m hoping to get in to) called “Poetics of Dislocation”. Although Diaz’s novel is a prose piece, I think much of it can and should be looked at through the lens which this class intends to employ in looking at certain poetry. The course description states:

“This course explores crises of placelessness and displacement as modern and contemporary verse has attempted to map them: from modernist cosmopolitan collage to poetry of exile, migration, and diaspora, the work we study, lodged between tongues, gives traction to discourse surrounding the abstraction of space in globalizing contexts. We examine the formal and social prompts and repercussions of experiments in polylingualism, dialect, creole, barbarism, and thwarted translation; we delve ultimately into some examples of poetic reckoning with the transformation of the site of reading, in the form of new media, installation, and otherwise ambient poetics.”

I would take this one step further and, going back to the novel’s treatment of time and space, argue that it combines this unique aspect with the “poetics of dislocation” of its prose to the point that it becomes a work that attempts to take a group of people’s unsettlement and form some kind of resolution out of it. I’m not sure what that resolution is yet, but I think that the use of different times, places, languages, people, sources of writing/narrative (letters, etc. which Yunior has used to piece together the family’s story), footnotes, and so on is the novel’s “experimental” condition, as it uses these to explore, well, the “crises of placelessness and displacement” which form the core of what Jennifer Scappettone calls works of “dislocation”.

frustration

I’m not sure I understand how EL&IC works as a a whole. The various bits and pieces, such as the images scattered throughout and the pages of other people’s letters and notebooks, while referenced in the various bits of narrative, feel like puzzles to me. I constantly pore over the pictures, the red-circled edits, the one-liner pages, the letters written by various characters, and the pieces of the obstacle-course-treasure-hunt Oskar has embarked upon in search of his father, because I keep feeling like I’m missing something. I’ve been staring at these things for hours now and I still feel like I’m missing some big piece somewhere. The book leaves things just confused enough, just vague enough, and is just full enough of little puzzles that I can’t stop thinking there must be more meanings in these little bits—why else would they have been included?—and I also can’t stop mentally kicking myself for not being able to find anything vastly revelatory in them. What is the secret? The scraps of these things seem to be thrown into the novel so haphazardly; some are included soon after or before they are mentioned in the narrative, while others are thrown in at a completely different moment, to the point where I wonder if there is any real intention behind their arrangement. Why the pictures of so many doorknobs, for example? Ok, so his grandfather (I think? or whoever) took a bunch of pictures of doorknobs—so what? That fact seemed irrelevant enough, but then to have so many of (I assume) these pictures thrown in at apparently random intervals makes me wonder what Foer is attempting to signify. Is Oskar’s key meant to fit one of these photographed doorknobs eventually, or are they just completely superfluous? I think overall the inability to comment on EL&IC, for myself at least, is that I’m not even remotely sure what I make of it in the first place. It’s confusing in a way that is pretty atypical; it’s not entirely the confusion of a mystery (such as Oskar’s detective search for his father), or of complete mumbo-jumbo (the narratives are, while perhaps not entirely, largely coherent and cohesive), or of form (letters of various kinds, narrations from various people, blurred chronology, etc.), but rather the confusion of not understanding how all of these things come together to do work for the novel as a whole. I find it difficult to believe that the point of it all is just to be confusing (because that’s kind of lame), or even just an experiment with form, but having ruled that out I find it even more difficult to figure out what work it is accomplishing. Anything I have to think about EL&IC, at least up through now, effectively boils down to a big “I dunno.”

I’m not entirely convinced that the ‘Black Hole of Trauma’ chapter relates directly to The Road, in the sense that the situation of the father and son figures of the novel is far more complex than that of the easy groupings of “people who undergo trauma and develop PTSD” and “people who undergo trauma and adapt” outlined by Kolk, McFarlane, and Weisaeth. The father and son certainly demonstrate specific aspects of PTSD cited by the chapter, such as in their recurring dreams and nightmares (where the father often dreams about life pre-disaster and his wife while the son dreams of things so frightening he can’t even talk about them). The boy in particular exhibits the numbing aspect of PTSD, especially when they encounter the stretch of road filled with half-submerged corpses—”So strangely untroubled” (p. 191). The chapter states that “even though vivid elements of the trauma intrude insistentl in the form of… nightmares, many traumatized people have a great deal of difficulty relating precisely what has happened” (p. 10), and this is true of the boy and his repeated non-communication with his father on the topic of his dreams. But, this is, of course, working off the assumption that the boy’s dreams are indeed nightmares of the disaster—which is arguably not the best nor most accurate assumption, when taking into consideration the fact that the father’s dreams are largely of good times past.

However, one of the key arguments of the ‘Black Hole of Trauma’ is that “the memory of the trauma is not integrated and accepted as a part of one’s personal past” (p. 9), that “either it is integrated in memory and stored as an unfortunate event belonging to the past, or the sensations and emotions belonging to the event start leading a life of their own” (p. 8). The idea is that the integration of the trauma into one’s “personal past” memory is acceptance which leads to adaptability and not-PTSD. It would seem ridiculous to try to make the claim that the father and son of The Road have done anything but adapt after the disaster. This fundamental claim of the chapter seems completely disproved—or at least inapplicable—to The Road as a result, regardless of the small symptomatic impressions of PTSD the characters may be displaying. I think this begs the question, “why?”, and I would argue that the chapter is rendered inapplicable because the trauma is still ongoing, even as the novel relates their story to us. The characters cannot be likened to the examples of the chapter (the war and Holocaust veterans) because they have not been removed from the traumatic experience and returned to the norm of things, for the very norm of things is what has been completely uprooted, not a momentary experience of it. While the chapter may present some interesting talking points, the very definition of “trauma” and a “traumatic situation” is so different when attempting to align The Road to ‘The Black Hole of Trauma’ as to render the comparison ineffective.

Confessions

(p. 48-49)

Soundtrack: Prelude by Nanase Hikaru


The camera pans along a wooded ridge edging a valley plain, through an uncertain darkness lit by smoke-obscured flames across the plain. It reaches a small space in the woods of the ridge where a bare camp—a blue tarp pitched precariously upon some branches and sticks stuck in the ground—is laid out, damp from a night of rain. The camera swoops down and zooms in from the aerial shots to about man-height from the ground, looking across the camp. Two figures lie sleeping on the ground. One is a young Boy. The other figure stirs, waking slowly from sleep. The Boy moves slightly but does not rise. The other, the Father, rises, and the camera follows him to the edge of the ridge. The fires burn steadily, flickering through the smoke and wind, as the Father squats. After a pause, he licks a finger and holds it up to test the wind. Another pause, longer, then the Father rises and turns. The camera preceeds him, facing him, as he walks back to the camp, continuing to withdraw after he stops until a full shot of the camp is achieved, the tarp-camp slightly to the left and bottom of the frame. It is now lit from within, and the boy’s figure is a shadow thrown against the back of the tarp, moving around. The father enters. Fade out.


Fade in to a shot of the two walking down a black paved road. Smoke wafts across the frame, and the surrounding trees are aflame to the right-hand side of the road, where rising slopes indicate mountain(s). Camera shot is coming from the side of the mountain, slightly angled to the right to take in some of the road ahead of the Father and the Boy, and the burning trees alongside. Camera continues to follow their steady, unchanging progress, until they reach a point where the fires burn on both sides of the road. They begin to pass, but experience some small struggle with each step. The mark of their footsteps appears behind them, indicating melted pavement. They stop. The father extends an arm, places his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and they turn and walk back to solid pavement together. Camera remains still, only pivoting to become angled to the left as the two pass, then follows them to where they set up camp on the road. Blackout.


Shot of the two packing up their camp, and setting out down the road again. They pass their own footstep-marks, this time with no difficulties. Camera follows slightly above and behind as they walk. After some time, new footstep-marks appear in the pavement, drawing closer as the two continue walking. The father stops upon reaching them, squats down to look more closely. The camera zooms in on the tracks and his face. He touches the marks, ruminates. Camera zooms back out as he stands up again, so that both he and the boy are in the frame. The boy looks at the father, who looks out down the road along the tracks. After a few moments:


Boy: (matter-of-fact curiosity) Who is it?


Pause. Camera zooms in on tracks and swoops down the road, following them while zooming back out and gaining speed, while voiceover:


Father: (a confession) I don’t know. Who is anybody?


Camera continues to sweep down the road increasingly quickly, until everything blurs into a blackout.

The character of Keith really threw this story into a loop for me, so far. When he was first mentioned, Lauren spoke of him so shortly that I did not at all expect him to become anywhere near as important a character as he became by chapter 9. The focus up until the moment in which he stole Cory’s key and went into the notorious “outside” was strictly on his young age and his whiny eagerness to handle a gun. He seemed not unlike an average 13-year-old hormonal male, yet suddenly he became this kind of crazy, dangerous rebel. His immaturity was starkly evident in his key-stealing episode, as he stated repeatedly that he “ain’t no baby no more” and “it’s not my fault” that he had gotten stripped and beat and mugged. The transition to the mature, self-assured version of Keith which appears at the end of chapter 9 is sudden and jarring. In the space of a few pages the baby who was crying on the floor with a bloody nose is apparently mugging people outside the wall at gunpoint, providing for his mother and assuring her that he would return from the outside, where people were regularly mistreated and killed.

So I started off thinking about this blog post by thinking about how White Noise repeatedly challenged ideas of semantics. (Hint: boy was that a bad idea.) I started with the account of the plane-that-almost-crashed and was intending to continue through other examples later in the novel, but I ended up getting myself into a mess that will probably make me sound like a pretentious pansy. I’m also pretty cranky now. I’m sure that, given some time, I can mull over these questions more slowly and less painfully (though whether or not I’ll come up with any real answers is a very different story), but for now I’m just going to throw them out there and take some aspirin for the resulting headache. I’m not really sure I ever want to think about this stuff again, actually. So, for more embarrassment or for less, here’s how things went:

The account of the plane-that-almost-crashed was particularly striking, as the effect of one word is explored in the movement from the use of “crash” to that of “crash landing”. DeLillo writes, “after all, the difference between the two is only one word…. How much could one word matter?” (p. 91) The irony is that this question actually poses two different questions here. On the one hand, it points to the idea that whether one calls the event a “crash” or a “crash landing”, the actual event itself does not change—so, one word doesn’t matter whatsoever. On the other hand, it addresses the effect that one word has on the mind, as the switch to the “crash landing” terminology allows the passengers and crew of the plane to calm down. This in turn leads to an effect on the course of action, as the individuals all regain control of themselves. “They patted themselves for ballpoint pens, went fetal in their seats.” (p. 91) Thus order is restored, and the effect of just one word is, in fact, monumental. Apparently, changing a word or phrase even slightly leads to a change in our idea of the word’s/phrase’s definition, though not necessarily in the truth of the word. Language is so arbitrary—not that this idea is news, but it is incredibly stark here. What does a word mean? A word is forced by us to take the definition we assign to it. So, what is a “true” definition, when a word’s definition can be eternally changing? Winnie asks Jack, “Doesn’t [death]…. give a precious texture to life, a sense of definition?” (p. 228) I took this as “doesn’t death give life definition?” when I first read it, but I quickly saw that this interpretation is completely incorrect, because that’s not what DeLillo has written. “A sense of definition” implies that death doesn’t actually give life definition—and if it doesn’t, then what does? If life and death don’t define each other in any way, why is either one so important to the other when they are so separate in their definition/meaning? That is, if death doesn’t give life definition, then why should death affect life, whether in action or in ideal—and by “ideal” I mean in terms of “idea”, not “(ethical) value”. My conclusion? I’m confused, I don’t understand, and I don’t know what anything means.

Friday night sights

Kids go out on Friday nights. There’s an idea of the promise of fun that makes the idea of standing in a pool of beer and gyrating your hips far less repulsive at midnight on a Friday night than at, say, noon on a Tuesday. It’s the idea of that promise that has me finding myself saying, yes, yes, I’ll be there, I’ll go, and the next thing I know, I’m there. We arrive in groups, and we stay in them as we navigate our way through the house and down the basement stairs, searching for the makeshift bar and the dancefloor. We fulfill our personal quotas of pre-dancing drink, and step out with less reservation – and less poise – onto the open space where two girls are already grinding on each other, oblivious to their surroundings. Without speaking we assume circle formation, and girls take turns dancing in the center, switching off intuitively, a combination of body language and dancefloor experience dictating the correct stretch of time any one individual can command the center stage. Couples begin to pair off, fingertips on bare skin signaling the right time to find a more intimate corner of the room. Other approaches are less successful, and brushed-off boys and girls circle the crowd, looking for another comfort. The two girls from the dancefloor have disappeared.

There is music – loud music – that makes the air pound, and it’s not until I step outside for fresher oxygen and a cigarette that I can feel the warning throbs in my forehead, the beginnings of a headache. The sudden pain of it surprises me – apparently the music masked more than just the throbbing. The patio is relatively quiet; the handful of people standing around are all here looking for the same escape from the heat and noise, and they talk in low voices to each other, fanning themselves, hands flapping ineffectually in front of their faces. It’s so hot. Cigarette smoke lingers in the air, before being dissipated by the night breeze.

We regroup by a low stone bench, each of us looking around to take inventory, making sure no one was left behind, and in this quick scan we locate and identify other groups. The dancefloor girls are here, and we end up taking in the view as one slides her hand past the back waistline of the other’s pants. We all lock eyes with each other for a moment, then quickly resume conversation, trying to mask the small guilt we feel for witnessing something more intimate than we had intended.

The porch just above – via which we had entered the house upon our arrival – is linked to the patio by a set of irregular wooden steps, and is teeming with more people than the dancefloor. A boy leans over the railing and calls down from above: do any of us want to share his cigar? His face is an indistinguishable mass in the dim lamplight, but we instinctively know he is a stranger. There is a certain separation anxiety involved in being in this place tonight; we seem to have all made a silent agreement not to split up. Three girls answer him – yes, yes, yes – and we all make our way up the stairs. The cigar is passed around while introductions are made, and in the din we are limited to the conversation we can strike up with our direct neighbors. The noise drowns the pounding in my head, and I feel no pain.

The entire first volume of White Noise is devoted to apparently anything but the “disaster” element. It opens as a first-person narrative, and relates to us – through the eyes of our narrator – the inner workings of (and delicate relationships strung between) himself and the other members of his family. On first reading, none of this storytelling made sense to me. That is to say, as a story, it all made sense and flowed with fair coherency, but what I did fail to grasp was what, exactly, this rambling was attempting to achieve. DeLillo devotes the entire first volume of his novel to telling us nothing. We are introduced to the main characters – and then reintroduced, and reintroduced, and reintroduced yet again. We are handed every miniscule detail regarding their daily lives. We learn that some of them like to buy brand-less items at the grocery store, while others of them are loathe to enter the frozen foods aisle. Some go to church. Some teach Hitler. Some watch TV all together, one night a week. Some cry. Some are brooding. The only thing DeLillo refrains from telling us, it seems, is what brand of toothpaste they use.

It is not until the second volume that the “disaster” begins to come into play. Why does DeLillo choose to delay the core of his story by so much? In Lucifer’s Hammer, the comet occurs on the second page (of the first chapter). Yet DeLillo proceeds a full 20 chapters before he sees fit to bring his object of calamity into the picture. Why?

I think the answer here lies in the novel’s title. Admittedly, I haven’t even come close to reading it all, but so far I can see no other clear explanation. DeLillo titled his novel “White Noise,” and this certainly doesn’t seem to refer to the source of the novel’s disaster (particularly not the way the title of Lucifer’s Hammer refers directly to the Hammer-comet). (Granted, he originally had other plans, but the end result remains, regardless, that he chose “White Noise” – which, for that matter, varies not too enormously from the original.) I feel that it instead relates to the method of his storytelling. In choosing a first-person narrator, DeLillo has made the decision to relate his story through the eyes of a human being, who can and will suffer all the limitations that fall on any human being. We have no reason to believe every word of the novel, for we have no reason to believe every word the narrator says, because the narrator is only human. We have no reason to trust in him, nor do we have any reason to believe that the entire account is a fiction, either. We simply don’t know. This narrator chooses to spend 105 pages (in my edition) to do what could have been accomplished in 5 pages: introduce himself and the other characters of the story. What are the hundred other pages but white noise?

just breathe

Well, I wrote this up yesterday before I went home, but apparently closed down my computer before it finished posting. My bad.

Breathing: it’s simple, and it happens more or less automatically. With the Hammer strike, I would have thought that many of the characters would find good occasion to breathe, whether to calm themselves down, or clear their heads, or what have you. But the term “breathe” occurs only twice in the novel, and not in a helpful context. Hamner is “almost afraid to breathe” (LH 382) as he and Eileen search for the embankment leading up to the railroad tracks, while Delanty “tried to breathe” (LH 451) as he and several others raid a flooded supermarket filled with dead bodies. There is no use of the word in the novel as I would have imagined it be used. No one recommends to a panicking friend that he or she “just breathe” for a second, and no one, on passing through some near-miss disaster or in succeeding to make it one more day after Hammerfall, thinks to “breathe easy” for a while. The entire novel seems to be one long, bated, and fearful breath.

The term “breathing” meanwhile occurs 9 times, but far more often than not it is associated with troubled breathing. Again its use stresses the atmosphere of strife resulting from the Hammer’s impact with Earth; yet, would it be a stretch to argue that it also conveys a sense of urgency? The lack of any time taken for a restful or relaxing breath reflects the busy chaos of the world after Hammerfall, where stopping to catch one’s breath could mean the difference between survival or death.

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Personal Ad: Harvey Randall

Pre-Hammer

Not Quite Single White Male seeking independent, willful Female for one-night indulgence. Preferably this episode would be carried out at your place, not mine, as I have a very dependent wife (but do not let this worry you). Trampiness a plus. I feature a steady, sizeable income and relative fame via my job as documentary filmmaker. Will spend one night of unbridled passion with you, but when morning comes – shazam! – I’ll be proper Mr. Harvey Randall again.

Post-Hammer

Newly Single White Male seeking Female who shared one exquisite night on a ranch. Answers to the name “Maureen”. Turns out I have a lot more strength than anyone thought, including myself. Am proving to be a Real Survivor. Capable leader with entrepreneuring spirit, handy with maps. Let me take care of you.

Gordie Vance

I found it interesting to see Gordie Vance’s reaction to Hammerfall. We have so far seen plenty of pages filled with people acting irrationally or inappropriately because of the idea of the comet hitting Earth, justifying their actions with that “end of the world”-type inevitability. Fred, most obviously, has his (icky) way with Colleen, later appealing to Eric Larson by asking, “Wouldn’t she be dead now? Already?” (LH 245). Yet Vance seems to be the single character who is put off of an irrational act by the fact of Hammerfall. Rather than taking his life as he had planned, and writing it off to the idea of “I would have died anyway”, he instead chooses to live (without even giving any regard to the odds of that).

I felt that Vance’s treatment of the comet in this way stressed how the “the end is near” mentality brings into view the revelation that none of the characters actually believe it is truly the end. They all act as though they will survive/will be the “last man standing”. The end is near – but for others, not for them. They are so sure of imminent destruction, yet many of them seem to also be surprisingly sure of their own survival (or at least act in a way that shows they think their odds are good enough to make it worthwhile for them to head for the hills). For example, consider Harry Stimms charging 250,000 for the car that Hamner buys, to hopefully be of use to him “just in case”, when/if he makes it through Hammerfall (LH 298). Stimms operates on the assumption that he has a chance, just as Loretta in packing her nylons had done (and we all saw how well her odds and survival conviction served her).

This discrepancy in turn seems to pose a string of questions. If destruction/death is inevitable, what shall the course of action be? Shall we lie down where we stand and accept our fate, or should we continue to act as we normally would under harsh circumstances, packing food and seeking shelter and moving as though the inevitability will pass us by? Why, for that matter, do we have this need to carry on? Do humans naturally resist not so much change, but acceptance? (For example: the American Civil War, failing of Prop. 8, etc.) Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle comes to mind, where at the end the people captured Bokonon, “placed him at their center, and commanded him to tell them exactly what God Almighty was up to and what they should now do. The mountebank told them that God was surely trying to kill them, possibly because he was through with them, and that they should have the good manners to die. This, as you can see, they did.”

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tweets

Hay guys, we have officially instated an extra-special hashtag on twitter just for our class! You should be super excited about this, because it’s going to be awesome. So if you already have a twitter, start tossing out #eng459 and tweet about class, the readings, musings, whatever. If you don’t have a twitter, head on over there and you can set up an account fairly painlessly. Then get tweeting, and throw the symbol/word/number combo “#eng459″ (minus the quotation marks) into your tweet to link it with the rest of everyone else’s tweets about our class. It’ll show up as a link after you post your tweet, and if you clicky on it you’ll be taken straight to a page full of other people’s tweets related to our class. What more could you ask for in life?

- Jenna

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