Thursday, November 22, 2007

Don DeLillo - Underworld

Another really mammoth novel, and again this time from America. Underworld deserves comparison to Ulysses, a fact I mentioned here. If not for any real Joycean stylings, then for a similar ambition that DeLillo brings to literature.

As you might expect, critics love this book, because they can make so many lyrical, profoundly aphoristic statements about its goals and intents. It’s the kind of book where the blurb quotes come in paragraphs rather than sentences. The most understated of them merely remarks that “Don DeLillo’s latest novel really is one of the finest of the century”. They tend to play the man not the ball, in near-fawning recognition of DeLillo’s status as a major literary writer – “In Underworld we have a mature and hugely accomplished novelist firing on all cylinders, at the sophisticated height of his multifarious powers”.

Yet as for the novel itself, its significance is in something other than its dimensions of length and weight; it is the experience and the affect of the work to the reader. Hence Underworld “demands our full attention. The reward is its great depth, shimmering prose and the feeling that when we put it down that we’re a little wiser than we were”. “Reading the book is a charged and thrilling aesthetic experience and one remembers gratefully that this is what the novel can do, and indeed does, better than any other art form – it gets the human condition”.

Most pointed of all, is the description of the New York Times – perhaps since the city is the subject of the book - “This bravura master of cerebral pyrotechnics also knows how to seize and rattle our emotions… In this remarkable novel, [DeLillo] has taken the effluvia of modern society, all the detritus of our daily and political lives, and turned it into a dazzling, phosphorescent work of art”.

The final blurb I wish to include is one of the two on the front cover, and simply calls Underworld

“…an aria and a wolf whistle of our half-century

It contains multitudes.”

(Michael Ondaatje)

From one acclaimed author to another; Don DeLillo is the major writer of that ‘half-century’. That is a completely gratuitous statement – at the moment, the papers are full of obituaries for Norman Mailer, who I really should read – but I’ll fight my corner for DeLillo's importance as a really important stylistic American writer.

I say stylistic because, although DeLillo writes beautifully plotted books and tackles some pretty weighty subjects (the two that come to mind are Libra, which I’m just about to mention, about Oswald’s assassination of JFK, and Falling Man, about the Twin Towers disaster) it is the style of his writing which really gets me. The depth and fineness of his characterisation is also an important feature; but this, too, is mostly stylistic. As evidence, here is an extract from the first couple of pages of the very first chapter of Libra:

" ‘In The Bronx’

This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track. He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they’d been practicing for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they really were. His body fluttered in the fastest stretches. They went so fast sometimes he thought they were on the edge of no-control. The noise was pitched to a level of pain he absorbed as a personal test. Another crazy-ass curve. There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little.

Workmen carried lanterns along adjacent tracks. He kept a watch for sewer rats. A tenth of a second was all it took to see a thing complete. Then the express stations, the creaky brakes, people bunched like refugees. They came wagging through the doors, banged against the rubber edges, inched their way in, were quickly pinned, looking out past the nearest heads into that practiced oblivion.

It had nothing to do with him. He was riding just to ride.

One forty-ninth, the Puerto Ricans. One twenty-fifth, the Negroes. At Forty-second Street, after a curve that held a scream right out to the edge, came the heaviest push of all, briefcases, shopping bags, school bags, blind people, pickpockets, drunks. It did not seem odd to him that they subway held more compelling things than the famous city above. There was nothing important out there, in the broad afternoon, that he could not find in purer form in these tunnels beneath the streets."

So what the DeLillo style is all about is getting a feel for a place, a scene, a moment in time. It’s psychological, psychogeographical even; a description of New York through real people who are also historical characters (as befits DeLillo's penchant for fictionalising celebrity, the opening preface has a three-way conversation between Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and J. Edgar Hoover at a baseball game). In fact, Underworld doesn't have much of a plot; just fifty years of numerous interweaving narratives and enduring symbols of culture and atttitudes; one half baseball, one half atom bomb.

Altogether, Underworld is a succession of episodes, scenes which begin and end without any real dramatic action, only portraiture and compelling, sympathetic description. This extract is one of those scenes, of a subway graffiti artist Munoz/Moonman who actually reappears much later in the novel. In total the scene runs to just over eight pages, juxtaposed with the viewing of a lost Eisenstein film, ‘Unterwelt’, uptown in the Radio City Music Hall:

“The statue in the marbled niche had the thighs and claves of a man, a man’s bundled muscles in the forearms, but the figure in fact was biblical Eve, tight-breasted, with an apple in her hands and the sloping shoulders of a fullback.

And why not. The evening had the slightly scattered air of some cross-referenced event…”

The subplot is that the socialite artist, Klara Sax, is involved in trying to get the backstreet graffitist to do a gallery show. Ironically, elsewhere in the narrative (and about twenty years later) she is in charge of a project to paint, not subway trains, but hundreds of decommissioned, steel-finished war bombers – linking back to the 1950’s atomic era, and so on. Even within the piece here, there is a lot of repetition – a subtle touch of Joycean stream of consciousness and internal dialogue – which is quite noticeable if you read carefully. (Here, the ellipses are mine)

"The train was one of his, Moonman’s, he had a dozen pieces running through the system, top-to-bottom burners, and it just so happens he was aboard tonight, under the water mains and waste pipes, under the gas and steam and electric, between the storm sewers and telephone lines, and he moved from car to car with each stop and checked out the people who stepped inside, wearing their retractable subway faces, and the doors went ding dong before slamming shut.

Ismael Munoz, dark and somber, watching people come aboard. Sparsely stubbled Ismael reading lips and faces, hoping he might catch a bravo comment. Hey this guy is lighting up the line. This was his newest piece so here he was going uptown on the Washington Heights local, every car tagged with his own neon zoom, with highlights and overlapping letters and 3-D effect, the whole wildstyle thing of making your name and street number a kind of alphabet city where the colors lock and bleed and the letters connect and it’s all live jive, it jumps and shouts – even the drips are intentional, painted supersharp to express how the letters sweat, how they live and breathe and eat and sleep, they dance and play the sax.

This is not a window-down piece. This was a whole-train burner with windows painted over and each letter and number bigger than a man.

Moonman 157

Ismael was sixteen, not too old and not too young and he was determined to kill the shit of every subway artist in town.

Nobody could take him down.

Once a man stood on the platform and took a picture of one of Moonman’s top-to-bottoms, a foreigner by the look of him, and Ismael sidled to the open door so he could be in the picture too, unknown to the man. The man was photographing the piece and the writer both, completely unknown to himself, from someplace in Sweden he looked.

At Columbus Circle he changed to the Broadway train because he had business at the end of the line. He got on a train that was bombed inside and out by Skaty 8, a thirteen-year-old writer who frantically tagged police cars, hearses, garbage trucks, who took his Krylon satin colors into the tunnels and tagged up the walls and catwalks, he hit platforms, steps, turnstiles and benches, he’d tag your little sister if she was walking by. Not a style king, no way, but a legend among writers for the energy he put forth, getting his tag seen by major millions and then two weeks ago, and a genuine regret went through Ismael as he recalled being told, he slumped and sagged all over again and felt the deepest kind of soldierly sadness – Skaty 8 hit by a train while he’s walking on the tracks under downtown Brooklyn.

People moved along the car, they skated to a seat, they looked at display ads above the heads across the aisle, all without eye motion that you could detect with the most delicate device.

Ismael used to walk the tracks when he felt sorry for himself. Those were foregone times. He’d pop an emergency hatch in the sidewalk and climb down into a tunnel and just, like, go for a walk, be alone down there, keeping the third rail in sight and listening for the train and getting to know the people who lived in the cable rooms and up on the catwalks, and that’s where he saw a spray-painted scrawl, maybe five years ago, down under Eighth Avenue.Bird Lives. It made him wonder about graffiti, about who took the trouble and risk to walk down this tunnel and throw a piece across the wall, and how many years have gone by since then, and who is Bird, and why does he live?

And the guy who reached around saying excuse me please.

He rode up the edge of Manhattan headed for the Bronx. There was no art in bombing platforms and walls. You have to tag the trains. The trains come roaring down the rat alleys all alike and then you hit a train and it is yours, seen everywhere in the system, and you get inside people’s heads and vandalize their eyeballs.

The crew shook the cans and the ball went click.

He stood on the door edge of one train and leaned across to the train parked adjacent and tagged it from the windows up.

And he went down the slate stairway that crumbled to the pressure of his weight, his hand on the rusty pipe that was the banister, and he felt the mood of a tunnel on a given day. It might be a coke mood one day, Ismael did not do drugs, or a mood of speed that’s travelling through the tunnel, someone made a buy and shared it, or a mood of mental illness, which was often the case. And always a brown rat mood because they were there in pack rat numbers, an endless source of stories, the size of the rats, the attitude of unfearing, how they ate the bodies of those who died in the tunnels, how they were eaten in turn by the rat man who lived in level six under Grand Central, he killed and cooked and ate a rat a week - track rabbits, they were called.

In other words to muralize a whole train you need a full night and part of the next night and no shuffling bullshit talk.

And a mood of who you are in your head day by day, which he did not share with anyone at street level, and going to sleep in a cousin’s bed at night or in the supply cellar of some bodega where they knew Ismael Munoz and gave him a place that was adequate and hearing the doors go ding dong and seeing the man from Stockholm, Sweden who took pictures of his piece.

They had dozens of cans out and ready, all by prearrangement, and he called a color and they shook the can and the ball went click.

”Where’s my Perrier?” he said.

But you have to stand on a platform and see it coming or you can’t know the feeling a writer gets, how the number 5 train comes roaring down the rat alleys and slams out of the tunnel, going whop-pop onto the high tracks, and suddenly there it is, Moonman riding the sky in the heart of the Bronx, over the whole burnt and rusted country, and this is the art of the backstreets talking, all the way from Bird, and you can’t not see us anymore, you can’t not know who we are, we got total notoriety now, Momzo Tops and Rimester and me, we’re getting fame, we ain’t ashame, and the train go rattling over the garbagy streets and past the dead-eye windows of all those empty tenements that have people living there even if you don’t see them, but you have to see our tags and cartoon figures and bright and rhyming poems, this is the art that can’t stand still, it climbs across your eyeballs night and day, the flickery jumping art of the slums and dumpsters, flashing those colors in your face – like I’m your movie, motherfucker."

(Part 4, Cocksucker Blues – Summer 1974, Ch. 3)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Phaedrus vs. Omar Khayyám (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, revisited)

(Now with Pt.III)

I’m a great believer in intertextuality… I love making comparisons; or rather, connections. As the quote goes, “Only connect”.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance although physically not that large a book, nevertheless contains so much that it was difficult to treat it anyway comprehensively in the one post. A second problem was that it’s a hard book to quote from: although it’s immensely readable and definitely at times quite lyrical, it doesn’t lend itself to outstanding extracts, which are after all only literary soundbites. That is not a comment on the quality of the writing, which is superb, but more on the method of the book, which is to layer thought upon thought (both intellectually and emotionally) until a beautiful structure of ideas is built up.

That is why I feel the need to add a little more around the bare bones of the original post. I’ve already put up some pictures of a certain other motorcycle road trip on my other (music) blog: Bouncing Souls vs. Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Here, obviously, I’m going to look at books: specifically, books that are mentioned in ZMM.


"Books. I don’t know any other cyclist who takes books with him. They take up a lot of space, but I have three of them here anyway, with some loose sheets of paper in them for writing. These are:

a. The shop manual for this cycle.

b. A general troubleshooting guide containing all the technical information I can never keep in my head. This is Chilton’s Motorcycle Troubshooting Guide written by Ocee Rich and sold by Sears, Roebuck.

c. A copy of Thoreau’s Walden which Chris has never heard and which can be read a hundred times without exhaustion. I try always to pick a book far over his head and read it as a basis for questions and answers, rather than without interruption. I read a sentence or two, wait for him to come up with his usual barrage of questions, answer them, then read another sentence or two. Classics read well this way. Sometimes we have spent a whole evening reading and talking and discovered we have only covered two or three pages. It’s a form of reading done a century ago… when Chautauquas were popular. Unless you’ve tried it you can’t imagine how pleasant it is to do it this way."


"The sunlight just touches the top of the bluff high above the draw we’re in. A wisp of fog has appeared above the creek. That means it’ll warm up.

I get out of the sleeping bag, put shoes on, pack everything I can without waking Chris, and then go over to the picnic table and give him a shake to wake him up.

He doesn’t respond. I look around and see that there are no jobs left to do but wake him up, and hesitate, but feeling manic and jumpy from the brisk morning air holler, “WAKE!” and he sits up suddenly, eyes wide open.

I do my best to follow this with the opening Quatrain of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It looks like some desert cliff in Persia above us. But Chris doesn’t know what the hell I’m talking about. He looks up at the top of the bluff and then just sits there squinting at me. You have to be in a certain mood to accept bad recitations of poetry. Particularly that one.

Soon we’re on the road again, which twists and turns. We stem down into an enormous canyon with high white bluffs on either side. The wind freezes. The road comes into some sunlight which seems to warm me right through the jacket and sweater, but soon we ride into the shade of the canyon wall again where again the wind freezes. This dry desert air doesn’t hold heat. My lips, with the wind blowing into them, feel dry and cracked.

Farther on we cross a dam and leave the canyon into some high semidesert country. This is Oregon now. The road winds through a landscape that reminds me of northern Rajasthan, in India, where it’s not quite desert, much piñon, junipers and grass, but not agricultural either, except where a draw or valley provides a little extra water.

Those crazy Rubáiyat Quatrain keep rumbling through my head.

…something, something along some Strip of Herbage strown,

That just divides the desert from the sown,

Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known,

And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne…

That conjures up a glimpse of the ruins of an ancient Mogul palace near the desert where out of the corner of his eye he saw a wild rosebush…

…And this first summer Month that brings the Rose

… How did that go? I don’t know. I don’t even like the poem. I’ve noticed since this trip has started and particularly since Bozeman that these fragments seem less and less a part of his memory and more and more a part of mine. I’m not sure what that means… I think… I just don’t know.

I think there’s a name for this kind of semidesert, but I can’t think of what it is. No one can be seen anywhere on the road but us.

Chris hollers that he has diarrhea again. We ride until I see a stream below and pull of the road and stop. His face is full of embarrassment again but I tell him we’re in no hurry and get out a change of underwear and roll of toilet paper and bar of soap and tell him to wash his hands thoroughly and carefully after he’s done.

I sit on an Omar Khayyám rock contemplating the semidesert and feel not bad.

…And this first Summer month that brings the Rose… oh… now it comes back…

Each Morn a thousand Roses bring, you say,

Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?

And this first Summer month that brings the Rose,

Shall take Jamshyd and Kaikobad away.

… And so on and so forth….

Let’s get off Omar and onto the Chautauqua. Omar’s solution is just to sit around and guzzle the wine and fell so bad that time is passing and the Chautauqua looks good to me by comparison. Particularly today’s Chautauqua, which is about gumption…"


Walden I bought about a year ago, and it is really rather good. In fact, it’s kind of similar to ZMM, in that it combines the practical story of Thoreau’s seclusion in the wood cabin of Walden Pond and his intellectual and political thoughts about American civilisation (Thoreau is famed as a committed 19th-century proponent of civil disobedience). So Walden is in effect another counterculture novel.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám I just picked up today. Blend mentioned below that he picked up his copy of ZMM for a dollar on the street. Unfortunately, we don’t have much of that going on in Dublin. We do have a little place called ‘The Secret Book and Record Store’, at the end of a corridor off a busy street - incidentally a few doors down from Tower Records, which we do still have here – where I found the copy of the Rubaiyat you see above, for €5.

Particularly at these current exchange rates, that’s a lot more than one dollar, but it’s very good value nonetheless. I found some other good stuff – Paul Auster’s City of Glass in graphic novel form drawn by Karasik and Mazzucchelli and with an introduction by Art Spiegelman (€7.95), Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country: A Memoir of Life in George W. Bush’s America (€7.95) and Bernard-Henri Levy’s War, Evil and the End of History (€4.95; some French philosopher dude combining his war journalism with his refléxions on politics and the ’68 student rising – it had a cool black cover and the price was right, wasn’t it?). When I was paying for all this I saw a Hamsun at the top of the several piles of second-hand books yet to be priced; asked how much it was; the cashier went to the back of the store to consult with the owner, typed away at his computer for a while; repeated the process; and then told me €40! Apparently it was a first edition. I’m not even sure if it was any good (one of his later works), so obviously I left it.

So that’s my story of cheap/second-hand book-buying in Dublin. The whole twenty-quid extravaganza was partly in celebration of the fact that this blog has been going for about three months this weekend. It’s time to take stock, so any suggestions, requests or ideas for improvement are more than welcome – just leave a comment!

In any case, I’ve got a great book coming up – Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which is currently vying with City of Glass as one of the coolest books about New York there is to read. Stick around…

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Robert M. Pirsig - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Now that Ulysses is out of the way, it’s time to start on another mammoth book. Zen and the Art of the Motorcycle Maintenance is a pretty well known 70’s counterculture novel, and by the author’s own admission, doesn’t have all that much to do with either Zen or motorcycles. What it does have to do with is, on the one hand, a personal quest for peace and serenity, and on the other, a metaphysical journey into the human understanding of art and technology. The subtitle is significant – decided on after much discussion between author and publisher, as “An Inquiry into Values”. What these values are, is fundamental to understanding Pirsig’s work; basic, metaphysical and firmly absent of conventional moralising. And it is the ‘inquiry’ which defines the peculiarly incisive character of the book.

ZMM takes the narrative form of a father-son motorcycle road trip, combined with a ‘Chautauqua’, which is the author’s term for philosophical and intellectual discussion. In this way – and this is what makes the book so thick – he weaves together a literary tale with an incisive philosophical one. The theme of motorcycle maintenance is a link between the two – as is the Zen attitude to life – and serves as a metaphor for a lot of his philosophical and metaphysical ideas. In addition to all this, the road trip turns – and without me giving anything away – into a major psychological drama.

Briefly, the philosophical element of ZMM is a reappraisal of western ‘subject-object’ metaphysics, which recognises a fundamental division between the self and the world around it, towards the author’s own ‘metaphysics of quality’. Quality is described as the interface between the subject and the object, the former concepts of which are seen as misguiding and redundant. A lot of this is taken from Zen and other Eastern philosophic traditions, with their rejection of dualities and the emphasis on the immersion into the effervescence of being. The motorcycle maintenance comes in here as a kind of Taoistic attention to the act of work – the melding of the machine and the mechanic, to crudely and rather falsely describe it.

This philosophic system only emerges gradually throughout the book, and on the way the author brings in different strands of his intellectual experiences, which are wide and very varied. There is a stress on being analytical – the action of which is brilliantly described as that of a surgeon wielding a knife, the analogy being the cutting and transferring of ideas rather than tissue – as he develops his system of relating to reality.

The counterculture element to the book is brought up quite frequently, as a reason for creating a new theory of metaphysics. Pirsig is dissatisfied with the industrialised, materialist society which he seeks to escape from on his journey. At the same time, this is past the high water mark of the 60's (I think that's a line from Hunter S. Thompson, actually) and he is critical of the idealism of the hippy movement. Here, too, the fundamentally questioning spirit of Zen emerges, alongside the deep humanism of the author. Although politics are only discussed tangentially, he has a deep concern for the people and the land he is travelling through. The appreciation of natural beauty, too, has a sense of ecology or environmentalism about it. Most basically, however, it is the everyday practicalities of his motorcycle trip through which Pirsig grounds the philosophical questing of the novel.

As ZMM continues, and the intellectual discussion becomes more and more sophisticated, the personal elements of the narrative take on a more disturbing tone. In many ways, the book is no longer the book you started reading. The text shifts between real events of the narrative, abstract discussions and an increasingly pressurising reminiscing of the author’s past. The novel takes on a almost Gothic quality towards the end, full of dark drama and fractured personalities, while the metaphysical-intellectual thought reaches its stratospheric conclusions. Not only are the philosophical elements truly intriguing and credible, but ZMM is a masterly dramatic literary novel.

Here's the start of the very first chapter...

"I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning. The wind, even at sixty miles an hour, is warm and humid. When it’s this hot and muggy at eight-thirty, I’m wondering what it’s going to be like in the afternoon.

In the wind are pungent odors from the marshes by the road. We are in an area of the Central Plains filled with thousands of duck hunting sloughs, heading northwest from Minneapolis towards the Dakotas. This highway is an old concrete two-laner that hasn’t had much traffic since a four-laner went in parallel to it several years ago. When we pass a marsh the air suddenly becomes cooler. Then, when we are past, it suddenly warms up again.

I’m happy to be riding back into this country. It is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all and has an appeal because of just that. Tensions disappear along old roads like this. We bump along the beat-up concrete between the cattails and stretches of meadow and then more cattails and marsh grass. Here and there is a stretch of open water and if you look closely you can see wild ducks at the edge of the cattails. And turtles… There’s a red-winged blackbird.

I whack Chris’s knee and point to it.

“What!” he hollers.


He says something I don’t hear. “What?” I holler back.

He grabs the back of my helmet and hollers up, “I’ve seen lots of those, Dad!”

“Oh!” I holler back. Then I nod. At age eleven you don’t get very impressed with red-winged blackbirds.

You have to get older for that. For me this is all mixed up with memories that he doesn’t have. Cold mornings long ago when the marsh grass had turned brown and cattails were waving in the northwest wind. The pungent smell then was from muck stirred up by hip boots while we were getting into position for the sun to come up and the duck season to open. Or winters when the sloughs were frozen over and dead and I could walk across the ice and snow between the dead cattails and see nothing but grey skies and dead things and cold. The blackbirds were gone then. But now in July they’re back and everything is at its alivest and every foot of these sloughs is humming and cricking and buzzing and chirping a whole community of millions of living things living out their lives in a kind of benign continuum.

You see that vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car-window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness."