Tuesday, September 20, 2011

It's only a game, but it's the only game.

Warren Ellis's attempts to keep his blog lively while writing a novel have been amazing to watch. Really a case of an artist truly viewing the blog as an art object (or at least an "important" object) because of its near simultaneity. Someone out there in a high place truly caring about all the little people who support him (don't like the change to the specific pronoun there myself but I am speaking about Mr. Ellis. Right? Do you ever get that feeling where you realize that you probably actually know a small, small percentage of English grammar? Like the one that gets me sometimes, including this one, is sentences, complete sentences, in parentheses, that follow the original opening clause...If I made a mistake, where? Is it the period at the end of the original clause? The lowercase letter to begin it? All these unnecessary and not even very effective syntactical questions I'm writing here? I just like it aesthetically. I didn't used to but it grew on me. How should I have written that sentence? That's another trouble: the whole preposition at the end of a clause schtick. But I just checked Wiki and that seems to be even in itself hogwash. Probably needed a comma in the last sentence. Probably should admit I'm not quite sure what that whole bit was about in that link. Probably need to end this parenthetical musing). Anyway, short post. I'm reading Don DeLillo's End Zone. If you can brave the jump, click over and see what I think of it and a large chunk of awesome block quote.

I've been reading End Zone for about a week now and it's gone quite quickly. The more you read DeLillo, the easier I would hazard to say it becomes to read DeLillo. He's always trudging through the same pathways, albeit with a new plot--something you don't get (or want) from Joan Didion, as I've written about before, while they both could be called "repetitive," they somehow make it work extraordinarily well, and I somehow enjoy reading the novels--but End Zone for him seems to have been off the beaten path a ways. First of all, it's not at all directly "political." It's political only in the sense that the narrator is a college football player obsessed with nuclear war. I'm through the first two parts so far and unlike a book like The Names, there hasn't been any outright politics, but a lot of talking about politics. Perhaps this isn't unusual. But DeLillo's other narrator's professions at least seem more political: TV man in Americana, college professor in White Noise, would-be political documentary maker in Point Omega...We might argue that none of these have the same status of risk analyst in The Names, but I do think it is more fitting to imagine any of these characters thinking similarly. A football player? Maybe not.

And that's a great thing. I still strive for an essence of modesty in literary criticism. Rather than call a narrative voice to scholarly, too political, too smart for a narrator, I enjoy considering the alternative: that people are just not all that different from writers. That we're not a different species with different intelligence levels, different strengths or focuses. I'm sure people--important people, mind you--would yell at me for such a thought process, but it just seems right to me. There's no reason to think that a certain kind of person could not speak a certain way unless it says it right there for you in the book.

What the football aspect of the book gives us is--and I will temper this comparison, because I've been watching a lot of this duo's movies lately, so it could just be bleedthrough, but I do think I have a point--DeLillo writing books in sequence the way the Coen brothers make movies. Namely, End Zone is what you could look at as a farce. Perhaps Don doesn't even want us to take seriously the idea that a football player would be associating his sport with war and be afraid of his strong interest in studying what nuclear casualty numbers could end up being. Although I'd argue against this, DeLillo himself even pokes fun at the football setting, as we shall see in the block quote below. I would say that there is a joke here, either on the narrator or on the sport of football itself--as being shown in writing especially--that I really would not have expected from DeLillo. (Back when I first read about this novel when I'd only read, I think, White Noise, I thought similarly; not just about the tone, but about the subject matter itself, but DeLillo handles it brilliantly.)

To put a bit of a cork in this long disheveled praise to an author who need no more praise, let me fill you in on a piece of personal amazement. At times Douglas Coupland has been able to write sentences into his books that, for me, are personal truths, some I knew and had considered and others that stun with their oddity and paradoxical veracity. DeLillo blew me away with the beginning to his long chapter 19 that makes up the entire second section of the novel (a trick he will repeat in at least White Noise, with the ever present "airborne toxic event"), fittingly, now that I think about it, considering my own opening paragraph, a long parenthetical. Enjoy! (and meet me after for a few words of personal revelation.)

[this quote follows the beginning of an account of a football game that will take up the entire nineteenth chapter and, as stated above, the second section of the novel; I will also apologize here for my own coloring of the text, but I feel it allows one to connect with two different thoughts I had while reading it]
(The spectator, at this point, is certain to wonder whether he must now endure a football game in print--the author's way of adding his own neat quarter-notch to the scarred bluesteel of combat writing. The game, after all, is known for its assault-technology motif, and numerous commentators have been willing to risk death by analogy in their public discussions of the resemblance between football and war. But this is of little interest to the exemplary spectator. As Alan Zapalac says later on: "I reject the notion of football as warfare. Warfare is warfare. We don't need substitutes because we've got the real thing." The exemplary spectator is the person who understands that sport is a benign illusion, the illusion that order is possible. It's a form of society that is rat-free and without harm to the unborn; that is organized so that everyone follows precisely the same rules; that is electronically controlled, thus reducing human error and benefiting industry; that roots out the inefficient and penalizes the guilty; that tends always to move toward perfection. The exemplary spectator has his occasional lusts, but not for warfare, hardly at all for that. No, it's details he needs--impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols. Football, more than other sports, fulfills this need. It is the one sport guided by language by the word signal, the snap number, the color code, the play name. The spectator's pleasure, when not derived from the action itself, evolves from a notion of the game's unique organic nature. Here is not just order but civilization. And part of the spectator's need is to sort the many levels of material: to allot, to compress, to catalogue. This need leaps from season to season, devouring much of what is passionate and serene in the spectator. He tries not to panic at the final game's final gun. He knows he must retain something, squirrel some food for summer's winter. He feels the tender need to survive the termination of the replay. So maybe what follows is a form of sustenance, a game on paper to be scanned when there are stale days between events; to be propped up and looked at--the book as television set--for whatever is in here of terminology, pattern, numbering. But maybe not. It's possible there are deeper reasons to attempt a play-by-play. The best course is for the spectator to continue forward, reading himself into the very middle of that benign illusion. The author, always somewhat corrupt in his inventions and vanities, has tried to reduce the contest to basic units of language and action. Every beginning, it is assumed, must have a neon twinkle of danger about it, and so grandmothers, sissies, lepidopterists and others are warned that the nomenclature that follows is often indecipherable. This is not the pity it may seem. Much of the appeal of sport derives from its dependence on elegant gibberish. And of course it remains the author's permanent duty to unbox the lexicon for all eyes to see--a cryptic ticking mechanism is search of a revolution.)
I absolutely love this quote. Rereading it, it felt as if I had only skimmed it, perhaps an unconscious action knowing I wanted to type it up here. I love the fact that you don't know if Gary Harkness is talking or Don DeLillo. I love that it is multiple pages in parentheses. I love the placement of it--midway in the novel--while it might serve perfectly as an introduction piece for the book itself, slightly tuned up, there it would seem apologia, where here it stands arrogantly within the novel's bounds. To return to my color coding: I was first struck by what I have colored red. DeLillo, in 1972 (and just a year after his first book was published, oh my fucking god), was already doing the most profound thinking that I've done on sports. And I write this not to devalue myself, but rather to rejoice in the feeling that I had gone through the same thought processes, independent of this work. "Everything has been thought before, it's all been written. I know this much to be true." How often has that statement been said? No, what DeLillo writes here not only describes my own thoughts, but myself: I am his exemplary spectator. I think. I'm not trying to be vain, but the sport as a lessening of war--as something apart from it that we can see as structured, as ordered and yet as broad as "civilization"--there's something truly beautiful here. If I had read DeLillo's words echoing my thoughts (echoing them in my head--not echoing them in the past when they were written, obviously) perhaps a year ago, I feel I would have earmarked them to bring up to a strong-minded girl I'll probably never see again (brief autobiographical bit over), because these are the sorts of thoughts you can't get back. Baker talks about it in U & I, how can I now write about the idea of sport as the diminishing of war, of nationalism and patriotism, creating a world where we can have this purging of internal angers of unnecessary tensions "without harm to the unborn." If I ever bring it up to someone, I'll have to now relate to DeLillo, although I came across these feelings largely on my own. Sport has a purpose: it is the "benign illusion" that counteract the "imagined communities" of Benedict Anderson, that is nations. (I'll admit to reading Anderson in class, but it really does fit here perfectly--life as bricolage and the connection of all the fragments I always find myself falling into, like classes or books or films, makes my head spin.) And to conclude, a final thought: The elegant gibberish transcends just the language, lying in the sport itself. Consider how this isn't a touchdown catch. Consider how a baseball replay works. You look at the glove and see the ball. When is the ball caught? When it first reaches the glove? When the umpire hears it slap in? What if it's a snowconed grab? When is the runner just getting to the base out? It's all arbitrary when it comes down to it.

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