"A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now."
In the beginning was the earth, and above the earth was the sky.
The earth consisted of land and water. The sky consisted of air, the moon, the sun and the stars in the heavens.
The land consisted of rock. Water was everywhere, but still precious.
The sky was light by day and dark by night. By day, the light came from the sun and sometimes the moon. At night, a lesser light came from the stars and the moon.
On the land, things were still, but then they began to change.
The sun made rock hot by day and the night made it cold, and the rock became stone, and the stone soon became soil.
The Creation of Life
In time, the soil and the water came together with the air and the sunlight to form life.
The life was green and did cling to the soil.
The air and the heavens were the realm of gravity.
Everything on earth was made to fall and to disperse and to dissipate as time goes by.
To rise was to challenge the laws of nature. Nothing could rise, except one thing, invisibly, vapors.
Water mixed with the heat of the sun and became a vapor, and the vapor ascended to the sky and became clouds. At night and sometimes by day, the clouds became rain, and the rain fell and spilled water onto the earth.
Some water remained on the land in rivers and streams and lakes. Other water, sliding and falling and dropping across the land, found its way to the oceans.
The Life of Fruit
In time, life conspired to defy gravity little by little.
Life combined with the soil and the water and the air and the light to make trees and shrubs (some bearing bananas or mangoes or pawpaws), and these plants reached skyward to the sun.
But these plants could not be severed from the soil, because their roots sought nourishment there. Any plant severed from the soil would fall to the earth, obedient to gravity.
In time, many plants were severed from the earth and covered by soil and water and became hard and part of the rock. Beneath the surface of the earth, dead plants formed coal, and sometimes oil and gas.
The Origin of Man
After much time, other forms of life were born, including animals that did grow heads and arms and legs and tails and eat the plants.
Some animals became humans, some male, some female, all of whom wished to walk on two legs and become higher than other animals and plants.
Men were not always bigger and stronger than other animals and so sought refuge in holes in the ground and caves.
The caves were darker than night and men grew frightened of the dark, not knowing what was out there, until they discovered fire, which they used for light and heat.
Sometimes, men used fire to warm the flesh of other beasts and they grew stronger.
Life was good, and men tended to live within and surrounded by nature as one.
Man on the Move
Men began to move across the earth in search of food and learned how to construct homes of rock and stone and bricks made of soil and water.
Their homes grew taller than trees and animals and began to defy gravity.
Then men learned how to make machines that could move across the land and water at speeds faster than men or horses could walk or run.
And they consumed coal and oil and gas, so that they were not dependent on horse power.
Man Turns the Power Switch On
Men learned how to make electricity and switches that would turn the power on and off.
Men made glass bulbs that turned darkness into light.
Men had finally become enlightened.
Men looked at the sky for beauty and meaning and portents of the future.
They wondered what lived in the heavens and whether they had been created by gods.
They made drawings and pictures of what surrounded them. One day they would make photographs and moving pictures and shiny silver discs.
Men observed what occurred in nature and, over a great duration, started to learn about cause and effect.
Man Dominates Himself
Then men created gods in their own image.
They invented religions and superstitions and sometimes it was difficult to tell them apart, men and their gods, religions and superstitions.
Men used their religions to explain what they could and couldn’t do.
Then they created churches and holy men and scriptures to dictate to them what they must and must not do, and the holy men and their gods punished them if they did not do what they must do, or did what they must not do.
Man Discovers Matters of Life and Death
Men observed decay and destruction and death around them, and wondered whether they too would die one day.
Men didn’t like this prospect and decided that they alone amongst the plants and animals had a soul and, after death, would live in eternity.
Except that, if they disobeyed the commandments of their holy men and gods and scriptures, they would be punished by eternal damnation and made to live in hell. Which was not meant to be a good thing.
Some scientists conducted experiments and tests on dogs and other animals and learned how they were governed by stimulus and response.
Men wondered whether their souls and their capacity for reason elevated them above the animals.
They did not recognise that, even with their gods, men would do evil things to each other that animals would never do.
Man Engages in Some Empire State Building
Men built their homes in cities and formed nations. They conquered other cities and nations and established empires.
They established workforces and armies.
They organised men and their possessions into rows and columns, and they made men and women wear uniforms, so that they might look and think and do alike.
They developed systems to punish those who would dissent and they used force to hold their empires together.
They looked down upon any man or woman who would not conform or wear a uniform.
Those that they did not incarcerate or hang or inject with life-sapping solutions or electricity, they cast off into the wilderness, where they would disperse or die of thirst.
We Men are Scientists
So men acquired knowledge and wisdom, and accumulated science and technology beyond the wildest dreams of their predecessors.
They converted their knowledge and wisdom into zeroes and ones, so that they might store them on silver discs.
Some men wondered whether there was more to life than zeroes and ones, and was there anything beyond zero or between zero and one, and they were scorned.
Man Defies Gravity
Slowly, man’s dreams became more ambitious.
Some men dreamed about how they might fly like a bird, and one day men learned how to make flying machines.
Men did not always live happily with other men, and they made tools and machines that would maim and kill their enemies.
Men used their aeroplanes to drop bombs on other men, and the planes and the bombs grew bigger, and the maiming and the killing grew more widespread and efficient.
At the same time, men learned how to make bigger and taller buildings that reached higher and appeared to touch the sky.
Many men lived and worked in these skyscrapers.
In Case of War
Then there were two wars between many nations of the world.
In the first war, many men died in trenches dug into the soil of their farms.
In the second war, it was not necessary to get into a trench to die. Many people died in their homes and their buildings. It was easier to kill more quickly in the cities that housed large numbers of people.
Men made new bombs that were meant to end the wars, but when they continued, men invented rockets that could maim and kill even greater numbers of people.
Some rockets made a sound that warned people that they were coming.
If you heard the sound, you might be able to escape to safety.
When they did not end the war, scientists invented more and better ways to kill more and better people. They built rockets that made no noise and could kill you before you heard them coming.
They were the perfect machinery of death, because nowhere was safe and you could not escape them.
These rockets defied both gravity and the imagination.
While nobody had been looking or thinking about it, man’s buildings and vehicles and aeroplanes and rockets and bombs had made the earth dark again.
A Voice in the Wilderness
Well, maybe not nobody. A man called Slothrop had been watching.
Every time a rocket was launched, Slothrop was blessed with a hard-on, an erection.
He would look at the rockets and he would be turned off.
At the same time, he would look at the rockets and he would be turned on.
Slothrop’s hard on was a hard one for the scientists to explain.
What the Fuck?
Somewhere in Europe, scientists were erecting buildings, platforms, rockets that could bring death to people like Slothrop.
Slothrop suspected that the best use of an erection was not to build an edifice, but to fill an orifice.
Slothrop wondered, why had men become obsessed by Death, when they should have been preoccupied with Life?
Surely, there is no life without sex, no progress without congress, no creation without procreation?
“Make love, fuck the war.”
“Fuck war, fuck each other.”
How do you convince everybody else that this is the solution?
“Fucked if I know,” sez Slothrop.
The Prophet Debunked
Slothrop is cast out of the mainstream and sets out across Europe in pursuit of love, sex, and rockets (and those who would launch any one or more of them at him).
Still, even equipped with his hard on, Slothrop prefers bananas to buildings and rockets, he is bent but never straight.
He is the ultimate non-conformist, hedonist and sybarite, who gives pleasure to himself and to many women, Katje, Margherita, Bianca, three of the foremost amongst them.
Slothrop’s skepticism and excess threaten the System, Religion and Culture. He is an anarchist Counter-Force to Binary Code, Mono-theism, Uniformity and Over-the-Counter Culture.
He is the unwitting counter-cultural Prophet who threatens the methodical, ordered and conformist backbone of Mainstream Society.
He is a spanner in the works. He is a virus that must be eliminated. Like Trotsky, he is a Prophet that must be netted.
They, the powers that be, with their uniforms and their weapons and their switches, chase Slothrop through Europe, but he remains free.
In time, people came to doubt whether Slothrop ever actually existed at all.
Some would ask, “Slothrop? What kind of name for a prophet is that?”
Still They did not stop their pursuit, even when They were certain that he must be dead. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
If you can’t see him or hear him, deprive him of oxygen. Wipe out his disciples. Stifle his message. Prevent it from reaching any children. If the medium is the message, remove his medium. That way the prophet and his prophecy will cease to exist.
Revelations? What Revelations?
Was Slothrop a fabrication? A ghost in the machine? A shadow in the light of day? A figment of someone’s imagination? A fiction? Just a character in a novel? Just a story in a holy book?
As Slothrop would say, “I’m fucked if I know.”
Outside the novel, the world continues as before, only more so. Buildings reach higher. Rockets and aeroplanes fly further. Wars drone on. Civilians die. Men line up in rows and columns and uniforms. Power perpetuates itself eternally. Evil perpetrates itself on people via people. Darkness masquerades as light.
The sky is silent. We can no longer hear the screaming. It’s all theatre, even within our homes.
I re-read this as part of a group read started by Stephen M:
A Letter from Vlad the Impaler of Butterflies Dated April, 1973
Vera and I very much appreciated your gift of a signed first edition of your novel.
It actually caused a little friction in the Nabokov household.
I don't mean to be ungrateful or vulgar, but we both wished you had given us one copy each. (I guess we could purchase one, but we were too keen to read it.)
Naturally, I started it first, immediately it arrived, but quickly found I couldn't put it down.
The reason being that, every time I did, Vera picked it up and commenced reading.
Initially, our respective lepidopteran bookmarks were quite far apart, but when she passed my place, she asserted her right to be the dominant reader, and I had to wait until she had devoured the entire offering, which she did by the time of Maundy Thursday.
Fortunately, this left me Easter to finish it, so we were able to compare notes by Easter Monday, appropriately with a sense of renewed faith in literature.
I am convinced "Gravity's Rainbow" is one of the finest works of modern fiction.
It is very much an artistic and logical extension of "V.", which as you know we also enjoyed greatly.
If your first novel was a pursuit of "V", then "Gravity's Rainbow" is a pursuit of V, too.
In fact, it is a pursuit of both V1 and V2.
Vera was bold enough to suggest that V1 and V2 might connote Vlad and Vera, though we were unable to reach consensus on who might be noisy and who might be silent.
We did, however, hypothesise that Slothrop could be a reversal of Humbert.
To put it bluntly (these are Vera's words, not mine), Humbert, European in origin, fucks his way around the New World, more or less.
Slothrop, on the other hand, American to his bootstraps, fucks his way around the Old World.
I admire the way you, even more so than Slothrop, carried off Bianca.
It is some of the most delicious erotic writing I have read.
Bianca echoes Dolores nicely.
Even the sound of her name...Bi-an-ca.
The way it rolls off your tongue, it reminds me of, forgive me for citing myself, "Lo-lee-ta".
It's also close enough to the German acronym B.N.K. (which even a faint-hearted German reader or patient would appreciate stands for the "Bundesverband Niedergelassener Kardiologen", cross my heart and hope not to die).
Vera was the first to detect how you reversed the reader's response to this relationship.
Humbert knew damned well how old Lolita was. It was crucial to his enterprise.
On the other hand, Slothrop "believed" Bianca was a minor of barely 11 or 12, but when you work through the arithmetic of your puzzle, you realise that in reality (and therefore fiction) she was 16 (or was it 17?) and consequently of age.
So, what Slothrop did was legitimate, but what the reader (who was as yet unaware of this detail) did was not.
In "Lolita", I allowed readers to believe they were jurors with a legitimate interest in the proceedings, whereas in "Gravity's Rainbow" they are complicit in a crime that the protagonist did not actually commit.
The reader's voyeurism comes at a cost, at least metaphorically.
Only time will tell whether America and the world is ready to be confronted with their culpability.
Even if they are not, I hope your novel receives the acclaim it deserves.
So, well done, Tom, Richard would have been proud.
I would have been proud to call you my pupil, too (Pupil 2?), if only you had enrolled in one of my classes.
Perhaps you learned more and better from my example?
In the hope that you might continue to do so, I have asked my Publisher to send you a copy of my "Strong Opinions".
I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed expressing them.
Yours, with all my admiration,
Slothropod De-Feets Cephalopod, Dutch Girl Almost Pops Her Clogs
Slothrop, octopus And Katje Borgesius We were meant to meet.
The Thoughts of An Erotic Clausewitz
Fuck Death, Fuck Rockets, Says Erotic Clausewitz, Make Love, Fuck the War.
Jim Carroll Watches the Earth Recede
How can I propel My missile 'gainst the pull of Wicked Gravity?
Slothrop's Dewy Glans
Slothrop's cock, un-cropped Slots into sweet spot, then, spent, Flops soft in wet spot.
Who knows what worldly wisdom I might find When I discover myself at the peak, Gravity-defiant, all nickels spent, Trying to work out what it could have meant, And you're already there, reposed, asleep, Your trousers down and crimson phallus bent, And scattered on the snow are streaks Of your rocket-powered ejaculate That have fallen moist, arc-like to the earth, Still rainbow-coloured and immaculate.
So I read 200 sullen words worth Of the dry wit and onanistic mirth That appeal so much to the daisy chain Of acolytes standing at your rear. As one who's usually come before, They call you a poet and a seer. It's sad we only see your back side, Though we're the ones forever left behind By all your avant garde sorcery and The flaccid disquisitions of your mind.
Manny and I finally met on middle, if not neutral, ground, France, on my recent sojourn to Le Old World.
He shared with me the secrets of his delight in book-hunting in Paris.
Naturally, he endeavoured to distract me with children's literature, while he scoured the shelves, tables and barrows for erotic material that would yield at least one erection per euro or franc or whatever the universal currency of le porn softe oder concrete is nowadays. (I know, and they say the men of gay Paree are tight with their money or for yours.)
I love the categories that order the shelves of bookshops for our more convenient perusal, literature, popular fiction, children, young adult, paedophilia, reference, self-help, help yourself, science fiction, paranormal, young adult paranormal, paranormal reference, erotica, paranormal erotica, young adult paranormal erotica, oh my god, the choice you have available to you when you only have one hand with which to read.
Anyway, I was happily browsing the young adult paranormal erotica reference section, when Manny arrived with a book and a smurk on his face that I thought betrayed his greater familiarity with culture, whether French, yoghurt or otherwise.
"Here, you must buy this. I can't wait to see your review."
I was flattered by his attention.
It was a French copy of "Roget's Thesaurus".
Of course, I was familiar with the English version. I even collect different editions in English, but had never seen the work in a foreign language.
Imagine what you could learn about a culture by the way they assemble their Thesaurus.
I didn't even have time to turn to the contents page, when Manny said, "Come on, let's go and have une petite déjeuner."
I was grateful to have my Roget at this point, because it added some sophistication and dignity to the balance of my purchases.
Le femme a la biblio cash register even smiled knowingly and respectfully as she tallied le burden financais of my acquisitions.
To tell the truth, I had been une petite apprehensive when I weighed le heft of my Roget, but I vaguely remembered that le Frogs have less words in leur dictionnaire than the English.
Hence its relative heftlessness.
While Manny departed to le bar to acquire une bischen semillon et chevrelous goat's cheese a deux, I freed my Roget from its plain brown paper wrapping, and, yes dear lecteur, I was shocked, shocked, to discover its contents, even more so than le frog cop in "Casablanca".
In rétrospectivement, I suppose I should have seen it coming. Every second page betrayed pictures of a plump boyish garcon almost a la neud bearing little more or less than a t-shirt blanc sur le and/or la apellation "Roget".
And on every second page alternatif was, dare I reveal mon embarrassemente, an explicit hand-drawn and coloured picture of une reptile ancient et humungous described as "le Thesaurus".
Bon acquainted as I am with dinosaurs, this specimen was most cretaceous, possessed of arguably the most definite article I had ever observed, le stuff of legends a la bipedal carnivore lizarde und monsterotica a la Sainte Vierge Karen de la Noble Barnes.
So, mon ami, it is with great humilité et une grave accent that je must disclose that this work of literateur reveals few words, even less synonyms and precious little evidence of le structure de la langue et winding road Francais.
Yes, Manny had tricked moi in the most heartless et despicable fashion a la creme de la creme anglaise.
But I confide in you, my most hannibal lecteur, je suis already parcelle ma vengeance.
Avoir peur, Manny, avoir not just un peu peur, avoir un very big peur.
Rodney finished his coffee, waved goodbye to the waitstaff and ran away from the café without paying.
Nobody called out, nobody chased him, nobody phoned the police.
He felt so good, so invigorated.
He didn’t stop running until he was two blocks away.
Then he looked back over his shoulder, just to make sure, and thought, “This is the sort of thing you can get away with when you own the place.”
He slowed down as he approached the intersection, thinking that the “don’t walk” sign would turn to “walk” as he got there, only it didn’t.
He came to a grinding halt. He had never come this way before. The intersection was unfamiliar to him. It had become overcast. He heard thunder in the distance.
Only then did he notice a Japanese girl standing next to him, also apparently waiting for a green light.
She must have been about 22. She had long dark hair, just like in a Haruki Murakami novel. She looked like she owned a black cat, cooked spaghetti twice a week and liked Rossini. Or was that a guy?
Rodney inspected her more closely and thought, “If you had a twin sister, I bet you’d look just like her.”
She turned and smiled at him, as if she’d heard his thoughts.
She flicked the hair off her left shoulder to reveal a [pointy/ violet/ cherry blossom/ cauliflower]ear.
Rodney had never seen anything like it, at least not perched on somebody's shoulder. He was unable to control his reaction.
He just had to lean over and [lick/bite/ pick /shout into] it.
Of course, she couldn’t resist his attention. She remained there, even though the light had turned green, until her whole body was excited and her nose[blew/bled/dripped/smelled] sex all over the place.
She stood on her tippy toes, horny, wet, impatient, until Rodney let go of her ear and it stopped raining.
Rodney looked into the girl’s eyes and knew immediately that her name was Isamu.
“It means ‘vigorous, robust, energetic’,” she whispered coyly, as she slid to her knees.
“I suspected it might. I could feel it in my…”
“Balls?” Isamu suggested.
“How did you guess?” Rodney asked, a little apprehensively, as Isamu ripped open his shorts with her [pearly/ incisive/ platinum-braced/ vampire]teeth.
He looked down at her, while a droplet of sweat made its way across his furrowed brow and his testicles ascended nervously, but not as it turned out, beyond Isamu’s reach.
She pushed her thumb and [two/three/four/fore]fingers into his groin, worked her way skillfully around the dual spheres and quickly levered them into the open, from which position she maneuvered Rodney into a shadowy arcade.
It was just like “Blade Runner” in there. All he could hear now was the sound of commerce and a 70’s disco beat.
Merchants looked at him and turned away. Their customers walked around him, spitting on the sawdust.
A boy with a straw broom, who couldn’t have been more than 12, grinned at Isamu, squinted at Rodney and guffawed, “No fucky fucky for you tomorrow, white boy.” He made it sound like the lyrics of a Bee Gees song.
Isamu threw him on a table that felt smooth and padded. He tried to get up on one elbow.
“On your back,” she commanded.
She held one hand over his mouth and with the other ripped his appliquéd Hawaiian shirt off his chest.
Plastic beads shot everywhere like teenaged boys debating or whatever on a school camp.
Isamu looked down on Rodney’s pecs, lifted her hand and quickly [slapped/pulled/squeezed/twisted] them until they [deflated/ reddened/ exploded/inflated and pressed her against the ceiling].
Unexpectedly, she climbed up onto the table and placed her feet either side of Rodney’s [sculptured/ heaving/ highly flexed/ flippy floppy]abs.
Then, equally amazingly, she launched herself off the table, at least a meter into the air above her.
Rodney watched her as she began to descend, then he started to scream.
Mathematically, in the heat of the moment, he had worked out that her [moist/ runny/ steamy/ boiling] vagina was about to descend violently on his [flaccid/erect/cowering/poorly disguised]penis.
He screamed again and again and again, for minutes, as she descended in slow motion, just like in “The Matrix”, you know that scene outside the lift well with the bullets and everything.
Every part of his anatomy launched itself in self-defence at Isamu, even his [hairy/ knobbly/ too big/ two big]toes.
She rebounded off his knee , then his hands (which had for a few brief seconds rebuffed Isamu like a shield of steel), until finally with a deft 360, she landed where he had most hoped and feared, except with his eyes closed, he was momentarily unable to detect which bit was measuring the circumference of his manhood.
A grin emerged suddenly on Isamu’s face, which in most circumstances would also have been a clue, but then Rodney felt the embrace of her teeth.
“How did you do that?” he asked from behind the face of his grimace.
“Oh, Rodney, darling,” (for Isamu had also determined his name telepathically, as if in one of Murakami’s later period novels that Paul Bryant hasn’t read yet), “you have the [biggest/ most uncomfortable/ wobbliest/ flattest]cock I’ve ever [seen/ squatted on/ swallowed/ squeezed under my armpit].”
Isamu’s thighs gripped his chest tightly until his belly button popped out and the colourless liquid contents of his stomach, the result of two bottles of Evian water, a flat white coffee and a literary product placement deal, fizzed anew like French champagne.
Immediately, Isamu changed position to take advantage of this opportunity for refreshment.
She propped up and nuzzled her [hot/cold/floppy/rock hard]labia against Rodney’s [sensitive/ probing/ bulbous/ aquiline]nose as her throat[drank/swallowed/gorged on/ choked on] everything Rodney still offered her in his current state.
Seeing the moment for his intervention, Rodney twisted Isamu’s bra, until the little nameless sliding metal bit at the back broke and her [petite/ miniscule/ ample/ holy fuck I didn’t know Japanese chicks had such monstrous]breasts unleashed on his chest like someone patting two containers of upside down pineapple cake onto the crockery top of his sex tableau.
He quickly grabbed the nipple on each of her breasts and started to rotate them in different directions, the left (his left) counter-clockwise and the right clock-wise.
Needless to say, Isamu’s body fell apart in his hands, separated right down the middle. She slid inertly to the floor, stunned in the few moments before her inertness prevailed, then remained inert.
He finally lifted himself off the massage table, showing no hint of emotion, grabbed his clothes and headed toward the curtain that opened into the arcade.
He turned around as he was about to leave and saw Isamu’s anus on the table. It was all that was left of her, apart from all of the other bits on the floor.
He briefly contemplated taking it as a memento, but thought better of it. What would his wife and two teenage daughters think?
He looked at his watch and realised it was 3pm.
He ran the whole way back to the café, where he put his clothes back on. It was time to lock the doors and go home.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - We Call Upon the Author
Doctor Rodney Woodcock, M.D. (known to his patients as Doctor Rod) started to tire of day to day practice at his Hollywood Clinic 12 months ago.
Since then he's been looking for a new direction and he believes he might have found one.
It's not that he's unhappy with the money or the patients. He knows he’s been lucky in his chosen profession. He’s already made a number of fortunes in his 45 years, prescribing drugs of choice to the stars, celebrity look-alike cosmetic surgery for their audiences.
He wasn’t the first to build a multi-million dollar business that satisfied these needs, but he was the best.
Still, the money he’s made out of these specialities could be tiny compared with the success he foresees in an area he himself has pioneered, professionally, personally and confidentially: body double genital sculpting.
The beautiful thing is, it's a logical fit for his existing practice.
Now he's almost ready to go public.
He looks at the draft brochure his wife and business partner, Doctor Wendy Bull, has commissioned.
“Not happy with the way your tits and dicks look? Want your private parts to be more photogenic? Witness something during a wardrobe malfunction you’d like to mimic? See an actor who's got something you want? Why should the stars get all the best parts? Now, you can have them, too. Call us to hear how the Woodcock and Bull Story can re-write the script for the next act in your lives. Then choose one of our industry-leading, medically proven photogenital techniques to achieve your dream facade.”
“Well, ‘tits and dicks’, for instance. Shouldn’t it be ‘tits or dicks’? No one patient could have both tits and dicks, could they?”
“Well, not as much as the eighties and it's always been less common on the West Coast, but I see what you mean.” She crosses out “and” with her blue pen and inserts “or”.
Then she looks at him and ventures, “Are you sure this is what you really want to do? Isn’t it time we gave back something to the people who’ve made us so frigging rich?” *
“Who do you mean?” Doctor Rod knows his wife hasn't been totally happy lately as well. "Why would we want to give them anything they haven't paid for?"
“Well, what about people who are beyond surgery, people who would benefit from therapy, patients whose systems are so clogged with chemicals and additives and bi-products they can barely lift themselves on or off the sex partner of their choice. Men whose arteries are so hardened they have a permanent stiffy**, but not in their pants. Can’t we do something to relieve their pain? Or at least manage it? Or keep them distracted?”
“You mean, can’t we make money out of them some other way? If only we could figure out how to make money, without having them come to the Clinic. Maybe you could write a book or something.”
“You can see right through me, Rodney, you should have been a radiologist.”
“Ha ha, well I thought you were going to investigate a few ideas at the Faculty Library. How did you go with the Arterioschlerotic Literature?”
“Nothing suitable, let alone erotic.I did come up with an idea though. I found a paper that might interest you...sex for the elderly wine connoisseur...before and after kidney stones.”
“You’re kidding me?”
“Well, actually, it was called ‘Non-Surgical Strategies to Help the Sex-Challenged Couple Manage Kidney Stone Afflictions’.”
“You think you could make something out of that?"
"I don’t know, I thought I could re-purpose it somehow. Maybe even fictionalize it. Elderly...rich...business entrepreneur...wine connoisseur... expatriate Australian mistress...fast cars...penthouses...international business trips...second wife dies unexpectedly...kidney stones...erectile dysfunction...Hollywood doctor...miracle cure...step-son finds out about mistress...mistress meets Hollywood doctor...step-son falls in love with mistress...Hollywood doctor falls in love with stepson..."
"Aren't you the creative one!”
“Yeah, I haven't worked out how to finish it yet, but I figure there has to be a market for medicorotica, especially in this town."
"You wouldn’t want to do it under your name though."
"I think I’d have to change the title, too. Something a little less technical, obviously.”
“Oh yeah, what were you thinking of?”
...Six months later...
"Rodney, would you mind looking at the mock-up of the cover? Something doesn’t look right.”
"Well, see his right bicep? If you didn't realise it was a bicep..."
Wendy's eyes light up, "It might look like a breast, his right breast..."
"...and that might be a cleavage, which must mean..."
"...the woman is fondling the guy's left tit?"
"I still think it works," Rodney is encouraging. "They're quite nice tits for a guy."
"I just hope he's not one of your patients."
"Here, show me...I'd better have a closer look."
Before handing the artwork to Rodney, Wendy checks the mock up of the back cover. "Well, at least he's only got one dick."
* Wendy is a posh expatriate Australian who doesn't say "fuckin' rich".
** Wendy is a posh expatriate Australian who reverted to saying "stiffy" instead of "hard-on", when she found a new Australian cafe in L.A that served espressos and flat whites.
I read this book quickly. It dealt with the most important issues very efficiently. It was a good use of my time.
Therein lies the issue, or more precisely why I can only give it four, not five, stars.
The book originated in a series of articles Carl Honore wrote for the “National Post”.
It’s well-researched, well thought out, well structured, tells a good story, makes good use of relevant quotations, it’s never boring (though once I’d worked all of this out, I was glad when the end was in sight).
Ultimately, it is a consummate work of journalism, but it is not the work of deeper philosophical analysis I was hoping for.
This is a product of my expectations, rather than the author’s delivery.
I suspect that the book achieved everything the author, the publisher and the National Post expected of it.
The Bad News
For the last two or three centuries (since the Industrial Revolution), something has been happening without us thinking about it:
“We have developed an inner psychology of speed, of saving time and maximizing efficiency.”
“…we have lost the art of doing nothing, of shutting out the background noise and distractions, of slowing down and simply being alone with our thoughts…”
We view “speed as a sign of control and efficiency”.
Milan Kundera uses the language of narcotics to describe the “ecstasy of speed…the sense of rush it gives”.
In the words of Carrie Fisher, once an imbiber of alcohol, even “instant gratification takes too long.”
When it comes to food, we “gobble, gulp and go”.
We have joined "the cult of speed", we've been worshipping “the false god of speed”. We’re suffering from acceleration and “time-sickness”.
A few decades ago, the same problem was defined as “stress”, and that probably sold a lot of books for a lot of authors and publishers.
Back then, the cure was supposed to be “Stress Management”.
It probably made a lot of money for counselors and management consultants.
Did the cure work? I don’t think so. The problem only seems to have gotten worse.
Honore describes the two different approaches (Fast and Slow) in the following manner:
“Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity.”
“Fast Thinking is rational, analytical, linear, logical…Slow Thinking is intuitive, woolly and creative.”
The Good News
The good news is that there is a Slow Movement that is trying to address the problem now.
The Movement addresses the problem of Speed in a number of aspects of society (life generally, food, cities, health, medicine, love and sex, work, leisure, child-rearing and education), the common thread being its desire to slow things down.
What it is seeking is a balance, the ability to do things at the “tempo giusto” (the right speed), the right to do things in our “Eigenzeit” (our own time):
“What we are fighting for is the right to determine our own tempos.”
The new tempos sound great. Honore describes “a little oasis of slowness,” “slow pleasure”, “quiet material pleasure”, “erotic deceleration” (yeah, baby).
These quotations might make it sound like the book is all about sex, but that’s not the case.
If anything, it’s about approaching all aspects of life with a fresh intensity, vivaciousness and sensuality.
For all our speed, we have lost our vividness, we’ve been worn out and worn down, we’ve lost our touch.
Some argue that we should “do fewer things in order to do them better”.
Honore even remarks with some hint of envy that Albert Einstein was "famous for spending ages staring into space" (ironically, discovering that the speed of light is a constant, very fast, perhaps the fastest).
Others argue that we should just do things more slowly, more sensuously.
It’s not a race (to the death).
It's just that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing slowly.
Time as an Abstract
Early in the book, even though there is a discussion of clocks and time-keeping (“the clock gives us our bearings”), I started to wonder about the nature of time.
Does time exist? Is it a thing? Does it pass? Can we ever have enough of it? Can we ever run out of it?
We only have a sense of time, because we measure it against something else, the movement of the sun, the ticking of a clock, the distance travelled by a moving object.
It’s these other things that move and measure time, not time itself.
Yet we seem to have created such a rod for our own backs.
What would happen if we slowed down? We wouldn’t explode. We wouldn’t implode.
What would happen is that we wouldn’t achieve as much of this other stuff as we wanted to.
We wouldn’t do as much in the allotted “time”. We wouldn’t make or acquire as much of the other stuff in the allotted “time”.
Greed, Not Speed
I started to wonder whether time and speed aren’t the problem, it’s actually our expectations of these other things, the stuff we’re trying to stuff into time.
Time is the bag and these other things are the measure of our greed.
Why don’t we need less in our bag? Why don’t we know when enough is enough?
Is the perceived problem of time actually a problem determining priorities?
Honore comes close when he cites the following comment by an academic:
“You need to take time to think about what is really important, rather than trying to figure out how to pack as much as you can into the shortest possible schedule.”
For a long time, we have wanted to have everything, and now we want to do everything...ironically, for a long time.
Money restrains the first aspiration, “time” restrains the second.
But I started to feel that it’s not time that is the problem, it’s our aspirations, our ambition, our greed.
In a way, we waste our time on what we don’t have or haven’t done yet.
We don’t give what we already have (or have already done) enough time or, more importantly, enough respect.
We don’t respect time.
You can see it in the way we eat. We race to the end of a meal so we can continue whatever else we were doing (or continued to do while we ate).
We don’t respect our meal or the passion or love that went into its creation.
We don’t respect our time together and what we could achieve with this time.
To paraphrase Saul Bellow (who Honore quotes), we don’t respect and value “the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.”
The message of the book is to slow down or to modulate your speed or to find the right speed for you in the moment.
Nowhere does it suggest that we should actually stop, except to the extent it discusses meditation.
The Slow Movement must still be a movement of some kind. It must move. It cannot come to a grinding halt. It cannot go the whole hog and slow to a stop. It cannot slow to a stop and then “stay the whole hog”.
If there is a flaw in the Slow Movement, it is this, that it is not radical enough.
As much as the message of the Movement and the book appeals to me, ultimately it preaches moderation.
Everybody is different. There are different strokes (of the clock) for different folks.
Everything is relative. Nothing is wrong. Perhaps, then, nothing will change.
I first became familiar with the word “Flaneur” when a collection of Walter Benjamin’s writings called “The Arcade Projects” was published in 1999.
It included a 1929 review called “The Return of the Flâneur”.
In it, Benjamin speculates on the significance of the “Flaneur”, a French word meaning “stroller” or “saunterer”.
It describes someone who walks the street, apparently idly, not intending to simply get from point A to point B, but seeking more to observe and experience the street and its surroundings.
In Paris, not only does the Flaneur experience the streets or boulevards, he explores the shop-lined arcades that radiate off them and join other streets.
What the Flaneur observes is the full diversity and complexity of modern life in the city.
Seeing Beyond the Crowd
The Flaneur is a spectator who joins the crowd that is moving with intent, but he remains somehow separate from it.
He is both in the crowd and detached from it. He is both an individual and a member of society.
He is both a participant and an observer, a witness to the sometimes opposing forces of tradition and modernity.
Where these forces are in conflict, the Flaneur detects the paradoxes that result from their co-existence.
The Flaneur sees both interaction and flux.
"A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris"
This is the sub-title of Edmund White’s non-fiction work.
Outwardly, it presents itself as a guidebook to the culturally aware tourist.
It starts tantalizingly:
"Paris is a big city, in the sense that London and New York are big cities and that Rome is a village, Los Angeles a collection of villages and Zurich a backwater."
I like the hint of argumentativeness and controversy planted in this otherwise innocuous first sentence.
He then quotes a “reckless friend” who defines a big city as “a place where there are blacks, tall buildings and you can stay up all night” (although he admits that Paris is deficient in tall buildings).
In the Footsteps of the Flaneur
While I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, White was already starting to flirt with our expectations of a travel guide.
I just knew him as one of the world’s greatest gay writers and a formidable intellect and writer of any gender or sexual persuasion.
However, superficially, there was no intimation that this would affect his approach to his subject matter.
Curious, I flicked quickly through the contents of the book.
There were no photos or illustrations, the six chapters bore numbers rather than headings, and, shock, shock, there were no sub-headings in the body of the text.
This guide consisted solely of thoughts and observations, all conveyed by words alone.
Still, I was already seduced and captivated by these words.
So I innocently walked up behind Monsieur White and followed him on his stroll.
How was I to know where he would lead me?
Cruising the Margins and Cracks of Paris
Of course, where he took me was to the places where you could find the true character and secrets of Paris, the City not just of Light, but of Light, Darkness and Shade, a city where the Past, Present and Future live side by side, awaiting the Flaneur.
What follows is a highly individual, informed, informative and affectionate tour through Paris’ intellectualism, sophistication, variety, foreigners, Jews, Arabs, blacks, gays, dandies, artists, jazz musicians, royalty, royalists, monarchists, town houses, temples, cathedrals, palaces and museums.
While White sings the praises of Paris’ boulevards and grand design, it’s in the cracks that he finds “those little forgotten places that appeal to the Flaneur, the traces left by people living in the margin – Jews, blacks, gays, Arabs – or mementoes of an earlier, more chaotic and medieval France.”
Paris as Palimpsest
Paris is a work of art which is being constantly altered and added to, but scratch the surface and you will find that it is a palimpsest that reveals the former work that still resides below.
It is the role of the Flaneur to impose a personal vision on this palimpsest, to use it not so much as a source of abstract or dry knowledge, but to create from it a picture or record of experience, a collection of impressions or mental snapshots or “instantanee”, of life lived and still being lived.
Paris as Refuge
Paris accommodates all tastes, from the most extravagant and luxe to the most commonplace, but it also accommodates life’s fugitives, those who are marginalized in other parts of the world.
People who are scorned or cast out from elsewhere are welcome here.
They put down roots and they start to grow and create, paradoxically within a short distance from cathedrals, palaces and museums, the institutions by which we know Paris.
Ultimately, it’s these people who hold the greatest interest for White, not to mention the objects they surround themselves with and the record of their existence and their experience:
"...these mental snapshots, these instantanees of fugitive life, these curving banisters and lacquered portals, these cold, empty quays beside the Seine where someone under a bridge is playing a saxophone – all the priceless but free memories only waiting for a Flaneur to make them his own."
Be Your Own Flaneur
We are lucky that Edmund White was one such Flaneur, because in making these memories his own and writing about them, he has also made them ours.
However, I won't be content to be an armchair Flaneur.
One day soon, December, 2012, I hope to be a Flaneur strolling down the boulevards of Paris.
I’m sure there will be a few paradoxes waiting there for me to discover.
I might even incorporate some of my instantanee as appendages to my review.
Meanwhile, I'm getting in as much strolling practice as I can.
Here is a YouTube video reading of Walter Benjamin's discussion of Flaneurs:
I bought and read this book because of one word, which happened to be its title.
I was fascinated by the word “obliquity”. I wasn’t familiar with it. I didn’t even know whether it was a neologism created by the author, John Kay, a Professor of Economics and regular columnist for the Financial Times.
As it turns out, the word has been around since the fifteenth century. Naturally, it derives from the word “oblique", which means "slanting, sidelong, indirect".
As a noun, it is the quality or state of deviation or deviating from a line or direction.
Kay uses it to describe the process of achieving a goal indirectly rather than directly.
In Off the Black
Kay credits Nobel Prize Winner, Sir James Black, with the principle of obliquity, which asserts that “goals are often best achieved without intending them”.
This statement is pretty equivocal. It doesn’t purport to suggest that goals are always best achieved without intending them.
To the extent that a goal is an objective or something you intend to achieve, it doesn’t make sense to say that you can best achieve it without intending to.
It would cease to be a goal, if you no longer intended to achieve it by any means.
Black’s statement therefore can mean no more than that, sometimes, you can achieve a goal as an unintended or accidental outcome of trying to do or achieve something else, perhaps even another goal.
I could have lived with the implications of this statement, but I suppose my reaction would have been “So what? What else can you tell me?”
Perhaps anticipating my skepticism, Kay takes Black’s principle and builds a whole new worldview on its foundation: “our goals are best achieved indirectly.”
Gone is the word “often”, absent is any reference to the lack of “intention”.
Instead, we now have a principle that states, effectively, that if you intend to achieve a goal, you should endeavour to achieve it indirectly, not directly.
Intention is still part of the methodology, only we have to strive to achieve our goal by a different route or path, indirectly rather than directly, perhaps by the road less travelled.
He promotes this as a new guide to personal problem-solving and economic and political decision-making.
Still, my skepticism was starting to grow, not retreat.
I dearly wanted Kay to prove his case, I wanted him to persuade me, I wanted to be convinced.
Yet, I can’t say that he succeeded. Ultimately, I feel that he did too little with his material. He didn’t live up to its potential. He overpromised and underdelivered.
I am still fascinated by the word "obliquity", but for me, at least, the case for obliquity remains to be proved.
Equally importantly, I felt that there were some dangerous overtones in his political philosophy.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Kay cites John Stuart Mill approvingly in Chapter 1:
”I never wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy…who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness…aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”
There’s nothing in this statement that I disagree with.
However, I don’t accept that it was intended as an argument for the indirect path in all activities.
In Mill’s eyes, happiness remained the ultimate end. However, he concluded that it was an outcome of the pursuit of some other goal, rather than an outcome of the direct pursuit of happiness.
Perhaps happiness is so abstract and its causes so diverse, subjective and personal that we cannot say that there is any one method of achieving it directly for all people.
However, can the same be said with respect to a recipe for baking a cake, or a decision about the best location for a new highway between two cities, or a method by which a judge arrives at justice in a dispute?
The Pursuit of Profit
Kay also cites George Merck:
”We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been.”
While profit is less abstract and more quantifiable than happiness, it is still an example of a goal that, while it might be the ultimate end of economic activity in capitalist society, it is still best achieved as an outcome of the pursuit of some other goal (e.g., meeting the needs of the public).
You do not achieve profit and wealth by being passionate about profit and money, you achieve it by being passionate about something else.
The Science of Muddling Through
Kay borrows the distinction between direct and oblique approaches to decision-making from Charles Lindblom:
”The root, rational, comprehensive method was direct and involved a single comprehensive evaluation of all options in the light of defined objectives.
“The oblique approach was characterized by what he called successive limited comparison…a process of ‘initially building out from the current situation, step-by-step and by small degrees’.”
Kay cautions against thinking that the oblique approach is unstructured and intuitive. It is actually a disciplined and ordered process. It involves constant improvisation, pragmatism and never-ending learning.
The distinction between means and ends is important to simple problem-solving, but less central to “practical decision-making”. (He doesn’t explain the distinction any better than this.)
Objectives, Goals and Actions
Kay uses the traditional distinction between objectives, goals and actions.
Objectives are fluid and imprecise, which impacts on the goals and actions required to achieve them:
”High-level objectives – living a fulfilling life, creating a successful business, producing a distinguished work of art, glorifying God – are almost always too imprecise for us to have any clear idea how to achieve them. That doesn’t imply that these goals lack meaning or the capacity for realization. We understand their meaning and realise them by translating them into intermediate goals and actions; we interpret and reinterpret them as we gain knowledge about the environment in which we operate. That is why successful approaches are oblique rather than direct.”
Kay uses Isaiah Berlin’s definition of “pluralism”, in essence, “the notion that there is more than one answer to a question”, in contrast to “monism”, “the ancient belief that there is a single harmony of truth into which everything, if it is genuine, must fit.”
Ironically, our objectives are subjective, and therefore fluid and open to change.
As a result, our goals and actions must also be flexible.
We must embrace negotiation, adaptation and compromise.
Different people will solve the same problems in different ways at different times.
Complexity and Incomplete Knowledge
Kay recognizes that the world has become so complex that we can never have complete information about any particular problem or situation.
To the extent that we make assumptions and simplify the world in order to fit it into patterns and models, we have to accept that our models and perceptions might be wrong.
There is no point in becoming despondent about the risk of error. We move step by step toward better decisions and greater knowledge by way of a process of trial and error. No error, no progress.
The Road to Serfdom
By this point in the book, I was starting to feel frustrated that there was no real explanation of the mechanics of oblique decision-making and how it might interface with direct decision-making.
Besides, I was starting to get uncomfortable with the implicit politics of what is effectively a management theory.
In the same section that Kay cites John Stuart Mill, he quotes Adam Smith:
”By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”
Later, he quotes Friedrich von Hayek:
”Nobody has yet succeeded in deliberately arranging all the activities that go on in a complex society.”
At the heart of “Obliquity” (the book) is a war with modernism, as represented by the architect Le Corbusier and the Communist Vladimir Lenin.
Its purpose is to establish that the world is too complex to be designed or commanded from above.
No grand design should be allowed to prevail. No politician or executive should be allowed to dominate.
Instead, what emerges from the apparent chaos of human interaction and pragmatism, like the capitalist economy, led by an invisible hand, is right. Or, at least, on the way to being right over a period of time. Only, don’t interfere with the process, let it come about indirectly.
There is something fundamentally conservative, non-interventionist and anti-progressive about this approach.
Obliquity could very well be an adjunct or handmaiden to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.
Ironically, Kay embraces the language of pluralism, complexity and chaos theory.
These concepts seem to be at odds with traditional conservatism. They imply relativism in values.
I might be doing Kay an injustice. However, in my eyes, the adherence to pluralism comes across as tokenist.
There is an iniquity at work here. It made me feel deeply suspicious of obliquity, notwithstanding its superficial appeal.
Kay doesn't seem to mind that some of us might take the road less travelled (and get lost), as long as the majority takes the road most travelled.
There is a sense in which, left to our own obliquitous devices, stripped of intention and directness, ironically, we will end up conforming. Unintentionally. Indirectly.
Obliquity is just a new way to preserve the economic and social system that we've got. Intact. Exactly as it is.
There is an underlying confidence that, without interference or design or positive discrimination, nobody will be able to counter the invisible hand of conservatism.
Kay's version of obliquity is really about maintaining a straight line or direction.
It's about maintaining the standard, maintaining standards, the norm.
It isn't really about deviation at all, let alone deviance.
In its own right, it's actually quite devious.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Pluralism is tolerated only insofar as it doesn't alter the status quo and nobody rocks the boat.
So, ultimately, capitalism in its current form will be perpetuated by a (seven?) billion instances of pragmatic obliquity.
I re-read this novel, before seeing David Cronenberg’s film (see Post 21).
This review reveals what I think about the fate of the protagonist at the end of the novel.
My views are based on my interpretation of material that starts at page 55 of the 209 page novel.
If this material or my interpretation is incorrect, then the novel leaves you hanging at the end.
As my views on the novel as a whole depend on an interpretation of the protagonist’s fate, please don’t read my review if you want to form your own views in isolation.
In 1992, Paul Auster dediciated “Leviathan” to Don DeLillo.
In 2003, DeLillo repaid the favour by dedicating “Cosmopolis” to Auster.
Here is a photo of the two of them [on the left] taken at the baseball with two employees of the Gotham Book Mart by the store’s owner:
The Name “Cosmopolis”
We are all used to the word “cosmopolitan”, but “cosmopolis” is less commonly used.
To the extent that the prefix “cosmo” suggests the world or the universe, it implies that the city is representative of the diversity of the world or the universe.
We can probably infer that the city is sophisticated and worldly, has an international rather than provincial character, and is home to many cosmopolitan people.
If so, the term would be a perfect description for New York City, where the novel is set.
It also applies to ancient Athens and Rome, perhaps the original “world-cities”.
The novel is largely set in a long white limo that drives its protagonist, 28 year old billionaire and hedge-fund manager Eric Packer, across Manhattan.
Most plot summaries describe the purpose of the journey as to enable Eric to get a haircut.
However, this misses much of the narrative and metaphorical significance of the journey, not to mention the haircut.
The journey is more or less the whole of the length of 47th Street, which runs one-way between 1st Ave and the West Side Highway (called the Joe DiMaggio Highway since just before the publication of the novel).
Climbing Down from A Cosmopolitan Triplex in the Heavens...
At the 1st Ave end, you’ll find the United Nations Headquarters, perhaps the centre of cosmopolitanism.
Eric lives in a triplex close to 1st Ave. The building is not named, but the triplex supposedly cost Eric $104M.
At the corner of 47th and 1st is the Trump World Tower, which was completed in 2001.
The duplex penthouse in this building failed to sell for $58M, and was eventually split into four units.
However, as at 2003, the highest price for an apartment in Manhattan was the $70M paid by hedge-fund manager Martin Zweig for a triplex at the Pierre Hotel owned by Lady Mary Fairfax (of the Australian family that published the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers).
Eric’s purchase price represents a 50% increase on the highest price ever paid at the time. You can do that if you're a billionaire.
As you drive along 47th Street, you pass the Diamond District, a number of Broadway Theatres and Times Square.
Between 1963 and 1968, Andy Warhol’s Factory was on 47th Street between Second and Third Aves.
...and Descending into Hell’s Kitchen
On the West Side, the Street passes into Hell’s Kitchen, also known as Clinton (not named after Bill) or Midtown West (not named after Mae), the original home of Damon Runyon’s stories, Marvel Comics' "Daredevil", gang wars between migrants, and the musical "West Side Story".
The Wiki article on Hell’s Kitchen recounts a number of versions of the origin of the area’s name:
“…the most common version traces it to the story of Dutch Fred The Cop, a veteran policeman, who with his rookie partner, was watching a small riot on West 39th Street near 10th Avenue.
"The rookie is supposed to have said, ‘This place is hell itself,’ to which Fred replied, ‘Hell's a mild climate. This is Hell's Kitchen.’ "
Gail Wynand, the newspaper proprietor in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”, came from Hell’s Kitchen and in Rand’s novel is described as “Petronius from Hell’s Kitchen”, a description that might also apply to Eric Packer (except that he ends there, rather than originates from there).
Interestingly, the original Petronius, believed to be the author of “The Satyricon”, was described as the “elegantiae arbiter” (or the “arbiter elegantiarum”), "the judge of elegance" in the court of the Roman Emperor Nero.
West 47th Street has yet to be developed and still contains relatively disused and derelict buildings (including the building that features in the end of “Cosmopolis”), not to mention the homeless and mentally ill treated at “Fountain House” who featured in the documentary “West 47th Street”.
Mapping Eric’s Progress
I have included all of this detail (thanks, Wiki), so that I can argue that this journey isn’t just some trip to the barber.
It represents a journey along a street that defines the extremes of Manhattan, from the cosmopolitan East Side to the Hellish West Side.
Just to help you map Eric’s progress, here are the pages at which his limo passes each Avenue crossing 47th:
1st: 9 2nd: 13 3rd: 23 Lexington: 34 (the hair salon Filles et Garcon actually seems to be at 51st) Park: 38 Madison: 41 5th: 45 (The Presidential Cavalcade) 6th: 75 7th/Broadway: 87 8th: 129 9th: 130 (the Sufi rap artist Brutha Fez's Funeral) 10th 158 (the barbershop) 11th: 170 12th: 179 (the derelict tenement)
This is no mere haircut, this is a low-key to subtle homage to James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, in which our hero leaves the Heaven of his triplex, heads west (young man) and confronts his destiny in a derelict building in Hell’s Kitchen.
Perhaps, our hero even meets his anti-hero.
Upstairs at Eric’s
Eric is 28 and has been married to Elise Schifrin for just 22 days.
The marriage, so far, is loveless and apparently unconsummated. It represents a symbolic marriage of new American money and traditional European wealth and style, though Elise (“Swiss or something”) is worth a cool $730M herself.
Eric has made his money gambling on movements in currencies. He takes immense risks with vast amounts of money and has generated commensurate profits.
He is so rich, beyond normal moral or mortal contemplation, some would think it’s indecent and obscene. In the words of his nemesis, Eric is “foully and berserkly rich”.
Yet, until recently, Eric has seen his ability as just an example of what the Greeks call “Chrimatistikos”, the art of money-making.
He has had talent and drive, which he has "utilised...consistently put to good use."
His reward is to live in "a tower that soars to heaven and goes unpunished by God", something that aspires to scraping the sky and meeting God, but now in a Godless era seems only to defy the very idea of God and moral virtue or goodness.
He contemplates the word "skyscraper":
"No recent structure ought to bear this word. It belonged to the olden soul of awe, to the arrowed towers that were a narrative long before he was born."
Just as skyscrapers have lost their narrative drive, so too have money and the art of money-making:
"...because money has taken a turn. All wealth has become wealth for its own sake. There's no other kind of enormous wealth. Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time. Money is talking to itself."
Money has turned in on itself, become introverted and meaningless. It no longer tells a story about something else, it does not relate to or measure some other achievement. [The novel echoes some of the concerns of William Gaddis' "The Recognitions", but then DeLillo has always mined similar veins.]
There’s a point at which you can have so much money that it becomes senseless, there are just no more narratives or stories you can spin with it, without repeating yourself. [I haven’t reached this point yet.]
Checking Eric’s Balance
Eric’s life so far has been dictated by balance.
He lives in a world “in which every force is balanced by another”. When there is another force, he is the equal and opposite reaction.
He takes positions and then waits for corrections to occur. The balancing process improves his bank balance.
It also dictates his aesthetic judgments.
Two private elevators rise to his triplex: in one the music is Satie, in the other Brutha Fez.
He gets artistic advice from 47-year old Didi Francher, an art consultant and one of his mistresses.
She’s "taught him how to look, how to feel enchantment damp on his face, the melt of pleasure inside a brushstroke or band of color."
In a way, she has created a balance to the crudeness and brutality of his occupation.
She has taught him how to reckon outside the world of money.
He now looks, he notices things, he gazes, he observes, he assesses, he judges.
Like Petronius, he has become an "arbiter elegantiarum", a "judge of elegance".
He is obsessed with acquiring a collection of 14 Rothko works housed in the Rothko Chapel:
He genuinely appreciates Rothko's art, but his principal motivation for the purchase is the fact that he can afford to.
Such is the power of money.
Consciously or not, Didi has also taught Eric how to flirt in an intellectually informed way.
In his limo, he metaphorically seduces his chief of finance, Jane Melman:
"My mood shifts and bends. But when I'm alive and heightened, I'm super-acute. Do you know what I see when I look at you? I see a woman who wants to live shamelessly in her body. Tell me this is not the truth. You want to follow your body into idleness and fleshiness. That's why you have to run, to escape the drift of your basic nature. ...What do I see? Something lazy, sexy and insatiable."
They "[reach] completion more or less together, touching neither each other nor themselves."
When she leaves the limo, Jane tells Eric that she “is a woman who would still be married to her husbands if they had looked at her the way you have looked at me here today."”
Catching Eric Off Balance
Despite, possibly because of, this transformation, Didi has noticed doubt creeping into Eric’s worldview.
"You're beginning to think it's more interesting to doubt than to act. It takes more courage to doubt."
When we meet Eric, he has gambled everything on the possibility that the Japanese Yen will fall.
He has also just been told that he has an asymmetrical prostate.
Without asking or knowing more about the medical significance of his diagnosis, he assumes the worst, that the cancer will soon take his life.
Even if it isn’t fatal, his prostate’s asymmetry challenges his idealization of balance.
He suffers pain. The pain undermines the foundations of his worldview. He starts to doubt both balance and himself. He starts to realise there is something in life apart from himself. He starts to recognise his own mortality.
Jane addresses him in the third person:
"He could think and speak of other things but only within the pain. He was living in the gland, in the scalding fact of his biology.
"Does he love himself or hate himself. I don’t think he knows. Or it changes minute by minute. Or the question is so implicit in everything he does that he can’t get outside it to answer."
Eric’s nemesis (who also happens to have an asymmetrical prostate) has worked for him before and has some insight into his personality:
"You should have listened to your prostate...You tried to predict movements in the yen by drawing on patterns from nature...You made this form of analysis horribly and sadistically precise.
"But you forgot something along the way...The importance of the lopsided, the thing that's skewed a little. You were looking for balance, beautiful balance, equal parts, equal sides...
"But you should have been tracking the yen in its tics and quirks. The little quirk. The mis-shape...
"That's where the answer was, in your body, in your prostate."
Living in the Shadow of a Doubt
So I argue that the purpose of Eric’s journey is to confront his own mortality, to deal with his doubt, not just to get a haircut.
Until today, he’s pursued business and wealth as a vehicle for achieving immortality.
Vija Kinski, his chief of theory, explains:
"Men think about immortality. Never mind what women think. We're too small and real to matter here…Great men historically expected to live forever even as they supervised construction of their monumental tombs on the far bank of the river, the west bank, where the sun goes down.
"There you sit, of large visions and prideful acts. Why die when you can live on disk? A disk, not a tomb. An idea beyond the body. A mind that's everything you ever were and will be, but never weary or confused or impaired.
"It's a mystery to me, how such a thing might happen. Will it happen someday? Sooner than we think because everything happens sooner than we think. Later today perhaps. Maybe today is the day when everything happens, for better or worse, ka-boom, like that."
However, having achieved as much as one man could ever achieve in a lifetime, Eric is not interested in trying to create an immortal digital replica of himself.
He is interested in his own death, because sooner or later, inevitably, we all have to accept our own mortality:
"He was alert, eager for action, for resolution. Something had to happen soon, a dispelling of doubt and the emergence of some design, the subject's plan of action, visible and distinct."
Ironically, on the way, Eric embraces the lopsided.
When he finally gets his haircut, it is asymmetrical.
However, it’s not the end of the journey. He resumes his trip before his haircut is finished.
His goal is beyond the haircut. It’s somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen. On the west bank, where the sun goes down.
The Threat of Death
Eric knows that somewhere on his trip, sometime today, he will die.
All along, he has been receiving death threats.
His journey across Manhattan is the date of reckoning with his own death, the date when death achieves a balance with life or knocks it off its axis.
He equips himself with a gun and abandons his security to deal with his nemesis Benno Levin single-handedly in a dilapidated building in Hell’s Kitchen.
By the time he arrives, he’s realised that even business embraces death and destruction:
"This is also the hallmark of capitalist thought. Enforced destruction. Old industries have to be harshly eliminated. New markets have to be forcibly claimed…Old markets have to be re-exploited. Destroy the past, make the future...The urge to destroy is a creative urge…The logical extension of business is murder."
Death is a natural part of life. He has to endure one last arm wrestle with fate, until he knows that he has died appropriately:
"...it was the threat of death at the brink of night that spoke to him most surely about some principle of fate he'd always known would come clear in time. Now he could begin the business of living."
He must know and embrace his fate. It does not matter that he might die on the same day. He has already lived life to the fullest:
"This was the day, was it not, for influential men to come to sudden messy ends."
There is also a sense in which his wealth might come to an end, that his investments will get their own haircut or at the very least, a trim.
In his time of dying, the whole of Eric's empire might return, not home, but to nothing.
Money might have resumed its narrative drive towards nothingness.
Ironically, as the Global Financial Crisis has shown, even billionaires can die with nothing.
Frames of Reference
“Cosmopolis” is short and easy to read. It occupies a discrete time and space.
Rather than being DeLillo-lite or a disappointment, it’s a precisely structured novel that lends itself to being filmed.
As with much of DeLillo’s work, it’s concerned with ways of looking and seeing and understanding.
If anything, I would call it a highly polished example of "abstracted realism".
It is especially informed by Art and Film.
Eric finds in Art a pathway into life’s mysteries, one of them being himself:
"Don't you see yourself in every picture you love? You feel a radiance wash through you. It's something you can't analyze or speak about clearly. What are you doing at that moment? You're looking at a picture on a wall. That's all. But it makes you feel alive in the world. It tells you yes, you're here. And yes, you have a range of being that's deeper and sweeter than you knew."
To the extent that a painting is one framed work, Film consists of multiple frames.
It allows us to explore the situations that we might one day find ourselves in, it creates a frame of reference, it creates frames of reference within which to express ourselves:
"I've seen a hundred situations like this. A man and a gun and a locked door. My mother used to take me to the movies."
"Cosmopolis" is best construed as a gallery of images or a film.
It is highly visual and filmic, even though it's effectively set within the confines of a limo.
As Eric passes along 47th Street, he witnesses a gallery of events and images and women and must gaze at and judge and react to them, so that ultimately he can determine his own importance in the true scheme of things.
My only concern with respect to the film is how the dialogue will come across.
How will it convey the abstracted, conceptual precision of DeLillo's language?
Will it sound natural?
In My State of Grace
The result of Eric's movie-going is that, when he is confronted by the situation ("a man and a gun and a locked door", but also his mortality, his death), he knows how to deal with it.
This comforts him. In his hour of need.
While some of his apparent attempts at self-defence are clumsy, they seem to be designed to fail.
Ultimately, what really matters is that he submits gracefully to the inevitability of his own death.
It is perhaps the most graceful act of his life. And the last day of his life might equally be the most complete.
There is something perfect and satisfying in this grace and completeness, even if it's a little perverse, even if it lacks symmetry, even if (unlike Leopold Bloom) Eric fails to return home to his triplex at the end of the day.
P.S. Lapse or Claps, Chaps?
While I love this novel, there are passages that I recognise will annoy or vindicate those who question DeLillo's talent or consistency.
I choose to excuse them or to laugh instead.
Here are a few examples for your reading pleasure:
"Hoisting his genitals in his hand."
"The minute you sat there in that whole tragic regalia of running. That whole sad business of Judeo-Christian jogging."
"I want to bottle-fuck you slowly with my sunglasses on."
"Her feet flew out from under her. She uttered a thing, a sound, herself, her soul in rapid rising inflection."
"Eric decided to admire this."
"The rain was fine. The rain was dramatically right."
"The rain had stopped. This was good. This was clearly what it should have done."
"It was the last techno-rave, the end of whatever it was the end of."
"He stood in the street. There was nothing to do. He hadn't realized this could happen to him."
A NICE NIGHT'S ENTERTAINMENT ON THE FOURTH OF JULY:
Fireworks Over Brooklyn
We're at a party in a modern bohemian fourth floor apartment in Brooklyn.
The guests include publishers, writers, artists, film-makers, musicians and various minders, acolytes and drummers disguised as waiters.
It’s July 4, 1981 (or is it 2003 or 2012 or all three, I don't know, the script doesn't say), barely twenty minutes before the fireworks are due to begin.
LYDIA DAVIS (who has just arrived, it’s her second party of the night and she’s already tipsy): Hi, Sophie!
SOPHIE CALLE: Bon jour, Lydia. Would you like a drink?
LYDIA DAVIS: One more won’t do any damage, I guess.
Sophie notices her looking at a freshly made martini on the bar.
SOPHIE CALLE: Here. Take one of these.
LYDIA DAVIS: A votre santé.
SOPHIE CALLE: À la votre.
Lydia tilts her glass and downs the martini in one smooth movement.
SOPHIE CALLE: Another?
LYDIA DAVIS: Why not!
Don DeLillo walks past, in the direction of the kitchen. He hasn’t noticed Lydia yet. She air kisses Sophie goodbye and heads after Don, tapping him on the shoulder just as he enters the kitchen and reaches for the first hors d’ouvre on a newly-assembled tray.
DON DELILLO (turning around): Lydia, you look divine, fresh from your experience with Proust.
LYDIA DAVIS: It’s finished, mercifully. His sentences were so long.
DON DELILLO: You must be glad they’re just a remembrance of things past?
LYDIA DAVIS: In search of lost time, don’t you mean?
DON DELILLO: Oh, of course, I forgot. In search of lost punctuation marks, as well, I suppose.
Lydia has been watching over his shoulder, where through the kitchen window she has just spotted Paul Auster with a dazzling six foot tall blonde with an exquisite Scandinavian face who he has just met ten minutes before.
LYDIA DAVIS: Don, who’s that Amazon with Paul?
Don turns around to see Paul Auster sit on the railing and then swing both feet around over the top, until they dangle above the street.
DON DELILLO: Oh, um, ah, that’s Siri Hustvedt, she’s a grad student in English Literature. Columbia.
Now Don notices Paul wobble on the railing. He’s doing something indistinct with one of his feet or perhaps his shoes. Siri moves up behind him, nervously, placing her arms around his waist. Don thinks he notices her lips graze the nape of Paul’s neck. Or something.
Lydia hasn’t noticed any of this yet, apart from Paul's presence outside the kitchen window with the blonde.
LYDIA DAVIS: Don, could you hold my glass for une moment?
As elegantly as one can in her state of sobriety, Lydia lifts her left leg over the waist high window sill and places her left foot on the balcony. She tries to reclaim her glass from Don DeLillo, while pulling her right leg through behind her.
DON DELILLO: Careful, Lydia...
But, it’s too late, the glass falls onto the kitchen floor as Lydia fails to clasp it securely, and she projects backwards into Siri, striking the vicinity of her left kidney with her elbow. Siri lets go of Paul Auster in agony, and Paul falls forward into the night sky, initially holding his hands out in a diving posture, before rocketing headlong in the direction of the street.
A screaming comes up the hollow streetscape, even though barely a second has elapsed. Nobody has had time, let alone is game enough, to look down, until they hear the inevitable crash or thump.
Yet, there is no crash or thump, and the screaming gets closer again.
DON DELILLO (who seems to have some understanding of what’s happened and calls out): What was it like, Paul?
PAUL AUSTER: Fucking amazing, Don. Can you guys grab hold of the bungee cable?
Don looks at Siri and Lydia.
DON DELILLO: No.
TATTOOED EX-NEW ZEALAND ALL BLACK: It’s right, I’ll pull him up.
LYDIA DAVIS: I don’t suppose you could leave him hanging a bit longer?
DON DELILLO: My turn next.
Paul Auster climbs back over the railing, the top two buttons of his Polo shirt undone and not a hair out of place.
SIRI HUSTVEDT (resuming her grip on Paul Auster, this time front on): Oh, Paul, I think it’s love at first sight.
PAUL AUSTER: I was only ten minutes behind you, Iris.
SIRI HUSTVEDT: Iris?
PAUL AUSTER: Sorry, I meant Siri, you just looked like an Iris from down there.
LYDIA DAVIS: You were looking at her upside down.
THOMAS PYNCHON (turning to Lydia): He must have loved her from the bottom of his arc.
DON DELILLO: Tom, what are you doing here?
SOPHIE CALLE (looking at Thomas Pynchon): Jump, jump!
No reference to the name of a real person is intended to suggest that the character is or shares any of the characteristics of that real person. Very much.
Auster Railing Skepticism
While I’ve never had a negative experience with any of Paul Auster’s novels, I detect a skepticism about his works on GoodReads, so was alert to what others might find questionable.
Still, this book grabbed me from the first sentence and never let me go.
Unlike some elements of his friend Don DeLillo that you have to excuse or laugh at, I found “Leviathan” word-perfect from beginning to end.
The story is told in the first person, yet the narrator, writer Peter Aaron, is not the main character, who is another writer and Peter’s best friend, Benjamin Sachs.
Stylistically, the only reservation I have is about the detail with which Peter recounts Ben’s story, which involves events and conversations (not all of them involving Peter) from over 15 years.
Some of these conversations go for several pages. How did Peter remember them? As a writer, is he just a good listener? Is he just very retentive?
Force of Circumstance
The other issue which seems to concern some readers is the role of chance and coincidence in Auster’s novels.
While both play a role in “Leviathan”, I think they are a secondary, not a primary concern.
Coincidences occur, but they are equally confounding for the characters affected by them.
They are not [just] ridiculous set-ups or convenient solutions.
They form part of a continuum of circumstance and circumstances, in which “anything can happen”.
For Peter, the events he witnesses are similar to what he does as an author, “writing stories, putting imaginary people into unexpected and often unlikely situations”.
Auster examines individuals within their environment, some of it physical, some of it mental, some of it social.
He is interested in how Free Will, Intention, Determination, Causation, Knowledge and the Desire for Certainty interact with Determinism, Chance, Coincidence, Mystery, Randomness and Uncertainty.
To what extent are we in control of the events that occur around us?
What if the answer is very little?
What if everything is improbable and unpredictable? What is the implication for our sense of identity and self-esteem?
Can we live a life of happiness?
Are our lives destined to end in catastrophe?
This is what’s happening at an abstract, meta-fictional level, yet the novel is written in a highly realist manner, in many places like detective fiction, as Auster tells us who-dunnit on the first page and then proceeds to tell us what.
We know from the first sentence that someone blew themselves up six days before today (which is July 4, 1990) and within pages, when two FBI agents visit Peter, we learn that it was Ben Sachs.
Ben was interested in personal politics, not necessarily affiliated with any particular party, although he was idealistic and would no doubt have favoured the old-style Left Liberal Democrats over the Republicans, if he had to vote for one over the other.
He was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and went to jail for his beliefs rather than abscond to Canada or Europe.
Since then, he has grown more and more despondent as mainstream America embraced the conservative politics of Ronald Reagan and in his view betrayed the idealism of American Democracy that should be embodied and respected in the American Flag (which is now often a divisive symbol).
"The New Colossus"
The national icon that Sachs most objectifies and identifies with is the Statue of Liberty.
It stands over New York Harbour like a new Colossus and holds the incandescent torch of Democracy and Freedom up high.
However, its brightness has faded over time, and Sachs believes that this trend is symbolized by the proliferation of 130 fake miniature Statues of Liberty around the country.
Sachs’ first novel is actually named “The New Colossus” after the poem that is engraved at the foot of the statue.
As a boy in 1951, Sachs also experienced fear and apprehension, when his family climbed the staircase inside the statue and they grew increasingly scared of heights.
Inside the Whale
This experience of being inside and frightened leads to the second metaphor of the novel, the Leviathan itself, the great whale in the Biblical books of Job and Jonah, which Hobbes adopted as a metaphor for the State in his book of the same name.
It’s interesting that the Hebrew name upon which Leviathan is based can also refer to a dragon, which in Eastern culture can be an enemy of light.
Thus, in Sachs’ eyes, the name “Leviathan” symbolizes the tendency of the State to enclose and squash individuals, restrain their freedom and plunge them into darkness.
No matter how much independence he shows in his personal life, he is gripped by the social and political claws of the Leviathan.
As Sachs realises that his literary audience is declining and the message of his writing is going unheeded, he embraces more and more radical politics and quasi-terrorist tactics.
The relatively innocent Peter Aaron sits by as he reconstructs the story of Sachs and his obsession, ultimately choosing for his own novel (and Auster’s) the name of the novel that Sachs had only partly completed at the time of his death.
Just as the Statue of Liberty symbolizes light and the ascent of humanity, the decline of Democracy represent a metaphorical fall from grace and a descent into darkness.
However, Sachs’ childhood experience is replicated by a literal fall of his own, while attending a party to celebrate Independence Day in 1986, the 100th year of the statue's dedication.
The parody at the beginning of this review is based on Aaron’s/Auster’s description of the event, which unfortunately preceded the days of widespread bungee jumping, but fortunately for Sachs was not fatal.
Sachs’ initial response to his recovery is to withdraw from those around him and maintain a silence:
"To be silent was to enclose himself in contemplation, to relive the moments of his fall again and again, as if he could suspend himself in midair for the rest of time – forever just two inches off the ground, forever waiting for the apocalypse of the last moment."
Similarly, in his private life, his self disappears within a “sanctuary of inwardness”. His retreat and silence shelter him from danger and temptation, but equally from the full experience and exuberance of life.
Ultimately, he re-engages psychically and sexually. He also becomes more engaged politically, if only as a lonely anarchist working in the darkness, dangerously, symbolically drawing attention to how America is failing its own symbols, icons and values.
When Peter Aaron discovers that Sachs has died, he starts writing his story.
Without it, he knows that the only account of Ben’s life and his activism will be the dossier prepared by the FBI agents, working inside the whale of the Leviathan, painting him as a terrorist.
He rushes to piece together the reality of their shared life, under the deadline of a return visit from the FBI:
"The fact is that everyone dies, everyone disappears in the end, and if Sachs had managed to finish his book, there’s a chance it might have outlived him."
Ultimately, the importance of Aaron’s book, Auster’s novel, is that it encapsulates Sachs’ warning even more effectively than Sachs might have been able to do himself in the end.
The novel is a warning about the oppressive power of society, conformism and the State.
These forces are the ones we have to look out for, not the distractions of chance and coincidence, which after all are mere entertainments in comparison.
No matter how much Free Will we might think we have, there are other, more powerful forces at work.
By writing Sachs’ story, Aaron and Auster ensured that Sachs’ message, “his amulet against forgetting”, outlived him, so that we might know the danger of Leviathan.
This review is dedicated to Bird Brian and the/his courage to speak out.
In the words of George Orwell (from "Inside the Whale"), he fights the temptation to perform the "Jonah act of allowing himself to be swallowed, remaining passive, accepting", in other words, "quietism".
For any non/un-Americans who mightn't be familiar with it, here is the full text of the poem at the foot of the Statue of Liberty:
The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!