"I Know Not Whence...Nor Whither, Willy-Nilly Blowing"
William H. Gass positions words on the page, one after the other. Soon, a sentence takes shape,...more"I Know Not Whence...Nor Whither, Willy-Nilly Blowing"
William H. Gass positions words on the page, one after the other. Soon, a sentence takes shape, then a paragraph, then a chapter, then a section, then a novel in its entirety.
The words are not necessarily directional from the outset. A sentence goes in the direction dictated by each additional word. They don’t necessarily follow a preordained sequence or work towards a goal:
"I know not whence, like water willy-nilly flowing... Nor whither, willy-nilly blowing..." Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
Like Omensetter, Gass (our very own Willy-Nilly) is prepared to try his luck, tempt fate, go with the flow, see what happens.
"The Moving Finger Writes and, Having Writ, Moves On"
There is no necessary plot as such. The novel emerges from the natural flow:
"You do not tell a story; your fiction will do that when your fiction is finished."
Gass is the vehicle for these words to get onto the page. His is the hand that moves or the finger that writes:
"The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on..." Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
His words are poetry. They are made to be spoken, to feel your tongue and lips and teeth move around them, they are made to be heard, even if you only listen to your own voice, whether inwardly in the imagination or outwardly alive and aloud.
The Movement of Language
Gass is interested in the "movement of language", as well as the language of movement.
These words sound, they move around, they jostle for favour. Together they constitute or compose music:
"What you make is music, and because your sounds are carriers of concepts, you make conceptual music, too."
Having achieved their task, the words move to the back, unchanged, permanent, irrevocable:
"Nor all thy Piety nor Wit, Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it." Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
The words are passed, gone, irrecoverable, at least until, in the manner of Proust, they insinuate their way into the memory of the reader and insist on being recalled.
Only, in the unique case of "Omensetter’s Luck", this is not strictly correct. Gass’ initial draft of the novel was stolen, and he had to reconstruct it from memory. Ironically, he felt it improved in the process.
Still, "Omensetter’s Luck" is for me an example of what Gass said about Italo Calvino’s "Invisible Cities":
"[it] is one of the purer works of the imagination. It is prose elevated to poetry without the least sign of strain."
Omensetter and His Luck
While the novel is named after Omensetter, or at least his luck, I wouldn’t say that he is the chief protagonist.
He is a relative innocent, an ingénue, a naïf, almost a simpleton, someone who is content to see what fortune has in store for him.
In the words of Israbestis Tott, town gossip, when he arrived:
"He had everything he owned piled up in the wagon with this cradle tied to the top of it, and nothing covered. That was the kind of fellow Brackett Omenstter was. He knew it wasn’t going to rain again. He counted on his luck."
He is passive rather than active, he is not an agent who dictates the direction of his own life or that of his family. He declines to rescue a fox that is trapped in a well, he fails to obtain medical assistance for his own sick baby. If either were to die, he would justify it as God’s will:
"The Sky Rolls Impotently On As Thou or I" Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
In a way, he succumbs to determinism. He bears no burden of decision or responsibility. His plight, his blessing and his curse, is "to lose the heaviness of life".
This approach to life might be understandable if you only have to deal with nature. Perhaps we are powerless in its path. The problems start when you join a community or broader society.
The Love and Sorrows of Henry Pimber
Henry Pimber, who soon becomes Omensetter’s landlord, thinks he is "a foolish, dirty, careless man".
Yet, others describe him as a "natural-born politician; he’s what they call the magnetic kind". Their faith is borne out when Omensetter apparently heals an affliction that Henry suffers (metaphorically, like the fox, "Pimber’s down our well"), after which "Henry’s own salvation was the central thing".
This salvation implicitly challenges the authority of the local Doctor Orcutt and the faith in and of Reverend Jethro Furber.
The Reverend Jethro Furber’s Change of Heart
Gass devotes three-quarters of his novel to Furber, the real protagonist, despicable as he is. He is trained in rhetoric and has the town under his control, until Omensetter’s arrival.
Gass uses a stream of consciousness technique to show us what is really happening in the mind of this man of the cloth. He is both lascivious and lyrical in an almost Old Testament fashion, "shaping his lips for strong sounds".
He obsesses about the "glabrous cleft" of a young girl’s private parts and the "lower lips of fatty Ruth". Espying an older woman with large breasts, he imagines himself partaking in a "tipple from her mountainous nipple". Yet he sits in judgement, as God’s proxy, over the "lewd speech and slovenly habits" of the townfolk, "[preaching] against frivolity with heat."
He counsels the congregation against "indecent prepositions", all the time contemplating indecent propositions. It seems as if Furber is the most vulnerable to "the way of all flesh".
Gass signals that Furber might undergo a change of heart with the title to this section. I won’t discuss whether or how this occurs. The plot detail is not important, but it is desirable that readers experience how he uses language to achieve what little overt plot he utilises to serve his literary purpose.
These Are a Few of My Favourite Things
It remains to let you sample Gass' writing. Below are some examples of his prose that I have arbitrarily chosen and versified.
I hope you can sense and enjoy the movement of language:
"Every bush would blossom Each twig sharply thrown And every paltry post embark For consciousness as huge"
"Well the rose is too common And the phallus too foolish."
"There was hair and nose and napkin cloth And painted trim along the stair."
"She was like an after-image still A scar of light A sailor’s deep tattoo."
"How could man beget Unless his flesh would rise And what was there in innocence To move the simplest muscle In a gesture of desire."
"He’s a bit better And a bit luckier Maybe Than most of us."
"They would wallow safely In the worst sensations Conceive the most obscene devices Place him, their preacher In vulgar postures Ravish him on ornate altars Or on the floors of pews."
"The penis in repose Professor With that little hat of skin Why, it’s a lovely childlike thing And each man’s gentle babyhood Is in it."
"He had fathered every folly, every sin No goat knew gluttony like this No cat had felt his pride No crow his avarice."
"Note how sweetly I pronounce her Musically wigwag My ringalingling tongue."
"You may call our soul our best But this, our body, is our love."(less)
Compere: Yes folks, welcome to Gym Combat, Nottingham’s premier gym and home to Saturday Night Fight Night. Tonight …what…what…
Spontaneous applause breaks out as former undefeated Commonwealth & IBO Welterweight World Champion, Jav Khalik, enters the ring.
Compere: Jav, why don’t you tell us…who’ve we got on tonight?
Jav: Tony, a very special friend of mine, local boy, Paul “Southpaw” Bryant…
Compere: Fresh from last month’s second round TKO of Brett “Western and Easton” Ellis…
Jav: Wasn’t that a fight, Tony?
Compere: I’ll say, Jav… Southpaw totally smashed that American Psycho.
Jav: Annihilated him.
Compere: Got what he deserved, ended up how he started, a bloody nihilist pornographer.
Jav laughs, but stops when Southpaw Bryant slides gracefully through the ropes into his corner. A woman in a Batgirl costume runs up to the ring and thrusts an autograph book at him.
Batgirl: Southpaw, write something for me.
Southpaw’s manager unscrews the top of an inkwell and hands him a quill. Southpaw dips his quill and writes down, Southpaw 909.
Batgirl: What’s this?
Southpaw: My room number.
Many women in the crowd wriggle, whoop and whistle excitedly. Batgirl swoons and drops the autograph book as Southpaw’s manager catches her in his arms. In the mayhem, the autograph book is passed hurriedly back from hand to hand towards the back of the crowd, until the last man to hold it feels a gloved hand wrench it from his clasp. He looks up and sees a slight, scowling grey-haired man in a metallic cape. He has just entered the gym from his limousine outside, followed by his manager and a sliver of twilight sun. The audience can see him too, on the screen. The compere senses the arrival of Southpaw’s opponent and looks nervously at Jav. He lifts the microphone to his lips…
Compere: Ladies and gentlemen, you might not know this man, but he is a true heavyweight, some say the heavyweight champion of the Word…
Jav: He’s no fall guy…
Compere: No mere falling man…
Jav: He doesn’t pull any punches…
Compere: He doesn’t push any rivers…
The audience looks around quizzically.
Jav: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Southpaw’s nemesis, Deadly Don De Lillo.
The audience looks around quizzically again, still.
Southpaw (sensing their dilemma): “White Noise”.
Suddenly, there is a wave of recognition in the crowd.
The audience (as one): Wanker!
Batgirl (who has lifted herself up on one elbow): Post-modernist!
The audience (as one): Post-modernist wanker!
Deadly Don lifts one leg over the top rope and then another and then another, and suddenly the bell has rung and the fight has started.
Southpaw (bouncing around, poking his chin out): Give me your best, De Lillo, come on.
Deadly Don: Another postmodern sunset, rich in romantic imagery.
Southpaw: Describe it, paint me a picture!
Deadly Don: Why try to describe it?
Deadly Don feints at Southpaw with his scribbly left hand.
Deadly Don: It’s enough to say that everything in our field of vision seemed to exist in order to gather the light of this event.
Southpaw: In the dark, who can see his face?
Deadly Don (moving closer): What did you say?
Southpaw: In the dark, who can reach him?
Deadly Don: I can tell by the lines you’re reciting…
Southpaw: In the darkness, the shadows move.
Deadly Don: It’s not a movie…
Southpaw: In the darkness, the game is real.
Southpaw spots a patch of jaw between Deadly Don’s gloves and lands a left hook on it. Deadly Don falls pugilistically and slides back across the canvas.
Southpaw: Shoot out the lights.
Round One is awarded to Southpaw.
Southpaw: Ready for another blow against the empire, another shock to the system?
Deadly Don: Ha! The system is invisible, which makes it all the more impressive, all the more disquieting to deal with.
Southpaw: Nice prose…
He hits the side of Deadly Don’s face with a solid left hook. Deadly Don stumbles, but regains his footing.
Deadly Don: But we were in accord, at least for now.
Southpaw (determined to finish his assessment): …shame about the plot.
Deadly Don: All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots.
Southpaw: In that case, think of me as an incendiary plot device.
Southpaw swings carelessly, misses and receives a short, sharp jab to the right temple for his effort. Tears fill his eyes and a ringing fills an adjacent stinging ear, until his good ear senses the jingle jangle of a distant bell.
Deadly Don (speaking over his shoulder on the way to his corner): Can you hear them now? The networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies.
Round Two is awarded narrowly to Deadly Don.
Southpaw (cocky at the start of the last round): Prepare to die, De Lillo.
Southpaw takes a careless swing and misses.
Deadly Don (making a guffaw sound): Guffaw.
Southpaw (still staggering): You’re history, De Lillo, bloody history.
Deadly Don adjusts his gloves, makes to take them off, then thinks better of it.
Deadly Don: Man’s guilt in history and in the tides of his own blood has been complicated by technology, the daily seeping falsehearted death.
Deadly Don jabs at Southpaw’s good ear. Southpaw loses his sense of balance and falls sideways. He whispers something on his back that De Lillo can’t hear.
Deadly Don (leaning over the suffering Southpaw): What did you say?
Southpaw: What if death is nothing but sound?
Deadly Don (appreciative of the line of questioning): Electrical noise.
Southpaw: You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful.
Deadly Don (reaching closer to the expiring man’s face, looking into his dullard eyes): Uniform, white.
Southpaw closes his eyes, Deadly Don twists his head in an attempt to detect Southpaw’s last breath, only the Englishman conjures up one last gasp of strength and head butts Deadly Don’s left eye socket, which still attached to the rest of his head, collapses on Southpaw’s chest. The referee kneels beside them, counting, before long deciding that the fight belongs to Southpaw.
While all are still low on the canvas, Jav joins them. He too kneels, and places his microphone on the canvas, where it starts to generate feedback. For a moment, it blends with the sound of the bell in Southpaw’s ear. Only as the bell dies, the feedback intensifies.
Southpaw (turns around groggily and demands): Turn off that fuckin' white noise, will ya? (less)
Warning: Some alcoholic substances were consumed by the author of this review. The rest, though regrettably significant in quantity, were consumed by the keyboard of his thirsty desktop computer, which wishes to state on its own behalf and in its own defence that none of the opinions expressed in this review reflect its opinions or state of mind at the time.
Things I'm Prepared to Swear About
I do solemnly swear that I bought this book today, 6 March, 2011. It only cost $16, which was a bargain. It has a different cover, but that's cool, I hope. It's based on the 1960 translation from the English. It's 933 pages long, but the font size is much bigger than I feared, so I'm OK with that. I think of it as value for money in this era when the counter culture has been superseded by the over-the-counter culture (or should that be the uber-counter culture for us Buffy fans?).
Upside Down and Inverted
I haven't been able to find any inverted commas in my version. This might mean that this book is all action and no dialogue. Or it might mean that they hadn't invented inverted commas in the days of Ulysses. Either that or they were all uninverted then.
The March of a Thousand Wikipedes
I am thinking of writing all of the headings from the Wikipedia article on Ulysses at the beginning of each chapter (in pencil, in case someone edits them while I'm reading the book), because I'm sure it will aid comprehension.
My Mother, a Clear Mind and Anthony Burgess
My mother always said that a clear mind aids comprehension. However, I'm not prepared to stop drinking for as long as it takes me to read the "Greatest Novel of the Century" (Anthony Burgess, Observer). I don't know who Anthony Burgess is (I haven't checked his WP article, if he's got one). However, this dude needs to seriously update his opinion. Everybody knows that Ulysses was written last century, der (I've just realised I don't know how to spell "der". If only I could txt in my revu, sir).
Another Observation by a Different Observer
You can bet that my review won't just say I'm an Observer. I'm going to proudly proclaim that I am the 12,975th most popular Good Reads reviewer of the first week of March, 2011 (how contemporary can you get)?
Should I Really Be Committed?
Well, that's my review of the front and back cover and an arbitrarily chosen page in the middle (unfortunately, for a supposedly dirty book, it didn't fall open on any particular page). I suppose I should commit to reading it now. I must admit that, despite the font size, I still find this task daunting. Everybody I know says that reading Ulysses requires a lifetime of commitment. I don't think I'm ready for a lifetime of commitment. I'm a male, for dog's sake.
However, I do promise to leave it somewhere conspicuous, where impressionable people (the "impressionista") can see it and be suitably impressionistic. If they say, "Shit, have you read Ulysses?", I'll be honest and say, "Only enough to write a 600 word review for an online journal of opinion read by 13,000 highly opinionated professional opinionists, der". I don't know how many words I've actually written. I can't work out how to use Word Count on Good Reads. But who's counting, we're all readers here!
A Show of Great Promise
So what should I promise? I do solemnly and sincerely swear a lot, but not idly, and in order not to be deemed idol, I promise to read one chapter by the end of this financial year. In fact, I'm feeling kinda sporty now.
III, II, I, Blast Off
Hang on, what's this bit at the beginning with the strange page numbering? lxxv, lxxvi? Roman numerals. I'll skip that. There's a reason why Latin is a dead language. If their words are all cactus, why should their numbers count? Show me the greatest novel of the last century and I'll show you a book that's English. Now, "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan..." Gees, I'm into it already.
I don't think I have ever cried so hard and so long as when I arrived at the end of this book.
In Defence of Slow Reading
I read it at a time when I had the time and inclination to embrace and be embraced by a genuine epic. I don't know whether I would be as patient now, but that is my loss. Hopefully, you, with the time available to you, will be more patient than me and you will be rewarded more recently as well. Some things in life, as Paul Keating once said of his political opponent, should be done slowly. This book and great literature in general are good examples. I have dropped a star only to protect you from length and sadness, but if you fear neither, it's a five star achievement. (less)
Well, I finished and I'm glad I persisted. You know how dogs sometimes sniff each other for ages before deciding to hump...moreA Whiff and a Sniff and I'm Off
Well, I finished and I'm glad I persisted. You know how dogs sometimes sniff each other for ages before deciding to hump? I was like that for a few years before I read the book, but more importantly I sniffed around ineffectually for the first 100 pages and could easily have blamed the book for my lack of engagement. I read the last 300 pages in a couple of sittings. I had to get on a roll. But once you commit, the book pulls you, rather than you having to push the book. In the beginning, I was afraid that it was going to be like a bowl of two kilos of green jelly that was just too rich or disgusting to finish. Instead, I felt it was just the right amount. So, some reactions.
I thought "Confederacy" was very much like a zany TV sitcom. There was minimal description of scene and action. However, the dialogue was consistently high quality and very, very funny. You do want to write down some of the lines, so that you can use them on your friends, but secretly you know that you'll never get into a situation where they'd be equally appropriate or funny. You just have to recommend the book to the right person.
Initially, I probably made the mistake of confusing JK Toole with his protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly. However, when I realised that Toole was a slim, neat, tidy English teacher, quite unlike the obese Ignatius, I started to imagine Toole reading extracts from the book in class. Apparently, he was really popular with his students. I could just imagine the sense of privilege hearing him reading from "Confederacy". I can imagine the fits of laughter his students would have had as they heard some of the sentences and expressions emerge from his mouth. I like to imagine Toole alive and vital.
Ignatius is a resident of 1960's New Orleans, the fat kid in school who turns out to be a genius, but has no social graces. I don't recall him reading a book in the novel, but he is obviously well-read. He has constructed his own medieval world-view by which he judges everything and everybody around him. He sees himself as "an avenging sword" in a crusade on behalf of taste and decency, theology and geometry and the cultivation of a Rich Inner Life. He speaks in a wonderful, bookish formality that really confounds and pisses off everybody around him: "Do you think that I am going to perambulate about in that sinkhole of vice?" When he combines it with a dose of sarcasm, it's hilarious.
Ignatius is intellectually arrogant, he judges others harshly, he is removed from reality. He is literally and metaphorically larger than life: "The grandeur of my physique, the complexity of my worldview, the decency and taste implicit in my carriage, the grace with which I function in the mire of today's world - all of these at once confuse and astound Clyde." It's tempting to wonder whether Toole intended him to be an inept, but God-like genius, someone who came to the world in order to lead people to Heaven on Earth. There isn't an evil bone in his ample body. But he isn't virtuous as we would normally use the word. He's motivated by the greater good, only he hasn't factored people into the equation. When he ventures into reality for some purpose or other, it inevitably results in chaos and disorder, so there's a sense in which he's an agent of chaos. Ultimately, I think Ignatius isn't the Messiah, he's just a haughty, naughty boy.
Much has been written about the influences on the novel. This is probably something better left to the individual reader, after you've read the book. Suffice it to say that I probably wasn't conscious of a lot of the influences, other than the obvious references to Boethius' "The Consolations of Philosophy". In one of his more benevolent moments, Ignatius says of "Consolations": "The book teaches us to accept that which we cannot change. It describes the plight of a just man in an unjust society." Ironically, Ignatius sets out to change just about everything in his life, whether consciously or subconsciously. He is not content with conformity: "They would try to make me into a moron who liked television and new cars and frozen food." Whatever the influences, "Confederacy" has an artistic integrity of its own.
The Cloistered Mind
Ignatius starts off sloth-like (nowadays he would play games and drink copious amounts of Coke all day and all of the night): "I was emulating the poet Milton by spending my youth in seclusion, meditation and study". His college love interest, Myrna Minkoff, is awake up to the fact that he has closed his "mind to both love and society", a "strange medieval mind in its cloister".
Up from the Sloth
Ignatius' mother embarrasses and coaxes him into getting a job, which is the beginning of his interaction with the wider world. "It is clearly time for me to step boldly into our society, not in the boring, passive manner of the Myrna Minkoff school of social action, but with great style and zest." Structurally, on his journey, the novel loosely deals with the three taboos in polite society: sex, religion and politics (though not necessarily in that order). Ignatius ventures through this subject matter on the way to some sort of climax or revelation at the end of the book.
The Importance of Being Earnest
On the way, Toole has lots of fun with his subject matter and influences. Ignatius strikes up an alliance with an openly gay character in their political battle: "I suspect that beneath your offensively and vulgarly effeminate facade there may be a soul of sorts." When his new soul mate hands him his business card, Ignatius ejaculates, "Oh, my God, you can't really be named Dorian Greene." Dorian responds, "Yes, isn't that wild?" Together they set off to "Save the World Through Degeneracy". Ignatius is all the more attracted to this scheme, because he knows what effect it will have on Myrna: "The scheme is too breathtaking for the literal, liberal minx mind mired in a claustrophobic clutch of cliches."
A Party in the City of Vice
As "Confederacy" works towards its climax, the action escalates. It starts at a fund-raising party in an apartment, then it goes into the streets of this home of the Mardi Gras, a Carnival-esque city of vice, and then finally to the strip joint, "Night of Joy". Failing to negotiate his way through the debauchery, Ignatius ends up ejected and dejected in the street, where he is almost run over by the reality of a city bus.
I don't want to make too much of this point, but I wondered whether the three main characters of "Confederacy" line up like this in terms of Freud's trichotomy: Ignatius: Ego Mother: Super-Ego Myrna: Id. These three aspects of Ignatius' life and personality work their way to some sort of resolution at the end of the book. Whether Freud was a conscious influence or strategy, it is possible that Freud's trichotomy might just be a nice metaphor for the influences on our worldview.
After all of the fun and games, it's difficult to predict how Toole would end his farce. But ultimately he was a romantic at heart, and there is a happy ending. Myrna visits Ignatius with the intention of removing him from the City of Vice and the vice-like grip of his mother. Her solution is to take him to New York, where she has been living. You wonder whether this is just swapping one city of vice for another, but to them New York represents a city of light, possibly of like minds, a cosmopolitan alternative to the conservative southern backwater of New Orleans. The story ends as they head out on the road. But we know what is in store for Ignatius and Myrna in New York: love and society and, perhaps, just perhaps, lots of sex. Ignatius ends his journey with the most romantic thing he could say to reconcile with Myrna: "To think that I fought your wisdom for years". Toole's students would have had tears in their eyes.
We decided to catch up for a barbecue lunch in the park, rather than the sort of dinner party we used to have.
It was difficult getting everybody together, what with kids' sport and, for those whose kids had already grown up, there was some initial reluctance because the football season had started, whatever code you followed.
I started to look at my wardrobe on Thursday, I still have everything I've ever bought that hasn't physically worn out, even jeans that I won't fit into until, perhaps, the advanced stages of cancer.
I know it might sound bad, but I sort of look forward to that day (I hasten to add there's no history of cancer in the family), so that I can reminisce about what I did in those bellbottoms, purchased and worn before they were retro.
I wondered if a T-shirt would be too un-ostentatious. F.M. Sushi suggested I wear something No Logo, though she stopped short of recommending a polo. I agreed with her.
I thanked her for her advice and held her to me, full body length, every inch of contact an expression of our love and gratitude to each other.
She is my beautiful wife, my rock, I can't imagine now what I saw in decades of promiscuity and seed-spilling before I met her. I love the way we hold each other. I will never tire of her opinions and the way she tentatively proffers advice, as if I might reject it, because I didn't think of it first.
I might have done that once, but no longer. I listen before I speak, I seek first to understand an idea and then to improve it, if possible and only if necessary.
It started to rain on Friday afternoon. I looked at F.M. Sushi and she reassured me that everything would be OK, in her usual "don't fret" way.
For once she was wrong, not that a minor deluge is a catastrophe.
Saturday morning, everyone started to phone, "Is it still on?"
Josh and Mary decided that they'd stay at home, indoors, Mary had a bit of a sniffle, she didn't want anyone else to catch it. I replied that I was more concerned for her health than ours.
Josh said they'd take a raincheck and I laughed. It was good to see his old sense of humour resurfacing. I assume he meant it as a joke. He would have once.
When the rain intensified, I realised it had put an end to the plan that we all walk to the park.
I decided to do another ring-around and suggested that we change the venue to our place.
A few more pulled out. I was sort of grateful. The new place isn't really set up to host more than a dozen people at a time. Still, we should be grateful for small mercies.
Peter and Sally arrived first, by cab. Their car hadn't started on account of the rain. Peter was carrying a wine carton from a New Zealand vineyard I hadn't heard of. When he placed it on the kitchen bench, I lifted the lid and discovered that he'd brought a dozen bottles of Perrier.
I looked at him and thanked him both verbally and with the enthusiasm evident in my eyes.
I hadn't been looking forward to alcohol, even a glass or two for the old times.
Mark and Nina arrived with some home-made pastries for dessert. Unfortunately, they had to leave early, when their baby-sitter rang, panicking about the water level in the front yard.
The girls made a nice salad and we broke bread, before they retreated to their rooms to do their homework. Mandy offered to give Peter and Sally a lift home, if it was still raining when they were ready to go.
We laughed and chatted for an hour altogether on the deck. It started to pour even harder, so Peter suggested that we move indoors, he'd been looking at his watch furtively and I realised that he was keen to watch the football.
It was the first Saturday game of the season. It was funny, the four of us sitting there, couples with arms around each other, the rain beating on the corrugated iron roof, while the players raced around, bashing each other, in total sunlight, all optimistic about what the new season held in store for them.
Just as the game finished, there was a break in the clouds here, too.
Peter and Mary declined the offer of a lift from Mandy and decided to walk home. It wasn't far. Thirty minutes max.
I let an hour go by, before ringing them. They'd arrived home, safe and dry. I was grateful.
There wasn't much to clean up. F.M. Sushi had done most of it while everybody was here.
No cigarette butts, just a few Perrier bottles.
Later when I looked in the fridge to see what I might whip up for dinner, I noticed that there were four bottles of Perrier left.
I still like the way you can end up with a bit of a private stash when you host a party.
These comments are not a considered review of the novel itself, but contain some responses to Paul Bryant's excellent review of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho: A Reader's Guide (Continuum Contemporaries) by Julian Murphet (and the comments it stimulated):
I originally posted my thoughts as a comment on Paul's review, but am not sure whether that was fair to Paul. So I have moved them to this page, edited them slightly and deleted my original comments.
Where Do Serial Killers Come From?
Paul's review created a debate about the likely class or wealth of most serial killers. I felt that this issue was a bit of a sideshow to Paul's main arguments. But it did make me think about the real issue of how to categorise serial killers in the first place. To be honest, serial killers don't really interest me as a true crime genre or area of research or reading. However, even if someone did scientifically verify that fewer rich dudes are serial killers, I would want to pry into the statistics. It might just mean that fewer rich dudes got caught; or that the poor guys in some cases might have been the patsies of rich guys, etc.
What is a Serial Killer?
But a more important point of distinction is how we define a serial killer. Is a Mafia foot soldier who commits multiple murders for the benefit of the Family a serial killer? Are the rich guys at the top of the Mafia serial killers if they authorise or direct the murders?
What's Wrong with Me, Doctor?
And more recently there was a classic example of what we could easily define as a rich serial killer in my own state. This person wasn't found to have intentionally killed a series of people in separate incidents, but he was found to have recklessly or negligently killed them. He was a medical doctor whose treatment and surgery was found to be culpable. Wasn't there also a recent case of a doctor in the UK who "killed" a number of patients as well? So you don't have to be a shooter or a slasher to be a serial killer. If you were a doctor, you could dress up your serial killings as sloppy work.
In Paul's review and the resulting comments, there was a lot of discussion about the amount of violence in the book.. The amount or proportion has some interesting history and precedents in the law of obscenity. This area of the law interests me as a point of intersection between morality, political philosophy and the law.
When there was a defence that a work had literary or artistic merit that justified the alleged obscene or offensive material, it was sometimes counter-argued that there was so much of it that it might have overwhelmed the inoffensive or literary or artistic content. So lawyers and judges got themselves distracted by arguments about amount and size (we all know lawyers are preoccupied by these things anyway). You can see that, if someone says that there was only 10% violence, then that presumably means that there was 90% art or literature. Therefore, the 10% is OK. This whole argument relies on the legal distinction for its validity. But then I think you're entitled to argue that if the very subject matter of the book or work of art is violence or sex (or blasphemy), shouldn't it be permissible to have 100% of your work devoted to your subject matter? Isn't it how you write that determines whether it is literary or artistic? Conversely, the literary merit of the 90% might not necessarily justify the grossness of the 10% (which is sort of linked with the gratuitousness argument, as well as the old practice of sticking a few pages of pornography in between unrelated serious articles).
How Do You Assess Size or Amount in a Film?
Part of the reason I've yapped on monotonously about this is that these concepts started to become difficult to apply to film about violence or sex. You couldn't realistically make 90% of the film deal with some other subject matter in order to justify the 10% that was naughty. It would be interesting (academically) to calculate the proportion of violence in the film of AP, but I would venture to say that it would be higher than 10% (not that it really matters on my argument). Ultimately, this sort of problem with film helped contribute to the system of classification of literature and film and more recently games (G, PG, M, R, X, etc) that replaced the old law of obscenity (that was applied in the Oz trials). So the material is now permitted, but regulated and restricted in its circulation. Within this system of regulation, it doesn't matter whether someone finds content shocking or appalling. They don't have to buy it and read or view or review it. As long as they don't have it thrust down their throats publicly or on free to air TV or in newspapers.
Does It Make Any Difference If It's Satire?
Within this framework of classification, it doesn't really matter to me (at least) whether AP was satirical. It is enough that BEE made an artistic choice to write about violence.
Illegal or Immoral?
The legal arena has moved on from amount and size (to some extent), so I think people should forget about turning their sense of offence into some sort of legal attack every time they hear about something they don't like personally (see the Bill Henson dispute discussed in David Marr's book).
People might still have a moral objection to the material, but I think they should express their objection in the moral arena, not the legal arena. They should just express their disgust if they feel so bad about it and let other people decide whether they want to read or watch it. Then if they want to change the law, they can make it an election issue at election time, which they always do anyway.(less)