CC Issue 25 / Literature

For Whom The Bell Tolls: A Year Into the Present

Time is a curious beast. They say time stops for no man, but in truth, man invented time. Sure we didn’t create the sun, the earth’s rotation or orbit, but we plotted weeks and months and years and when that wasn’t enough we divided days into hours and minutes and seconds and milliseconds and so on, and so on. We have desktop calendars and datebooks and watches and clock-towers and time zones. Now we all carry cellphones and constantly check to see what time is – the default action when we have nothing to do; while sitting on a train, during a pause at work, we check the time, for no reason at all. We check apps on our phone to see how long until the next bus arrives, or to track when a next-day priority delivery will arrive. Should you eavesdrop on your neighbors at a restaurant it would not be strange to hear, “How long does it take to cook the salmon? We’re seeing a film at seven thirty. So we’re kinda in a rush.” We will pay twenty bucks for a plate of salmon that’s cooked in less than ten minutes and eaten even faster. Time is a curious beast, indeed.


A year ago a good friend visited and left a copy of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Good Squad and The Keep. At the time I was on a Roberto Bolaño binge – having trudged like a devoted pilgrim through the mammoth 2666, I then proceed to steam-roll through The Savage Detectives. Known to my friends more for my enjoyment of the classics (friends who are still shocked at how I have escaped charges of genocide considering the number of dead white men on my bookshelves) all these contemporary writers were new ground to me. I have certainly tried to read contemporary fiction – I’ve given David Foster Wallace a shot and bought a collection of short stories by Lorrie Moore (a contemporary female writer, no less) but the former was far more laborious than pleasurable and my copy of Moore was destroyed in a trans-Pacific flight by a smashed bottle of cod liver oil.

A week or so after the guests had left, I picked up Goon Squad, mostly on a whim to see what wins you a Pulitzer Prize these days. I quickly found myself sucked into a very well written story. The novel mainly follows Bennie, an aging music exec (of the indie/punk variety), and his former personal assistant, Sasha. For once the characters from a contemporary novel felt very real, not just props to show off the author’s intellect or agenda, or merely straw men for a bonfire of satire. Hungry for more I quickly breezed through The Keep, a rather fantastical story about a no-longer-young young man (the late thirty-somethings of our age who haven’t realized they can no longer act as they did while in college) that ends up helping his cousin convert a medieval castle into a hotel of sorts. Compelling themes on our dependence on and fear of technology subtly show up in Goon Squad compared to the full fledged paranoia of The Keep.

As I took stock of these early adventures in contemporary fiction, it was hard to avoid the two major themes of time and memory – those great monoliths of literature. For Bolaño, who spent his latter years in poor health, passing away at fifty years old, time is an end game played between the ignorant ones (the young and stupid) and the enlightened (the sick, the despairing, the doomed). Shadows appear everywhere in Bolaño’s work, often creeping from around a corner, cast down by an unknown horror. Time slips away slowly, like sand through an hour glass. Of course, as in Bolaño’s case, we cannot flip the hour glass once our allotted time is spent.

Like many a magnum opus 2666 is sprawling, epic and hard to pin down. The Savage Detectives showcases Bolaño’s tactics more explicitly. The story, written in a diary format (through several characters’ perspectives), follows a group of poets in Mexico under the banner of visceral realism. Like many young poets, our characters spend a lot of time carousing – in cafes talking, drinking at parties, smoking weed and chasing tail.

The real action of the story begins when the two main characters, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, hit the road with a seventeen year old wannabe poet and their prostitute friend following a run-in with some shady characters. They go in search of the reclusive poet, Cesárea Tinajero; believed to be one of the founders of visceral realism.

Belano and Lima never find Tinajero, but they do end up all over the world – Paris, Barcelona, Israel – the potential energy of the youthful poets dissipating into the failure of adulthood. Just as suddenly as the youngsters are caught up in the chaotic whirlwind of life, they are just as swiftly dispersed and dropped down to earth.

Unlike the frantic paranoia of Bolaño, time moves in a more Proustian manner – that is to say, at a more leisurely and nostalgic pace. Characters come and go, just like the flashbacks and memories that make up the various tributaries of the story. The nebulous nature of time, that tricky sister memory, is also highlighted – characters forget the names of a former lover but remember the specifics of their bathtub, or they remember things that never happened to them. Memory is of the utmost importance – Egan’s characters gauge time through their memories, more than through any time-keeping technologies. While we have some help from these sources, without memory we have no past and our sense of time is skewed.

Egan has also picked up on how our minds and memories are now being shaped by the technological advances of our age. The protagonist of The Keep, Danny, suffers from severe techno-reliance, panicking in the isolation of his cousin’s backcountry castle. He constantly fiddles with a satellite for internet and phone access; even after it breaks he repeatedly checks his phone in vain for a signal. His connection to these machines, in a sense, replaces the memory’s fundamental relation to time past. Without a connection Danny fears he will lose his friends, his loved ones, his relation to previous experience, and therefore, that he will lose himself.

Like all nostalgics Egan understands that time is a scar that never totally heals, and you never know when a searing pain will remind you of its presence. “Time’s a goon, right?”

These themes of time and memory followed me into my reading of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. Murakami is a rare specimen of contemporary writer who I have actually followed for over a decade – whether its his American-esque short stories, his long, spiraling novels or non-fiction about long distance running. By now a world famous star of the publishing world, Murakami crafts quirky stories that borrow from both the realism of Fitzgerald and Carver as well as the fantasy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

In 1Q84 two characters, Aomame and Tengo, find themselves transported to a alternative universe (from the regular year of 1984 to the world of 1Q84) – a subtly different world where most everyday aspects of life are the same. Yet soon small cracks in the mirror begin to widen as the protagonists are sent down Murakami’s most thrilling plots. Upon the publication of the English edition, Murakami openly compared the novel to a fleshed out version of one of his best short stories – On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning. In that story, and throughout his writings, Murakami reveals his concept of time as overcoming obstacles – whether they appear in the wild plot twists of his stories or in self-made goals (such as the limits of the human body in marathon running).

As one might guess Murakami’s novel intersects at various points with Orwell’s 1984 – although the Englishman’s obstacles were of a more political nature, both novels feature a railing against dystopia. By now everyone is familiar with Orwell’s communist dystopia but Murakami’s is more subtle, not unlike the world of 1Q84 (the Q stands for question). Here Murakami differs from Orwell – his enemy is often unknown, a symbol of post-modern confusion and alienation. Yet like Orwell, Murakami sees time as a vessel through which we overcome the obstacles that separate us from other human beings.

Originally Murakmi released the novel in Japan as three separate volumes. He had the first two planned out but continued on with a third somewhat impromptu. Sadly this indulgence shows. The “question”, as it were, is answered by the end of the second volume. The third part then acts as a lengthy footnote, unnecessary and deflated, the suspense of the chase long extinguished.

Another contemporary writer I have some familiarity with is Michel Houellebecq. The controversial French author is one of a rare breed – a writer who demands attention based solely on how many people hate his guts. If a man is disliked so vehemently, surely he’s worth looking at?

Houellebecq is hated mainly due to his political incorrectness – his novel Platform ends with Muslim terrorists slaughtering tourists at a resort and on the publicity tour for the book he labelled “Islam the stupidest of all religions”– and amongst literary critics for his extreme nihilism.

The “Houellebecq moment”, if we may call it that, arrives in when a character is faced with the possibility of happiness but, in the daunting face of utter nihilism, the character rejects a connection with other humans (and the potential possibility of happiness) and retreats to the certainty of solitude. In his latest book The Map and the Territory Houellebecq utilizes himself as an example of this consequence. The main character, Jed Martin, meets with the fictional Houellebecq, first in Ireland, to solicit the author to write the catalogue for his art exhibit. Later he visits Houellebecq at his ancestral home in France – but in both locales the scene is the same: a disheveled middle aged man who eats poorly and drinks too much and avoids contact with other humans at all costs). Jed too rejects the possibility of happiness in his relationship with a beautiful Russian executive at Michelin, but for no specific reason.

Time then, for Houellebecq, seems meaningless; just a passage of unrelated moments. In the end the artist, Jed, is holed up in his fenced-in countryside compound, filming extended shots of nature – there is no “point” to the pieces other than creation. In response to nihilism there is only the rebellion of creation, even if that act in and of itself has no meaning (here Houellebecq follows in the footsteps of Camus’ Sisyphus). Time, in a sense, mirrors life – we are born and in the blossoming stages of childhood we are embedded with expectations, traditions, dreams, and prejudices. All these aspects of life are passed on through other humans, and so we enter the adult period of our lives still searching for human connections. Then, whether slowly or suddenly, the “enlightened” post-modern human realizes the meaninglessness of expectation, tradition, dreams and is faced with the oncoming winter of one’s later years.

My adventures took a short break before I stumbled on a review of Ben Foundation’s debut novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The review glowed so brightly I felt compelled, like an eager congregation member so inspired by a Sunday sermon, and so I immediately popped down to the local bookshop to picked up a copy. Three days later I emerged from the book (with only some slight interference from work and hunger) with that deep satisfaction of a damn good novel.

The unfortunate blurb on the dust-jacket reads, “The Catch-22 of the Iraq War”. Yes, both stories critique war and often utilize humor, but Catch-22 was so ludicrous in its satire the comparison mainly serves as a marketing point. Billy Lynn follows the title’s namesake, a member of the Bravo Squad which Fox News fortuitously captured footage of in a gunfight, as he and his squad visit the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving as part of a “Victory Tour” meant to drum up support for the military’s involvement in the Middle East.

The book will flash back to time spent in Iraq and other parts of the Victory Tour – including a brief day at home with his family – but the bulk of the action takes place at Texas Stadium. A movie producer follows the squad around (doing his best to secure them a movie deal before they return to active duty and the unpleasant prospect of not being around when a deal is finalized). They meet a fictionalized version of owner Jerry Jones, as well as the Cowboy cheerleaders and even get thrown into an embarrassing halftime show with Destiny’s Child.

The story flows faultlessly and the characters are instantly believable – credit to Fountain (a fifty four year old first time novelist) for making a teenage Texan army grunt such a memorable character.

What Fountain manages to do that is so different from Joseph Heller in Catch-22 is that he not only critiques this specific war and the ridiculousness of the Bush years, but he makes a more universal point. Heller satirized war to show its evil and absurdity, Fountain in contrast slowly builds up the main revelation of randomness. The quote used in Harper’s sums this up perfectly –

So many omens, so many signs and portents to read. It’s the randomness that makes your head this way, living the Russian-roulette lifestyle every minute of the day. Mortars falling out of the sky, random. Rockets, lob bombs, IEDs, all random. Once on OP Billy was pulling night watch and felt a sick little pop just off the bridge of his nose, which was, he realized as he tumbled backward, the snap of a bullet breaking the sound barrier as it passed. Inches. Not even that. Fractions, atoms, and it was all this random, whether you stopped at the piss tube this minute of the next, or skipped seconds at cow, or were curled to the left in your bunk instead of the right, or where you lined up in column, that was a big one.

Billy, in the course of all his adventures, whether at home, in war at Iraq, or watching the Cowboys – it is all unbelievably random. The main example is portrayed through his sister, whose life seemed so perfect when she was engaged and about to graduate from college. Then the epitome of random, an accident – a car crash – and then her engagement is cancelled, her college degree not completed and ten of thousands owed in medical bills, and suddenly she possesses a cynicism that attempts to lure her brother to desertion.

Billy has a take-it-or-leave-it moment, ala Houellebecq, with a love interest. Unlike the Frenchman’s characters the young Texan grabs at the opportunity with both hands. But this proactivity does not ensure happiness or ease his soul as he returns to active duty in Iraq – no, the novel ends with Billy knowing, a soldier’s premonition, with more certainty than anything else in the novel, that he will never see this lovely woman again.

These various perspectives on time highlight the value of literature. Time as a scientific fact can be rather cold and objective (although all the quantum physicists of today are determined to relativize and confuse us about everything we took as fact and certainty). Literature, however, allows a myriad of perspectives to reflect the many ways we have of experiencing life (think of Joyce’s parallax in Ulysses). In a sense literature injects life into our daily concepts where science can often render them lifeless. And while I usually turn to the classics for a wizened perspective it’s been a fruitful year learning that writers today can still pull off this grand feat of literature.

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