Lists and Ekphrasis and Lists of Ekphrases

I think it’s awfully tempting to read an author like Levin with his influences front of mind. I’ve intended generally to try to read Levin-as-Levin rather than reading him as Levin-as-Literary-Descendant-of-X, except where he seems openly to invite such comparisons (a nod to Coover from someone working in metafiction invites a reading with Coover in mind). In short, although I initially heard of Levin many years ago through some association with or comparison to David Foster Wallace, and I was turned on to Bubblegum when it came up on the wallace-l email list and when Levin was interviewed on the podcast The Great Concavity, I have generally tried not to read him as a DFW acolyte. I have tried to give him his space from Wallace. But in this week’s reading, he invited the comparison very nearly explicitly and I think a bit puckishly.

A Fistful of Fists is a transcript of a documentary that is itself made up of a bunch of short video selections. I initially resisted the urge to read it as a nod to Wallace’s filmography in Infinite Jest. But then I got to page 395, where Levin is very clearly portraying a Wallace-ish character (or maybe a Wallace characterish character), complete with pursed lips, linguistic prissiness, careful use of “nauseate” (a thing for Wallace, though I forget where it came up), self-(that is, Dave-self)-reference, and the kicker: “And but so.” Further, it’s only tangentially related to the rest of the smaller films the documentary comprises, a bit of a curiosity within the parade of horrors.

I take this to be Levin saying something like “I know, I know. Wallace did something similar in IJ with his filmography, and if I don’t make it very clear that I know this, and that I know that people who know Wallace’s work might think this section seems a little derivative of his filmography, then that’s what people will focus on rather than my fucking book and it’ll be annoying. So I’ll just tip the old hat and move on with writing the book I want to write, which happens to include a list of film clips.” I mean, maybe it was just fun to put this in, though.

Thinking about this sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole whose terminal point was the question: But why make this sort of list anyway? What purpose does it serve to go on at such length (this transcript makes up about 12% of Bubblegum‘s page count), for Levin or for others?

At the top of the rabbit hole, I started thinking about other works that make big productions of listing things. There’s Infinite Jest, of course. Bolaño 2666 came to mind too, as it offers its own parade of horrors that is in its way more analogous to the content of Levin’s transcript than Wallace’s filmography is. Melville has his list of extracts. So at least four of the books we’ve covered here do some form of this long listing thing. Then I thought of the rambling description of Achilles’s shield in The Illiad. For a little while I conflated two ideas:

  1. Long lists of things.
  2. Descriptions of other works of art, chiefly visual, which (this sort of description) is also known as ekphrasis.
The Shield of Achilles

In the Bolaño, we have simply a long catalogue of crimes, and to me, its purpose seems to be to make it extremely hard to ignore a very real set of horrific crimes. I can understand why Bolaño wrote about the crimes at length and in such detail. The purpose of this list strikes me in intent as more journalistic than aesthetic.

In Moby-Dick, I can discern some meaning behind the extracts. They set the tone and establish a long literary tradition, among other things. They make sense to me as a grand gesture (much grander than how most extracts or epigraphs land for me). These in general are not examples of ekphrasis (though the book, in its description of a couple of paintings, does offer examples of ekphrasis).

The purpose of the filmography in Infinite Jest is more slippery for me. I love that end note, to be clear. It adds depth and texture and humor and of course also its share of horror (I’m looking at you, Accomplice!). I think it was probably fun to dream up and to write, and maybe that’s reason enough to include it. The filmography is a list of ekphrases, some of them about (or not) a film that cannot be described because to see it in order to describe it (were it even widely available) is to succumb to it. So maybe that’s the point of the whole thing — to provide a pretext for including that little irony.

This is ostensibly a post about Bubblegum, though, so I should maybe write about the novel in question a bit. My problem is that while I can reasonably defend these other lists and ekphrases, I’m having a little trouble wrapping my head around why Levin goes on for 12% of the book with these transcripts. They serve a similar purpose to Bolaño’s, maybe, but by comparison, they are trivial. If we consider the cures to be stand-ins for animals and Levin to be on a soapbox, I suppose we can stretch this section a bit to say that he’s really trying to hammer home the atrocities of mistreating animals. But I really don’t think that’s what he’s doing. In spite of how gross a lot of this section is, some of it’s funny too. The “Compliments of the Yachts” vignettes are oddly sort of charming and funny. The science fair presentation made me make laughing sounds a lot. There is gross stuff here, yes, but it does not strike me as preachy stuff, or stuff that works in the way that “The Part About the Crimes” in 2666 works.

Yet it goes on for a long time. In spite of the humor, and in spite of the variety of episodes described, this is almost 100 pages of cruelty described often in great detail. Maybe it was fun to dream up and to write and that’s reason enough for including it. But I do feel like there might wind up being more to it than that, with the self-conscious nod to Wallace’s work, the general nesting of genre (recall that this transcript of a film composed of smaller bits of footage is itself a document that Belt has included in his memoir, which this novel purports to be), the things that Belt has said so far about interpretation, the fact that Belt has been asked to read and critique this document.

So, as is my way, I have nothing terribly tidy to conclude here, but I have questions (weigh in if you’ve got thoughts!) and a very satisfying sense of curiosity about what’ll follow.

12 thoughts on “Lists and Ekphrasis and Lists of Ekphrases

  1. Rob June 10, 2020 / 3:13 am

    I felt somewhat exhausted by the video ekphrases and just wanted to be done with them. (And now I’m behind, whereas before I just coincidentally was keeping up with tempo of the schedule.) The overall sense I got from them is that maybe the novel is more about cures than about Belt et al.

    I’m also confused by the apparent lack of Triple-J’s writing style in these video descriptions. They are fairly “clinical” and not consistent with the style of writing we see in TJ’s earlier “essays”, which are chatty and he can’t help himself. I can’t see how he is not the author of these descriptions.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston June 10, 2020 / 10:07 pm

      I wasn’t so much exhausted as just puzzled why it was so long. It was a rough read in places, but not so rough as the more realistic stuff in 2666. But I hear you. I’ve done next week’s reading, and I won’t spoil it with any particulars, but I’ll at least share that the why becomes a lot more clear. I think the second point about style does too. Lots of the next section is also a big huge relief to transition into from the video section, I think probably by design.

    • Paul Debraski June 17, 2020 / 3:19 pm

      That’s a keen observation (Trip’s voice not being here). I hadn’t really thought about that. Although I see from the next section that that is spot on.

  2. John Armstrong June 10, 2020 / 3:42 pm

    The question of whether curios are animals (alive, or even sentient) is an in-novel question, but a bit of a red herring in terms of what Levin means by this litany. I don’t think this observation is quite original to me, but given the presence of curios and absence of the internet — in particular social media — it’s hard not to see the one as a stand-in for the other.

    So, what horrors do we inflict on each other over Facebook and Twitter and any number of other, even more secretive and grungy channels? How many pranks do we pull and waive off responsibility for as “social experiments” (apparently without IRB oversight)? What abuse do we call down, telling ourselves that the other users and the vitriol directed at them “aren’t real”? How often do we invite friends to get in on the fun?

    The question can indeed be extended to animals, but it’s a lot bigger than that: what actions do we allow ourselves with the excuse that the objects of those actions aren’t as real or don’t experience harm the same way we do?

    We can’t actually be hurting anyone when we join in on a Twitter-mediated two-minutes-of-hate festival. Nobody really has their tarnished reputation made permanent in search engine databases. Nobody really has to change their phone number and even move residences repeatedly. Nobody really gets their door knocked in by a SWAT team over a false bomb threat. Nobody is so cut off and overwhelmed that they commit suicide. Nobody has to watch their loved one’s suicide be turned into further objects of ridicule by the harassers who drove them to it in the first place.

    Of course none of that happens. If it did, we’d be monsters. And the companies responsible for these products have assured us that we are most definitely not monsters.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston June 10, 2020 / 10:13 pm

      There’s nothing to rebut there, John. I think it’s a sound if horrifying analysis. In next week’s reading, Levin takes it in a different weird direction, but a text is what the reader makes of it, and I like what you’ve made of it, however much I may hate that it’s make-of-able. It’s good to hear from you over here.

    • Paul Debraski June 17, 2020 / 3:23 pm

      Holy shit. That’s a powerful idea John.

      I had been wondering why the promotional information seemed to point out that there is no internet. The text doesn’t dwell on it in any way (how could it if it doesn’t exist). But aside from the comment about the iPhone, Levin doesn’t wink or nod to the lack of internet. Honestly i didn;t even miss it and wouldn’t have even thought about it as a part of the story if I hadn’t read on the book flap.

      But the idea of Curio as substitute for the internet is really interesting. Whether or not Levin meant it, I will certainly rethink about these clips with that in mind.

  3. Jeff Anderson June 12, 2020 / 12:04 am

    OK, so this is a little weird, seeing so many of my odd little niche literary interests tossed into one pot together. I’d love to talk sometime about Endnote 24, because I read it as a palimpsest for nearly all the significant themes of IJ.

    Long, perhaps-tedious lists have always caught my attention in reading. (I seem to find mild irritation at a book to be a productive source of response, ha.) Somewhere around here I have a blue book where in a final on American lit between WWI and WWII, I compared the loooooong list of Jay Gatsby’s guests over the summer (at the beginning of chapter 4) to the begats in Matthew and Luke (and boy, if you’d told me not long ago that I’d be citing the Bible twice in such a short span, I’d have been just as surprised as anybody). And the Iliad also has the Catalogue of Ships way up front. Like you, I’m always looking for a function for lists like that, because otherwise, honestly, any competent editor would redline them out, y’know?

    Your mention of the Shield of Achilles made me think of the Auden poem, and then I remembered one of his most famous ekphrases: “Musée des Beaux Arts.” It’s a wonderful example of what I guess I would call the whole point of ekphrasis, which it seems to me is to describe the painting in a way that says something different from what the painting itself does. To use your terms, I think ekphrasis is most effective when it’s aesthetic—meaning using art to say something (which I know isn’t what it really means)—rather than journalistic, in the sense of just trying to re-create in words what’s done in pigment.

    Anyway, as you say, time to say something actually about the book we’re here for. No more procrastinating with the stuff I like, it’s off to the Create a New Post window.

    Oh, y’know, I was going to say—I’m not sure we’re supposed to think of the cures as animals specifically in an animal-rights kind of sense. That feels like small potatoes. (Especially once Maya Mehta shows us how sophisticated their psychology really is.) Or at least the conception of “animal rights” does. It’s not about the cures, it’s about the people. Lemme think more about where I think that’s going.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston June 20, 2020 / 3:41 pm

      I’d love to talk about that end note too sometime! I’m sure I must’ve read your post way back then, but it’s good to have it brought to mind again.

      I like what you say here about the function of ekphrasis.

      I thought of the Auden poem when thinking of ekphrases generally, and of WCW’s similar poem. And, with your mention front-of-mind recently of the lovely ballad meter line with which Belt opens the story he shares, I’m reminded too of one of my favorite lines of poetry ever, by Auden about the death of Yeats: “When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the bourse.” Apropos of nothing, really, but a nice little bit of sound and imagery to have resurfaced.

  4. Paul Debraski June 17, 2020 / 3:17 pm

    I assumed others saw DFW in the teacher. Glad to see confirmation that my world isn’t as narrow as I fear.

    As for the point of the transcripts, does reading the next section help with it or not (is this the place to ask that question? or is it too spoilerish)

    I often think that Levin is just having a lot of fun–some of those discursive passages have to be a huge amount of fun to write. Is that a good enough reason to include something? I hope so.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston June 17, 2020 / 4:51 pm

      Yeah, reading the section that follows definitely illuminates the point of the transcripts. I agree that writing this kind of stuff because it’s fun is worthwhile. I suspect that’s how a lot of iconic set pieces in novels are born. But even so, I have this inbuilt urge to question what function something serves; if it’s both fun and significant as a piece of the architecture of the book, then it’s all the more rewarding to me. If that sounds defensive, it’s not my intent; I agree with you wholeheartedly, in fact.

  5. Jeff Anderson June 19, 2020 / 4:37 pm

    Daryl, I’m a dork and got so excited commenting on this post with examples (read: links) that I think I landed in comment jail (read: awaiting moderation). Because I dug this post that much.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston June 20, 2020 / 3:30 pm

      Ah, thanks for letting me know. I’ve found the comment in comment purgatory and approved it.

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