In Which Your Correspondent Counterweights His Late Complaints with Some Things He Liked in This Week’s Reading

I don’t have much of a reading this week—in terms of an argument to make—because it’s been a very eventful week for me. But I do have some scattered thoughts I want to share, especially in light of how down I was on the book last week. As Daryl promised in reply to my post last week, there was some much, much nicer stuff this week.

Here’s a strange thing to say about an 800-page book: There are a lot of things here I wish we got more of! The compound, for instance. Jonboat turned a small neighborhood into his residence. They don’t even have outbuildings there, like, say, a studio—the production house is an entire actual house. It’s essentially a 26-room mansion, except each of its 26 rooms is a house. Although I suppose what I want isn’t a tour of the different houses (we get a listing of some of them), but more of the compound as a setting. That’s a weird environment! I would have thought, for example, that if security is a grave enough concern to prompt the construction of a compound with ramparts and everything, you wouldn’t then let whole crowds in like the audience for Triple-J’s Neo-Gratification spectacle. I also want to know more about the logistics of a distributed home life like that, and how it might/would warp a kid’s ideas of how to be a person.

Somewhat related, I want to know more about the Archons. It didn’t occur to me that Burroughs would have a family. (…Which is not a fun thing to think about, my having supposed his entire identity was “driver/mentor.”) Who is the woman who gave birth to these hulks? Did we hear about her? Is there an Archon who didn’t want to go into personal security to the wealthy at all, and rebelled by, I don’t know, becoming a sportscaster or a marine biologist or a day trader? They have a house at the compound—and I’m curious how closely it resembles a Spartan barracks.

I thought the opening sentence of “Certain Something” was genuinely excellent:

If Mike told Brenda he’d dreamed she’d died, she might let him kiss her, he thought.

That’s in ballad meter! It also has some almost Keatsian sonics, and some beautifully balanced syntactic embedding that covers, what, four time frames and one conditional statement with an extra removed level of speculative likelihood. In seven beats. I’d be happy if I’d written that.

I also found it hilarious that Paul and I were right on the money about Bam Naka’s name.

And as I mentioned in a comment on Daryl’s Proust post, I do generally like Fondajane. I think I appreciate her critical performativity—when she’s doing Fon with respect to art and Theory—a lot more than her libidinal performativity, but I’m pretty sure that’s on me, not Levin.

Actually, to follow up on me not especially responding to how cataclysmically desirable Fon is: If I do have an objection for this week, it’s how woefully straight this all feels. I know that sounds weird when we’ve got this whole section on fisting (and god help me, as soon as I read “the French power guy” I knew it was Foucault), but stay with me here. So I haven’t read it myself, but it appears that this whole notion of fisting as a revolutionary invention is truly Foucault’s—and not, as I thought Bubblegum was saying, Fon’s friend David Ballard’s application of Foucault’s thought. (Y’all have to read this whole thread. It’s a doozy.) But from what I can tell without going to the source, it wasn’t this free-floating conception of “revolution.” In fact, that’s a nonsense idea, that revolution can exist without a system to roll back. I appreciate the point that Trip is channeling the revolutionary energy he felt from reading Ballard’s paper, but I can’t miss that he’s also taking it out of its very specifically queer context. It’s not just that fisting was supposedly a brand-new way of using the body for pleasure; it’s that it was a defiant way of relating sexually, one that took the phallus out of the equation altogether and therefore—in this almost comically on-the-nose poststructuralist, French theoretical way—short-circuited patriarchal control over oppressed bodies and marginalized sexual practices.

Lots of buzzwords there, and I cannot overstate that I’m working from secondhand and partial knowledge. But to see the inescapable queerness of this idea translated into “I want to innovate” is…disappointing. Especially when everybody’s straight. I’m not calling it appropriation, because that’s another nonsense idea when it comes to scholarship (mostly). I’ll just stick with “disappointing.”

I do love where we end up from that spark, though. Fon’s instant dismay when she learns that Belt is the boy in A Fistful of Fists whose mother was dying—that immediate, reflexive empathy for Belt—was really touching, and a good ironic counterpoint to Trip’s profession that empathy is the root of good art. (Ironic, of course, because Trip’s idea of empathy means the viewer seeing things through the artist’s eyes. It’s empathy as a cover charge for experiencing art, not as a requirement for creating it.)

But Trip’s art project? I am one hundred percent totally on board. I love conceptual art; it’s one of the most purely unnecessary things, which, for me, makes it an absolutely necessary outpost out past the borders of “regular” art to pound stakes down and keep room open for other kinds of art to exist in. (Oh man, I feel a whole separate post coming on. The gist of it is: I want to argue that what characterizes art as separate from not-art is some kind of superfluity. And conceptual art, by maximizing superfluity, holds space for other kinds of art to be some degree less extra and therefore some degree more essential. This is not a considered argument yet, just a ghost of what I’d want to think about.) A Fistful of Fists isn’t even his artistic statement, it’s the performance of scarcity in a relatively post-scarce environment (DVDs are more or less trivially reproducible, especially with his family resources) and the manipulation of the art world’s construction of that performance as a kind of authenticity. OK, listen, if I get time for an extra post, I’m coming back to Trip’s art project, because the more I type about it the more excited I get.

And now that we’re about to get to “Jonboat Speaks” (not “Jonboat Say”—that was the first section of the first chapter, or first chapter of the first section), I’m really looking forward to seeing how the relationship between grown-up Belt and Jonboat compares to the relationship between adolescent Belt and Jonboat.

2 thoughts on “In Which Your Correspondent Counterweights His Late Complaints with Some Things He Liked in This Week’s Reading

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston June 20, 2020 / 3:11 pm

    I tend to have a little bit of an ear for rhythm but didn’t pick up on that lovely line in ballad meter. Thanks for pointing it out. It’s a beaut. I’ll confess that I read that story pretty quickly, wanting to get back to the main thread, though I ought to know well enough by now that digressions are worthwhile.

    I hope you’ll find time for that extra post. Although I am not smart about art, I do have a thing for stories that deal with art, especially conceptual. I hadn’t thought it through even as fully as your initial thoughts here, but in a way, I think the art-ness of it sort of makes up for the slog of it. Certainly it makes the why of it make sense.

    Unrelated to Levin’s book but with straightwashing in mind, I wonder if you’d find Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers a balm. Well, I mean, it’s awful. It tells a story of the AIDS crisis in the 80s (and much later). So it’s a gut-wrenching book to read at times, but it’s also very lovely and, though I believe is is authored by a straight person, I think it treats the characters and events with a lot more nuance and authenticity than most of the big long books by straight white dudes (at least the ones I’ve read).

  2. Paul Debraski June 27, 2020 / 3:56 pm

    Jeff, i often feel like long books skimp on the best parts. I could absolutely have read more about the compound. More about Jonboat as an adult. More about so much.

    I know that some (much) of the book is designed to be cryptic–but like what about those bracelet things? Communicators? Security decides?

    You already know my feelings about Burroughs, but yes, what is Mrs Archon like? Is there much call for a lyric essayist/bodyguard?

    It’s fascinating that Levin can write something as densely compact as Certain Something and then write these flights of fancy that go on for pages.

    As for Foucault, I was a philosophy grad student back in the day. Foucault was all the rage at the time. Although I did not actually read him (I was more into the ancient Greeks) I know plenty of people who did. Somehow we never discussed fisting in our grad lounge.

    I’m inclined to say that Trip’s glossing over of any queer aspects to it is because of his whole almost a-sexual attitude towards his reading of it: “yea yea, fisting is a sex thing, but it’s so much MORE?” And yet, Trip (and the novel in general) are so queer-positive (right?), that it is surprising that it is glossed over so easily.

    I was actually thinking that the whole book feels very asexual. It almost seems like making prostitution legal has taken sexual feelings off the table for a lot of young men (it’s unclear to me if there are brothels for women or for LGBTQ folks). However, you are absolutely right about how straight the novel is. It pays very good lip service to homosexual equality, but there are no (explicitly) gay characters, I don’t think.

    Since I’m behind, and haven’t had a chance to look at other posts, i hope you had time to talk about Trips art project.

    I have to wonder if there’s a commentary there about immaturity and art.

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