That Is Why I Am So Confident in Concluding That My Thesis Is Correct

There’s a story I’ve had on my mind a lot this week, for reasons Bubblegum and otherwise: Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

Maybe you’ve read it before, maybe you haven’t; it’s quite short, so if you want to, it won’t take you much time. It’s pretty famous. It’s also nauseatingly sad, so, y’know, have some chocolate or a lazy dog or something on hand to help you get back up afterward.

The parallels to our situation in this country are, I hope, obvious, and that’s not what I want to (…can bear to) write about right now anyway. What I want to write about right now is that beautiful pair of letters to Belt from his mom—including some truly startling flashes of my own life on those pages (don’t worry for me, they weren’t about mental illness or suicide). Or what the hell Fondajane is doing in this book at all, because I’ll tell you, Triple-J’s essay on her is, I think, an effective set piece in a bunch of ways, and there are definitely novels I’d enjoy seeing it in as one star in the constellation—but for now, I’ve got no idea how to answer the question why is she here?, and that’s the kind of burr under my saddle that always keeps me bouncing.

But what I’m going to write about is Triple-J’s other essay.

In the first place, it’s funny. Triple-J is, as Paul notes, an intermittently formal writer. Cued perhaps by Hal Incandenza, I was expecting that these papers of Triple-J’s would be evidence of his genius. I would say I am…unconvinced. There’s an affability to the intellect he shows in them—I might like him!, although then again the kidney stomping weighs the other way—so I don’t think Bubblegum is making fun of him, but I do think we’re supposed to see both standard development-in-progress-type immaturity and a level of critical obliviousness. But in an affectionate way.

We learn quite a lot that we need to know from reading this essay, or at least the two versions of the Graham&Swords manual that it juxtaposes. None of that is what Triple-J is analyzing. His thesis—”that some people will say anything to sell you what they’re trying to sell you, especially if those people are corporations, and it’s shady”—rings of callow disillusionment, that feeling of conviction and righteousness (maybe even superiority) that I imagine we all experience when we’re 14ish and make some of our early critical judgments of the world around us. It’s not out of place for the character or anything, and I wouldn’t even say it’s incorrect, it just has very little to do with the material he’s using. (No, you’re remembering that paper you thought was awesome but your freshman-English TA thought deserved a D because it didn’t make any actual argument.)

Apart from the…what could we call it, data? bread crumbs?…about cures as material objects in the world of the novel, here’s the part that I think is essential. And it’s a little long, but that’s because Triple-J has already intuitively mastered linguistic recursion, so blame him for the size of this box you’re about to see:

There’s no way [people stop buying cures and using them and seeing them as robots] because by the time the “Cures are people! They’re people!” people start getting attention, not only is the whole Cute Economy happening and making everyone in the USA richer, but everyone in the USA and most of the rest of the world has already overloaded a bunch of times and enjoyed doing it, and has learned to want to keep doing it, and, like I said, if it turned out that cures/Botimals weren’t machines made of flesh but real animals or animal-humans or whatever and that it therefore wasn’t okay to do what we all do to them, not only would the economy get messed up, but we’d all hate ourselves and commit suicide because we’d see that we’d been monsters all along. We’re not monsters, though. And that’s how we know cures are robots.

I take Triple-J in good faith: I think his prior here is a naïve and honest certitude that “we’re not monsters.” And from that, it follows that cures must not be alive.

But of course we’re not kids reading this, and Levin’s a sophisticated technician. We can see self-serving rationalization when it begs us to tell it how innocent it is. And this is where I come back to the Le Guin story, especially because we learn here that cures aren’t just bread and circuses, they’re meat and drink. The national economy is built on the disposability of cures. It’s good at least that Triple-J lets us know there are in fact groups that protest their on-a-whim destruction. I wasn’t sure there was anybody but Belt (and at least some of us readers, including me) who had a problem with it. Because we’re not monsters, right?

Ever Heard of a Pass/Fail Personality Test?

You know in Belt’s interview with Dr. Lionel Manx (Daryl, there’s another name for you that’s also an object!), when Manx says, “I want you to tell me the truth”? I’m pretty sure that’s a superfluous request. This is such a great scene, and part of that greatness for me is Belt’s radical and self-aware honesty.

Belt’s a bright kid (“capable of insight,” Manx says—”of self-reflection”), and when this scene started, I was at least partly expecting it to follow that trope of the child prodigy and the mental-health professional who doesn’t expect the child’s prodigious intellect, and it’s an antagonistic/patronizing encounter at first that may or may not resolve into a respectful and possibly even warm relationship once they get each other’s measure. And to be fair, there is some of that present; Belt gets his hackles up at Manx’s profession of being confused (“You don’t have to talk to me like I’m a baby, alright? … I’ll answer all your questions, but just please don’t ask them to me like I’m stupid”), and although there’s definitely something to be said—especially in a therapeutic context!—for nonconfrontational diplomatic-type pointing out of contradictions, Belt’s objection has merit too. He’s clearly capable of understanding contradictions and double binds (which, I’ve just learned, were conceptualized in the context of schizophrenia research) and cognitive dissonance. He’s just demonstrated that in detail. I’m sure he could handle a less coddling approach to the inconsistencies Manx wants to address.

But it seems like the main reason there’s a thread of friction in this interview is Belt’s expectation that there will be (or maybe ought to be? Does it feel for anyone like he’s working partly from a cultural script he may have encountered?). Belt starts off tetchy because of his protective instinct toward his mom, whom he thinks Manx is slighting. Then he gets a little defensive about the question of whether it’s easier to die than solve one’s problems, and he reflects the perceived attack back at Manx with a parable about his method of helping swingsets that also accuses Manx of not selling his possessions and giving to the poor. It comes across like he wants Manx to feel bad about it, even though at the same time he’s explaining what’s unrealistic about it. I read it as a little conversational fencing. Belt ends up coming around on Manx, not least because Manx will talk with him about animals’ buttholes.

What I love most in this scene, though, is Belt’s impressively thorough ethical reasoning. You can disagree with his choices—he largely expects you to, based on your lack of access to his interior experience of communication with the inans—but he can defend all of them with the ethical calculus he undertook before making them. As a 12-year-old! There’s a beautiful little bit of recursive empathizing when he describes the swingsets’ pleas for euthanasia as the swingsets asking for help in a way that, having considered him and his capabilities, they think he might be able to perform. When he gets to digging into his reasons for picking and choosing which objects to help, it really sounds like he’s considering moral obligations to the whole world—”Plus the people who love you—you’d hurt them. They’d miss you. You wouldn’t have time for them. You’d be damaging them.” No wonder he’s prone to analysis paralysis, if he operates in a moral universe where the ripples of his actions propagate infinitely.

That said, he’s also intensely considered questions of pragmatism, with a pretty sharp eye toward his own failings. Would he repair the swingsets instead, if they asked? Well, if he were the kind of person who knew how to do that, he would be a different person from the one he knows, so it’s hard to say—but if he were basically otherwise still himself, of course he would! Unless it was too much work to be really plausible. “Maybe I wouldn’t repair them if they asked me to repair them. I don’t know. I guess it would depend. Like on how easy it would be to repair them.” That admission about the limits of his own desire to actually do good is something lots of adults would struggle to let themselves make. It’s so honest and unglamorous.

Then just about at the end of the assessment part of the interview, he has this moment that struck me as so touching: “And I understand that maybe I hallucinate. I can see how that’s possible. I can see why you believe that, and even why maybe I should believe it. But I don’t believe it, not usually at least.” We’ve been glancing at this question in comments, whether Belt hallucinates or not, so it’s good to know that Belt’s confronted it too. But aside from that, I find it so mature and sad that he believes it’s real but also has that part of himself that doubts because he should. It’s that normative claim, the recognition of the persuasiveness of the available evidence in the face of his refusal or inability to be persuaded, that gets me.

The interview finishes with a really good change of rhythm from Belt’s long, searching speeches to a rapid-fire bit where he and Manx try to settle on what kind of companion animal he’s going to get. It’s a nicely sharp contrast to the really complex, emotional, philosophically sophisticated dialogue that preceded it. And thanks to its pacing and blunt, surprise punchlines, this, I think, is a perfect way to end the scene:


“That’s slavery.”

“Cats?” said Manx.

“Dumber than everyone says, plus buttholes.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Manx said. “Let’s head upstairs to the kennel, shall we?”

Gotcher Clickbait Right Here

Folks, I don’t like spending time with Belt Magnet!

All right, that was inflammatory and unnuanced, I admit. Here’s the more considered version: Although I find him an engrossing storyteller and an interesting and perceptive writer, being with Belt and his thoughts makes me uncomfortable.

I noticed it in our first week’s reading. Belt’s first trip to the bank felt…suffocating. Unpleasant for me as a reader. Made me think of George Saunders in his tragic mode, but somehow crueler. And then came the “About the Author” section, that big Q&A section where Belt spoke directly to us and shared his essay about meeting Sally the Balls, and suddenly I could breathe freely again.

It happened again in the second week’s reading. The whole stretch with his dad and the loose screw in the carpet transition strip and drinking the glass of water was excruciating for me. But then in the next section, with the playground and all the inans and teens Belt interacts with, I was all in again.

The trouble I’m having is with being inside Belt’s head too much. When he has someone to interact with and engage his mind with—including more overt interpellation of a reader, like with his novel and his essay—I really like how things go! But when he has nothing to catch his flailing thoughts on except themselves, it much tougher going. (I suspect this is also true for Belt himself, that the more there is other than his own thinking to think about, the greater the relief.) There’s something about his endless indecision trees that hits me as both tedious and dread-inducing, like Cthulhu preparing his taxes. It’s quite possibly a very good depiction of a kind of maladaptive thinking that may even be related to his diagnosis, but I find it so paralyzing, for Belt and me both, that it makes those parts hard to read.

Now. I say all that and it makes it sound like I’m not enjoying the book. I am, overall! I’m eager to pick it back up every time. I’ve liked Belt’s previous writing (the stories-within-a-story), and he seems to interact with the inans in a much more direct and authentic way that I think is really effective, and his flashbacks and reminiscences have been appealing. I just wish he could get out of his head once in a while in the present frame of the novel.

Take n+1

Oh man, y’all, I have been through so many false starts on this post. Did you know that when you’re only about 10% of the way through a book for the first time, it can be tough to corral your provisional assumptions and early observations into a proper argument?

Daryl and Paul took a much more sensible first-timer’s path, paying attention instead to what latched onto their reading experience like burrs on their socks and collecting the signals that suggested the future importance of marks and names. I’ma do that too, because the bell that keeps ringing in the back of my mind throughout this first week’s reading is empathy.

And listen, I know it’s thoroughly trodden ground to suggest that a novel might be concerned with empathy. That’s one of the original functions of fiction, right? Inviting empathy is one of the signature strengths especially of the novel as a form, with drama as the nearest competitor. There’s a lot that’s tedious about Percy Shelley, but this part of his Defence of Poetry has stuck with me for decades:

The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.

Of course, he’s talking specifically about poetry (and, gross, specifically about men), but to Percy Shelley literally almost any creative expression of the will counted as one of “the kindred expressions of the poetical faculty”: “architecture, painting, music, the dance, sculpture, philosophy, and, we may add, the forms of civil life.” The point stands well enough, I hope.

(It looks like a scholar by the name of Suzanne Keen has done a lot of work in this field, which I’d love to read.)

But in Bubblegum it’s more explicit than that. Belt withholds from his readers the datum of his diagnosis out of a concern that it will make us unable to empathize with him. He’s afraid that instead of seeing him as a whole person, with varied motivations and experiences (y’all, I wanna quote my Whitman motto so bad right now), we’d only be able to think of him as a psychological disorder taking shape through time. The narrator of our book doesn’t trust us to extend him the empathy he deserves as a fellow human being—and (sad thought) that’s probably a conditioned distrust.

Speaking of conditioning! The cures are another site of empathy as a theme in this book, the way I see them. They were originally designed as therapy animals for children with psychotic disorders—am I remembering correctly that it was called the Friends Study?—who have to learn to understand their needs and care for them. And of course Belt appears to be unique in thinking of Blank as a pet and even a sibling. But “flesh-and-bone robot” is in the blurb we’ve all seen for the novel, right? So we already knew empathy was going to be an issue, specifically the question of who/what deserves it—because that’s why you put a robot in a story. Whatever your personal threshold is, whether it’s sentience or altruistic behavior or being alive or anything else, a story with a robot in it is intended to destabilize your certainty in that threshold.

(Briefly on sentience: The Turing test is our famous benchmark for identifying “intelligent” behavior indistinguishable from that of a human being. But note the formulation there. It’s not for measuring when a machine has become intelligent, it’s when that machine has become capable of behaviors that are consistent with intelligence such that a human observer infers the one from the other. This is a behaviorist test, right? Commonly, inaccurately used to “prove” the existence of something interior, which behaviorism would reject either the existence or the knowability of. Hence the excursus in Bubblegum on training your cure with conditioning methods, and all the documentation on cures that rigidly refuses to accord them any status but machines that produce outputs based on inputs.)

Belt’s threshold, it appears, is much lower than those of the people in the society around him. Much lower, we learn, because it’s not just other people he goes out of his nature into. It’s not just Blank and other cures. It’s…most things. When an inan may strike up a conversation with him at any moment, without warning or even previous identification as an inan rather than an inert object, it seems like there’s very little room for him to draw that circle that contains the empathizable-with and excludes the things that are beneath empathy. His swingset murders are mercy killings, specifically prompted by connecting to the suffering he perceives in the swingsets and their desire to be released from it.

On the other hand, he doesn’t really have any compunction about gaslighting his horrible racist grandmother into thinking she’s having dementia, so. Complicated subject. And I can tell I’m going to be thinking about it a lot!

So That’s It, Huh?

Howdy, folks! Sorry to have been away for, oh, almost the entire book—I’ve only just got out from under probably the worst job situation of my entire working life. (Which doesn’t include the bits where I haven’t had any work at all, so how much complaining can I really do.) I was so excited, too, because I thought there was another week or two after this one. Oh well. At least I made it, and managed to get back in time for the wake.

As a general summary matter, I think my reading definitely suffered from being forced by circumstance to go it alone. I hope to go back and comment on some of the previous posts, now that I have a chance to read them (forewarned is forearmed, people). The threshold matter of not being able to determine what “happens” (more or less)—that is, which narrated events are real in a Watsonian sense—induced a too-permissive suspension of the need to work things out.

(Picking this back up on a different day now, because the distracting power of TVTropes is not of the Lord.)

I may or may not have mentioned here before the concept of reading protocols. One of the reading protocols that folks who appreciate SF tend to learn pretty early is a kind of patience; since the world the work takes place in isn’t one you can already know (given the fantastic nature of SF), the work has to build that world for you. As a reader, that means you have to be willing to let the important unfamiliar things become clear and let the unimportant ones remain vague. I found SF when I was young, so this is a way of reading I have a lot of practice in. In fact, as I’ve started looking back on my reading of Gravity’s Rainbow, I’ve realized that I was unconsciously applying this protocol, and it wasn’t a successful way to read the book.

An essay by Brian McHale (“Modernist Reading, Postmodernist Text: The Case of ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,'” in Constructing Postmodernism) pinpointed for me some of what was happening in my reading. McHale gives a kind of taxonomy of unreal narrated events in the book. The most obvious ones are the ones that are cued ahead of time: “Here’s what didn’t happen.” Then you get ones like Pökler’s night with Ilse (Christine mentions this one in her post I linked to), where the narration explicitly clears up the event’s unreality after the fact—sometimes very much after the fact. And then there are ones like the candy scene Daryl wondered about. These are scenes that are later contradicted (in this case by the results of the SEZ WHO guys’ investigation), but not really authoritatively: It may be the later scene that’s unreal instead. McHale describes these scenes as ontologically “flickering.” I think what happened for me is that I got tired of mentally going back and erasing events from continuity, and then on top of that I got tired of leaving so many events up in the air, so to speak—holding off on making ontological judgments.

Because the “reality” or “nonreality” of events was deliberately obscured—and I was getting frustrated with that—I stopped trying to work it out. I figured the distinctions I needed to be able to make would become apparent, and thus I could read more carefully for things like prose style, ideas, set pieces, political or philosophical positions and their illustrations, etc. Which means, among other things, that I didn’t realize the 00000 had been fired in any narrative past. Until I read otherwise in secondary material, I thought the firing that’s interspersed throughout the final section was in the narrative present. I missed important things, is what I’m saying.

So that’s how I gave myself a harder time than necessary with this book. But I have a quibble with the ending that I’d be interested to hear other opinions about. I’ve learned that a major part of what’s going on in the last section, with all the subtitled vignettes and the Raketen-Stadt and Takeshi and Ichizo and all of that, is a depiction of Slothrop derezzing. And retrospectively, that makes for an enormously affecting story: He was essentially sold, by his father, to experimenters when he was an infant, and throughout the book he’s never really treated as a person. He’s an experimental subject (still), he’s a pawn, he’s a courier, he’s an instantiation of a legendary hero, he’s a half-mythical character—he’s always a means for other people, never an end in himself. Slothrop’s been the only entity trying to maintain a kind of synoptic understanding of himself, an idea of himself as subject. And in the end, he gives up that struggle against all other forces; they win. “It’s doubtful if he can ever be ‘found’ again, in the conventional sense of ‘positively identified and detained.'” I find that very, very sad, and a solid way of partly accounting for the structure of the end of the book.

But I don’t think it’s enough, because Slothrop was also kind of never the point. (I’m not sure the book treats him any better than the entities within it, although I’d be willing to have a discussion about it that would probably be very interesting.) The end of the book is focused on the flight of the 00000, which has at its heart the “black device” that has exerted such a gravitational pull on the characters and events, and here’s where I think Pynchon makes an artistic misstep. (Subjective response ahoy!) For me, the main matter of the book is systems—social, religious, scientific, political, economic, racial, sexual, etc.—and especially the interactions of these systems when they’re superimposed and the way these systems will each tend to absorb as much of existence as possible into themselves. There is a totalizing drive inherent in these systems, although they are often forced to accommodate each other (a few characters note that the war seems to be one such accommodation). The 00000 is one site, perhaps the most salient in the book, where a number of these systems overlap and impinge on one another—which is why I find it disappointing that when the rocket finally gets a star turn, that’s when the text achieves its greatest decoherence. I see the argument that the rocket is the apocalyptic event that can’t be contained within the existing arrangement of systems, so it’s like the event horizon of a revolution—the line past which all else is unrepresentable. Except that a large amount of the book actually does take place afterward, and the systems are all still in force. It’s after the flight of the 00000 that they are able to terminally attenuate Slothrop. I’d like to hear what other folks thought about the ending. Did you even consider it in this way? If so, were you disappointed too, or are there aspects I’m not taking into account?

Even though I disagree with some authorial choices about the ending, I’m glad I got through GR this time. If I ever return to school, and my project remains generally what I currently expect it to be, I’m going to have to do some serious grappling with this book. I look forward to my romp through the posts.

Christine Stole My Title

(The longer this continues, the more I think we’re cosmic brain twins.)

A tsunami of work blew up in my face this week and sucked all the time right out my lungs, but like Carlotta Campion, I’m still here (skip ahead to 24:36 if you must).

Wow, we had a doozy of a reading for this week. I feel like I have so many things to say that they’re almost fighting for my attention and my words. It’s like Three Stooges Syndrome (illustrated at right), only with thoughts instead of germs. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that we’ve got some very dense sections this week. There’s so very much that I know I’ll leave out something I had planned to cover. One of the benefits of being Jeff-come-lately, though: Daryl and Christine have already covered some of it.

I want to look mostly at the Katje section (1.14), although the points that interest me the most also come up in the Christmas section (1.16). Okay but first, on the level of pure plot: The message that Pirate Prentice, um, revealed in 1.11—that was the order to extract Katje, right? Or, since rockets ostensibly launched from the occupied Netherlands would make for an awfully inefficient way for the Allies to transmit orders among themselves, was it instead a request from Katje herself? (If this is a spoiler thing, just tell me as much; I can be patient.)

I’ve called it the Katje section because she bookends it (being secretly videotaped for some kind of conditioning experiment on an octopus?), but it’s really got a number of centers of gravity: the S/M-drag-kinky-Hansel-and-Gretel setup with Blicero, Blicero’s own experience in Südwestafrika, Gottfried, and Frans van der Groov and the dodos. Like I said, too much going on, so I want to focus on the thread of expansionism that runs through the whole thing. I actually sideswiped at this idea in my first post, and then this week it jumped up at me.

It took me a couple times through to figure this out, but the house where Katje, Gottfried, and Blicero play out their little game is in the Netherlands (it’s just outside the Hague, near Wassenaar and the Duindigt racecourse). Katje thinks of how to behave “in a conquered country, in one’s own occupied country.” The whole explanation for their setup—from her end, anyway—is that it’s about “formalizing” (better, say stylizing) the experience of extralegal subjugation as a way of coping through control. As Christine and Daryl both discuss, Blicero’s getting something else from it, and Gottfried seems to need the domination (incidentally, from what I’ve been able to find about conscription in the Wehrmacht at the time, Gottfried’s probably 17—not the child I originally thought), but for Katje it’s explicitly a strategy of living through military expansion into her home country.

As for Blicero, much of how he now relates to the world seems to have been formed by “his own African conquest.” The mere existence of German South-West Africa is obviously tied to colonialism, but more specifically, imperial Germany’s treatment of the Herero offers a premonition of Nazi policies toward the Jews. Rape, slave labor, and confiscation of land and property led the Herero to revolt; Germany’s response was the first genocide of the twentieth century, complete with concentration camps, corporate collusion, and medical experimentation. Blicero visits twenty years later and…falls in love? There’s obviously a huge amount of exploitation built into the situation (look for the narration calling Blicero “the white man” and “the European,” not to mention the likely pedophilia), but Blicero gives the boy a German name (power play, like renaming the towns and cities) from his beloved Rilke and calls him “Liebchen.” And then plays out the pattern again, but debased (further?), with Gottfried and his “doubleganger” Katje.

And then Frans van der Groov. I was boggled by this bit at first. (Love your reaction, Daryl, because it’s so close to mine.) But it turns out to be another story about expansionism, exploitation, and genocide. The Dutch went to Mauritius and found a strange bunch of birds with the audacity to not fear them. The dodos apparently deserved what they got because they were stupid, ugly, and not very tasty. Obviously they ought then to be extinguished. And for what? Nothing, as it turned out: “The enterprise here would have lasted about a human lifetime.” That’s a horrible enough story (and I found it surprisingly affecting that Frans forbore firing on the egg he found, but it didn’t make a difference since the dodos all died anyway), but then Frans turns it into a religious fantasy about bringing all the natives of wherever to God (“It is the purest form of European adventuring”), and suddenly it ties back to Enzian’s asking Blicero to make Ndjambi Karuna.

I was also going to talk about the Jamaican countertenor in 1.16, but it’s dinner time on Sunday; I think I’m late enough as it is. So let me just remark this:

These are not heresies so much as imperial outcomes, necessary as the black man’s presence, from acts of minor surrealism—which, taken in the mass, are an act of suicide, but which in its pathology, in its dreamless version of the real, the Empire commits by the thousands every day, completely unaware of what it’s doing. . . .

Seems to me to say that imperialism programs its own death the same way that Blicero looks to act out a story that inevitably ends with his.