The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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YFTS: And Now We Venture Into the Ladies' Room, and Into the Mind of a Vengeful God

Currently we’re reading pp. 122 – 201 of vol 2, Dance and Dream, and these comments are going to pertain to both last week’s section and this week’s. As always, you can check the full schedule right here.

To start, a very general observation: I don’t know about you all, but I’m at the point where things are really starting to pile up. More and more I’m seeing stuff referring to stuff, referring to stuff, referring to stuff, and so on; basically I’m annotating lines all the time now with little cross-reference marks and jotting down ideas as to how what I’m currently reading relates back to what occurred in the preceding 500 pages. The work is really starting to feel cohesive for me. I guess you can say I feel like we’re at the point that Marias has dealt all the hands, and now he’s starting to play them out.

Now them, I’m sure everyone was very tickled by the restroom scene–I know I was. In a very broad sort of way, this scene made the book feel very real to me in a way that all the talk of the Spanish Civil War, 9/11, Bill Clinton (yes, he was in there), government surveillance, James Bond, and all that other “real world” stuff just didn’t. The restroom felt so prosaic: if Marias was going to take Deza into a public restroom there’s nowhere he wouldn’t take him. It just opened the book’s world up for me in a way it hadn’t been previously.

I found it interesting that Deza spends about 1 page describing the men’s room, whereas he spends about 15 pages in the ladies’ room, although there does seem to be far more in the latter to sustain his (and our) attention. Having never done what Deza did and ventured into a crowded women’s bathroom, I hope that some of the women reading along will jump in here to let us men know if what Marias wrote sounds true-to-life or not.

As to the scene itself, I was struck by the very palpable femininity that it seethed with. Clear this is brought out by the contrast of a women’s bathroom with the circumstances of Deza’s entry to it (to do Tupra’s dirty work), as well as the fact that these experiences were being filtered through Deza’s rather manly consciousness. But I think the femininity comes across most of all in this scene because of the way in which Deza defines the women sitting in the stalls as “eight pairs of legs” is certainly chauvinist, although it’s also something that feel quite truthful given the setting (how else would he describe them?). Essentially it reduces the women to one very erotic feature–disrobed legs, with underwear huddled at their feet–and the fact that Deza can see them, but not vice versa, makes for a kind of odd variation on the male gaze. So I found it highly interesting when the one woman–notably not wearing any underwear–reverses the situation by opening the stall door and staring back at Deza.

All in all, I thought this was a very strong scene, although I’m not sure how I felt about Marias’ final addition of a little (menstrual) blood, linking it back to the drop of blood he encounters in Wheeler’s apartment. Its an interesting link to make, although it seems a bit strained to shove it into the scene. I’m curious to know how other people took it. (Oh, and also, I would be remiss if I did not note that this blood incident gives Marias an opportunity to once again reference the socks drooping down, which he likens to the drop of menstrual blood on the woman’s white shoe.)

And then, right after the bathroom scene, we start getting into this week’s section and what, to my eyes, is the strangest section of the book yet. With the whole thing of Rafita and Flavia missing and possibly fornicating and Deza’s job (and maybe life) hanging in the balance, Marias jumps up out of this plotline for a lengthy series of philosophical digressions loosely structured around the idea of a last Judgement Day. Granted, this is a bit of an odd turn for the book to take, but what really struck me is how bleak this section is. We just have pages and pages of executioners and death and violence and eternal damnation (at one point Deza even says that limbo seems a paradise in comparison). It brought to mind that brutal fourth section of 2666–where Bolano narrates murder after murder after murder–which anyone who has read essentially considers about the bleakest thing set down on paper for at least the last decade.

There’s one thing in particular from this section that I wanted call out: Marias pretty baldly states something that he’s been implying for a while now. That idea would be that totalitarian government can be seen as a sort of real-life God-figure created by humanity to replace the conceptual, religious God that they had killed. You see Marias make that link starting page 128, where he’s attempting to imagine how people must have felt in the centuries where the idea of a vengeful, watchful God went unquestioned:

What an enormous solace to utter solitude it must have been to believe that we were seen and even spied upon at every moment of our few, miserable days, with super-human perspicacity and attention and with every tiresome detail and vacuous thought supernaturally noted and stored away: that is how it must have been if it truly existed, no human mind could have stood it, knowing and remembering everything about each person from each age, knowing it permanently without a single fact about anyone ever going to waste . . .

It’s quite easy to see how transferrable this description of the medieval conception of God would be to Big Brother from 1984, or even (to a lesser extent) to Hitler, Stalin, or some of the security states that people fear liberal democracy is headed toward post-9/11 (e.g. the odious Total Information Awareness program launched by the U.S. government to, essentially, monitor all electronic communication made by anyone within the borders of the United States).

I also think this paragraph becomes highly interesting in conjunction with the idea continually referenced by Wheeler and Deza that as people grow old and die all kinds of facts and memories are permanently erased from memory. This has been an idea that has been portrayed in a certain melancholy light so far, although I think that Deza and Wheeler would find it immeasurably preferable to the horror described above, which would be the opposite extreme.

I’m eager to hear everyone’s thoughts on these things, as well as all of the stuff from these sections I didn’t have a chance to address here. And now I turn toward reading the rest of this week’s section, where it looks like we’ll finally have some resolution about the bloodstain from vol 1 . . .

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  2. YFTS: Favors, and The Return of the Socks (!) For those of you who remain with me, we are now just beginning "Dance," the first section of volume 2 of Javier Marias' long book...
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5 comments to YFTS: And Now We Venture Into the Ladies' Room, and Into the Mind of a Vengeful God

  • Whew – I was a bit behind and read most of Volume II at one go over the weekend. You are absolutely right that it piles on more and more and yet, rather than overwhelming me as a reader, it’s completely pulling me in wondering where this is all going. I’m more intrigued than ever about the origin of the bloodstain in Wheeler’s home that Deza removed. One of the most beautiful and haunting images in the book so far for me has been that scene where Deza starts dancing with the newspaper only to look up and see that his neighbours across the way have noticed and are copying him. A scene with no communication save visual. And since the scene takes place a day AFTER the restroom scene, I’m wondering what might be the headlines in the paper. Wouldn’t that be another wonderful layer of telling a story if they all were absorbing silently the same news story. I’m constantly in awe of the time shifts in this novel both in memory and narrative – these multiple madeleines that keep cropping up – but keep circling around the same themes and images.
    Okay, as a woman, I’ll comment on the ladies’ restroom scene which yes, I think is quite accurate. I didn’t find the reduction of women to legs at all chauvanistic but quite funny. It’s part of Deza’s obsession with feet, legs, socks, the sound of footsteps, even the dancing comes into it I suppose. I also enjoyed the scene where he phones Luisa to ask about the possibility that the blood stain in Wheeler’s house could have come from a woman wearing no underwear whose period had just started. Luisa’s bemused reaction and Deza’s running through of the possible women in the house was very entertaining. Now, I can’t speak for all women of course, but let me just say that most of us have a pretty good idea of when that time of the month is approaching and I’d be very surprised if any woman would take the chance of wearing no underwear around that time, even if that was her normal way of dressing. A more interesting question for me is why is Deza so obsessed with menstrual blood without any concrete evidence that the bloodspots he is seeing are related? Maybe this is to come.
    One question I have been musing over – is Marias making any specific distinctions between the sword and the spear that keeps coming up as a metaphor? That was a very unexpected and disturbing scene with the sword in the restroom. Are they interchangeable?

  • Eric

    When I reached the final pages of “Dance,” and the incredible dancing scene Maylin references, I felt the Nabokovian spine-tingling of aesthetic bliss, pure readerly absorption, that I seem to experience more rarely these days. I think Scott is just right to compare this passage to the fourth part of 2666. I’m sure there are many more pleasures in store for us, but I have a feeling that when I think about this book in the future, these are the passages I will think about.

    The idea of surveillance (watchfulness, compulsive thought, paranoia) as the residue of a lost religious impulse is a very profound insight into our contemporary world, I think.

    I agree with everything Scott says about the bathroom searches. The scene generates both humor and suspense from Marias’ radical extension of narrative time. Ideally the reader should have Tupra’s admonition (“hurry up, don’t delay”) in mind as we pause at EVERY stall.

    One other thing I found interesting was the discussion of Botox. In a world of cameras and spies rather than God, it is the face, not the soul, that is observed; therefore it’s the face that is reshaped and reformed to appear perfect to human and mechanical eyes. Though of course there is a grotesque and horrific aspect to this: the injection, the muscle paralysis. Was anyone able to confirm or disconfirm the tidbit about Heydrich being assassinated with Botox?

    Overall, I’m just in awe of the mastery here. This would have to be Exhibit A for Javier’s Nobel case.

  • Sean

    “…knowing and remembering everything about each person from each age, knowing it permanently without a single fact about anyone ever going to waste . . .”

    How ironic that (given the content of this post), there’s a button at the end of the text for Facebook stating “be the first of your friends to like this”. Hehehe, I love it.

  • Yes, Eric–aesthetic bliss, pure readerly absorption, that I seem to experience more rarely—I might use Bernhard instead of Nabokov but that is no matter. It is the absorption, the bliss. Conradian too.

  • I’m immeasurably honored by the fact that Tupra has joined us in this conversation.

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