Books

Shadows Now Throw Bodies, Progress Celebrates the Pyrrhic Victory Over Nature, and Reality Is a Meaningless Exaggeration of All the Details that Satire Left Behind Fifty Years Ago: The Whole Thing Makes Me Very Sad (Part 1)

[Ed. note: True to form, Jonathan Callahan was unable to limit himself to 2,500 words. Read Part 2 of his commentary-memoir-in-footnotes hybrid here.]

Before addressing myself to the room-suffusing peanut-straw-‘n-pachyderm-shit odor one has no choice but to plug nostrils and deal with should one wish to discuss new work by the author whose public persona’s elephantine presence in whatever’s left of contemporary belles lettres tends to cramp the quarters of any text-based discourse, I’d like to establish a bit of context:

When I agreed in mid-July to write some form of response to Jonathan Franzen’s odd new book—a translation-commentary-memoir-in-footnotes hybrid whose front cover utterly ignores substantial contributions by both Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann and only glancingly acknowledges fin de siècle Austria’s “progress”-smitten bourgeoisie’s furious scourge, one Karl Kraus, whom the translated essays are technically “by,” but more on this below—Trop’s editorial team’s approach to the matter of a hard/fast deadline was so accommodating that it frankly struck me as insulting, an oblique or winking intimation that they knew I frequently struggle to get shit done. Could I manage mid-October?

So as I sit down at my desk here at 2:23pm, 16 October, figuring I’ll maybe just sketch out a few preliminary thoughts, I think it might be worthwhile—plus thematically appropriate—to reflect a bit on how a hundred-odd days during most of which I wasn’t strictly employed managed to elapse without me typing even one of the 2,500 words I’d been asked to limit myself to.

A while back I heard tell of a new computer program whose purported function struck me as such an apt send-up of our network-netted geist that it had to be a virally disseminated practical joke, but in a late Kraus Project note Franzen alludes to something called the “Freedom App”[1] and a quick Google search confirms both the market availability of and, if testimonials are to be trusted, widespread consumer satisfaction with this software product. Reverberations of relief—not unlike the almost religious gratitude you pick up on in proselytizing five-star reviews of dietary supplements or exercise regimens—ring out in harmony down these long chorus lines of jubilant customer response, online.

From what does “Freedom” set you free? The pitch, approximately: You block off a few hours of your day or week during which you’d like to be doing something other than skimming the virtual shallows clicking link after resistless link; we’ll block you from the net. No infuriating film reviews. No refining your fantasy sports franchise roster. No food pornography. No need to lower blinds for covert viewing of conventional porn. No tweaking search-engine settings during cyberspace trawls for deep-content references to your name. No comment threads. No favorites, false enthusiasm, disingenuous congratulations offered to the winners of contests in which you, too, took part, awards you coveted; no well-wishing to your competitors, rivals for attention, accolades, acclaim. No chat rooms. No room for debate. No photo galleries. No memes. No undersea stints in the cetacean’s gut of open-source info-feeds. No deal-conducting. No buyer’s remorse. Freedom from the internet’s infinite freedom of choice.

But who would pay to have a third party impose restrictions on access to a service for which he already pays? Why not shut down Firefox? In times of sore temptation simply turn off the machine? We’re the only earthbound life form able to run quick cost/benefit analyses of late night grease-consumption, surely we should be able to close the window on Chrome or Safari in the event that information-hunger is impeding work—or play—or creativity…

And then a well-meaning aunt persuaded me to give Twitter a try. In three months I’ve managed to attract eighty-nine more followers than has Jonathan Franzen in his monishing absence, which figure, until twenty-five minutes ago, was also eighty-nine @handles more than words I’d managed to compile towards completing this piece.[2] [3] Which brings us to Franzen and Kraus:

In an early footnote Franzen asks, “Who has the time to read literature when there are so many blogs to keep up with, so many food fights to follow on Twitter?”—an explicit distillation of Franzen’s 2013 investment in and one apparent reason he’s chosen to revisit a project shelved several decades back, an attempt to revive interest in a nigh-forgotten author whose bile-rich disgust with his own dismal cultural milieu may provide contemporary readers in 2013 one of the few examples of a writer and on-page persona even less palatable than the reliably ire-inspiring Franzen (thinking in particular here of the Franzen inclined toward objurgation, intellectual heritor of Kraus—whose own handle was “The Great Hater”—who lays into the whole culture for sins such as unthinking acquiescence to the collective-intellect-demolishing influence of Twitter, Facebook, Oprah, reality TV, denunciations seemingly designed to ignite just the sort of social-media conflagrations his publicly averred preference for keeping distance from the thirty-second news cycle relieves him of the need to either pitch more tinder into or watch crackle and burn,[4] instead of, say, withdrawing to a private cell devoid of fenestration in order to compose notes towards the next narrative cross-section of American decay, or translating the long-neglected work of an obscure Austrian fin de siècle satirist whose insights in hindsight read like sheet music and choreographer’s notes to the species’ subsequent century-spanning waltz with auto-termination).

Few people like to be told things are bad. Fewer that they’re complicit in both the badness and its getting worse.

One thing Franzen does in interviews and written work—as Kraus did in his day—that seems to both amuse and irritate people, is resist easy submission to Modernity’s controlling tautology: Progress is good, ergo progress is good. Few people would dispute the suggestion that maybe we would have been better off without the bomb; it’s Franzen’s dubiousness re: enthusiasm for new products and technologies, ad populum faith in the Market’s function as a motor powering the species through uncharted seas of ever-improving quality-of-life that discomfits and fires up the online commentariat. Distrust of an enthusiasm that converts docile consumption of each innovative wave’s deposit on the strand from a freely made choice to a mandate not unlike the one our most strident free-market champions in the legislative branch have denounced as an execrable infringement on personal liberty. The once-novel convenience of a smart phone app’s ability to locate your best vegan options in the vicinity soon by sheer ubiquity folds itself into the cloth of indispensability—luxury becomes necessity.

This new product saves me time; with more time I can be more productive; if I produce more I can earn more cash; with more cash I can purchase newer products; which new products will make life so much easier—or at least save me some time.

Except Franzen is not a Luddite, and if he sometimes seems excessively committed to unmitigated animadversion targeting Apple products’ general hipness and ubiquity, preferring the stolid uncool of his trusty-functional PC—itself obviously once a pretty profound techno-innovation—he’s also shown himself remarkably resistant to the allure,[5] in 2013, of an upthrown-hands embrace of the notion that Progress = cool new functions on speedier and more sleekly designed “smart” machines, possessed of a prickly skepticism about the genuine value of any of the myriad consumer artifacts ostensibly attesting to the progressive spirit of the age.

Read the conclusion to “Shadows Now Throw Bodies…” next Tuesday.

[1] and humbly/graciously declines to even hint at the name’s possible nod to a certain 2010 novel

[2] Plus then after I’d already ceded any lingering faith in my autonomy I started to prepare for writing courses I’d be teaching in the fall by reading as many articles on as wide a field of subject matter as I could, reasoning that since writing is a skill rather than a body of knowledge and that on miserable mornings when I really didn’t want to make the ninety-minute trek to campus and lecture, oversee Peer Review sessions, try to conceal my obvious aversion to calling on or even making eye contact with sullen nonparticipants, or calling back the slumbering from session-spanning R&R jaunts to the land of Nod, or otherwise teach, because I was afraid of the students [see ‘3’ below], I wouldn’t have a mental snapshot of well-appointed office space ensconced in the warrens of my department’s sector of campus terrain, one wall obscured by floor-to-ceiling shelving insufficient to display all but the most absolutely indispensable works within my subject’s sphere of inquiry, the other cluttered with framed documents officially certifying mastery of my field of expertise, wouldn’t have recourse to a rarefied argot too punishingly arcane for students to begin to parse… lacking any of which I would have to become an autodidactic expert on everything—a windmill-chase that rather ingeniously self-justified limitless internet “content”-consumption as research: heroic daylong ruminative grazes on datafeeds steadily dropping in nutritive value even as calorie counts rose, overstuffing cerebral centers with nuggets of knowledge, theory, and unsubstantiated ideation as if prepping cognitive foie gras, until sunlight through my Jackson Heights apartment’s windows waned and gradually ceded another calendar-square to dusk—my signal that another day’s research was winding down and I could more or less guiltlessly pour the evening’s first drink.

[3] Retired actor/stand-up comic Adam Sandler once included a bit on one of his earlier recordings that consisted entirely of his chanting, in that gummy falsetto he’d one day overuse to great commercial effect, They’re all gonna laugh at me! They’re all gonna laugh at me! They’re all gonna laugh at me! They’re all gonna laugh at me!

[4] Although c.f. the tortuous path of public dealings with the kingmaking Ms. Winfrey.

[5] (even if it’s an allure born out of sheer fatigue, a concession or weary admission of defeat—I can sneer at the appalling closing of whatever gap may have existed between art and commerce before the great migration to a virtual reality in which likes, favorites, comment threads and retweets have become the coin of the realm; but I do so at my own peril… unless I’m Jonathan Franzen, it’s almost impossible to fantasize the scenario in which my lack of an energetic internet “presence” doesn’t impact adversely on sales figures for my book, on the dissemination of my personal “brand”—on the things, i.e., that in another era, real or imagined, maybe wouldn’t have been principal concerns for artists struggling to create meaningful work)

Jonathan Callahan’s first book, The Consummation of Dirk, winner of Starcherone Press’s 8th Prize for Innovative Fiction, was released in April. His writing has appeared in The Collagist, Pank, The Millions, Fiction Writers Review, Unsaid, Witness, Used Furniture Review, The Lifted Brow, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. He grew up in Hawaii and currently lives in Queens.