Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-FiveSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

But was I wrong, in “In Praise of Semicolons,” to be so severe in my judgment of Kurt Vonnegut, to castigate him for infantilism? I decided to find out by reading what is regarded as the author’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s sixth novel, and includes characters from many of its precursors and successors. Part of the charm of his books, I imagine, is that each feels like an episode in an ongoing conversation with the author; with each visit, readers receive an update on this fascinating man’s struggle with his preoccupations and obsessions. And what I like best in Slaughterhouse-Five, what still seems original half a century later, and what moreover still seems useful and usable, is Vonnegut’s mix of two modes considered wildly incongruous: memoir and fantasy.

He begins with a chapter about his writing of the novel, the qualms and researches involved in converting into fiction his most notable wartime experience: the firebombing of Dresden in 1945. (The novel takes its title from the slaughterhouse in Dresden where Vonnegut was held prisoner.) Will he glamorize war, as an old army buddy’s wife worries?

“You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.”

He promises that he will do no such thing: that he will write an anti-war book, that he will represent himself and his fellow soldiers as “babies.” Hence the novel’s subtitle, The Children’s Crusade, and hence Vonnegut’s emphasis that he made the novel’s outline on the back of a roll of wallpaper with his daughter’s crayons.

But Slaughterhouse-Five is a semi-satirical fable, not a realistic autobiographical war novel in the manner of All Quiet on the Western Front or A Farewell to Arms. Its main plot concerns an American everyman named Billy Pilgrim, who is “unstuck in time”: as he slips between all the moments of his life, we are treated, non-sequentially and in brief bursts of narrative, not only to his youthful experience as a prisoner of the Germans, during which time he survived the firebombing, but also to his middle age as a rich optometrist living an American life of “quiet desperation” and to his time as an exhibition in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore.

The Tralfamadorians’s perception of time helps to explain the novel’s structure. For them, time is not a linear flow but an object in space. They liken the past to the part of the landscape you can see behind you and the future to the objects ahead of you. Their fiction, then, reads to Billy like Slaughterhouse-Five reads to us:

Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out-in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.

“Exactly,” said the voice.

“They are telegrams?”

“There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of-symbols is a brief, urgent message describing a situation, a scene, We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

This idea of all space and time compressed into one art object is a modernist ambition, from Pound’s Chinese ideogram to Benjamin’s dialectical image. And as Pound’s and Benjamin’s desire to fuse word and picture suggests, the ideal format for such a perception of spacetime is less prose than comics: each page of a comic represents a time-sequence as a spatial array of images. Perhaps the best artistic treatment of spacetime, then, is Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, which I have to imagine took some leads from this novel.

Seemingly aware of this temporal theory’s need for pictures, Vonnegut includes a few cartoons throughout Slaughterhouse-Five; I very much could have done without them, particularly the climactic middle-schoolesque drawing of the banal serenity prayer hanging between a pair of crudely-rendered breasts. But the novel’s simple telegraphic style itself moves away from narration, from literacy, and toward the juxtaposition of images. It is a graphic novel avant la lettre.

But if the novel’s form sides with the Tralfamadorean desire for fiction with “no moral,” how does that square with Vonnegut’s avowed intention in the first chapter to produce anti-war fiction? The best answer is “uneasily.”

Without a plot, exactly, Slaughterhouse-Five is structured by its verbal refrains and motifs, from the depiction of “blue and ivory” feet to signify death to the repetition of a dying colonel’s poignant declaration, “If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!” The most insistent of these motifs is “So it goes,” the phrase with which the Tralfamadoreans greet news of a death; the novel’s narrator repeats it any time he has to tell that anyone has died. If death is unimportant because a person’s life persists elsewhere in the solid structure of time, then what does it matter if anyone is killed in a war?

Opposed to the Tralfamadorean quietism and aestheticism (their recommendation is to “spend eternity looking at pleasant moments” rather than dwelling on such unpleasantries as war) is a countervailing anger in the novel at all forms of cruelty and injustice. This anger animates Vonnegut’s satirical portrait of upper-class Americans’ empty, privileged, self-satisfied lives, and his frequent mockery in particular of the political right.

Billy reads a novel by the (invented) science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout which traces injustice to an ethical flaw in the Biblical narrative of Christ’s life. Because the story tells us that humanity erred in “lynching” a man who was really the son of God, it allows us to go on thinking that there are people, not sons of God, whom we may legitimately lynch. The story should be revised so that the Christ-figure really is powerless, as Trout imagines an alien’s new gospel revealing:

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had.

Trout’s alien is anti-Tralfamadorean; those amoralists don’t care at all about Jesus:

On Tralfamadore, says Billy Pilgrim, there isn’t much interest in Jesus Christ. The Earthling figure who is most engaging to the Tralfamadorian mind, he says, is Charles Darwin—who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements.

I’m not sure that is a fair summary of what Darwin taught, and I’m also not sure we should judge scientific theories by moral criteria; nevertheless, Vonnegut several times inveighs against a cruel social Darwinism that upholds the brutal calculus of those who make war, those who regard human lives as expendable in the name of profit or power. This theme comes out especially when Billy encounters the wealthy Air Force historian Rumfoord in a hospital:

The staff thought Rumfoord was a hateful old man, conceited and cruel. He often said to them, in one way or another, that people who were weak deserved to die. Whereas the staff, of course, was devoted to the idea that weak people should be helped as much as possible, that nobody should die.

The moral of the novel is clear enough, then, but the form of the novel works directly against it. This is not only because the kaleidoscopic narrative structure endorses the fatalism of Tralfamadore, but also because Vonnegut won’t, and perhaps can’t, create characters of sufficient depth to validate his crypto-Christian humanism, his sense that we are each inherently worthwhile and irreplaceable and so ought not to be oppressed or slaughtered:

There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.

Because humanity is no more than a pawn of inhuman forces, the old way of writing novels, rich in character, is out of date. In a mental hospital, Eliot Rosewater and Billy Pilgrim turn to science fiction to help them “re-invent themselves and their universe,” a task at which older fiction can’t assist them:

Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.

Even leaving aside the problem of how to “re-invent” self and universe in a deterministic cosmos, though, Vonnegut’s taste for cartoons over characters contradicts his humanism even more directly than does his novel’s fatalistic structure. As James Baldwin wrote of Harriet Beecher Stowe, as Franz Kafka wrote of Charles Dickens, sentimentality is often an overcompensation for cruelty. Consider two of this novel’s characters. The first is a mean and pitiful soldier whose stupidity leads to Billy’s capture by the Germans:

Roland Weary was only eighteen, was at the end of an unhappy childhood spent
mostly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had been unpopular in Pittsburgh. He had been unpopular because he was stupid and fat and mean, and smelled like bacon no matter how much he washed.

The second is the woman Billy will marry:

His fiancee was out there now, sitting on the visitor’s chair. Her name was Valencia Merble. Valencia was the daughter of the owner of the Ilium School of Optometry. She was rich. She was as big as a house because she couldn’t stop eating. She was eating now. She was eating a Three Musketeers Candy Bar. She was wearing trifocal lenses in harlequin frames, and the frames were trimmed with rhinestones.

Their grotesquery, their selfishness and foolishness, is never mitigated or explained. They are never given any deeper background than this: they are simply detestable, and Valencia’s death in particular is played for laughs.

Stowe and Dickens at least would have imagined them as fantastic, visionary gargoyles even if they would not have depended their characters with pathos, as, say, Chekhov or George Eliot might have done. But Vonnegut seems incapable of even the highest level of caricature: the likes of Uriah Heep or Miss Havisham are as beyond him as are three-dimensional characters in this novel that claims to represent the fourth dimension. We are left with cruel cartoons against cruelty, fat Americans who stand in for American greed and meanness, and Vonnegut performs the artistic equivalent of firebombing them.

So for all this novel’s originality of design and thought-provoking fabulism, I conclude where I began with Vonnegut: his artistic simplicity is not an indirect route to depth but rather over-simplification. As for Slaughterhouse-Five‘s quarrel with itself over fatalism and humanism, amoral vs. anti-war fiction, I see a lazy indulgence of confusion passed off as complexity. I will keep faith with Dostoevsky and semicolons.


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Alan Moore, Miracleman

Miracleman, Book Three: OlympusMiracleman, Book Three: Olympus by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1980s, Alan Moore, the most celebrated writer in the history of mainstream Anglophone comics, made his name by telling the same story four times.

In Miracleman, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen, a commanding male figure, superior of intellect and sometimes even god-like, remakes the world, or at least part of it, into some version of utopia.

In two cases (V for Vendetta and Swamp Thing), the reader is invited to celebrate this transformation, generally because Moore keeps the ideology of the hero and his utopia within the remit of the political left; in two cases (Watchmen and Miracleman), the reader is invited to question this transformation, generally because Moore surrounds the hero and his revolution with echoes of fascism.

In each case, including the more positive ones, doubts dog the utopian narrative; even the anarchist V and the environmentalist Swamp Thing trample ordinary people and democratic institutions, and all these utopian men, whether metaphorically or literally, attempt to control or fall to degrading women, with the female body seeming to stand in Moore’s imagination as a metaphor for ungovernable reality.

Evidently grasping the problem of his attractions to inhumane and even inhuman utopianism, Moore attempted a correction in his opus of the 1990s, From Hell: here the utopian hero is Jack the Ripper (AKA royal physician William Gull), his victims working-class prostitutes. Surely, we are not asked to sympathize with this vivisectionist-misogynist-revolutionist?

Yet Moore himself was quite literally ensorcelled by his hero-villain’s rhetoric, persuaded by his creature’s own monologues to become an occultist. In the final chapter but one, Gull ascends the Tree of Life into the white blankness that is God while his final, escaped victim Mary Kelly remains below with only those human appurtenances of flesh, family, and nation (to be more politically specific, female flesh [her murder-spared body], female family [her daughters, named for Gull’s other victims], and colonized nation [Ireland, occupied by the English power Gull served]) to console her.

The balance of Moore’s career shows his increasing efforts to synthesize magic and revolution with democracy and humanity, some more persuasive (Promethea) than others (Lost Girls), even if rather severe problems remain (why in the name of Glycon is the figure of love at the center of the universe in Promethea an image of Pan raping Selene?), and I’ll certainly get back to you if I ever finish Jerusalem.

My goal today is to account for Miracleman, which I have just re-read in part and in part read for the first time. As an adolescent I was never able to assemble all the out-of-print back issues and graphic novels, so I have only now read the whole saga in Marvel Comics’s recent reprints.

Miracleman was originally titled Marvelman. Marvelman was a 1950s English superhero created by Mick Anglo (whose Anglicized surname sounds like that of an English superhero) modeled on Captain Marvel, AKA Shazam. Both characters are boys gifted a magic word by a wizard, a word that when spoken transforms them into superheroes.

Marvelman spent the 1950s having adventures with his companions Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman, and then went into publishing dormancy. Moore, an ambitious up-and-coming writer, was given a chance to retool the character in the early 1980s for the British comics anthology Warrior (in which his anarchist dystopia V for Vendetta also appeared).

Upon publication in America, the series’s title was revised to Miracleman under legal threat from Marvel Comics. The publication history of the series is dispiriting and complicated, with Moore publishing first in Warrior in Britain, then in an American series published by the indie company Eclipse. Moore turned over the series to Neil Gaiman after he completed the story he wished to tell, and Gaiman managed to publish six issues with Eclipse. Then the series and characters got caught up in an unfathomably complex legal entanglement, the result of which allowed Marvel to republish Moore and Gaiman’s work only in the last decade, with the anti-corporatist Moore’s name removed at his own request. His work is now credited to “The Original Writer.”

The difficulties of publishing the series means that it took almost a decade to get Moore’s whole story out, with a changing crew of artists. The story, though, was evidently planned from the first as cohesive whole by the meticulous Moore, and showcases his brutally realist-revisionist approach to superheroes in the 1980s.

Miracleman, according to Moore, is not really a 1950s superhero; his Mick Anglo–penned adventures were a Matrix-like delusion fostered by the crypto-fascist intelligence program, headed by one Emil Gargunza, which created superhumans by repurposing the technology found in a downed UFO. Once Miralceman learns this truth, defeats the corrupted Kid Miracleman, dispatches Gargunza, and has a baby with his mortal wife, the aliens return to discover what earthlings have made of their tech.

This alien incursion draws Earth into the Cold War between two rival interstellar empires who eventually agree to make our planet the staging-ground of their détente. Meanwhile, Miracleman and his fellow superheroes (now including a newly-discovered Miraclewoman as well as his own daughter, Winter), transform earth into a utopia without money, poverty, disease, war, or oppression. Such transformation is all the more necessary after the aforementioned Kid Miracleman returns to destroy London in a gruesome episode before his final defeat.

Moore’s story ends not only with miracle people but with a miracle world, even as the hints that this utopia is really a dystopia from the perspective of ordinary mortals become increasingly hard to ignore.

Completed between 1982, when Moore was just starting out, and 1989, when Moore was at the height of his powers, Miracleman displays extreme variations from beginning to end in the quality of its scripting. The early episodes are clumsy, with corny comic-book narration a cut below even that of contemporaries like Marv Wolfman or Chris Claremont. I am being cruel, but here is one egregious narrative caption:

A can of worms has been opened. A can of worms called “Project Zarathustra.” And every time you open a can of worms…you need a bigger can to get them all back in. (ellipses in original)

Why would you need a bigger can for the same amount of worms? This is prototypically bad writing: choppy, portentous, clichéd, and nonsensical.

Moore’s style improves exponentially, though; the final chapters, making up the narrative’s third division, Olympus, are almost an illustrated text as much as they are comics, with Miracleman himself narrating retrospectively in an epic (some say purple) prose-poetry that one might compare, among writers of the 1980s, not to Marv Wolfman but to Cormac McCarthy or, in the SF genre, to Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin.

Consider this passage, which stunned me when I was 14; it is Miracleman’s elegy to a fallen alien warrior, its fantastical imagery passing into a sighed diminuendo as binary code becomes the mourner’s cry:

And Aza Chorn, so swift that by compare the thunderbolts crept earthwards with the speed of stalactites…? Why, Aza Chorn is dead. Just dead. About his monument, the ghosts parade, the zephyrs shriek and howl and tear apart the clouds, rail uselessly at death and in frustration snatch up blossoms shaped like human lips, and fling them like blood-red confetti from Olympus to those mortal pastures far below, a rain of angry kisses showering down upon those tiny, distant lives…[11010000]: the And/oroids use this term to denote the sorrow that is felt on realising sorrow is a thing one can no longer truly feel. One one, oh one, oh oh, oh oh. (ellipses in original)

The art shows similar variations. The first artist, Garry Leach, is an excellent but rather literal illustrator, while the final artist, Moore’s Swamp Thing collaborator John Totleben, provides a moody, mixed-media extravaganza, often applying legendary pulp artist Virgil Finlay’s psychedelic pointillist technique to provide a visual corollary to Moore’s high rhetoric.

So what can all this mean? Is Moore on the side of his miraculous utopian revolutionary? Despite the unevenness in quality and the pains of production, is Miracleman a cohesive statement worth reading as political speculation?

Despite the overused term “graphic novel,” the novelistic texture of the work is thin. The characters are flat archetypes, except for two disruptive figures of the early episodes, Miracleman’s fascist “father,” the scientist Emil Gargunza, and the black assassin (with sapphire teeth) Evelyn Cream.

Art: Alan Davis

Gargunza is a Mexican displaced by the Revolution and its aftermath; he later sojourns in Germany and then comes to England to birth superheroes by mingling alien technology with captured orphans. Physically unattractive, intellectually brilliant, and wishing for immortality, he is a genuinely poignant figure. The chapter where he tells his life story (which oddly takes its title from Warren Zevon’s “Veracruz”) is more successful than anything in V for Vendetta in humanely and anti-fascistically rooting fascist ideology in actual human fears and needs.

Evelyn Cream is even more compelling, his complex character one key to the meaning of the whole book. At first, the reader fears he will be a dire racist stereotype out of James Bond, but his rich inner monologues provide much-needed political reflection on the meaning of Moore’s fable. Here one aspect of his psyche accuses the other in an instance of racial double consciousness:

Really, old horse! These antics smack of the daubed face and the ostrich plume. It seems one cannot take the jungle out of the boy after all. What do you say, Mr. Cream? Educated at Rugby. Trained at Sandhurst. You read the untranslated novels of Collette [sic] and own an original Hockney. Good God, sir, you are practically white! […] And yet you follow this white loa, this Miracleman who leaves a trail of dead and fisheyed fellows in his wake! Can it be that you have gone native, Mr. Cream? Mr. Cream, do you at last believe in juju? Great grandfather, pass me down the gris-gris and the pointing bone, for I have opted at this late stage to become another crazy n—–.

I believe, by the way, that the last word, censored by Marvel, was spelled out in the original publication. But this linguistic whitewashing cannot conceal Cream’s ambiguous assessment of Miracleman as a survival from before modernity, the white atavism the Nazis often dreamed of. Moore’s words above perhaps don’t pass racial-justice muster today, but note, in mitigation, Moore’s (or the letterer’s) own poignant failure of upper-class white-imperialist cultural-capital mimicry signaled by the misspelling of “Colette.” Race is obviously not the only variable at work here, and Moore is as little superhuman as are his human characters.

In Cream’s second and final major monologue, he reverses the meaning of the first and finds in Miracleman not a white atavism but a white ultra-modernity, even a kind of ultra-colonialism, as he laments his own postcolonial compromises:

I wanted the white miracle. I wanted to touch the pale god that they had birthed in their machinery. The thing they had which we had not. And thus I reached out for that ivory promise, as did my father, as did his father before him…and I learned that thing which I must tell: That whiteness which we pursue through the dark trees of our inner continent…it is not the whiteness of hot steel, or of sanctity…it is the whiteness of bone. It is death. (ellipses in original)

So is Miracleman (or Miracleman) pre- or postmodern, emancipatory or oppressive, anti-fascist or fascist? Cream’s confusion, or Moore’s confusion about what a man in Cream’s subject-position would actually say and think, extends to the whole tale. One of Moore’s weakest major works overall, Miracleman is nevertheless productively confusing. It brought to my mind many conflicting political philosophies, all the “smelly little orthodoxies contending for our souls,” in Orwell’s words.

I thought, for instance, of the Marxist theorist Christian Thorne. In a sharp essay occasioned by the carnivalesque and French-Theory-infused elements of the various alt-right subcultures that helped bring Trump to power, Thorne warns that fascism is not merely cultural conservatism or political authoritarianism. Thorne implores the American left to reckon with the bohemian, anti-bourgeois, avant-garde, and even authentically multicultural and queer commitments of historical fascism lest the fascism in the left’s midst, in its very anarchist pedagogy, be overlooked:

Does anyone really think that the fascists were right-thinking squares who always did what they were told and wanted to punch queers in the face? The German catastrophe was an awful lot weirder than that—uncomfortably weird if weird is what you like. A critical theory that preemptively declares itself a Zona Antifa gullibly deeds over its stances to the very movement it opposes.

Faithful to Marxism, Thorne doesn’t make the other half of the argument, which I have done in my writings on, for example, Lukács and Camus: namely, that Marxism often just is, like the stereotype of fascism Thorne repudiates, a disturbing doctrine of political authoritarianism and cultural conservatism.

Both of these befuddling ideologies, a radical fascism and a reactionary Marxism, came to mind as I read and re-read Olympus. Miraclewoman introduces polymorphous queerness into the erotic life of the general population as a prelude to her superman-breeding eugenics program, which, while more democratic, is not a lot different from what Gargunza had intended. Is this sexual emancipation or sexual domination?

Miracleman, for his part, abolishes money and takes central control of the economy. When a frail-looking and sympathetic Margaret Thatcher protests, he curtly implies that, in her own words, “there is no alternative.” Thatcher here briefly occupies the position of Rorschach in Watchmen: in both books, written by an avowed leftist who at the period of composition liked to be photographed in a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt, conservatives and conservative ideology come to stand in for nothing less than humanity’s free will.


By contrast to these evocations of fascism and communism, Peter Y. Paik, in his brilliant (conservative) study of superhero and science fiction narratives as political philosophies, understands Olympus to prophesy the triumph of liberalism after the Cold War, and liberalism’s becoming in turn an unaccountable hyperpower. On Paik’s view, Miracleman is not Hitler or Stalin but rather an amalgam of Bush and Obama, smugly insisting that their reign of surveillance and imperial global dominance is on the right side of the end of history:

Miracleman: Olympus, completed shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, envisions the predicaments and crises that would follow when an interminable stalemate gives way, when the sources of catastrophe become more elusive and thus more alarming and ominous. Moore’s shattering of the geopolitical taboo accordingly serves to give flesh to the ineluctably revolutionary dream of an unconstrained expansionism and unlimited power that has been dreamt—and become magnified—within liberal democratic society.

The value of Moore’s Miracleman as political speculation, then, is that it can support Thorne’s anti-fascism, my anti-Marxism, and Paik’s anti-liberalism, not to mention Evelyn Cream’s anti-colonialism, because its real philosophical function is to warn of the severed head at the base of every capitol and all capital, the et in arcadia ego of every utopia, the murderousness of every politics, even as it also, through Moore’s soaring rhetoric and Totleben’s visionary illustration, refuses to deny the gorgeous attractions of our revolutionary dreams.

Roaming the preserved killing fields of London, ravaged by his former sidekick, Miracleman considers just this theme:

These charnel pastures serve as a reminder, a memento mori, never letting us forget that though Olympus pierce the very skies, in all the history of earth, there’s never been a heaven; never been a house of gods…that was not built on human bones. (ellipses in original)

And while Marvel Comics trolls Moore by printing in the back of Olympus a never-before-published Miracleman story by his rival and nemesis Grant Morrison (whom I read as a crypto-moderate in politics), Morrison’s story is slight. The true repudiation of Moore’s radicalism comes in the work of his hand-picked successor, Neil Gaiman.

Gaiman’s Golden Age is a collection of short stories portraying (via the intelligently mixed-media artwork of Mark Buckingham) the private lives of those in Miracleman’s imperial utopia. I find it to be gimmicky and precious, as much of Gaiman’s work, so impressive to me in adolescence, reads to me now.

In the interests of critical fairness, I will quote eloquent praise for what Gaiman does in The Golden Age from Samuel R. Delany’s introduction to the original collected edition (not reproduced in Marvel’s reprint, but available in Delany’s Shorter Thoughts):

The last movement of the previous Miracleman book [i.e., Olympus] was a raging panegyric, a dithyramb, a jeremiad dancing, hot and searing, right up off the sizzling griddle of language. There was no place to go—so Gaiman threw the whole machine into reverse. His six entwined tales here come like sapphires afloat on a supercool liquid, like shards of sea-ground glass, shadow-cooled; these understated stories almost hide their theme: For Miracleman is a book that is largely, generously, compassionately about mourning.

Delany’s sentences, which I am tempted to call better than anything actually found in The Golden Age, repay the tribute of Gaiman’s own allusion in the book to Delany’s classic short story, “Driftglass.”

The highlights of The Golden Age are two. One is a Dick-style tale about a city populated entirely by spies, overseen by the resurrected Evelyn Cream, a homeopathic dream-world meant to bring spies out of their mirror-halls of suspicion so that they may enjoy an honest life in the perfect state of the superheroes.

Art: Mark Buckingham

The second highlight is based on one line in Moore’s series (Balzac’s praise of Stendhal for writing entire books on single pages might apply to Moore). A resonantly mythological feature of Miracleman’s Olympus is its underworld, where the recent dead are resurrected using alien technology. At the conclusion of Olympus, Moore mentions the arrival to this underworld of Andy Warhol, which Gaiman takes as an occasion to do a comic-book rendition of “A Dream” from Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella, a Warholian monologue on the meaning of this science-fictional world. Considering Miracleman’s abolition of money, Warhol laments:

He stopped [money]. Said it was bad. That’s fine, I suppose, but how do you know if you’re more successful than anyone else? How do you know if what you’re doing is working? You’ve got to keep working.

Spoken like Margaret bloody Thatcher: without signals from markets, how can you know your art is good or your society free?

Gaiman, whose early work did so much, by affirming marginalized identities, to portend today’s social-justice revolution in comics, never pretended to be an anti-capitalist or a radical. He aspired to, and after writing Miracleman ascended to, the Olympus of the bestseller list. His watchword was “the personal is the political,” which is true, but not true enough for the philosophical ambitions proper to Moore’s Miracleman.

As for the Original Writer, he always was aware that the market, no less than those utopians who would overthrow it, might err. We are left, as ever, with his second thoughts, imperfectly expressed. This is, in its way, as it should be, since with his second thought, if not his first, he cautions us in this flawed epic against the pursuit of inhuman perfection.

Art: John Totleben

If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo

Mumbo JumboMumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thomas Pynchon’s freewheeling narrator of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) tells us, “Well, and keep in mind where those Masonic Mysteries came from in the first place. (Check out Ishmael Reed. He knows more about it than you will ever find here.)” Similarly, the underground cult classic compendium of conspiracy, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy (an important influence on both Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) opens with this epigraph from Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel, Mumbo Jumbo: “Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies.” Anyone seeking the crossroads where modern or postmodern literature, the occult, and fringe politics converge should acquaint themselves with Reed’s strange and brilliant book.

Mumbo Jumbo is set during the 1920s, “[t]hat 1 decade which doesn’t seem so much a part of American history as the hidden After-Hours of America struggling to jam. To get through.” America is experiencing an outbreak of the phenomenon (“an anti-plague“) called Jes Grew, essentially Reed’s name for the culture of the black diaspora, especially as expressed through music, whether ragtime, jazz, or blues (the name derives from an epigraph attributed to James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry: “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, ‘jes’ grew,'” both an ironic appropriation of a racist artifact [Uncle Tom’s Cabin] and a refusal of individualist proprietary attitudes toward culture). As in the 1890s with its ragtime vogue, the Jazz Age threatens to overwhelm “Western Civilization” with a pleasure-loving and peaceable way of life opposed to the sterile and exploitative lifeworld of, locally, “neuter-living Protestants,” or those whom Reed more broadly calls Atonists, or monotheists (worshippers of the sun):

The Atonists got rid of their spirit 1000s of years ago with Him. The flesh is next. Plastic will soon prevail over flesh and bones. Death will have taken over. Why is it Death you like? Because then no 1 will keep you up all night with that racket dancing and singing. The next morning you can get up and build, drill, progress putting up skyscrapers and…and….and…working and stuff. You know? Keeping busy. [Reed’s ellipses.]

The novel, though relatively short, tells the labyrinthine story of the agencies trying to advance or stop the spread of Jes Grew.

On the pro side, there is the novel’s hero, the Harlem houngan PaPa LaBas, proprietor of the Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral. He teams with a cadre of magicians from Haiti—itself under U.S. occupation—stationed on a Marcus Garvey ship in New York harbor as they strive to recover the fragmentary text or scripture of Africa’s diaspora magic, dance-dictated in the night of time by Osiris to Thoth. In the absence of this book, Jes Grew is only an aural, oral, and bodily tradition and is therefore at a disadvantage under monotheism’s textual onslaught, its Bibles, Korans, Constitutions, Interpretations of Dreams, Communist Manifestoes, academic treatises, high literary traditions, and yellow journalism. Similarly, the novel also bears a significant subplot about a group of art “thieves” who strive to liberate the works of the global East and South from Europe’s and America’s museums; in his portrait of this multicultural group, Reed charts some of the fissures and fractures among people of color, noting that, for instance, a common enemy in European empire does not necessarily make for frictionless comity between black and Asian peoples.

Against Jes Grew’s supporters is the Wallflower Order, who are in their time of Jazz Age extremity forced to call in white intellectual and ageless Knight Templar Hinckle von Hampton (Reed’s satire on white Harlem Renaissance impresario Carl Van Vechten), who plans to defeat black insurgency by coopting it. He starts a little magazine called The Benign Monster, the title itself suggesting the intelligentsia’s gentrification of radical energies, and seeks a “Talking Robot”—i.e., a black intellectual who will mislead black audiences back to the monotheistic path of Atonism. Hinckle’s pathetic struggle is actually portrayed with some sympathy amid the satire—I got the sense that, racial polemics aside, Reed knows he has more in common with a modernist literary intellectual than with a Voodoo magician. Nevertheless, Reed unsparingly excoriates European literature from Milton to Freud to Styron:

John Milton, Atonist apologist extraordinary himself, saw the coming of the minor geek and sorcerer Jesus Christ as a way of ending the cult of Osiris and Isis forever. […] It is interesting that he worked for Cromwell, a man who banned theater from England and was also a hero of Sigmund Freud. Well the mud-slingers kept up the attack on Osiris, a writer Bilious Styronicus even rewriting Osirian history in a book called the Confessions of the Black Bull God Osiris in which he justified Set’s murder of Osiris on the grounds that Osiris made “illicit” love to Isis who, he wrote, was Set’s wife. He was awarded the Atonists’ contemporary equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for this whopper.

In fact, an overhasty reading of Mumbo Jumbo might lead one to expect that its ideological conflict is a matter of black vs. white—because in modern Europe and America, it is. But Reed’s most ambitious joke is delivered in a climactic thirty-page summing-up that parodies detective-novel exposition resolutions, conspiracy theories, and religious revelations all at once. PaPa LaBas, attempting to arrest Hinckle von Hampton, explains to a Harlem society gathering that, “if you must know, it all began 1000s of years ago in Egypt.”

The conflict between Jes Grew and the Atonists dates back to the fraternal quarrel between Set and Osiris in the Egyptian pantheon: Osiris learns the arts of peace and plenty at college from Ethiopian and Nubian students, and he disseminates this gnosis throughout the world, particularly to Native Americans. Set, by contrast, is “the stick crook and flail man,” advocates for discipline and thus eventually ends up worshipping Aton, the transcendent sun god, and beginning the monotheist cult that in various iterations—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Marxist, psychoanalytic, and capitalist—would war throughout history on Jes Grew and the liberation it stands, or dances, for. Moses himself is revealed to have effectively swindled the secrets of Osiris for himself, which resulted in his getting only the negative side of the magic; this negative side became monotheism as we know it, everything that “the people of the book” have wrought.

In other words, all human culture, like the human race itself, comes out of Africa: European cultures are without autochthony or autonomy and are only offshoots, even where they are most racist or conservative, of one or another side in an intra-African quarrel, the latest round of which is presumably Kanye West vs. Ta-Nehisi Coates.[1]

Which brings us around to the perhaps less salubrious politics of the novel. Mumbo Jumbo is not really “woke” or “PC” or whatever we’re calling it now. For one thing, it expresses sufficient quantities of anti-Islam sentiment to get Reed brought up on hate speech charges in Europe, as he seems to think that Islam is, no less than any other form of religious or secular monotheism, an attempt to repress the authentic black mysteries. It is the black Muslim intellectual Abdul who comes into possession of the scripture that is the novel’s quest object, and he burns it: “Censorship until the very last.” And despite the attractions of Reed’s emancipatory occultism, what does his displacement of Hebrew religion with Egyptian magic, his execration of Moses, Marx, and Freud imply? A reader can surely be forgiven for detecting a classically anti-Semitic subtext here. And, as befitting the work of a male author who has been known to worry that feminism is a tool of the white power structure used to disarticulate black and brown traditions and scapegoat men of color, the novel’s female characters tend to be either helpmeets or harridans (or both), even the goddesses Isis and Erzulie.

On the other hand, the lessons of Mumbo Jumbo might well be applied to today’s cultural appropriation debate. Reed’s position is quite subtle: he mocks and derides cultural exploitation and co-optation at the level of production, which is the point of his satire on modernist literary culture’s attempts to capture and neutralize the energies of black rebellion; on the consumption side, however, Reed seems to see the diffusion of Jes Grew as humanity’s only salvation—to see black culture as a force that, at the level of the dancing body, takes over whites rather than being taken over by them. The novel, I therefore take it, counsels against castigating every white person who takes a selfie while wearing an item of non-western origin, even as it also takes aim at corporations, universities, and other institutions profiting from the creativity of populaces they exclude and exploit.[2]

Finally, I have not yet mentioned the novel’s form. I have made it sound too linear, too much like a thriller with philosophical weight. But it is rather a collage and a montage, written in telegraphic prose, splicing in quotations and images, doing without quotation marks, transitions, or the pretense of God-like objectivity. One of its dedicatees is “George Herriman, Afro-American, who created Krazy Kat,” and the novel’s style of radical juxtaposition and teasing polyglot wordplay is a fitting homage to Herriman’s brilliant Jazz Age achievement in comics. Reed’s ludic style protects his conspiracy theory from seeming like the work of a mere crank, though I’m sure he believes the spirit, if not the letter, of it. The novel promotes play and humor as against the droning solemn seriousness of monotheistic religion and literary culture:

LaBas could understand the certain North American Indian tribe reputed to have punished a man for lacking a sense of humor. For LaBas, anyone who couldn’t titter a bit was not Afro but most likely a Christian connoting blood, death, and impaled emaciated Jew in excruciation. Nowhere is there an account or portrait of Christ laughing. Like the Marxists who secularized his doctrine, he is always stern, serious and as gloomy as a prison guard. Never does 1 see him laughing until tears appear in his eyes like the roly-poly squint-eyed Buddha guffawing with arms upraised, or certain African loas, Orishas.

So, if you are looking for a serious laugh, I highly recommend Mumbo Jumbo.

[1] Note that, by the terms laid out in Mumbo Jumbo, Coates, despite a superficially Reedian invocation after Zora Neale Hurston of “the bone and drum,” is arguably the authoritarian Atonist, promoting the traditional cypto-monotheist political left as the black man’s salvation in a white man’s magazine, while West disseminates magickal-musical thinking far and wide in a popular idiom on a populist platform, even quoting Carl Jung’s contemporary avatar Jordan Peterson just as Reed approvingly quotes Jung. My point is not to side with West over Coates or Reed over the western world, but to get the tally correct; I will say that “left” and “right” are becoming ever less reliable guides to cultural politics, though the comrades tell me that that is itself a right-wing position. “[A]s gloomy as a prison guard” indeed.

[2] Speaking of appropriation, Ted Gioia notes all the elements E. L. Doctorow seems to have lifted from Mumbo Jumbo for his own Ragtime, published just three years later. It’s not for me to judge who has the right to what; I will only suggest that Reed’s novel is about a hundred times more interesting than Doctorow’s.


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Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen

Watchmen: The Annotated EditionWatchmen: The Annotated Edition by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[The following essay is divided into two parts: my critical analysis of Watchmen in general, and then a review of this particular edition, a black-and-white oversized hardcover reprint with annotations by Leslie S. Klinger. If you want my assessment of this edition right away, please scroll down to the image dividing this post in two.]

Should Watchmen be the only superhero graphic novel on your syllabus? My own answer is a qualified “yes.” Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s 1986-7 serial-turned-graphic-novel brings a European perspective as well as the techniques and the politics of the postmodern novel to this quintessentially American pop culture phenomenon.

But it is possible to overrate Watchmen on the question of its revision to the superhero archetype, as most actual superhero devotees will point out: at every moment in the history of the genre, from Superman’s disruption of domestic violence and US imperialism in his very first appearance in 1938 to Green Lantern/Green Arrow’s 1960s road trip to the polysemous queerness of Marvel’s mutants in their grand-soap-opera phase of the 1970s and ’80s, writers and artists have always brought a political awareness and a critical edge to their ambiguous narratives of characters who try to align morality with power in an often hostile, corrupt society.

Moore and Gibbons, though, carry their revision of the superhero to the point of metafiction. In Watchmen‘s world, men and women become costumed vigilantes because they are influenced by comic books, just as Don Quixote becomes a knight-errant because he is influenced by chivalric romances. In both cases, the results are the same: the heroic idealism our heroes picked up from their reading matter gets besmirched by the mud and blood of the actual: their sublimated motives, their desires for sex and power, cannot be fully repressed. Moore, like Cervantes, shows heroic idealism to be determined and constricted by material circumstance. (Is it a coincidence that the two works often hailed as the first great novel and the first great graphic novel make this same de-idealizing critical gesture?)

Watchmen‘s ultimate joke in this vein occurs when an actual super-powered being appears in its world, the atomic demigod Dr. Manhattan, and immediately enters the service of the US government at the height of the Cold War as a kind of superior nuclear weapon. With more secular critical tools at his disposal than Cervantes had —Marx’s attack on ideology, Nietzsche’s insistence on power, Freud’s exposé of desire, and the broad second-wave feminist awareness of misogyny—Moore is able to reveal the material underpinning of the genre by political and sexual realities. This move to the meta is what sets Watchmen apart from most prior critical superhero comics (an avowed precursor, Kurtzman and Wood’s “Superduperman” of 1953, excepted).

Moreover, it is not possible to overrate Watchmen as a work of formalist genius. Aesthetically, Watchmen is inflected not only by the social critique of prior European rebels—Marx, Nietzsche, Freud—but also and more so by that of America’s own artistic counterculture too, the nightside to Stan Lee’s Silver Age New Frontier optimism, as found in Moore’s admired forerunners Burroughs and Pynchon. Like these writers, Moore insists upon the dense layering of narrative information, the elaborate use of symbolism and motifs, and the deliberate deployment of carefully contrived structures. Watchmen‘s nine-panel grid page layout is a kind of poetic meter, allowing the reader to keep time in this time-obsessed novel. Within the grid, Moore and Gibbons set up a limited series of repeating images—the smiley face, the bloodstain, the pyramid, the clock, the Hiroshima lovers, mirrors and reflections, and more—which turn the book into the very clockwork that is one of its images for itself. All the pieces move in concert.

Yet Watchmen is also a critique of linear, measurable time: comics, unlike cinema, does not progress in time but rather in space. In fact, it turns time into space. Watchmen is as much a metafictional reflection on its medium as on its message: Dr. Manhattan’s perception of time as a simultaneous object in space is instantiated on the comics page when Moore and Gibbons tell Dr. Manhattan’s story as a discontinuous and non-linear array of panels that are chronologically displaced but artistically placed perfectly. When Ozymandias compares his multi-screen TV viewing to Burroughs’s cut-up technique—both of them like comics in that they spatialize and juxtapose multiple information channels—Moore can be heard defending comics as an avant-garde artform, superior to film or literature as a way of halting time and inspecting the clockwork of the universe.

Across multiple dimensions, then—political, sexual, and aesthetic—Watchmen presents itself as the return of America’s repressed. If there is always an element of self-congratulation and self-aggrandizement in such a gesture (doesn’t this go to explain the always worrisome appeal of Marx and Nietzsche not only to rebel poets but to totalitarian dictators?), Moore’s postmodern sense of the limits to knowledge save him from this trap.

For what we find when we inspect the universal clockwork is far more chaos and mess than the deists promised. Consider the bravura chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry,” a chiasmus wherein each page echoes its counterpart across the divide formed by the middle of the issue (the “staple” to avid comics readers). Yet, as a critic on the Internet long ago pointed out in a reference I can no longer find, this is not the middle of Watchmen itself; being twelve chapters long, with each chapter of equivalent length, Watchmen has no narrative middle or center—its middle is a gap or absence. There may be fearful symmetry, but no perfect symmetry. Likewise, chief among the novel’s motifs is the smiley face with a bloodstain occluding one eye: what could be a better image for the human disorder that prevents ideal happiness and obstructs symmetrical vision?

Are all of these themes within the control of our watchmaker-authors? I suspect not. Famously, the character of Rorschach slipped out of Moore’s control: meant to be a caricature of a right-wing lunatic, Rorschach grows into much the most complex character as we explore the traumas that made him who he is and watch him deepen and change; think of the astonishing silent panel in chapter 10 wherein he plainly recognizes his own plight in that of his landlady and her children and ceases to threaten them. Moore and Gibbons themselves palpably come to admire Rorschach more, and to mute his worser tendencies, thus creating their most compelling character.

Rorschach’s ethical stature is helped by the fact that the book’s villain, Ozymandias, is its ostensible spokesman for the political left. His technocratic utilitarian utopianism is presented without passion or charisma, as a fervorless murderous calculus redolent of fascism, just as his plan to stop the deaths of millions by killing hundreds of thousands participates in the very brutal logic of the nuclear planners. For a book plainly intended as a left-wing critique, Watchmen gathers itself into an essentially Burkean argument—or would Moore just want to see it as anarchist, Pynchonian?—against any and all centralized control schemes and systems, even in the best of causes.

More troublingly, Watchmen‘s emblem of what man cannot control is woman. At the narrative level, this expresses itself controversially in Sally Jupiter’s relationship with The Comedian, which begins in rape and progresses to love. As verisimilitude, this might be persuasive: that Sally could respond in such a way to The Comedian is possible given her class, generation, and character; her daughter, possessed of a post-feminist consciousness, would certainly not have made such a choice. At the symbolic level, Moore gives us multiple images of the vagina dentata (initially pictured on an activist poster advertising “Gay Women Against Rape”), culminating in the genital visage of the “alien” that attacks New York at the novel’s climax. Moore’s figuration of ungovernable reality quite simply takes the form of the feminine, even the monstrous feminine. (It should be said that Moore pursues the same argument consciously, and thus more critically and humanely, in From Hell.)

Watchmen would not be as compelling as it is were it merely cynical about human possibility. Rorschach’s unforgettable nihilism—

The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.

—is answered in the book, as in the balance of Rorschach’s life, by a commendation of kindness. The symbolic bloodstain is not merely the effluvium of the murdered but corresponds to another of the novel’s motifs, the Hiroshima lovers—the shadowed shape of lovers embracing left by the atomic flash. These two images converge at the conclusion of chapter 11 when two minor characters both named Bernie—an old man who runs a corner newsstand and a young man who frequents said stand to read comic books—run into each other’s arms as New York is destroyed. The ultimate force that spoils symmetry, that runs to excess, that can never be calculated, is love.

Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 1.36.41 PM
Now to the matter of Leslie S. Klinger’s annotations and the overall quality of this edition. I confess I find it promising but disappointing.

First of all, there aren’t enough annotations: sometimes pages pass without Klinger’s comment. This is an expensive book, and most people (like me!) will be buying it as a second copy of a work they already own, so in this case a lapse in quantity—of the one extra item justifying this book’s existence and expense—is a lapse in quality.

Second, Klinger’s annotations seem arbitrary: for instance, at times he will explain the provenance and context of each chapter’s epigraph extensively, as with Blake (chapter 5) or Jung (chapter 9), while he has little to say about others (e.g., the Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello quotations from chapters 1 and 2). Why does the idiom “see you in the funny pages” get a long annotation, while “here’s looking at you, kid” goes without a gloss? Klinger shrewdly notes that AIDS seems not to exist in Watchmen‘s world, without explaining that Ozymandias probably prevented its spread, as is subtly implied in the prose supplement to chapter 11. He mentions Woodward and Bernstein early on, without observing that The Comedian is intimated to have murdered them in chapter 9. Etc.

Third, there are a handful of errors, some just typos (“thtink” “Alan Ginsburg”) and one fairly egregious mistake of interpretation (he confuses a reference in chapter 8 to the Nuremberg rallies for an allusion to the Nuremberg trials, thus reversing the import of one line of dialogue). I generally incline toward forgiveness on these matters—we all make mistakes. But then again, we aren’t all charging fifty dollars for them in the form of what ought to be a scholarly text!

Fourth, Klinger often provides contextual information without showing any consideration for how Moore or Gibbons might have come by their facts and ideas; annotations to canonical literature—to Milton, say, or Joyce or Pynchon—will not just gloss the author’s allusions but will often comment on where the authors acquired their learning, precisely because these means of transmission make an interpretive difference. Now Moore refused to collaborate on this book, and he is not a long-dead author whose papers and personal library can be accessed by a researcher, which makes the aforementioned task of interpretation more difficult. Still, it could be useful and informative to speculate: for example, can’t we be reasonably certain that Moore learned about Kitty Genovese from Harlan Ellison’s “Whimper of Whipped Dogs”? and isn’t that a case of literary allusion, itself in need of a gloss, as much as of historical reference?

On the other hand, I thought of including the fact that Klinger at times editorializes (as when he defends expenditures on space exploration from the “Whitey on the Moon”-style argument made in Watchmen itself) as a flaw, and I even considered making a nasty remark about Charles Kinbote, but on reflection I think Klinger’s incorporation of his own views and sensibility actually makes the book richer and more various—in short, more fun to read. If anything, I might have preferred more of it, just as I would prefer more of the annotations generally.

Likewise, Klinger’s quotations from Moore’s notoriously verbose scripts (still in Gibbons’s possession) are very entertaining, as is his charting of the book’s repeating motifs (smiley faces and the Hiroshima couple especially); he also catches a few important allusions, particularly a near-climactic one to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that I had never noticed, and that expand the novel’s range of reference.

Finally, I was at first put off by the subtraction of John Higgins’s coloring from this book’s reproduction of the artwork. Higgins’s palette does so much to set the book’s tone, and, more broadly, color should no more be regarded as detachable from comics than music should be from film. Even so, everyone will come away from this book with a new appreciation for Dave Gibbon’s work, his incredible deep-focus, his delicate brushwork, his enchanting braid of three dissimilar elements—US Silver Age superhero art, European ligne claire, and a ruthless gritty de-idealizing sensibility that, though it has antecedents (Wood’s “Superduperman,” Ditko’s Spider-Man), is largely his own.

All in all, Watchmen: The Annotated Edition is the kernel of a great book, but I wonder if it would be too much to hope that future editions of this particular text might add more material, expanding on Klinger’s qualities and correcting its flaws.


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Don DeLillo, White Noise

White Noise: Text and CriticismWhite Noise: Text and Criticism by Don DeLillo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am interested in the question of whether or not this book holds up. It was long judged exemplary of a cultural epoch: the postmodern novel par excellence, or at least an excellent postmodern novel that undergraduates could reasonably be expected to read in a survey course, unlike Gravity’s Rainbow or, well, Underworld. But the luster—the Warholian diamond dust—has flaked away from postmodernism; twenty-first-century literature has generally been seeking an escape from the precession of simulacra and the prison-house of language, a return to various forms of authenticity, everything from the supra-linguistic structural and emotional intensities of genre fiction to the quasi-religious moral authority of James Baldwin, from the social realist family sagas of Jonathan Franzen and the gritty neo-modernism of Roberto Bolaño to academic literary theory’s turn toward affect studies and empirical sociology. It is not that we have forgotten, necessarily, that we are only able to communicate in arbitrary signs and the consequent necessity for irony; only that we are also allowing ourselves to be interested in whatever we may be able to access of strong feeling or creditable faith below and beyond the signifying chain.

Luckily for the Teflon Don[1], his signature “postmodern” novel turns out to be nothing other than a search for the signal in the noise. A combination family novel and campus satire, White Noise gives us an academic year in the life of the Gladney family. Its middle-aged paterfamilias is Jack Gladney, professionally known as J. A. K. Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill in a town called Blacksmith.[2] He has recently married Babette—his third wife, and the only of his wives not involved in intelligence. Theirs is a blended family: none of their four children is the progeny of the couple itself, and the children themselves seem, in their preternatural worldliness, to run the household since only they are “native” to the media, medical, and scientific landscape of the 1980s.

White Noise is beautifully structured[3]: it has three parts of unequal length. The first, “Waves and Radiation,” is a sequence of short chapters, themselves composed of staccato sentences and paragraphs, a montage of information, introducing us to the setting and characters. As critics have noted, if it owes something to the domestic realist novel, it also owes a great deal to the exaggerations and comic dialogue of the domestic sitcom, and, like television, the narrative is often interrupted by commercials—paragraphs consisting solely of product names. I know not everyone agrees with this, but for me, DeLillo’s anti-dialogic dialogue is unremittingly hilarious:

On our way home I said, “Bee wants to visit at Christmas. We can put her in with Steffie.”

“Do they know each other?”

“They met at Disney World. It’ll be all right.”

“When were you in Los Angeles?”

“You mean Anaheim.”

“When were you in Anaheim?”

“You mean Orlando.”

The main concern of this section is Jack and Babette’s attempt to evade their fear of death (“Who will die first?” they constantly ask each other) and Jack’s attempt to stave off the meaninglessness and radical uncertainty of an entirely technologized, information-saturated consumer society, where the individual is wholly subsumed in and even constituted by vast impersonal systems. Jack feels blessed when the ATM tells him his account balance matches his dim sense of it. Babette teaches classes in walking, in eating and drinking. An elderly couple gets lost in the mall. Nothing is natural any longer, and nothing is quite known. The result, as shown in a brilliant long dialogue wherein Jack cannot persuade his oldest son to commit to the proposition that it is currently raining as they drive through the rain, is a loss of any individual access to the truth:

“Rain is a noun. Is there rain here, in this precise locality, at whatever time within the next two minutes that you choose to respond to the question?”

“If you want to talk about this precise locality while you’re in a vehicle that’s obviously moving, then I think that’s the trouble with this discussion.”

“Just give me an answer, okay, Heinrich?”

“The best I could do is make a guess.”

“Either it’s raining or it isn’t,” I said.

“Exactly. That’s my whole point. You’d be guessing. Six of one, half dozen of the other.”

“But you see it’s raining.”

“You see the sun moving across the sky. But is the sun moving across the sky or is the earth turning?”

Make no mistake, the kid is right: you really can’t trust common sense or your own eyes. What to do? Jack allows to the reader that he studies Hitler precisely because the dictator’s transcendent evil gives him an anchor in a world wherein the transcendent is otherwise absent.

So Hitler gave me something to grow into and develop toward, tentative as I have sometimes been in the effort. The glasses with thick black heavy frames and dark lenses were my own idea, an alternative to the bushy beard that my wife of the period didn’t want me to grow. Babette said she liked the series J. A. K. and didn’t think it was attention-getting in a cheap sense. To her it intimated dignity, significance and prestige.

I am the false character that follows the name around.

And Jack’s colleague, Murray Jay Siskind, who acts as the novel’s oracle, praises this “society of kids” and seeks insight in the supermarket where the town convenes in lieu of church:

The supermarket is the privileged place for a phenomenology of surfaces. Murray is a devotee of generic brands, and he takes their “flavorless packaging” to be the sign of a new austerity, a new “spiritual consensus.” The packaging on supermarket goods, he says, “is the last avant-garde. Bold new forms. The power to shock.” But even unprocessed and unpackaged foods take on the form of packaging: “There were six kinds of apples, there were exotic melons in several pastels. Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright.”

Telling his students that “[a]ll plots tend to move deathward,” Jack pleads, “May the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to a plan.”

Such hubris is always punished in fiction. Part II, “The Airborne Toxic Event,” one long novella unto itself without chapter divisions, advances the action: a toxic leak afflicts the town of Blacksmith and the Gladney family is forced to evacuate. This section brilliantly portrays the media’s euphemisms (“airborne toxic event” is the comparatively lethal culmination of a sequence of mollifying labels that begin with “billowing cloud”) and the effects on our very body of media miscommunication: the Gladney children acquire every symptom of exposure to the toxic cloud that the media warns about, but they are always behind the updated symptom list; at one point, Jack even wonders if his nine-year-old daughter will suffer a miscarriage when that is announced as a possible side-effect. In this section of the novel, society regresses to the Middle Ages, plagues and wonders, as Jack confronts the archaic specter of death lurking behind ultramodern or postmodern society. While officials deal with death in circumlocution—

“Am I going to die?”

“Not as such,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Not in so many words.”

“How many words does it take?”

—the section’s imagery tells a different story:

The enormous dark mass moved like some death ship in a Norse legend, escorted across the night by armored creatures with spiral wings. We weren’t sure how to react. It was a terrible thing to see, so close, so low, packed with chlorides, benzines, phenols, hydrocarbons, or whatever the precise toxic content. But it was also spectacular, part of the grandness of a sweeping event, like the vivid scene in the switching yard or the people trudging across the snowy overpass with children, food, belongings, a tragic army of the dispossessed.

And Jack’s son, the one who had been unable to concede it was raining in the rain, laments not our death but our detachment from life:

“Can we make a refrigerator? Can we even explain how it works? What is electricity? What is light? We experience these things every day of our lives but what good does it do if we find ourselves hurled back in time and we can’t even tell people the basic principles much less actually make something that would improve conditions. Name one thing you could make.”


“What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. It changes and grows every second of every day. But nobody actually knows anything.”

The novel’s third section, “Dylarama,” returns to the short-chapter mode of the first, and narrates Jack’s attempt to learn more about an experimental drug, Dylar, that Babette has been taking to cure her fear of death. Highlights of this section include a visit from Jack’s father-in-law, an emissary from a vanished world (to speak in present media argot, of “the white working class”) who brings a German-made gun, and a Socratic dialogue between Jack and Murray wherein the oracle counsels our narrator that the only way to avoid the fear of death is to become death’s master by killing someone else. When Jack attempts to take the advice by committing murder—in the lead-up to the act, with the potential for violence bringing clarity, he “knew for the first time what rain really was”—a comic anti-climax ensues. An extraordinary conversation with some German-speaking nuns in Germantown draws to a conclusion and reverses the novel’s German motif, where Germany stands for a deadly Romantic-Hitlerian escape from the unlived life; the nuns inform Jack that they do not actually have faith but that faith is necessary all the same:

“It is for others. Not for us.”

“But that’s ridiculous. What others?”

“All the others. The others who spend their lives believing that we still believe. It is our task in the world to believe things no one else takes seriously. To abandon such beliefs completely, the human race would die. This is why we are here. A tiny minority. To embody old things, old beliefs. The devil, the angels, heaven, hell. If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse.”


“Of course pretend. Do you think we are stupid? Get out from here.”

“You don’t believe in heaven? A nun?”

“If you don’t, why should I?”

“If you did, maybe I would.”

“If I did, you would not have to.”

The highly episodic narrative does not quite end; it only stops with the school year. What does it mean? A wicked satire on postmodern living? A Frankfurt School lament over crypto-fascist consumerism? We shouldn’t expect a thesis from a work of imaginative literature. If you want to send a message, use Western Union, or, updating the reference, waste your time on Twitter. People who want to explore their and our ambivalence write poems and novels. DeLillo, I would argue, is ambivalent. Part of him would almost certainly prefer some return to religious and cultural tradition, as shown in novel’s academic satire. One of the novel’s first images is “the orange I-beam sculpture” at the center of the college’s campus, signifying not only the meaninglessness of postmodern art but also its hypertrophy of the self, the “I,” and its replacement/mockery of labor (the beam no longer used in construction but as an aesthetic object); “there are full professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes,” we read, and I can only read it as a seriously-meant send-up of the destruction of culture by who but its appointed custodians.[4]

On the other hand, DeLillo takes transcendence where he finds it. Flipping through the critical essays collected in the back of the Viking Critical Edition, which run from the late 1980s to the late 1990s, you can see the scholars slowly growing aware that this famous scene is not meant to be a joke:

She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant.

Toyota Celica.

A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform. It made me feel that something hovered. But how could this be? A simple brand name, an ordinary car. How could these near-nonsense words, murmured in a child’s restless sleep, make me sense a meaning, a presence? She was only repeating some TV voice. Toyota Corolla, Toyota Celica, Toyota Cressida. Supranational names, computer-generated, more or less universally pronounceable. Part of every child’s brain noise, the substatic regions too deep to probe. Whatever its source, the utterance struck me with the impact of a moment of splendid transcendence.

The signs of a commercial or mass culture are even more arbitrary than signs in general, but perhaps that is just what we need: when you get meaning out of the way entirely, you return to the glossolalia of the mystics, language as mesmerizing mysterious surface, an emanation from another world. Language doesn’t have to mean to be; we don’t have to believe to know the truth—whatever it may be—is potentially out there.

So, in age sick of the last century’s concluding and self-satisfied pronouncements that the novel and the self and the subject and the truth and God are all dead, White Noise, a novel that manages to be a satire and an earnest spiritual autobiography at once, not to mention an original and almost unbelievably inventive piece of narrative prose, more than holds up.

[1] See Randy Laist’s paper, “TrumpLillo: American Misshapens,” at around 19:25 in this video for a catalogue, only half-serious, of similarities between Donalds DeLillo and Trump. Trump is certainly, in the precise Toni Morrisonian sense, the first Italian-American president, as well as the first Jewish-American president. In its portrayal of the New York émigrés, White Noise suggests a similarity or fraternity between Jews and Italians in American life, and so, just as Bill Clinton was in Morrison’s account attacked with “tropes of blackness,” so is Trump condemned with tropes of Italianness and Jewishness: he is assailed as a pushy, crass, and ostentatious NYC parvenu, corruptor of American traditions, child of immigrants, immersed in “family business,” oversexed, mobbed-up, and loyal to a foreign power. Please note that my point here is not to defend Trump—like Clinton before him, he provides plenty of genuine grounds for robust criticism—only to understand American culture.

[2] The novel’s precise geographical setting is left unspecified, but certain quasi-fictional references—e.g., Iron City (a Pittsburgh beer), Germantown (located, among other places, in Wisconsin)—evoke the Rust Belt or Upper Midwest, a setting thematically necessitated by the novel’s concern with the vanishing of labor and laboring know-how.

[3] The novel’s portrayal of humanities academia in the era of its transition to theory and cultural studies but before its demographic shift toward much greater female participation and its total and uncompromising ideological commitment to left-wing causes is fascinating: College-on-the-Hill’s professoriate is comprised entirely of “New York émigrés,” tough-talking Jewish and Italian males studying the cultural detritus of their youth. Murray’s comparison of city- to town-living is instructive here:

“In cities no one notices specific dying. Dying is a quality of the air. It’s everywhere and nowhere. Men shout as they die, to be noticed, remembered for a second or two. To die in an apartment instead of a house can depress the soul, I would imagine, for several lives to come. In a town there are houses, plants in bay windows. People notice dying better. The dead have faces, automobiles. If you don’t know a name, you know a street name, a dog’s name. ‘He drove an orange Mazda.'”

Now that this era—should we call it “the age of Lentricchia”?—has passed, White Noise can be read as a mischievous and satirical tribute or even elegy.

[4] A few months ago, a commenter and I were speculating about the influence of Mrs. Dalloway on The Crying of Lot 49. I now wonder about the possible influence of To the Lighthouse on White Noise: these two novels of family and death are both arranged in three parts, with the central section a brief line or corridor of death and destruction joining the more expansive first and third sections.


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