Hate in “Blood Meridian”

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This essay originally appeared in Unwinnable Monthly Issue 82 (August 2016).

In Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy crafts a fictionalized account of the campaigns of the non-fictional Glanton gang, a group of bounty hunters tasked with the slaughter of indigenous Americans throughout northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States between 1849 and 1850, in the months following the end of the Mexican-American War. The governor of the state of Chihuahua enlists John Joel Glanton and a few dozen other men (mostly Americans) to eliminate Apache Indians living in the region. Compensation for the Glanton gang’s services comes only upon the presentation of the scalps of those killed. Glanton and his men soon begin murdering other Native American peoples and Mexican citizens, initially scalping the dead to provide false evidence for increased profits. Eventually, they drop even this reprehensible pretense, as the gang raids and plunders settlements throughout the region in a sustained massacre. There are almost no survivors; they leave no children orphaned.

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Stranger Than Satire

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What-if scenarios involving Hitler and World War II are pretty common in fiction, often involving the creation of alternate histories to account for potential plotholes or timeline problems. In Look Who’s Back, Timur Vermes keeps it simple: everything is exactly as we know it in real life, except that Hitler somehow wakes up in present-day Germany (or 2011, the year of the book’s publication in that country) having inexplicably and unintentionally traveled 66 years through time.

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A Supposedly Fun Movie I’ll Never Watch Again

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I don’t hate “The End of the Tour.” I think it does some things very well, some things not so well, and ends up somewhere in the middle overall. But it feels like a missed opportunity. 

Maybe we should admit to the inevitability of a film being made about David Foster Wallace, despite the very legitimate protests of his friends and family. If it was inevitable, thanks to Wallace’s cultural significance, then David Lipsky’s interview-book from 2010 seems like a natural place to go for filmable material. So if we start with this flawed premise – that they were going to ignore Wallace’s wishes and make this movie anyway – then we can judge the film from a different perspective than “this movie shouldn’t have been made” (which is, again, a totally valid perspective). We can look at how it handled the material it was given. And from that angle, I find problems with its basic construction.

The main problem is that it caves to a certain kind of pressure, a certain tug or pull that occurs whenever David Foster Wallace is discussed. It’s the same tug you may be feeling as you read this right now, which is: “When will they talk about the suicide?” Almost any conversation about Wallace now centers on his death and what it might mean for his work and his legacy. It becomes the definitive element of his life and career, the anchor for any exploration of his writing. “The End of the Tour” acknowledges this by bookending its main narrative from 1996 with episodes from the days after Wallace’s death in 2008. The entire film becomes a genuflection. It’s almost impossible to exist in the present moment with the film, because it almost demands that the viewer be constantly referencing back to September 2008, wondering, oh, god, did he know then? Is this when he knew he would do it?

This feels insincere to me. It collapses 12 years of his life into a simple calculation, instead of allowing for a more complicated reality. Answers to interview questions in 1996 become portents for 2008, ignoring the period in between in which he led an actual life. And that life from ‘96 to ‘08 isn’t really relevant to this film, so I’m not arguing for its inclusion. But there was an opportunity here to shift the discourse a bit, to focus solely on those weird few days from 1996 when Wallace and Lipsky became road trip buddies. It could have been a snapshot of a notable time in their lives rather than the memorial service it is now.

Wallace was a towering figure in American literature at least since the release of “Infinite Jest” in 1996, and by the 2000′s his influence was visible everywhere from contemporary fiction to personal blogs. His suicide in 2008 led to a shift in the popular conversations around him, eventually settling on a conception of him as a “tortured genius” archetype, the kind of grim and serious person we expect to be behind monumental works of art. This is ultimately the portrait proposed by the film, as well, despite some small efforts otherwise (like an awkward dance montage). And while Wallace certainly battled depression and other difficulties for his entire adult life, I don’t believe that this one-dimensional portrait reflects the entirety of who he was as either a person or an author. I don’t know that any person could be fairly represented by that characterization. I never met him, of course, but reflections from his friends and family suggest that there was much more to him than the depression he experienced.

But the tortured genius trope persists. Look at the comments on a video like this interview from 2003

People argue back and forth over whether or not his facial expressions, his mannerisms, and his speaking cadence indicate that he would commit suicide five years later. Some see omens in his self-consciousness or insecurity. Wallace becomes a sort of symbol for his own death, and his choice now looms over everything he said, did, or wrote.

This isn’t uncommon and I understand the impulse. People hope to make some sense of something we will likely never be able to comprehend for ourselves. His suicide was a tragedy and an unimaginable loss for the people in his life, but I’m not interested in speculating on the circumstances around it or in making any judgments. 

But when I read his writing, I am surprised at the persistence of the idea of Wallace as the Severe and Serious Author. To be honest about it, I didn’t start reading his work until about a year ago, and I’ve still never read any of his fiction. So I’m not an expert. In reading some of his essays from throughout his career, though, it becomes immediately apparent that there was much more to him than suggested by the depressive portraits we’ve come to accept.

He was serious about his work and not particularly optimistic about the state of the world he lived in. But his love of reading and writing announces itself in his essays, and he leaves no room for skepticism about his passion for the written word. It’s obvious in the basic construction of his essays, which are often dense and long-winded and feature esoteric or archaic vocabulary. His sentences stretch on and on. He clearly loved putting words on the page in a very fundamental sense, and as a reader, I just admire his dedication to that pursuit. I’m not about to suggest that Wallace was a perfect writer, but there is something invigorating and even joyful in reading stuff that is as shamelessly word-y as Wallace’s.

His essays move between academic and conversational approaches, mixing close analysis with humor and digression, which can be both engaging and ridiculous. He understood that ridiculousness, of course, and frequently pointed it out as it occurred. And maybe it didn’t always work; certainly for some readers it never worked. For me, I think that his intellectual curiosity and ambition keep his work genuine even when he drags an essay far off the rails for a tangent. He approached topics with a trademark web of self-aware postures and perspectives, but at the root of it all is a curiosity, an itch to learn that is undeniable and a little infectious.

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These are all very deliberate literary choices on Wallace’s part, and they are choices that leave him wide open to criticism. I don’t know how he felt about that criticism, but the fact that he put so much visible effort into his work suggests that he was at least willing to be part of whatever dialogue was happening around him and his peers. The problem with the sanctification that has occurred in the years since his death is that it effectively removes him from that dialogue. It places him and his work outside the realm of conversation and into the realm of unimpeachability, which is bad news for any artist. At that point, the work becomes inert, unable to be engaged with for fear of disrespect or disruption. But Wallace, like many artists and writers and cultural observers, understood that criticism could be a form of respect, even when it pointed out flaws. Because it’s through criticism that a work can make real connections outside of itself, to other works and to other people and places and times. To presume perfection, as we’ve often done with a book like “Infinite Jest,” fossilizes a work. It no longer evolves with the world around it.

This is all why “The End of the Tour” is disappointing. In focusing on a very narrow point in time, it could have aimed for a more honest portrait of Wallace than the one we’ve been using for the past seven years. Whether or not it would have succeeded is unknown, but the effort would have been appreciated. It likely would have had to risk a more unflattering depiction than this film does (despite its attempt to humanize Wallace through a weird tangent about his jealousy regarding an ex-girlfriend), but that’s a necessity when being honest about someone, dead or alive, no matter the circumstances of their death or the significance of their work.

One of the ways to resist the deification of Wallace is to read what he wrote without expectation. Unless you hate it, I guess – although, even in that case, you’re still participating in the dialogue, still engaging with what he was trying to do. In some ways, even saying “fuck this” is better than the somber, respectful, distant gaze we’ve adopted with respect to authors like Wallace. “Fuck this” keeps the discussion going and challenges people to decide for themselves.

Wallace’s life and struggle certainly deserve respect and a measure of sensitivity. I think this can be honored without setting his work on a higher pedestal than everything around it. It can be honored without feeling the need to view everything he wrote or said through the lens of his suicide. Resisting those urges lets his work grow, even if our responses are negative – it gives the work a chance to rejoin the culture around it despite its age.

This is what I wished “The End of the Tour” had aimed for. I wished it were a movie that showed its audiences a glimpse of an author at an important cultural and personal crossroads, a movie that allowed its viewers to decide for themselves what to make of Wallace’s words in person and on the page. Instead, it’s reverent to a fault, and keeps the mainstream hagiography in motion.

(As a side note, I’m aware that now is a particularly bad time to admit to liking Wallace’s work. I’ve got no defense on that front.)

Distance in “Open City”

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“And as I stood there in the whipping wind and rain, I wondered if indeed it was that simple, if time was so free with memory, so generous with pardons, that writing well could come to stand in the place of an ethical life.” – Teju Cole, ‘Open City’

Teju Cole’s “Open City” is a work of misdirection. Cole’s narrator, Julius, spends dozens and dozens of pages relating stories of his days spent wandering New York City (with a brief vacation in Belgium), throughout which he incorporates commentary on a great breadth of topics. He exhibits an intimate knowledge of art, photography, music, literature, and global history and politics, and is adept at synthesizing his understanding of these varied fields into incisive, often profound insights. “Open City” lacks a plot in the traditional sense, but following Julius’ train of thought as he encounters landmarks and people and events throughout New York and beyond is deeply compelling in its own way. I think many readers will develop an admiration for the scale and scope of both his wealth of knowledge and his innate curiosity.

“Open City” contains more than just a collection of a man’s opinions on the world he observes, though. Julius circles around certain topics, often personal ones, never quite addressing them as directly or thoroughly as he does the paintings and architecture he comes across. But it’s through his fleeting visitations on these other aspects of his own life that we come to understand Julius as a person, not just a well-read writer and critic. The things he refuses to specify or analyze about his fraught familial relationships and his behavior toward his ex-girlfriend reveal the expansive distance that separates Julius from the rest of the world.

It’s not simply that Julius can be aloof, but that his constant pursuit of the intellectualized perspective leads him to refuse to acknowledge responsibility for his own behavior, for his own capability to cause pain in others. He favors his critical faculties over his ability to deal with trauma and grief in his own life and the lives of those he loves. Julius finds himself, or perhaps places himself, at such a remove from the present, intimate moment that even candid accusations about the damage he has done to others can’t keep his mind from drifting to artistic and philosophical commentary. It’s also distressing that he may not even be aware of these problems.

This is a troubling line of inquiry. Cole never summarizes or explains any of this, and for much of the book, it’s easy to trust Julius and to view him as as an authority on his own experiences. This trust then naturally extends to his observations on the culture surrounding him. But as the novel continues, moments of strange mis-applied analysis of certain works or situations creep in, and the reader can begin to pull on the thread that will finally reveal something more unsettling.

Otherwise, Julius seems to be an incredibly bright and entertaining guide. For all of his introspection, he’s sociable in casual settings and apparently an easy person for others to strike up a conversation with. He is, in some ways, an ideal of the cosmopolitan, engaging in great intellectual debates of history and contemporary thought with people from a huge variety of life experiences. He pulls from an impressive breadth of knowledge and experience. This is what makes the revelations about his lack of concern for others so disconcerting.

The desire to engage with history and culture of all different kinds (art, music, literature, philosophy, film, whatever else) motivates so many of us, often because we see it as a way to engage with what it means to be a person. This has been a pursuit for generations, of course. But especially now that so much is available to us almost instantaneously over the internet, there’s a desire to consume as much as possible and be a part of the discussion around all of it – say, by blogging about contemporary literature online (!). There is no end to this motivation. There will always be more worthwhile work to immerse ourselves in.

I think the concern that Cole teases at throughout his exceptional book is the idea that we might overlook the immediate humanity of the people in our lives because of our desire to be connected to some abstract, intellectual community, one that truly understands the human experience on a grand scale. It’s an understandable goal, and I’m not about to discourage anyone from reading more or listening to more music or watching more movies. But it is important to recognize the disconnect that can develop when this motivation is given too much reign over our lives. And it is doubly difficult to know if, or when, we have already allowed that to occur.

Cole’s strength as a writer is such that his novel never reads like a didactic exercise. It is far more ambiguous or suggestive than that, and he instead creates a character portrait of great depth and sincerity without looking for an easy reconciliation of these conflicts. What makes “Open City” such a profound success is the gap between author and narrator. For Cole, these questions of art and ethics are urgent. Julius only asks them philosophically. He does not know, or care, to ask them of himself.