death letter

Maybe it’s the recent demise of the great Cap­tain Beef­heart, which is a reminder of the way music, 30 years ago still a medi­um for rev­o­lu­tion, no longer has a past or a future, but has con­gealed into a time­less­ly sus­pend­ed orches­tral chord like the final twen­ty bars of a dirge by Arvo Pärt.  Maybe it’s all the delta blues I’ve been lis­ten­ing to, and that time last week I fell asleep in my chair to Strauss’s last songs, the liq­uid voice of Elis­a­beth Schwarzkopf float­ing angel-like over a Ger­man mead­ow at dusk.  Or the solo pas­sages from Kei­th Jarrett’s Ele­gy for Vio­lin and Strings, sun­light pool­ing in a dark for­est, dur­ing which, while tear­ful­ly slic­ing shal­lots for a stew, I near­ly took off the last joints of the mid­dle and index fin­gers of my left hand.

More like­ly, it’s the bru­tal new book by Gary Shteyn­gart, Super Sad True Love Sto­ry, that has me think­ing about death.

It’s unex­pect­ed.  His last book, Absur­dis­tan, was sopho­moric satire.  It earned plen­ty of crit­i­cal praise, but didn’t do it for me.  Super Sad is of an entire­ly dif­fer­ent order.  The writ­ing is beau­ti­ful.  The sto­ry is pow­er­ful.  The char­ac­ters run true, in a way that sug­gests the ago­nies of auto­bi­og­ra­phy.  In the­o­ry, I sup­pose Super Sad is sci­ence fic­tion, in that it takes place in a near future and cer­tain ele­ments hinge on tech­nolo­gies that are not yet (quite) real.

The names alone.  Soy­lent GreenLogan’s Run.  Here were Joshie’s begin­nings.  A dystopi­an upper-class child­hood in sev­er­al elite Amer­i­can sub­urbs.  Total immer­sion in Isaac Asimov’s Sci­ence Fic­tion Mag­a­zine.  The twelve-year-old’s first cog­ni­tion of mor­tal­i­ty, for the true sub­ject of sci­ence fic­tion is death, not life.  It will all end.  The total­i­ty of it.  The self-love.  Not want­i­ng to die.  Want­i­ng to live, but not sure why.  Look­ing up at the night­time sky, at the black eter­ni­ty of out­er space, amazed.  Hat­ing the par­ents.  Want­i­ng their love.  Already an anx­ious sense of time pass­ing, the stag­gered bath­room howls of grief for a deceased Pomeran­ian, young Joshie’s stal­wart and only best friend, felled by dog­gie can­cer on a Chevy Chase lawn. [p.217]

The gor­geous sen­tences were a sur­prise.  Our friend Blaine, who rec­om­mend­ed the book to me, float­ed the the­o­ry that per­haps Shteyn­gart had final­ly come into his inher­i­tance as a writer in Eng­lish, that per­haps, like Nabokov— anoth­er St. Peters­burg native— he’s an émi­gré both in body and lan­guage.  The back flap seems to refute this idea, claim­ing that the Shteyn­gart fam­i­ly moved to the US when he was only sev­en years old.  But then, I wasn’t so much old­er when my fam­i­ly moved here, and I still don’t feel assim­i­lat­ed.  And yes,

Shteyn­gart spent the first sev­en years of his child­hood liv­ing in a square dom­i­nat­ed by a huge stat­ue of Vladimir Lenin in what is now St. Peters­burg, Rus­sia; the city was then known as Leningrad.  He comes from a Jew­ish fam­i­ly and describes his fam­i­ly as typ­i­cal­ly Sovi­et.  His father worked as an engi­neer in a LOMO cam­era fac­to­ry; his moth­er was a pianist.  Shteyn­gart emi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States in 1979 and was brought up with no tele­vi­sion in the apart­ment in which he lived, and no spo­ken Eng­lish.  He did not shed his thick Russ­ian accent until the age of 14.

Aside from the obses­sion with death of Lenny Abramovitz, the 39 year old neb­bish in the cen­ter of this book’s nihilis­tic vor­tex (and stand-in for the 38 year old Shteyn­gart), oth­er themes of Super Sad include the death of child­hood, the death of rela­tion­ships, the death of words, the death of books, the death of the Web, the death of New York, the death of the USA, and the death of the human species.  This isn’t a good book to read in a hos­pi­tal room, or dur­ing exams, grant pro­pos­als, breakups, elec­tions, or midlife crises.

As a Jew and a Russ­ian émi­gré, per­haps Shteyn­gart comes well equipped to under­stand death in a truer and fun­da­men­tal­ly un-Amer­i­can way, as a real pres­ence and absence, as the neg­a­tive space around, before and after any­thing of val­ue.

Child­hood

The joint returned, passed by a slen­der, unfa­mil­iar woman’s hand, and I toked harsh­ly from it.  I set­tled into a mem­o­ry of being maybe four­teen and pass­ing by one of those then new­ly built NYU dor­mi­to­ries on First or Sec­ond Avenue, those mul­ti-col­ored blobs with some kind of chick­en-wing-type moder­ni­ty point­ed­ly hang­ing off the roof, and there were these smart­ly dressed girls just being young out by the building’s lob­by, and they smiled in tan­dem as I passed— not in jest, but because I was a nor­mal-look­ing guy and it was a bril­liant sum­mer day, and we were all alive.  I remem­ber how hap­py I was (I decid­ed to attend NYU on the spot), but how, after I had walked half a block away, I real­ized they were going to die and I was going to die and that the final result— nonex­is­tence, era­sure, none of this mat­ter­ing in the “longest” of runs— would nev­er appease me, nev­er allow me to enjoy ful­ly the hap­pi­ness of the friends I sus­pect­ed I would one day acquire, friends like these peo­ple in front of me, cel­e­brat­ing an upcom­ing birth, laugh­ing and drink­ing, pass­ing into a new gen­er­a­tion with their con­nec­tiv­i­ty and decen­cy intact, even as each year brought clos­er the unthink­able, those wak­ing hours that began at nine post merid­i­an and end­ed at three in the morn­ing, those puls­ing, mos­qui­to-bit­ten hours of dread.  [p.237]

In Mex­i­co, Dia de los Muer­tos cel­e­brates death just as the Amer­i­can Hal­loween jok­i­ly skirts it.  The sick­ly sweet can­dies both pre­serve against cor­rup­tion and evoke it, the sweet­ish odor of decay famil­iar to any­one still liv­ing in con­nec­tion with the under­ly­ing real­i­ties of the farm, the deathbed, the slaugh­ter­house.

Rela­tion­ships

The love sto­ry of Lenny Abramov and the much younger Eunice Park is indeed super sad. True to its title, not a sin­gle rela­tion­ship intro­duced or con­sum­mat­ed in the book out­lives its 331 pages.  Of course, to put a cheer­ful spin on things, we can quote Dan Sav­age: “every rela­tion­ship fails... until one doesn’t”.  This claim is prob­lem­at­ic in sev­er­al ways, the most inter­est­ing of which is that it pre­sumes that the mea­sure of a relationship’s “suc­cess” is the death of one or both of the par­ties involved.

Words

A co-op woman, old, tired, Jew­ish, fake drops of jade spread across the lit­tle sacks of her bosom, looked up at the pend­ing wind and said one word: “Blus­tery.”  Just one word, a word mean­ing no more than “a peri­od of time char­ac­ter­ized by strong winds,” but it caught me unaware, it remind­ed me of how lan­guage was once used, its pre­ci­sion and sim­plic­i­ty, its capac­i­ty for recall.  Not cold, not chilly, blus­tery.  A hun­dred oth­er blus­tery days appeared before me, my young moth­er in a faux-fur coat stand­ing before our Chevro­let Mal­ibu Clas­sic, her hands pro­tec­tive­ly over my ears because my defec­tive ski hat couldn’t be pulled down to cov­er them, while my father cursed and fum­bled with his car keys.  The streams of her wor­ried breath against my face, the excite­ment of feel­ing both cold and pro­tect­ed, exposed to the ele­ments and loved at the same time.

It is blus­tery, ma’am,” I said to the old co-op woman.  “I can feel it in my bones.”  And she smiled at me with what­ev­er facial mus­cles she still had in reserve.  We were com­mu­ni­cat­ing with words.  [p.305]

Books

[Milan] Kun­dera forced me to pon­der my mor­tal­i­ty some more.

Eunice’s gaze had weak­ened, and the light had gone out of her eyes, those twin black orbs usu­al­ly charged with an irre­press­ible man­date of anger and desire.

Are you fol­low­ing all this?” I said.  “Maybe we should stop.”

I’m lis­ten­ing,” she half-whis­pered.

But are you under­stand­ing?” I said.

I’ve nev­er real­ly learned how to read texts,” she said.  “Just to scan them for info.” [p.277]

Amazon.com’s home­page is claim­ing that the Kin­dle is their num­ber one sell­ing, most gift­ed item ever.  And the glow of faces lit from below by iDe­vices on the bus with me now, per­fect mono­liths of con­sumer tech­nol­o­gy.  I’m row­ing upriv­er with these “non­stream­ing bound media arti­facts” I car­ry around in my back­pack.  Shteyn­gart is essen­tial­ly right, with­in a decade, books will look like Amish hats, or per­haps more apt­ly like the payess of an ultra-ortho­dox Jew on the L train, sug­ges­tive of an under­ly­ing unwashed odor.  And then deep read­ing will go too, cf. The Shal­lows, by Nicholas Carr.

The Web

While books have the stol­id sur­viv­abil­i­ty of a Gala­pa­gos tor­toise in a ship’s hold, the Inter­net tech­nolo­gies that replace them are dis­em­bod­ied, frag­ile, noth­ing but a wispy thought or soul reborn and refreshed in every moment of “uptime”.  As kids we read about the “can­dles of knowl­edge” that the monks kept alight in their mil­len­ni­al monas­ter­ies, the libraries of medieval Europe.  But our can­dles are lit­er­al­ly that, will be extin­guished the moment the lights go out.  Or before, since the sys­tems that keep these can­dles alight are run by com­pa­nies that have no inter­est in burn­ing tal­low if there are too few con­sumer-moths flut­ter­ing around the flame to mon­e­tize.  Yes­ter­day Yahoo announced that they’ll be shut­ting down Deli­cious,

the Internet’s mem­o­ry stor­age device.  In the 7+ years of its exis­tence it has record­ed the col­lec­tive online jour­neys of mil­lions of users dur­ing a time when the Web was evolv­ing dra­mat­i­cal­ly.  Those mem­o­ries are irre­place­able and have enor­mous val­ue both to their own­ers (the users) and to soci­ety.

This blog­ger sug­gests scrap­ing the Deli­cious records before the plug is pulled and donat­ing them to the Library of Con­gress or the Smith­son­ian!  Thus the reces­sion­al of the hard dri­ves back into the monastery.

When the lights go out on New York in Super Sad, Eunice Park’s fran­tic attempts to com­mu­ni­cate with her friends and fam­i­ly are met with the fol­low­ing 404:

GLOBALTEENS AUTOMATIC ERROR MESSAGE 01121111:

We are SO TOTTALY sor­ry for the incon­ve­nience.  We are expe­ri­enc­ing con­nec­tiv­i­ty issues in the fol­low­ing loca­tion: HERMOSA BEACH, CA, U.S.A.  Please be patient and the prob­lem should resolve itself like when­ev­er.

Free Glob­al­Teens Dat­ing Tip: Don’t ever fold your arms in front of your date.  That says you don’t total­ly agree with what he’s say­ing or maybe you’re not into his data.  Instead put your hands out in front of you, palms open, like you want to be cup­ping his balls!  Get a degree in Body Lan­guage, girl­friend, and you’ll be giv­ing head to the class.  [p.263]

After a few days of no con­nec­tiv­i­ty, peo­ple in Lenny’s apart­ment build­ing begin to sui­cide, like cells tun­ing into the apop­to­sis sig­nal after the death of the body.

New York

A pink mist hov­ered over the most­ly res­i­den­tial area once known as the Finan­cial Dis­trict, cast­ing every­thing in the past tense.  A father kept kiss­ing his tiny son’s head over and over with a sad insis­tence, mak­ing those of us with bad par­ents or no par­ents feel even more lone­ly and alone.

We watched the sil­hou­ettes of oil tankers, guess­ing at the warmth of their holds.  The city approached.  The three bridges con­nect­ing Brook­lyn and Man­hat­tan, one long neck­lace of light, grad­u­al­ly dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed them­selves.  The Empire State extin­guished its crown and tucked itself away behind a less­er build­ing.  On the Brook­lyn side, the gold-tipped Williams­burg Sav­ings Bank, cor­nered by the half-built, aban­doned glass giants around it, qui­et­ly gave us the fin­ger.  Only the bank­rupt “Free­dom” Tow­er, emp­ty and stern in pro­file, like an angry man risen and ready to punch, cel­e­brat­ed itself through­out the night.

Every return­ing New York­er asks the ques­tion: Is this still my city?

I have a ready answer, cloaked in obsti­nate despair: It is.

And if it’s not, I will love it all the more.  I will love it to the point where it becomes mine again.  [p.96]

The Unit­ed States

… I pon­dered my father’s humil­i­a­tion.  The humil­i­a­tion of grow­ing up a Jew in the Sovi­et Union, of clean­ing piss-stained bath­rooms in the States, of wor­ship­ping a coun­try that would col­lapse as sim­ply and inel­e­gant­ly as the one he had aban­doned.  [p.321]

It’s a false anal­o­gy to call the US “mid­dle-aged” or “over the hill”, in that such terms are born out of anal­o­gy with organ­isms like us, with telom­er­ic clocks that tell us when it’s time to die after our fourscore-odd years— assum­ing we’ve made it that far.  The col­lapse of a soci­ety seems more like a dif­fu­sive cap­ture process, a drunkard’s walk in which every step takes us clos­er or far­ther from one or anoth­er kind of col­lapse-scale event.  We stum­ble around in a poly­he­dron of sta­bil­i­ty, per­haps take a step back from one brink with the pas­sage of uni­ver­sal health­care, toward anoth­er with every Lyn­don LaRouche demon­stra­tion.

Across the thresh­olds, the law­less homi­ci­dal mad­ness of Ciu­dad Juárez, the naked sur­vival-of-the-fittest in the streets of Lagos, the cat­a­stroph­ic break­downs in social cohe­sion that hap­pened in Bosnia and in Rwan­da, the eco-dis­as­ters chron­i­cled in Jared Diamond’s Col­lapse, the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the USSR.  There may be no clock, but a coun­try, a soci­ety, can’t last; it rolls the dice every year.  Change is com­ing, per­haps gen­tle, per­haps cat­a­stroph­ic, per­haps soon, per­haps not for a while.  As the cells in these organ­isms, what can we hope for?  To avoid liv­ing in fear and dread, to sleep well at night, and inso­far as we can, to try to sur­vive with our “con­nec­tiv­i­ty and decen­cy intact”.

Humans

We were talk­ing, placid­ly despite the wine intake, about glob­al warm­ing and the end of human life on earth.  The Ital­ians were describ­ing our role on the plan­et as that of both­er­some horse­flies, and the planet’s self-reg­u­lat­ing ecosys­tems as a kind of gigan­tic fly-swat­ter.  I could not under­stand how, as par­ents, my friends could even begin to imag­ine the extin­guish­ing of their son’s world… [p.330]

Yes, I find it much eas­i­er to accept my own death than the deaths of these larg­er things.

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6 Responses to death letter

  1. Oooff. And a hap­py New Year..

  2. True, I for­got to men­tion “Mer­ry Christ­mas” in this post! But have to say, feel­ing a bit bet­ter with this off my chest.

  3. I wouldn’t say that about the rest of us.

  4. Blaise, I thought it both poet­ic and insight­ful and makes me want to go out buy the book! At this time of year I find myself in a sim­i­lar mindset....and a Mer­ry Christ­mas to you all!

  5. Thanks Paul! Mer­ryX to you four too. Knew you could be count­ed on to “look on the sun­ny side” :)
    http://blaise.smugmug.com/Art/Pauls-artwork/-/867929587_9hV8P-XL.jpg

  6. Pingback: Blaise Aguera y Arcas, music and literary critic | Beyond the Beyond | Wired

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