Blind Man with a Pistol

The Thin Edge of the Wedge
25 February 2008, 5:20 pm
Filed under: Technology | Tags: , , , , ,

As the entire world already knows, Apple Inc. revealed the MacBook Air last month at the 2008 Macworld conference. The “world’s thinnest notebook” retails from $1799 to $3098 USD. It’s “ultrathin, ultraportable and ultra unlike anything else” according to the Apple website. It “rethinks conventions.” “Innovation” is thrown about like it’s going out of style. In short, the MacBook Air promises revolution. I’m not interested in discussing whether or not the Air constitutes a “smart” buy, or if it performs better than other lightweight laptops, but rather, to examine this “ultra” computer as the fulfillment of the bizarre technological fantasy of the thin. What’s the skinny in technology?

Curiously, while the MacBook Air is the thinnest notebook currently on the market, it is not the lightest; despite the fact that the Toshiba Portege R500 underweighs the Air by more than a pound, unsexy featherweights remain far behind Apple in pursuit of the cool. It is no accident that Apple eschewed a lighter computer, a model doubtless better suited to the commuter crowd ostensibly targeted by the Air, in favour of a slender one. Bypassing the unsettling tendency to label most of Apple’s products indiscriminately “sexy” (a label adopted by the Apple website) it seems to me that the slimness of iPods, iPhones and now the MacBook Air, have much greater cultural implications.

Not only does technoculture exhibit a fanatical obsession in its flight toward the ultimate (or “ultra”) in slim, it does so at the expense of function. In fact, Apple’s counterintuitive choice to build a thinner, rather than lighter product indicates that it is not really interested in function at all. We don’t want to see the guts of a computer (begone Cray-2! You are banished from our memories!) we just want an image of one. The image of a computer sliding out of a manila envelope is much more engaging to contemporary society than a computer that does stuff.

In Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Fredric Jameson posits a theory of “depthlessness” in which a logic of depth–say, interior psychology to exterior expression, or meaning to word–has been replaced by a logic of surfaces. There is little doubt that Apple masterfully converts its products into desperately desired commodities and excels at promotion of the image. But what’s more, as Jameson argues, “this depthlessness [is not] merely metaphorical: it can be experienced physically and ‘literally’ (12). The MacBook Air, which seems to insist that it is less a computer than a conception, not a box of chipsets and wires but a simulation of one, represents the embodiment of this logic of superficiality. It’s called the “Air,” after all: it’s not even there! Indeed, the Air seems to enact a kind of technological physical closure: it lacks a removable-media drive, Ethernet and multiple USB slots. The body of the Air is as inviolate as its perfect, slender image.

What does this say, then, about technoculture in general–besides, that is, that they like their gadgets svelte? As our desktops, redolent with speaker and monitor cables that cheap IKEA and Office Depot desks ceaselessly attempt to conceal (without success), silently retreat into PDAs and two-dimensional laptops, computer commodification dispels the myth that technology increases the opportunity and potential for social change. Instead, it would appear, technology is complicit in capitalism’s ongoing project in perfecting the image, the spectacle. Of course, it’s not as if Apple ever pretended it was pursuing anything else, but it’s nice to know what kind of revolution we’re talking about.

Detection Defection

Alain Robbe-Grillet died last week. While his macho media posturing and depictions of sadism, pedophilia and sexual perversion render him a much more public figure (and hence, more controversial) in France, his influence on English literature in the the late-twentieth century remains emphatic and undeniable. In Pour un nouveau roman (1963), Robbe-Grillet outlined a theory of the novel (while steadfastly refusing the label) and called for a departure from the holistic realism of Balzac and Tolstoy. The novel, as we know it, is dead. This would not be a problem, Robbe-Grillet argues, except that we continue, literature continues, as if the novel were still alive:

A “good” novel…has remained the study of a passion—or of a conflict of passions, or of the absence of passion—in a given milieu. Most of our contemporary novelists of the traditional sort—those, that is, who manage to earn the approval of their readers—could insert long passages from [Madame de Lafayette’s] The Princess of Clèves or [Balzac’s] Père goirot into their own books without awakening the suspicions of the enormous public with whatever they turn out. (15-16)

It was not enough to tinker with the psychological threads of a novel through tired conceits like character, story and theme. Championed by the likes of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, Robbe-Grillet’s manifesto cleared the way for an interrogation of the “raw material” of language with which the writer constructs the novel:

What is so surprising about this, after all? The raw material—the French language—has undergone only very slight modifications for three hundred years; and if society has been gradually transformed, if industrial techniques have made considerable progress, our intellectual civilization has remained much the same. (16)

If we are to find out more about what it means to be human, then, we must discard these stale ways of looking at the world, of writing about it, and see in different ways.

It is no accident, then, that Robbe-Grillet’s first published novel, Les Gommes (1953), took advantage the detective fiction genre in its existentialist examination of the self. We have been trying to “detect” the “human heart” (which, Robbe-Grillet wryly observes, “as everyone knows is eternal”) but hitherto writers have only succeeded in repeating the same stories of “passion” in slightly altered duds. Detection, it turns out, is not about solving crimes based on evidence, but on signifying them. That is, detection is as much about coercing the available facts as it is about interpreting them.

Samuel Beckett’s Molloy (1951, English 1955) similarly employed the genre in its exploration of authorship, identity and agency. In the second half of Beckett’s novel, Moran, the private detective charged with locating Molloy, descends into a world where “evidence: and “clues” hardly function as such, and his scientific, schematic interpretation of the world violently breaks down. Moran murders a strange man that appears to him in his state of poverty and despair, and submits a “report” that shares the same opening sentence with the first half of Molloy: the section narrated by the eponymous character Moran is meant to be tracking. Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes is remarkably close to Beckett’s text: in a surreal landscape redolent with allusions to Oedipus Rex, Wallas, the police inspector of Les Gommes investigates a murder only to end up murdering the victim himself. For Robbe-Grillet, the failure of language to signify a recognizable reality echoes the failure of evidence to reveal the criminal.

The evidence gathered by the inspectors [in any detective story]–an object left at the scene of the crime, a movement captured in a photograph, a sentence overheard by a witness–seem chiefly, at first, to require an explanation, to exist only in relation to their role in a context which overpowers them. And already the theories begin to take shape: the presiding magistrate attempts to establish a logical and necessary link between things…

But the story begins to proliferate in a disturbing way: the witnesses contradict one another, the defendant offers several alibis, new evidence appears that had not been taken into account….And we keep going back to the recorded evidence: the exact position of apiece of furniture, the shape and frequency of a fingerprint, the word scribbled in a message. We have the mounting sense that nothing else is true. Though they may conceal a mystery, or betray it, these elements which make a mockery of systems have only one serious, obvious quality, which is to be there.

The same is true of the world around us. (22-3)

Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman reveals traditional detection for the illusion it is. Solving a crime based on a crime scene is nothing less than imposing a narrative upon it—colonizing it with prefabricated notions of order, interpretation and routine. We can only make use of detection with the self-awareness that it is treacherous—insidious. American writers like Thomas Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Paul Auster in City of Glass (1987) borrow Robbe-Grillet’s usage of the detection conceit for their own conception of the loss of interpretive certainty. While Robbe-Grillet’s impact on contemporary literature may be more polemical than critical, the economy and strength of his demands for the nouveau roman ensure his legacy.

*All citations are taken from: Alain Robbe-Grillet. For a New Novel [Pour un nouveau roman]. Trans. Richard Howard. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1989.

James Tait Black Memorial Literary Prize

I volunteered to read for the 2008 James Tait Black Memorial Literary Prize for fiction. It is a prize organized by the University of Edinburgh and will be awarded this August during the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I received a stack of nine novels, and I decided that a fitting debut blog entry would be the reviews I submitted to the panel of judges to help them compile their short list. Beware: the quality of the submissions is unwieldy.

Ronan Bennett, Zugzwang. Bloomsbury, 2007

Zugzwang is a term used in chess commentary where a player remains obliged to move although all possible options weaken the current position. Bennett, chess commentator to The Guardian, writes a taut political thriller set during a 1914 chess tournament in St. Petersburg. Despite some onerous love scenes between the middle-aged protagonist and his lithe, young Baltic-beauty love interest, Bennett’s prose is energetic and lean while he builds and sustains suspense throughout the narrative. One of the most skilled writers of my stable, Bennett was a pleasure to read, and almost made my short list. Unfortunately, he falls short of the medal round because while Zugzwang excels in the thriller genre, it fails to transcend it. Tight, fun and exciting, but not really prize material.

Tom Harper, Lost Temple. Century, 2007.

What could the publisher have possibly been thinking when they submitted this book for a literary award? Harper’s novel, the first book I read in my set, was awful. Awful. The words “high-octane!” and “non-stop action!” come to mind, along with any hackneyed chestnuts you might see flashed wildly across the trailer of the latest Vin Diesel offering. Sam Grant kills Nazis, Soviets and Palestinian terrorists in a plot so confused, it’s not sure if it’s stealing from The Da Vinci Code, Indiana Jones or The Illiad. About halfway through, I decided to start looking for a sentence that exemplified the horribly trite prose, when eventually realized that every page offered a new and wonderful candidate. How bad is Lost Temple? I think that Tom Harper answers it best on the website, replete with YouTube teaser, that he concocted to promote this book. YouTube? Cripes.

Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Hamish Hamilton, 2007.

A wonderful addition to my pile, this late entry redeemed a particularly poor stack of books. Hamid concocts an allegory of America’s relationship to its historical legacy, its national myths, global capitalism and the distasteful conflicts the intersection of those social forces have wrought. A suspenseful itch begins harmlessly and almost unnoticeably with the title and the unnamed Pakistani narrator that has sat down beside an American tourist to cheerfully tell him about his life in the United States. The itch spreads with ghostly insistence, as the narrative subtly unwinds the social netting that form the Western conception of the East-West divide. The beast of fundamentalist terrorism that frenzies Western thinking bursts into an expertly derived conclusion even as it lingers on a hopeful reconciliation. My only criticism of the book touches the difficult form of the oral allegory employed by the novel. The narrator’s love interest, remains bizarre, one-dimensional and unconvincing—and her allegorical name, (Am)Erica, is perhaps a bit too precious. Overall, an excellent book, and deserving of progression to the next round.

Edward Docx, Self Help. Picador, 2007.

Edward Docx is a witty, inventive writer and Self Help provides an energetic stage for him to flex his artistic muscles. The book examines the lives of an estranged bicultural family, Russian and English, fast upon the death of their loving though brooding (Marxist!) matriarch. Various narrative strands following twin brother and sister, separated bisexual dandy father, and unknown orphan from a previous affair intertwine along the lines of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth or Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Unfortunately, Docx staggers under the weight of his ambition, and 500-page text never really gets off the ground. Moreover, while Smith’s effort revels in its breadth of vision and diversity, Self Help remains firmly planted in white, middle-class navel gazing. Docx’s strong writing and occasional wit rescues the novel somewhat, but his stretch for clever metaphor sometimes shows the strain. Ambitious, but ultimately uninteresting.

Mary Gaitskill, Veronica. Pantheon, 2005.

Gaitskill’s evident talent distinguished her and her novel from the also-rans in my list. Veronica investigates the complex, lurid friendship of the dead title-character and our narrator, Alison, an ex-glamour model now full of self-loathing, regret, and Hepatitis B. Gaitskill beautifully illustrates the weaknesses and hopes that invite debasement, pettiness and failure. As we follow Alison as she revisits her past in an assortment of vignettes about her teenage flight from home, humiliation and success in the modeling industry, and a homecoming to a life of unrewarding temp work—a world where she meets the theatrical Veronica, full of affectation and chutzpah, who both confronts and reassures the illusions around which Alison has structured her life. Veronica’s death by AIDS equally offers hope and hopelessness, meaning and rage to Alison’s own terminal illness. Gaitskill allegedly dreamed up Alison and Veronica over a decade ago; and therein dwells my only criticism of this otherwise provocative and insightful novel. The novel’s preoccupation with the emotional vacuity of the 1980s and generation-specific attention to AIDS and STDs are notably behind the times. Veronica’s datedness—and the fact that the book was originally published in 2005—could disqualify it from the Tait Black 2007 prize, but these issues do not eclipse its force and pleasure.

Susanna Jones, The Missing Person’s Guide to Love. Picador, 2007.

I don’t really have much to say about this novel, even though it was less disagreeable than Harper’s Lost Temple. It was rather like an American soap opera, especially if the soap opera likes to draw on colonialist, orientalist assumptions of exotic Turkey. The writing is strong and fluid, if forgettable, the characterization plastic, and the plot was derivative, although a bit punchier than most homecoming thrillers that seek to uncover a horrible, far-reaching secret. But, like the soap, you find yourself on the couch at three o’clock in the afternoon and the remote is just sitting there, almost within reach. Why not read another page? Pap.

Stephen Thompson, Meet Me Under the Westway. CHROMA, 2007.

Thompson’s cleverness sometimes gives the impression of someone who laughs too hard at jokes about David Mamet. Westway is funny, surely, and a confident, satirical romp through the British theatre scene and Notting Hill, but his eye is too focused on the approving nod after a successful name drop or literary allusion than the actual comedy of his quips. Indeed, this strategy proceeds apace in the trendy, West London setting, where every Portobello restaurant, bar, pottery and piggery is referenced with barely concealed self-satisfaction, even as he smugly eschews their falsity and superficiality. Thompson operates too much in lockstep with Nick Hornby’s less-talented cousin, and occasionally confuses pomp and profundity like a drunk swaggering on moonshine he mistook for Macallan. A decent effort, but certainly not prize-worthy.

Amanda Eyre Ward, Forgive Me. Harper, 2007.

Forgive Me depicts a young hardnosed, no-nonsense journalist struggling with an unfulfilling home life in Nantucket and her desire to uncover truth and meaning that apparently manifests itself through African apartheid. It’s exactly the kind of reductionist move you would expect from such a simplistic, moralizing fable that represents Western women as universally cowed and ignorant and black South African women as determined warriors. Apartheid South Africa essentially stands in for white existential angst. Nevertheless, Ward’s prose is excellent, and is appropriately economical considering the protagonist’s vocation. There is real emotional conflict in the book, even if it sometimes belittles the real trauma of apartheid. Most disappointingly, Ward chooses to wrap up the conflict and the novel by becoming a mother and moving home to Massachusetts. In the world of Forgive Me, having a baby can erase the pain of racism, poverty, war and heartbreak. Unfortunate.

Gee Williams, Salvage. Alcemi, 2007.

The jewel. A masterful stylist, Williams is constantly inventive and inspiring in her craft, and boasts a knack for stunning images and observations. Where has Wales been hiding this woman? Well, in Wales, presumably, but that is besides the point. Salvage masquerades as a murder mystery while exploring the murky, aphotic character of the Welsh seaside and of the human soul. Dominant and daring in her prose, Williams relishes the act of writing and constructs five distinct characters with genres particular to each, including a wonderful Cosmo send-up for the gorgeous gold-digging nurse as well as a provocative intervention of the author herself. Clichés and generic conventions only provide more writerly ammunition, as Williams constantly shifts her literary goalposts from crime to romance to a metafictional crisis while never losing the immediacy of the characters or the suspense of the crime. If Gee Williams was a more celebrated author she could win this competition. Brilliant.