Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Paper Dioramas

I've been reading two books simultaneously (by which I mean a couple of hours with one book, and then a break, and then a couple of hours with the other) over the course of the past week: I Hate the Internet, by Jarett Kobek (male), and I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus (female). The writers are not similar in background, and the books are not similar in tone, but I wondered whether, if I slapped them together analytically, they would make some kind of lightning.

It's sheer coincidence that I'm reading them at the same time but I noticed that one is titled with hate and the other with love, and that these abstractions in the titles correspond to the stereotypical behaviors of the genders from which the titles spring.

What else? Well, Kobek's book is cynical to the point of misanthropy. Kraus's book is blackly optimistic, in that the prose betrays optimism even while the larger arc of the plot entails hopelessness. Both books are strongly thematically tied to communication and express this awareness in form; Kobek's is the experience of internet surfing in continuous prose form, while Kraus's is largely epistolary. The engine of both books is obsession: Kobek's with 21st century culture, and Kraus's with a single human love object.

Kobek's novel circles queasily forward, like the path of a gaggle of gnats. Kraus's book doesn't have significant forward motion except in time. Her character's obsession progresses, but that seems to be a movement inward and downward rather than forward. It's a cloud that spreads. And time is of the essence in Kraus's book - the date is mentioned every couple of pages at least - while time is treated quite casually in Kobek's novel.

And the truth is, I don't especially like either book.

I Hate the Internet is so bilious, so all-critical, that it's like reading the comments section for dozens of websites all strung together. The cords that bind it into a genuine book are explanatory - one concept (or noun) after another, paragraph after paragraph, page after page, explained in the narrator's condescending, negative, polemical voice. It's funny, often, and quotable, but it's also rude and heartless, and that gets tiresome. The author visited a class of mine some weeks ago, and I couldn't help but ask him if the person who hated the internet was himself, was Kobek, rather than an invented voice. He said no, that he meant it to be a kind of hateful little teenage boy voice. That offers a little redemption, in my view, as does the book's humor, and its equal-opportunity criticism rather than excepting this or that concept as OK. But it's still exhausting to read.

I Love Dick is much less hostile, but I harbor a distinct lack of belief that it's going anywhere. It's extremely well-written and thoughtful and intelligent, but it feels self-indulgent and a little pointless. Like I'm reading the author's diary rather than her work. I'm much less farther along in it than in the other, so maybe this will change, but at the moment I feel like she might be wasting my time.

I will keep reading, though, because both books share a rare quality: subversiveness.

One of my pet theories is that there is so little actual subversive art in American culture at the moment that we can barely recognize it when it appears. It's what's so good, and so crucial, about South Park: no matter the target, the treatment South Park gives its subjects is subversive. Sparing nothing, unafraid, free of sacred cows of any kind. For class I read Kobek's novel Atta, which is a false autobiography of one of the 9/11 hijackers, and I recognized it, too, as subversive art. It's a 9/11 novel that's funny, and a book that makes human a national symbol of inhumanity.

I Hate the Internet is bound to piss off everybody who reads it about something, because it holds nothing as sacred, nothing as objectively true or fine. That is subversion. I Love Dick is unafraid of revealing all the wackadoo crannies where we hide our obsessions and fantasies, unafraid of turning a marriage inside out and showing its oozing viscera. That is subversion.

Forcing you to sit uncomfortably and stare at a series of assumptions on which you've relied (we are all mostly sane, we are all mostly good, most of us are hiding nothing, most of us are safe in our skins), only to find that they have been paper dioramas all along: that is what subversive art does, and that is what both of these books are doing in different ways.

It's rare. It's necessary. It's not just polemicking or ideologuery. It upends the table and then stands there and asks you if you really want to set things back the way they were.

Do you?

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