Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Peter Handke--The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

Peter Handke is an Austrian modernist writer, primarily known as a playwright and the author of several novels. His name came to my knowledge after reading an interview with Don DeLillo (whose Libra I just finished). The book is actually mentioned by his anonymous questioner, who puts it in a short list of "slim but seminal European works of fiction" that also includes books by Albert Camus and Max Frisch. At about 130 pages, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) is indeed pretty slim, and I have to take my source at his word that it is a seminal text. The book is not an enjoyable read in any usual way. It is not full of poetic language or a gripping plot or beautiful description or inspirational themes. I read it rather as a case study in the style and the concerns of modernism.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Don DeLillo--LIBRA

Imagine for one second that there is a spectrum of writing that runs from poetry on one end to novels on the other. Poetry requires attention to individual words and even to the details smaller than words, while novels require the ability to manage and organize large sections of information and text. In that spectrum  you might put short stories right in the middle and perhaps you could even argue that they are the most artistic type of literature because they combine the strengths of both, or that they are the most difficult to write because they require overcoming the difficulties of both. On that spectrum I would put Don DeLillo way out on the novelist's end. His prose is notable for its flatness, its total drabness, while his books as a whole are notable for his skill in managing huge amounts of information.

I don't mean to say that DeLillo crams in a lot of facts are that his novels are extremely complex (though Underworld is a pretty complicated set of plots and subplots), but that his characters, motivated by mental quirks, tend to generate a lot of theories and assertions and pseudo-facts that pile up and need to be organized somehow. DeLillo's characters are not bundles of repressed emotions and desires. They are the embodiments of something that DeLillo calls "paranoia" but which has only a slight connection to what is normally meant by the word. For DeLillo it summarizes complex set of beliefs that his characters tend to exhibit. One is that everything in the world is connected. Two is that these connections are usually hidden, visible only to individuals with a special gift for sensing them. A third is that these connections become visible through "coincidence." For DeLillo, a paranoiac is one who tells stories that end with the classic line, "Coincidence?!?! I think NOT!" as though the mere idea that two things might have some secret connection is intrinsically fascinating, regardless of what the connection may be. It's not exactly delusional, but it's certainly different.

Dry prose and paranoids, then, are the stuff of a DeLillo novel, and take them as far from poetry as one could go. His writing has been described as "postmodern" for the way it captures a kind of anomie of modern society, especially in the conversations between people who don't have anything to say, full of questions and exclamations punctuated undramatically with periods, full of stock phrases and quotations from advertisements, conversations where people wonder what other people might say in a similar situation. This from Libra:
"I wonder," she said. "What do other people say to each other?"
"Now. I want to know what people say. Maybe there are things we haven't thought of." Laughing at herself. "Things we out to be saying."
"While having sex or afterward?"
"While having sex is not interesting. Moany-groany love talk. No, afterward, now."
"Do you think we've been saying the wrong things all these years?"
"Wouldn't you like to overhear? I don't want to watch other people. I want to listen."
"They talk about wanting a cigarette."
"Who was that on the phone?"
" 'Where are my cigarettes' That's what they say."
"He wouldn't tell me his name."
"Larry Parmenter. . ."