Blind Reads: in which Avathoir and wallflower read each other’s favorite books without knowing a thing about them first.
Installment 2: David Mamet’s Wilson
. . .until an arbitrary chorus
Speaks of a totally different incident with a similar name
In whose tale are hidden syllables
Of what happened so long before that
In some small town, one indifferent summer.
John Ashbery, Syringa
“But Charl, you got to have fun, you know why?”
“No Bob why?”
“Because, or else you’ll die, and they’ll say ‘he never had any fun.’”
wallflower: Here’s what you need to know about David Mamet’s Wilson, past the fact that it’s not Daniel Clowes’ Wilson or the film adaptation of same. In 2021, the Internet as a whole goes down: “the transfer of human literature into computer form, and its subsequent and accidental erasure” as it’s called on the first page. Wilson occurs (“is set” seems completely wrong here) at least two centuries later (the latest date I can remember here is 2320) and consists of short passages (no more than five pages at a time) of stories, interpretations, analyses, documents (the subtitle is A Consideration of the Sources, Containing the Original Notes, Errata, Commentary, and the Preface to the Second Edition), heavily (and often recursively and interlockingly) footnoted. There are recurring figures throughout the whole thing: the philosopher (?) Greind, the colonization of Mars, Bongazine, Chet and Donna, President Wilson, and lots of dogs. It’s Pale Fire without the poem, Infinite Jest with only the footnotes, House of Leaves minus The Navidson Record, Tristram Shandy but not quite as, shall we say, to the point.
It’s a huge fucking joke, is what I’m saying, almost 350 pages’ worth. (To be fair, there’s a metric crap-ton of white space going on here.) You might think I overindulge in parodies of academic writing (I certainly think so, and as my overindulgences go, I’ve done worse) but I ain’t got shit on Mamet. Check this out, taken nearly at random:
While the Cohanim, of course, animadverted on the Formalists’ error, identifying the Wandering Jew as Jacob Cohen (himself, of course, “in the vermilion sway of Mars”).
The Sensualists have put forward their thesis that the poem is either a construction of or a paean to their ilk, alleging “those controlled by Lust alone” must and can only be Chet and Donna and the Formalists were “a bunch of sesquipedalian motherfuckers.”⁵
⁵Guest book of the Ipatiev House.
This makes slightly more sense in context (one or both of us will discuss the importance of the adverb) but the first and best part about this is that it’s just wonderfully silly and as well-constructed as anything else in Mamet–or Gene Wolfe, for that matter. Where Mamet’s usual thing–that thing he does–is compression, here he goes the other way with sentences and passages that keep expanding into commas and clauses and footnotes and footnotes to the footnote, kind of like Wolfe (him again) does with the stories in Peace. Wilson reminds me more than a little of the Coen Bros., where the precision with which the jokes are rendered becomes part of the gag: that Mamet correctly uses “animadverted on” works the same way that (another nearly random example) we see the handprints in the carpet as Buzz crawls away in The Hudsucker Proxy, or the way everyone protects their beverages in The Big Lebowski. Someone cared enough to do that, even or especially when they’re being silly; Oscar Wilde (who would have appreciated Wilson, methinks, after he got through the hundred thousand Tumblr blogs who ‘shipped him) called this kind of thing “sincere and studied triviality.”
Aw hell. Lost my train of thought. I admit (and by “admit” I mean “proclaim”) a particular joy in dropping this on you as a Blind Read. You get the book, you open the book, you start reading. Tell us what happened next.
Avathoir: Once in awhile you find a book that, quite simply, beggars astonishment, that is SO outside what you expected that you simply cannot believe what you’re reading. Such is the case with Wilson. Now, I was not exactly light on Mamet when you first thrust it upon me. I had seen several of Mamet’s films (which by and large I find to be not very good, though House of Games is pretty good up until the end. State and Main and The Edge, however? Yecch), and while I had really liked READING Glengarry Glen Ross I have not yet seen it and thus consider my opinion on the whole thing to be at best, suspect. But I had an idea of what a Mamet work was: men who were professionals, women who basically didn’t exist, and staccato writing that would make Ellroy still realize how little he knew about everything.
And then I read this book.
At first I was confused at what I was reading, which then morphed into astonishment. I simply could not believe that David Mamet of all people wrote a book this dense with words, with jokes, with sheer what the fuckery. That the hardcover even lists Mamet as a pen name of a woman and doesn’t even have his author photograph only adds to the very real, very bizarre joke this entire book constitutes.
Which…might be a bit too much of one? Perhaps I read this book incorrectly, but the density of what Mamet has achieved here has lead me to find myself a bit stumped as to what the whole thing was really about. As I understand it, we’re either in a tragedy or a love story, perhaps both. You compared it to the other book in this installment, Peace, but I have to admit my bias in preferring Wolfe to Mamet: Peace is a mansion with many rooms inside, each one leading to a different perspective on something, and you pick up pieces of knowledge as you reckon with what’s truly going on. This in contrast is a cobblestone well, trapped in one location but plumbing deep and made up of a bunch of similar things. About thirty pages in I gave up trying to understand this as a novel and instead just treated it like a collection of microfictions, a post apocalyptic log.
Actually, like Peace, this is a book about death in many ways. While it’s never quite clear how or why the Internet crashed (I presume it was for something stupid) this is essentially a post-apocalypse novel in the Canticle for Liebowitz sense rather than I Am Legend: a chronicle of the end of things not from some lone badass but from a specialized group, in this case academics. It’s an inspired approach, one that pretty much everyone could learn from, but again, I worry I’ve not even begun to plumb the depths.
So I’ll be honest with you, I have a ton of questions: What exactly is the Shadow Plot of this novel (The theme of this round of Blind Reads seems to be Books with Hidden Plots)? What exactly are we chasing throughout this bizarre adventure? And most importantly, why in particular Woodrow Wilson and his wife (wives)?
wallflower: I’d go farther than you on that comparison to Peace, which is indeed (and almost literally) a “mansion with many rooms.” Wilson is the wreckage of a mansion, maybe even a city, centuries after the fact, with whatever that connected things mostly gone. We’re sifting through that wreckage, or more accurately sifting through the reports of the wreckage. Another point of comparison here is Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, a part of the novel that’s never been filmed (thank God): the decades of debate among various groups of Solaristics, each offering a different school of thought on an unknowable entity. If you took everything that was written about Peace and then randomly deleted about 90% of it and destroyed all copies of the novel itself, you’d get something not all that far off from Wilson.
So, what’s it all about? There may be a hidden story here (I do think there’s a hidden theme) but I’ve never bothered to look for it too closely: Wilson is madness, and looking for reason there invites further madness. What’s more important is the sense that “what really happened” has been effaced so thoroughly by time that it’s lost; Wilson is a record of people trying to recover the unrecoverable. In that way, it’s a meditation and a joke on the practice of history, one that asks us to imagine what the present will look like to a future that knows just as little as our present knows about the past. (Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum is based on a similar joke, and about three times longer.) We confidently write books, award professorships, hell, build entire goddamn careers (including mine) about knowing the past, and we’ve probably gotten it right on about this level:
For I, like Krautz, like Aristotle,² for that matter, advise that, finally, any event may be reduced to thirds and understood according to the formula Crack, Snapple, Pop.³
²The Poetics, or Dink Stover at Yale, AD ??
³I am indebted to Morris Watkins Bane for the identification of Snapple and Crack as late twentieth-century analgesics. Both common sense and recent philologic-semantic matrii reject the identification of Pop as a cognomen of Wernher von Braun. As do I.
Your first reaction to this (it was my first reaction too) points to another reading of Wilson, and one (I freely admit) that requires more of a knowledge of Mamet, especially his non-cinema, non-theatrical writing. In his writing, there’s always been an aspect of a Victorian goofball (he called himself once a homespun fop), one that takes pleasure in winding sentences and unusual word choices. It sneaks into his dramatic writing (from Glengarry Glen Ross: “When I talk to the police, I get nervous.” “Yeah. You know who doesn’t?. . . .Thieves. They’re inured to it.”) but he mostly has (actually, had, the fucker) the discipline to leave it out. Wilson is one long surrender to that impulse, the place where he just flat-out indulged himself in something he loves to do. For us veteran Mamet readers, it’s fun to catch the lines from his own work that he slips in, like “b’lieve I’ll have a drink” from The Untouchables. (Also, I want to live in a world with books like The Living Will Envy the Dead: a Viewer’s Guide to the French Cinema and Dickin’ Jane: the Hidden Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, where Walt Whitman wrote a poem called “O Cocksuckers,” and where Nathaniel Hawthorne preached the sermon “One Little Letter (and the Letter is ‘U’): The Difference Between a Champ and a Chump.” Who wouldn’t?)
The strain of humor here owes a lot to Mamet’s background, what he called “that peculiarly Chicagoan admixture of the populist and the intellectual.” (Why yes this is what I hope I’m doing here thanks for asking.) More specifically, I think it comes from hanging out and working as a busboy in the very early years of Chicago’s Second City, the origin point for about half of contemporary American comedy. Some of the comedy there had that populist/intellectual streak, both in its referential nature and in the way there was some non-comedic point getting smuggled in. Writing, for example, about “the great Severn Darden,” Mamet sez “we delighted in living in the same neighborhood where Dr. Walter VanDerVogleVieder first gave his ‘Short Talk on the Universe,’ in which he informed a hitherto unsuspecting world that, yes, fish think, but not fast enough.” That line would fit right into Wilson, and in fact Dr. VDVV gets name-checked here in a footnote.
The Victorian language, the erasure by history, the way these themes came to Mamet through the legacy of Second City, even the old-school nature of the jokes points to the subtext of Wilson: this is a book about loss, about everything that gets lost in the process of Progress. There was a time when I thought Mamet would become our era’s great conservative thinker, in the tradition of Ed Burke and G. K. Chesterton, and I’ll get back to the New Modes for Old Truths essay on Mamet when I can shut up shut up. Writing in the late 1980s, which is to say when he started directing movies, Mamet wrote that perhaps “the cosmic reason for the existence of videotape” is that it allows works that can be erased. (His italics, as if there was any doubt.) Even something as compressed as Glengarry Glen Ross has, hanging over it, the sense of time passing and things disappearing forever:
I swear. . .it’s not a world of men. . .it’s not a world of men, Machine. . .it’s a world of clock watchers, bureaucrats, officeholders. . .what it is, it’s a fucked-up world. . .there’s no adventure to it. (Pause.) Dying breed. Yes it is. (Pause.) We are the members of a dying breed.
(Extratextual evidence for this: I’ve seen four productions of Glengarry: Milwaukee 1986, the film in 1993, San Francisco 2001, and San Diego 2006. The farther the play gets from the past, the more sentimentally the productions treat the salesmen.)
If you’re looking for in-text evidence for the theme, look at the longest section, near the end, called (can it be any more obvious? Well, OK, it can, but not in Wilson) “The Missing Page,” apparently written by the philosopher Griend, and beginning with “He wrote that he hoped there ‘would be found that fragment which would make the whole thing whole.’ How close his dream came to fruition!” It goes from there to making an argument about “the reign of that commodity commonly understood as ‘information,’” and how it can be manipulated: “Whomever it was–he or she can only be accounted a visionary–who discerned that the process of statistical analysis itself engendered such a feeling of awe in the public. . “ and then trails off into rhetorical questions, metaphysics, and ends with “‘Ben? Ben? Shut up,’ Roger said.” (Great Wilsonian touch that the whole damn point of the exercise surfaces for just a few lines and then disappears.) The real power in the world is the power of information; not only has that gotten more true in the seventeen years since Wilson’s publication, the bottomless chum-bucket of Fox News has also claimed Mamet himself. Wilson is a vision of the Information Age from the viewpoint of the next Age, the remnants of our Tower of Babel, Fallout in book form.
Oh, and why Wilson? My one guess (occasionally mentioned in-text) is that Edith Wilson more or less ran the government after Woodrow’s stroke, a neat little moment (maybe the first?) of power exercised through information reigning over power exercised through action. But hey, if you’ve got other ideas, I’d love to hear them.
Avathoir: Once again, you’ve managed to somehow influence what I want to write about by bringing up how this book is in away that last hurrah for Mamet, whose run from Sexual Perversity in Chicago to this (and possibly Spartan depending on who you talk to) is a thirty year run of works that are consistently interesting, provocative (in the good way) and compelling. This level of consistency, for someone who rose as high as he did, is almost unheard of for a modern American dramatist. Had he died right around 2005, we would revere him almost as much as Eugene O’Neill, and maybe even more so.
But we don’t have that Mamet. He’s fallen into radical Zionism, into Fox News binging. He probably voted for Trump. [wallflower’s interpolation: he was certainly a supporter of Ted Cruz during the 2016 primary. Oy.] Hitchens, toward the end of his life, wrote one last great devastating line directed at Mamet on how he became “born again” through right wing politics: “one of those people who smugly believe that, having lost their faith, they must ipso facto have found their reason.” I mean jesus it doesn’t get any worse than that, and reading this line I feel like Wilson, not just being a joke, was a prophecy of that statement. This is a book that is fundamentally about the horror of a world beyond comprehension, where content is lost and there is instead only context. If there was any other comparison to be made it would be to the climax of Metal Gear Solid 2, which is so your shit I’m going to just quote the whole thing here:
Colonel: Raiden, you seem to think that our plan is one of censorship.
Raiden: Are you telling me it’s not!?
Rose: You’re being silly! What we propose to do is not to control content, but to create context.
Raiden: Create context?
Colonel: The digital society furthers human flaws and selectively rewards development of convenient half-truths. Just look at the strange juxtapositions of morality around you.
Rose: Billions spent on new weapons in order to humanely murder other humans.
Colonel: Rights of criminals are given more respect than the privacy of their victims.
Rose: Although there are people suffering in poverty, huge donations are made to protect endangered species. Everyone grows up being told the same thing.
Colonel: Be nice to other people.
Rose: But beat out the competition!
Colonel: “You’re special.” “Believe in yourself and you will succeed.”
Rose: But it’s obvious from the start that only a few can succeed. . .
Colonel: You exercise your right to “freedom” and this is the result. All rhetoric to avoid conflict and protect each other from hurt. The untested truths spun by different interests continue to churn and accumulate in the sandbox of political correctness and value systems.
Rose: Everyone withdraws into their own small gated community, afraid of a larger forum. They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever “truth” suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large.
Colonel: The different cardinal truths neither clash nor mesh. No one is invalidated, but nobody is right.
Rose: Not even natural selection can take place here. The world is being engulfed in “truth.”
Colonel: And this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper.
Rose: We’re trying to stop that from happening.
Colonel: It’s our responsibility as rulers. Just as in genetics, unnecessary information and memory must be filtered out to stimulate the evolution of the species.
Raiden: And you think you’re qualified to decide what’s necessary and not!?
Colonel: Absolutely. Who else could wade through the sea of garbage you people produce, retrieve valuable truths and even interpret their meaning for later generations?
Rose: That’s what it means to create context.
Wilson for me remains a post-apocalyptic novel not just because of its setting and events, but because of the utter dread this idea provokes, the idea that the apocalypse didn’t take our lives or our environment, but out ability to understand the world and record it. We are instead left with only our interpretations, now rendered meaningless without something to riff off of, an epistemic crisis without any truth to interpret, Plato’s Cave in the worst possible form. Even Alden Dennis Weer was left his house and memories, but what are we left with?
Then again, perhaps I’m being too over-serious with a book that’s as funny as this. Am I on to something here with all this doom and gloom regarding this book, or is the idea of this book being a warning that Mamet would start writing plays about how much he hates affirmative action and feminists (oh who am I kidding Oleanna did that already. Maybe THAT was the warning sign.) assigning it a gravity it doesn’t need?
wallflower: You’re on to something. The nonstop jokes of Wilson don’t make it any less about the Destruction of All Knowledge, just as Schizopolis is also a laff riot and a film about the total failure of communication. (And I’ll get to this at a later date: Oleanna may be Mamet’s very best play, and one that’s impossible to stage.) There’s not a contradiction there, especially for Mamet circa 2000. I said before that he had a shot at being one of the great conservative thinkers, and around a hundred years ago, one of the defining aspects of conservatism was its sense of humor. By definition, conservatives understand that the world changes whether you like it or not, and that people are limited and foolish no matter your ideals. (The world has no obligation to make sense to you.) Think H. L. Mencken or Ambrose Bierce (his Devil’s Dictionary is another forerunner of Wilson): you know that and you smile at it, because what else can you do? (No one has ever insulted Americans better than Mencken, and he always emphasized that he was one of us.) Probably the most recent example of this attitude in pop culture is Dr. Strangelove: not a protest, not a rant, but an extended “well, I don’t know what I expected.”
Right at the beginning of that thirty-year run that you defined (I’d say his last great work was his version of Faustus in 2004, written for Ricky Jay–oh fuck yeah–as Mephistopheles), in Sexual Perversity in Chicago, he warned “never lose your sense of humor.” And he has lost it, with Wilson perhaps its last great flourish. Of course, another attitude towards a changing world is what conservatism has become: many call it reactionary but it’s not even that, because it’s not a genuine action (and Mamet taught me the importance of action) of returning to the past; it’s nihilism and nothing more, a desire to burn it all down because someone else made it and you don’t like it, nyah nyah nyah. It’s an attitude that allows–no, actually, it demands–the ignoring of the discipline of a lifetime and just ranting on the page (it’s somehow appropriate that the last Hitchblast was aimed at Mamet; another great zinger from that review was “It has a long way to go before it can even be called simplistic”) and for all the zaniness of Wilson, you can feel the precision of how Mamet crafted it. Your description of Mamet moving from joke to prophecy is dead-bang: it’s an irony (and once upon a time, he would have appreciated it) that he went from writing a hilarious elegy for the collapse of a culture to working so damn hard to make it happen.
Tune in for our next Installment of the Blind Reads series, the theme of which will be Fire and Ice. wallflower will be showcasing a nonfiction book that has new resonance in light of Southern California’s current situation, while Avathoir will showcase another very strange novel set in one of the coldest places in the world.
Tune in even later for our next Installment, America: Interactions and Reactions, in which we’ll debut our first graphic novel and short story collection for this series!