Riding in Airplanes #2: On With the Story (And Full of Hot Air)

Dear CF,

I had intended to do at least two Riding in Airplanes posts in this little series. The second installment was going to be about the intimate conversations we have on planes with total strangers. Some coincidences have, well, incided that plan. So I’ve lazily decided to organize this post according to coincidence, which the OED defines as “the notable concurrence of events or circumstances having no apparent causal connexion” or, alternately, “Falling together.”

Coincidence the First: I saw the movie Up, which has lots to say about fears and flying both, though not in connection with each other. It also deals pretty eloquently with the problem of what makes us happy. Moreover, it does in miniature (and in 3D) what the “What Makes Us Happy” article does in The Atlantic: show you (albeit in dumbshow, and in sunnily idealized form) the trajectory of a life in its entirety with its attendant emotions, and asks what one has to ask after watching a story end: Now What?

If Star Trek’s plot is driven by dead women, so is Up‘s. But the latter has that rare and ineffable thing: respect for story and for audience. It’s not perfect: the movie retreats a bit from the near-Chekhovian territory of its real-life premise.  In deference to young viewers it refrains from pushing through the really grim questions—for example, where Frederickson will live and die, a problem which hovers like, well, a big blimp in the background and seasons the whole escapist adventure with poignancy—but it rather beautifully lets Frederickson let go of all those dreams deferred. (This isn’t About Schmidt.) Still, it gives two really deserving protagonists a way to channel, fulfill and (maybe most importantly) attenuate their visions so they don’t explode. The Spirit of Adventure gets deflated, but there’s remarkable beauty and power in balloons. If only Nero had had a chubby young scout stowaway aboard his ship!

(It’s also—and this is fodder for another day—an interesting counterpoint to the way in which excellence, mediocrity, godgiven talent and work are treated in The Incredibles.)

One last thing: an important maternal character in the bird is misnamed Kevin by the kid. I like this little acknowledgment of Pixar’s tendency (and maybe young boys’ tendency) to see an initially unsexed character as male not through malice but because that’s the unmarked choice.

Coincidence the Second: I read a short story by John Barth called “On With the Story.” It will not be clear why this is a coincidence until I tell you my plan.

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Wedunlocking the Never-Ending Story

Dearest CF,

That’s an extraordinary passage. It hits home. I want to add, parenthetically, that I agree with your parallels to Alice Munro, and I’m surprised she hasn’t traversed that territory more than she has. She comes close, I think. But the type of wife that comes closest–dulled by habit and nearly (though not quite) unaware of her enclosures–comes across as almost animalistic. I’m thinking of scenes where sex is demanded by old husbands and granted as if it were pot roast.

As you know, I know what you mean. Lessing’s formulation of the phenomenon puzzles me a little. Is she calling it both naivete and sophistication?

Why is it so hard to summon up that surplus of vision when you’re with someone else?

My answer: I spent so much time trying to justify my vision of things, long after he’d lost interest in the conversation, that I came to internalize his viewpoint and find myself perversely arguing against him in my own head. Which was disastrous in its own right, since I never had real access to his thought process. So I ended up clawing at the world view of a ghost of my own making.

Now that he’s gone, I can encounter many of the things he loved without feeling crowded or derivative. It’s startling: I never expected that the relationship itself was making it impossible for me to have fresh encounters. I could never have belly-danced. Or shot a gun. It wouldn’t have been the same. It would have been filtered—coffee-dripped, in fact—through the inexorable french press that our marriage had become.

The worst thing about this in my case, like yours, is that it was my own fault.

Is it, I wonder, a little like collaborating on a story? Difficult, with lots of elbowing for the armrest because we’re used to narrating our lives alone? And yet ultimately redemptive and transcendent if only you can agree on the language and characters, never mind the plot?

I think the naive and lonely self permits alchemical bursts because it’s always “on.” Like you in the grocery store. It can’t relax into the comfort of a shared story. Or if it does, it’s only for short bursts. The thing about marriage is that it’s a never-ending story minus the flying dragon-dog. You’re always in it, even when you’re alone. It’s funny that way.

Is the trick method acting? Pretending to be alone, breaking through the story you have every so often in order to pick up the jagged angles and fragments? Choosing a part when you’re alone in the grocery store and acting it out? Woman who wants to make an Eggplant Casserole and Asks for Recipes. Woman Whose Dog Just Died. Woman In the Army Home on Leave. Goody Two-Shoes. Lesbian. Gourmand Obsessed with A Particular Cut of Meat, Evangelizing the Public.

For what it’s worth, I love the couple on the balcony. Of all the couples in that movie, that’s the one I’d choose. Or maybe the nurse, whose husband we never meet.


Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Dear CF,

I started the evening rereading “Brief Interviews” and felt convicted and abased, recognizing in myself too much of what the Depressed Person says. And you, dear friend, are the beleaguered Support System with whom I (i.e. the depressed person) try constantly to really truly literally “share,” to whom I reach out for a glimmer of connectedness, for whom I try to Be There. To see myself thusly has only exacerbated my isolation-feelings, my anguish, my sense of injury, my feelings of abandonment. I’m nothing but a cracked bundle of need, a pail of neuroses. I think my three therapists would agree.

In that story the therapist dies “without leaving any sort of note or cassette or encouraging final words for any of the persons and/or clients in his life.”

For a moment I fantasized about DFW being my fourth therapist and indulged the ghoulish question that first struck me when I heard about his suicide:

Did he leave a note?

At any rate he left a cassette, and you found it. You’re right. It may be eleven years old, but Charlie Rose’s interview of David Foster Wallace covers 80% of what we’ve talked about, minus the sex. And I mean that literally–every time women appear, it’s a negative for him. He’s unhappy or exasperated with their role in his artistic world, and the feeling seems mutual.

On Unforgiven:

What’s interesting is that I don’t know a single female who likes the film. Females think ‘Western?’ It stinks. And if you can get them to watch it, it’s not a western at all. It’s a moral drama. It’s Henry James, basically. It’s very odd.”

Charlie gets worked up about this, agrees, and adds that this is the greatest rift his girlfriend and he have ever had about a movie.

(And there’s Henry James, king of the tragedy of manners, large as life. In a Western, no less–the one genre he might be least expected to appear in. I may have to watch Unforgiven after all.)

Wallace is even less happy with feminists who interpret the length of his books as having to do the length of his dick. I don’t blame him. First, it’s not true. Secondly, it’s not surprising that he prickles. The stakes of that sort of criticism are higher for him than they are for most. Returning for a moment to the irony of our generation constituting a Demographic, nothing would be quite so humiliating, for the culminating practitioner of a particular brand of artistic self-awareness, than to be found guilty of a truly unconscious influence.

But the dick’s not totally off the table. The Chronicle published an article on “intellectual crushes”–the brainy attraction a student feels to a certain kind of teacher. If anything, it’s the organ responsible for this feeling, the “intellectual dick,” that is the Firecracker’s great preoccupation (and Wallace is one, make no mistake). The writers he mentions—Delillo, Barthelme, Barth, Pynchon—were all well-hung in this department, and are all regular recipients of the male Firecracker’s admiration and energy. This isn’t penis envy, which Freud reserved for girls, and which it is evident, I think, that I suffer from. But it’s close.

Wallace says Lynch’s obsession is “The unbelievably grotesque existing in a kind of union with the unbelievably banal.” This truly brilliant take on Lynch gestures, I think, at what appeals to the cerebral Male. Let’s drag Henry’s brother William into this and call the Firecracker’s fierce (and not unjustified) admiration for Lynch, Barth et al. what it is, at least in part: a drive. Earlier than sex, but post-pre-Oedipal. It’s tribal and does not easily admit women–let’s be frank, it works better without them. It’s the universal desire to get lost in the funhouse and wee vigorously into the Po-Mo Stream of Consciousness (sponsored, alas, by the Depend Adult Undergarment).

Urinal cakes, mirrors, death diapers and the sublime, all in a tidy package.
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Are we Ali Baba or the Thieves?

Dear CF,

Intimate terms with the object. This helps. Maybe this is what distinguishes the explorers of yore—Lewis and Clark, Columbus, Ponce de Leon et al.—from the new ones. They (we?) don’t really want to bring back potatoes and spices and the Hottentot Venus. Quite the contrary—it’s more about hoarding. This is a different impulse, a quest for private communion. Except that “communion” might be the wrong word, since there’s nothing common about it, and the worst outcome is really that the beloved object will become mainstream. At best, we’re like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. We might share with those who know enough to know that there is a code.

I get the impulse to ferociously protect one’s private bond with something. In my case, though, it’s almost a defensive move, because I’m wounded when someone I show it to doesn’t like it. What puzzles me about the Firecrackers is that the object with which they’re intimate is lessened when someone whose opinion they don’t respect does. According to your lover analogy, this would be something like harlotry. Loverly jealousy?

I think you’re dead right about the demographic problem: is it that “communion” has become distasteful because we understand advertising too well? Is it that, in liking the same thing as someone we don’t like, we watch marketing boxes converge, so that we’re all in the same target audience? Is it that we want to “go off the grid” like Freegans do, to cheat The Demographic the way our parents fought The Man?

Obvious point about nonconformist conformity: Our parents became The Man, and it’s the tragedy of a lifetime when we’re catapulted out of our rugged individualism and pegged squarely into a round demographic hole.

It reminds me of John Marcher in Henry James’ “Beast in the Jungle.” Do you know this story? He goes through his whole life hubristic, complacent, a ruminant dilettante filled with an almost religious certainty that something remarkable is going to happen to him. His life will be defined by an Event, what James’ father called a “Vastation.” Marcher subjects May Bartram, the woman in love with him, to a lifetime of audiencehood. She’s his chief witness, the only person to whom he confessed his secret belief, and she honors him by believing it, and she waits with him her whole life.

He’s a believer in Destiny, in Greatness, in the fact that he has been uniquely Marked. His tragedy—the revelation, at the end—is that nothing ever happens to him. The whole Greek tragedy he built himself has no oracle. There’s no destiny, there’s no Event, there’s just a long life unpunctuated by anything except empty nouns, somethings, successive clauses, unseized opportunities.

God. “Pocketful of Miracles” it is. I need them.