Named Tomorrow


“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

A Commady of Errors, who begat delays, who begat problems, who…

I have become addicted to television. Over the Christmas break, when I wasn’t focused squarely— well, more parallelogram-ly— on paper writing, I wanted some thoughtless entertainment, things where thinking is optional, probably beneficial but nevertheless not a necessity. I was raised on game shows, the classics, and mysteries, by my mother, who could tell you the plot of any single episode of the Andy Griffith Show within two lines of dialogue and was almost as quick with I Love Lucy. With her, I would watch two episodes each of the Golden Girls and Designing Women while I did homework after school, Matlock and Murder, She Wrote on sick days, the Gameshow Network when those weren’t on, and whatever was the most recent popular murder mystery during its weekly slot. CSI was the most prevalent before her death, having just begun its several spinoffs and thus having a healthy syndicated backlog to dominate those timeslots not taken up by new episodes.

During college, I never had a TV. There was an excessive fee to have it in the dorms, and I simply never felt like paying for it after having not had it for that year, and the internet has more than enough mind-numbing entertainment for all mediums. Once DVDs became prevalent, I would, via Netflix or friends, occasionally go on series binges. The era of Arrested Development was a golden age amongst my friends, each disc on endless repeat (both by choice and because the cheap DVD player’s remote was lost, so we had no option but to choose “Play All”). My roommates and I had an implicit pact, as so many roommates are now familiar with, to watch the entirety of Six Feet Under, start to finish, together. It took us about a year and a half. After sixty five hours, plus countless bottles of wine and smoke breaks that lasted anywhere from four minutes to time-to-pass-out, you realize that it is, actually, quite an accomplishment to have seen the whole show together, having been able to put squabbles and homework aside so we could collectively get to know these fictional characters.

But this, this is not communal. It was 30 Rock on the NBC website. Then it was Twin Peaks on Joost, during a period of fascination with David Lynch. Then it was watching Dexter, which a roommate and I used to anticipate every Sunday night, and which I continued watching when season 3 began after I moved. Since the move, it’s been downhill, and during Christmas break, which is paper-writing time, a morass of anxiety— “I have papers to write!”— and guilty boredom— “I dont’t want to write papers right now…”— I hit bottom. I caught up on the 30 Rock I’d missed; a friend recommended Jericho, and I watched its season and a half in a mere few days; I heard Psych was amusing and, though it lost its charm and I my interest after a few episodes, I kept watching until the episodes weren’t easy to come across and I wasn’t concerned enough to root them out of the online-tv swamp. Then, a friend said Desperate Housewives was good, and I didn’t believe him. So I watched a few episodes.

I said this was a confession; it is not necessarily a guilty one. The show’s a good one, balancing kitschy satire and empathy on the voice of its knowing, deceased narrator. In a seminar I attended today, a discussion arose, during a more focused debate about narrative control and tone, of the way by which Marlowe prevents us from reading his Hero and Leander either too closely or at too much of a distance. At one extreme, following the unexpectedly feminine war metaphors, the classical references, all the ‘literary’ aspects of the work, Leander appears rather in control of the situation, almost a manipulative seductress; at the other, following the story itself and her naïve reactions, she is an innocent in danger, on the verge of being violated by Hero. Saying nothing of artistic value, Housewives manages this type of narrative control and ambivalent tone rather well, the sincerity and the unabashedly formulaic plot ricocheting off each other like a David Mitchell novel. It plays intentionally on the story-telling instinct, more narrowly the gossip instinct— not exactly new in television— sating our desire to know whether the gossip is true while we await the not-too-colossal mishaps of the characters who believe it to be so, and watch those who know that it is brood over it or wait for them to wield it. Watch the show too closely, and it’s pure satire, all these characters and their meaningless attempts at being the Joneses; too distantly, and it’s pure soap opera, with mischeivious murder, inherited bamboozleillions, and dead characters suddenly standing on doorsteps. In the middle of it, though, you’re as strung out for a fix of good yarn about the new neighbor as every housewife on the show. Did I mention I’ve made it through three seasons in as many weeks?

Yesterday, I stopped by a local used bookstore and stumbled across a copy of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Television. I was expecting to have much empathy for its narrator based on the back-cover summary— “on an academic sabbatical”, “plants to write but doesn’t”, “blames his obsession with TV.” Only a few pages in, the form of this passage struck me. It occurs in a long list of channel surfing, e.g. “it was the circus, it was acrobatics, it was a game show, it was joy, unbelieving stunned laughter, hugs and tears, it was a new car being won live and in color,” and then, this:

… it was images of war, the sound and framing oddly uneven, as if filmed on the fly, the picture shaking, the cameraman must have been running too, it was people running down a street and someone shooting at them, it was a woman falling, it was a woman who’d been hit, a woman of about fifty lying on the sidewalk, her slightly shabby gray coat gaping half open, her stocking torn, she’d been wounded in the thigh and was crying out, simply crying out, screaming simple cries of horror because her thigh had been ripped open, it was the cries of that woman in pain, she was calling for help, it wasn’t fiction, two or three mean came back and lifted her onto the curb, the shots were still coming, it was archival footage, it was news, it was commercials, it was new cars gently snaking along… (11)

The passage is surprising in its detail and repetition, the transcribed experience of the arresting image in the midst of channel surfing. Conversely, this is the first passage without proper sentences, which have been clear, well-written, and precise prior to this; the comma drags your hope for stasis along like the possibility of something interesting appearing on the next channel. And there are stylistic flares here in a manner that hasn’t appeared in the opening ten pages, like the glimpses of color and image that draw the eye but don’t pause the finger: the simple (and only) alteration of “it wasn’t fiction”, the nine times that ‘woman’ or a feminine pronoun appears, the rhythmic return to the short burst of info in “it was archival footage” and the emphatic ‘n’ and ‘c’ of the consecutive “news…commercials…new cars…” (The last may be, admittedly, the translator’s doing, but I will assume there was a precedent in the original French.) The channel surfing of the phrase “it was” continues even when the image stays on the same subject, and the horrifying woman in pain is repeated with the same flicker, as if it is not necessarily the same woman from the same clip, but the unthinkable collusion of numerous channels showing numerous pictures that coincide, now rolling past on their own, and all the more shocking for the woman’s persistence through each flicker. The compulsion for continual, commitment-free stimulation is so thoroughly embedded in the experience that it permeates even the brief moment of engagement, which lasts only until the segment cap, the cut to commercial, and then back to the endless length.

The sentence has been the boundary line to much literary experimentation in the past century, and the comma is its unit of measure. You have Proust’s monoliths, with nests upon nests of clauses and thoughts that wind their way leisurely through them. The likes of Faulkner, Marquez, or Saramago where the period becomes an almost precious object— you put the book down and breath for a second. The comma, like the episode, propels you forward, through all its twelve or twenty-three clauses, until that period of rest, the season finale, where something is tied up and something is left unfinished for the next sentence, the next span of time to be spent in captivity, and it continues, until somebody decides the story ends.

Unfortunately, Housewives will be going for at least two more seasons, I hear. Maybe I can wean myself with Toussaint…


Filed under: Desperate Housewives, Marlowe, Toussaint, Writing

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