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"Blessed by Madness": Memories of My Father Watching TV.

"My mind's not right."

--Robert Lowell, "Skunk Hour"

"I started writing because I had bad brains."

--Curtis White, Interview with Mark Amerika

During an honors seminar in twentieth-century fiction at the University of San Francisco, Chris White, protagonist of Curtis White's newest novel, Memories of My Father Watching TV, bewilders his fellow students by insisting that "Franz Kafka deserved no acclaim, was not to be admired, because the lone meaning his fiction had to offer was the effect of his own mental illness. What greatness is there, I demanded to know, in disease? What credit can one claim?" (69). In an interview with Mark Amerika published in this issue of RCF, White admits to a similar skepticism about his own talent: "Here's the little I'm capable of: I can write of the slightly hallucinogenic world that has risen out of my mental illness. I suffer from chronic if episodic depression. It is this which has provided me a lens. Do I deserve some sort of artistic credit for this illness?"

For at least three reasons, I believe that most readers of Memories will answer White's self-deprecating question with a resounding "Yes." White--who describes postmodern fiction's chief tendency as an "inclination ... for the hybrid, for the a-generic" (Monstrous 10)--has created in Memories that most unlikely of hybrid, the postmodernist confessional, thereby extending and preserving the "monstrous possibilities" of contemporary fiction. Second, White's inspired image of a father whose TV-induced catalepsy renders him oblivious to the frantic attention-getting efforts of his children resonates powerfully as a metaphor for our radically dissociated, simulacra-saturated, late technocapitalist age. Finally, although the "plot" of White's novel offers little hope that Chris will ever completely rout his demons, the novel's hallucinogenic quality, its literary monstrousness, functions as a strategic response to the postmodern condition, confronting postmodern problems, as White says, all "exemplary fiction writers of the present moment" must do, "on postmodern grounds" (Monstrous 61). That is, White (both Curtis and Chris, who is the "author" as well as the protagonist of Memories) recombines the antic effluxions of his own faulty brain chemistry until they mutate into new potentialities, not only for literature but for life. "As a suburbanite fated for a job repairing power lines for Pacific Gas and Electric and a four pre-fab wall prison," White told Amerika, "I can only thank my lucky stars that I was blessed by madness."

Formally, Memories is a novel in the same sense that Barth's Lost in the Funhouse is a novel. Most of its eight chapters, each bearing the title of a television series a youthful White watched with his father in their San Lorenzo, California, home between 1957 and 1963, were first published as self-contained short stories in literary journals or fiction anthologies. Arranged as they are here, the stories-cum-chapters unfold rhizomatously, their original autonomy sustained yet simultaneously transgressed by an intricate network of recurring images and cultural references as well as by a faintly discernible narrative progression (one hesitates to call it a "plot") from conflict toward a horizon of resolution in the novel's final two chapters. To indicate this progression and to preserve the motif of mental illness, White divides the novel into two sections of four chapters each, the first entitled "Gloom," the second "Glee." But if the chapters in "Glee" are less grim than those in the first half of the book, glee, we should remember, is depression's manic other, no less a symptom of madness than gloom is. Like Ellison's Invisible Man, White sells us no phony forgiveness; Memories navigates toward no conventional happy ending. Mental illness in the novel is not subdued so much as it and the hyperreal landscape White's clinically depressed protagonist inhabits and writes about are employed against themselves in a process White calls "liberatory `free play'" (Monstrous 110), a mode of writing that attempts to reclaim human value from this side of humanism, which is to say, from within the postmodern moment.

At the level of confession, Memories represents Chris White's attempt to come to terms with the psychological damage inflicted on him by his alcoholic, emotionally distant, and similarly depressed father. "The defining childhood memory of my father," Chris writes in the novel's prologue, "is of a man (but not just a man, of course; it is my father--young, handsome, capable!) reclined on a dingy couch watching TV. Watching TV and ignoring the chaos around him, a chaos consisting almost entirely of me and my sisters fighting" (3). The novel's typical narrative strategy is to recount in each chapter an episode from one of the series White watched with his father and, employing the Freudian practice of transference (31), to appropriate one or more of the episode's characters--or, in some instances, part of its set ("my father was a German pontoon bridge built over a narrow French river" [68])--as his surrogate father.

Significantly, Chris's father substitutes tend to be conventional "he-men," cowboys or cops or other varieties of adventurer, who carry guns they are more than willing to use. Indeed, what primarily attracts Chris's father to the TV shows is the sound of gunfire, which he "worshipped ... obsessively," prompting Chris to present him with a recording of the battle scenes from Combat as a birthday gift, "six hours of bliss" which Chris imagines his father enjoying as if it were a porn tape (74-75). The association of violence and pornography suggests that one dimension of Chris's psychological damage is sexual dysfunction. Descriptions of sex in the novel are often accompanied by images of violence, self-hatred, and Celinesque disgust with the human body (note, for example, the Nazi soldier's repellent description of anal rape in "Combat"). As boys, both Chris and "Broderick Crawford" masturbate compulsively; and in a particularly disturbing scene, Chris's sister engages in brutal sell abuse with a familiar childhood toy, Mr. Potato Head, not for pleasure but out of "pure childhood desperation" (117). Crawford, we learn, is a urinist; "Lloyd Bridges" likes to sprinkle his body with baby powder, don the rubberized wet suit he wears on Sea Hunt, and prance onanastically in front of a mirror; Tuck, a character in "Bonanza," exhibits a peculiar fondness for horses and purveys his daughter to a local rancher as a sex slave. Impotence, too, is a problem. At the peak of lovemaking with his new mistress, Chris envisions the appearance of "Have Gun--Will Travel" father-surrogate Paladin, who, black-clad and revolver-toting, discharges an erection-dousing bullet into Chris's shoulder. While usually rendered with White's characteristic humor (and for all its darkness, Memories is a gleeful book), scenes such as these are clearly sublimations of Chris's psychosexual wound, that hole in his psyche symptomatic of an absence from Chris's life of an effective model of masculine emotional receptivity.

Chris's televisual fathers do little to close this gap. Not only prone to violence, they are as remote as his real father is, displaying the habitual emotional taciturnity made famous by Hollywood tough guys. Combat's Sarge, for example, "never smiled, never expressed any emotion except his determination to see his suffering through" (73). Like conventional celluloid cowboys, all of Chris's surrogate fathers are unmarried and, with the exception of Bonanza's thrice-widowed Ben Cartwright, childless. We are not surprised to learn, therefore, that Chris is himself divorced (101), and that promiscuity, a manifestation of Chris's inability to develop enduring emotional attachments, is listed, along with alcoholism and suicide attempts, as a prime symptom of his pathology (45). Much of the novel's pathos derives from Chris's struggles to fortify his "fragile sense of manly self-worth" (27) by transferring his need for a receptive father to TV characters whose representations of masculinity are in large part responsible for the very constructions of male subjectivity that are the source of Chris's oppression. For example, Lieutenant Douglas is, like Sarge, "strong and silent.... His immobile face seems to take some dark delight in refusing [his men] even the most basic human acknowledgment" (70). When it is disclosed that the motive for Douglas's "apparent indifference to his men" is a desire to protect their lives, Chris desperately concludes that "when authority is most brutal and indifferent, it is then that it loves and cares for us most" (75-76). Yearning for paternal love, Chris contorts the images of his despair into a pitiable solace.

Despite the considerable poignancy of such scenes, Chris's plight is not unfamiliar. Indeed, if Memories remained solely at what I have been calling its confessional level, it would not be wholly indistinguishable from that art of "incredibly banal didacticism" Julie Caniglia castigates in her essay "57 Cultures and Nothing On," from which White quotes approvingly in Monstrous Possibility: "work that `explores' this personal issue or `documents' that social problem, that `provokes' the viewer regarding the artist's identity, or `confronts' the artist's traumas (usually of childhood origins)" (91, italics added). But of course White doesn't permit the novel to remain at the confessional level. In a gesture the critic Linda Hutcheon has taught us to recognize as typically postmodernist, White installs familiar generic conventions (in this case, the conventions of the psychological novel or the novel of adolescence or the Kunstlerroman) in order to subvert the expectations such conventions evoke in the reader. White's point is neither to debunk nor even to parody the psychological novel. Indeed, his comment to Mark Amerika that he considers "Memories of My Father Watching TV the best poetic rendering of depression since Robert Lowell's Life Studies" seems to have been made without irony. Rather, White's postmodernist strategy is to complicate and problematize the conventions of the psychological novel, to pressure them into higher complexities, new mutations, in order to extend the novel of psychology into our present postmodern moment.

For epistemological and political reasons, using traditional novelistic conventions without problematizing them--writing, that is, a "realistic" psychological novel--was never an option for White. Realism, "the representation of the world through images that pretend to be natural, adequate, and proper" (Monstrous 20), informs as it reflects a discredited epistemological paradigm. More importantly, White believes that it "has become a State Fiction, a part of the machinery of the political state. It is through the conventions of Realism that the State explains to its citizens the relationship between themselves and Nature, economics, politics, and their own sexuality" (15). More than just perpetuating bad theory and bad politics, however, continuing to write unproblematized realistic fiction at this late date also represents an irresponsible evasion of our present moment, and is, as such, an act of literary and perhaps ethical bad faith.(1) In his essay "Writing the Life Postmodern" White wryly posts the following "notification":


One can either write in and of our present historical moment or "be irrelevant" (Monstrous 59). But in the age of the simulacrum, in which the individual is proclaimed to be nothing but a semiotic function, the human "subject" a mere ideological formation, how does one presume to write a "relevant" psychological novel? If the subject is always already de-centered, what might a postmodern confessional look like? How does one go about constructing hyperreal gardens with real existential pain in them?

In "Writing the Life Postmodern" White proposes a solution for the writer determined to be theoretically up-to-date while remaining "Still Human" (98). "Postmodern fiction," he writes, "is not necessarily merely an expression of the postmodern condition. Postmodern fiction is also a strategic response to that condition" (60). Unlike such radical proponents of postmodernism as Jean Baudrillard, who counsels "ecstatic capitulation to the flow of signs," postmodern writers White regards as "exemplary" assume that the postmodern condition is a condition of "damage." On the one hand, they "dutifully" report this damage:

We are text and getting textier. Language accelerates. If we used to chew words in the old days, a nutrient rich stuff that built strong bodies in at least twelve ways, it's all crank now, insidious binaries that we mainline, along with their insulting viruses. We've caught a computer's disease, every bit as weird as coming down with hoof and mouth. (60-61)

On the other hand, however, exemplary postmodernists express "resentment for the postmodern condition" (61, italics added). They protest the damage of the postmodern moment from within that moment (for various reasons, including several derived from post modern theory, they couldn't get outside the moment if they tried), confronting, in a passage already quoted, "postmodern problems on postmodern grounds" (61).

In Memories clinical depression is a real disease but it is also a symptom of the larger cultural damage inflicted by the postmodern condition. "What does it mean that my chemical madness (sorry, we're fresh out of serotonin today, senor) produces fantasies which are nothing other than the truth of our political reality, metaphorically spoken?," White asks in the interview with Mark Amerika. "[M]y largely distorted sense of the world and its tenacious desire to hurt me personally has turned out to be from the most grimly objective perspective nothing less than the pure (metaphorical) truth of our collective condition." The very first chapter in the novel, "TV Scandal," establishes the landscape of that "collective condition." Chris's father sits comatose before a television set from which his "attention has not been distracted ... since the early 1960s" (9-10), occasionally emerging from his cataleptic state to "jabber for a few moments" (21) recollections--or, perhaps, his own Chris-like projections--of his involvement in the TV scandals of the late fifties. This dual focus allows White to evoke both our current society of the spectacle, of which Chris's father is an exemplary denizen, and the decade of the fifties, the period in which, according to Fredric Jameson, the economic preparation for postmodernism or late capitalism began. The chapter explores the emergence of television and advertising as mediating factors in American politics and life, our entry into what Baudrillard defines as the fourth stage of the image, the era of the simulacrum, in which a boundless network of media and advertising images precede any reality to which they may once had referred. In commodified, postindustrial America desire is managed by being transformed into television images, as "life-on-TV" constructs impoverished housewives as Queens for a Day and "little people" as intellects powerful enough to compete successfully for unthinkable sums of money against Columbia University professors. Baudrillard calls such images "simulations," representations that don't copy so much as they displace the real, assuming a power reality never possessed.

In a hilarious scene in "TV Scandals" White examines one of the early examples of simulation. In his 1959 "kitchen debate" with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Richard Nixon, a politician whose successful Checkers speech made him "conscious of the need for an artful reality" (18), tries to manipulate public perception again by pretending to be an actor. (Three decades later, confirming the trajectory predicted by this early simulation, America would elect as its president an actor pretending to be a politician.) In White's account Nixon wins the debate by managing to be less real than Khrushchev--or, more accurately, by stumbling into the realm of the hyperreal.

How should a diplomat behave while in a kitchen discussing atom bombs? He had no idea. So, in a mild panic, he retreated to American cowboy politics, which had a short but potent stack of visual strategies available. He saw himself projected as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry or the Lone Ranger. He jabbed a finger into Khrushchev's chest. Nikita's eyebrows lifted in amazed amusement as Nixon's digit sunk to the first knuckle in his peasant chubbiness. This diplomacy was more than real. (19-20, italics added)

Taken aback, Khrushchev responds by waving his own finger. Because he is not tuned in to the American cultural psyche's store of Hollywood conventions signifying manly courage, Nikita's digit is perceived to be just a "pinky, not a finger that a cowboy would wave." The Premier is "thus marked as an alien. He lacked access to the authentic cowboy diplomatic vernacular" (20).

White's surreal fusion of the TV scandals of the late 1950s, the televised kitchen debate, Disneyland (which exists, in Baudrillard's famous formulation, to reassure Americans that life outside of the theme park is real), and Chris's father's sense of "humiliation, shame and powerlessness" (9) modulates into a complex metaphor for the damage wrought on the American psyche by postmodern consumer society. Mr. K., to whom Chris's father speaks at Disneyland (which the historical Khrushchev was forbidden to visit during his 1959 visit to the US), is himself, or itself, also a compacted metaphor, at once a TV-like talking head, a head of state, a spinning head (d la the demon-possessed child of The Exorcist fame), a robot evocative of Burroughs's "soft machine," Kafka's K., Chris's father's surrogate father, and a copy of the actual Nikita Khrushchev, whose public identity (the only one we can know) is the product of media images and who therefore exists as little more than a simulacrum himself. The embodiment of postmodern overdetermination, Mr. K. perceives the link between the symptoms of Chris's father's mental condition, the most significant of which is self-loathing ("I am a turd with a hat on" [14]), and the larger symptoms of cultural damage inflicted by the postmodern condition: "Consumer yearning, sexual bafflement, autocratic cruelty, and crushed pride" (22). Chris's father's feelings of alienation and hopelessness are not merely the result of his personal biography, as Mr. K.'s final comments indicate, but reflect a wider cultural despair: "We have grown lost in the fall and rise of day. We are confused by the dilemma our ruins present. The outside has disappeared. See there, nothing in the distance but a flat buzzing. That is not life you hear, that's just heavy breathing" (27-28, italics added).

Spoken, appropriately, by a Disney toy, Mr. K.'s melancholy benediction echoes Jameson's diagnosis of the postmodern moment, which in White's summary has "no `distance,'... no `outside' from which to describe and critique late capitalist space. All postmodern gestures are already taken up and reified as commodities" (Monstrous 38-39). Because metaphysical systems have no outside, any resistance untainted by the dominant ideology is impossible; we can never totally escape the cultural and discursive constraints of our moment. More significantly, perhaps, Mr. K.'s words echo what White considers "the archetype of the postmodern gesture ... [:] Theodore Adorno's famous epigraph to Minima Moralia, `life does not live'" (60).

Which means [White continues[ that a certain form of life does not live (nineteenth century faith in the capitalist/rationalist/instrumentalist enterprise, or faith in a mythic--high modernist--return to a time before capital). Adorno's maxim also means that life understood as a fundamental `normative' quality of being human no longer lives. In short, the Modern does not live and that privileged modernist project called humanite does not live. (60)

The loss of verities once presumed to be eternal and the consequent sense of estrangement and psychological disequilibrium that loss entails constitute the condition of damage assumed by White's postmodern fiction. It also fuels White's resentment. But for reasons already articulated, White can neither return to a lost time (whose own brutalities and damagings we are, from this side of modernism, now better able to assess) nor fully capitulate to the postmodern present. The only responsible alternative, as White characterizes that alternative in "Writing the Life Postmodern," is to forge a "dialectical" relationship with the present moment, self-consciously registering its ideology while simultaneously searching for its utopic potentialities.

Paradoxically, then, the utopic search must proceed not only from within the dystopia (and all totalized cultural systems partake to a greater or lesser degree in the dystopic) but in the very terms of the system being critiqued. "TV Scandal," as we have seen, deals thematically with postmodern damage by connecting Chris's father's depression--and by implication Chris's mental illness as well--to a specular society in which all things--politics, entertainment, mental illness itself (the topic of the questions Chris's father answers on the quiz show)--are mediated by images contrived solely to solicit consumption. White's thematics are indistinguishable from his aesthetic strategies, which, as suggested, involve the incorporation of postmodernist tendencies into his novel's formal dimensions. That is, White performs his novelistic cultural critique by recontextualizing the signs of oppressive culture, appropriating as formal and aesthetic devices such postmodern interventionist political strategies as reappropriation, bricolage, and detournment.

His reappropriation of "those old, violent action shows," for example, is, as White explains to Mark Amerika, "also a way of `detourning' them. Claiming their always damaged and damaging agenda for other purposes." Similarly, the novel's formal discontinuity, its reliance on multiple or intertextual surfaces without apparent causal or logical relationship, is also detourned, turned back against itself. At first glance, the novel's surface play of differentiation (exfoliating identities, texts within texts, etc.) resembles those "randomly heterogeneous [,] ... fragmentary and ... aleatory ... cultural productions" (25) Jameson identifies as postmodern pastiche. Like Baudrillard's simulacrum, pastiche signals the disappearance or "death" of such humanistic doxa as the individual subject, a personal style, interiority, indeed, meaning itself (pastiche, Jameson maintains, is "blank parody"). In Memories, however, pastiche becomes more than an empty representation of the forms of representation that comprise the world of human experience. Rather, turned back upon itself, pastiche functions as a metaphor for that dispersion of simulacra through which Chris--and, indeed, the author himself--must struggle in his effort to come to terms with absence, palimpsestically evoking Chris's desire for an always already deferred presence within a context of endlessly proliferating differences.

In a similar fashion, the overdetermined characterization of the novel's eponymous father exemplifies the endless deferral of meaning, closure, and foundation that constitutes the postmodern condition. At the novel's confessional level, he is Chris and, in a more difficult to determine sense, possibly Curtis White's father, as well as the various television characters who represent Chris's displaced desire for a father figure. Clinically depressive, a victim of late technocapitalism, and also abandoned by his father, he is Chris (and Curtis?) White's double; moreover, because we, too, occupy the disparate and fragmentary moment called postmodernism, he may be the hypocrite lecteur's semblable as well. In addition, he is the father-function constructed by a melange of contemporary mind maps, including Freud's Oedipal father (who must be "killed" if Chris is to obtain a "penis" [31]); Lacan's Name-of-the-Father, the symbolic order which, structured by language and ruled by the phallus, shapes Chris's desire for "a place for a man among men" (45); Melanie Klein's object relations theory (61); R. D. Laing's theory of schizophrenia ("This was either break down or break through" [27]); Jung's archetypes; the "anti-psychiatry" of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari; and of course the clinical constructions that construe all mental disorders as the effect of bad brain chemistry, treatable by the pharmaceuticals Chris takes "with gratitude" (77). And he is the Barthelmean Dead Father, the Tradition of literary Modernism, whose claims of epistemological authority White subverts while nonetheless paying homage to some of its practitioners, specifically Kafka, Celine, the Eliot of The Waste Land, Burroughs, and the Lowell of Life Studies, all noted exemplars of "mad" discourse. Less a character than an intertextual nexus, White's titular father, like the postmodernist landscape he occupies, comprises an irreducible plurality whose "essence ... is fixed nowhere [,] ... an `economy,' a set of human relations that works (even if its working is all a process of damaging; damaging the already damaged)" (Memories 109).

At the level of form, style, and characterization, then, Memories of My Father Watching TV seems to assert infinite multiplicity. But the novel stops short of that "systematic exemption of meaning" Roland Barthes associates with the "writerly" text. Radically dilatory texts, which practice an infinite deferral of meaning, reveling a la Baudrillard in an erotics of indeterminacy, simply exchange one totalizing system, realism, for another, "Baudrillard's totalized semiotic vision," in which the" `transcendental signifier' is signification itself" (Monstrous 105, 108).(2) Ultimately, given the constructed nature of reality, "no texts are mimetic"; "nevertheless," White insists, "all texts must behave, at some level, as if they were" (15-16). Even antimimetic fiction "needs the as-if of referentiality," a sell conscious awareness "that it is always at some level part of what it critiques" (15). As we have seen, what White imitates in Memories is, precisely, imitations, or, better, representations, simulacra, the infinite regress of icons--"that which saturates consciousness without having to be meaningful" (Monstrous 27)--which impels the passivity and commodity fetishism of late technocapitalist society. By embedding in his portrait of uni-dimensional post-humanist society the desire of a single "damaged" human being, White enters into a "negative dialectics" (Monstrous 28) with postmodern culture, contesting the "managed" commodification of all human value and desire with singular human need.(3)

White's method, then, is to turn postmodernist critique back upon postmodernism itself, or at least upon those radical forms of postmodernism characterized by the totalizing assumption that "the Real has been `ravished,' and we must now suffer infinitely the consequences of that ravishing: life in the `hyperreal' (that is to say, life in a cultural context devoid of a role for the Real; life in a context of pure simulation)" (Monstrous 109). Paradoxically, even audaciously-since it is proposed knowingly from within the postmodern situation--White posits the possibility of a postmodern ethics, something he finds disturbingly lacking in much postmodernist theory. Postmodernism, White complains,

is unlike its predecessors in the nearly total absence of ethical content in its diagnosis of techno-capitalism. Largely because of its simplistic commitment to the post-structural critique of metaphysics and master narratives, postmodernism is not willing to entertain the possibility that our present techno-totalization is a form of damage, that it is something that we ought to resent, or that there are imaginable social forms which we might legitimately prefer to it. The present is simply our `mode,' perhaps our final mode. (112-13)

Declaring "Death to the dictatorship of the present" (35), White locates the source of his ethical program in postmodernism's notorious fluidity and the radical freedom that fluidity implies. Of course, freedom, especially as it pertains to human agency, has become a vexed concept in poststructuralist thought, and, for that reason perhaps, it is not the traditional humanistic notion of free will to which White appeals. Rather, he evokes Herbert Marcuse's concept of "free play," by which Marcuse means "the released potentialities of man and nature" (35). As an aesthetic principle, free play implies the activities of the bricoleur, who creates new forms and new meanings by the persistent recombination of existing materials and experiences. But postmodern literature's preference for the discontinuous and the monstrous need not result in that variety of postmodern text Alan Wilde describes, whose formal discontinuities signal an acceptance of "the impossibility of making any sense whatever of the world as a whole" (44). On the contrary, monstrous literature can tease out the "monstrous possibility" concealed in our present moment, "its world-making potential." Alluding to Deleuze and Guattari, White defines play as "a form of radical democracy based upon a radical philosophy of becoming over a static philosophy of being, of difference over presence, of an ad infinitum `wordling' over Nature, of infinite Nomadological `lines of flight' over the striated space of the political State" (115). Since, as postmodernism has taught us, "the social world is constructed, does not participate in the necessity of nature," it follows that the world can be "constructed otherwise" (26). The promise of monstrous literature, therefore, is not only a postmodern ethics, but a postmodernist literary politics:

If the real is constituted not by simple presence ... but by "difference," by the activity of texts, commodities, and the world of signs; and if the possibilities for how those worlds are constituted are without necessary limit; then, a political economy which "mutilates" artisans in order to make "workers" of them' (Deleuze and Guattari), which reifies the world through commodities, and which compels social conformity either through the bourgeois ideologemes of Nature or the obligations of the performance principle, this political economy is a form of social injury. If the logic of signs allows for "worldling" without limit, let these worlds begin. (115)

In Memories the potential for "worldling" is signified by the recurring appearances of Shiva, the Hindu god of dissolution and regeneration. As readers familiar with White's earlier work will recall, Shiva turns up in Anarcho-Hindu (1995) as Siva, the novel's protagonist. In Memories, on the other hand, Shiva, who is explicitly mentioned only once (113), functions less as a character than a flickering presence, whose emblems are dropped periodically like calling cards: Paladin's horse-shaped third eye, a crescent-shaped fish-bite, the halo of fire concluding the two sections of Memories. From a postmodern perspective, Shiva is particularly interesting because his personality teems with incoherence. Creator and destroyer, often androgynous, a lover of monumental prowess whose symbol is the linga or phallus yet an ascetic indifferent to pleasure, recognized as Supreme Lord yet shunned by the other gods for his impure habits and slovenly appearance (matted hair, ashes-smeared body, a necklace of skulls and human bones)--Shiva is the most overdetermined of deities, whose multifarious activities reflect the Hindu and Buddhist principle that good and evil, wretchedness and salvation, spring from the same source. His dance, the Tandava, destroys the world in order to regenerate it, symbolizing the eternal movement of the universe, the Sanskrit word for which is lila--or "play."

Shiva's enervated presence in Memories implies the raw power of play's countervailing forces, "postmodern death-in-life" (62) figured in the life-defeating proclivities of the novel's various father figures and the omnipresence of television. In a terrifyingly comic scene, for example, Shiva appears in the personage of the Wild Father. In a book about father-son-relationships, mention of a Wild Man immediately evokes Robert Bly's Iron John (1990). In Bly's book Iron John is an incarnation of the "Hairy Man" or "Wild Father" archetype (Shiva, Bly points out, is another) who initiates a young boy into manhood by helping him develop his "inner Wild Man," a vigorous masculinity whose attributes include male sexual energy, spontaneity and "riskiness," love of nature and a concomitant desire to protect the earth, the capacity to learn from and "honor" grief, and a protecting, caring nature. The Wild Father of "Bonanza," on the other hand, is a wildly parodic inversion of the archetype's life-enhancing qualities, a god in ruins, "naked and matted with hair," whose penis, unlike Shiva's divine linga, is variously described as "cheesy" and as "plastic." His disturbing yet hilarious "rant" near the end of the chapter demonstrates how attenuated male energy has become in postindustrial America. This is life that does not live. Yet, in another cruel parody of Shiva's regenerative force, the chapter concludes with Wild Father "reproduc[ing] his kind" (64) by performing guitar strokes on his infirm "weirdly plastic penis" before a TV audience of wildly approving little boys, "hooked by satellite/To everyone's favorite station" (67).(4)

As the recurrence of such scenes suggests, Memories never quite succeeds in presenting "a world within which we might choose to live," which is a primary function, according to White, of new works of fiction (Monstrous 66). Yet the novel's Shiva-energy, however muted, persistently holds out the possibility of change. At the end of "Combat," Sarge removes his helmet to reveal "a small patch of garden" growing out of the top of his head. One in a series of scenes in which characters discover that alien life forms--snakes, fish, Kafkaesque insects, Burroughs-like viruses--have invaded their brain, the motif reinforces the novel's theme of mental illness. But we are also told that the "bright colors of the wildflowers" growing out of Sarge's head "make it appear that his brow is aflame" (79). The halo of fire is a sure sign of Shiva, whose brow glows as he dances the dance of annihilation, which preserves the infinite play of life. Appearing at the end of "Combat," by far the novel's most somber chapter, the manifestation of Shiva-energy suggests the ancient Hindu principle that one thing always contains its other-which is, of course, a principle of deconstruction as well. "And if the present can be deconstructed," White says hopefully, "this opens the way to a possible reconstruction" (Monstrous 34).

White is not recycling discredited Enlightenment views of human progress. Free play implies an ongoing process, not a destination that can be reached. "Openness of human possibility," White contends, presents "an infinite horizon of never fully realizable potential" (113). So at the novel's end, when Chris and his father have finally had their talk and the "happy family" takes its first "family outing" ever, we should not be surprised that Chris is confronted by "a flaming hedge of burning brow" from the station wagon's backseat (155-56). A parody of conventional reconciliation scenes, Chris's talk with his father yields no understanding, no modernist epiphanies, none of the behavior changes we associate with Forster's "round" characters: Dad, we discover, communicates with no one because he has nothing to say, drinks because he enjoys it, watches TV every night because he finds it entertaining, and considers himself happy. "So you see, Son, I'm happy because I have a nice TV to watch and drinks to drink. And that's all there is to it" (143-44). In a phrase White appropriates from David Hickey, Chris's father enjoys "the banality of neutral comfort"--which, White concludes, is the same as being "dead" (Monstrous 97). The burning brows Chris observes at the novel's close, then, disrupt the false telos of the novel's conclusion, not by offering a specific alternative world (which would be another telos), but by reconfirming the spirit of purposeful play which empowers us to imagine more palatable futures.

A monstrous hybrid, Curtis White's Memories of My Father Watching TV presents itself as a postmodern confessional/psychological/political novel. It also strives to capture what is perhaps the most paradoxical of hybrids, postmodern beauty. White concedes the poststructuralist argument that beauty "has no independent, enduring, unique, timeless being. It has no `presence' separate from (that is, transcending) immediate historical human contexts" (Monstrous 96). Nonetheless, a claim for aesthetic beauty as a meaningful category can be made from inside of postmodernism by evoking the concept of "wordling." "Something is beautiful," White suggests, "when the artist works collaboratively with an inherited past, ingeniously reveals again that history within the work, but then--ah! the bright wings!--opens, allows that familiar world to unfold unfamiliarly ..." (97). White's allusion to Hopkins recalls "Manic Maverick," the novel's penultimate chapter and perhaps its most successful consolidation of all the qualities White associates with monstrous beauty. The chapter modulates from the Weltschmerz and disgust of Celine, in whose fragmented, ellipses-ridden style the entire chapter is written, through Vishnu's return to earth as the avatar Blue Maverick, a kind of cartoon Krishna,(5) to the concluding passage in which Chris's perception of Maverick-Krishna's apparent re-return is conveyed in Hopkins-like cadences: "it was again Maverick intruding on a black-and-white world ... it was Maverick that he saw high behind the sycamores ... he bent, brooding, over the world with his warm blue breast and--ah!--his bright laughing eyes" (139).

Typically compacted and conflicted, the concluding allusion points in two directions. On the one hand, it implies the possibility of a kind of postmodern faith, the "utopic hope ... that if there is nothing necessary or natural about the present, and change is real, then things can be otherwise. We might even allow ourselves to imagine that things can be better than they are" (Monstrous 34). On the other hand, the world it implies, the world of Hopkins's imagining, can never again be our world. Hopkins's major accomplishment, according to White, was his work "within the dying tradition of the rhymed and metered lyric in order to reinvent it as a wholly new music and in the process reinvent the relevance of (a similarly dying) Christian faith." In the process Hopkins achieved that kind of aesthetic beauty that permits a reunderstanding of the known world and its dominant ideology "as desirable after all" (Monstrous 97). For our time, however, a different order of worlding, another kind of beauty, is needed, one less conservative than Hopkins's, one that, like the flights of stairs in The Third Man, can "provide access from one logic or metaphysic to another" (149). Postmodern beauty, as White describes it, projects "a new world, surviving on bits and pieces of the past (all its parts are borrowed), and erupting as an alternative world we might inhabit" (Monstrous 97). We may have lost forever the naive belief that it is possible to step outside of the narrow, totalized confines of what men call "reality," as Ellison's Invisible Man was able to do. But Memories of My Father Watching TV demonstrates that certain writers are able to view our present moment through the defamiliarizing lens of blessed madness, and by employing the recombinant aesthetics of bricolage and liberatory free play, keep alive the possibility of constructing not only new aesthetic forms but new and potentially better worlds.


(1) I want to emphasize that it's the unproblematized, "naive" use of realistic conventions that I have in mind here. A major motive of the metafiction of the sixties and seventies was to foreground the conventional nature of realistic conventions and to demonstrate that such conventions are no more nor no less artificial than the conventions of other fictive modes (e.g., fantasy, journalistic fiction, or metafiction itself). Thus exposed, realistic conventions have once again become part of the aesthetic repertoire of otherwise "transgressive" authors. Note, for example, the use of realistic conventions by that former arch-metaficitonalist John Barth in novels such as Sabbatical, or the realistic surfaces of otherwise transgressive novels by Richard Powers and Don DeLillo.

(2) Such texts exist only potentially. As White drolly remarks, the "only knowledge" we have of" `writing at the zero degree,' or `white writing,' or the Writerly, or any other dream text of the avant-garde.... is that, as Barthes says, there are no examples of it" (Monstrous 15).

(3) Which is not to suggest that White hopes to recuperate the modernist concept of the alienated individual, whose binary conceals a self/other hierarchy. Rather, White's double-voiced strategy implies that postindustrial fragmentation is not a cause for celebration but a source of damage.

(4) In Bly's retelling of the Wild Man myth, Iron John initially emerges from a lake, signaling his mythic residence in the human collective unconsciousness. In "Sea Hunt" Chris's father also emerges from beneath the water in a scene White describes as "mythic." But the father fails to recognize Chris as his son, and instead of bestowing life force, he hands him an undetonated bomb (99).

(5) Readers familiar with the legend of a young Krishna among the cowgirls will appreciate White's sly joke in bringing Krishna back as a cowboy. White bestows on Maverick several of Krishna's experiences and attributes, including his blue skin; the dirt-eating episode, in which the entire Universe was perceived in Krishna's mouth; Krishna's victory over the goblin Putana by sucking the poisonous milk from her breast until she dies; and Krishna's bout of love-making with Radha during which they engage in the eight kinds of sexual intercourse. Significantly, White changes Radha's name to Lila, which is, as already indicated, the Sanskrit word for play.


Barthes, Roland. Image/Music / Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

White, Curtis. Memories of My Father Watching TV. Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1998.

--. Monstrous Possibility: An Invitation to Literary Politics. Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1998.

Wilde, Alan. Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981.

CHARLES B. HARRIS has published numerous articles on contemporary American fiction and the profession of English studies. His books include Contemporary American Novelists of the Absurd (1971) and Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth (1983). He directs the Unit for Contemporary Literature at Illinois State University.
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Title Annotation:Curtis White
Author:Harris, Charles B.
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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