Monday, October 7, 2013

Good Reads: Oedipus Wrecks

The book: The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme

Don’t be alarmed. The loud buzzing and the flashing lights you’re experiencing are simply the Very Important Metaphor Early Warning System kicking in. You see, Thomas has a problem with his Dead Father. Thomas, along with his lover Julie and a host of underpaid, alcohol-deprived malcontents, is dragging the city-block sized corpse of his Dead Father across the country in hopes revivifying him. But the Dead Father is not, strictly speaking, dead. The Dead Father can still speak, hand down pronouncements and generally tries to order around everyone’s life. When he doesn’t get his way, the Dead Father has been known to run off into the woods and put various tiny woodland creatures to the sword to vent his rage. The metaphor seems almost insultingly obvious, and in the hands of a lesser craftsman, it would be. But Donald Barthelme wrote the way Monet painted. He steamrolls you with waves of sentence fragments that individually reveal little but taken together weave a pointillist tapestry of vivid, obsessive detail in the mode of David Foster Wallace. Barthelme was a master of ribald absurdity and telling anachronism. He turned Snow White into a farce of sexual mores and inverted King Arthur into a parable of the Cold War. Sure, he was working out some fairly Freudian issues with The Dead Father, but like poor beleaguered Thomas, it’s all about what the journey reveals.

A representative passage:

I don’t like this, said the Dead Father.
What? asked Julie. What, dear old man, don’t you like?
You are killing me.
We? Not we. Not in any sense we. Processes are killing you, not we. Inexorable processes.
Inexorable inapplicable in my case, said the Dead Father. Hopefully.
“Hopefully” cannot be used in that way, grammatically, said Thomas.
You are safe, dear old man, you are safe, temporarily, in the mansuetude of our care, Julie said.
The what?
The mansuetude that is to say mild gentleness of our care.
I am surrounded by creepy murderous pedants! the Dead Father shouted. Unbearable!
Thomas handed the Dead Father the pornographic comic book.
Now now, he said, no outbursts. Read this. It will keep you occupied.
I don’t want to be occupied, said the Dead Father. Children are kept occupied. I want to participate!
Not possible, said Thomas. Thank God for the pornographic comic book. Sit there and read it. Sit there with your back against that rock. Thank the Lord for what is given to you. Others have less. Here is a knapsack to place between your back and the rock. Here is a flashlight to read the comic book by. Edmund will bring your Ovaltine at ten. Count your blessings.

The album: The Jester Race by In Flames

Jumping off the grindcore track briefly, The Jester Race is an album that’s chained to the past and struggles with the way our histories come to define our futures. Each song seems to contain some nugget of the same thought from the backwards looking “Artifacts of the Black Rain” through the inability of mankind to learn from its prior mistakes in “Graveland” or the way “Dead Eternity” promises that “time will be your master in this laborious part of human subsistence.” And perhaps too on the nose for our purposes, there’s “Dead God in Me.”

A representative song: “Dead God in Me”

To slit the grinning wounds
from childhood's seven moons
the palette stained with the ejaculated passions
(of forbidden, hedonistic colors...)

Strike from omnipotence; all-seer, all-deemer
and haunt my severed country with your
dripping, secret games

You pick the unripe lilies
deflored and peeled the bleeding petals
made known to me
the grainy stains, the crimson lotus
of the Black-Ash Inheritance,
the semen feed of gods and masters
The worms still in me,
still a part of me,
racing out from leaking rooms,
swoop from broken lungs to block the transmission
to put an end to the nomad years

you are the
dead god in me

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In Flames got me into European death metal (which in turn led to grindcore, etc.)

Special place in my heart, forever. I even like some of their pop stuff.

I have read about that book, but never read it. That's stupid! It's on the list now.