Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Tale of Two Bartlebys

photo by Geoffrey Gatza

Bartleby, the Sportscaster A Novella by Ted Pelton. Boulder, Colo.: Subito Press, 2010. 73 pp.
buy it here. (SPD)

The precious gift of a few hours free from parenting, working, cleaning up the spilt milk, fretting over love’s delicate fibers and the looming necessity of home repair: this is the time I use to sit down for a visit with Herman Melville. Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street, is one of those fictions Phillip Lopate calls a “work that refuses to resolve the inexplicable.” Melville’s 1853 novella is a haunting text whose main character is remarkable because he’s not really or effectively there. Bartleby is a story that has persisted as an American classic because it is in many ways prescient of our modernity. Index of the segregated masculine mind, domain and oikos (Greek for “household”), it humorously teaches us about New York City’s financial and legal professions, the strange life of its sector, and it manages to place a “supreme enigma” at its heart. It is one of the best fictions ever written about the disruption of the ideal bourgeois subject, that jargonish term for white collar and professional workers living in, as we now say, corporate culture.

Nothing is ideal about Melville’s story, however. Strained as you may find Melville’s prose, especially in contrast to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s elegant flow, he is the master of irony. I bring up (and will indulge in) Melville’s style because I want to address the importance it holds in comparison with Ted Pelton’s newest novella Bartleby, The Sportscaster, which I want to praise, even as I parse. Where it takes Melville 170 words to describe his narrator's public role as a Master of Chancery, it takes Pelton about 10 to give us the goods on Ray Yarzejski. A Master of Chancery must be, I first thought, something like the 1850s equivalent of a derivatives trader (who, as we have learned, were recently inflating their bank accounts by betting on companies to fail, while telling their investors the companies were growing), but I now understand it is a Clerk of a particular branch of the Courts, dealing with land, inheritances and some other odd cases.

Okay, I need to stop this so-called review right now. There is something ridiculous in what I am about to do. But it fits. It’s fitting. I wonder: do things really happen to us by chance? Or, if we look realistically at all the shit we have to wade through, we may conclude that, if we don’t master situations and instead let them have their way with us, and it seems readily apparent to all who know us that we haven’t mastered them, then the gratuitous parading of our powerlessness can only set our old enemies to chuckling. We may even do further harm to ourselves thinking that they will somehow be comforted in feeling that, in their view, all is indeed right in the universe. We might, in a bizarre fit of dissociation and misplaced identification, come to believe that our misery is a significant cause of someone else’s happiness.

With this in mind, there is something else we need to keep in front of us if we’re ever going to get a handle on the Bartleby Enigma as taken up by Ted Pelton, and that’s the baseball metaphor. It’s the game of life, right? Though I’ve long since given it away, I do remember the Lakoff and Johnson book Metaphors We Live By, published thirty years ago, in which the most pervasive tropes in the American psyche are examined and given a kind of philosophical honor: the road of life—the sunshine of your love—eating one’s own words. The list goes on and on. But what is important about this metaphor—the game of life—is that it demonstrates effectively how much a particular, limited, distinct activity stands in for much more general areas of experience. It certainly does so for August Wilson’s iconic figure, Troy Maxson, in his play Fences. Troy faces off with his children, wife, friends and death itself as if he were standing in the batter’s box. In a more recent turn, this Spring sculptor David Adamo has created a parquet floor of Louisville Slugger baseball bats in one room of MoMA’s P.S. 1 Art Museum, so that the clean blonde wood of all these toy weapons will slowly darken and soil as visitors walk over them. Here, the baseball metaphor undergirds our experience. We walk over it. “I don’t think you’re supposed to do that,” my friend told me as I stepped into the room. “But I was instructed to do so by The New York Times!” I cried. That good grey lady is my most constant book of instruction. I would help the artist complete his metaphor. As much as we are capable of inhabiting such metaphors, the more satisfying and fitting our lives will be for us. Sadly, Bartleby doesn’t fit any of them, and the concept he offers us in response, refusal by preference, infectiously leads us nowhere pretty damn fast.

On June 4, 2010, David Markson died. He was a very important fiction writer who lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In The Last Novel, which was in truth his last novel, and he announced it as such, he builds a narrative out of quotations. One of these quotes is: “Baseball is what we were, Football is what we have become” (Mary McGrory). She doesn’t mean the World Cup, which is the focus of some works currently up at Apexart in TriBeCa called “Men With Balls” (until July 11). But even these connections—baseball as what we were, football as what we have become, are now, it would seem, unsettled. Football is not what we are now, and is also what soccer has become, in America. So, what will we now call our most championed American game? Pigskin?

I am taking a long, circuitous route around my purposes here, because I am trying to find the constellation that best suits, accentuates, and sets off this novella: Bartleby the Sportscaster. After I finished reading this literary curiosity, I went for a walk to the end of my street, where a wide path of foot-pleasing, rounded hexagonal cobblestones stretches out in both directions, and is set with many many benches, one whereupon I sat myself down with my New York Times and looked beyond the low iron fence and down the rise into the baseball field below, where a game of softball was taking place. It’s easy, I thought, to not have to think about baseball at all. It’s everywhere. Beyond this field (and a fence) is the Shore Parkway with its zooming impatience, and then, after another fence, the paved strip of a bikepath, more benches, a sidewalk, and then yet another fence guarding the populace from the rocks forming the bank of the Narrows. To the right is New York Harbor and Lady Liberty, the lower tip of Manhattan. Just across the Narrows is the landing for the Staten Island Ferry and of course, the Island itself. And as it was nearing dusk, who can leave out mention of the soft, billowy cumulonimbus clouds framing a huge orange sun like a supercilious brow, the hazy beams cast upwards by their shadows stroking the infinite blue-white sky above it? Melville is infectious.

My general subject, peripherally, as well as the novella’s ostensible subject, is baseball. But of course it should be clear by now that forgetting about the ball, and getting on with the game is the real subject of my efforts. Sometimes I get a jolt of vertigo when I think about just how far I have to take my eyes off the ball in order to get started. David Markson, in the same videotaped reading I alluded to above, repeats a short set of words two or three times over the course of his forty minutes: “Old. Tired. Sick. Poor. Alone.” How could a man just under half his age, and in the prime of his life, feel such painful kinship with this plaintive certainty, a feeling that almost screams as it glares out quietly from within and reaches so far beyond those simple words? What does one do when a writer abandons the pretense of distance and objectivity like that? Who supercedes decorum and all sugary literary artifice just to ruin our pleasant and consoling hours of reading with such an accurate indictment of our aloof, blinkered hearts?

Something in the “inexplicable”, queer and singular case of Bartleby makes his story, and each retelling of it, less and less singular and queer the better and better you can work out its problems, indictments, and refusals. And when Ted Pelton, the author, decides to insert a chapter of autobiography into his novella, we realize that he, too, is not interested in keeping any veneer or bouyant artifice intact. But we should well know by now that this kind of interruption of the tale is nothing new or disturbing in fiction, and is instead integral to its mode. It rubs a little life into its achey limbs.

Part Five of Bartleby the Sportscaster only lifts us from one fiction into another, rather than departing from fiction altogether. Melville, as one of the greatest prose writers of the 19th Century, does not do this. Melville’s tragedy is absolute. There is a sense of stability in the art he perfected that makes his fiction the highest form of literary writing in the 19th century. In the 21st century, the imposing formal edifice of those great fictions with their silent, urn-like fixity and otherness, has become too much for us to bear, perhaps simply as a result of the ubiquity of the form itself. Today the tragic is a laughable residue, the result of a systematic worldview that has only one imposing other to threaten and provide for its dissolution and destruction. Today we are blessed with hundreds of annihilating others. Today there’s a selection, and we can have a preference. No, we now recognize that the old form is unworkable: we must have melodrama, and we must be a part of it. In Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, Creon upbraids the rebellious daughter of Oedipus for what he considers a family sickness—that firm resolve to enact tragedy, when all other indications are that, with a slight bending of her will, she can enjoy all the fruits of what is, in Anouilh’s day, the modern melodrama, a tragicomedy. Ted Pelton indeed wants to have his conversation with Melville, one not unlike Creon’s with Antigone, or Melville’s narrator with his employee, for that matter, in that he simply wants his interlocutor to relent. “Give a sign!” he, we, it (the fiction) all cry. We want to shout. We beg the Bartlebys to give us some slight gesture of sympathy with us, sign up with the status quo, get everybody on the team, onto the bus. Likewise, in Ted Pelton’s melodrama we are begging, from the endearingly recalcitrant position of the one who has given up, for this other to acknowledge, even by one simple wink of the eye, that the game can go on. But we do not beg in Melville’s tragedy. The narrator does the begging. Mercifully, in Melville’s fiction there is no we. He’s way over there. Sure he sounds a lot like us, but we’re not him. It could be said that the namelessness of the Master of Chancery implicates us in his conundrum, his paradox. Instead, like the witnesses of Creon and Antigone's argument, we are given a seat at an appropriate distance from the stage so that our squirming, tears, or boredom can go on in the dark. Our time, as a matter of principle, doesn’t want to be sure there is a stage up there. We all want to act, and have that certainty of acting, without the theme getting too carried away with itself on its own. In our great fear of the body, and of losing the body, that we have lost the body, and in our enormous surprise in discovering that we might get a chance at having and living as the body, we want to make sure by repeatedly calling on it, touching it, and seducing it just enough for it to show itself. But we’re not sure it’s worked.

The Master of Chancery begs Bartleby to dispense with the law, have a taste of the good life, by giving into it. Just a little. Ted Pelton, expressing his sympathy for the narrator of Bartleby the Scrivener, does so formally (in narrative structure) just as much as he does by reproducing the Master’s voice (though now in a kind of harassed Brooklynese); just as Ray Yarzejski does when he invents a radio voice for Bartleby. Pelton includes autobiography. But what will this reviewer do? Is it both his candy and candor to set down here that echoless fact that me knew him once? And that I did meet, however briefly, in a sterile third-floor adjunct’s office, adjunct-to-adjunct, so to speak, the woman he married and eventually divorced? I’m desirous that it was in fact she who wrote Bartleby the Sportscaster! It would form a beautiful figure in our world if she had, gestate the succession of forms, however buried in the layers of narrative voicings this framed echo-chamber of postmortemism, ahem, which we now inhabit asks us to wade through in the hopeless desire to discover who speaks. And why do I feel bound by an equally difficult loyalty to also not print her name?

It isn’t as disconcerting to discuss the degree to which Bartleby articulates a social, aesthetic and philosophical crisis in Bartleby the Scrivener. By the story’s end, the Scrivener is, with Hamlet, sleeping with Kings and Counsellors. We come to realize that the narrator’s story is only the rustling of voices surrounding the body of the recently deceased. Bartleby’s revolution is, of course, the new thing, and not a simple matter of the master-slave dialectic, of bloody refusals and violent uprisings. There is only Turkey, Nippers, Ginger-Nut and himself. Bartleby’s revolution is of an American, or more accurately, capitalist reliance on the trope of preference. Readers are slowly teased along to believe that Bartleby has turned to Wall Street after a tenure in Washington D.C., working in a similarly cramped and dismal office where he was destroying, and perhaps—the narrator is almost sure of it—reading the dead letters sent to nonexistent, dead, unreachable recipients. Bartleby achieves tragic status twice over for the fact of this work: he is responsible for consigning hopes to the flames. Melodrama does no such thing. Ray Yarzejski picks up all these letters and drives out into the great rolling night. He will find the address. He will deliver the mail, no matter what.

And I’ll get on the bus, too, as I sincerely hope for the success of Pelton’s novella. These twin tales of scrivener and sportscaster have provided me an engaging diversion from my otherwise pressing household duties. I’m sending out my hopes for Bartleby, The Sportscaster in the name of Ecclesiastes Choate the one-legged wonder, and in the name of Jeff Huson, too: onetime utility player for the Montreal Expos, and now calling games for the Colorado Rockies.

Was it by chance? On my return from my meditations on the edge of the Narrows, Huson’s 1990 Upper Deck baseball card lay gingerly tipped on the edge of a sewer grate. Maybe it had fallen from the spokes of some young ballplayer’s bicycle. Putting baseball cards in the spokes is what we were. Riding along to the sweet clickity-clack of cardboard on metal, us boys once pedaled the streets and avenues in search of ice cream, a little illicit chewing tobacco, and for lovely Lisa to come play doctor and patient with us down under the bleachers.

Lord knows what we have become.

Go Cyclones!


Douglas Manson is a writer in New York City. If you like this review, please buy Ted's book, and maybe even send Doug $10. Or ask him to become a full professor at your 4-year research institution, or to sign on as a salaried staff writer at your high-profile magazine or newspaper. And if you're beautiful and kind, go give him a hug and a kiss. He likes those, too.