In the metaphysics of early computing, after the vacuum tubes, while the world was searching for the mouse, there came briefly to light an interesting cosmological problem. Graphical space can be described in two ways, either as a mapped set of distinct dots or as a collection of lines: bitmaps or vectors respectively. The basic metaphor upon which we would compute was at stake. We needed to construct an on-screen representation of depth and organization. Build a system of metaphors that created the illusion of space on a computer screen out of vectors, and get a certain kind of computing; do it out of pixels, and get another. It is a foundational presupposition, choose vectors and we’ll end up thinking about things in a certain way, as connections, curves, and shapes; pick bitmaps, and we’ll think differently, and perceive a collection of individual points. We might force shapes on our firmament, but everyone knows that constellations are just that.

Thankfully, we are removed from the essential metaphor by so many levels of user-friendly windows, prompt screens, and dialog boxes that it never need occur to anyone which presupposition won out. In fact, I’m not even sure which one really rules the machines. I suspect it was bitmaps, ultimately, and so does John Updike.

Owen Mackenzie, the collection of scenes and sentences that is at the center of Updike’s latest romp into suburban infidelity—it’s difficult really to call these things Updike has written “characters”—worked on a vector-based interface for computers.[1] He went to MIT, met a wife, went on to work for IBM, and ended up in a small town in Connecticut as a partner in a company called E. O. Data Management, working on a thing called DigitEyes, a light pen and touch screen interface. It was on the wrong side of things, vectors, as was Owen, its inventor. Not that it wasn’t successful, it was, and Owen smart, he is, but not Bill Gates smart, and not Microsoft successful. Vectors lost. The computer screen is not a series of curves and lines; it’s dots, atoms, and individuals.

At one point in the dissolution of his marriage (true to form, the marriages in Updike-urbia are all doomed), he decides not to make a telephone call because

There were enough energies at work; things had a way of working out, like his finding his glasses that time in the dew-soaked empty lot, or his discovering, as he was devising the algorithms for DigitEyes 2.1, that no matter how many 3D transformations have been nested, one branching from the other, the last coordinate space can be specified in terms of the first, with no more than a displacement vector and three basis vectors—a mere twelve scalars to be crunched.
The first of two things remarkable about this passage is that I hadn’t remembered Owen wore glasses, even though I’d just spent almost 300 pages with him. He had pretended to leave some reading glasses somewhere once as a pretense to make the adultery-commencing telephone call, but other than that I can imagine no part of his face, bespectacled or otherwise. It’s the kind of maddening reminder of how slight these sketches are, as people. They barely have mannerisms. I’m not suggesting that one needs graceless pages of physical description. I’ve never felt moored by those newspaper ledes: “Our hero, a tall man with brown hair gone gray at the temples and a sagging paunch drove home in his socio-economically significant …” But I don’t want to be surprised by someone on page 295. Glasses? Really?

The other important thing about the above extract is that Owen, after having built a career out of vectors, had a revelation of sorts about how the vectors related to one another by their points. Although a dozen scalars sound like a cripplingly complex thing to me, I looked it up and found that scalars have magnitude, but not direction, whereas direction is the keystone of a vector. Owen’s late observation of the way he’s mapped out the world, in other words, is that the lines upon which he’s relied are not in fact lines. The lines are rooted at points. No matter how convoluted your life gets, you can describe the last coordinate in relation to the point of origin. Not by the lines connecting the two, which would by that point have gone haywire and scrambled around one another like spaghetti (or the infidelities of a small town), but by the points themselves. The vector, atomized.

“Owen’s past,” Updike writes, “is like a sheet of inky blue tissue paper held up to a light, so the holes pricked in it shine: these stars are the women who let him fuck them.” Of course. The points of life are sex. I breathe a sigh of relief here, because it’s sex, not math, that we’re talking about, and sex, at least, has been demystified by Updike novels.

Owen’s pursuit of sex in Villages is rather unbelievable; people in these suburbs are more available, more open, and more promiscuous than anyone I can imagine outside of Updike or porno. But his sex is vivid. Astonishingly so. He caresses his sentences out to incredible lengths. Long, wonderful poetry of the body. Comparing the amount of time spent in coitus in an Updike novel to the amount of time spent on anything else is an entertainment itself. History wings by, decades flit along, and each second of sex is dwelt upon.

But it is sex had in isolation, really. Owen lives very much as his own point, unable to understand the vectors around him, or even many of the points with which he shares his life. The men of his town are “an array of golf swings.”

In Villages, Owen’s ignorance of those around him causes destruction and sadness, but it is also a problem of the book itself. Owen doesn’t understand the people, or the vectors, and Updike skips all the places in between, leaving us just a series of dirty postcards. Owen alienates the world around him, and when he does find happiness, it seems unlikely to the reader. She’s the same as everyone else; maybe he just gave up. Even if that surrender, that shrug that constitutes so many of life’s decisions, is Updike’s point, the illustration of alienation and isolation need not, in turn, alienate the reader.

In Philip Roth’s latest novel, The Plot Against America,[2] young Roth is told by his father that “in a democracy, keeping abreast of current events was a citizen’s most important duty and that you could never start too early to be informed about the news of the day.” It’s a patriotic civics lesson.

“Because what’s history?” he asked rhetorically when he was in his expansive dinnertime instructional mode. “History is everything that happens everywhere. Even here in Newark. Even here on Summit Avenue. Even what happens in his house to an ordinary man—that’ll be history too someday.”
The idea that history is everything casts the net very wide, obviously, but then the father of young, fictional Phil Roth draws a smaller circle: Newark. Then a still smaller one: Summit Avenue. And still tighter: an ordinary man at home.

It’s a very generous, democratic, and American way of viewing the world, and it makes me think of some kind of WPA-sponsored mural in which we’re all wrapped up in the progress, all together in the march forward, from the men who shape the day, to the men who live it out. Pitch in, we’re all equals, and every little bit counts. Just because you’re a modest family on a nice middle-class street in Newark doesn’t mean that you aren’t a part of the grander thing, the March of Time.

It is the small picture at which Roth excels. The family is intimately portrayed, and every character who enters the story gets a good portrait. There are no throwaway parts in The Plot Against America. Everything is seamlessly, gracefully told in a series of reminiscences. All the meals, the trips, the movies, the bus rides have shades of meaning and inform the movement of the book. This is where Roth’s talent shines.

An uncle enters, and Roth brings you up to speed: “My father could keep pace with Monty’s prodigious expenditure of energy, and his capacity to endure all manner of hardship was no less remarkable than Monty’s, but he knew from the clashes of boyhood that he was no match for the innovator who’s first gambled on bringing ripe tomatoes to Newark in the wintertime by buying up carloads of green tomatoes from Cuba and ripening them in specially heated rooms on the creaky second floor of his Miller Street warehouse. When they were ready, Monty packed them four to a box, got top dollar, and was known thereafter as the Tomato King.”

The specificity (“creaky second floor of his Miller Street warehouse”) and the humor (“known thereafter as the Tomato King”) work together with Roth’s overwhelming efficiency, and by the end of two sentences one knows a lot about the brothers’ relationship to each other. All of this coloration leads to an incredibly potent interplay of characters. When hearts break in The Plot Against America, you feel it. The sympathy evoked by Roth for his characters is astonishing.

A cousin goes off to war and comes back without a leg. He would go to the beach to bathe his stump in the ameliorating salt water, then hop out of the surf crying “‘Shark! Shark!’ while pointing in horror at his stump.” The geeky downstairs neighbor kid is forced into a friendship with Phil based largely on proximity and seems to get younger and dumber as the book goes on and his life gets more and more sad. The aunt marries a very important rabbi, and her ambition carries her along and eventually destroys her and reduces her to madness while she hides out in the Roths’ basement. Each of the characters in The Plot Against America could fill a book.

Which makes what befalls them all the more moving. Instead of giving the presidency to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the country elects by a landslide the heroic aviator and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh:

By the time I began school in 1938, Lindbergh’s was a name that provoked the same sort of indignation in our house as did the weekly Sunday radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin, the Detroit-area priest who edited a right-wing weekly called Social Justice and whose anti-Semitic virulence aroused the passions of a sizable audience during the country’s hard times.

Anti-Semitism explodes in the nation. Lindbergh makes pacts with the Axis powers. The Office of American Absorption is set up. “Under the auspices of Just Folks—described by Lindbergh’s newly created Office of American Absorption as a ‘volunteer work program introducing city youth to the traditional ways of the heartland life’—[Phil’s] brother left on the last day of June 1941 for a summer ‘apprenticeship’ with a Kentucky tobacco farmer.” The OAA moves on to the relocation of entire families soon enough. Phil goes to visit his aunt, who works at the OAA, and sees “big maps pierced with clumps of colored pins and fixed to an enormous colored bulletin board on the wall [in] back of her desk.” There’s a map of New Jersey, and a map of the whole nation. Aunt Evelyn tells him that “Each [pin] represents a family chosen for relocation. Now look at the map of the whole country. See all the pins there? Those represent the location to which each New Jersey family has been assigned.”

So having established the intense humanity of these families, we then see them as pins on a map, a part of the political process, a part of history, but in a new, terrifying way.

History, written at the dinner table, on the avenue, in Newark. It’s a horrific reversal of the American promise. But the presupposition is so big, so distracting, that it weighs the book down. The history here is glossy, a quick-moving pastiche of street games, gangsters, news broadcasts, and Winchell reports. It starts to feel like a fantasia, something cooked up. And ever present in the reader’s mind is that it didn’t happen this way. So rather than evoke the possibility that there might exist in America an undercurrent of ugliness, Roth simply sets up a fantasy world in which that ugliness is expressed, and then easily dismissed, because, after all, FDR was who the real America elected.

That Lindbergh would swoop into power, white scarf flying behind him, and bring into the open all of the hatred that had been submerged in America is just too tough to sell. And the care with which Roth builds his families and his characters is not evident in the building of the history contrary to fact.

The real shame is that the successful parts of the book, the intimate, are mired in this swamp of ugly fairy tale, the public. By creating a public history so far-fetched, and then failing to deliver it in any believable way, the small portraits are disconnected from the movement of the book. The intimate portraits of families and people are left to float like vignettes in a context we can never quite bring ourselves to buy.

David Foster Wallace has a better handle on the cadence, nuance, and detail of contemporary language than any writer working today. His characters are full of neuroses, motivations, and manipulations, so common and accurately evoked that you come to believe that you know them. Shortly after considering this, the average reader will find that he is very happy that he doesn’t, in fact, know anyone like the characters in Wallace’s stories.[3]

The narrator of “Good Old Neon,” for instance, speaks in a voice that is as familiar as a ham sandwich, and Wallace submits his authorial voice to it entirely.

Later I was in analysis, I tried analysis like almost everybody else then in their late twenties who’d made some money or had a family or whatever they thought they wanted and still didn’t feel that they were happy. A lot of people I knew tried it. It didn’t really work, although it did make everyone sound more aware of their own problems and added some useful vocabulary and concepts to the way we all had to talk to each other to fit in and sound a certain way. You know what I mean.
The story is a long confession of his own sense of fraudulence, narrated after his death, and culminating in a reference to “David Wallace” finding a picture of the narrator in a yearbook and wondering what could have motivated such a bright, together guy to kill himself in a car crash.

“David Wallace trying … to somehow reconcile what this luminous guy had seemed like from the outside with whatever on the interior must have driven him to kill himself in such a dramatic and doubtlessly painful way—with David Wallace also fully aware that the cliché that you can’t ever really know what’s going on inside somebody else is hoary and insipid.” Which is a nice shot at getting out of that, but no cigar: it’s still a cliché. Wallace gets away with this stuff all the time. He’ll observe that some pretty people aren’t happy, or that some successful people are insecure, or that people don’t understand how much others respect them, all of which are observations on the level of an after-school special. What masks the overworn nature of Wallace’s observation are the density and cleverness that shrouds the writing.

In the story titled “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” nothing is made of the book by Richard Rorty of the same title. Rorty’s book (1979) was a famous postmodern effort to envision philosophy without a commitment to what Rorty calls “capital T truth.” Rorty’s attempt to transform philosophy into a backyard chat (“continuing the conversation” he called it) was a big hit with trendy academics, and it is a measure of the book’s celebrity that its title should furnish a writer like Wallace with a starting point. Not that it is easy to suss out what Wallace’s stories are really about. But as in Rorty’s book, every once in a while an insight or illumination shines through.

This story is about a man who must now by court order keep his collection of living Black Widow spiders in a briefcase rather than the garage, and his mother, whose face has been twisted by a cosmetic surgery mistake and now looks “insanely frightened at all times.” The whole story takes place on the bus ride to the lawyer’s office, where they’ll be setting up the basis for the mother’s malpractice suit.

The story is a mere eight pages long, yet within it, Wallace has hurled a mountain of information. Information comes at you constantly, in no particular order, and with no perceivable hierarchy. It’s scattershot.

In one or two regrettable moments on insensitivity also I have joked about taking the bus all the way through into Studio City and environs and auditioning Mother as an extra in one of the many films nowadays in which crowds of extras are paid to look upwards in terror of a special effect which is only later inserted into the film through computer-aided design. Which I sincerely regret, after all I’m all the support she has. To my mind however it is quite a stretch to say that an area of weakness in a twenty-year-old garage roof equals failing to exercise due diligence or care.

Robbe-Grillet tried this in his nouveaux romans. The authorial intent, he felt, was unknowable, and it was too despotic of the author to structure the items in a story as if some were more important than others. The smudge left by a squashed bug on a wall is as important a feature of the room in which the action takes place as the characters are. Wallace has removed the tedious descriptions of the trivial from the idea, but his MO is pretty much the same. Things, regardless of their weight, are described in detail. When the moment lends itself to this, like the moment when we suddenly realize that the briefcase is actually full of spiders (and when we realize, we realize it in all caps: OHMYGODITSFULLOFSPIDERS! is what happened in my brain) it can be remarkable. Because the information we’ve been receiving is disorganized, and detailed, we’ve come to be wading through a swamp of it, exhausted and confused. Out of that swamp rises an image, a quick flash that shimmers with vitality:

Recently as the bus crossed Victory Boulevard as I looked down to check the status I saw accidentally protruding from one of the ventilation holes at the case’s corner the slender tip of a black jointed foreleg; it was moving about slightly and possessed the same luminous coloration as the rest of the specimens, moving tentatively in an exploratory way.

This image has stayed in my mind. Images are not always as successful, and they are frequently damaged by the very techniques that create the effect.

There’s a daydream I have about David Foster Wallace, in which he is sitting in a La-Z-Boy, and he’s got a stack of owner’s manuals piled up to the armrest on his right, and about half as many on his left, and he’s reading through them all. Then I imagine him calling to get more. Just as Wallace takes up with incredible specificity the rhythms of our speech, he treats the world’s things with excruciating attention. Every fax machine, every telephone, every microcassette recorder, and every rental car are perfectly catalogued. He’s knows every button, every plastic. He knows the names of the ingredients in insecticides.

He observes very closely, and he catalogues very well. That’s what makes his book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again some of the best new journalism written. His ear for dialogue and his eye for detail make him a merciless, hilarious, and brilliant recorder of the contemporary situation. One cannot help but feel, while plowing through a story about a man who shits fully finished sculptures, that all this detail, all these products, and all these tics of contemporary speech patterns, with all the baggage of neurosis behind it, might be exactly that which we turn to fiction to escape. And that if all this achieved, ultimately, something more than “it’s really hard to know what happens inside other people” it would be worth it, but without a transcendence of something, without something sublime, it’s just tough going reminiscent of very hip television, or, worse yet, real life.

Far, far from any sort of real life, in a project seemingly directly at odds with the writers I’ve discussed above, is Cynthia Ozick. A web of narrative coincidence, poetic rapture, and quirky scholarship fills Heir to the Glimmering World.[4]

Young Rose, recently adrift in the world, sees an advertisement in the Albany Star: “Professor, arrived 1933 Berlin, children 3–14, requires assistant, relocate NYC. Respond Mitwisser, 22 Westerly.”

It is 1935, and Rose is eighteen.

Professor Mitwisser studies the Karaites, an old sect of essentialist Jews who refute the Talmud, and stick to literal interpretations of the Torah. They are long-gone heretics and rebels, and no one, especially the Quakers who brought the Mitwisser clan to America, seems very interested in them.

The Mitwissers had escaped Berlin in terror. They had driven around the city in a big black limousine because “only important people would ride in an auto like that, big and black, and the driver had a black cap with a shiny beak, like a policeman.” The eldest daughter tells Rosie that “all over Berlin … there were impromptu raids; people were being arrested right out of their own apartments, or the apartments of relatives or friends, wherever they tried to hide.” They drove around the city in their best clothes, and used the bathrooms at elegant hotels, staying in motion all the while to insure escape to Sweden.

They are refugees, with a strong sense of what they’ve left behind: the privilege, the tradition, the mother says to her daughter of Rose, “What a pity the Fräulein cannot when she hears him recognize Goethe.”

Heir to the Glimmering World is a book about absence.

Elsa Mitwisser, the mother just above, was a physicist, who tells Rosie that she worked with Schrödinger, and that her idea is at the core of the Schrödinger equation. She bit into an egg, and noticed that the bite was there, its existence proved by its absence. They invented “a wave function that extended throughout space, just as the missing outline of the bitten egg extended in principal beyond the existing body of the egg.” Schrödinger’s equation is used to predict the outcome of events, the distribution of results.

Absence of money, absence of homeland, absence of mind, absence of love: everyone in this book is missing something, like an egg from which a bite has been taken, and the missing is that which defines them. Their missing parts, like the imagined waveform that flows out of the egg, also collide and define the lives of those around them.

Rosie’s father, before he died while driving some of his students from their prep school to a gambling outing in Saratoga, would say to her on her birthday, “On this day, eight years ago, Jenny left me.” Jenny being his wife, Rose’s mother, whom he claims died in childbirth. Years later, she still remembers it. When she turns nineteen: “Nineteen years since my Jenny left me,” she thinks her father might say, if he was alive.

To this cast of fragile folks, each missing something, add the Bear Boy. His father had turned him into a character in a children’s book, and now he’s a rich adult. Desperate, alcoholic, isolated, and flippant, but very rich. He is the benefactor of the family, he sends packets of cash. But he sends them irregularly. The absence of money is a frequent problem in the Mitwisser house; the Professor doesn’t even like to leave the lights on.

Ozick writes an exquisite prose, hers is a swirl of lovely sentences that describe the gravest misfortunes I can imagine. She pulls no punches, and her evocation of sorrow and cruelty are stunning.

The daughter Anneliese won’t go near a school, because one of her teachers broke two bones in her hand with a metal bar that she kept in her desk. The class was asked to name two achievements attributed to Chancellor von Bismarck and “[w]ith the short metal bar Frau Koch smashed two narrow bones. Because I gave the answer. Because I forgot I was forbidden to speak.”

It makes Philip Roth’s anti-Semitic fantasies look like comic books, it must be said.

The book is a swirl of domestic events: James the Bear Boy runs away with the daughter, she returns pregnant, Rose’s distant cousin (and sometimes benefactor) Bertram falls on hard luck and lands at the Mitwisser house after his girlfriend Ninel is killed in the Spanish civil war. Domestic events and arrangements are tossed on the choppy waters of the world’s problems again in Ozick, and in Ozick the focus is excruciatingly tight. When Rosie at one point journeys to the library in Manhattan, the space around her seems limitless. Just that she is out of the house seems to fill the book with fresh air.

In the end, the past begins to fade into the “white light of myth.” The children continue their steady path towards assimilation, and we leave Rose, immeasurably grown from when we first met her, taking control and seemingly for the first time being controlled not by the absence of things, but by the presence of possibility.


Go to the top of the document.

  1. Villages, by John Updike; Knopf, 321 pages, $25. Go back to the text.
  2. The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth; Houghton Mifflin, 391 pages, $26. Go back to the text.
  3. Oblivion: Stories, by David Foster Wallace; Little, Brown, 329 pages, $25.95 Go back to the text.
  4. Heir to the Glimmering World, by Cynthia Ozick; Houghton Mifflin, 310 pages, $24. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 3, on page 54
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