Like a lot of North American consumers, I've often found comfort in the sterile transcendence of the supermarket, with its white lights and rows of multicoloured commodities uniformly arranged. This summer, I finally managed to read a book that's been recommended to me by several friends and colleagues, Don DeLillo's White Noise. It features several memorable scenes that describe a similar kind of aesthetic experience.
Steffie took my hand and we walked past the fruit bins, an area that extended about forty-five yards along one wall. The bins were arranged diagonally and backed by mirrors that people accidentally punched when reaching for fruit in the upper rows. A voice in the loudspeaker said: "Kleenex Softique, your truck's blocking the entrance." Apples and lemons tumbled in twos and threes to the floor when someone took a fruit from certain places in the stacked array. There were six kinds of apples, there were exotic melons in several pastels. Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright. People tore filmy bags off racks and tried to figure out which end opened. I realized the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside of human apprehension. (36)
The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers. […] They scrutinize the small print on packages, wary of a second level of betrayal. The men scan for stamped dates, the women for ingredients. Many have trouble making out the words. Smeared print, ghost images. In the altered shelves, the ambient roar, in the plain and heartless fact of their decline, they try to work their way through confusion. But in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of our age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead. (309-10)Published in 1985, White Noise is a wonderfully angsty novel that articulates the kind of consumer malaise that, in the years to come, is going to become a cultural commonplace. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, here, DeLillo basically prophecies the kind of ideological tropes (especially the vaguely spiritual approach to store bought products--I guess you could just call it, commodity fetishism; as well as the obsession with meaning, pharmaceuticals, the paranormal, and ultimately with death) that I identify with authors like Douglas Coupland (whose Generation X now seems to me like it couldn't have happened without DeLillo) and David Foster Wallace.
But, yeah, also Radiohead.
I also decided to dive into the 33 1/3 series from Continuum. I wanted to prep myself for Jonathan Letham's mega-hyped contribution to the series (published in June), and to figure whether I had the chops to construct one of my own volumes.
Kid A by Marvin Lin
Lin's tribute to what remains my favourite Radiohead album was written by the founder of one of my favourite music websites, Tiny Mix Tapes. Some books in the series are more critical than others, and Lin's book tries to straddle the line between excessive fandom and cultural analysis.Theoretically speaking, the book is pretty hit and miss. But it succeeds in providing a lot of interesting contextual analysis for Kid A's release: the album was notoriously polarizing among critics and, for me at least, has always provided a helpful watershed moment (or, "event," as Lin calls it) for the digital age.
Fear of Music by Jonathan Letham
I wasn't familiar with Letham's style before picking up this book (I did, however, order his novel Fortress of Solitude immediately after finishing it), and I wasn't expecting Letham's writing to be so gutteral. It's definitely one of the most self-conscious books in the series, weaving in and out of personal recollections, meditating on each Talking Heads track, and attempting to articulate the weird relationship we construct with our past.
The punishing intensity we bring to the imperfect reflections we find in the mirror of artworks we choose to love, and our readiness to be betrayed by their failure to continue to match our next moves in the mime-show, our next steps in the dance, is likely a form of mercy. That, because it is a coping mechanism, a deflection of a punishing intensity we mostly wouldn't want -- except maybe once a week, on a shrink's couch -- to apply to ourselves. And any fan who has ever risked disappointment with their love, or any artist who has ever put themselves in the position to disappoint a fan, or a critic, if they are honest with themselves knows that the disappointment that ensues is above all a human situation. (140)