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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Self-Referentiality as Dickhead Moment

I was reading Martin Amis’s Money the other week, when I came to the bit when the novel’s repellent protagonist meets a writer called Martin Amis and thought: this novel has just reached its dickhead tipping-point. This is not Pirandello, this is not Flann O’Brien, I’m not finding the satire funny anyway. This is a dickhead moment.

I mention this because of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, if it is a novel, Summertime, which investigates the life and writings of a deceased South African writer called Coetzee, complete with awkward interviews with old girlfriends remembering what a priggish wet blanket and all-round human failure he was. Is it a bluff (i.e., this is a novel, not a memoir, so the real Coetzee is of course nothing like that)? A double-bluff (no he really is like that, and wants to beat his breast about it in public, while simultaneously getting us to admire his courage for doing so)? A triple bluff, if anyone can suggest what that might entail? Coetzee’s last two books, Slow Man and Diary of a Bad Year, were not good books, by his or anyone else’s standards. His writing slips ever further into the substitution of notes and jottings for anything merely finished, the limp handshake of his perfunctory adjectives snubbing their nouns, while his studiedly ornery protagonists coat themselves ever further in the anti-glamour that now trails Coetzee, or even ‘Coetzee’’s every mention in the press. So while, on the face of it, Coetzee could not be more different from, of all people, Martin Amis, what are the shenanigans of Summertime if not his own version of the self-referential dickhead moment?

Other examples, dickheaded or not. Peter Reading stepping into his 5x5x5x5x5, in square brackets, I don’t consider a dickhead moment. The humour and craziness save it from that.

This guy:

Combine a far-seeing industrialist,
With an Islamic fundamentalist.
With an Italian premier who doesn’t take bribes.
With a pharmaceuticals CEO who loves to spread disease.
Put them on a 916.

And you get Fred Seidel.


Pleading immunity as I do to the Seidelmania currently doing the rounds, I would have to say guilty. Dickhead moment.

Brecht’s ‘Of Poor BB’ (‘I, Bertolt Brecht, came out of the black forests...’)? Not guilty, obviously. The poor is far too moving and human for that.

Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock? Roth’s heroes have such a gift for being dickheads, anyway, that maybe his taking of it to the exponential level in this novel has the saving grace of reducing the whole project to a glorious fiasco. An open verdict, then.

So it doesn’t seem to be self-referentiality per se that trips the dickhead switch, for me. It’s the particular form of preening, whether exhibitionist or self-disguising (Coetzee seems to me a preening camouflage artist) that makes the difference. Could this be this my much-repressed inner puritan rising to the surface? Man the harpoons.

Leave your own examples of self-referentiality that are or aren’t dickhead moments in the comments, if you want, with or without explanations, also if you want. Or not, if you don’t.


Anonymous said...

How about (as title): Roddy Lumsden is Dead? [Untrue, apparently.] Or the actually now dead Robert Browning:
That bard's a Browning: he neglects the sound,
But O the sense, ye Gods, the mighty sense!
[a dickhead moment, surely?]

Desmond Swords said...

..thinking we have it cracked..

First day of sixth form Spetember 1984: cream canvas trews and baggy dark shirt, clutching the accouterments of scholarship - ordering hot chocolate at half past nine, casting a casual toss of the curly black locks over to Johno, mouthing in silence he was a knobhead, perhaps and nonchalance personified, all hubris and hormone as i picked up the plastic cup - cool as a dickhead, until it dropped, depositing the liquid contents in a long brown stain: fate scalding itself, burnt out in an ignominious blaze of being a dickhead - most of the time.

There are two ways to handle being an dickhead: try and hide it and look even more of a knob; or celebrate it by exercising our idiocy into the lean, keen, mean normalcy of your average everday dickhead.


I read Hoffman on Seidel at the Foetry Poundation, home of head dicks, ghosts cased in electronic concrete, inspiring only other dickheads into thinking 100 years of po-biz is anything other than the lowest form of showbusiness that poetry is.

Kent Johnston gave me a chuckle, linking Seidel to cubs in what he calls a new, Chicago School: inspired by Stephen Burt, with his New Thing spin on the clique of two academics, inheritors of a Classical flame some say's all the game of wit and rote, learning how to be, all on our own - dickheads in contemporary poetry, proud of our caste who admit to being silly and showing it.

Tim Kendall said...

William Golding's 1983 novel The Paper Men features Wilf Barclay --- bearded alcoholic novelist who has made a fortune from his first book. Wanting to provide chapter and verse that Wilf and William were not one and the same, Golding considered having Wilf meet William and Ann Golding in the course of the novel. Thankfully, he thought better of it.

It's a very funny (and nasty) novel.

Anonymous said...

Definitely not dickhead moments:

- When Daniel Quinn, protagonist of Paul Auster's 'City of Glass', answers his phone only to be asked: 'Is this the Paul Auster detective agency?'. This moment is somehow chilling in context.

- When later in the same novella the recently bereaved Mr Quinn meets the blissfully un-bereaved Mr Auster (who is of course a writer not a detective). This moment is somehow moving in context.

Billy Ramsell

puthwuth said...

Examples much appreciated, thanks!

The Browning in particular is most chucklesome.

Zephyr said...

Coetzee's a great writer; Diary of a Bad Year is his second best.