Review of Mamet's Wilson
Phenomenology as fiction or fiction as phenomenology? David Mamet poses this question in his latest novel Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources, a futuristic, dystopian look at the structure of consciousness.
David Mamet. Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources.
London: Faber and Faber, 2000. 336pp.
When truth is a quicksand, the gag becomes a lifeline of stoic nobility. Derrida meets Beachcomber and comes away smiling. Jacket Blurb. Wilson.
Phenomenology as fiction or fiction as phenomenology? David Mamet poses this question in his latest novel Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources, a futuristic, dystopian look at the structure of consciousness. A combination of Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), a novel told in footnotes, and Georges Perec’s Life, A Users Manual (1978), a visual vernissage, WiIson generates a sometimes confusing but always engaging battle with the fictive buttressing avant garde energy with traditionalist signposts. Bearing the tattoos of postmodernism -- a decentered narrative organized in fragments with an indeterminate plot written upon by intruding references -- the novel rejects the realistic and conventional style of Mamet’s two earlier novels, The Old Religion and The Village, for a parodic encounter with ezines, neural nets and Boolian logic.
The cover of Wilson introduces the satiric. The illustrations create a trompe l’oeil effect of spinning planets and flying saucers complete with coffee stains and a pile of comic books, all without dates. ‘Bongazine Comix’ is the most prominent with the punning tag, “Still only 4c/ Slightly Higher on Mars”. A balding, intellectual type with glasses looks out of the top left corner, while the vicious head of a dog with “ff” id tags (Faber and Faber) dominates the lower half of the jacket. Receding in the distance is the earth. The blurb on the book continues the gag, one line ironically describing the world of the novel as one where “nothing is certain except the certainty of academics.” Within the text, Mamet constantly dismantles this statement while indicting, through his annotations, the way we have come to block rather than uncover meaning. The cacophony and density of ideas inter-cutting each other, colliding with each other, obscure rather than display knowledge. The medium, as well as the message. have become unreliable; the attempt at order brings only chaos.
Wilson’s subtitle echoes 18th century fiction and explains the presence of some of its devices. It reads: “Containing the original Notes, Errata. Commentary and Preface to the Second Edition,” a parody of Fielding as well as Sterne. The anchor of scholarship, expressed through footnotes, references. allusions and cross referencing (echoing Thomas Carlyle’s editorial frenzy in Sartor Resartus), satirizes those academic studies that substitute citation for ideas. Mamet has fun with this practice. creating comic titles and false allusions that have the appearance of knowledge. In a footnote to an excerpt from the fictitious Tales of the Joke Code, Mamet writes, “Misfiled here during Phase Two of the Riots, its courtesy’ placement has offered, if not inspiration, at least hope, to a, granted, ever-decreasing number of academics” (81). But footnotes are, of course, as unreliable as the narrative. The entry for “The First Mention of The Capsule” begins with “This is generally accounted the seventh mention of the Capsule” which leads to a discussion of numerology and ends with the self-parodying. “what are we talking about here?” (161).
Preceding the “Preface to the 2nd Edition” of the book —reference to a second edition a trick also used by Mark Z. Danielewski in his typographically startling novel, House of Leaves (2000) — is a six line parody of a Shakespearean song ending with an allusion to Mamet’s friend, the sleight-of-hand artist, Ricky Jay (“th’ rick ye jay”). The chapter titles of Wilson are themselves spoofs, mixing history with biography and meta-commentary. One, at page 131, is called “The Halfway Point” (it’s not), while others sport titles like “The Uses of Inaccuracy,” “A Disquisition on the Uses of Narrative,” and ‘The Missing Page.” Three sections broadly divide the text but the thematic organization of the work is not so clear cut.
Neither is the plot. The novel essentially deals with life after the accidental destruction of the Internet in 2021 which has wiped out knowledge in the latter half of the 21st century; a section called “The Riots” is the clearest summary of this event. A group of pedantic editors of “Bongazine” now attempt to recreate the lost literatures through fragments which appear to originate in the confused and down-loaded memories of Ginger Wilson, wife of the former president. whose name provides the work with its title. The published book is the product of the editorial labors on Ginger’s mis-remembered thoughts, supplemented with seemingly endless footnotes crammed with various misquotations, mis-attributions and often dreadful puns. Dogs, music and comic references (re: “Funny Bathroom Signs of Wisconsin”; You Like It, It Likes You: Tile Story of Martin Buber” ) are leitmotifs that run throughout the work. Contradicting the supposed scholarship is an unrestrained jokiness: the supposed title of a musicological essay is “Hatikvah, Imber and Al Jolson’s ‘Anniversary Song”’(39). The discovery of a Capsule with various documents reminds one of Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, the 1959 sci-fi classic, while the interface with computing in Wilson recalls Richard Powers’ imaginative work. Galatea 2.2 (1995).
Equally erudite and mischievous, the story also draws from Swift, Pope and even Gibbon. However, its fragmentation opposes any coherence, while its pages constantly surprise the reader. Nevertheless, the narrator even deflates that concept: “‘Surprise’ is but pique at one’s inability to immediately assimilate the unforseen. There is no magic to it”, he asserts (38). If one were so bold as to offer a theme for this book, it would be Mamet’s assault on the uniformity of the epoch: “it was the staple of the age . . . that all things were alike, that all polarities were unities,” a myth reinforced by the revolutionary discovery that “Coke and Pepsi were one” (19). The result was the Cola Riots and attendant intellectual upheaval culminating in the accidental erasure of the Internet. Mamet’s all-out attack on the commodification not only of culture but information is equal to his attack on the hyper-intellectualism of literary study. The value of Wilson. disjointed and in pieces, is its claim for the need to rebuild alternative information systems. The novel is a powerful. Swiftian satire whose very form contains its own answer of what is to be done: reject the homogenised for the individualized.
In one of the variously hostile reviews of Wilson to appear in the UK (the only country where the novel has so far been published), Kevin Jackson explains that he has no idea whether the book will be seen “as Mamet’s masterwork or as the sort of over-reaching folly a writer needs to get out of his system.” William Sutcliffe, in another review, wrote that “the whole thing flew so far over my head, I didn’t even hear it pass. In fact I didn’t even understand the blurb.” In the U.S.— where the book has yet to appear, rumors and gossip—did Mamet’s agent actually say the work was unpublishable?—abound, suggesting that Mamet has hit a slump. The confusion but not the dismissal is right. Wilson. Enigmatic, digressive and challenging to ones sense of narrative logic deserves to be read – as well as discussed debated and within the spirit of the work, reconstructed.
UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA