An Artistic Party
by Tao Lin
Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard has maybe the most shit-talking (percentage-wise) out of the books I have read or movies I have seen. The level of shit-talking in Woodcutters is perhaps equal to some Gmail chats or online message boards, I believe, but the sentences are longer and the shit-talking is done by a man in his 50’s (I think) and also it is sustained for around 200 pages within a concrete situation.
The narrator’s shit-talking seems “uncontrollable.” The shit-talking is sometimes abstract, but I did not feel that the narrator was “insane” or something, because many concrete examples were given and also the shit-talking seemed self-aware. I felt no urge to argue with the narrator’s shit-talking because I felt it was understood to the narrator that his shit-talking was uncontrollable, mood-driven, and something he should probably not let influence his actions in concrete reality.
The context of the shit-talking is ages 20-60, focusing on how people changed over time, and often from the perspective of “an entire life” or “the end of a person’s life” (a funeral and a suicide are referenced many times), therefore more emotional to me than normal shit-talking about the stapler in Dave Eggers’ memoir or something. I felt the shit-talking was “tragic.” I was affected sometimes. About 3/4 of the way through the book I thought “Wow, the intense shit-talking is all-inclusive, ranging from intellectual to emotional to existential (to emo-like self-hatred or self-pity, even), within a context of a group of people’s entire lives almost.”
The shit-talking occurs only inside the narrator’s head. The narrator is at a dinner party (an “artistic party,” he thinks many times in a shit-talking tone) sitting in a one-seat sofa in the dark, alone, in a kind of side-room, talking endless shit in his head. Then the dinner begins and he moves to the table, continuing to talk private shit in his head, sometimes while staring openly at the person he is shit-talking (knowing that the other person is “no doubt” also shit-talking him while they look at each other). Sometimes he talks shit about himself for talking shit about people who are just like him. Sometimes he admires something someone at the table says but then shit talks himself because a moment ago he was intensely shit-talking the person’s entire existence.
At one point someone at the dinner table talks shit openly about another person at the table (who the narrator had been shit-talking privately for maybe 20 pages) and the narrator feels “redeemed” or something. I often felt the narrator was experiencing confusion but that his despair and negativity were stronger than the confusion and therefore the confusion was not mentioned, but perhaps “assumed,” as a “foundation” for all cognition. The shit-talking moves around to different people, I think everyone at the party is targeted at some point, including some people in their 20’s who the narrator knows nothing about except that they look young. I would describe the narrator as a “good” person. Probably more self-hating than other-hating, willing to refrain from certain things to satisfy others, and probably humble and calm.
The narrator talks shit about himself maybe 20 times for going to the party he is at, citing that he just didn’t want to go at all, that he knew he would feel disgusted by everyone at the party, and that he knew for sure it would be a very bad experience, according to him. The scene where he agreed to come to the party is shit-talked many times. It is also mentioned that the people who invited him most likely also did not want him to come, yet somehow still invited him, with enthusiasm even.
During the novel the narrator speaks two or three times, I think. When he speaks it isn’t shit-talking, it’s saying “Yeah” or “I don’t know” or something, almost meaninglessly, as a kind of pointless aside, noise-like due to the concurrent endless stream of uncontrollable shit-talking inside his head that has taken up most or all of his communication resources. When the party is over, at the end of the book, he says around four sentences to the host of the party indicating that he liked the party, was glad he came, liked everyone at the party, and wants to be friends with the host again (he had previously shit-talked the host and the “premise” of the party perhaps most intensely), while concurrently privately talking shit about himself for lying at such a high level of awareness.
I liked the main character because his shit-talking seemed existential, it was not a man who seriously believed he was better than other people, that some kind of art form or life was better than some other kind, or that he was actually doing more important things than anyone else. He seemed to have endless shit-talking in his head all the time, irregardless of his situation, and he seemed to know this, and therefore be able to look at it and not believe it. He seemed just really depressed about life. Alone in bed he probably shit-talked life, death, and other existential things rather than specific people (which I believe he probably generally felt sympathy towards). I hear some people talking shit and I feel like they would actually kill the other person, if given the chance, “powered” by the force of their own abstract shit-talking. I believe the narrator would rather kill himself than kill someone else. I enjoyed Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard.
Tao Lin is a contributor to This Recording. His blog is here. He last wrote in these pages about K-Mart Realism. His new book, Shoplifting From American Apparel is forthcoming from Melville House in Fall of 2009.
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