Sunday, December 1, 2013

2013 in Shit: Joyland

There's something in the insistence with which Dev, the narrator, remembers every fucking time that someone calls him some variation of "a sweet boy" that really foregrounds, for me at least, the absurdity of the novel told as retrospective; that it goes hand in hand with Dev telling the story of his summer job as a 21 year old from the perspective of a 61 year old, complete with achronal asides on the deaths of every important character, only reinforces the way that the novel as a form requires ridiculous minutiae like conversations remembered verbatim only reproduces how completely full of shit fiction is. Among other things, that’s the wonderful thing about Joyland; it’s so full of shit, and in a way that is attendant to how tiny details function not so much as a patchwork of the real but a contrived preponderance, an elongating for the sake of nothing but the joy of that very lengthening, for the putting together of words into form (& saleable object).

The narrator himself, as a 61 year old, is pretty gross, which probably made me enjoy the book more; when the character the reader is presumably meant to identify with is almost immediately lamenting (complete with "not that I even really care still" asides) that his over-40-years-past girlfriend wouldn't have sex with him, my sympathy's fucking gone and not coming back. Which, given that the strength of this book is very clearly in the way it fixes time and labor into language, is actually ideal; this is not a novel in which language ornaments the core of plot or character, but the opposite. Being a King novel, this is less easily assumed than one would expect -- at least, for me, given my relative lack of familiarity with his writings.

Then again, that is the perpetual feeling with King, isn't it? That you've either read it all or none of it; any other author whose self-considered seven novel magnum opus I had read, I certainly wouldn't consider myself unfamiliar with. But then I also haven't read Carrie or The Shining or etc etc.

While the reviews seem to insist that the joy of language in Joyland exists primarily in King's use (and invention) of period carnival worker jargon, I think that aspect is metonymic at best; that particular focus might be the sort of hook that drives a review, but what really shines in Joyland are Dev's endless paeans to the difficult manual and performative labor that he engaged in. On the one hand there are descriptions of the maintenance of the machines, and on the other the act of wearing “the fur," the hound costume that serves as Joyland’s mascot, and entertaining children, which becomes Dev's de facto role in the theme park; and then, surrounding that, there are Dev's gross forays into misogynistically-defined relationships (including losing his virginity, prior to which, in true Good Guy fashion, he demands confirmation that it is Not A Pity Fuck) and a ghost/serial killer story. Both of these drive the plot and characterization of the novel, irrespectively, and largely serve as excuses (in my reading, at least) to provide progressive, natural recontextualizations of those passages in which King is finally allowed to get back to rhapsodizing about various kinds of labor, including how miserable they can be.

That isn't entirely fair; the ghost story frame (which is handled with enough ambiguity to keep the credence this story places in the supernatural ambiguous) isn't without its interesting moves. The ghost is the final victim of a serial killer who hasn't murdered in years, and she haunts - sort of - the one Horror House ride in Joyland. Her lack of ghostly machinations seems interesting; excepting an anomalous cart movement toward the end of the story, she doesn't so much as say boo, appearing only once or twice and to only the people who are attuned to that sort of thing (whether or not they prefer to be), she is more than just a plot contrivance; her (debatable) existence is mostly used as one of of the communal points de capiton that provide their loose, itinerant group an identity, and even a subjectivity, beyond their shared labor and its history. In this way she shares the function of the carnival workers' collective idiolect and the misogynist organization of past events by the narrating Dev, fixing meaning in certain ways that allows for the basic coherence of the subject as precondition to its entry into the realm of communication.

It’s ghost as myth, basically, but concretized in a strange way; her presence in the Horror House is as demystifying as it is unimaginative. That she doesn't really do anything, despite the presence of a strange piecemeal psychic ability in the world of the novel, and an 11th hour appearance by another ghost who does (this one being a guy, of course), makes her a real absence, the structuring absence that the active revenant so often fails to be.

If you didn't balk at my use of "collective idiolect" above, then shame on you. It's a fun thing to write and one of those doors that opens to what seems like endless possibility but is clearly just a wall painted black. A collective idiolect is, obviously, a dialect; a point de capiton is a Lacanian term for the individual's fixation of meaning in able to be able to communicate, and which does not have a collective counterpart because it is exclusively a function of bringing the subject into the realm of communication, without which a collective is impossible.Don't let me get away with being an asshole like that, come on.

But then I really do believe that much of the importance of the ghost as a figure in culture is a way of centering a becoming-conscious of the collective, of land as an abstraction, and particularly of its becoming-linguistic. Ghosts take the form, generally, of the individual, but almost always speak primarily of and as the history of a place. And their actions, while generally claimed to be some sort of revenge or guidance, are almost always more productively viewed as the linguistic relation of the land to itself, the way the theme park, for instances, fixes in time momentarily the meaning of a particular murder which occurred on its grounds, in order to enter into the discursive world, if only to attempt to articulate itself.

In this way, Joyland's relatively lackluster thriller narrative can be viewed as a regressive anthropomorphizing and centering of human agency, or it can be read through its weakness as an inhuman investigation, which, coupled with the narrator's shittiness, seems much more compelling to me. More than just the “working class realism” for which King is lauded, and which does form the backbone of the novel, Joyland seems to me to insist strongly on the way in which space itself formulates subjectivity.

Is it any surprise that when space becomes subject, it does so as a barred subject? As an entering into the linguistic by way of the signification of absence (or lack), in the form of a ghost? And is it any more of a surprise that when it speaks, it would do so in a way that is paradoxical, composed of signifiers exclusively comprehensible by itself, but an itself constituted by a multiplicity of speaking subjects? Do you buy it yet?

It’s worth thinking through the way in which this agentivity is gendered, although I doubt I could offer much more than a superficial treatment of that here, without the help of someone more intelligent than myself. Given that it seems like every other reviewer thinks Dev is just a swell guy, a real relatable protagonist, I expect my reading is slightly counterintuitive, at least in as much as it is reliant on recognizing misogyny as an undesirable character trait. But since it is Dev who functions not just as the machinic rhapsodist but also the thrust in the moving forward of the thriller, even as he neither discovers nor solves anything, his misogyny seems to me to, in relation to the gendered ghost, cast the subjectivity of the Joyland park into a stark relief.

I realize now that this seems to be divided pretty cleanly into two parts, and I wish I had a cleaner way to synthesize them, but I don’t. But they certainly are; the way that the valorization of labor and its objects feeds into the becoming linguistic of the space in which that labor takes place is a single action, even as I fail to understand how to bridge the gap in my own thinking about these two things. Hopefully this coda is enough, for now.

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