Friday, September 28, 2012

Idyll, interrupted.

David Foster Wallace had a technique (see, especially, the short story, Oblivion, in the like-named collection) in which the continuity of a passage is punctuated, no, broken, by a number of asides and would-be clarifications, housed between commas, m-dashes, parentheses, or square brackets which, ostensibly in the name of precision, sometimes do indeed have that effect, but just as often create contradictions (in the case of Oblivion, revealing more about the narrator than the narrator should have intended) which may be revealingly comic or tragic and — through their intervention in the nominally principle (i.e. those not comma-, m-dashed-, parenthese'ed-, or square-bracket-jacked) text — actually do the heavy labor in propelling the narrative forward.

As it happens, the short story of Wallace's in which this technique appeared to most acute (the fore-mentioned Oblivion) includes snoring (in the context of a married couple's dispute over whether or not the narrator (the husband) snores, thus disturbing the narrator's wife's sleep) as a topic.  Snoring is of course a form of disturbance or punctuation in a number of continuities: the smooth passage of air through the upper respiratory system, the steady supply of oxygen to organs requiring it, the unbroken sleep of the person snoring, the unbroken sleep of anyone sharing acoustically connected space with the person snoring, etc.. Now, snoring is not the only noise which can disturb sleep (we have a persistent problem with amorous alley cats on our street and sometimes air traffic gets routed our way) but it does have a unique capacity to disturb domestic bliss, with heavy snoring having the potential to drive otherwise happy couples into extreme solutions, from earplugs and steam-punkish breathing machines to separate beds, rooms, houses, even complete break-ups, giving it an emotional edge — which Wallace uses to devastating effect — that neither the sound of heavy machinery nor those of cats in heat usually have.  

The topic, snoring, reminded me of a musical episode of extreme continuity interrupted by snoring.  Years ago, in Los Angeles, my father took me to a USC football game in the Coliseum and afterwards, we went to the premiere performance of Morton Feldman's Piano and String quartet in the L.A. County Museum of Art, as part of the New Music America Festival. We happened to sit in the same row as the composer, who, with his entourage, was about 10 seats away from us.  As you can imagine, we had had our share of sun and noise during that game, and, if you know the Feldman — or most any other late-ish work by the composer — it had an extreme continuity which my father appeared to enjoy, but in combination also happened to put him to straight to sleep.  Now, sleeping during a concert is not a sin in my book, but should sleeping included snoring, it can become a disturbance for others in the audience, a violation of a basic social contract, as far as I'm concerned. And my father was a known snorer.  So, I would periodically jab him to keep him from falling into a phase of sleep in which snoring might start, signaled by jaw or head or both dropping down and either constricting the passage of air through some passages or encouraging the passage through others such as to force air in or out in a conspicuously noise way.  Despite my periodic jabbing — and how could I be expected to do more? I was, after all, listening to the first performance of one of the most gorgeous pieces in the western chamber music repertoire —  unmistakable snoring started. (This topic ALSO happens to have resonated me personally because I went through a brief period of snoring, which accompanied a freakishly sudden reduction of vision.   I wasn't particularly concerned about the snoring, as it was usually correctable by turning my body sharply port side, which I would do when my all-so-patient and tolerant wife would nudge me out of my snoredom, but I was worried about my eyesight.  A couple of eye doctors and a neurologist and some very expensive scans couldn't really explain the vision problem, but an ear, nose, and throat specialist suggested removing a cyst that had formed in a sinus cavity abutting the eyes or the optic nerve (if you're really interested, I'll get the scan out and check exactly where.) The ENT specialist's intuition proved correct and my vision was basically restored to its normal level of correctable myopia.  As a bonus — to both myself and my wife — the snoring stopped and  I became able to sleep, for the first time in memory, on my back, as well as port and starboard sides.  And, as another bonus, I guess, when I woke up from anaesthesia, the specialist reported that all had gone well with the cyst and that, while he was at it, he had repaired my broken nose.  I replied that I had never broken my nose, and he answered that yes, in fact, I had broken my nose, not a great break but a break all the same, but many people who had had physically rambunctious childhoods and youths had broken bones without ever knowing it.  Think of it: maybe 40 years obliviously spent in the mistaken conviction that my nose had never been injured, suddenly shattered.)  But to my relief, the snoring that interrupted that marvelous continuity of delicately semi-consonant chords played by Aki Takahasi and the Kronos Quartet did not come from my father, seated to my jab-able left, but — some 10 seats to our right — from the dozing composer himself.


Kalvos said...


During Barlow's 4- or 5-hour "Textmusik" some years ago, the hall was strewn with mattresses and pillows, and sleeping was welcomed.

Christopher Sutton said...

Lovely self-demonstration of the DFW technique. I enjoyed this anecdote and the narrative flow immensely.