by Christopher Cappello
In 2006 my parents purchased R.E.M.’s CD compilation …And I Feel Fine, a collection of hits and b-sides spanning the band’s six-year tenure with the independent label I.R.S. Records. Disc two features a live performance of the song “Life and How to Live It,” recorded in the Netherlands on the band’s 1987 tour, which I recall being particularly struck by as an eleven year-old due to its spoken preface. Amidst the noise of the Dutch audience, Michael Stipe tells a curious story about a man who constructed a wall that divides his house in two. Each side of his newly subdivided home had its own set of media, appliances, and furniture, Stipe describes, and the man would live on one side for a while until he got tired of it, at which point he would put down whatever he was reading, strip naked, and walk across to the other side of his house, where he would resume a punctuated life. This cycle repeated, Stipe says, until his death, shortly after which the man’s landlord discovered in his closet a vast collection of identical books, unsold, undistributed, and authored by the deceased tenant. “And the name of the book,” Stipe says, as the band prepares to lurch into song, “was ‘Life and How to Live It.’”
The story, and particularly the way that Stipe delivers it, fascinated me as a child. The short, terse sentences, the lack of exposition and detail, and the vaguely uncanny and humorous conceit all resonated with my younger self. But it was not until I went to college that I learned to associate these traits with the artistic movement of which R.E.M. were surely a part: postmodernism.
“Life and How To Live It” appears on Fables of the Reconstruction, the group’s Joe Boyd-produced third album, released in June of 1985. Neither critics nor fans knew what to make of the album at the time, although it has enjoyed something of a critical renaissance in the thirty years since. Its murky tone, resistance to hooks, and vague conceptual underpinnings made Fables a complex and difficult-to-digest release, in contrast to its relatively straightforward though by no means simplistic predecessors Murmur and Reckoning.
Released a few months earlier in January, Don DeLillo’s seminal postmodern novel White Noise has proved similarly divisive. Despite winning the National Book Award later that year, DeLillo’s text was criticized by some contemporaries, such as Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley, who called it “irritating…frustrating [and] monotonously apocalyptic” in a 1985 review. More recent readings have been similarly muddled.
With the Detroit-simulacrum of Iron City looming literally and figuratively over the idyllic town of Blacksmith in which White Noise is based, we can reasonably place DeLillo’s text in the midwest. By contrast, R.E.M.’s album title indicates a southern locus—fitting, considering the band’s Athens, Georgia origins. In terms of location, the connection here is twofold—the shared provincialism of the south and midwest in post-industrial America, and the uniquely microcosmic atmosphere of the American college. We can almost imagine a young Michael Stipe and co., themselves just a few years removed from university life in 1985, arriving at the College on the Hill among the grand caravan of station wagons that DeLillo describes on the book’s opening page, kissing their parents goodbye, rifling through their “cartons of phonograph records and cassettes” (1). Indeed by 1985, R.E.M. had established themselves as the quintessential ‘college rock’ band—arty, inscrutable, and, crucially for their élite collegiate fans, resistant to mainstream radio play. Although crossover success would come by the time of 1987’s Document, Fables furthered all three elements of that ambivalent legacy, much to the vexation of their label, IRS.
DeLillo’s middle age at the time of the book’s publication tempts us to connect his authorial perspective with that of the narrator and protagonist, Jack Gladney, a “Hitler Studies” professor at the College. White Noise begins with Gladney stupefied by the Debordian “spectacle” (2) of the students’ arrival, laden as they are with a litany of consumerist articles that occupies much of the text’s first paragraph. Gladney notes that he has observed each annual arrival of the past 21 years, but the reader sees through his claim to its “invariab[ility]” (1). Partaking as they are in the archetypal collegiate journey, the students are nevertheless characterized strictly in terms of their possessions—among them, such contemporary signifiers as “personal computers…birth control pills and devices” (1) and various brand-name goods. These items place the events of White Noise explicitly in a contemporary, decidedly middle-class setting. But while DeLillo used the lens of a college professor to probe zones and vectors of the new American mythos—the supermarket, television, the biotech industry—R.E.M. gazed warily homeword at the marginal, the stuck-in-the-past, the outmoded eccentrics who would be lost in that mythos’ homogenizing tide.
In “Old Man Kensey,” for instance, Stipe describes the titular character as a humble, ostensibly rural person aspiring to various low-level jobs (this being an early R.E.M. record, it’s tough to take what he’s singing here literally, but bear with me). Instead, Stipe suggests, Kensey is made into a televised spectacle, a “clown on TV,” and driven towards alcoholism (“Drink up the lake,” he forebodes). The lyrical narrative admittedly isn’t quite as fleshed out as I’ve suggested, but Stipe’s scattershot images cohere into something like a cautionary tale of the televisual. The provincial, illiterate Kensey, who would otherwise be ignored for his mundanity, has been turned into an exoticized and ridiculed object by a medium that transmutes real life into entertainment—into spectacle.
On the other side of this spectacular relation, DeLillo describes the Gladneys’ family ritual of watching televised disasters on Friday nights. At one point, his wife attempts to change the channel. “She was startled by the force of our objection,” Jack narrates. “We were otherwise silent, watching houses slide into the ocean, whole villages crackle and ignite in a mass of advancing lava. Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping” (64).
Ironically, disaster soon strikes the Gladney’s quaint hamlet when a train car carrying large quantities of toxic chemicals derails near Blacksmith. Despite the proximity of the disaster, which his son Heinrich observes fascinatedly through binoculars, Gladney refuses to believe in the threat that it poses. “Nothing is going to happen,” he says. “These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas… Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods? (113). Gladney partakes of the televisual spectacle but refuses to participate in it; at the very least, he believes that his life narrative and social status absolve him of being included. Gladney’s asinine statement reflects the illusory, mythic nature of the power relation between viewer and televised object. The nearby train derailment—an obvious symbol of the grim industrial realities that yet undergird postmodern life—brings TV anchors and cameramen right to the Gladneys’ backyard to document the latest disaster. And thus the viewers become the viewed.
If R.E.M. uses the character of “Kensey” to spin a cautionary tale, their treatment of “Wendell Gee” on the closing track is more elegaic. Wendell, rendered as a Wordsworthian hermetic figure, symbolizes on one level the staid grace of rural life in the old South. “He was reared to give respect,” Stipe eulogizes in an unmistakably Georgian drawl, “But somewhere down the line he chose to whistle as the wind blows.” The song’s tone is overwhelmingly sappy, with its prom night drums, piano, and backing vocals (“Gonna miss you, boy!” sings Mike Mills, the band’s sentimental ringer). And yet, another glance at the lyrics reveals something undeniably weird about this track—in its second verse, a surreal dream sequence involving chicken-wire and lizard skin, Wendell is subsumed into nature in a mock-Romantic pastiche, literally burying himself alive inside the hollowed-out trunk of a tree. Surely there’s something purposefully ironic about this, a deliberate complication of the wistful, sentimental tone.
DeLillo plays the same game, but approaches it from the opposite end. Continually throughout White Noise, the author winks and nudges, tempting the reader to push back against his characters’ oddball culture-crit assertions. See, for instance, the closing paragraph of the book, in which Gladney opines that the “holographic scanners” of supermarket terminals “decode the binary secret of every item” in “the language of waves and radiation… how the dead speak to the living” (310). It sounds ludicrous, but we sense a hot core of genius admid the cosmic storm of crazy. The academic context is perfect for this kind of threshold-idling—one recalls, reading the text, wondering whether this or that middle school-era author really meant for the blue curtains to ‘symbolize’ sadness, or whatever. DeLillo evokes the same skepticism, but on a meta-literary level. At one point in the text, Gladney recalls going off-script at the end of a lecture. “I found myself saying to the assembled heads, ‘All plots tend to move deathward…’” he recounts. “Is this true? Why did I say it? What does it mean?” (26). A liminal character—at once an approximation of DeLillo’s voice and a fictional entity—Gladney is as lost as we are, parsing the jokes from the assertions of the grinning author himself.
The question of “What does it mean” is surely one that many a pre-Warner Brothers R.E.M. listener had asked himself. Even if they had been printed among their early albums’ liner notes, which they weren’t, Stipe’s famously mumbled lyrics would still have been open to the kind of semantic debate that they’ve received in the years since. But Fables marked the first instance in which Stipe’s lyrical inscrutability became self-conscious, a part of the joke. In various places throughout the record, Stipe sublimates the tonal ambiguity of “Wendell Gee” into individual lines of verse, denoting dichotomous and often oppositional meanings that nevertheless blend into each other through the singer’s delivery. For instance, consider the closing line from the first verse of “Maps and Legends,” a song whose title itself simultaneously invokes myth and cartography. “He sees what you can’t see,” sings Stipe. “Can’t you see that?” Stipe’s delivery blends the line’s two sentences across their punctuated divider. Thus mixed, the line becomes almost circular, nearly palindromic. It suggests cyclicality. Similarly, the cardboard sleeve of the album’s vinyl edition reads, on one face, “FABLES OF THE;” on the other, RECONSTRUCTION OF THE.” The cycle completes itself, reflecting dual meanings. “Fables of the Reconstruction” is on the Discogs listing, but “Reconstruction of the Fables” would be an equally valid reading.
So what do we make of these reconstructed fables, these postmodern maps and legends? DeLillo, quoted in a 1985 New York Times review, suggests a key: “Maybe the fact that death permeates [White Noise] made me retreat into comedy.” DeLillo’s text and R.E.M.’s LP each feature a self-conscious mediation of darkness. With White Noise, this comes through in the relentless punning, the provocative send-ups of pomo theoretics, and, among other examples, the ironic third-act centrality of Dylar, an elusive drug said to cure the fear of death (if only DeLillo had a prescription, one imagines). In its lyrics and music, Fables makes use of similar punning and posture, and incorporates the aural elements of reverb, distortion, and Stipe’s signature mumbling to further abstract its burning core. Coeval works, these texts remain inscrutable 30 years on. Through their tenuously shared suggestion, each continues to fascinate.