PERISTALSIS (OR, A GARDEN PARTY IN BELVEDERE)

In memory of James Livingston

I’m back, having lived through — barely — a Saturday afternoon garden party at which I was paraded around like William Powell’s mid-Atlantic hobo in My Man Godfrey. (Or perhaps I mean Mischa Auer’s human chimp in the same movie.) I survived by adopting many of the methods used by Michel Houellebecq during his recent cinematic kidnapping*: pushing out and curling my lower lip; hunching crookedly, in a spinal contortion that only French radical novelists can sustain through long periods of inscrutable derision; continually cupping one ear as if to mollify some piercing subsonic medical condition. That almost wasn’t enough. Because many of these well-to-do Alexander Bullocks and Charles Van Rumples were citing For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Naked and the Dead as examples of fresh-off-the-presses contemporary literature, I was worried that I might also be asked to box. (Boxing was something Houellebecq had demonstrated in his film with near-fatal — which is to say suicidal — results.)

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Mercifully, and more or less expectedly, our conversation turned to the hot topic of Mount McKinley, whose name will soon be restored to the Koyukon Athabaskan word “Denali.” I joked that the name of my street — Mount McKinley as it happens — ought to be revised as well. I believe I even chortled, to make certain that my remark would register as levity. But it turned out the chortle was unnecessary: real men in crisp linen jackets were suddenly gasping, doubled over in paroxysms of delight. Wow, I thought, if that was sufficiently funny to topple them, almost literally, to the marble terrace, maybe I should persist with this Houellebecqian survival mode. Why not quote — risking like Houellebecq himself a charge of plagiarism — whole sections of Wikipedia’s entry on that famous Alaskan peak? I pulled out my phone and opened the app.

“In 1896, a gold prospector named it McKinley as political support for then-presidential candidate William McKinley, who became president the following year. The United States formally recognized the name Mount McKinley after President Wilson signed the Mount McKinley National Park Act of February 26, 1917. The Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain to Denali, which is how it is called locally. However, a 1975 request by the Alaska state legislature to the United States Board on Geographic Names to do the same was blocked by Ohio congressman Ralph Regula, whose district included McKinley’s hometown of Canton.”

Initially I thought I must be bombing, because the group fell silent as I nattered on. False alarm. The second I uttered the name “Ralph Regula,” all hell broke loose — in the sense in which Jean-Paul may or may not have meant: other people having conniptions about peristalsis.


* My review of the film can be found here.

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