The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

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FEB 2011 Issue

Bartleby, At Bat

Ted Pelton
Bartleby, the Sportscaster
( Subito Press, 2010)

Most readers are suspicious of wholesale appropriation, of one writer entering into and occupying another writer’s “original” narrative, summarily claiming something akin to squatter’s rights. The act itself seems implicitly marked by violation, of breaking and entering, and we’re therefore sensitive to the less noble, more prurient impulses enacted there: a sarcastic critique of the prefab, for example. Or take the converse, the literary homage, usually marked by the celebrant’s cloy deference and preening of the original from deep within the host itself. In either case, readers are rightly primed to determine at a moment’s notice that if the interloper is either fawning over or too critical of the interior décor he’s forced his way into, then perhaps he’d do better to withdraw, get the hell out, and do what writers are supposed to do—which is to make something up from scratch. In this way, the author of the re-vision has to work doubly hard to impress his reader with the value being added to original writer’s property.

As the title suggests, Ted Pelton’s novella Bartleby, the Sportcaster is entirely dependent on the house that Melville built, but in appropriating the latter’s Bartleby, the Scrivener (1853), Pelton has shrewdly identified in Bartleby an iconic—if not iconically enigmatic—bellwether whose treatment over time charts the “progress” of socio-economic forces at work from the rise of organized capital systems to our current condition under late-stage neo-liberal capitalism. In both novellas, Bartleby passively resists claiming the agency to change his living and working conditions. He is, therefore, entirely conditioned by the milieu in which he exists and a direct product of his time. If the Scrivener laboring in his dark corner of a Wall Street law office could be said to have internalized and reflected 19th century capitalism—to actually become a human copier to the detriment of human agency—then the Sportscaster, an employee of Cosmopolitan Computers, can be said to represent a fully systematized capital “unit” on the economic grid. Pelton’s Bartleby has evolved to become something like a human Google, an information node, a delivery system readily providing its user with pure information without himself having the human capacity to understand the context or to actually process the information he’s delivering: “This strange kid,” remarks our narrator, Ray Yarzejski, shortly after meeting him, “with nary a human characteristic besides the ability to tap on a computer keyboard, has lined up everything on the team like a chiropractor straightening out the team spine.”

The “everything” here refers to the statistics of a minor league baseball franchise, the Arcturions, for whom Yarzejski is the play-by-play radio announcer. The team itself is owned by the president of Cosmo Computers, one Mr. Simonelli, who “treated the baseball team like it was an annoyance, something that wouldn’t be right until he completely changed it. He didn’t know the game, didn’t even know computers, really. He made his name and fortune in cement.” For Simonelli, the Arcturions are a profit center, nothing more, with “TV coverage in the works. Cosmo Computers presents Arcturion Double-A Baseball on WHM-TV. That means TV advertising, promotions, tie-ins with local retailers.” And while it remains vague, Bartleby is brought up through the corporation to make the team more profitable, either through his ability to reproduce statistics, his ability to create a website for the franchise, or simply as a good luck charm. In any event, he is deemed to have some utility by his employer until the moment when Bartleby inexplicably decides to give up baseball (he simply prefers not to “be a part of his [Simonelli’s] plan.” His utility thus exhausted, he is forcibly removed from the park, his employer informing the narrator that he “had the police take him away. He was a damn lunatic. He was sleeping at the Park. I’m not hosting a lonely hearts club here. I’ve a company to run.”

Here, too, Pelton updates the paradigm of the way capitalism is organized against the individual: while the narrator of Bartleby, the Scrivener speaks from a position of authority—that of employer to employee—the narrator’s fate of Bartleby, the Sportscaster is intimately linked to the statistician’s performance, despite his having seniority over the newcomer. They will succeed or fail as a team, “tasked” with generating profit for the ball club and therefore the Cosmo Computer Corp. As Simonelli’s business plan suggests, however, both are doomed to obsolescence. Ray Yarzejski is a radio, not TV personality, so has no place in the future of the Arcturion organization. Nevertheless, Ray insists to Bartleby that “Simonelli’s told me he’s got room for both of us.” The narrative locates the impulse for this, and most other gestures on Ray’s part toward emotional facility, as empathy. Ray recognizes in the Sportscaster his own alienation, his own increasingly wired and virtual existence, devoid of authentic human connection; he’s “long since given up taking chances like that.” Indeed, his only source of sexual stimulation is the Internet porn he downloads on his Cosmo-issued computer. But the images he lingers over connect him to authentic, albeit painful past experiences with relationships (a history that Bartleby the Sportscaster presumably does not have) and so connects him to the vocabulary of emotions contained in that more fully human history of his self.

Chapter five of the novella, wherein Pelton’s own persona appears to break the fourth wall, so to speak, constitutes a direct address to the reader for the purpose of recuperating the story of his, Pelton’s, own failed marriage. The intervention attempts to rationalize the reasons behind his divorce and draws parallels between his ex-wife (named X) and Bartleby. The maneuver is variously described on the back cover of the book as a “postmodern wink,” a “metafictional aside,” a “moving personal digression,” and a momentary “memoir of the end of his first marriage.” The reader will determine whether or not further universalizing Bartleby in this way seems necessary, or, perhaps, we’ve reached a stage in post- (post-?) modern culture wherein such revelations that there’s an author behind the language, or that truth claims by said author are suspect, is passé. Of great interest, however, is Pelton’s deployment of pop psychology within this chapter, which Ray Yarzejski also deploys in his own endeavors to figure out his cipher, and how naming a complex system of behavior “depression,” for example, or coming up with a “diagnosis” points to the limits of narrative itself.

Ted Pelton’s Bartleby, the Sportscaster is a well written, enjoyable, and evocative read. It also strikes me as necessary. It’s one of those books you wonder why hasn’t been attempted before, and you hope that someone of Pelton’s caliber “updates” Bartleby every fifty or a hundred years.


Christopher Grimes


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

All Issues