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A blog about "displaced thoughts on misplaced literatures."
Matthew Cheney is a writer and teacher who lives in New Hampshire. His work has been published by English Journal, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places.
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Before 1995, Howard Cruse was best known as an underground comix artist, first coming to prominence with Barefootz
in the 1970s, with his editorship of Gay Comix
in the early 1980s, and then hitting a real stride with the Wendel
comics in The Advocate
throughout the '80s. Wendel
ended in 1989, though, and Cruse began a major new project, his first graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby
, released by the DC Comics imprint Paradox Press
. It gained notice and won awards, but never had the breakout success of something like Maus
or Fun Home
, though I would argue that it is at least close to equal in merit.Stuck Rubber Baby
is a true graphic novel — unlike many other books that get that label, it was not conceived in pieces or published serially; it was always intended to be a long, unified narrative. It tells the story of a man named Toland Polk, mostly through his memories of growing up in Alabama during the early 1960s as a white guy who doesn't really know what he wants from the world or his life, coming to grips both with the civil rights movement and his own homosexuality. Partly in an attempt to try to cure his gay desires, he ends up in a relationship with a fiery college student, activist, and singer named Ginger, and she becomes pregnant. Meanwhile, protests against segregation and racism are growing more and more ferocious, and the white establishment fights back, with tragic, horrifying results. Throughout it all, Toland meets queer characters of various races and ages, and finally decides both that political action is necessary and that he can't pretend to be heterosexual any longer. This primary story is framed as the memories of Toland thirty years later, apparently in a stable relationship with a man, living a solidly bourgeois urban gay life, but still haunted by the past. Other characters' stories and fates are woven through Toland's memories, creating a complex view of this past and his remembering of it.
I've had a weird relationship with Stuck Rubber Baby
over the course of its lifetime: I looked through it when it was first published and decided it wasn't for me; I read the whole book sometimes in the early 2000's and liked it but didn't really engage with it; I recently read it very carefully and closely, which led to something like awe. (The last time I had as powerful a reading experience was when I read J.M. Ledgard's Submergence
over a year ago.)
Many people I know — otherwise intelligent people of impeccably refined taste — don't like Stuck Rubber Baby
. Some claim to appreciate it, but to be put off by its artwork, which they invariably describe as ugly or "just plain bad
." The art is one thing that caused me to bounce off the book when I first tried to read it sometime in 1996 or 1997, when I saw it at the old Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on lower Broadway in Manhattan and spent some time reading through it. (I used to go there when I was bored, or wanted to get away from people, or just felt like hanging out in a bookstore. They were open till midnight and didn't seem to mind if I sat there and read without buying anything.) The images seemed to me then unappealing, cramped, dark. I was also put off by the story's historical setting — I didn't want to read about Alabama in the 1960s, I wanted to read about contemporary New York queers.
I returned to the book in the early 2000's when I found a used copy somewhere and was thinking about doing an essay on various literary representations of AIDS activism. Though not at all directly about AIDS activism, I suspected (rightly) that it was relevant to that topic. I never got far with what I was writing, though, as life and other projects intervened.
My most recent experience of reading Stuck Rubber Baby
was for a course on graphic narratives that I'm taking for my Ph.D. (this is my final term of coursework). It may have been that context that helped open up the book for me, since it required me to read it carefully and deliberately, but I think the more significant factor is simply age. Much of what concerned Cruse when he wrote Stuck Rubber Baby
is now of more concern to me than it was when I encountered the book earlier: questions of memory and experience, of looking back on youthful political awakening, of trying to save something of a younger self for the present age, of making sense of an upbringing in a place very different from New York City, of queer identity.
Queer, indeed. Something that struck me especially forcefully as I read the book this time is how well it captures the feeling of queerness in every sense of the word, even among friends and supportive family members, a feeling that is not only a matter of desire, but is also inflected by the pitfalls and obstacles of making sense of an individual identity within a group — knowing always that there will be something strange about you to anyone, no matter how similar they may seem in experiences or yearnings.
Perhaps that's why the art didn't bother me this time; indeed, for once the art seemed absolutely right for the material. The human figures look like mannequins or weird, plump wax sculptures. The pages are mostly cramped, the panels claustrophobic. (That effect is enhanced by the decision
to print the book in a small format so that it would be displayed on bookstores' fiction shelves rather than in the humor section. I think the art suffers for this, and it would be nice to have a larger format edition, but the cramped feeling is certainly heightened.) The shading often makes it difficult to distinguish skin tones, a powerful effect in a book about the civil rights era, where race seems so obvious and incontrovertible to the characters. Cruse draws an off-kilter world, a sometimes disturbing world, a world where cartoonish figures must find some way to reconcile themselves to very uncartoonish violence and horror.
It's an extremely talky book. The few panels without text stand out, and their presence inevitably feels either like a relief or a shock. The characters are constantly trying to talk their way through things, to find the right words, and more often than not they fail. At the same time, other characters wield words as weapons, with deadly consequences. Again and again, the book returns to ideas of representation and performance, of how identity, performance, and memory can merge or split. Sometimes words help, but often they do not — they accumulate, obfuscate, crowd out action and sight. It's significant that the book becomes more quiet at the end, as Toland finds ways to reconcile himself to the past, to move forward while preserving memory, to admit his own failures and horrors and not simply reduce them to stories he tells over and over again. Music weaves through his memories, and it is music that accompanies him in the end — "There's something I wanna show ya," he says, and the panels open up, the music weaves through the images, and we are left with the silent peace of a city snow storm.
I was struck during this reading at how easily Stuck Rubber Baby
moves through its characters' timelines, how well, for the most part, it prevents us from getting confused as stories are told within stories, memories within memories. The structure overall is basically linear for the major events, but within sequences (and sometimes even individual pages) the movement is more fluid and associational. We're set up for this structure right from the first page, which introduces many of the visual motifs that will reappear throughout the book: the Kennedys, protests, dead bodies... In the first three pages, we move from Toland as an adult in the mid-1990s to Toland as a child and young teenager to Toland and his sister shortly after their parents died in a car accident. The fourth and fifth pages then circle back to develop some of what was glimpsed earlier, then use this new information to bring in Ginger standing with Toland at the March on Washington, where she asks him, "Who're you lookin' at?" to which Toland replies, "Just someone I used to know." (Despite all their talking, what matters most often is what and how these characters look at the world. Also, what is shown and not shown: Cruse is very careful to depict some events and not depict others.) It's an exquisite moment, encapsulating so much of what the book wrestles with, giving poignance to a scene early in the story, and also beginning to develop the characters who will be central to the primary story.
One of the things that makes the Wendel
comics so delightful is Cruse's almost infallible sense of short story form. He produced those comics very quickly, often right up against deadline, and yet more often than not they have a balance of elements that produces far more resonance than many longer works. Reading Stuck Rubber Baby
, you would hardly know that Cruse had never before written any comic much longer than 10 pages, and he melds his short story skills to the longer form by allowing the flow of memory to guide the overall narrative, and so the various short sequences can all work separately on their own toward the larger goal, allowing the book as a whole to leave and return to sequences much as the Wendel
comic did, though now when he wrote it, Cruse could edit both backwards and forwards in a way he could not do when publishing a new installment every couple weeks. Thus, Stuck Rubber Baby
has a far more intentional, unified form than the Wendel
collections. (That said, the Wendel
collections are more fun — their improvisatory energy is, for me at least, pure delight.)
Cruse began the Wendel
comics just as people began to recognize the full horror of the AIDS crisis, and reading Wendel
in chronological order is a particularly powerful experience because what begins as a light, slice-of-life comedy can't help but reckon with life in an ever more terrifying world, a world of yuppies and Reagan and plague. There's a remarkable Wendel
comic from the fall of 1987 in which Wendel and friends go to a big AIDS demonstration in Washington. The majority of the story is given over to a song by a character named Glenn, who has taken on the responsibility of entertaining everybody on the bus from NYC to DC, and who is, he says, wearing the same gown he wore during the night of the Stonewall riots. The comic ends thus:
Cruse doesn't typically use photographic images in his comics, but here reality invades in the form of the Reagan administration and its cronies. The place and date are specific, and the sense of historical continuity is strong — by having Glenn wear the clothes he wore during the Stonewall riots, Cruse insists on the importance of the current moment for gay history and gay liberation.
AIDS is not explicitly mentioned in Stuck Rubber Baby
, but it's an integral context for the story. The book was published before the advent of the drug "cocktail" that helped make HIV, for some people, a chronic, manageable disease rather than a death sentence. Gay people of all backgrounds and beliefs had to come together for political action because their lives were on the line. Silence equals death. Cynicism equals death. Complaisance equals death. In Stuck Rubber Baby
, Toland learns a similar lesson. The connection between Toland's world in the 1960s and his world 30 years later did not need to be spelled out to readers in 1995, and the only reference making the connection is a single, tiny, unobtrusive image in a small panel on page 207:
Behind the picture of Ginger holding the baby before it is given up for adoption hangs the iconic "Silence = Death" ACT UP poster
.Stuck Rubber Baby
is, then, a story of political awakening, but it was written as a call to consciousness, not a comforting nostalgia trip. In the mid-'90s, it was hard to maintain hope. Bill Clinton did not seem to be a significant improvement over George Bush on AIDS policy or gay rights, the Catholic Church was still vehemently anti-gay and anti-safe-sex (I participated with ACT UP in a small protest against the Pope's visit to New York in, I think, 1996), and progress still seemed far off.
Coming of age queer for my generation meant assuming that you had a high risk of dying young. I think one of the reasons I found Stuck Rubber Baby
so powerful when I read it this time was that Toland's struggle against his homosexual desires, his fear that they were not just aberrant but deadly, and his experience of people being killed because of those desires, connected with my own memories of coming to awareness of desires that in all likelihood would lead to a terminal disease. Because of the AIDS crisis and because of how that crisis was represented in the news media and spoken of by the people I knew, queer identity felt to me like a doomed fate. Though I still carry traces of that feeling, and will probably never shed it, given that that was how I first learned to see myself, it doesn't stand in the foreground the way it used to, it doesn't create as much of a sense of being inevitably besieged, of needing to live fatalistically, of forgetting about any future. There is a chasm between that mid-'90s world and now, even though so much of the mid-'90s feels to me like it was just a couple years ago. Toland seems to feel that way about the '60s: he carries its traces and hauntings inside himself, and it isn't until the end that he learns what to do with it all. I'm still learning, myself, what to do with a sense of lived history, when what feels like yesterday also feels like multiple lifetimes ago, and when the terrors of youth still sometimes scream out in the quiet night of adulthood.
Cambridge University Press recently released The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction
edited by Eric Carl Link and Gerry Canavan, a sequel, of sorts, to 2003's The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction
edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. I bought the James and Mendlesohn volume at the first science fiction convention I ever attended, the Worldcon in Boston in 2004, and I think it's an admirable volume that mostly does its best to try for the impossible, which is to present a coherent overview of the history and scholarship of science fiction as a genre-thing (mostly in the Anglo-American mode). I have mixed feelings about the Cambridge Companion to...
series, because the volumes often feel like grab-bags and pushmi-pullyus
, a bit too specific for people looking for an introduction to the scholarship on a topic, a bit too general for people with knowledge of a topic. They often contain a few excellent individual chapters amidst many chapters that feel, to me at least, like they needed about 15 more pages. That's still, inevitably, the case with James and Mendlesohn's volume, but many of the chapters are impressively efficient, and as a guide for beginning scholars, the book as a whole is useful.
The new Link and Canavan book doesn't work quite as well for me, and it has a higher number of chapters that seem, frankly, shallow and, in a couple of cases, distortingly incomplete and sometimes flat-out inaccurate. With a topic limited to a particular geography, you'd think the editors and writers would be able to zero in a bit more. Some chapters do so quite well, but my experience of reading through the book was that it felt more diffuse and less precise than its predecessor, with annoying little mistakes like Darren Harris-Fain's statement that James Patrick Kelly's story "Think Like a Dinosaur" requires close reading to find its SF tropes (it's set on a space station and includes aliens; finding the SF tropes doesn't require close reading, just the most basic literacy). Despite the annoyance of little errors and the frustration of wild generalizations in many of the post-WWII chapters, I began to wonder if the big problem might be a matter of the volume's determination to focus on "American" science fiction, a determination that works very well for the chapters looking at pre-World War II fiction, but then becomes ... problematic.
The problem, though, might be me. I'm not at all the intended audience for the book, I have ideological/methodological hesitations about some of the framing, and I have a love/hate relationship with academic science fiction scholarship in general — feelings that are probably mostly prejudices unburdened by facts. (Sometimes, I have trouble shaking the feeling that SF criticism is still wearing training wheels.) At the same time, though, I'm also drawn to the idea of scholarship about science fiction and its related genres/modes/things/whatzits, because I am (for now) ensconced in academia and also have been reading SF of one sort of another all my life, off and on. I'm not particularly familiar with Eric Carl Link as a scholar (though I'm using his Norton Critical Edition of The Red Badge of Courage
in a course I'm teaching right now), but I've been following Gerry Canavan's work for a few years and I think he's a force for good, someone who is trying to keep SF criticism moving into the 21st century. Indeed, I just got back from the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts
, where I heard Canavan deliver a truly interesting paper on posthumanism, Kim Stanley Robinson, eco-SF, etc.
In my more radical moments, I wonder if, to move into this century, we shouldn't just get rid of the whole idea of "American" science fiction, or at least the study of it as such. (Heck, in my most
radical moments, I wonder if we shouldn't get rid of the whole idea of "science fiction", but that's a topic for another time...)
Let's look at the book, or at least its premise and introduction. (I'm not going to do a blow-by-blow review of each chapter. If you must know, the chapters that seem to me most worth the time it takes to read them are Lisa Yaszek's "Afrofuturism in American Science Fiction", John Rieder's "American Frontiers", Karen Hellekson's "Fandom and Fan Culture", and Priscilla Wald's "Science, Technology, and the Environment".) The introduction by the editors serves various purposes, and succeeds impressively in giving a concise overview of 19th century American science fiction. If you want to know where to begin with American proto-SF, you could do a lot worse than to read that section of this intro.
The most provocative part of the introduction is the part that seeks to justify the book's focus on science fiction from the United States (there's no Canada or Mexico, so this isn't North American SF, though Margaret Atwood gets some passing mentions; there's nothing about South American SF; this is United Statesian):
The simple premise of the present volume ... is that the science fictional imagination is so fundamental to the arc of history across the so-called American Century that we might productively talk about a specifically American SF. Many of the ideas, themes, and conventions of contemporary science fiction take their roots in a distinctly American cultural experience, and so SF in America serves as a provocative index to twentieth- and twenty-first-century American culture, reflecting America's hopes, desires, and fears. (4)
I am an avowed skeptic of canonical nationalism
, and so my instincts are to tear into these statements, but at the same time there's a real truth to them: science fiction as a genre is deeply tied to origins in American pulp magazines and then in the paperback revolution of the 1950s, '60s, and 70s, as well as, to some extent or another, the dominance of blockbuster Hollywood over so much cultural production (although in some ways that also helps de-genrefy SF by absorbing the idea of the science fictional into whatever Hollywood product happens to be highly popular, whether Star Wars
or The X-Files
or superhero movies). Additionally, as this Cambridge Companion
makes clear, USian mythmaking is a key component to a lot of the foundational works of what we think of as genre SF — myths of individualist heroism, myths of the frontier (John Rieder's chapter tackles this head-on, which is one reason why it's among the strongest chapters in the book). For a long time, what we USians might call SF in other countries was different from American SF, even as American SF was derived from primarily European writers of the 19th century, especially Wells and Verne. One of the major differences was that it was in the US that an immigrant from Luxembourg, Hugo Gernsback
, successfully severed science fiction from other streams of fiction, distinguishing it not only from "literature", but also from all other types of popular and pulp fiction. The innovation was not simply a matter of definition or labelling, as that had been done plenty of times elsewhere, with terms like "scientific romance". Science fiction as a genre didn't need a definition, it needed a system. It was Gernsback who, in the late 1920s, not only gave SF its own magazine but also created ways for readers of that magazine to identify themselves as a discourse community — to be, in a word, fans
. It was in the US, then, that the production, distribution, and reception of SF as a genre system successfully began, and that system soon allowed for the dissemination of the values constituting it, values that were often stereotypically "American".
After World War Two, things get awfully complex, however, as genre SF becomes quite productively transatlantic, and as the space race and the Cold War affect global perceptions of technology and the future. The New Wave
, for instance, makes little sense from a purely US-centric standpoint, and yet the decade of the 1960s in literary SF — and all its repercussions — makes no sense without the New Wave. (Further, as Samuel Delany has pointed out multiple times, it should really be New Waves
— Moorcock's New Wave was not Ellison's New Wave was not Merril's New Wave was not Cele Goldsmith's New Wave, etc. The way they diverge and overlap deserves attention.)
And yet, it's also true that American SF publishers and media producers have had more power and success overall than others, at least with English-language SF, and so their ideas of SF spread easily beyond US borders.
The hegemonic monster (hegemonster?) of US power in the second half of the 20th century deserves scrutiny, and science fiction could be a tool for such scrutiny, as I expect the editors of this book hoped to be able to at least begin to do, and as some of the chapters, do, indeed, pay attention to. We need, though, a Cultures of United States Imperialism
for science fiction, or a study of Rick Perlstein's
histories of US conservatism alongside a study of science fiction in the same era, or ... well, the possibilities are many, because science fiction is often a genre of power fantasies, and the United States is often a country fueled by such fantasies. (For all its messiness, Thomas Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of
at least asked some useful questions.) Such an intervention isn't really what Cambridge Companions
are about, however.
One of the dangers that the field of American Studies faces is the danger of re-centering American power just as we're beginning to de-center it in literary, cultural, and political studies. We can see the de-centering effort on a small scale with literary science fiction, where the rise of the internet has allowed a nascent movement of global SF to grow, and where there is a stronger awareness than ever of writers and audiences from around the world. There's a long way to go, but if the 20th century was an American century, and also a century of American science fiction, then perhaps the 21st can centered differently.
The editors of the Cambridge Companion
hint toward this in their introduction. They are no American jingoists. But they also write: "The vast canon to which all contemporary creators of SF (in all media, forms, and genres) respond is thus (for better or worse) tightly linked to American ideas, experiences, cultural assumptions, and entertainment markets, as well as to distinctly American visions of what the future might be like" (5). I think that statement is false in one important way — I would say "most
creators of anglophone, genrefied SF" rather than "all
contemporary creators of SF (in all media...)" etc, because I think this rather all-encompassing generalization neglects certain tendencies in British SF that have been influential, and it completely wipes out non-US/UK SF. The result is an unfortunate and I expect unintentional valorizing of UScentricity, unless it is premised on a very narrow definition of SF, which it seems not to be. But this is the danger of nationalistic scholarship, especially when performed by scholars from within a particular nation — they remain blind to the world they cannot see, and so the map they create is one where the US is in the center and is bigger than any other area.
Americanness was, obviously, not quite so much of a problem for the James and Mendelsohn Cambridge Companion
, where many of the contributors were not America. Nonetheless, it was very much not a Cambridge Companion to Global Science Fiction
— a topic too big for the slim confines of any one book in the Cambridge Companion
series. (To see some of the scope, look at the International
tag at the SF Encyclopedia
There is no denying the centrality of the US to science fiction in any way that science fiction
makes sense as a label. (For better or worse
, as Link and Canavan say.) But for myself, I wonder what it means to study American science fiction solely, much as I wonder what it means to study American literature solely, or American anything solely. Or to call it "American".
And yet to deny the centrality of a thing called "American literature" is foolish and distorting, even though, in my more idealistic and la-la-land moments, I might want to. We are not the world? We are the world? We are ... what?
As I think about the introduction to this book and my inchoate (if not incoherent) resistance to the American
in American Science Fiction,
I can't help but also think about a paragraph in Aaron Bady's recent, important Chronicle of Higher Education
essay, "Academe's Willful Ignorance of African Literature"
, a paragraph that I have no answers for, and which nags at me:
I worry that as Americanists move into “World Anglophone” literature, the world outside of Britain and the United States gets included in theory, but will continue to be excluded in practice. As crass it might be to use “world literature” as a shorthand for “the rest of the world,” the alternative might be worse. I worry that the actual effect of rebranding English departments as “World Anglophone literature departments” would only normalize the status quo. Will their survey of Anglophone letters still consist of dozens of scholars working on British and American literatures and a single, token Africanist? That might be the best-case scenario. For all its flaws, at least the term “postcolonial literature” recognized on which side of the global color line it located its subject, and recognized how much work was yet to be done.
When thinking of "American science fiction", I can't help but think of all that that term doesn't
encompass, and perhaps my struggle with this Cambridge Companion
is that my own deepest interests are in what sits at the margins, what defies the definitions, what lurks beyond the scopes.
(I told you I'm not the audience for this book!)
I wonder, too, why there isn't more scholarly attention to things like Analog
magazine and Baen Books
. Neither appears in the index to The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction
, and the sorts of things published by Analog
and Baen don't seem to get much discussed by SF scholars. And yet shouldn't a book about American
science fiction provide more than just the most passing of passing mentions to Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven? The ascent of science fiction in the United States parallels the ascent of Reaganism and neoliberalism, and how is it that among the various references to Star Wars
in this book there are none (that I found, at least) to Ronnie's own beloved version
? This American Science Fiction
needs more Amurrican
science fiction, more Newt Gingrich
, more Rapture culture
, more survivalism
. Too much academic SF criticism cherry-picks favorites to valorize, and since most academic lit critics are armchair leftists of some sort or another (myself included), we get lots of Left Hand of Darkness
and not nearly enough Left Behind
(I have no good transition between these paragraphs, so I hope you'll pardon me this momentary aside to admit it. Hi, how are you? Thanks for continuing to read this rambling post, even though I'm sure you have something better to do. We're almost done. Shall we get back to it?)
To set down scholarly stakes within a realm called The American
not only risks valorizing an already highly valorized Americanicity, but it also risks seeing things in a narrower way than the creators of the works under study themselves did, and I firmly believe that criticism should add breadth and depth to material rather than narrowing it, should give us more
techniques of reading rather than fewer. This is my problem with some versions of canonical nationalism: they are procrustean, and miss the ways writers, for instance, learn from a variety of materials that are not so geographically bound. Among scholars, there's been in recent decades more of a push for, for instance, a view of transatlantic writing and thinking — of the Black Atlantic
, of transatlantic Romanticism
and transatlantic Modernism(s)
"American" is not only geographical but ideological: the mythography of Americanism. Tracing the flows to and from that ideology is especially interesting to me, particularly as a way to try to interrupt those flows, or at least look at their edges, cracks, and pores. (The Cambridge Companion to Anti-American Science Fiction
, anyone? No?) I like that Link and Canavan end the book with a chapter titled "After America", and though I have reservations about the chapter itself, which isn't nearly ambitious enough, the gesture seems necessary for this age: to at least imagine a move beyond the centrality of US power and US dominance, to change the perspective and shift our lenses. Certainly, as global warming threatens to eradicate most life on Earth, the moral imperative of our age is to move beyond any one nation, to perceive the planet entire, and to do what so much science fiction has aspired to do, even if it has almost always failed: to look at things from a broader perspective.
What if "After America" were to mean after the idea of America, after the dominance of the nation, after the discourse of Americanness? (America is just so 20th century, dude.) By ending with "After America", this Cambridge Companion
includes the seeds of its own destruction. A worthwhile move, it seems to me. But then, I like books that want to destroy themselves.
Strange Horizons has now posted my review of John Clute's latest collection of materials, Stay.
Even a mere glance through Stay, John Clute’s latest collection of book reviews, short stories, and lexicon entries, (or through any of Clute's books, really) will convince you that you are in the presence of genius.
But a genius of what type? The type that can turn a million candy wrappers into a surprisingly convincing small-scale replica of a rocket ship, or the type that zips to the heart of a zeitgeist faster than the rest of us? Is this genius a fox, a hedgehog, an anorak? Does it sing in seemingly effortless perfect pitch, or is its singing, like that of a dog, remarkable simply for being at all?
The desire to taxonomize is inevitable after reading even a few pages of Clute. He is a wild literary Linnaeus: obsessively compulsed to categorize. As someone generally uninterested in taxonomy, I have struggled to learn to read Clute appreciatively. I used to want to shoot his clay pigeonholes, to mock his neologistic frenzies, to clothe the emperor. But then I realized I was enjoying his work too much to do so. Clute’s imperative to categorize is contagious. I’d passed through the portal and made my way into Cluteland.
This review marks ten years of my writing for Strange Horizons
— I began as a columnist in February 2005 with a rather odd piece titled "Walls"
. I stopped as a columnist after writing fifty
, since I felt like I'd done what I could do with the form for that audience, but I've continued occasionally to write reviews.
I don't do a lot with genre speculative fiction these days, since other things have taken me elsewhere, but it's nice to be back now and again at a publication that feels so much like home. I owe thanks to lots of people there, especially former editor-in-chief Susan Groppi, who first asked me to write for the magazine, current editor-in-chief (and the first, if I remember correctly, reviews editor) Niall Harrison, recent past reviews editor Abigail Nussbaum, new reviews senior editor Maureen Kincaid Speller, and book reviews editor Aishwarya Subramanian, who not only let me keep some of my bad puns and jokes, but even liked some of them! Strange Horizons
remains a unique, wonderful place out there in the wide world of the web, and it has always been an honor to be associated with it.
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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Press Play recently posted a new video essay I created on Satan in cinema along with a brief text essay
Here's the beginning of the text essay, should you need some enticement...
The character of Satan seems far more appealing to filmmakers than the character of God. This may be for reasons of propriety: one should not, perhaps, make too many images of God. But since when has Hollywood cared about anything other than money and stardom? God isn’t any good for either. Omnipotence is just too boring.(Continue reading and viewing at Press Play.)
There are devils in most films, because most films are melodramas of one sort of another, and no melodrama works very well without some embodiment of evil. But Satan himself (or herself or theirself or anyself — Satan, like every angel, fallen or not, is any gender and every gender) is a less common figure. One of the most powerful Satanic representations in film history wasn’t even technically of Satan: it was Mephistopheles in Murnau’s Faust, still one of the most visually interesting portrayals of satanic power.
The problem with portraying Satan is that it is difficult to capture the full horror he is supposed to be capable of.
Dr. Parenti: We get the grant, we study the problem, we propose solutions. If they listen, they listen. If they don't, it still makes for great research. What we publish on this is gonna get a lot of attention.
Colvin: From who?
Dr. Parenti: From other researchers, academics.
Colvin: Academics?! What, they gonna study your study? [chuckles and shakes head] When do this shit change?
—The Wire, Season 4, Episode 13, "Final Grades"
It is only within the last few years that I have reluctantly accepted that I deserve that noxious and disreputable label: an academic. Truly, I am doomed.
But then, I've yet to meet an academic who isn't keenly aware of the doom. My sentences keep going off in various directions toward what I'm sure would be an incoherent 10,000-word rant about my love/hate relationship with academia. I delete those sentences because I'm not here to rant about academia, but rather to praise a book that serves as both a writing guide and a (sometimes sly) philosophical statement about knowledge and the communication of knowledge. It's a book aimed directly at people like me, and yet I think at least a few of its chapters deserve a wider audience than the doomed weirdos of grad school.
The book is The Elements of Academic Style by Eric Hayot, author of On Literary Worlds, a book I found marvelously provocative. Elements is also marvelously provocative, and shares On Literary Worlds' desire to shake things up a bit within the academy, but it's also highly practical. It has much to say about the purpose and rhetoric of academic writing, and it does so from a position not only of deep knowledge of such writing, but deep appreciation for it — and that may be its most revolutionary element.
At its most basic level, Elements is a writing guide for graduate students in the humanities, with information about the differences, for instance, between conference papers and journal articles, between dissertations and books, between Chicago citational style and MLA style, etc. It offers the sorts of advice you can find in lots of different writing guides: advice about developing a writing practice, putting together a writing group, living through doubt and self-doubt and self-hatred, forcing yourself to submit for publication, and so on. All good stuff, and Hayot has some interesting ideas and opinions about it all, but it's not what the book is best at.
For me, the most compelling and valuable sections are about the rhetoric of academic communication. The book is broken into four parts, and it is part two that I spent the most time thinking about and working through. Hayot titles this section "Strategy" (the others are "Writing as Practice", "Tactics", and "Becoming") and in eleven mostly very short chapters he discusses the structure, rhythm, and conventions of good academic prose.
"Good academic prose!" you cry. "Surely, it's an oxymoron!" Not to Hayot.
|photo by Rick Elkin|As I was rereading this book to get ready to write about it and recommend it to the world, a friend told me about Hayot's recent Critical Inquiry essay, "Academic Writing, I Love You. Really, I Do" [JSTOR link]. It's a kind of companion piece, or perhaps preface, to Elements. While there's some overlap in their contents, the form and purpose are different (the essay is formally playful in a way the book is not), but their stance on how we in the academy communicate, and perhaps could communicate more effectively, is the same. "Academic Writing, I Love You" is just what it says: a paean to a type of writing lots of people disparage and hate — indeed, Hayot begins the essay with four pages of quotations from various writers who have said that academic writing is the most horrible thing on Earth and probably the whole reason Hitler ever existed. Even academics hate academic writing! Or, at least, they claim to. (Self-hatred is one of the fundamental fuels of humanities departments, it seems.) Who ever steps up and says that, Bad Writing Contest aside, Judith Butler and Fredric Jameson are doing interesting things with prose and language? We say, rather, that we like them for their ideas, that their ideas are better than their sentences, that we know it's bad and jargony and impossible to read but yes actually there really is maybe something there worth thinking about or so somebody once told me and I need to say this for tenure I'm sorry I don't want to admit it I hate myself I'm an academic.
Hayot is different. In "Academic Writing, I Love You" he says:
To the producers of the immense amount of loathing and contempt governing much of the metadiscourse on academic writing, I affirm: you have not accounted for a writer or a reader like me, or indeed for the many writers and readers like me, who have a taste for writing that does not say everything that it does, and for whom Theodor W. Adorno or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Jacques Lacan or Judith Butler have provided an immense amount of pleasure, not just at the level of the idea, but at the level of the sentence. When the metadiscourse isn’t ignoring such readers en- tirely—“everybody likes the other fellow’s prose plain” (except of course the people who don’t)—it is shaming them by accusing them of arrogance (“the demon of academic hubris inevitably lies in the shadows nearby”), insecurity (“they want to sound smart”), elitism (“if we thought more like carpenters, academic writers could find a route out of the trap of ego and vanity”), or perversion (“I have begun to characterize this psyche as sado-masochistic”).
Now, there is nothing wrong, let us agree, with being a masochist. Or a carpenter. But if you want to insist that scholarly writing is somehow fundamentally broken and off course you need to account for the large number of folks with their shoulders to the wheels, pushing happily as both writers and readers in what you think is the wrong direction. Excluding those people from consideration by insisting that their desires and pleasures are essentially pathological means that you will have, inevitably, an incomplete and therefore probably bad theory of what writing is and how it works.
When I read this, I nearly burst into the tears of joy that come when a long-held secret is finally released — when somebody says what you've always been afraid of saying because saying it only opens you up to ridicule, or so you think.
Actually, as with so many things, Samuel Delany got here first. He has often championed the pleasure of the complex text — whether Walter Pater or Jacques Derrida — and it was through early exposure to Delany's nonfiction and, especially, a few key interviews that I allowed myself to admit that there was something in the sentences and prose structures of Foucault and Derrida especially that, even when I had no ability to comprehend their ideas or no knowledge of the arguments they were entering or no familiarity with the sources they were building off of ... still, I could admire. (Later, I would add Butler to the list, as well as Gilles Deleuze. Unlike Hayot, I've never fallen in love with Fredric Jameson's writing, despite reading a lot of his work.)
Hayot admits that there's a lot of bad academic writing out there. But, of course, old Theodore Sturgeon famously told us there's a lot of bad everything out there. I'd actually be willing to bet most published academic writing is not so much bad as it is mediocre, and the reason is that structurally and often even philosophically it's very formulaic — in many ways, academic writing is even more genrefied and conventional than science fiction, and academic writers, particularly ones who aren't famous or highly cited, are often judged primarily on how well they hold to and replicate the conventions.
It is here that I think Elements is most wonderful — it doesn't assume that academic writing is, as a genre, hopelessly awful, and yet it very much understands the genrefication of academic writing, and so can hold out a hope that it is not especially difficult to make a higher percentage of that writing better through some thoughtful techniques and practices.
Here the title of the book comes into play. One way to de-genrefy a writing practice is to complicate its possibilities of style and form. Academic writing is particularly stylistically bound: not just with the jargon, but with the actual expression and structure of ideas, the patterns for which are quite limited if you (especially as an early-career scholar) want your work to be recognizable as academic writing — and if you ever want to get even the most precarious job, you'd better have plenty of writing that is recognizable as academic.
Hayot analyzes a diverse selection of passages that he considers to be stylish and effective (as well as a few he considers less than stylish or less than effective) and shows why. Here, Hayot shows that what makes this writing good can be learned by any academic, and thus academic writing as a genre can be immensely improved. It's a utopian impulse. By improving academic writing as a genre, perhaps we could even improve academia.
Perhaps, the book suggests, we are not entirely doomed.
This is why the "Strategy" section is so compelling to me. It's very nuts and bolts, and I love that. (Hayot praises Joseph Williams's book Style, which is one of my touchstones, and is the most nuts-and-bolts book about nonfiction prose that I've ever encountered. I violate its principles all the time, particularly in blog posts like this, and I don't think clarity is the be all and end all for every type of prose, but still: Williams's Style is a holy book. No single book on writing ever taught me as much.) By demonstrating close analysis of how academic prose and arguments work, and how they can work best, Hayot achieves something useful both for the writer and the reader.
For instance, I love Hayot's proposal that effective academic argumentation benefits from a structure he calls "The Uneven U". This is one of the longest chapters in the book, and one of the best. The basic idea is this: "Imagine a system or a continuum that, across five levels, divides one major function of a piece of literary critical prose: its proximity to a piece of evidence." He names Level 5 as the most abstract and Level 1 as the most concrete (the pure evidence). Looking at how they work effectively in a paragraph, he comes up with the uneven U, because the paragraph begins with Level 4, continues downward until it puts Level 1 in the middle, and then moves upward toward Level 5. Hayot then says that this structure can be expanded to multiple paragraphs, to sections, to entire papers and books — that it can work fractally, with each paragraph an uneven U that contributes to sections that are themselves uneven U's that contribute to a whole that is, in its general structure, itself an uneven U.
Hayot provides lots of details, and it's a marvelous way to think about how to write effectively when writing this stuff we call academic prose.* It's not the only way, by any means, but it's a really effective, practical strategy, and one I'm definitely going to try whenever it seems like my academic prose is not doing what I want it to do, despite my best efforts. (Which is a lot of the time.) Further, it helps make various assumptions transparent, and by offering one very clear form, it provides ways to think about adjusting it, riffing off it, exploding it.
Beyond the Uneven U structure, Hayot does a nice job laying out the different reasons for certain conventions. His approach is common-sensical: readers of anything have at least a few predictable desires and habits, and knowing about those desires and habits is useful for the writer, even if you decide not to satisfy some of those desires and not to cater to certain habits. That's an approach I know from the nonacademic world of writing (where, indeed, I often seek to frustrate desires and write against people's reading habits. You might have noticed that I am not an especially popular writer...) A lot of it was review for me at this point, but useful review, because I have not yet internalized the conventions of academic writing, and I still feel like a stranger in its realm.
His practical, materialist sense of why we write the way we do, and why conventions are what they are, opens up space for experiment and innovation. This is perhaps clearest in his discussion of titles:
As you almost certainly have noticed, the current standard format for most work in literature, history, or cultural studies is:
EVOCATIVE, OPAQUE TITLE: DESCRIPTIVE, THEMATIC SUBTITLE
Some examples: Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s [...] Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects [...] Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life [...]
If for whatever reason you're committed to avoiding this format, you will find another major cluster of titles that follow the following pattern:
A CONCRETE NOUN AND AN ABSTRACT NOUN
This structure is more common for article titles than for books. It gives you things like "Elizabeth Bishop and the Ethics of Correspondence" [...] or "Working-Class Writing and the Use Value of the Literary"[...] At some point all of these begin to resemble the descriptive, thematic subtitles that follow the colon in the more conventional form.
Hayot then discusses the ins and outs of these patterns, the better and worse ways to use them, all with plenty of examples. But he doesn't stop there — at the end of the chapter, he writes: "If you want to distance yourself from the herd, then you'll have to break the rules," and he offers five techniques "to play with the standard format": ways of changing the balance, eliminating some parts of the pattern, looking to older patterns of titling, etc.
The command to "learn the rules, break the rules!" carries through various parts of the book, and is perhaps most clearly stated at the end of a chapter on "Structure and Subordination" in a sidebar on "Descriptions and Norms":
The somewhat violent clarifications here aim to make the process of academic writing easier to understand. You should feel free to follow these lessons and rules as they were, for now, norms of some kind. But the final rule is ... break the rules! The best writing is the best because it upends standards in some way, either by enacting them with an opalescent, devastating skill (at the limit, the truest violation) or by carving new paths through the shady woods that separate what the reader understands from what the writer means. This is a book that wants you to surpass and destroy it. After which someone will write us all a new primer.
The are, of course, institutional limits to this, as Hayot I'm sure knows. I suspect that if I had written
"Academic Writing, I Love You. Really, I Do", Critical Inquiry
almost certainly would not have published it, or at least would have insisted that I tame its formal experiment. (Similarly, I suspect that Derrida could publish Glas
and have it taken seriously by academic publishers because he was already Jacques Derrida.) And perhaps this is for the best. Perhaps we should have to demonstrate that we can color within the lines before we get to ignore the lines altogether and make our own art. I've had one professor tell a class I was in: "Make sure your first journal articles are conventional, that your dissertation is conventional, and that your first book is conventional. After that, maybe you'll have some freedom to play around. But even then it's risky."
And yet ... I really don't believe this. I certainly don't believe it for nonacademic writing, where I am very much with Carole Maso in asserting: Break Every Rule
. Perhaps academic writing is different because it seeks to extend knowledge and even identify something resembling truth, and so it should be contained within recognizeable forms, but I'm with that good ol' dead white guy John Milton on this
: "Truth is compar'd in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetuall progression, they sick'n into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition." Too often, academia is not a bastion of truth and knowledge, but is instead Milton's muddy pool.
For scholars early in their careers, there are especially powerful incentives to slime ourselves all over with the mud of that pool. If you experiment with your writing — if you, in fact, risk failure — you will become a cause of much concern, you may have a hard time getting your dissertation committee to go along with your weirdness, you will likely have a harder time getting your work accepted for conferences or journals, your CV will suffer, and if you somehow manage to miraculously defeat all the forces working against you, including the statistics of the job market, and get a tenure-track job, your tenure review and evaluations will probably encourage you to be more conventional. Of course, there are exceptions to all of this, and I may be especially paranoid, but I've seen very little evidence otherwise, which is one of the reasons Hayot's book feels so fresh, even revolutionary, within this context.
Part of my own problem is that I came to academic writing and publishing from the world of nonacademic writing and publishing, which is very different in nearly every possible way. I've got plenty of experience as a teacher, so I have confidence there, and I feel somewhat prepared as a thinker at this level, but as a writer I feel at sea, and I buck against a lot of the conventions because I've been writing my own way for so long, in a system that, for all its many faults, I understand pretty well. But with academic writing (and academia in general), I keep finding myself thinking, when I encounter one convention or another that I haven't paid enough attention to, "You mean people really care about that?" Perhaps I find this book so valuable because while I often like reading good academic prose, when it comes to writing it, I often feel like there's some sort of secret conversation about what it should contain that I somehow have missed, despite reading a lot of it. Hayot helps make some of that secret conversation less secret.
Ultimately, of course, we can't just improve academic style in writing. But because humanities scholarship is so tied to writing and publishing, opening up new possibilities for writing and publishing may, in fact, open up new possibilities within the institution itself. To change attitudes toward academic style means changing practices in the training of graduate students (which Hayot addresses), changing the practices of conferences and publishers, changing the practices of hiring and tenure committees. It means experimenting. Every writer and thinker knows this, because to write and to think is to experiment — to try stuff out and risk failure. It's terrifying because in a very real sense this is about people's livelihoods. But given the state of higher education in the U.S., at least, there's little reason not to experiment, because it's only a minority of people who are making any sort of livelihood from this work, or who even have any hope of making a livelihood from it. American academia is a perfect embodiment of capitalism in the way that it wastes human beings: their knowledge, their potential, their good will.
The rules are against us. Learning them is important, because we need to know the landscape, the architecture, the logic. But the rules do not like us, they do not want us, they do not have any use for us. Not breaking them is unconscionable.
This is a book that wants you to surpass and destroy it.
Let's get started.
*I'm deliberately avoiding any argument about whether "academic prose" or "academic writing" are useful terms that describe actual things. This blog post is too jammed with stuff already. I will say this: I'm not entirely convinced that "academic prose" and "academic writing" are useful terms, but people generally seem to know what we mean when we use them, so I use them for now. Much like "science fiction", "academic writing" means that stuff I point to when I say, "academic writing", at least here.
My name is Matthew and I am a Norton Critical Edition
Hardly a term has gone by without my assigning students at least one NCE, both when I was a high school teacher and especially now that I'm teaching college students. (This term, it's The Red Badge of Courage
.) I have been known to change syllabi each term just to try out new NCEs with students. I have bought NCEs for myself even of books that I already owned in multiple other editions. I have all four editions of the NCE of Heart of Darkness
because the changes between them fascinate me. (I've been meaning to write a blog post or essay of some sort about those changes. I'll get to it one day.)
Anton Chekhov is my favorite writer, a writer whose work I've been reading and thinking about for all of my adult life. The Norton Critical Editions of Chekhov's stories and plays published in the late 1970s remained unchanged until Laurence Senelick's Selected Plays
came out in 2004, and then, finally, last year Cathy Popkin's Selected Stories
. Senelick's collection is good, and probably all that the average reader needs, though I'm more partial to Senelick's true masterpiece, the Complete Plays
, which is awe-inspiring.
Popkin's Selected Stories
is something more again, and easily the best single-volume collection of Chekhov in English. This is the place to start if you've never read Chekhov, and it's a great resource even for seasoned Chekhovians. I'll go further than that, actually: Because of the critical apparatus, this is a great resource for anyone interested in fiction, translation, and/or writing; and it is one of the most interesting Norton Critical Editions I know, almost as impressive as my favorite NCEs, Things Fall Apart
and The English Bible
Popkin made the interesting and valuable choice to not only include stories from multiple translators (including new commissions), but to foreground the act of translation by including helpful descriptions of each translator's approach and methodology, as well as short passages from multiple stories in numerous translations for comparison:
|sample of the Comparison Passages section|
Further, Popkin frequently offers a perspective on the translation of an individual story in the first footnote for it, and sometimes in subsequent footnotes that point out particular choices the translator made.
The foregrounding of translation allows Popkin to bring in essays in the critical section that focus on Chekhov as a stylist, something Ralph Matlaw, editor of the previous edition, specifically avoided because he thought it made no sense to talk about "since the subtleties of Chekhov's style are lost in translation." Popkin's contention is that this no longer needs to be true, if it ever was.
What we have here, then, is not only a book of Chekhov stories plus some biographical and critical material, but a book about aesthetics and writing. One of the critical disputes that Popkin highlights, both in her introduction and in her selection of essays, is a longstanding one between critics who believe every detail in the stories has a particular purpose and function, and critics who believe that Chekhov's art (and philosophy) resides in the very extraneousness and randomness of some of his details. There is, as Popkin notes, no solution to this question, and plenty of readers (I'm one of them) believe that in a certain way both
interpretations can be correct — but the value here is that Popkin is able to make the critical dispute one that is not only about Chekhov, but about writing, realism, and the reader's experience of the text. Attentive readers of this Selected Stories
will thus not only gain knowledge of Chekhov's work, but will also participate in the exploration of aesthetics: the aesthetics of the stories as well as the aesthetics of translation.
Inevitably, I have one complaint and a few quibbles. The complaint is that the physical book is terribly bound — the binding of my copy broke when I opened it, and continued to break whenever I opened to anything in the middle of the book. No pages have yet fallen out, but they could soon. This is unusual for a Norton book — The English Bible
is huge and only one year older than Selected Stories
and its bindings (2 big volumes) are very strong; my copy of the 1979 NCE of Chekhov's stories, purchased at the earliest 15 years ago, seems unbreakable. I hope the problem with this new book is an anomaly.
My quibbles are purely those of anyone who has their own particular favorites among Chekhoviana. I detest Ronald Hingley's imperialist atrocities of translations, and though I know they're necessary for this volume because they offer such stark contrast to other translations, why why why did Popkin have to include Hingley's translation of perhaps my favorite Chekhov story, "Gusev"?! At least she could have included somebody — anybody! — else's translation alongside it. (Indeed, I think it would have been helpful for the book to choose one complete story to offer in multiple translations. "Gusev" is probably too long, but Chekhov wrote a number of quite short stories that have been translated numerous times.)
The selection of stories in this edition is almost completely superior to Matlaw's, but it's unfortunate to lose the 1886 story "Dreams", which seems to me a perfect encapsulation of Chekhov's style between his early humorous sketches and his later, longer stories ... but it's easily available elsewhere
One significant improvement Popkin makes over Matlaw's previous edition is the inclusion of some of Chekhov's longer stories, most significantly "Ward No. 6" and "In the Ravine", two of his most important works. The book is already almost 700 pages, so obviously novellas such as "My Life" and "The Steppe" — hugely important, original, difficult, complex, breathtaking works — wouldn't fit without bumping out a lot of other worthwhile material, but still I pine. Perhaps Selected Stories
will be successful enough that Norton will consider a Critical Edition called Chekhov's Novellas
Finally, it might have been nice to include something on the adaptation of Chekhov's stories to theatre, film, and television — though of course his plays are more frequently adapted, some of the better adaptations are of the short stories, and there's been at least a little bit of critical attention to that. Adaptation is another form of translation, and it would have been interesting to consider that further within the frame that Popkin set up.
But really, these are the inevitable, unimportant quibbles of the sort that any anthology causes in a reader familiar with the territory. Popkin's edition of the Selected Stories
is a book to celebrate and savor, and it gets so many things right that it is churlish to complain about any of it. Even the cover is a smart, appropriate choice: a painting by Chekhov's friend Isaac Levitan
This book is clearly the result of lots of love for Chekhov, and as such I can only love it back.
A friend pointed me toward Sigrid Nunez's New York Times review
of Emily St. John Mandel's popular and award-winning novel Station Eleven
. He said it expressed some of the reservations that caused me to stop reading the book, and it does — at the end of her piece, Nunez says exactly what I was thinking as I put the book down with, I'll confess, a certain amount of disgust:
If “Station Eleven” reveals little insight into the effects of extreme terror and misery on humanity, it offers comfort and hope to those who believe, or want to believe, that doomsday can be survived, that in spite of everything people will remain good at heart, and that when they start building a new world they will want what was best about the old.
I don't mean this post to be about Station Eleven
, because I didn't finish reading it and for all I know, if I'd finished reading it I might disagree with Nunez. I bring it up because even if, somehow, Nunez is wrong about Station Eleven
, her points are important ones in this age of popular apocalypse stories.
Let me put my cards on the table. I have come to think stories that give readers hope for tolerable life after an apocalypse are not just inaccurate, but despicable.
We are living in an apocalypse. Unless massive changes are made in the next few decades, it's highly likely that the Earth's biosphere will alter drastically enough to kill off most forms of life. At the least, life in the next 100-200 years is likely to be less pleasant than life now (if you think life now is pleasant). Writing apocalypse stories that mitigate these facts lulls us into complacency. Such stories are their own form of global warming denialism. (Of course, if you are a global warming denialist, go right ahead — write and enjoy such stories!)
Tales of surviving an apocalypse give us comfort fiction, a fiction predicated on identifying with the survivors and giving the survivors something worth surviving for.
It is highly unlikely that you, I, or anybody else would be a survivor of an actual apocalypse, and it is even more unlikely that, were we to survive, the post-apocalyptic world would be worth staying alive to see. To imagine yourself as a survivor is to evade the truth and to indulge in a ridiculous fantasy. To imagine yourself as a successful
survivor — someone who doesn't suffer terribly before finally, painfully dying — is even worse.
To tell stories of apocalypse that seek to be at least somewhat realistic and yet are not as painful as stories of actual, historical catastrophes is sheer escapist fantasy. Apocalypse stories that do not want to be escapist fantasies must be as harrowing and painful as the most awful stories of the Nazi Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge's atrocities in Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide.
I'd think this would be obvious, but many people ignore the fact: to tell a story of an apocalypse is to tell a story in the midst of mass death.
To tell a story of apocalypse that is not limited to a small area — to tell a story of the end of the whole world — is to tell a story about mass death on a scale far beyond the worst historical atrocities.
To tell a story of apocalypse in which people's lives are not even as difficult or painful as the lives of millions and millions of people currently alive on Earth moves beyond escapist fantasy and into the realm of idiotic irresponsibility. (This, perhaps, is why some of the better apocalypse/dystopia stories are written by people who are not middle-class white Americans.)
In Eyes Wide Open
, Frederic Raphael reported Stanley Kubrick's assessment of Schindler's List:
"Think that was about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List
was about six hundred people who don’t."
Obviously, the appeal of such stories is that they let us indulge in the fantasy of success. We love rags-to-riches stories for the same reason. We love stories about our soldiers wiping out lots of evil enemies because we escape imagining ourselves to be the enemy in the sniper's sights.
Who is this "we"? That's a good question for any story that aims for an audience to identify with protagonists, but it's especially good to ask of apocalypse stories. Do you read Left Behind
imagining yourself to be one of the good, one of the saved? Do you read Station Eleven
imagining that yes, you too could find a way to make a life for yourself in this world?
Or do you imagine yourself among the diseased, the tortured, the suffering, the unsaved, the dead?
"But," you say, "such stories offer us visions of human goodness even in the face of adversity! They alleviate pessimism. They help us to hope."
And that is why they are detestable.
The popular Anne Frank statement
that Nunez alludes to in her Station Eleven
review — "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart" — was not written in Bergen-Belsen
. The story of Anne Frank is not complete until you tell the story of her and her family's suffering and slow death in a concentration camp. A survivor who claimed to have talked with Anne said she was weak, emaciated; that she suspected her parents to be dead; that she did not want to live any longer.
(If you want a happy ending, stop your story before the end.)
To write a story in which apocalypse is not especially awful — or is, even worse, somehow desireable — does nothing to help prevent the apocalypse we face, the apocalypse we live in.
Mass death should not be a self-help allegory.
I may feel so strongly about this because I grew up amidst (and still live around) militia culture, and militia cultists love to fantasize about the end of the world. They don't just dream; they try to live it. They stockpile food, ammo, weapons. They build shelters. They imagine all the ways they'll be heroes when the end comes. For some, it's literally a dream of The Rapture; for the less Christian fundamentalist among them, it's a kind of Rapture allegory, providing the same pleasures, the same confirmation of your own correctness. Apocalypse becomes not a horror but the opportunity to create the best of all possible worlds. Genocidaires always think their violent dreams are necessary, justified, virtuous.The Walking Dead
is popular with a lot of these folks. Step into a gun shop and you're plenty likely to hear at least one person talking about "the zombie apocalypse". It's a code phrase and an allegory: a code for the end of the boring world, an allegory for the time when the well-prepared (white, patriarchal) militia will ascend to its rightful place of honor, when the weak liberals and anti-gunners will die the sad deaths they so deserve, when it will be open season on all the zombies (read: immigrants, black people, etc.). Dreamers dream themselves among the survivors. They dream themselves into heroism. Instead of boring everyday life, they get to show their courage and strength and preparation.
Don't feel your life lets you express your inner heroism? Imagine yourself a survivor of apocalypse. Now you have a hero story.
Imagine yourself finally getting to use those tens of thousands of 5.56 rounds you stockpiled back when ammo was cheap. (You were one of the smart ones. Where are all the people who made fun of you now? They're dead, you're alive. You're the real man. Good for you. You win!)
Don't imagine yourself dying slowly, painfully. Don't imagine yourself wanting to die. Don't imagine disease, starvation, brutality.
We want stories to make us feel good about humanity, or at least about ourselves. We don't want realistic apocalypse stories.
That's what's behind so much of this dreck, isn't it? That somehow we know we're facing doom, and we don't want to feel bad about our own participation in that doom. We want doom to be on our own terms.
For the militia type, apocalypse stories are a way to imagine yourself into heroism. For the relatively wealthy and privileged, apocalypse stories are an opportunity to imagine our way out of the oppressions we benefit from.
(When I've assigned students to read Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower
, there's always been someone who says, "This doesn't feel like science fiction. This feels real." True. And it's a real that hurts. Because it should.)
If you want to tell an apocalypse story, tell a story about well-intentioned people suffering and dying. Tell a story about people like yourself not only being helpless in the face of catastrophe, but being witless progenitors of it.
(One of my favorite apocalypse stories is Wallace Shawn's The Fever
. It's a story of the apocalypse of a well-intentioned man.)
Don't tell a story about how people like yourself are such great survivors. In truth, they probably aren't, and indulging in a fantasy of your own people's survival is breathtakingly arrogant in a story set amidst mass death.
(If the effects of your imagined apocalypse are less painful than the effects of Hurricane Katrina, you are writing despicable kitsch.)
I'm not saying tales of apocalypse are inevitably drivel, or even that they have to be a parade of endless horror, brutality, and suffering (though they should probably be mostly that). I'm saying we don't need apocalypse kitsch any more than we need Holocaust kitsch.
Watch the movies Grave of the Fireflies
and Time of the Wolf
. One is a historical film about the firebombing of Tokyo, the other is about a near-future apocalypse, its cause unknown, its effect coruscatingly clear. It's these films' affect that is most interesting to me, the ways they show disaster and the response to disaster, the ways they make you feel, and what those feelings are. These are not nihilistic stories, they don't deny human compassion and even goodness, but they also don't soft-pedal the suffering that happens with the end of a world.
Or think of it this way: If you had a time machine and could go back to Anatolia before 1915, Germany in the mid-'30s, Cambodia in the early '70s, Rwanda in the early '90s — if you could go back to those times and write stories, what sort of stories would you write? Stories of people surviving impending apocalypse?
If you want to tell stories to help prevent the extinction of the biosphere, don't tell stories that make that extinction seem bearable.
If you want to imagine the end of the world, realize what you are imagining.
This past term, the course I taught was titled "Introduction to Literary Analysis"
. It's the one specific course that is required for all English majors, and it's also available as a general education credit for any other undergraduates. Its purpose is similar to that of any Introduction to Literature class, though at UNH it really has one primary purpose: help students strengthen their close reading skills with fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction. (We're required to include all four, though the nonfiction part can be smaller than the others.)
Next term, I'm teaching an American lit survey (1865-present) and have decided to focus it on the question of canonicity. So, for instance, we'll be using the appropriate volumes of The Norton Anthology of American Literature
as a core text, but not just to read the selections; instead, we'll also be looking at the book itself as an anthology: what the editors choose to include and not, how the selections are arranged and presented, etc. We'll also be reading a few other things to mess up the students' ideas of "American" and "literature". For instance, I'm pairing The Red Badge of Courage
(Norton Critical Edition
) with A Princess of Mars
(and Junot Díaz's excellent introduction to the Library of America edition
). And then Octavia Butler's Wild Seed
to make it even messier and more productive.
And so it was with special interest that I read two essays this morning in the Chronicle of Higher Education
: "The New Modesty in Literary Criticism"
by Jeffrey J. Williams and "What We Lose If We Lose the Canon"
by Arthur Krystal. The Williams seems to me about as good an overview as you could do in a short space; the Krystal seems to have been beamed in from 1982.
The Krystal essay is not really worth reading, especially if you've ever read a "Keep Shakespeare on the syllabus, you philistines!" essay before. But let's, for the fun of shooting fish in a sardine can, respond to a few of his assertions:
Starting from the premise that aesthetics were just another social construct rather than a product of universal principles, postmodernist thinkers succeeded in toppling hierarchies and nullifying the literary canon. Indeed, they were so good at unearthing the socioeconomic considerations behind canon formation that even unapologetic highbrows had to wonder if they hadn’t been bamboozled by Arnoldian acolytes and eloquent ideologues.
That heretofore inviolable ideal of art, as expostulated by Walter Pater and John Ruskin, by T.S. Eliot and Lionel Trilling, by the New Criticism, was shunted aside; and those emblematic qualities of modernist works—obliqueness, lyricism, dissonance, ambiguity—were relegated to a hubristic past. Although many former canonical authors continue to be taught in universities, so are many popular, commercial, and genre writers. As long as a writer accumulates sufficient readers and a decent press, respect surely follows. Any reason that George R.R. Martin shouldn’t have parity with William Faulkner? Is Maya Angelou really less important than Emily Dickinson?
If aesthetic ideas are not social constructs, then they are some sort of natural phenomena, something somehow instinctive in the brain. Or otherwise they're the product of God's ethereal farts. Those are pretty much the options. Me, I'm sticking with social constructs, since that's easier to study, though I expect that certain elements of our brains — the elements that notice patterns — also affect how we respond to aesthetic forms and effects, and so it's probably more accurate to say that aesthetic ideas are a combination of the capacities of our perceptions plus the weight of cultural and social forces. (I'm an atheist, so the theological interpretation is not one I'm interested in, but it's certainly a venerable tradition, and we know Krystal and his ilk do love their venerable traditions, especially since there's no arguing with God. If God sez Shakespeare is great, then, by God, Shakespeare is great!)
For a far more interesting, informative, and useful discussion of canons, see Samuel Delany's Para Doxa
interview in About Writing
, "Inside and Outside the Canon"
. (And if that's not enough, see Katha Pollitt's classic essay, "Why We Read" in her book Reasonable Creatures
What Krystal is really writing about is pedagogy. He sees "the canon" (whatever that is) as the textbook list. His view of the purpose of literature courses is an extremely narrow one: students should study the greatest of human cultural artifacts. To be "taught in universities" therefore means to be Respected, to be The Greatest.
There may be people who use pop culture in their courses who see that material as, indeed, The Greatest. (And this is ignoring the fact that yesterday's popcult is not prevented from being today's cult, even among the cultiest of cultmeisters — to offer the most obvious, clichéd examples: Shakespeare and Dickens.) Krystal imagines a contradiction where there isn't one: "Although many former canonical authors continue to be taught in universities, so are many popular, commercial, and genre writers." The two parts of that sentence are only at odds if you think the sole legitimate purpose of university teaching is to impart knowledge of The Greatest Works of Literature to students.
And yes, at times our courses should be about the works that have been most lauded over time, and not just because it's interesting to study the history of cultural constructions. Studying complex, old lit with people who've devoted their lives to it is one of the great privileges of a good education. But it's not the only reason to study something in a class.
I'm putting A Princess of Mars
alongside The Red Badge of Courage
not because I think Burroughs is as great a writer as Crane. In most of the ways we speak of a writer being "great", Burroughs is really really really not. And yet there is a lot about Burroughs, and particularly his first few novels, that makes him well worth academic attention. (Junot Díaz makes the case far better than I can in his intro.) What I want my students to see through the comparison of both books is the way that considering their canonicity — Crane's within "American Literature", Burroughs's within "Popular Culture" — can tell us something about both books and about the cultural discourses that shape our perceptions and values. I'm not even entirely sure what those lessons will be, because I prefer not to be settled in all of my ideas before I begin a class, because for me a good class discussion is one that produces ideas we didn't have before that discussion.
Krystal also works from an assumption that what he feels as a deep aesthetic experience is lesser in people who read, for instance, George R.R. Martin. This is a common assumption, but it's one I've become skeptical of. I'm skeptical first because it's not something that can be proved or disproved, and so it is a self-serving opinion. If you argue that your engagement with the Twilight
novels provides you with an emotionally complex and intellectually engaging experience, it is difficult for me to say that my emotionally complex and intellectually engaging experience with Anna Karenina
is greater than yours. If you're out there writing Twilight
fanfic, it's entirely possible that your engagement with Twilight
is actually deeper
than mine with Anna Karenina
This is basic reader-response theory. The text itself doesn't matter; what matters is the effect on the reader. Arthur Krystal may find such an idea horrifying, but it's not so different from what he's claiming for the books he values — that they produce a deeper, more satisfying, more educative effect than the books he doesn't value. But that has far less to do with the book than with the reader. What he's saying is that one reader's deep, satisfying experience of a book is deeper and more satisfying than another reader's. And the first reader in this equation is him. How convenient!
I’m not suggesting that one can’t fully enjoy James Crumley, James Lee Burke, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, and Orson Scott Card, but I’m not sure one can love them in the way that one loves Shakespeare, Keats, Chekhov, and Joyce. One can be a fan of Agatha Christie, but one can’t really be a fan of George Eliot.
There's a lot wrong with that paragraph. First, Krystal's lack of reading ability with popular lit is evident in his grouping a bunch of very dissimilar writers together and his assumption that "one can love them" in a single way and that that single way is different from the single way one loves Shakespeare et al. Second, there's the idea that being a fan
is somehow different from the way that one loves Shakespeare et al.
The error of that sentence would be clearer if Krystal had used not Agatha Christie but rather Jane Austen, who is not only highly canonical, but whose fans are legion, including countless fanfic writers
. (Fandom's attraction to Austen rather than Eliot would be an interesting study.) It's interesting, too, the way he uses emotional language: one can, he suggests, fully enjoy
[popular writers], but one loves
Shakespeare et al. Elsewhere in the essay he makes the argument for big ideas and human nature and yadda yadda yadda, but it seems to me that it is here that Krystal reveals what matters most to him, which is a depth of feeling, a depth of engagement with the text — the sense of having one's world and knowledge and self expand via reading.
And yes I say yes! That's what lots of us love when reading. I just don't think the text matters as much as the reader.
As someone who, indeed, loves much of Philip K. Dick (and Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Joyce. Keats not so much), I'm not sure that I, for one, do love his best work differently from that of Shakespeare et al.
I feel like I love them all very specifically — that is to say, it's true that I do not love PKD in the way I love Shakespeare; but it's true that I do not love Chekhov in the way I love Shakespeare or the way I love Joyce (well, pre-Finnegans Wake
Joyce. The Wake
keeps defeating me). The way that I love PKD differently from the others is not, though, part of a separate category. Further, I would say I dislike Keats in a similar way that I dislike Heinlein: their words, ideas, structures, etc. do not hold my interest, and while in both cases I can in a certain intellectual way appreciate some of what they're up to, that knowledge does not convert into the affect of literary love.
I said above that Krystal's argument is a self-serving opinion. It is self-serving because he is arguing that his way of reading, his way of teaching, his way of learning, his way of valuing is The Way. If he were arguing against his own practices and prejudices, it would be much more interesting. If, for instance, he were to say, "I'm a terrible reader because I didn't get enough training in The Canon during my college years," or if he were to say, "I wish I could get some sort of emotional and intellectual experience from great literature, but I can't, and I feel that that is a personal failing, something that holds me back from a full enjoyment of life," then perhaps we could take his argument more seriously. (This is why perhaps my favorite piece of writing on The Canon is Wallace Shawn's
play The Designated Mourner
The limitations of Krystal's view of literary study are brought into even sharper relief by reading Jeffrey J. Williams's survey of recent approaches. It's not complete by any means — it's a quick & dirty look at a few approaches, and leaves out many that are at least as popular among scholars as the ones he cites (among my compatriots, animal studies and trauma studies are the biggies). I think Williams is right that in some ways the recent approaches look back toward approaches that were common before the Age of Theory — back toward philology, toward literary history — but that's a consequence of the realization that there is no One True Way. Literary analysis is not a zero sum game. I have no animus, really, toward my friends who do animal studies and literature, or trauma theory and literature, even though these are not my ways. (I am, unsurprisingly, interested in the intersections of aesthetics and the world, in genres as sets of readerly expectations, etc.) I would never steer a student away from working with someone whose interest was in those areas. Students should experience lots of different ways of reading and lots of different ways of valuing what they read. They should take courses with curmudgeonly canon-fetishizing fuddyduddies like Arthur Krystal, just as they should take courses with pomo popcultists who "read" nothing but sitcoms.
What teaching the Intro to Lit Analysis course taught me is that students can be really smart about their own reading, but that they've also mostly been exposed only to very limited approaches in their secondary education. They cling to what they know, and what they know tends to be a very basic sort of New Criticism plus biography (anathema to the New Critics, but common to book reports, so students fall back on it). Our job, I think, is to show them how to do complex close readings, how to bring biography and history in as useful context rather than reductive readings. Exploring why "Sylvia Plath's 'Daddy' shows that she did not have a good relationship with her father" is a shallow thesis that reduces rather than expands our understanding of the poem can be mindblowing for students — and then we can talk about how knowledge of Plath's biography might be used to expand and deepen our understanding of her poetry, if that were an approach that interested us.
That, ultimately, is my test for critical approaches: Can we expand our understanding of, and our appreciation for, the text? Or are we limiting it, reducing it, simplifying it, turning it into something easily apprehended? If so, why bother?
Or, in other words: Yes, let's read Faulkner (he's my favorite American novelist; I'd never say no!). But I see nothing wrong with reading Faulkner alongside George R.R. Martin. We could learn a lot from that combination about how texts create worlds, about how separate books expand our imagining of characters, about how narrative forms develop our perceptions of characters and settings and histories. Who cares whether Faulkner is "better" than GRRM, or vice versa? (Me, I love Faulkner and find the Song of Ice and Fire
books unreadable, so I'm not likely to teach such a course or write such a paper, but I'd love somebody else to do it!) What do such hierarchies get us? Literature isn't football, and we don't need fantasy leagues. We don't need lists of texts; we need to encourage varied ways of reading, and that includes reading against your own prejudices, your own knowledge, your own limitations. I am skeptical of students who don't want to read anything published before they were born, because they are limiting themselves just as Arthur Krystal is limiting himself by sticking to the canon of old white guys. If you've never worked hard to learn to appreciate an 18th Century British novel, you are a limited reader — but you are also a limited reader if you've never worked hard to appreciate a popular contemporary novel or two. This is one reason why I love David Foster Wallace's syllabus for a literary analysis class
, where the texts included Jackie Collins’s Rock Star
, Stephen King’s Carrie
, Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs
, and James Elroy’s The Big Nowhere
, and he warned the students:
Don’t let any potential lightweightish-looking qualities of the texts delude you into thinking that this will be a blow-off-type class. These “popular” texts will end up being harder than more conventionally “literary” works to unpack and read critically.
Arthur Krystal must fear getting an aneurysm when he looks at that syllabus, but if he were honest he'd admit that his grumpiness may be because that syllabus shows he's less of a reader than someone like DFW, someone deeply familiar with The Canon but not limited to it. Krystal should try to learn to read Philip K. Dick or one of the other writers he disparages — learn to read them in a thoughtful, appreciative way, not a dismissive one. He might actually learn something.
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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|Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall by Joseph Cornell|
I was going to write a long account of all the various things I read, saw, listened to, etc. this year, as a way of preserving some of the experience of the year for myself, and maybe offering some amusement for the occasional random reader ... but the drafts became unwieldy, and nobody, including me, wants to read all that.
(I did the math and figured out that I was assigned to read about 50 books this year by teachers in classes I took, and then I read gazillions more both for my own research and to prepare for the Ph.D. general exam, for which I needed to be ready to answer questions about any English and American lit from Beowulf
Here, then, are mere glimpses at some things that stick out for one reason or another....Woolf.
It had been a while since I'd really dug down into Virginia Woolf's work, but a course I was taking allowed me to do that for research, and I read everything I possibly could by Woolf from the 1930s until her death in 1941. The primary effect of this work was a new appreciation for The Years
, a book that does not get enough love and understanding even from devoted Woolfians. The Dead.
I don't mean the Joyce story
(much as I love it). A lot of great writers, thinkers, and people died this year: Nadine Gordimer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Galway Kinnell, Stepan Chapman, Lucius Shepard, Stuart Hall, Jay Lake, Eugie Foster — the list goes on and on and on, and this year's list really hit me harder than any previous year's, probably because as I get older more and more people who were formative influences on me pass away. I went back and reread work by many of this year's dead. The ones I spent the most time with were Lucius Shepard
and Stuart Hall
. I reread Lucius's first collection, The Jaguar Hunter
, and marveled again at his early mastery. I still haven't been able to bring myself to read his final Dragon Griaule book, Beautiful Blood
— the end of those stories is the end of a reading adventure that dates back to my childhood.
Stuart Hall was so important to my intellectual development that it's also difficult to think of a world where there will be no new writings from him. I spent time with Policing the Crisis
, a volume he contributed to, during the Ferguson
crisis, for though it tells of a different time and circumstances, it still contains much wisdom for us today. Throughout the year, I've found myself going back again and again to Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies
and some of the individual essays he published over the years. I heard somewhere a rumor that Verso was going to be bringing The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left
back into print as well as a selection of Hall's essays. I hope that's true.Survivor.
My great discovery this year was that the UNH library has a copy of Octavia Butler's disavowed novel Survivor
, which I wrote about here
. I haven't reread the book since then, though I hope to in January, so I'll leave my original words to stand and just say: It's a fascinating, imperfect, disturbing book and I wish there were some way to get it back into print, because it is worthy of Butler's oeuvre
I've been reading
J.M. Coetzee's work since my last years as an undergraduate, and writing about it for nearly as long — indeed, one of the first posts at this blog
, back in October 2003, was about Coetzee. There's not another writer I've read as consistently and intensively for as long (well, aside from my writer friends. But I read them as a friend, which is somewhat different from the sort of reading I do with Coetzee). There's no other living writer with whom I feel as much aesthetic kinship, for better or worse. Many of his touchstones are my own: Kafka, Beckett, the 19th century Russians, Don Quixote
. (One of these days I'll get around to writing about Quixote
, which I've been reading sicne I first saw a production of Man of La Mancha
as a kid and fell in love with the character. But, like Kafka and Beckett, whom I love but rarely write about, it just seems too vast and wondrous for my words.)
Anyway, Coetzee. In the first half of this year, I continued delving into In the Heart of the Country
, revising a paper I was working on about that book and Afrikaner Nationalism (I had originally played around with trauma theory
for it, but I really dislike applying trauma theory to fiction, and once I cut all that out the paper became markedly less awful). Then in the fall I spent good time with Foe
and Elizabeth Costello
, and have been hashing out a paper on the latter and its relationship to the idea of "the postcolonial novel", whatever that may be. Writing on EC
is extremely difficult, partly because, like In the Heart of the Country
, it is easy for interpretation to reduce it rather than open up its vast possibilities. We see this a lot in the criticism, which is mostly focused on the "Lives of Animals" chapters, and which often tries to reduce the book to the ideas its characters present rather than the way those ideas work in the fiction. (J.M. Coetzee and Ethics
contains some especially egregious examples of this.)
One of the best works of criticism that I read this year, though, was Stephen Mulhall's The Wounded Animal: J.M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy
. I had known of this book for a while (it was published in 2008), but stayed away from it because it seemed to be mostly about animal rights philosophy and the "Lives of Animals" chapters. And while it is about those, it's also about much more, and offers a chapter-by-chapter exploration of Elizabeth Costello
that is often rich with insights. I don't think Elizabeth Costello
has much to offer that interesting or original about animal rights, but it does
have a lot that is fascinating (and frustrating!) to say about realism and textuality, as Mulhall quite thrillingly shows, especially in the second half of his book. If you really want to grapple with Elizabeth Costello
, this is the place to start.
Mulhall's book led me to think even more about a concept that it's fair to say obsesses me: realism in fiction. Mulhall makes
a wonderful case for considering realism differently than it often is — instead of (for instance) realism vs. fantasy,
he argues that it's more productive to oppose realism to idealism, and in so doing adapts
an idea Toril Moi developed
from Naomi Schor’s writings on George Sand: “Idealism as an aesthetics is opposed to realism; as a politics, to materialism”
. It would be futile to try to explain all this here (follow the links for more), but it's an idea I want to continue to wrestle withMilton
I read a lot of John Milton this summer as prep for the exam. Because I was only a proper English major for one year of my life, I've never taken a general survey course after high school. (I was a Dramatic Writing major for three years undergrad, then my master's is in Cultural Studies.) Teaching high school meant I got a lot of practice in a wide variety of materials, but still: I was the teacher, so I could avoid a lot of stuff that didn't immediately interest me. Thus, I had some big gaps, areas that I'd spent twenty years ignoring. For instance, I'd never read a word of Milton. Or, rather, I'd read a couple pages of Paradise Lost
ten or fifteen years ago, found it incomprehensible, and didn't ever try Milton again. But we've got a couple Milton scholars at UNH, so I figured there was a good chance Milton might be on the exam, and I spent a lot of time reading Milton. Though Milton did not
end up being on the exam, I still enjoyed the work and am taking a Milton seminar in the spring (my last term of classes), so it wasn't at all a waste.
What most helped me gain an appreciation for Milton were lectures by John Rogers at Yale
, available in both audio and video form from Yale Open Courses. I found many of Rogers' lectures gripping, and they opened up the poetry to me in ways nothing had before; the lectures on "Lycidas"
completely won me over — they're thrilling. I also read Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot
by Anna Beer to get a sense of Milton's life and times, as well as The English Civil Wars
by Blair Worden, because while I'm relatively knowledgeable about Elizabethan/Jacobean England as well as the 18th Century, the post-Jacobean 17th Century is not an era I previously had a good grasp of. (Pretty much everything I knew about Cromwell came from Monty Python
.) I also read around in Stanley Fish's Surprised By Sin
and How Milton Works
, Milton in Context
edited by Stephen B. Dobranski, and a pile of miscellaneous journal articles (e.g. "Milton's Counterplot"
by Hartman, "'Paradise Lost', the Miltonic 'Or,' and the Poetics of Incertitude"
by Herman, etc.) It was a fun crash course.Dickens
I also spent quite a bit of time with Charles Dickens, a writer I'd read a lot in high school (a family friend was a Dickens scholar), but then ended up deciding was prolix and sentimental, so I stopped reading him for at least a decade. But, again, it seemed worth going back to Dickens and his era as preparation for the exam, and so I read Little Dorrit
, which I'd never read before, and which is a delight. Yes, Dickens is prolix and sentimental, but he was also a genius, and thus he wasn't only
prolix and sentimental. Indeed, passages in many of his novels are as good as English prose can get. Before reading Peter Ackroyd's magnificent Dickens biography
and Michael Slater's more recent biography
(focusing as much on Dickens as a writer as Dickens as a person), I hadn't appreciated how much Dickens (more specifically, his popularity) created the conditions for periodical fiction and novels in Britain in the 19th century and, following on that, the United States and other parts of the world. I read around in Dickens at Work
by John Butt & Kathleen Tillotson and Becoming Dickens
by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst and soon wished there were more readily accessible facsimile editions of the original periodical versions of Dickens's novels — I have one for Nicholas Nickleby
, and there are some online versions
, but the ideal would be to reprint the separate little paperbacks (which is apparently what the Discovering Dickens reading project did
in the early 2000s, but as far as I can tell the actual books are nearly as rare as the originals, as are the Easton Press limited serial-facsimile editions of Pickwick
).The Case for Reparations.
I've respected and learned a lot from Ta-Nehisi Coates's
work over the years, but this piece is extraordinary
. It should be retitled, "This Is White Supremacy". If you care about race or U.S. history or humanity in general, read it. I expect historians 50 years from now will look back on it as one of the important documents of our time.No Future.
Lee Edelman's No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive
is a book I read too quickly to really absorb, but it was also one of the most mindbending books I read all year. (It directly influenced my Black Static
.) The book positions an idea of the queer
in opposition to the idea of futurity embodied by procreation, specifically in the figure of the child and its innocence, purity, etc. In some ways, Edelman's book is a nice companion to Thomas Ligotti's work, and I read it only a couple months before I read the Ligotti interview collection Born to Fear
. Neither is especially cheery, but I do find them somehow strangely ... clarifying.
Timothy Morton does a good job of thinking about doom in his new book Hyperobjects
, which I also read too quickly to be able to give much analysis to, but I'm generally sympathetic to Morton's approach from his previous books Ecology without Nature
and The Ecological Thought
. At the same time, it's often seemed to me in the past, perhaps because I'm really not a philosopher, that Morton skipped around ideas without really developing them, and the concepts in Hyperobjects
seemed to me to allow him to actually say some than in the past, which might just be a result of my getting used to his way of writing.The Southern Reach.
Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy
is extraordinary, but I read it as late-stage drafts while I was in the midst of all I described above, and the texts did change some (especially Acceptance
) after the versions I read ... so I really can't claim to have "read" these in the way one normally expects the word "read" to mean. I'm hoping to read the finished versions at a more leisurely pace, with more of my brain to devote to them, in the coming weeks, because they haunted me before, even as I was frazzled with other work and reading on the go in snips and snatches. Maybe that was the best way to read them through the first time, so that the books remain not as a narrative in my mind, but as flashpan sparks of images, words, moments. Certainly, one of the great thrills for me this year was watching as the books became the most popular things Jeff has ever written. There are very few satisfactions to compare to the satisfaction of a close friend or family member finding success beyond what they ever expected.Lorde. Glück.
I had two poetic companions this year: Audre Lorde's Collected Poems
and Louise Glück's Poems: 1962-2012
. Both books are vast, and so they allow the reader to skim around, to skip and bounce off of their extraordinary words, phrases, lines. I think of both books as sharp
— smart, yes, but cutting, too: they will scratch and draw blood. Whenever I despaired for trut
h, I went to one or both of these books. 2014 was a scarring year in some ways, and the poems of Audre Lorde and Louise Glück helped make those scars, if not less painful, more bearable, more comprehensible.Basement Tapes.
It took more than 45 years, but we now have Bob Dylan's fabled Basement Tapes
in an official release, beautifully restored to their original inelegance.
Sasha Frere-Jones is right in his review
to say that the complete set (as opposed to the selected highlights
) is likely for obsessives only, but the highlights edition is missing some good tracks, and the complete edition allows a truly remarkable listening experience for anybody interested in Dylan's creative process, or creative processes in general: we get to listen to a genius mess around, try things out, fail and flail, stumble upon wonder. Nobody involved with these recordings originally thought that the general public would ever hear them. These were not recordings made for us. But now we get to be voyeurs and listen to extraordinary musicians playing for an audience only of themselves.
Let the Fire Burn.
An extraordinary, heartwrenching, infuriating documentary
about the firebombing of MOVE in Philadelphia in 1985. In his September 2013 review
of the film, Stuart Klawans wrote: "People who think that America is entering a postracial era will view Let the Fire Burn
as a period piece. People who think that such mutual incomprehension is still commonplace in our society, and still concludes too often with a black corpse on the street, will watch the movie as if it is today’s news, filmed thirty years ago."
In the year of Ferguson
and "Hands Up! Don't Shoot!"
; the year of Eric Garner
and "I Can't Breathe!"
; the year of Tamir Rice
; the year of #BlackLivesMatter
— in that year, our year 2014, this documentary is all the more necessary to our national conversation. If there's one movie I saw this year that I could make everybody I know see, it would be this.Texas Chainsaw Massacre: 40th Anniversary
. Texas Chainsaw Massacre
, one of the greatest of American artworks, was released 40 years ago, and this year a restored print received a limited theatrical run and then release as an excellent
Blu-ray/DVD package. TCM
is not just a horror film (for some people, the most horrifying of all), but also an extraordinary expression of the apocalyptic tendency in American narrative art, a tendency that dates back centuries. In comparing TCM
to The Omen,
Robin Wood succinctly showed
its radical difference from mainstream, studio horror movies of the '70s, and the difference remains potent even today, when the low-budget aesthetic has become so common to horror that it no longer holds much punch as an aesthetic. Because TCM
so effectively evokes many of the basic horrors at the heart of American mythology, it remains both a potent, even overwhelming, experience and a remarkable critique of so much that we in the U.S. are conditioned to hold dear.Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery.
I watched Twin Peaks
when it first aired on CBS in 1990 and 1991, and it rearranged my brain and permanently affected my aesthetic sense. (And made me a die-hard David Lynch
fan.) I got the DVDs of the show for Christmas the year my father died, and watched them all in those first weeks when I was trying to figure out how I'd have to rearrange my life, since I'd suddenly become heir to a gun shop and a house. They were the perfect accompaniment to those surreal days. And now, with the big Blu-ray box called The Entire Mystery,
we have the episodes beautifully presented, with more extra features than I've yet had time to watch.Hannibal.
I don't watch much network TV — mostly, I watch crime shows on Netflix while eating dinner. (I don't know why crime and mystery stories are the only ones I really enjoy as serial work, but that's how it is.) Nothing I've seen since The Wire
has affected me as deeply as Hannibal
, and no TV show I've seen since Twin Peaks
has seemed as aesthetically vital. The best writing I've seen about Hannibal
has come from Matt Zoller Seitz, so I'll just direct you to him to see why it's such an extraordinary show: on Season 1
; on Season 2
; as 2014's best drama on TV
; as the best show of 2014
I wrote about
the second season (of the second iteration) of the Swedish Wallander
back in 2013, and then this year got to see the third season's six episodes
, which end with Wallander's retirement. (The season begins with the plot of Henning Mankell's final Wallander novel, The Troubled Man
, but Wallander's own conclusion is built up through all the episodes.) The third season is tonally quite different from the second, and most of the cast is different. Linda, Wallander's daughter, is back, having been dropped in the second season after actress Johanna Sällström's
death, and Charlotta Jonsson is very good in the role. The season is very much about Wallander's decline into Alzheimer's, and as such it's one of the most powerful fictional presentations of Alzheimer's that I know, even if the mystery plots are not as compelling as before. (I don't think they should be. The third season is about Wallander the man, and the plots are there to support our understanding of his crisis.) The last episode is overwhelmingly powerful for anyone who, like me, had watched all of the previous episodes. Krister Henriksson deserved every award in the world for his work in this season. I was also pleased that the writers found a way to avoid a bleak ending. It's sad in the way many things in life are sad, but it's emotionally nuanced and complex, too — even, at the end, sweet, which seems entirely appropriate for this show.Snowpiercer.
I wrote a lot
when it came out, as did plenty of other people, as it's the sort of movie that seemed to make people want to write essays, comments, screeds. It was one of the more divisive movies of the year, one of those movies people seemed incapable of feeling indifferent toward (either you loved it or hated it), and one I ended up feeling very protective toward, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious to me. One of the things it seemed to do was separate people whose evaluative emphasis is on narrative coherence, plausibility, etc. — at an extreme, Hitchcock's dreaded plausibles
— from people whose emphasis is more toward the cinematic. The basic premise of Snowpiercer
is, in many ways, so ridiculous as to be beyond implausible. Even more infuriatingly for some folks, it teases us toward a reductively allegorical interpretation. Some viewers could not see value in the film beyond that. When trying to think through people's negative responses to the film, I think what bothered me so much is what bothers you whenever you love something and other people really, really don't: there's no way to have a productive conversation. There's no bridging that gap. If you hated Snowpiercer
, there's pretty much nothing I can say that will make you agree with me; nor is there anything you can say that will make me see the movie the way you do. In fact, in any meaningful way, you and I see utterly different movies. Mild disagreements and different interpretations can be discussed and such positions can be overcome, but some things affect us too deeply — they exist at a level far beyond the rational.
For me, Snowpiercer
deserves the label total cinema
because it brings together so many different elements (acting, cinematography, production design, sound design, etc.) that create a unified effect that is only cinematic. Not literary, not craft, not music, but all of those (and more!) into one. Some elements inevitably get more emphasis than others, but it is the play of elements, their interaction, that defines the cinematic. It was that force that I responded to so fully, and why the film worked for me so well, and why I had to create a video essay
to try to show it, because limiting myself only to words can't convey even half of what the film does to me.Mr. Turner.
I responded even more viscerally to Mr. Turner
than to Snowpiercer
, and I also expect Mr. Turner
will be divisive, though fewer people will likely see it, and it's not as explicitly open to political readings, so there probably won't be many essays about its political implications. But again, the filmmakers' aesthetic and narrative choices will alienate many viewers while enrapturing those of us who, for whatever reason, are open to them. For me, it's the best 2014 movie I've yet seen.Jamie Marks Is Dead.
A movie based on a book that I read in manuscript from one of my favorite writers and people is going to
have a lot to prove, and Jamie Marks Is Dead
, based on Christopher Barzak's first novel, One for Sorrow
, proves a lot. I enjoyed it far more than I expected to
, and though I understand why it struggled a bit to find an audience (not an easy movie to reduce to a tagline or a particular audience type), I still wish it had become a big breakout hit, or at least made it to more critics' best-of-the-year lists. It's a movie that deserves to be seen, a movie made with real skill and sensitivity, a model of how a truly faithful adaptation does not need to just reproduce a bunch of scenes from the book.The Raid 2.
I enjoyed The Raid
, but The Raid 2
tops it in every way. Indeed, it's one of the best action movies I've ever seen. It's excessive in every way — indeed, it's so bloody it sometimes seems like a slasher movie — but it's creatively excessive, which is key. It's not an animated-with-CGI blockbuster, but a brilliantly choreographed dance of destruction. In its own way, it hearkens back not just to the great martial arts movies of the past, but to Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd.Only Lovers Left Alive.
I've really come to like Jim Jarmusch's films from Dead Man on
(his earlier work just doesn't quite capture my interest), and Only Lovers Left Alive
is easily my favorite of them. It's the best vampire movie since Let the Right One In
, but it's far more (or other) than a vampire movie. It's a masterpiece of suggestion and mood, of hint and tease, and it's a joy just to hang around in its crepuscular world.
For years, I've said I like novels to be x, y, or z; often that x, y, or z meant (in some way or another)
unsettling, challenging, surprising... But those words feel inadequate, because inevitably there are things that are, for instance, unsettling in unproductive ways — a pulpy, detailed story of child molestation is probably unsettling and disturbing, but also plenty likely to be worthless, exploitative crap that aims primarily for the reader's gag reflex and puts the writer in the obnoxious position of nudging us endlessly with the question, "How much can you take?"
As I thought about why Damon Galgut's 1991 novel The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs
worked so well for me where so many other books I've tried to read recently did not, I started to feel like I was finally moving toward some understanding of what the word disturbing
, as praise, meant to me. It ties in with something Galgut himself said
in an interview with Kianoosh Hashemzadeh for Web Conjunctions
a few years ago:
...it seems to me, if you provide answers—the usual forms of literary catharsis are a kind of answer, things tie up and all the elements of the plot are neatly knotted at the end—you might have a good experience when you’re reading that book, but when you close the book you basically have closed any moral problems that the book raised and that’s it. Whereas if people are disturbed and unsettled, things have been raised and not resolved, people have to carry that around and work it out some way.
This is similar to things I've thought for a long time (I am, after all, a devotee
of Chekhov, who famously said the job of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them), but Galgut's formulation there feels like it captures many of the qualities I value. The usual forms of literary catharsis
is an interesting phrase, for instance, and makes me think of the thousand stories launched by Raymond Carver's example, stories that mistake bathos for epiphany. I think too of what Tom McCarthy called
"the default mode dominating mainstream fiction and most culture in general: this kind of sentimental humanism" that wallows in "a certain set of assumptions, certain models of subjectivity – for example, the contemporary cult of the individual, the absolute authentic self who is measured through his or her absolutely authentic feeling."
(What I want in fiction: To push against those assumptions. To seek un
usual forms of literary catharsis, or to abjure catharsis altogether. To stay surprising. To disturb, but not exploitatively, not in a way that produces easy emotion or predictable response — to write in a way that frustrates prediction, that lingers because it scratches you. And yet is this any different from those statements by Dickinson and Kafka that get repeated ad nauseam these days among the bookish? Dickinson: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Kafka: "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us." We put these on bookmarks and refrigerator magnets, we proclaim them to students, but I am skeptical that most people actually agree with these statements. If they did, they would read and write differently, and such works as Wallace Shawn's plays
would be worshipped among the literati.)The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs
tells a simple story, if it can be said to tell a story at all: a young, white South African man named Patrick Winter had some sort of nervous breakdown during mandatory military service; he travels with his divorced mother to Namibia in late 1989 because his mother is dating a former student of hers, a black man involved in Namibia's independence struggle, which was then culminating in the country's first democratic elections. Patrick's mother and Godfrey, her boyfriend, break up because she's not particularly committed to Namibian independence, and she, Patrick, and a "I'm-not-a-racist!" racist white man they met all travel back to South Africa. The end.
While mostly accurate, such a summary pretty much misses everything that's important about the novel.
For instance, the details of Patrick's breakdown in the military: he wasn't as athletically skilled as some of the other soldiers in his unit, and he formed a friendship with another somewhat awkward guy, Lappies. Eventually, one night they had a sexual encounter with each other, something they never talked about — and then Lappies was killed a month later while out on patrol. Patrick comes undone.
The identity that most clearly defines Patrick is that of white South African man
, which in many circumstances is (more than) enough. But one of the smartest moves of the book is to tease us toward a desire to pigeonhole Patrick more fully, and then, once revealing it, to frustrate that desire and illuminate its hollowness. Was Patrick's encounter with Lappies purely a matter of the circumstances — a friendship in a difficult place that, after a particularly stressful bit of warfare, blossoms into something physical — or are Patrick and Lappies gay men? We don't know, and Patrick probably doesn't know. His mother asks him, "Have you ever been in love?" and he replies, "Yes. Once. I think. I'm not sure." His mother says he never told her about it. "I don't think I knew at the time," he says. (The context clearly implies he's talking about Lappies here.) We learn no more about his sexual identity for the rest of the book.
This uncertainty of identity is important for the book's specific context, because one of the things Patrick tries to come to grips with is that some identities are social ones, and their reality is outside his ability to affect them without radical change: identities of skin color, of nationality, of gender, of class adhere to him, regardless of whether he wants them to, and their power is especially determining in South Africa and Namibia at the end of the 1980s.
What we learn in the final chapters of the book is the difficulty of escaping not just a white identity, but racist power. Patrick wants to be like a white political leader Godfrey knew who was murdered, but he knows he doesn't have it in him. He encounters both proud racists and people who are vehemently racist but won't admit it to themselves. He watches his mother spiral from anti-racist political commitment back into the comfort of her racial privilege. The last sentence is: "In front of us, empty and cold, the road travelled on toward home." By that point in the book, it is a sad, even horrifying sentence, for it is a sentence filled with a sense that home
is a place of wrongness, but there is no escape from it, no hope, even: its gravity shapes and binds you. And yet there is
some hope because Patrick is not his parents (his father is a wealthy capitalist in South Africa). He's not a political activist, he's not anyone who should be held up as a model, but he's not quite as bad as his parents, not quite as stuck, it seems, in acceptance of the power his skin color brings him. What will become of him in the last days of the apartheid era? We don't know, nor does Patrick, nor could Galgut when he wrote the novel (it was first published in 1991) because too much in the world, and especially South Africa, was unknown at the time, and so any clear resolution he gave to it would have rung false. He could have given us the comfort of showing Patrick coming to a political awakening, renouncing his parents, staying behind in Namibia to work with Godfrey. He could have had Patrick find a nice boy to settle down with and overcome his trauma, perhaps even a black boy, showing that unlike his mother, he, the enlightened individual, is capable of creating a good
interracial romance. Conversely, Galgut could have given us pure nihilism and had Patrick killed somehow in Namibia, maybe a suicide, maybe killed in a political bombing (mistaken for an activist!). But instead, Galgut made what seems to me the right choice, the most resonant choice, to let the book exist with a kind of possibility, even if a pessimistic one. It's not a comforting ending, it's not consoling, but it's also not hopeless, and it lingers, because it forces us to think about what will become of Patrick, and why. We are disturbed
, left to our own intense tumult, disorder, chaos.The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs
uses the first-person point of view to move the reader beyond an affirmation of uncomplicated individualism. Galgut could have written a book with multiple viewpoints, allowing us to see the likely very different perceptions of Patrick's mother, of Godfrey, of Dirk Blaauw (the racist who doesn't think he's a racist). That sort of copious social realism has its place, but it is not necessary here, because we can guess it all. Patrick is an observer in most of this story, and every encounter is rich with history behind it. Details are telling. Patrick's mother shows him a little glass bottle she bought in town, but Patrick knows it came from a German shop that also displayed items with swastikas on them. It's a tiny detail, and yet suddenly we know what is happening to Patrick's mother: from someone who said she was committed to anti-racist politics, she has become someone who can buy a trinket at a shop that also sells Nazi kitsch. It was a shocking moment for me, and it made me realize I had held out hope for his mother, hope that for all her messiness and confusion that she would end up okay. We don't need the complex armature of the social novel here. (Which is not to denigrate the 19th century social novel. In the hands of its greatest practitioners — Balzac, Flaubert, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, a few others — it could be a remarkably diverse, radical
form.) Galgut can unsettle readers' assumptions and desires through the intensity of the book's focus and the power that gives to each sentence and each narrative gesture.
Galgut's prose serves his purposes well: it's bare, efficient, even cold — qualities that not only vividly convey Patrick's sense of disassociation from the world, but also guard against hyperbole and sentimentalism. The danger of such a style is that it can turn into the opposite of sentimentalism, earnest frigidity, but it doesn't feel to me that it does so. Instead, the words and sentences leave room for our own response, our own flows of emotion, whatever those flows may be.
I've been reading Steven Shaviro
's new book, The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism
, and I was especially taken with this passage (if you want the context, the chapter it's from originally appeared as the article "Self-Enjoyment and Concern: On Whitehead and Levinas"
A philosophy of processes and events explores manners of being rather than states of being, "modes of thought" rather than any supposed essence of thought, and contingent interactions rather than unchanging substances. It focuses, you might say, on adverbs instead of nouns. It is as concerned with the way that one says things as it is with the ostensible content of what is said. Even if the facts, or data, have not themselves changed, the manner in which we entertain those facts or data may well change... (p. 18)
Shaviro goes on to explore these ideas within philosophical contexts, but I think there's something to them for fiction, too, in what such ideas suggest about fictive consciousness, identity, and subjectivity. If we want to overcome the banalities inherent in the usual forms of literary catharsis, the default mode of sentimental humanism, etc., then perhaps we need a fiction of processes, modes of thought, and contingent interactions. That's what it seems to me Galgut gives us with The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs
, a novel in which perceptions are in process up to the final sentence, and which, when its last page is turned, leaves readers to their own modes of thought — modes of thought that are themselves processes, and which now become processes inflected by interaction with the novel. Kafka's axe chops the frozen sea within us, but it isn't "real" ice that it is chopping, merely our perception of frozenness. The sea was never frozen; it was what it always was, despite our failed perception: in flux, like Heraclitus's river
, on the banks of which stands a sign reading: Watch your step!
Two new biographical films give viewers an opportunity to see diametrically opposite approaches not just to biography, but to film narrative itself.
A warning: I saw Mr. Turner
and The Imitation Game
months ago (as part of the annual Telluride at Dartmouth
festival), and my thoughts here are based purely on memories that are getting ever dimmer. Nonetheless, the differences between the films are so striking that I couldn't help but keep thinking about them, to keep reading about the stories' subjects, and to keep coming back to the idea of how information is conveyed through moving pictures.
I went into both films with relatively high expectations, since I adore Mike Leigh
's work and I had very much enjoyed Headhunters
, the previous movie directed by Imitation Game's Morten Tyldum
. And overall I did like both Mr. Turner
and The Imitation Game
; however, "like" is part of a broad spectrum, and for me, Mr. Turner
was a powerful emotional and aesthetic experience that made it among the best movies I've seen in a long time, and The Imitation Game
was an entertaining way to spend a couple hours.
The audience responses to the two films were interesting, in that The Imitation Game
seemed to be a real crowd-pleaser, while Mr. Turner
... Well, let's see. There was a couple behind us who didn't seem to be having a very good time, and somewhere in the distance somebody was snoring, then when we walked out to the lobby, a couple of nice young Dartmouth students working as ushers stopped me and one of my companions: "We're sorry," they said, "but we just need to know — what did you think of that?" I think my companion said she thought it was pretty but that Timothy Spall's performance was very off-putting, and I think I mumbled out something like, "Bloody genius! Overwhelming!" The students clearly found it almost an impossible film to even have an opinion of, a film that was so outside their protocols of evaluation that it might as well have been an alien object.The Imitation Game
takes very good care of its audience. It works hard to keep the viewer from confusion, it provides plenty of exposition, its score sets up emotional moments, and it simplifies the history it represents so determinedly that it is, in the most shallow sense of the word, satisfying
: it fits its subject to the limitations of a limited form. It's the cinematic equivalent of a TED Talk.Mr. Turner
is not much interested in providing the viewer with exposition. Its narrative approach could be described as starting from the middle of in medias res
. It doesn't explain who its characters are, what their relationships to each other are, or why they behave the way they do. As viewers, we're required to pick up on cues, like strangers in a new city or guests at a party where we don't know anybody. It's a deeply internalized narrative form, and it can feel unstructured, though it's not at all. It's vaguely akin to cinema verité
, but perhaps closer to Chekhov's plays, which David Magarshack astutely described as plays of "indirect action".
Indeed, in some ways what we see with The Imitation Game
and Mr. Turner
is not so much an aesthetic difference between biopics, but a much deeper and older difference: that between the well-made play and realism. This is not to say that The Imitation Game
works like a Scribe
play, but rather that it sticks to old narrative conventions of character relations, suspense, and denouement, and it does so quite skillfully — it's no surprise that it topped the Black List
of unproduced screenplays in 2011, because it shrinks the story of Alan Turing
into a pleasing and recognizable form.Mr. Turner
is far less interested in fitting its tale into a familiar form. Instead, white Mike Leigh and his accomplices have done is take some of the actual history of J.M.W. Turner
in his later years (mostly the last decade of his life) and roam around in it, dramatizing not only the known history but also some of the amusing tales and rumors that rose up around him (good stories, but unverifiable). The desire of the film seems to be not to teach us anything, but rather to let us hang around in some of the moments of Turner's life. It concludes with his death, but not in any satisfying way — instead, we are left with the uncomfortable sense of missed opportunities and incomplete actions that accompanies the end of even the longest of lives. For the viewer who has been able to enter into the movie's indirect approach, to feel a way into the film's feelings, it's profoundly moving. For the viewer who hasn't, the effect is bewildering, anticlimactic, and just plain odd, a mix of "That's it?" and "So what?"
For me, the narrative approach of Mr. Turner
seems more honest and respectful toward the history than the approach of The Imitation Game
, where a complex history is quite severely reduced so as to make it more dramatically comprehensible and familiar. It's odd that The Imitation Game
has to give credit to Alan Turing: The Enigma
by Andrew Hodges; it would be more accurate to credit the film as "based on a handful of sentences in a big book by Andrew Hodges and a whole lot of imagining by Graham Moore". Some people have criticized it for not depicting Turing's homosexuality enough, and there's something to that, though it's not so much a lack of attention to his sexuality as a question of emphasis and detail — the BBC film of Hugh Wheeler's play Breaking the Code
is far more effective at conveying the complexities and realities of homosexuality in Turing's life. (For The Imitation Game
, it seems it's the chemical castration that's the most interesting part of Turing's sexual history, since it leads to a climactic weepy moment.)
While Mr. Turner
is not remotely a documentary, and admittedly
adds in a few events that are likely untrue, on the whole it is remarkably faithful to what is known and what can be known about Turner's life and era. Leigh can accomplish this because he doesn't feel any need to force the film into the form of a traditional story. By abandoning the most traditional, familiar conventions of storytelling, he's free to keep things as odd and messy as they may have been in real life.
Both films are carried by their lead actor, but again the differences are sharp. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing as the cousin of his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. It's a generally endearing portrayal; nobody makes this sort of character as charming and delightful as Cumberbatch, and he's in danger of typecasting. (I love his Sherlock, but am most impressed by him as an actor in Parade's End
, because there he had a truly difficult acting challenge: to convey meaning and emotion while portraying someone who has deeply repressed their emotional life. It's an extraordinary acting challenge because it requires that the actor do as little "acting" as possible, and it is that sort of challenge — not the showy Oscar-bait stuff — that separates the great actors from the merely talented. I would have preferred more of that performance in Cumberbatch's Turing and less of Sherlock.) But there's also something plastic about the performance, something that seems to me more appropriate for a comedy — I sometimes thought Cumberbatch edged toward Michael Palin
Timothy Spall's performance as Turner is astounding, but also, for many people, so off-putting that it makes actually watching the movie difficult. (Or so they told me.) For me, it was riveting, because though Spall snarls and growls and mutters and spits his way through the movie, it's not a grandstanding performance because the physicality is so at odds with an inner life that Turner struggles to communicate and that only fully comes out in his art. One of my favorite scenes in the film has Turner standing at a piano as a woman plays it. He is clearly moved by the music. Then, he starts singing. He's a terrible singer, of course, but he so commits himself to the song and so lets the music sink into himself that the moment is extraordinarily complex: we want to laugh, yes, because it's like watching an overgrown hamster try to sing like Pavarotti, but quickly we also can't help but see the human being within, the rough son of a barber who taught himself to appreciate so much that was considered high-class and beyond him, the great artist trapped in the man's body. It's a moment absurd, beautiful, and sad all at once. That's the strength of this film, the greatness of its art: it is absurd, beautiful, sad, horrifying, weird, funny, beguiling, and so much more all at once.
The other performances are as layered and interesting as we've come to expect from Leigh (although Joshua McGuire's portrayal of John Ruskin, while hilarious, seemed a bit too over the top in comparison to the other performances in the film). Dorothy Atkinson deserves every award out there for her performance as Turner's housekeeper, Hannah Danby — she transformed herself even more fully than Spall, but is similarly capable of conveying extraordinary amounts of emotion and information through glances, gestures, and posture. It's a performance that, like Spall's, could easily have become caricature, but rises to far greater heights.
The cinematography in Mr. Turner
is also extraordinary. (I remember nothing of the cinematography of The Imitation Game
.) The way that Leigh and his director of photography Dick Pope are able to set up shots and capture light is not precisely Turneresque (though a few scenes from Turner paintings are reproduced); instead, it creates the feeling of showing us the kind of light that Turner would have interpreted through paint. It allows us to imagine that we see not Turner's paintings, but what Turner painted, and what he saw in the world that inspired him toward painting. (In that sense, it reminds me of Jean Lépine's magnificent cinematography in Vincent & Theo
, another great film about a great artist.)
I expect The Imitation Game
will be up for more awards than Mr. Turner
, because The Imitation Game
is such an easy film to like — it's the nice guy you're always happy to have over for dinner because he can get along with anybody and he always has a few amusing stories to tell. But you're happy he also goes home after a couple of hours, because really he doesn't have a lot to offer. Mr. Turner
is thornier, a movie that, like its subject, makes no effort to be likeable, and so in the end is something much more than likeable: a work of art that trusts its audience to catch up, to play along, to reflect and wonder, and to live with complexities of ordinary, extraordinary life.
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, Add a tag
from "Power" by Audre Lorde:
|Ferguson, Missouri. Nov. 24, 2014. (Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters)|
I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.
|(photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters)|
I attended a screening of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1980 film Lili Marleen
at the Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist series
at Lincoln Center last weekend, and it was an extraordinary experience. This is one of Fassbinder's weirdest and in some ways most problematic films, a movie for which he had a relatively giant budget and got lots of publicity, but which has since become among the most hard-to-find Fassbinder films (which is really saying something!). Despite a lot of searching, I didn't come upon a reasonably-priced copy of it until I recently discovered an Australian DVD
(seemingly out of print now) that was a library discard.
The story of Lili Marleen
is relatively simple, and is very loosely based on the wartime experiences of Lale Andersen
, whose performance of the title song
was immensely popular, and whose book Der Himmel hat viele Farben
is credited in the film. A mildly talented Berlin cabaret singer named Willie (Hannah Schygulla) falls in love with a Jewish musician named Robert (Giancarlo Giannini), whose father (Mel Ferrer) is head of a powerful resistance organization based in Switzerland, and who does not approve of the love affair or Robert's proposal of marriage. A Nazi officer (Karl Heinz von Hassel) hears Willie perform one night, is captivated by her, and guides her into recording the song "Lili Marleen", which unexpectedly becomes a song beloved of all soldiers everywhere on Earth. Willie becomes a rich and famous star, summoned even by Hitler himself, while Robert continues to work for the resistance and ends up marrying someone else. By the end of the war, Robert is a great musician and conductor and Willie seems mostly forgotten, many of her friends dead or imprisoned, and Robert lost to her. She had no convictions aside from her love of Robert, but that love was not enough. (I should note here that there are interesting overlaps between the film and Kurt Vonnegut's great novel Mother Night
. But that's a topic for another day...)
I was surprised to find that Lincoln Center was using the German dub of the film rather than the English-language original (it was a multinational production, so English was the lingua franca, and, given the dominance of English-language film, presumably made it easier to market). It was interesting to see Lili Marleen
in German, but unfortunately the print did not come subtitled, and so Lincoln Center added subtitles by apparently having someone click on prepared blocks of text. The effect was bizarre: not only were the subtitles sometimes too light to read, but they were often off from what the actors were saying, and when the subtitler would get behind, they would simply click through whole paragraphs of text to catch up. My German's not great, but I was familiar with the film and can pick up enough German to know what was going on and where the subtitles belonged, but I missed plenty of details. The effect was to render the film more dreamlike and far less coherent in terms of plot and character relations than it actually is. Not a bad experience, though, as it heightened a lot of the effects Fassbinder seemed to be going for.
Afterward, I said to my companion, "That was like watching an anti-Nazi movie made in the style of Nazi movies." I'd vaguely had a similar feeling when I first watched the DVD, but it wasn't so vivid for me as when we watched the German version with terrible subtitling — my first experience of Nazi films was of unsubtitled 16mm prints and videotapes my WWII-obsessed father watched when I was a kid.
When I got home, I started looking through some of the critical writings on the film, and came across Laura J. Heins's contribution to A Companion to Rainer Werner Fassbinder: "Two Kinds of Excess: Fassbinder and Veit Harlan"
, which interestingly compares Lili Marleen
to the aesthetics of one of the most prominent of Nazi filmmakers
(and a relative-by-marriage of Stanley Kubrick).Lili Marleen
was controversial when it was released, not only because it is probably Fassbinder's most over-the-top melodrama, a film that defies both the expectations of good taste and of mainstream storytelling, but also because it arrived at a time when what Susan Sontag dubbed (in February 1975) "fascinating fascism"
was on the wane (The Damned
was 1969, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS
was October 1975, as if to bring everything Sontag described to an absurd climax) while interest in earnest representations of the Nazis and the Holocaust was on the rise (Holocaust
1978, The Tin Drum
1979, The Last Metro
1980, Playing for Time
1981, Sophie's Choice
1982, The Winds of War
1983, etc.). Lili Marleen
is much closer to The Damned
(a film Fassbinder loved
) in its effect than to the films with similar subject matter released in the years around it, and so its contrast from the prevailing aesthetic regime was stark, leading to what seems to have been in some critics utter revulsion. It's notable that Mephisto
, a film with very similar themes* and a significantly different aesthetic, could win an Oscar, but though Germany submitted Lili Marleen
to the Academy, it was not nominated — and I'd bet few people were surprised it was not.
Even though it exudes the signs of a pop culture aesthetic, Lili Marleen
can't actually be assimilated into the popular culture it was released into, partly because the aesthetic it's drawing from is passé and partly because it is deliberately at odds with conventional expectations. In a chapter on Lili Marleen
in Fassbinder's Germany
, Thomas Elsaesser writes
that "coincidence and dramatic irony are presented as terrible anticlimaxes. With its asymmetries and non-equivalences, the film disturbs the formal closure of popular narrative, while still retaining all the elements of popular story-telling."
At the time of its release, there was much handwringing about the ability of works of art to create a desire or nostalgia for fascism in audiences, and Lili Marleen
became Exhibit A. Heins quotes Brigitte Peucker: "One wonders whether, in Lili Marleen,
Fassbinder’s parodistic style is not unrecognizable as parody to most spectators, and whether his central alienation effect, the song itself, does not instead run the danger of drawing us in." This is absurd. Fassbinder's style is parodistic, but it's also much more than that — it is multimodal in its excess — and I have about as much ability to imagine an audience member getting a good ol' nostalgic lump in the throat and tear in the eye while watching it as I have the ability to imagine someone watching Inglourious Bastards
and mistaking it for Night and Fog
Heins paraphrases Peucker as apparently thinking that "the often repeated title song may ultimately generate more sentimental affect than irritation". I can't believe that, either. For those of us who are not especially misty-eyed about the long lost days of the 1,000-year Reich, the song becomes as grating as it does for the character of Robert (Giancarlo Giannini), who gets locked in a cell with a couple lines of the song playing over and over and over again. What begins as sentimentality becomes, through repetition, torture.
The song is repeated so much that even if it doesn't irritate, it is stripped of meaning, and that's central to the point of the story, as Elsaesser describes
When Willie says, "I only sing", she is not as politically naive or powerless as she may appear. Just as her love survives because she withdraws it from all possible objects and objectifications, so her song, through its very circularity, becomes impervious to the powers and structures in which it is implicated. Love and song are both, by the end of the film, empty signs. This is their strength, their saving grace, their redemptive innocence, allowing Fassbinder to acknowledge the degree to which his own film is inscribed within a system (of production, distribution and reception) already in place, waiting to be filled by an individual, who lends the enterprise the appearance of intentionality, design and desire for self-expression.
One of the things I love about Lili Marleen
is that its mode is utter and obvious kitsch, undeniable kitsch. It highlights the kitschiness not only of the Nazi aesthetic (which plenty of people have done, not least, though unintentionally, the Nazis themselves), but to some extent also of many movies about the Nazis. (I kept thinking of the awful TV mini-series Holocaust
while watching it this time, and Elsaesser makes
that connection as well.) We love to use the Nazis and the Holocaust for sentimental purposes, and representations of the Nazis and Holocaust often unintentionally veer off into poshlost
. To intentionally do so is dangerous, even as critique, because it is too easy to fall into parody and render fascism as something absurd and ridiculous, but not insidious. The genius of Lili Marleen
is that the insidiousness remains. It's what nags at us afterward, what lingers beneath the occasional laughter at the excess. There is a discomfort to this film, and it's not just the discomfort of undeniable parody — it is the discomfort of realizing how easily we can be drawn in to the structures being parodied: the suspense, the action, the breathless and improbable love story, the twists and turns, the pageantry, the displays of wealth and power. Our desires are easily teased, our expectations set like booby traps, and again and again those desires and expectations are frustrated and mercilessly mocked.
It's worth thinking about the place of anti-Semitism in Lili Marleen
(and Fassbinder's work generally), because this was also part of the uproar over the film, an uproar that was really a continuity of the complaints
about Fassbinder's extremely controversial
play Garbage, the City, and Death
. While not as brazenly playing with anti-Semitic imagery and language, Lili Marleen
does give us a very powerful Jewish patriarch in Robert's father, played by Mel Ferrer, a character that can be seen in a variety of ways — certainly, he is an impediment to Robert and Willie's romance (clearly wanting his son to marry a nice Jewish girl), but I also think that Ferrer's performance gives him some warmth and grace that the Nazi characters lack. Nonetheless, while Lili Marleen
is very obviously an anti-Nazi film, it's not so obviously an anti-anti-Semitic film (though there is a quick shot of a concentration camp, and Willie redeems herself by sneaking evidence of the camps out of Poland). Heins writes:
It cannot, of course, be concluded that the Absent One of all of Fassbinder’s films is The Jew, or that the sense of danger created by an unseen presence is racialized or nationalized, as it is in Harlan’s film [Jud Süss]. The malevolent other of Fassbinder’s films is more properly patriarchy and the police state, acting in the service of a repressive bourgeois order. In the case of Lili Marleen, however, we must conclude that Fassbinder did fail to effectively counteract the Harlanesque paranoid delusion of total Jewish power, if only because The Jew in this film is described as capitalist patriarchy’s main representative.
That point is astute, though for me it highlight the (sometimes dangerous) complexity of Lili Marleen:
by employing certain features of Nazi storytelling, by putting clichés (aesthetic, narrative, political) at the center of his technique, and by seeking to wed this to the sort of anti-capitalist, anti-normative-family ideas common to his work from the beginning, Fassbinder ends up in a bind, one that forces him to trust that the various opposing forces render all the clichés hollow enough that performing and representing them does not give them new validity or justification — that the paranoia and delusion remain legible as paranoia and delusion. I think they do, but I feel less certain of that than the certainty I feel against the old accusations of glamourizing Nazism.
In addition to the title song, Lili Marleen
includes an ostentatiously schmaltzy score by Fassbinder's frequent collaborator Peer Raben. It's schmaltzy, but also very sly — as Roger Hillman points out on the Australian DVD commentary, Raben includes brief homages to composers and works that the Nazis would not have looked fondly on, such as Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah
. This technique is similar to the film's entire strategy: to booby-trap what on the surface is an overwrought deployment of old tropes.
Finally, a note on the acting: sticking with the concept of the film as a whole, the acting is generally a bit off: sometimes wooden, sometimes unconvincingly emotional. (It's acting a la Brecht via Sirk via Fassbinder.) The more I watch it, though, the more taken I am by Hannah Schygulla's performance. On the surface, it's an appropriately "bad" performance, one redolent of the acting style of melodramas in general and Nazi melodramas in particular. And yet Schygulla's great achievement is to find nuance within that — hers is not a parodic performance, though it easily could have veered into that. Instead, while abiding by the terms of melodramatic acting, it also gives us a transformation: Willie starts out awkward, not particularly talented, a sort of country bumpkin ... and she becomes a poised, distant, sculpted icon ... and then a refugee from all she has ever known and loved. There's still a sense of possibility at the end, though, and one Schygulla's performance is vital for: a sense that Willie may reinvent herself, may find, in this newly ruined world, a path toward new life.
that Lili Marleen
can be seen within the context of some of the other films Fassbinder made around it:
the three films of the BRD trilogy — shot out of sequence — are held together by the possibility that they form sequels. If we add the film that was made between Maria Braun and Lola, namely Lili Marleen which clearly has key themes in common with the trilogy, then Lili Marleen's status in the series might be that of a "prequel" chronologically: 1938-1946 Lili Marleen, 1945-1954 Maria Braun, 1956 Veronika Voss, 1957 Lola. Four women, four love stories, four ambiguous gestures of complicity and resistance.
It could be a tagline for so many of Fassbinder's films, not the least Lili Marleen: Ambiguous gestures of complicity and resistance
. For a world entering the era of Thatcher, Kohl, and (especially) Reagan, Lili Marleen
was a most appropriate foil.
*In one scene of Fassbinder's film, Willie looks through a magazine and we quickly glance a picture of Gustaf Gründgens
The first book written for adults that I ever coveted and loved and read to pieces was a short story collection: Stephen King's Night Shift
, from which my cousin read me stories when we were both probably much too young, and which was one of the first books I ever bought myself. Ever since then, short story collections have seemed to me the most wonderful of all books.
I started publishing short stories professionally with "Getting a Date for Amelia"
back in 2001. I barely remember the kid who wrote it (in the summer of 2000). I'm not a prolific fiction writer; I've been lucky enough to publish most of the stories I've written in the last decade or so, but I average only two stories a year. Fiction is the hardest thing in the world for me to write. Some stories have taken many years to find a final form. The kid who wrote "Getting a Date for Amelia" also managed to write a novel; it was mostly terrible (or, rather, not terrible
, which might be interesting. Just nothing at all special. Rather boring, in fact. An extraordinarily useful exercise, though, dragging yourself through a novel-length piece of writing, even if the end result isn't all that great). I like fragments and miniatures too much to ever write a proper novel, I expect.
What? Get on with it? Ah.
Yes, I am dithering here.
Because I am about to write a sentence that still feels unreal, though I've been writing various forms of it into emails to friends for a little while now:
I am the 2014 winner of the Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press for an unpublished manuscript titled Blood: Stories that will be published by BLP in January 2016.
The book will mostly contain reprints, and finally bring together all of the stories I've published since 2001 that are 1.) worth bringing together and that 2.) play well with each other. There are also a few unpublished stories, ones that I've never found the right home for but that felt to me like they belonged with the others, both gained and added context from/to the others, and were worth publishing. The editors at Black Lawrence Press agreed. One of the things I love about story collections is the way they can recontextualize stories, and the greatest excitement for me of this collection is that it will finally allow stories that have been scattered across a wide range of publications over many years to speak to each other.
I'm also incredibly excited to have found a publisher that is excited by what some others have considered either a fault or danger of the collection: its breadth of genres and styles. Perhaps out of sheer stubbornness and delusion, I was convinced that I could not be the only person on Earth to think the overall perspective of the work would create a coherence beyond genre or tone, that there was, in fact, a persistence of voice and vision. That's what the BLP editors told me attracted them to the manuscript, and when they said that, I knew I'd found what may be the perfect publisher for my work.
So I am excited. Beyond excited. I don't have words to convey the feeling of achieving something I've work toward for so long, something I often gave up hope of ever achieving. I wanted to write this post not only to let the world know the news, but also to preserve this moment so that, working through the more difficult parts of the experience (oh gawd, people might write reviews!), I can look back and remember what it felt like to be at this moment of triumphant possibility.
And to thank you, whoever you may be, who felt that it was worth some bits of your time and attention to read my words. I hope to continue to reward your interest.
The marvelous Interfictions Online
has now published my short story/prose poem "On the Government of the Living"
The piece, which takes its title
from Michel Foucault but is not otherwise especially erudite, began purely as an exercise: I wanted to see if I could take what the Turkey City Lexicon
calls "White Room Syndrome" and actually make it a viable, necessary element of the story. (Whenever a writing guide says, "Don't do this!" I inevitably want to try it out...) The effect, perhaps unsurprisingly, is rather Beckettesque.
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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Though J.M. Coetzee's work has long fascinated
me, I've avoided writing anything on Foe
, because every time I tried to write anything, it felt obvious and stupid. It's the same feeling I've gotten whenever I've tried to write about Samuel Beckett or Franz Kafka, two other favorites of mine. Perhaps what has defeated me with writing about Foe
is something similar to what defeats me whenever I've tried to write about Beckett and Kafka, who were, in fact, considerable influences on Coetzee — their work is so what it is
that to add words around it feels inevitably reductive, a violence against the art.
I recently tried again with Foe
, and while it didn't feel quite as stupid and reductive as previous attempts — indeed, the writing helped me clarify some of my ideas about what the novel is up to — I don't think I'm going to go on. I started with a couple of passages toward the end of the book, and thought that might bring me back toward earlier parts, but as I started toward the earlier material, the feeling began again, the feeling of it being pointless — worse, harmful
— to keep emitting utterances around that which defies language.
Here, then, are two basically first-draft almost-essays about the end of Foe
, in case they are of any interest...
1. pp. 123-126 [US Penguin edition]
At the end of the first paragraph of this passage, Susan claims herself as “father to my story”. Foe then tells the first of his parables (anecdotes? tales?), one that centers on confession and the idea of “true” confession.
A woman who was convicted as a thief confessed that her first confession was false: she unleashes a torrent of confession on a minister, who becomes skeptical.
The woman says, “And if my repentance is not truly felt (and is it truly felt? — I look into my heart and cannot say, so dark is it there), then is my confession not false, and is that not sin redoubled?” (124). Confession here moves from being a true account to a true feeling, and the link with repentance elides any difference between the two: unfelt repentance = false confession. (Echoes of Disgrace here.)
Foe seems to believe that the woman’s confession in his story is a tactic, for he says, “And the woman would have gone on confessing and throwing her confession in doubt all day long…”, which suggests she is not so much telling a true story as behaving like Scheherazade, trying to forever defer her death through storytelling. Foe’s expression of what he thinks the moral of the story is boils down to: at some point, you’ve got to stop telling stories and accept the effects of the stories that have been told, particularly with regard to the story of our self. (I think of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Nighthere, where in an introduction Vonnegut says it is the only one of his novels that he knows the moral, and the moral is: “Be careful what you pretend to be, for you are what you pretend to be.”)
Susan disagrees with that interpretation. “To me,” she says, “the moral is that he has the last word who disposes over the greatest force” (124). Susan knows that the storyteller only has power so long as the auditor is willing to keep listening. The real power is with the king or executioner: whoever can, at any moment, say, “Stop. Now I will kill you.” Here, I think, we see the difference in Foe and Susan’s experiences of power. Susan’s experience is that of a woman in patriarchy — no matter what she does, no matter who she is, it is always he who has the last word.
Foe tells a second story: a condemned woman seeks someone to take care of her child; one of the jailers agrees to, and the woman goes to her death content. This is a parable of procreation and progeny: instead of sending stories off into the world, this woman sends a child, and the child is a continuation of the self, providing a different sort of posterity. Foe interprets it as a way “of living eternally” (125).
Susan seems to misinterpret this parable — she’s good at understanding storytelling, but not so good at understanding parenting, it seems. She immediately interprets Foe’s “living eternally” as “fame”, which is not at all what he said. Foe’s was a more biological idea: the passage of a self encoded in genes from one generation to the next. Susan wants Foe to give her new clothes and a letter of recommendation so that she can get a job in domestic service: “I could return,” she says, “in every respect to the life of a substantial body” — but that’s exactly what Foe was talking about in the previous parable: the substantial body of the child outlives the body of the mother and thus carries on heredity. Susan’s silence about her daughter here is notable, because that would seem to be the logical subject to bring up: “At least the woman in your parable knew where her daughter was,” Susan could say. But she doesn’t. She brings it all back to herself. “I remain as ignorant as a newborn babe,” she says (126). She here is in the child position … but who was her mother? Mothers don’t make stories, for stories are, she says, fathered. It seems to me that the novel is somehow getting at ideas of failed or deferred or broken motherhood. (And I haven’t said anything about these interesting sentences from before: “But such a life is abject. It is the life of a thing. A whore used by men is used as a substantial body” . This is Susan rejecting bodily life, striving, as always, for the life of storytelling. But stories are breaths and bits of ink, not life.)
2. Chapter IV
Chapt. III begins: “The staircase was dark and mean.” Chapt. IV: “The staircase is dark and mean.”
(Darkness again. One could easily write a 30-page paper on the words “dark” and “darkness” in Foe.)
IV continues differently, though: where III continues with “My”, IV gives us a body: something substantial, “a woman or a girl” (153). She can be picked up, she has substance, but she “weighs no more than a sack of straw”.
The bodies in the bed, with skin “dry as paper”, are introduced first as a pronoun: “They lie side by side in bed, not touching.” The pronoun has no antecedent for the reader. We can fill it in ourselves with suspicions. If we were reading grammatically (Coetzee knows this, tempts us toward this), the antecedent is “a mouse or a rat”. But rather than living (substantial) animals (rodents, vermin), what we have are dessicated bodies, bodies similed into paper.
“I draw the covers back.” As if pulling a book open.
In an alcove: Friday, in “pitch darkness” (154). Matches “will not strike”. “I find the man Friday stretched at full length on his back. I touch his feet…” Once again, the fetish of Friday’s feet. Susan always wants shoes; Friday always wants bare (life?) feet. (Susan always desires stories, always flees bare life through the distance of tales. Friday desires — if the figure of Friday can be said to “desire” anything — flesh against soil, cobblestone, floor.)
Friday has a pulse. In his throat. “From his mouth, without a breath, issue the sounds of the island.” It is as if the pulse produces the sounds. But the sounds of the “faraway roar” are ones the narrator expects, ones previously reported, for that faraway roar, perceived as “the roar of waves in a seashell” is “as she said”.
A break in the text.
A plaque, a sign: Daniel Defoe, Author. We know Foe, not Defoe. The sign is a mark, the author an authority, and the sign enacts his authority. The authority of a byline. It is not free-floating, it is nailed to a wall. Did Daniel Defoe author(ize) this room?
A few paragraphs later, we get the first sentence of the book we’ve been reading, but now with a salutation: “Dear Mr. Foe, At last I could row no further” (155). Taken on its own, it sounds like a suicide note. The salutation directs it. We have repeatedly had clues suggesting that Chapter I (numeral and singular personal pronoun) is not the spoken text we probably first took it to be: the ship’s name rendered typographically was the first clue, and here we are encouraged to see Chapter I as similar to, if not exactly the same as, the epistolary Chapter II.
At any rate, here the narrative splits without a textual break: the narrator now appropriates some of the words of the first pages, here without quotation marks and here in the present tense.
With a sigh, with barely a splash — a sigh, a breath. (Stories require breath. Friday has a pulse.)
The dark mass of the wreck is flecked here and there with white. … It is like the mud of Flanders, in which generations of grenadiers now lie dead, trampled in the postures of sleep. … In the black space of this cabin the water is still and dead, the same water as yesterday, as last year, as three hundred years ago. Susan Barton and her dead captain…. I crawl beneath them. … But this is not a play of words. … This is a place where bodies are their own signs. It is the home of Friday. (156-157)
And now, again, at the end, a beginning: Friday’s mouth opens. “From inside him comes a slow stream, without breath, without interruption.” He speaks without breath. This is not a story or confession, but something else. Something uninterrupted. It is bodily, and conveyed bodily. What it is, we do not know: it is it, pronoun, no antecedent. Soft, cold, dark, “unending”.
it beats against my eyelids
The eye/I. Friday’s eyes on feet (147), “dark to my English eye” (146), Foe says Friday rowed across a “dark pupil” or “dead socket” an “eye staring up at him from the floor of the sea” — “but I should have said the eye, the eye of the story” (141).
it beats against my eyelids
against the skin of my face.
We end, then, with Friday’s unbreathed story beating against closed eyes and (white?) skin.
This review was first published in Rain Taxi in the spring of 2011. I'd actually forgotten all about it, but then came across it as I was reorganizing some folders on my computer. In case it still holds some interest, here it is. (Page references are to the Yale hardcover, and were for the copyeditors to double check my quotes; they weren't in the print version of the review, but I've kept them in because, well, why not...)
One of the pleasures of Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?
is that it all but forces us — dares us, even — to argue with it.
Josipovici presents an idiosyncratic definition of Modernism, he perceives the struggles of Modernist writers and artists as fundamentally spiritual, and he frames it all by describing his disenchantment with most of the critically-lauded British fiction of the last few decades, a disenchantment that he ascribes to such fiction’s attachment to non-Modernist 19th
The only readers likely to agree with Josipovici’s general view, then, are readers who accept his terms and share his tastes. Such readers are probably few, and they are also the readers who least need the book. It is those of us who may be sympathetic to one or another of Josipovici’s general arguments who really need it, because it is a powerfully clarifying volume, especially in its extended discussions of particular works.
“Modernism” is one of those terms that has been used in so many different ways, with so many different meanings, that anyone seeking to discuss it must first define it. In general, it is seen as both a tendency and an era, a style of artistic expression mostly occurring in the twentieth century, though with some examples or precursors in the latter part of the 19th century. Josipovici rejects all of this, for while his paragons of Modernism do fit the general periodizing, his definition of the term is far broader, and is not particularly interested in situating Modernism within borders of time. In the first chapter, he defines Modernism as “the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities” , a definition that is further refined to see Modernism as a response to the post-Medieval European world’s disenchantments. Modernism reveals itself in the “century of pain, anxiety, and despair on the part of writers, painters, and composers” , which Josipovici details with examples from Mallarmé, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Kafka, and Beckett. The pain, anxiety, and despair come from an unresolvable tension between an overwhelming desire to write and a doubt in art’s ability to represent the world. This tension inscribes itself in the texts, undermining or even shattering the enchanting verisimilitude of, for instance, Victorian novelists such as Dickens.
Josipovici begins What Ever Happened to Modernism?with a preface in which he tells the story of being an undergraduate student, hearing a lecture about “The English Novel Today”, seeking out the recommended writers (Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, Iris Murdoch), and feeling a lack: “They told entertaining stories wittily or darkly or with sensationalist panache, and they obviously wrote well, but theirs were not novels which touched me to the core of my being, as had those of Kafka and Proust” (ix). He goes on to discover Borges and Claude Simon, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Saul Bellow, Georges Perec, and Aharon Appelfeld — all writers whose work he admires — but feels more and more of an outsider within English literary culture. “Occasionally I wondered why my own feelings and those of reviewers or critics were so much at odds, wondered, indeed, who was right, me or the entire establishment. I didn’t think I was mad (though of course the mad rarely do), and I did occasionally meet people who shared my tastes, so how was this anomaly to be explained?
“This little book,” he says, “is an attempt to answer that question.” (xi)
Within the question itself we can glimpse the kernels of Josipovici’s argument, assumptions, and desires. He sets up a polarity: “Who was right, me or the entire establishment?” It’s a feeling many intelligent and thoughtful people have asked (often in their youth) for centuries, and the frustration it provides can be productive, particularly in helping people define their tastes, but in and of itself it’s humorous in its naivety. The claim that What Ever Happened to Modernism? is an attempt to answer the question of why Josipovici’s experiences as a reader are different from those of people who don’t share his tastes may be true in terms of intention — he may have thought that was what he was trying to do — but it is false as a description of the book’s value, because Josipovici shows no interest in trying to understand tastes that differ from his own. He truly doesn’t seem to be able to understand how people of even moderate intelligence and education could find themselves touched to the core of their beings by works that he himself doesn’t respond strongly to, and which seem to him “to belong to a different and inferior world to that of Proust and the others” (x). Not just different, but inferior.
It should not surprise us, then, when Josipovici defines a central element of Modernism as “pain, anxiety, and despair” resulting from European culture’s growing rationalism and waning faith in unquestioned authorities and eternal verities. Over the course of the Middle Ages, perceptions of reality changed. Individualism took hold. Capitalism infiltrated economies. The Enlightenment solidified, expanded, and complexified the disenchantment, and then Romanticism reflected on it. The Victorian novel, that form which Josipovici so disdains, sought to re-enchant the world with the legerdemain of its reality effects, the verisimilitude that lulls the reader into imagined reality. Such a reality is unquestioned, unified — it does not admit the problems of representation in a fallen and fragmented world. Its pains, anxieties, and despairs are not those of the Modernist, but of the illusionist.
Josipovici’s question “Who was right, me or the establishment?” is simultaneously a cliche of individualism (the absolute individualist, unburdened by doubts, answers, perhaps with a copy of The Fountainheadin hand, “ME!”) and an expression of the assumption that prevents Josipovici from empathizing with any view other than his own, because the assumption underlying the question is that there is a right and a wrong, and that this right and wrong can be discovered and elucidated. The first chapters of the book are the weakest, because it is in them that Josipovici attempts to predict criticisms to his arguments, but he is so convinced that those criticisms must be wrong(different and inferior) that what he offers as representations of them are ridiculous: a quote from Evelyn Waugh about Picasso, a parody of Marxism (paraphrasing something Josipovici said he heard from a professor at the University of Sussex once), and a caricature of postmodernism that, were someone to represent his own conception of Modernism so badly, Josipovici would laugh off the page. He quotes an astute statement from the art historian T.J. Clark on the difficulties of writing honestly about pre-Enlightenment Europe without sounding nostalgic, but this seems pro forma — Josipovici verges, especially in the first chapters, toward far more nostalgia than Clark’s Farewell to an Idea does, because Josipovici clings to the notion that the fragmentation and dispersal of authority should cause pain, anxiety, and despair. He wants, still, for there to be one right and one wrong, and he sees “the establishment” as a monolithic and invalid authority.
He knows, though, that this despair can lead to terrible things, and he uses Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus particularly well to point to the dangers, for Doctor Faustus represents a Germany “which is in the grip of a party which believes it is possible to forge a new cultic and communal society in the post-industrial world,” and this Germany “appals and terrifies” the characters, Mann, and Josipovici. What is to be done? “Can one retain the critical insights, feel the loss as real, without at the same time opting for the demented Nazi vision of a new cult? This is the question out of which the tortured novelist, writing in distant California as the Nazi dream drags Europe to its destruction, forges one of his greatest works.” [19-20]
After these introductory pages, the book shifts more toward Josipovici’s real strengths — he moves from denigrating the mysterious forces that don’t share his opinions and perceptions to offering his interpretations of specific writers, artists, and works. In its central chapters, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is a tour de force. As the book draws connections between Albrecht Dürer, Rabelais, and Cervantes; Wordsworth and Caspar David Friedrich; Kierkegaard and everyone, the pages sing with insight. Each reader will find different thrills within the rich texture of the text. While I was familiar with some of Josipovici’s ideas about such writers as Cervantes, Kierkegaard, Kafka, and Beckett from his previous essays, I had passed over things he’d written before about Wordsworth, and so his close readings of some of Wordsworth’s most famous and most obscure poems opened those works up to me in ways I had never considered, and sent me back with passion to a writer I’d previously had little interest in. I expect most readers, especially those unfamiliar with the majority of Josipovici’s other books, will, if they can read past the polemic, find similar moments of epiphany in What Ever Happened to Modernism?.
By the end of the book, the word “Modernism” seemed to me too narrow for the tendency Josipovici described, because he convincingly shows connections between everything from ancient Greek drama to Herman Melville to Francis Bacon, suggesting that for millennia artists have concerned themselves with, if not Modernism exactly, the impulses and experiences that allow Modernism to fully reveal itself in the 19th century. What Josipovici describes is not an artistic movement or school, but a type of perception and expression present in much of the art that has been considered among the greatest of human accomplishments. The fiesty, proselytizing side of Josipovici tries hard to make it seem that everybody who has ever written about literature hates and misunderstands this tendency, but it may just be that he is uncomfortable on the side of the winners. While Proust, Kafka, Borges, et al may not be quite as popular as J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown right now, they’re a whole lot more widely read than Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, and Iris Murdoch, and a whole lot more universally beloved than even the contemporary British writers who soak up so much of the journalistic ink that rouses Josipovici’s ire.
I suspect, though, that the ire and insights need each other, and that without the passionate sense of being a lone, sane man in a madhouse of philistines, Josipovici may not have been able to make the bold and brilliant interpretive leaps displayed throughout not only What Ever Happened to Modernism?, but his entire oeuvre of essays and fiction. Careful, moderate critics are useful, but it is the fiery, aggrieved ones who scale the highest intellectual heights, and Josipovici has scaled those heights with brio and panache.
Press Play has now posted my latest video essay, "Terry Gilliam: The Triumph of Fantasy"
. It also has a short text essay to accompany it. Here's how that one begins:
In a 1988 interview with David Morgan for Sight and Sound, Terry Gilliam proposed that the most common theme of his movies had been fantasy vs. reality, and that, after the not-entirely-happy endings of Time Bandits and Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen offered the happiness previously denied, a happiness made possible by “the triumph of fantasy”.Read and view more...
That triumph is not, though, inherently happy. Gilliam’s occasional happy endings are not so much triumphs of fantasy as they are triumphs of a certain tone. They are the endings that fit the style and subject matter of those particular films. More often than not, his endings are more ambiguous, but fantasy still triumphs. Even poor Sam Lowry in Brazil gets to fly away into permanent delusion. Fantasy is sometimes a torment for Gilliam’s characters, but it is a torment only in that it is haunted by reality, and reality in Gilliam is a land of pain, injustice, and, perhaps worst of all, ordinariness.
I know it's been all Snowpiercer
all the time here lately, but this time it's not so much about that particular film as about how one reviewer has chosen to write about it, since his choices are ones that I detest in reviews, despite (or perhaps because of) how common those choices are.
I am, in other words, simply here to register a complaint
There is a good argument to be made that we should not expend any time or attention on bad writing. Life is short, and there's plenty of great writing out there to read. But I am ignoring that argument for the moment, despite all it has to recommend it. Because sometimes something is just such a perfect model of What Not To Do that I can't help but want to scream against it.
The item in question is a review at The Los Angeles Review of Books by Len Gutkin
. It is a negative review, but that's not the problem. I'm glad there are negative reviews of Snowpiercer
, even though I loved the film, because I am suspicious of anything that seems to garner universal acclaim.
It would be nice, though, if the negative reviews could be something more than, "Waaaaa! I don't like this movie and other people do! I'm right, they're wrong! Waaaaaa! Pay attention to me!"
You think I exaggerate? Let me do something the review does not, and offer a bit of evidence...
The first paragraph is mostly summary, but the term "critical darling" is obviously there to let us know that this will not be an altogether positive review. Critical darlings
are one step above warm piles of wombat dung, after all. Not only are they darlings
(which we all know must be killed, not loved), but they're also the darlings of that most disgusting of creatures, the critic.
(Critics who proclaim their distaste for all those other critics are the best, of course, because they're on Our Side. They're One of Us. We the people.)
The second paragraph begins with an overview of director Bong Joon-Ho's career, with The Host
praised for its satire and wit, but the review quickly plunges into invective. "Snowpiercer
, too, has moments of satirical wit, but it is mostly an incoherent slog, a tendentious allegory punctuated by overproduced fight scenes meant to be virtuosic but that are, in fact, merely busy — glossy object lessons in the asininity of action-movie convention."
Here's where we begin to see the problem with this review. The reviewer wants to universalize his own taste, prejudices, inclinations, ignorance, etc. He
wants to become Us
. He could not write, "I found Snowpiercer
to have some moments of satirical wit, but mostly it seemed to me to be an incoherent slog..." No, it must be stated more categorically: It is this.
Of course, you might argue that since this is a review written by one person, the fact that it is one person's opinion is obviously implied, and saying, "It seems to me..." or "I found it to be..." over and over is annoying. That may be true, but writers find ways around it without declaring themselves God Of All Truth. And yes, certainly the omniscient pose is, we all know, just a pose. It's the choice to take such a pose that I object to, because it leads to an astounding arrogance of tone, a tone of absolute faith, utter certainty, pure infallibility.
Perhaps I so bristle at it because I've fallen into such a tone myself at times. It's hard to avoid, I know. But worth the effort. The pieces of writing that I most regret having published are reviews composed with such a tone.
I could complain about the inaccuracy of Gutkin's adjectives, or the factual inaccuracy of his "in fact" ("merely busy" — no, that is, in fact, wrong
), or the blithely dismissive phrase "the asininity of action-movie convention" — but let's instead look to how he justifies his opinions. After such assertions, there must be evidence, no? "The entire movie looks, somehow, both very expensive and frustratingly cheap." Another assertion. Followed by a comparison to a video game and another assertion: "which would have been impressive 17 years ago." Oooh, snap! But not evidence. (How
does it look like that? Point to specific elements. Describe.)"Snowpiercer
is about class revolt, a theme whose timeliness has tricked critics into admiring it." More assertions and more arrogance: All those other people have been tricked
! Our reviewer is the only one who can see the truth! This sentence is followed by a snide contradiction of David Denby's review: "'Is revolution being hatched in the commercial cinema?' The New Yorker
’s David Denby was moved to ask. No, David, it’s not." This is a contradiction, not an argument
. Also, it's puerile. (Why not just call him Dave? You're at Yale, Lee, you could, you know, jump on MetroNorth and hang out with Dave in NYC. I'm sure he'd love to chat with you. He might even offer you his job, because obviously you're so much smarter than he is!)
This is followed by some more snide summary in which the writer works hard to declare himself superior to the work he is reviewing.
(Have we found evidence for Gutkin's assertions yet? I'm not seeing much. But let's continue...)
There's commentary on Chris Evans's performance as Curtis. "Has there ever been a well-known actor so pitifully without any of the requisite gifts as Evans?" Yes, I'm sure there has been. But maybe he meant the question as hyperbole. No matter. It completely misses the idea that perhaps the performance is exactly what was needed, because perhaps there is a critique of heroic action movies built into this movie. I don't require a reviewer to agree
with such an idea, but it's always worth considering that perhaps the item under review is doing what it is doing on purpose, and perhaps your job as a reviewer is to look for that purpose, and, before you reject the item as simply "bad", to consider this possible purpose and adjust your critique accordingly. But no, as any blowhard can tell you, it's much easier and more fun to hurl insults.
The review continues: "To be fair, he’s given some pretty hopeless material. Recounting to Namgoong the traumatic early days of life on the train, Curtis fights back tears (I think that’s what he’s doing) and asks, 'You know what I hate about myself? I know what people taste like.' After several seconds of grimacing: 'I know that babies taste best.' I laughed so hard I thought I’d be asked to leave the theater." Again, skipping over the snotty tone, maybe that's the point
(But let's not entirely skip over that snotty tone. Gutkin presents himself as one of those people who likes to stay above it all, distantly judging anyone who might find the scene actually moving. I can see him at the theatre, laughing away while some poor schlub next to him wipes away a tear, and Gutkin turns to said schlub and whispers, "What a little crybaby you are. You probably watch the Hallmark Channel, don't you?")
He moves on to Tilda Swinton. To Gutkin's credit, he recognizes that Tilda Swinton is a god. He then references Coriolanus
, to show what a real
writer can do with similar themes, and Joan Didion, who long ago sneered down her sneery nose at Dr. Strangelove
— and so Gutkin decides that because he, too, likes to sneer, he has rights to Didion's nose, and he uses it to sneer down at Snowpiercer
, which is, in fact, worse
. (Imagine that! The horror!) But Swinton's good: "Only when she’s onscreen does Snowpiercer
completely hold one’s attention."
The above sentence is yet another example of the arrogance that oozes from this review. What if somebody said, "There actually are
other moments that completely held my attention." How would Gutkin respond? He has left himself only two choices. He could say, "In that case, I am wrong," or he could say, "You may think your attention was completely held, but you are a victim of false consciousness, and I, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University, know more than you, and therefore I pronounce you wrong. Return to the hole out of which you crawled, worm!"
The next paragraph is, surprisingly, all praise for various actors, ending with, "And as Wilford, Ed Harris is as good as you’d expect him to be."
Just as we're beginning to think that Gutkin is maybe not the total creep he seemed to be, he doubles down: "But not good enough." Ohhh, feel the burn!
The final paragraph continues: "Snowpiercer
wouldn’t, really, be worth writing about at all, except that a number of prominent critics — and not just David Denby — seem inexplicably convinced of its virtues." If the egomaniacal shallowness of this sentence isn't obvious to you, just look at that inexplicably
there. According to this sentence, none of the critics who have praised Snowpiercer
have explained their praise. None of them. Instead, they've just written thousands and thousands of versions of, "Snowpiercer
, rah rah rah! Yadda yadda yadda! It's great, great, great" Meanwhile, Gutkin has offered the devasting and incontroverible evidence of, "No, David, it’s not."
We're not quite done yet, so maybe there's some evidence in the final sentences. Gutkin actually quotes two reviewers, Dana Stevens and Andrew O’Hehir, but he doesn't quote their reasoning, he just contradicts their opinions, and quotes O'Hehir on Harvey Weinstein's initial desire to cut the film's length, which then leads to the final sentence: "Weinstein should have been allowed his cuts — the thing would at least have been shorter." (The thing
. It's not even a movie, it's just a thing
, something easily dismissed. Get this thing
out from under my Didion nose! Such things
are not allowed at the Yale Club! Go away, thing
This made me wonder if the reviews he quotes are as vapid as his own.
Here's a paragraph from Stevens
(and not an entirely positive one, at that, despite Gutkin's accusation that Stevens gushes
Unless you have a huge appetite for gnarly fight sequences, this seizing-control-of-the-train section gets a bit long and structure-less, though I will say this for Bong: His action scenes never build or resolve according to familiar Hollywood formulas. Any character, no matter how narratively important or beloved, can get the ax (often literally) at any time, which gives the battle scenes a palpable sense of emotional as well as physical suspense.
The qualifier at the beginning of that first sentence is an interesting contrast to Gutkin's arrogance. As someone who does
, in fact, have a pretty good appetite for "gnarly fight sequences" (an accurate description of some of the central scenes in the film), I appreciate Stevens's caveat. Indeed, I can see how somebody less interested in cinematic mayhem than I might get bored during a lot of Snowpiercer
, just as I could see they might get bored with any action movie, no matter how accomplished. If you don't like that sort of thing, you don't like that sort of thing, and you'll have a hard time telling the good stuff from the mediocre or even bad. (It's like me trying to tell you if a football player is any good. Amateur football games look just like professional ones to my eyes. But I'm not writing reviews of football games.) Further, Stevens makes an assertion about those action scenes (they "never build or resolve according to familiar Hollywood formulas") and then follows that assertion with reasoning.
The O'Hehir review
is more descriptive and also full of assertions without evidence, and, truthfully, doesn't do a very good job of explaining its praise.
It's easy to write negative reviews. It's fun, in a nasty, trivial sort of way. It lets you blow off the steam that built up from being subjected to an experience you didn't enjoy. I've done it. I get it. But a negative review needs to offer something more than just its negativity.
I've come to expect, perhaps foolishly, a little bit more of the L.A. Review of Books
. Shouldn't an editor say, "Hey, you've clearly had fun writing this, but you should know that you come off sounding like an ass, and it might help to put a little bit more explanation in there to give some evidence for your criticism. You disguise the lack of substance with a tone of omniscience, as if the obviousness of your complaints isn't worth the effort of explanation. I mean, have you ever considered that maybe the problem isn't the movie? Maybe, really, the problem is ... you?"
After reading Gerry Canavan's essay
on two newly published short stories by Octavia Butler
, one of which is a prequel to her 1978 novel Survivor
, I decided it was time for me to read Survivor
, since though I'd read most of Butler's books, and repeatedly assigned a couple of them in classes, I'd never gotten around to this one.
The problem, however, is that Survivor
is a book Butler disavowed and, once she had the ability, she prohibited it from being reprinted. Used copies tend to sell for at least $65 (although one just sold on E-Bay for $15. Alas, I discovered it only after the sale!).
However, I figured I might be able to get a copy through interlibrary loan, and that's how I discovered my university library had a copy. (You can also find a bootleg PDF online if you search for it. But I didn't tell you that.) I went to the library fully expecting that the book did not exist — that it had disappeared off the shelf without anyone noticing, or that for some reason the catalogue was mistaken. But no. It was there: a hardcover without a dust-jacket, in pretty bad condition, its mustard-yellow boards scratched and torn, its corners crushed and frayed, its binding broken. I will be returning it with a note, something to the effect of: "Please take care of this book. It might not look like much, but it is rare. It is valuable. We need it to be preserved."
Having now read Survivor
— or, more accurately, having compulsively devoured the novel in two days, which for me is very fast, indeed — what I find myself most wanting to say is exactly that, to whoever will listen: We need this book to be preserved
After reading/devouring Survivor
, I went looking for reviews of it and articles about it. I read every interview with Butler that I could find where she mentioned it. I wanted to know why she had gone out of her way to keep this book from us, because for me it was not just a satisfying read, but a far more satisfying ending to the Patternist series
, her first-published novel, a novel I like well enough, but which feels thin: a book for which Butler had considerable vision, but not yet the skill to bring that vision to vivid life. Survivor
is certainly not as skilled as many of Butler's later novels, even the later-published novels of the Patternist series (as novels, I think both Wild Seed
and Clay's Ark
are more accomplished) — but it's at least the equal of Mind of My Mind
, and in some ways superior to it: I found the ending quite moving, for instance, while for me the most interesting sections of Mind
are in the middle. Survivor
also provided a certain sense of closure to the Patternist series that Patternmaster
didn't for me, perhaps because Survivor
is about some of the last remnants of humanity, the ones who escape Earth and don't end up the "mute" slaves of the Patternists.
Butler's public statements about Survivor
are not especially illuminating. In an interview with Amazon.com, she said:
When I was young, a lot of people wrote about going to another world and finding either little green men or little brown men, and they were always less in some way. They were a little sly, or a little like "the natives" in a very bad, old movie. And I thought, "No way. Apart from all these human beings populating the galaxy, this is really offensive garbage." People ask me why I don't like Survivor, my third novel. And it's because it feels a little bit like that. Some humans go up to another world, and immediately begin mating with the aliens and having children with them. I think of it as my Star Trek novel.
One of the central elements of Survivor
is the ability of humans to have children with the natives of a far-off planet, and this biological improbability seems to be a part of the problem she sees with the book. Elsewhere, she spoke of publishing Survivor
too soon, as if she wished she'd given it another draft or two, maybe to at least gesture toward some justification for the ability of humans to procreate with the Kohn, the native people of the planet (a common ancestor, for instance).
The biological improbability isn't the main thing. Though no explanation would make it highly scientifically sound, there are improbabilities in Butler's other novels, and this one is hardly a reason to condemn a book to the memory hole.
The main reason she gives there is that of, we might say, the colonial gaze, something common to science fiction from its beginning
. In this, though, I think Butler underestimated the richness of her own writing. While certainly the Kohn could have been portrayed more complexly, the novel is not as simple as she makes it out to be, and the humans are often portrayed negatively — they are unprepared, deeply prejudiced, almost suicidally stubborn, and sometimes just stupid.
Why, I wondered, would Butler have apparently come to perceive her novel as simplistic colonialist tripe? Some of the academic writing on Butler has given it good analysis and not come to that conclusion. (The best article I've seen is "Negotiating Genre and Captivity: Octavia Butler's Survivor"
by Maria Holmgren Troy, which looks closely at one of the genres that I thought Survivor
was most closely in conversation with when I read it: the captivity narrative
.) Then I thought to look up some of the original reviews, and I read Cherry Wilder's from the January 1979 issue of Foundation
and Geraldine Morse's from the July 1978 issue of Galileo
. They were illuminating.
The Wilder review begins:
It is interesting to see female fantasies emerging in science fiction; it is also important to perceive them for what they are, because a fantasy — one of the persistent, satisfying day-dreams of mankind — is not a good story. This has been amply demonstrated by hundreds of male fantasies masquerading as science fiction or sword and sorcery. ...
The female fantasy that is currently gathering momentum seems to run as follows: "I was the chosen mate of a large, alien-looking male." There is a treament of this in Floating Worlds by Cecelia Holland and an interesting variant in Octavia Butler's new novel Survivor. In both cases, with Holland's six and a half foot black Styth and Butler's giant, blue-furred Tehkohn Hao, the aliens are distantly human and the union is blessed with issue.
The Morse review begins:
If you enjoyed Mandingo, that titillating tear-jerker about the lust of a white plantation mistress for her black slave, you'll probably enjoy Survivor, which raises the tension at least theoretically by introducing a pleasant bestiality in the male partner, who would closely resemble a six foot tall blue gorilla if such a thing existed.
Survivor isn't a bad book, and the ploy of miscegenation perks up an otherwise uneventful story, but with apologies to the gorilla, there's no real meat in it.
I don't know if Butler read these reviews, but if she did, I can see them causing her to rethink her novel. She might have thought that if she had failed so spectacularly as to elicit such responses from reviewers of, presumably, at least a modicum of intelligence and literacy, then she must not have written the book she thought she wrote. Because though of course I'm just speculating here, I'm pretty confident that Octavia Butler did not set out to write a hot-and-heavy interspecies romance fantasy. (I would also suggest that Morse is misreading Mandingo
, but lots of people did.)Survivor
is not a fantasy about how much fun it would be to be ruled and dominated by a big furry blue guy. But I can see where readers' discomfort comes from. Diut, the leader of the Tehkohn, is at first repulsed by Alanna, but then works through his repulsion until it becomes a kind of attraction, and he takes her on as a kind of project. He then decides she'd be a great wife for him, and he takes her to his bedroom. She fights him. He says the Tehkohn do not have a tradition of forced mating, but he also doesn't offer her much choice. She gives in when he tells her that if she mates with him, she will be free to live how she wants. At first, it causes her pain ("'I always give pain before I give pleasure,' he said. 'Your body will accustom itself to me.'" ), but Alanna finds his fur pleasant and an attraction for him grows. She comes to value him and eventually to love him.
Butler's purpose, it seems to me, was to show how repulsion can become attraction. Humans and Kohn find each other's bodies at best alien, at worst utterly repulsive. They see each other as animals and savages. Alanna is a perpetual outsider, though — on Earth, her parents were killed by Clayarks (humans mutated by the disease brought back on the Clay's Ark
starship) and she roamed feral for a while until she was adopted by the religious missionaries who soon take her with them to the new planet. She does not share their very strict religion, though, and plenty of the missionaries thought she should be cast out — not only because she wasn't of their faith, but also because of her ancestry.
Here's an important passage from early in the novel:
"Neila, I've been talking to some of the others and they agree. If we're going to keep the girl in the colony, surely she'd be happier with her own kind."
There had been a moment of silence, then Neila spoke quietly. "Her own kind? Who are you suggesting I give my daughter to, Bea?"
The older woman sighed. "Oh, my. I knew this was going to be difficult. But, Neila, the girl isn't white."
"She's Afro-Asian from what she says of her parents. Black father, Asian mother."
"Well, we don't have any Asians, but one of our black families might..."
"She has a home, Bea. Right here."
"Most of the blacks here are no more interested than the whites in adopting a wild human. The ones who are interested have already been here. Jules and I turned them down."
"...so I'd heard."
"Then why are you here?"
"I thought that after you'd had a few days with the girl, you might... reconsider."
There was the sound of Neila's laughter. "Come to my senses, you mean."
"That's exactly what I mean!" snapped the older woman. "Several of us feel that you and Jules ought to be setting a better example for the young people here—not encouraging them to mix and..." 
A fear of mixing, a fear of impurity and contamination, carries through the whole novel, again and again leading characters toward decisions and actions that harm them. One of the pleasures of reading even Butler's earliest books is that many things which seem straightforward and even obvious are complicated by something else within the story. She doesn't just show us that the fear of mixing and contamination is a hindrance and even a danger to various characters — she shows that sometimes it's a justified fear. The other group of Kohn, the Garkohn, kidnap and seem to plan to inseminate some of the humans because within their ethical system, this means the humans are then bound by Garkohn laws and dictates. In all of her novels, Butler is fascinated by the ways that power is wielded, and even when she seems to show power to be a necessary and perhaps benevolent tool, it is never unambiguously so.
This reminds me of something Dorothy Allison wrote in a 1989 essay on Butler for the Village Voice
(collected in Reading Black, Reading Feminist
ed. Henry Louis Gates):
I love Octavia Butler's women even when they make me want to scream with frustration. The problem is not their feminism; her characters are always independent, stubborn, difficult, and insistent on trying to control their own lives. What drives me crazy is their attitude: the decisions they make, the things they do in order to protect and nurture their children — and the assumption that children and family always come first.
...While acknowledging the imbalances and injustices inherent in traditional family systems, Butler goes on writing books with female characters who heroically adjust to family life and through example, largeness of spirit, and resistance to domination make the lives of those children better — even though this means sacrificing personal freedom. But she humanizes her dark vision of women's possibilities by making sure that the contradictions and grief her women experience are as powerfully rendered as their decision to sacrifice autonomy. ...
Homosexuality, incest, and multiple sexual pairings turn up in almost all her books, usually insisted on by the patriarchal or alien characters and resisted by the heroines, who eventually give in. Her women are always in some form of bondage, captives of domineering male mutants or religious fanatics or aliens who want to impregnate them. Though the men in Butler's novels are often equally oppressed, none is forced so painfully to confront the difference between surrender and adjustment. Women who surrender die; those who resist, struggle, adjust, compromise, and live by their own ethical standards survive to mother the next generation — literally to make the next world. Maybe if this world were not so hard a place, butler might be writing less painful fiction.
I think the patterns that Allison sees in Butler's novels are sometimes more nuanced than she describes here, and this description doesn't really show the way that Butler's interest in the idea of family is an interest in the idea of a chosen family, or at least a family less of blood than convenience. Her families often become communities. Her interest in power (and power struggles), though, leads her to depict families and communities where not everyone has the equal power to choose whether to be a member. Again and again, people are pulled into communities against their will. They may come to see the community as the best place for them, but usually it is some person of power who brings them in. (For more on family, communities, and kinship in Butler's work, see some of the references in Susan Knabe and Wendy Gay Pearson's "'Gambling Against History': Queer Kinship and Cruel Optimism in Octavia Butler’s Kindred
" in Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler
Nonetheless, Allison gets at the peculiar frustration, discomfort, and even discombobulation that reading Butler can cause. I struggled with this myself when I read my first Butler novel, Parable of the Sower
, somewhere around 1996 or so. I hated
it. Viscerally and vehemently. Mostly because I thought Butler was trying to write a book about how wonderful the protagonist Lauren Olamina was, and how much we should all worship and admire her. As a novice to reading Butler, I didn't yet understand the complex stance her books take toward their protagonists, particularly the ones like Lauren who become the leaders of a group or community. Yes, there is attraction, but the attraction can also be a trap, and that was the trap I fell into: I legitimately liked Lauren through much of Sower
, but I was also put off by her confidence in her, I thought, insipid spirituality. (Again, I was reading it shallowly. The text is quite ambivalent about that spirituality, if "spirituality" is even the right word for it.) In Butler's work, power always corrupts. But sometimes, there's just no better option.
It also counters the power fantasies so prevalent in SF and popular culture in general. Cherry Wilder was, I think, spectacularly wrong about the "female fantasy" of Survivor
. In various interviews, Butler noted that as a child she was an avid reader of comic books, and the influence is clear — indeed, the Patternist series sometimes feels like a version of the X-Men. But Butler's take on the power fantasies inherent to both superhero comics and a certain strain of science fiction is not an uncritical one. She knows the seductive power of such fantasies, and she's more than aware of the terrors that seduction can lead to. (As I, perhaps prejudicially, read her, she sees similar seductions in religion. Sometimes I think a basic theme of Butler's work could be stated as, "The power fantasies of comic books, sci-fi, and religion are not all that different...")
Along similar lines, a clever idea that Maria Holmgren Troy proposes is that Survivor
can be read as (among other things) an allegory of science fiction itself:
Interestingly, in the context of science fiction, it is possible to see Alanna—and by extension Survivor—as a child of Butler’s imagination, and the name “Jules Verrick” as a reference to Jules Verne, who is sometimes considered to be the “father of science fiction.” Verne is regarded as one of the most important “pioneers of the tale of the extraordinary voyage into outer space, the most typical of all science-fictional themes” (James 16), which ... is one of the premises of Survivor. Verrick’s wife is called Neila, which if the letters are reversed spells “alien.” Thus, in this allegorical reading, Octavia Butler’s wild child is adopted by the white science-fiction tradition with its domesticated aliens, a tradition which her transgressive work challenges; consequently, the genre and its audience’s generic expectations are forced to expand in order to contain Survivor. Butler stated in an interview in the late 1970s that what she would really like her novels to accomplish is to “make people feel comfortable with characters who are not all male, who are not all white, and who just don’t fit. Who are not middle class, who don’t fit the stereotype” (“Butler Interviewed” 31).
Of all of Butler's books, Survivor
may be the one most clearly in dialogue with much of the science fiction that came before it. While reading it, I thought repeatedly of some of the novels of John Brunner, perhaps because Butler cited them as an influence in a 1997 interview with Joan Fry for Poets & Writers
(collected in Conversations with Octavia Butler
): "The writers who influenced me most tended to be those who were the most prolific. John Brunner was very
prolific — my favorites are Polymath, The Whole Man
, and The Long Result
." (The influence of those three books on the Patternist series seems pretty clear, with Polymath
the closest to Survivor.
) One of the things I find notable in the two original reviews of Survivor
that I was able to dig up is their determination to read the book within the standard science fictional frame, and thus to see it as unoriginal and thin and perplexing; whereas it's a much more satisfying novel if read as an at least somewhat skeptical outsider to the conventional conversation, the standard narrative.
I have moved away from so much of what I thought I'd be writing here, and I haven't written much in detail about Survivor
itself, but perhaps that's for the best. I need to read it again. I am very torn about many of its elements and implications. But I am not torn about one thing: no matter how much Butler regretted the book, no matter how embarrassed she was by it, it is, I think, a perfectly respectable part of her oeuvre, and vastly better than the work of many, many writers.
With that in mind, I think it's worth considering whether Butler's literary executor(s) should consider re-releasing Survivor
. The question should be considered carefully, because it was Butler's wish that no-one read the book. (In Strange Matings
, Nisi Shawl says the first Butler novel she read was Survivor
, and so eventually she asked Butler to sign it for her. Butler did, but wrote: "Nisi, I wish you didn’t have this one.") Any new edition should of course make Butler's disavowal clear. My own desire would be for an academic/critical edition, a book where the text of the novel was accompanied by some essays about it (and not just fawning ones). With the release of the new short stories, it seems especially valuable to have Survivor
available again. But I don't know. It's entirely a selfish desire on my part — I'm fascinated by the book and would like to own it, and I'd like to be less worried that my library's copy is going to disintegrate and be impossible to replace.
In any case, if you happen to find a copy of Survivor
, don't be afraid of it. It's worth reading. It's not Butler at her best, by any means, but it's at least a worthy companion to Patternmaster
and Mind of My Mind
, and it's not nearly as bad as she thought it was. Indeed, when I think of Survivor
now, it's with some sadness, because I don't like to think of Butler disliking her own work so much that she would want it to disappear, especially when that work is more complex and thoughtful than much of what's out there.
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Jamie Marks Is Dead
is based on a book I love by a writer I love: One for Sorrow
by Christopher Barzak
. I realized recently that I think of it as the first novel of "our" generation/group of writers — Chris is a few months older than me, and originally introduced me to probably half the writers and editors I know. I read One for Sorrow
in manuscript, exhorted Juliet Ulman to buy and edit it for Bantam, and celebrated its publication. Chris sent me a copy with the kindest inscription penned onto its title page that any writer has ever given me. I feel like a kind of distant (crazy) uncle to the book, and thus also deeply protective toward it. I didn't read most of the reviews when it was released for fear that I would seek out any negative reviewers and do terrible things to them that would get me arrested. When I found out it was being made into a movie, I was both excited for Chris and for the higher profile the book would likely gain, and terrified that the movie would just be awful. I mumbled to myself for weeks about the change of title before coming to accept it.
The movie was officially released in some major US cities today, and the distributor is also doing a simultaneous release on video-on-demand (Amazon, iTunes, etc.), so those of us, at least in the US, who can't get to one of the cities it's playing in can still see it. I watched it this morning.
The movie is not awful — far from it — and though at first I had my crazy-uncle fists clenched, ready to pounce on anything that even touched a hair of my beloved nephew's head, it was soon clear that this was a movie made from not only a general understanding of the book, but a profound sympathy with it. They're very different creatures, but if you love One for Sorrow
, I think you're likely to love Jamie Marks Is Dead
It begins in a style I've come to think of as "digital somber", a style common to a lot of artsy low-budget movies these days: muted colors; the clarity of light peculiar to a certain kind of digital lensing; long takes and fluid camera movement; dreamy music. It's become a familiar enough style that I now find myself skeptical of it at first, because too often it screams out, "Serious Movie!" before it earns its mood. (But at its best it can be devastating. See, for instance, The Snowtown Murders
In this case, it's a good fit to the material, and director Carter Smith, cinematographer Darren Lew, and the various designers and decorators (Amy Williams, Steven Phan, Nora Mendis, Rachel Dainer-Best) do a superb job of uniting the elements into a whole that sustains a mood impressively. The production design and decoration in particular deserve notice, because the details are exquisite — though the movie makes absolutely no effort to drawn attention to it, the setting is not contemporary, but rather seems to be late '90s, early '00s (the time of the book). Further, though the novel is explicitly set in and around Youngstown, Ohio, the movie is more general in its setting: somewhere northeastish, somewhere working class, somewhere rusty and full of industrial and commercial ruins. (It was shot in New York state. Chris says it looks plenty like Ohio. It looks plenty like places I know in New Hampshire, too, the places the tourists don't go.)
Smith's background as a photographer serves him well, as he and Lew sustain a difficult look for the film without strain. Shot after shot is evocative but not ostentatious. One example (a screen capture doesn't do it justice, or I'd place a picture here): a high-angle long shot of a yellow ribbon of crime scene tape snaked across the wet ground of a grey riverbank on a moonlit night. The tape, though muddied, is the brightest object in the image, rivalled only by the white of driftwood and fragments of light rippling on the water. The image evokes mood and meaning, but most importantly it provides a perfect introduction for a ghost.
I wasn't sure if I was going to like Noah Silver as Jamie, because I had such a clear idea of Jamie in my own mind, an idea that has congealed over a decade of living with the novel, and the soggy-Harry-Potter styling of the character was very different from the lighter, whispier Jamie in my head. (Adam was always less defined for me, more an aural than physical image, since the novel is written from his first-person POV.) But Silver's performance won me over, especially in the second half of the film when he must be alluring, mysterious, innocent, and menacing all pretty much at the same time. In his first scenes, the lighting and make-up make him seem almost like a plastic mannequin, but as the scenes progress, he becomes more and more human — an odd and very effective choice for the representation of this ghost.
All of the performances are strong, and the film demonstrates quite well the adage that finding the right cast (and crew) is 90% of the success of a production. In pre-release photos from the film, I thought Cameron Monaghan as Adam looked a bit too much like a human Kewpie doll, but he gives an impressive performance. His physique is remarkably variable — he can play vulnerability and sensitivity as well as sharpness and hardness, with his face seemingly changing shape depending on the needs of the scene: at one moment, his face is soft and a bit round, at another, it's all cold angles. (Some of this is also the responsibility of the cinematographer and his lighting team.) Monaghan has excellent instincts, and Smith is smart enough to bring those instincts to fore by encouraging him to hold back: Monaghan's eyes tell entire stories.
Where Silver and Monaghan were not immediately in sync with how I'd imagined the characters, and thus had to (and did) win me over, Morgan Saylor was the Gracie in my mind's eye. I've rarely seen an actor so perfectly fit how I'd imagined a character when reading the original material. A big part of it is her voice, which is deeper and huskier than you might imagine if you just looked at her. It would be easy to make the character of Gracie into a cliché of the adolescent "bad girl", but the movie thankfully doesn't do that — as Saylor plays the role, Gracie is very much an individual, not a type. We don't actually learn a lot about her in the movie, but there is a richness to the performance that allows us to imagine so much that the film itself doesn't have time to convey.
Smith made some excellent choices with his screenplay and direction, particularly in how he focused the story. There's an epic quality to the second half of the novel that just couldn't be conveyed well in a 2-hour movie, never mind a 2-hour movie without a big budget. As any good artist does, Smith turns his limitations into opportunities. The close focus on Adam, Jamie, and Gracie (with some other folks wandering in and out of the story to create and complicate tension) allows the film to build a slow, careful emotional resonance. It's seductive, this movie, and it sticks its hooks in when you're not expecting it. Partly, this is because Smith decided to keep the dialogue to a minimum and to not explain everything. It's a movie of glances and glimpses, of possibilities more than answers. That will, I'm sure, bother plenty of viewers, viewers who want explanations for the logic of the ghost world (as if the supernatural must follow a logical system!), who will want some of the plot's mysteries solved more neatly, who will want some of the side stories tied up or justified — but this is a different sort of film, and its commitment to suggestiveness, its willingness to allow possibilities to linger, enhances the fundamental effect. Give yourself over to it, and this is a movie that will haunt you. The novel does this some, but as a novel it has the space to answer questions without closing off possibilities. Two-hour movies are more like short stories, and at its best moments this one reminded me of the effect of reading my favorite writer of ghost stories, Robert Aickman
For all its many great moments, the most extraordinary is the very last. Since the movie goes in a different direction for some of its later parts than the novel does, I had no idea how or where it would end. (Figuring out the end was, I know, one of Chris's biggest challenges when writing the novel.) What could it possibly do? How could it find the resonance it needed to be satisfying?
I'll just say this: the moment the credits started rolling, I was in tears. Tears not only because of the profound effect of the absolutely perfect
choice of ending, but also of relief that this beloved novel had been translated with such care and love to a very different medium.
My latest video essay is now available at Press Play. It's the first in a new series by various hands on cinematic terminology. My term was "composition", and so I made an essay creatively titled, "What Is Composition?"
Going through some of the secondary literature on John Cheever in preparation for a class in which I assigned the students to read his 1954 story "The Country Husband"
, I was surprised to find no discussion of the story within a queer context. My search was not comprehensive, but the connection seems so obvious to me, and so illuminating for the story, that I'm surprised it isn't mentioned by most people who write about Cheever's tale.
Paging through Blake Bailey's comprehensive biography
of Cheever makes the connection even more obvious than the story itself does, for Bailey notes
that Cheever's journal "in the early months of 1954 was filled with self-loathing on the subject" of homosexual desire. It's a running theme throughout the book, as Colm Tóibín points out in an insightful essay
on Cheever and Bailey's biography for the London Review of Books:
The problem was partly his intense inhabiting of the domestic sphere and the suburban landscape, as though this were a way of shutting out the wider world, and partly his refusal even to recognise his own homosexuality as anything other than a dark hidden area of the self which could not be explored. ‘For Cheever it would always be one thing to have sex with a man,’ Bailey writes, ‘another to spend the night with him. The latter was a taboo he would rarely if ever violate until a ripe old age.’ In his journals he wrote: ‘If I followed my instincts I would be strangled by some hairy sailor in a public urinal. Every comely man, every bank clerk and delivery boy, was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol.’ One of his best friends in his twenties was Malcolm Cowley, through whom he had briefly met Hart Crane. Cowley’s wife had been on the ship with Crane when he committed suicide in 1932. A homosexual lifestyle, Cowley had warned Cheever, ‘could only end with drunkenness and ghastly suicide’. As one of Cheever’s colleagues in the Signal Corps in World War Two remarked: ‘He wanted to be accepted as a New England gentleman and New England gentlemen aren’t gay. Back then you had no idea of the opprobrium. Even in the Signal Corps, even in the film and theatre world, you were a second-class citizen if you were gay, and Cheever did not want to be that.’
Of course, in 1954 Cheever could not write a short story about his desires and have it published by The New Yorker
, even if he had wanted to (Alan Gurganus's "Minor Heroism"
is reportedly the first openly gay story the magazine published, a story sent to the magazine by Cheever, who had been Gurganus's teacher and was, rather to Gurganus's chagrin, in love with him. It appeared 20 years — almost to the day — after "The Country Husband"). But the torment of the story's protagonist, Francis Weed, is one entirely familiar to anyone who has ever repressed socially unacceptable feelings.
On a general level, "The Country Husband" is a story about the struggle to keep chaos out of an ordered society: it is a story of repression and abjection. It opens with a fall: an airplane makes an emergency landing. Francis is on the plane, and once he makes his way back to New York, he first tries to tell a (male) friend about his experience, and then his wife and family, and none of them are particularly interested or able to hear him. The crash seems to them an absurdity or impossibility, something that can't be admitted into their consciousness. Francis lives in a world that seeks to keep the world itself at bay, a psychically gated community where everyone "seemed united in their tacit claim that there had been no past, no war — that there was no danger or trouble in the world."
Various forces threaten the perfect, memoryless, painless order of Shady Hill: the dog Jupiter, the little girl Gertrude, and, most insistently, memories of the war years. War imagery fills the story on nearly every page right from the beginning, where the pilot of the crashing plane sings a song popular with Allied soldiers. The most obvious insertion of the war into the story is the moment where Francis recognizes that the Farquarson's maid is a woman he'd see in France in 1944, a woman subjected to "public chastisement" for having "lived with the German commandant during the Occupation". The description of her torture is harrowing: the mayor of the village condemns her, her hair is cut off, she's stripped naked, jeered at, spat upon. We know nothing of why
she lived with the German commandant, or what that entailed exactly, or if she did it out of love or traitorous sympathies or simply the hope of gaining some extra rations — but her crime is clear and at least implicitly sexual. Francis remembers her, and the memory brings in the chaos of the war, but it also reminds him of what happens to anyone who transgresses the mores of a village.
(From a biographical standpoint, it's interesting that Cheever sets this scene in Normandy and, clearly, 1944. He was in the military that year himself, and missed
going over to D-Day by pure luck. Almost all of the men he knew in his regiment died in the attack on Utah Beach and afterward.)
The overt transgression of the story is that Francis falls in love with the babysitter. (I expect this was a cliché even in 1954, and the very predictable, banal nature of the transgression is, it seems, part of Cheever's point.) Francis behaves terribly, even assaults her and very briefly entertains the idea of raping her. His desire is a sprawl of chaos, a threat of destruction. It poisons his family life and his friendships. Finally, he goes to a psychiatrist (as Cheever did the year he wrote the story, though Cheever went to discuss "homosexual concerns"
, impotence, and alcohol abuse), where, because he was insistent that he must see the doctor that day, he is confronted by police who think he might be a man who has been sending death threats. The police are there as representatives of social authority — the enforcers of normality and punishers of deviance — and they further heighten the sense of peril for any transgressor. When the doctor asks Francis what his problem is, he says, "I'm in love." The doctor tells him to try woodworking, and Francis finds some happiness in this. Woodworking, Timothy Aubry notes
, "as a part of a 'do-it-yourself' movement was a constitutive aspect of a self-help culture that attempted to affirm the average white-collar worker’s belief in his power and masculinity."
That the ridiculous, impossible, yet dangerous and destructive love for the babysitter can be read as a placeholder for homosexual desire (and gay panic) seems to me to be become legitimate not only when we consider the plot and character relationships in the story, or Cheever's own biography, but also through an examination of three passages, and in particular three words.
The first two are relatively close together in the story: "The photograph of his four children laughing on the beach at Gay Head reproached him" and "The look Francis gave the little girl was ugly and queer, and it frightened her".
Of course, today, when the meanings of gay
denote homosexuality first and foremost, no writer or reader could ignore those meanings, but in 1954 the words meant differently. But they didn't not
mean what they do today.
George Chauncey's Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940
is a useful text here, particularly the introduction in which he outlines the evolution of such words as fairy, faggot, gay,
. He quotes a writer from 1941:
Supposing one met a stranger on a train from Boston to New York and wanted to find out whether he was "wise" or even homosexual. One might ask: "Are there any gay spots in Boston?" And by slight accent put on the word "gay" the stranger, if wise, would understand that homosexual resorts were meant. The uninitiated stranger would never suspect, inasmuch as "gay" is also a perfectly normal and natural word to apply to places where one has a good time.... The continued use of such double entendre terms will make it obvious to the initiated that he is speaking with another person acquainted with the homosexual argot.
Chauncey writes: "The term gay
began to catch on in the 1930s, and its primacy was consolidated during the war. By the late 1940s, younger gay men were chastising older men who still used queer
, which the younger men now regarded as demeaning."
Thus, while the reference to Gay Head beach (on Martha's Vineyard) primarily serves to evoke a particular location, to a reader "wise" to a particular double entendre
, it may have an added meaning. Similarly, Francis's "ugly and queer" glance. Both words are used in sentences about children, which evokes not only the common 1950s homophobic associations of queers with pedophiles, but also attaches a homosexual association to the products (offspring) of good, manly heterosex. The photograph reproaches Francis not only by reminding him of the happiness that is possible with his family when he doesn't transgress, but also by reminding him of the perverse, nonprocreative desires that torment him. His glance at Gertrude is ugly and frightening because it is queer.
Then we have the ending, which I can attest will cause many snickers when read aloud to adolescents today. A cat dressed up in a doll's dress and straw hat runs away from whoever put it into such an inappropriate, uncomfortable costume:
"Here pussy, pussy, pussy!" Julia calls.
"Here, pussy, here, poor pussy!" But the cat gives her a skeptical look and mumbles away in its skirts. The last to come is Jupiter. He prances through the tomato vines, holding in his generous mouth the remains of an evening slipper. Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.
While it is perfectly innocent in 1954 to call out "Here pussy!" to a cat, the more vulgar contemporary associations of that word were well established then. By the end of the 19th century, the word was used as slang for vulva or vagina, and its use as slang for someone timid, gentle, or effeminate goes back to the mid-19th century.
And so the story ends with a cat wearing a doll's dress, being chased with a word that has slang associations for both female genitalia and unmanliness, followed by a dog that clearly stands for joyful but also threatening chaos, and the whole story ends with a reference to Hannibal
, who, our textbook
helpfully notes, "attacked the Romans from the rear".
Francis's gay panic is also, and perhaps primarily, a panic of effeminacy. War is the most manly of activities, and it haunts him. The world of Shady Hill confines him and reduces him in a way war did not — the manly virtues of the military within what was in World War II a staunchly homosocial milieu. His illicit, inappropriate, absurd desires are the chaos that escapes his repression. The exact nature of those desires doesn't much matter; it's the excess that counts. Woodworking will let him be happy for a little while, but there is no reason to read the ending as a happy one.
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The latest issue of the venerable British horror/dark fiction magazine Black Static
includes my latest story, "Patrimony", and is now available both in print
and as an e-book in various formats
. I'm thrilled with the accompanying illustration by Richard Wagner, and thankful to Andy Cox for buying the story and rushing it into print, because it's one of the strangest and most disturbing things I've ever written, and not the sort of thing that just any editor would get excited about.
For a preview, here's the first paragraph:
For most of my life, I worked in the gravel pit as an overseer. There had been gravel there for a long time, but there wasn’t much left. Mostly, we spent our days trying to decide where to set off dynamite. We didn’t have a lot of dynamite, so we wanted to be precise. We would go for weeks and even months without lighting a single stick. I spent my days – ten-, eleven-hour days – telling the workers to try over here, to look over there, to dig here, to prod there. We sought the best rock, the least sand.