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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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1. Ferguson, Missouri, USA

Faith Rally
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.)


Tactical officers fire tear gas in Ferguson
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.
Media preview
(It never was America to me.)
Embedded image permalink
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.
Media preview
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
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Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? 
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
Embedded image permalink
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!
Media preview
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.
Violence again in Ferguson
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Tear gas Fired in Ferguson
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.
Tear gas shot at protesters
O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Police Fire Tear Gas, Clear Streets in Ferguson
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!

(The words above are from "Let America Be America Again" by Langston Hughes, born in Joplin, Missouri. The pictures  are ones I saw last night on Twitter that particularly stuck with me; a few I discovered this morning. Most were uncredited on Twitter. The ones I do know come from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and are by J.B. Forbes, David Carson, and Robert Cohen.)

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2. Notes on Octavia Butler's Survivor


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 than Patternmaster, 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.
Oh my.

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.'" [100]), 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."

"But..."

"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..." [31]
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.

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3. How Not to Write a Review, Unless You Want to Sound Like an Insufferable Prig


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 than Strangelove. (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, 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?"

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4. The Decay of the White Savior

Snowpiercer
Let's talk about white saviors, emotions, and endings.

Daniel José Older has an interesting take on Snowpiercer, particularly its ending, likening it to Children of Men:


Children of Men
But both Children of Men and Snowpiercer come crashing down to almost identical final moments. When the smoke clears and the countless bodies are carted off, what we’re left with is the same take-away: Bearded white dude saves humanity, in both cases represented by a woman and a child of color, both helpless and in need of saving, at the cost of his own life.
Basically, Older says, Snowpiercer and Children of Men are white savior movies. He proposes an alternative: "Imagine if the desperate rebels paused and elevated Tanya to leadership instead of Curtis. Snowpiercer would’ve become something truly subversive, a story some of us have been trying to tell for a very long time."

I think Snowpiercer is already pretty darn subversive, so I would replace the "truly" there with "even more", and I wouldn't call Yona in Snowpiercer helpless, really (she's smart and even seems to have some super powers). But yes, Snowpiercer could have offered an alternative to white supremacy (both the structural white supremacy of the train and the apparently internalized and patriarchal white supremacy of the rebels) instead of something closer to a satire of white supremacy ending in its own destruction — a futile destruction if you consider the likelihood of Yona and Tim's survival or the likelihood that some disease would kill off their ancestors. (For more along this line, and for thoughts on the implications of the film's take on revolutionary politics, and much else, see Aaron Bady's "Snowpiercer Thinkpiece".) It could have been a more deeply subversive, even utopian movie. It is not.

But as a savior, Curtis is pretty crappy. He's wrong about the revolution, most of the tailenders he's trying to liberate end up dead, and though he may have sacrificed his life for a woman and boy, the woman and boy are in all likelihood only going to outlive him by a day or two at most. And it's not like he set out to sacrifice his life for them. Nam and Yona caused the explosion. He just chose, along with Wilford, to see if his body might shield Yona and Tim's bodies from the blast. If you're going to die, you might as well make your death a potentially useful one, and that's what he does.

I've already proposed one way of thinking about the racial politics of the ending, and this is at least somewhat at odds with Older's reading, but I like texts that can be interpreted richly, and it's entirely likely that soon I'll think my first take was wrong. I like thinking about the lineage of white savior movies, because when I do, they give me a little bit more hope for progress than the ending of Snowpiercer does, because if we can see such stories as white supremacy talking about itself, then it's having a crisis of confidence and thinks it's going to die pretty soon.

(Obviously, it is the nature of white supremacy to make itself the center of conversation, and I am perpetuating that here. White supremacy's representations interest me. But I entirely agree with Older that we need additional storylines. Please please please somebody give Danny Glover the money to make his Toussaint L'Ouverture movie, for instance!)

There are some noticeable differences between the ending of Snowpiercer and the ending of Children of Men, but before getting to those, I want to bring up one other white savior movie, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, which I once called "a white savior movie that questions the whole idea of a white savior movie, or, at least, that wants to put an end to itself."

Gran Torino

One of the things that I think is important to consider when viewing a white savior movie is its desired emotional effect. Where does it want the audience's sympathies to fall? What does the film seem to want us to feel, and how? In a classic white savior movie — think Dances with Wolves or The Blind Side or [insert your own title here] — the white savior becomes ennobled through their encounter with the non-white supporting character(s). They learn to be more caring, less bigoted, etc. (Yay, white people can be better! Hooray for White Guy 2.0!) The journey is fundamentally that of the white protagonist, and the audience's greatest interest should be in the white character. (This is one of the things I thought was so excellent about 12 Years a Slave, which is in the end, yes, literally a white savior movie — without Bass [Brad Pitt], Solomon Northup might never have been freed — but not at all about the redemption of white people. But that's tangential to this discussion...)

Though Gran Torino is at least partly about the end of the old white savior, it nonetheless sticks with the redemption narrative. The future is given to nonwhite characters, and those characters are shown to be the closest to a traditional (conservative) sense of American values, but grumpy old racist Walt ends up not just learning to care deeply for people he'd previously spurned, but sacrificing himself for them. And not just any sacrifice. He lands on the ground with his arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross. Like Snowpiercer, Gran Torino proposes that the future will not be white, but in Gran Torino the white savior is still pretty awesome, even if he's a relic.

In Children of Men, Theo is much less heroic than Walt. He's pointedly unheroic in his presentation. But his character arc is toward heroism — through helping Kee, he discovers something to live for, something to fight for, and he becomes somebody worth shedding a tear for when he dies. For me, it's not as big a tear as Gran Torino seems to want us to shed for Walt, but that's partly because it's not hard to imagine Theo going back to being a cynical or apathetic drunk even if he lived. Walt's death feels momentous, like a tremendous (if necessary) loss; Theo's death is sad for a moment, poignant more than devastating.

With Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón did make interesting changes to counter the whiteness of the source material (a P.D. James novel), but the character we follow from beginning to end is, indeed, a white guy who saves a pregnant black woman and her child. Here, though, Kee is, like Thao and Sue in Gran Torino, a kind of representative of the future — if humanity is to survive, it's surviving because of a black woman, and the white savior is gone from the picture. (Although everyone we see on the Tomorrow ship that picks her up looks white, so who knows what will happen later...)

Snowpiercer also kills off the white savior(s) and proposes that the future of humanity does not lie with white people, but here the journey of the white savior is even less heroic than that of Walt or Theo. At least Walt and Theo are successful saviors.

Curtis's journey is in many ways the opposite of Walt's and Theo's. Walt and Theo begin cynical (or worse) and come to see the value in being a savior. We end up feeling good about them, and proud of them for their sacrifices. Curtis starts out at 2nd in command of the revolution (though Gilliam repeatedly suggests that Curtis is really in charge, even if Curtis doesn't want to face that fact) and ends up finding out that the revolution was a sham and that his actions all served to help Wilford's overall goals. Curtis has helped lead everyone he most cares into death for an illusion. Oops.

Do we shed a tear for Curtis?

I don't know about you, but I certainly didn't. Sure, there was the monologue toward the end where he talks about how he became a savage and then couldn't cut his arm off, etc., but it's important to remember what comes next: Nam's deflating reaction — Curtis clearly thought he was sharing his deepest, darkest secret, and Nam's response was little more than, "Uh huh." He's not bowing down to this white savior, not giving in to his emotional tug.

Curtis was interesting as a protagonist, as a figure to carry the force of the action, but my own emotional commitment was far more toward Nam, Tanya, Yona, and then Tim. (Tanya's death was, for me, the most affecting.) Curtis just isn't a very interesting character; he's a foil for the other characters and a device to get the story out. The relatively bland main character is an old tradition in narrative, and it serves a similar function to a straight man in comedy. So Curtis's death is not a moment that is, for me at least, more powerful than the deaths of so many other people on the train. It's easy for my plot interest to shift to Yona and Tim because that's where my affectual interest has been all along.

Gran Torino gives us the white savior who wants to end all white saviors, but it wants to us to pause and feel real sorrow for his death. Children of Men gives us an unheroic white savior who finds some shreds of heroism and dies to save the (at-least-partially) nonwhite future; we end up sort of sad for him, but the stronger emotion is likely happiness that Kee and her child lived. Snowpiercer gives us a white savior seeking the wrong revolution, ending up a savior as much by accident as intent, and the movie drains much of the emotional power from the savior figure, while proposing that if humanity has any future (unlikely), its future isn't one with white people in it.

The white savior is in trouble.

Well, at least until the next Avatar movie.

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5. The Ideal Literary Life


I've never seen the life of the writer Raymond Roussel condensed so marvelously as in David Macey's The Lives of Michel Foucault (Foucault wrote a book on Roussel), where it becomes a kind of perfect literary life: a life of weirdness, alienation, mental illness, addiction, and suffering, all capped with a mysterious death:
Enormously rich, [Roussel] travelled the world but rarely left his hotel room or his cabin. He financed the publication of his own writings and the staging of his own plays, which were invariably expensive failures accompanied by riots among the audience. His writings excited little interest in his lifetime, though some of the surrealists — notably Breton in his Anthologie de l'humour noir — appreciated them. For much of his life Roussel suffered from serious neurotic illnesses provoked (or at least triggered), it is thought, by the spectacular failure of La Doublure (1897), a long verse-novel, written in alexandrines, about a stand-in actor. He was treated by Pierre Janet, who failed to see any literary talent in him and described him as un pauvre petit malade; Roussel is the "Martial" whose case is discussed in the first volume of De l'Angoisse à l'extase (1926). Roussel was a homosexual, though little is known about his sexual tastes and activities, and became totally dependent on barbituates in his later years. He died in Palermo, where his body was found in his hotel room, lying on a mattress which he had — presumably with great difficulty, given his physical state — pushed up against the door connecting his room to that of his travelling companion. The door, habitually left unlocked, was locked. Whether Roussel was murdered or committed suicide has never been determined. (125)
You have succeeded as a writer if someone can describe your work as "invariably expensive failures accompanied by riots among the audience".

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6. Snowpiercer: Total Cinema

 

Press Play has now posted my new video essay with a brief accompanying text essay about the great new science fiction action movie political parable satire call to revolution Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-Ho, a filmmaker I am especially enamored of. (Memories of Murder is easily among my favorite movies of the last 15 years, and back in 2010 I defended Bong's previous film, Mother, from the criticisms of Richard Brody at the New Yorker.)

As a little bit of extra, below the fold here I'll put some thoughts on elements of the remarkable ending of the film...



First, for some information on the background and references of Snowpiercer, see Scott Tafoya's piece at RogerEbert.com, and for a good analysis of the revolutionary ideology of the film, see "Smash the Engine" by Peter Frase at Jacobin.

The audacity I see in the ending of Snowpiercer comes not just from its framing of revolution as something that must smash the logic of the system, but also from the way it shows that system to be not just hierarchical in terms of class, but of also being fundamentally racialized.

First, there is the inescapable fact that most of the people who have been saved from the apocalypse are white and English speaking. Even the people at the back of the train, though more diverse than the people in the front, are predominantly white and English speakers. All of the positions of highest power in the train are positions held by white English speakers, and the ultimate positions of power are held by white men and passed on to white men (Wilford to Curtis).



As Curtis moves closer and closer to the front, the white supremacy becomes obvious. There's the classroom, where the vast majority of students are very white (and often blonde), with a few Asians in there (the pre-apocalypse notion of Asians as educational high achievers is thus replicated in the train), and one black girl (at least that I saw). The overall effect is of lily-whiteness, with a few special people added.


The people at the dance party are almost entirely white.


The people who apparently stepped out of The Great Gatsby are white. 


The women getting their hair styled are white.


It's worth noting, too, how so much of what we see in the front cars evokes the old white world, a world of the 1920s-1950s — an America before the successes of the civil rights movement, of women's liberation struggles, of gay liberation, etc. (The car where everyone is taking drugs evokes even earlier ideas. It's like an opium den, a powerful force in the orientalist imagination of the yellow peril in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and a setting with plenty of cinematic history.)

Early in the film, Curtis tells Edgar that once they get to the front of the train, things will be different. "But how different, really?" the film asks at the end. "Know your place!" Mason (Tilda Swinton) tells the rabble. Curtis learns what his place is from Wilford: the place of the white patriarch.

That system cannot be reformed. It will do no good to have somebody else in charge of the engine. The logic of the system must not be reformed, it must be defied and destroyed.

And thus the ending, which stops the train's circular journey and potentially annihilates the last remnants of humanity.

The system is so corrupt, so incapable of reform, that what is known to be left of humans is worth destroying rather than continuing along the same tracks.

If there is to be a future for humanity, it looks like this, the new Adam and Eve:



They might be destroyed by the cold, white world. They might be a meal for the white polar bear. But maybe, somehow, they will survive and discover or create a new world, a world where humans are on a different journey, subject to a different system, not oppressed by the cold, unbearable whiteness.

Bong leaves it to us to imagine their fate.

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7. Whose Word Crimes?


Yesterday, "Weird Al" Yankovic released a video for his song "Word Crimes", a parody of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines". Since a lot of people I know are language folks of one sort or another, I saw it flow and re-flow through various streams of social media. But I had qualms.

I love Weird Al, and he's been a formative influence on my life, since I started listening to him when I was a kid. (My entire sense of humor could be described by three childhood influences: Weird Al, the Marx Brothers, and Monty Python.) I also think the detestable "Blurred Lines" is ripe for ridicule and attack. And I like words.

But how are we to understand the speaker in "Word Crimes"?

Most people I saw who shared the video seemed to identify with the speaker. This is not as disturbing as people identifying with the rapey speaker of "Blurred Lines", but it reveals a certain cruelty in the feelings of people who want to be identified as linguistically superior to other people. A tinge of cruel superiority is essential to grammar pedants, and "Word Crimes" reveals that again and again in how it characterizes people who commit such "crimes". On his Facebook page, Jay Smooth listed these characterizations:
"raised in a sewer"
"Don't be a moron"
"You dumb mouthbreather"
"Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head"
"you write like a spastic"
["spastic"?]
"Go back to preschool"
"Get out of the gene pool"
"Try your best to not drool"
Hyperbole in service of comedy? Or your (not so) secret inner feelings?

It's interesting to follow the comments on that Facebook post as well as on the Grammar Girl post that Jay Smooth linked to. Various interpretations and arguments come up, including the common complaint that it's just comedy and you shouldn't take it seriously (a pernicious attitude, I think). I don't know exactly what Weird Al intended with the song, nor do I particularly care (it's a clever song, with fun animation in the video) — it's more interesting as a kind of Rorschach test: Do you identify with the speaker in the song? Do you enjoy the cruelty and want to replicate it?




Usage pedantry is not harmless fun. It is ego balm that stokes a sense of righteous superiority. Typically, it's indulged in by people who don't have a deep interest in the history of language or the complexities of linguistics; instead, they like rules, because rules allow them to set themselves apart from the people who don't follow the rules. Usage pedants enjoy living in an intellectual gated community. Some will even refer to themselves as "Grammar Nazis", thus unreflectively siding with one of the most evil systems in the history of humanity. (And these people say they care about language! By the way, if you want to vomit, do a Google Image search for "grammar nazi".)

Typically, too, usage pedants are white people, and these days often ones who in some way or another identify with nerd culture. One of the commenters on Jay Smooth's Facebook page linked to Tim Chevalier's post "Can Geekiness Be Decoupled from Whiteness", which makes a number of useful points, including:
I think people who have been bullied and abused tend to use rules in the hopes that rules will save them. ... But it’s easier to like formal systems of rules when those rules usually protect you. If you live in a country where the laws were made by people like you, and are usually enforced in ways that protect you, it’s easier to be enamored of technical adherence to the law. And, by analogy, to prescriptive sets of rules like “standard English” grammar. It’s also easier to feel affection for systems of rules when people like yourself usually get a say in constructing them.

Not all nerds are abuse survivors, so perhaps other nerds (as adults) value rule-following because they believe the key to their economic success. From there, it’s easy to jump to victim-blaming: the line of thought that goes, “If other people would just learn and follow the rules, they would be successful too.”
Pedants need to feel superior, and displaying their (often inaccurate) opinions of grammar, usage, style, and spelling is a way to access such feelings of superiority. My life might suck, but at least I'm not one of those horrible people who splits infinitives or uses numbers in words!

There are crimes of language, but they are not the crimes the pedants police — they are the crimes of obfuscation and propaganda, the crimes that lead us to dehumanize each other, to exploit each other, to oppress each other, to hurt and kill each other.

Pedants don't typically get to those crimes. Indeed, often, by proclaiming their unwavering devotion to tradition, they perpetuate such crimes.

The stuff the pedants denounce may be violations of standard English. Or stylistic preferences. Or pet peeves. Talking about such things and discussing our particular perspective on them can be clarifying and can lead to more precision in communication and more knowledge of how language works. But we need to be aware of the assumptions underneath our prescriptions, the motivations for our pedantry. In my courses, I encourage students to abide by proofreading guidelines, but I also try in those guidelines to justify why I require them, and I work hard to undermine any sense of those guidelines being either eternal or immutable. They are guidelines for the situation that is our class, and are useful information for students who are adjusting their writing to the audience that is me, the guy who grades each student at the end of the term.

If you feel the need for rules, though, here's one for you, a famous one from Kurt Vonnegut:
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—

"God damn it, you've got to be kind."

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8. Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg


For Strange Horizons, I reviewed Glen Hirshberg's Motherless Child.
Motherless Child is a vampire novel that isn't much interested in vampires. Instead, as its title suggests, more than anything else it is a novel about motherhood. Most of the main characters are mothers, the primary themes are ones of parenthood and responsibility, and the basic storyline sends vampirized mothers running away from their children and then fighting against the urge to return, fearing that they will no longer see their kids as offspring but as prey.
First published by Earthling Publications in 2012, Motherless Child has now been reprinted by Tor. Glen Hirshberg has won a number of awards for his horror short stories (collected in The Two Sams [2003], American Morons [2006], and The Janus Tree [2012]), and Tor may see Motherless Child as a breakout book for him, one that will bring a wider audience for his fiction. It clearly displays some of the hallmarks of a tale that could be embraced by a wide audience, certainly more than his often subtle, enigmatic short stories do. Whether this is to its benefit as a novel depends entirely on what you want your novels to do, both in the prose itself and in the story that prose tells.
Continue reading at Strange Horizons.

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9. Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)

via The Paris Review

Nadine Gordimer has died at the age of 90, a significant age to reach, and yet, as always with the loss of a major figure (particularly one who stayed active and known) it feels like a robbery. We are greedy, we living people.

Writers satiate some of our greed against death by leaving us with their words. Gordimer's oeuvre is large (she began publishing fiction in South Africa in the late 1940s), and her fiction in particular will live long past this moment of her body's death.

Because Gordimer was so active in the anti-apartheid struggle, and her writing so often addresses the situation in South Africa at the time of its writing, it is easy to fall into the trap of reducing her to a political writer and to ignore or downplay the artistry of her work. She sometimes encouraged this view in her essays and interviews, but she also understood that she was not a propagandist, telling Jannika Hurwitt in 1979, "I am not by nature a political creature, and even now there is so much I don’t like in politics, and in political people—though I admire tremendously people who are politically active—there’s so much lying to oneself, self-deception, there has to be—you don’t make a good political fighter unless you can pretend the warts aren’t there."



Gordimer is often contrasted (sometimes by she herself) with the other white South African Nobel laureate, J.M. Coetzee. In that frame, Gordimer is the engaged realist, Coetzee the disengaged postmodernist. Like any caricature, this one contains some elements of truth, but it hides as much as it reveals. Though Gordimer had a bit more faith in the ability of words to represent immediate reality than Coetzee does, and was more comfortable participating in political arenas and writing about the recognizable here-and-now, both writers are strongly influenced by European high culture, particularly European Modernism — Kafka is a key influence for both, though Coetzee tends to wear that influence more obviously.

One of the qualities I value in Gordimer's work is her ability to show how people of different backgrounds and ideologies grapple with political ideas in their lives. She's often portrayed as an explicitly political writer because she writes about people embroiled in politics. In her best writing, she understood quite powerfully the difference between showing people engaged in politics and making her work into propaganda for a particular political line.

That's a wonder for me of a novel like Burger's Daughter, which I wrote about here in 2009. It shows politics in life, politics as life. It is at times merciless toward characters who could be considered the ones a nice, liberal reader is supposed to feel sympathy and affection for. It never forgets Renoir's great line from The Rules of the Game:  "The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons."

Gordimer's range is best demonstrated by her short stories, such as the parable-like "Loot", which I wrote about in 2010. Especially in the later decades of her career, her stories frequently experimented with form, perspective, and subjectivity — which is not to discount the powerful effect of her many rich, detailed, fiercely realistic stories (her Selected Stories from the mid-'70s remains a high point to me of her work).


The view of Gordimer as a writer of her times, for her times, limited to her times might try to prevail. That would be a shame. Though she certainly chronicled ways of living in South Africa throughout the last 60+ years, that specificity does not in any way make her work less important for us now. It is, rather, differently important — and as necessary as ever.

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10. The Plausibles


Alfred Hitchcock in conversation with Francois Truffaut:
To insist that a storyteller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representative painter that he show objects accurately. What's the ultimate in representative painting? Color photography. Don't you agree? There's quite a difference, you see, between the creation of a film and the making of a documentary. In the documentary the basic material has been created by God, whereas in the fiction film the director is the god; he must create life. And in the process of that creation, there are lots of feelings, forms of expression, and viewpoints that have to be juxtaposed. We should have total freedom to do as we like, just so long as it's not dull. A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow.

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11. Poetical Needy-brains, empoisoned pens, obscene invective...

via Rutgers University Community Repository

Two passages from Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot by Anna Beer, concerning the early 1640s:
As with the Internet in this century, people expressed real fears about the sheer number of new works appearing. Others condemned the whole notion of publication, particularly for money. Publication was imagined as "epidemical contagion", and "Pamphlet-mongers" were castigated for writing for "a little mercenary gain, and profit", as "poetical Needy-brains, who for a sordid gain or desire to have the style of a witty railer, will thus empoison your pen". The proliferation of new pamphlets was also resented by more (allegedly) serious writers, who complained that "such a book as that of thirty or forty sheets of paper is not likely to sell in this age were the matter never so good, but if it had been a lying and scandalous pamphlet of a sheet of paper ... to hold up Anarchy" then the printers would print it, knowing it would sell, be "vendable ware". (128-129)

Print proliferated because almost every opinion generated a response, which in turn necessitated a counter-response from the maligned author. When the Smectymnuans, for example, attacked Bishop Hall, he replied, condemning their views, to which their response was a 219-page answer. The speed of these exchanges was often remarkable. Milton's own first pamphlet on Church reform received a reply within days of its publication. Vicious abuse of one's opponents characterised much of the debate. When in May 1642, around the time of his marital expedition to Oxfordshire, Milton wrote An Apology against a Pamphlet (in itself a response), he claimed to be furious at the way he had been personally attacked. Immersed as he was in this world of cheap print, he cannot have been genuinely surprised. Colourful, personal, and at times obscene invective was the order of the day, the religious and political pamphlets picking up the techniques of the earlier forms of popular writing, whether ballads or jestbooks, almanacs, or tales. (139-140)

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12. The Private Life of Power


Corey Robin, from The Reactionary Mind:
One of the reasons the subordinate’s exercise of agency so agitates the conservative imagination is that it takes place in an intimate setting. Every great political blast—the storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the March on Washington—is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power. “Here is the secret of the opposition to woman’s equality in the state,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. “Men are not ready to recognize it in the home.” Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying her boss. That is why our political arguments—not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else—can be so explosive: they touch upon the most personal relations of power.

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13. Notes on Teaching First-Year Composition as a Film & Media Course



It appears that next year I won't be teaching any first-year composition classes at UNH, which will put on hold an experiment I began this past term with FYC. (I'm teaching Literary Analysis this fall and probably a survey course in the spring.) I'll record here some thoughts on that experiment, both for my own future use and in case they are of use or interest to anyone else...


First, I should note the structure of the first-year writing classes at UNH requires teachers to assign 3 essays (an analytical essay, research essay, and personal essay) and take students through a process of drafting and revising each of those essays. Beyond that, for the most part, teachers are free to design their classes as they choose. (Graduate instructors such as I follow a more prescribed syllabus for our first term, after which we are as free as any other instructor.)

In my first term, I taught the course in the most straightforward, familiar way, and did not give it any sort of theme. The goal of the course is to teach skills more than content, as much as the two can be separated, and I wanted to see what would happen if I gave the students a lot of leeway in what they wrote their papers about. I should have known better. (Seriously, the first thing I ever published about teaching was a reflection for English Journal on my first year of teaching, and the basic message of it was: the blank slate is death! But I am incapable of learning from past experience, it seems...) The students wrote pretty flat, boring, stilted essays where they attempted rhetorical analysis, they wrote slightly better but mostly not particularly exciting research essays, and they wrote some really interesting personal essays. I found assessing and responding to their writing, even some of the best writing, challenging though because it was all over the place in its purposes and audiences, and my conferences and draft responses to students who wrote about subjects I knew something about were, I thought, pretty different from my responses to students who wrote about things I knew little or nothing about.

As a graduate instructor, I was required to take a course in Teaching College Composition, and for the final research project, I investigated the use of film analysis in FYC classes (we had to make a Weebly site as part of the course, and I found it a convenient place to park my research). I started out skeptical of the value of film analysis in a comp course, but ended up liking the idea quite a bit, and decided to try an experiment the next term: How little could I change the basic syllabus and yet give the course a film/media/pop culture theme?

The result was this syllabus. I tried to change as little of the structure and language of my first term as I could, because I really wanted to see if I could stick closely to the skill-based concept of the course while also giving it more focus.

The results were mixed. The most successful parts of the course were the ones that were most completely redesigned. Indeed, I had put most of my energy into reconceiving the analysis essay as an analysis of a single film scene, and it went from being the worst assignment in the course to the best. The research papers were worse this term and the personal essays were roughly the same, perhaps a bit weaker, though that may have been the result of the different mix of students (second term comp is very different from first term: a lot of people taking the course in the second term are ones who actively avoided it before).

I was impressed with the overall quality of work in the scene analyses (the guidelines are on the syllabus under "Essay #1: Analysis of a Film Scene"), despite many students struggling with it in their first draft. They mostly struggled against the strict definition of a film scene, because they couldn't imagine how they could analyze such a small thing. That's one of the reasons the assignment worked so well: it pushed them into the position of having no choice but to do close analysis, and they learned a lot by working through their frustration. We spent a class talking about how to use images from the films as evidence within the analysis, and how that can often give us new ideas about what to analyze. This turned out to be a valuable technique for many of the students. The final drafts were, on the whole, specific, focused, and thoughtful.

The research papers ended up being disappointing, especially following the triumph of the analytical essays. Though the students did a great job focusing their scene analyses, they weren't able to transfer what they had learned about specificity and focus to the research essays, and I'd put too much faith in their ability to do this. Despite my telling them over and over again that their topics were too broad, only a couple of students were able to find appropriately narrow topics. I liked using The Craft of Research as a guide to the unit — it's clear and practical, with lots of step-by-step guidelines, and the students found it useful overall, I think, but even following its guidelines, they weren't able to get their topics narrow enough to be able to write papers that weren't full of vagueness, generality, and ridiculously banal statements.

I've talked with colleagues and friends a lot about this, and have come to a few conclusions and ideas for adjustment. First, the next time I teach the course, I'm going to change the name of the assignment. A number of people in the department don't call it the research essay but rather a persuasive essay. That makes good sense not because it's a more accurate label, but because it moves it away from the ossified idea of "research" that many students bring with them from high school. The sorts of research we want them to do in college are somewhat different from the sorts of research we ask them to do in high school, but in their first year of college (and maybe later), they work from what they know. Or, rather, from what they think they know. And that's the problem. They succeeded with the analytical essay because they had no frame of reference for the assignment itself, and so they kept going back to the guidelines and kept asking me for more clarity. That was a good thing, a good process. They kept having to measure their writing against the guidelines in a way that they didn't for the research essay, because most of the students already had an idea of what a "research paper" should look like. In fact, one of the best ones I got was by a student who said he'd never had to write a research paper before in his life, and had felt really lost through a lot of it. Some of the worst ones I got were from students who said they'd done such work before.

Second, I'm going to be more strict with topics. In my desire to give the students as much freedom for creativity as possible, I kept definitions of popular culture loose, and let them write about almost anything they wanted. This defeated a lot of the purpose of having a theme. Next time, I will define the realms very specifically. This, too, may help circumvent some of the sense of having done this sort of thing before and knowing how it's done, since none of the students in the course had had to actually research popular culture before. Narrowing down the definition of popular culture for the course will allow me to be more specific in what I tell them about how to research, what resources are useful, etc., and will give them some practice in research within a discipline.

Ideally, the university would require a separate course just on research, perhaps a course within the student's major, or at least within their college (e.g. the College of Liberal Arts, the business college, etc.). Research involves so much more than just writing a paper that it's extremely difficult to cover it even superficially within the short amount of time of a composition course. But we try.

The personal essays weren't terrible, but I again betrayed the theme and often let students stretch the idea of popular culture beyond reason, to their detriment. Because my tendencies at heart are those of an anarchist, I bristle against having any sorts of guidelines for assignments, and feel guilty for imposing them on students. But the realities of a 15-week course that requires multiple drafts of 3 papers really do make it better to have pretty strict thematic guidelines. Or so it seems to me right now. I need to cultivate a better selection of model essays, too, ones that are much more specifically about film, media, and pop culture.

Which brings me to the main textbook, Signs of Life in the USA. Overall, I like the book, but I'm also not rousingly enthusiastic about it. Partly, that's the fault of the type of experiment I did here. If I were to design the course more to fit the book, rather than try to fit the book into a course for which it was only partly suitable, I would have, I expect, both a better course and a better use of the textbook. This is especially an issue with Signs of Life because it has a very specific approach, one emphasizing semiotics, and I almost completely ignored that element of the book. To fit the book into a course that is not at least partially about semiotic analysis is to get much less from the textbook than it has to offer. Nonetheless, we made great use of some of the material on analysis of images.

Signs of Life is quite weak on the research side of things. I was able to supplement well with The Craft of Research, but it would be nice to have more fully and obviously researched essays in it. There's a ton of great research on media and film analysis, and much more could be brought in. By the time I realized this, I just didn't have time myself to dig up stuff that would be useful models for my students. Next time, I certainly will.

Frankly, unless the next edition of Signs of Life is less specifically about semiotics, I probably won't use it. There's enough excellent material available online and through the databases the university library subscribes to for us really not to have to use a textbook like that at all. I just need the time to gather the material and organize it. That's the value of a textbook for this course, really: to give the teacher a framework to work from and something to fall back on.

While I was teaching this past term, a friend of mine who's in the Composition & Rhetoric Ph.D. program was writing a paper on teachers' uses of popular culture in comp classes, and specifically on the ways that pop culture can be useful or detrimental to a multicultural classroom, and she asked me a bunch of useful questions about how I was approaching the course. Another friend of ours, who is just finishing up her Comp & Rhet Ph.D. and now teaching at a Massachusetts school with a pretty diverse and often low-income population, joined the discussion and offered a very interesting take on Signs of Life: that it's a difficult book to use with diverse populations, particularly populations with a lot of class diversity. Her school, in fact, has dropped use of the book altogether.

At UNH, we really can assume that most of our students have a lot of experience with things like video games, streaming movies, social media, smart phones. (I had one student write a paper in which in his first draft he asserted that all kids in the US have video game consoles in their houses!) But if I consider using Signs of Life again, I'll certainly want to put it through a much tighter evaluative lens, specifically thinking about what its materials assume and expect of students' access to media. I really haven't come to a conclusion about that except that. I do know, though, that it would certainly be nice if the book included essays by writers of significantly less privileged class backgrounds — Dorothy Allison's "A Question of Class" would be a good place to start...

Which reminds me that one of the interesting questions my friend asked was about my use of LGBTQ texts in class, since I have already, apparently, become known for this in the department. (Probably because I spoke up in Teaching College Comp against the use of the "his/her" construction, one I see as setting up a false binary between men and women and erasing the spectrum of gender identities.) I'll end these reflections, then, with some of the material from my reply that seems worth keeping:
I haven't really gone out of my way in 401 to use LGBTQ texts, though I have in other classes. But they're certainly there. Both terms in 401, I've used David Sedaris, and in both pieces ("Now We Are Five" and "Six to Eight Black Men") he mentions his boyfriend, Hugh. One day at the beginning of the personal essay unit this term, I read aloud to the class an essay by Gwendolyn Ann Smith, founder of the Trans Day of Remembrance, called "We're All Someone's Freak" from the book Gender Outlaws edited by S. Bear Bergman and Kate Bornstein. It's a really fun, accessible essay that serves all sorts of purposes, from showing that "normal" is a power construction, that trans identity is not monolithic, and that people are complex. I completely stumbled on using it when I was desperate for a simple introductory activity that wouldn't last more than 10 minutes, and I think I'll probably make it a more formal part of future 401 classes I teach. We didn't discuss the issues in the piece, though I could tell that some of the students were immediately uncomfortable the minute I read the first sentence and they heard the word "transgender". I directed their attention toward the idea of everybody being somebody's freak, which was the idea I wanted them to think about for their personal essays as they considered point of view: basically, whose freak are you, and why? There wasn't time to get into the material as trans-specific material. Most students lack the vocabulary to talk about trans stuff, so it takes some preparation, but it's worthwhile, and because I think this essay is useful, I'll probably figure out a way to do that preparation in the future. I often used GLAAD's media reference guides on transgender issues, especially the glossary, which gives good, succinct definitions and also a great explanation of terms that are problematic and terms that are outright derogatory.

In the past, I've used all sorts of LGBTQ texts. I try to build something into every course, even if it's just something short, in the same way that I try to get somewhat of a gender balance among the authors and to include material from people of various ethnicities, races, nationalities, backgrounds. (Nothing makes the limits of 15 weeks more apparent!) I do it partly for all the basic reasons any liberal-minded person would, but also because one of the big, sometimes unconscious, motivations for me as a teacher is that I want to be a teacher I would have benefitted from having when I was a student. I think I've built up for myself over the years a pretty good apparatus to overcome initial, atavistic instincts and to wade through the swamp of toxic discourse we all inhabit. I hope to help students do some of the work to do the same. Certainly, I want to make my classroom a comfortable place for all types of people, all types of background, and I hope my students can see themselves reflected in at least some of what we do ... but I also want to make sure that people who have somewhat similar backgrounds to mine don't only see themselves. The world's much more interesting and marvelous that way.

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14. Guy Davenport on Writing and Reading

Guy Davenport, illustration from Apples & Pears

I've just begun reading Andre Furlani's Guy Davenport: Postmodern and After, a magnificent book (so far), and went to track down one of the items cited there, a 2002 interview by B. Renner for the website Elimae. Alas, the site seems to have died, but god bless the Wayback Machine: here it is, cached.

The interview is not as meaty as some others, for instance Davenport's Paris Review interview, but it's always interesting, and I was particularly struck by this:
DAVENPORT: At Duke I took Prof Blackburn's Creative Writing course (Bill Styron and Mac Hyman were in the class) and got the wrong impression that writing is an effusion of genius and talent.  Also, that writing fiction is Expression of significant and deep inner emotion.  It took me years to shake off all this.  Writing is making a construct, and what's in the story is what's important.  And style: in what words and phrases the story is told.  (William Blackburn, the full name.  His guiding us all toward autobiographical, confessional, "emotional" writing is -- in reaction -- why I write about concrete objectivities that are fairly remote from my own experiences.  I like to imagine how other people feel in a world different from my own.)
Also:
ELIMAE: Almost none of your stories take place in the U.S. or involve American characters. Is there a particular reason for this? Are Americans and the U.S. less noteworthy than other peoples and places, especially Europeans and Europe, or is it as simple as a matter of going to subject matter that hasn't already been done to death by other American writers? 

DAVENPORT: A clever critic might note that they are all set in the USA.  "Tatlin!" is a fable about totalitarian governments strangling creativity, not always blatantly and openly.  At the time I was lecturing on Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, the classic study in our time of Government and The Poet.  Vladimir Tatlin's genius suffocated by Stalin seemed to me to be paradigmatic and timely.  I learned from Kafka's Amerika that you don't have to have a realistic knowledge of a place, and from Nabokov that "realism" is simply a fashionable mode.

We are still immigrants.  Culture imports and exports.  There was a great anxiety that European culture would be obliterated twice in the 20th century.  I became interested in "Europe" through Whistler's etchings.
And then there's a Davenport desert island list!
ELIMAE: Here's my version of the "desert island" question: if you could select any six books (besides your own) originally written in your lifetime, and be the author of those books, which six would they be?  

DAVENPORT: Your 6 books question is diabolical!  I couldn't have written any of 'em.
    Eudora Welty, The Golden Apples
    P. Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower
    Michel Tournier, Les Meteores
    Isak Dinesen, Anecdotes of Destiny
    Mann, Doktor Faustus
    Beckett, Molloy
Finally, I also found an interesting mention of Davenport in this interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan, whose whole response about the connection of writing and reading is great, but here's the Davenport part:
That said, how do you get to be a better reader? I asked Guy Davenport this question one time, because talking to him could really make a person despair; he just knew so much, he’d read so much in many languages, but not in a pedantic or scholastic way, in a really passionate way. He gave me what I thought was very solid advice, which was: first of all, start reading and don’t stop. The other thing is to follow your interest. He said there ought to be a phrase, “falling into interest,” to go with falling in love.

Follow your interest; follow the writers who energize you, not the ones who exert a sense of obligation on you. The books that do the one or the other will change, as time gone on. The landscape shifts. Don’t adhere to systems unless that feels good.

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15. The Narrative Arcade: On Vikram Chandra's "Artha"


Vikram Chandra's collection of interconnected stories, Love and Longing in Bombay, is a book I had thought of writing about in some detail, but I'm afraid time is not on my side with that, and a number of other writing projects need attention. One story I managed to make some notes on is "Artha", and here are those notes, in case some thoughts on the story are useful to someone else...

In thinking about Love and Longing in Bombay, I’m going to start by grasping some tiny pieces within the wholes, and see what I can do with them.

First, a single story, and a single page of that story, and not the words but the blank space.

The story: “Artha”. The page: 165 of the 1998 Back Bay Books paperback edition.

The two blank spaces between narrators and their narratives.

The first narrative is the introduction common to all of the stories, a frame that remains mysterious until “Shanti”, the final story. If we assume, as I think we can, that the narrator of the introductions is the same in each of the stories, then his name is Ranjit Sharma.

The second narrative is that spoken by Subramaniam, who has been the putative narrator (storyteller) of the previous tales within the frame.

But “Artha” becomes distinctive with the next blank space, for here we are ushered into yet another story, that told by “the young man” to Subramaniam. The young man’s name is Iqbal. He will be the narrator for the remainder of the tale.

Another item of distinction: after each blank space, the speaker is identified within parentheses. Previously, there has been no need for this. Now, though, there must be no mistake. Is the reason that there is a story-within-the-story? Possibly, but I’m not convinced of that, because the transitions into the tales are no more confusing than those in previous parts of the book, and the multiple embedded stories in the only remaining tale, “Shanti”, are, arguably, more confusing and do not have such clear, interrupting markers.

Let’s return to the idea of the blank space for a moment. Printers, or so I’ve been told, call these spaces “slugs”. I like the positive sense of that, rather than the negative of blank space. Slugs are an insertion, a something. Slugs disrupt the text from within — they give it order and shape by signaling some unspoken drift, thus taming what would otherwise be a jarring slip, an incoherence, by making it visible. The slug is a sign: Mind the gap.

Once we’ve minded that gap, though, we get a stutter in the story: “(Subramaniam said)”, “(the young man said)”. I shall now indulge in a moment of paranoid reading: Are these stutters a distancing technique inspired by the über-narrator’s fear of being mistaken for a homosexual? The parenthetical speech tags are unnecessary; they are excessive intrusions, and, unless my memory and notes are failing me, the only such intrusions into embedded narratives anywhere in a book comprised of embedded narratives. (The most complex such embeddings are achieved in “Shanti” via typographical changes — separated visually from the main text, but without their own text interrupted.)

We should note, though, that even if we assume that the parenthetical speech tags are motivated by the über-narrator’s fear-laden desire to distance himself from any perception of being a/the homosexual man, the insertion of “(the young man said)” puts those words within the homosexual text. Ranjit’s words enter Subramaniam’s story, and then Subramaniam’s words enter Iqbal’s. All of these words are part of one text, “Artha”, that is part of a larger text, Love and Longing in Bombay. The attempt to create distance from the homosexual narration has, paradoxically, done exactly the opposite. It is not the homosexual narration that desires separation, but the heterosexist; the heterosexist narration’s effort to separate and distance itself has placed it within the homosexual narration.

(Now would be the time — this would be the space — to discuss mimicry and postcolonialism. I am not going to do so. Instead, consider this paragraph a slug.)

Walter Benjamin wants to get into the conversation. Here he is, via Mark Jackson:
The arcade [says Jackson] acted as a spectacular landscape that opened up the city as an illusory, sleepy, standstill world of the phantasmagoria, while at the same time, in the form of the more intimate and decided ambiguous, street-but-not-street of the arcade, it closed around the modern subject as if a room, reassuring with “felt knowledge” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 880) intuitive semblances of domestic wish fulfillment. (39)
The idea of the arcade as street-but-not-street could be extended to the idea of Love and Longing in Bombay as an arcade, a book of x-but-not-x. How do we solve for that x? Can we locate an “illusory, sleepy, standstill world of the phantasmagoria” within the book? For Jackson-via-Benjamin, commodities are phantasmagoric, and “phantasmagoria” is a quality of mystification and even misrecognition: “Desired and consumable things, they embodied and thus represented, dreamt wish images of futurity, and, at the same time, the imminent (and immanent) undoing of that indwelling mythic aspiration” (38)

Must phantasmagoria always be mystifying? Is mystification itself always undesirable?

I would like to keep open the question of phantasmagoria’s usefulness, for as a mode of fantasy it should (shouldn’t it?) possess some of the power of fantasy to reveal structures and discourses of desire otherwise inaccessible.

Is it meaningful to suggest that the insertions of speech tags into the narrations of “Artha” are traces of phantasmagoric desire? That the otherness of Iqbal — located not only in his sexual identity, but his name, which indicates religion — is itself desired. But desired how? To what end? Perhaps the cosmopolitanism of the post-colonial/post-modern city, the place where identities can flow into each other, where mimicry and fantasy themselves create identities (for, after all, isn’t identity without any trace of mimicry and fantasy illegible?). Iqbal as we receive him is not Iqbal, but rather the voice of Iqbal mediated through the voice of Subramaniam mediated through the voice of Ranjit, and all of which is constructed by Chandra.

The arcade of voices, the phantasmagoria of identification.

For Iqbal, religious difference can be dismissed “in one smile” (198) if desire is present. Perhaps that is what the inserted speech tags, and their paradoxes, suggest. The simultanous desire not to be mistaken for a homosexual and to be part of the narrative of the homosexual.

To walk the arcade.

To fantasize.

To be present without losing identity.

To smile.

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16. We Are Living in a First-Draft World



The late David Markson did not have a computer. In March 2004, Laura Sims told him that there were things written about him on blogs. He replied:
NO, I've no idea what a Blog is. BLOG?
Sims sent him print-outs:
Hey, thank you for all that blog stuff but forgive me if after a nine-minute glance I have torn it all up. I bless your furry little heart, but please don't send any more. In spite of the lost conveniences, I am all the more glad I don't have a computer.

HOW CAN PEOPLE LIVE IN THAT FIRST-DRAFT WORLD?

They make a statement about my background, there's an error in it. They quote from a book, and they leave out a key line. They repudiate a statement of fact I've made, without checking, ergo announcing I'm a fake when the statement is 100% correct. Etc., etc., etc. Gawd.

I have just taken the sheets out of the trash basket & torn them into even smaller pieces.
 From the wonderful little book Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson, edited by Laura Sims.

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17. The Church of Science Fiction




Back in January, having imbibed too many book reviews and flame wars, I spouted on Twitter: "Most critical writing could be summed up as, 'My god is an awesome god! Your god sucks.'" That especially seems to be the case with so much writing about science fiction, which is less rigorously analytical than it is theological.

Let's look at two examples.

Adam Roberts's new Guardian essay on science fiction and politics reminded me of a provocative essay in the current issue of Science Fiction Studies, "Fascism and Science Fiction" (JSTOR) by Aaron Santesso.

Here, I'm not going to wrestle with their arguments so much as speculate (perhaps irresponsibly, erroneously, ridiculously) on what itch such arguments scratch, because though I am skeptical of the overall thrust of both pieces, I don't find either to be especially bothersome. As I read each, I realized that I didn't understand the desires and assumptions that motivated them, because they are the desires and assumptions of a religious denomination I don't adhere to. I've explored and dabbled with various sects of the church of science fiction since childhood, and a part of me still very much wants to be a believer, but I just can't make the proper leaps of faith. Call me Doubting Matthew.

To show the theological import of the two essays, we'll have to look first (briefly, inadequately) at how they argue their cases. Let's start with Roberts. A key sentence:
Asking whether SF is "intrinsically" leftwing or rightwing is dumb, since literatures are not "intrinsically" anything. But I'm tempted to thump the tub nonetheless.
"This is dumb, but I will do it." I admire the honesty. This is a leap of faith admitted boldly and in the open.

And so Roberts leaps and thumps:
Conservatism is defined by its respect for the past. The left has always been more interested in the future – specifically, in a better future. Myriad militaristic SF books and films suggest the most interesting thing to do with the alien is style it as an invading monster and empty thousands of rounds of ammunition into it. But the best SF understands that there are more interesting things to do with the alien than that. How we treat the other is the great ethical question of our age, and SF, at its best, is the best way to explore that question.
This is a straightforward version of dogma offered by more abstruse, monkish scholars such as Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, and Carl Freedman (the holy trinity of Marxist SF critics). Against these ideas, Santesso addresses the tendency to see SF as inherently progressive, or to define "good SF" as SF that agrees with the (Marxist) reader's ideology:
So the critical argument, as it stands, is that the “generic tendency” of sf is progressive, that its themes are naturally progressive, that its structures are naturally progressive. I suggest, in response, that the claims one can make about the inclinations of a genre if one concentrates on certain strands and tendencies of the tradition are limited only by the strands and tendencies chosen. Over the remainder of this essay, I will argue that certain other strands of sf—since sf as a whole (encompassing everything from cyberpunk to military science fiction, at the very least) is indeed hardly politically unified—can be recognized as anything but “naturally” progressive, instead being more strongly allied with fascist politics. Furthermore, certain foundational tropes and traditions of the genre carry the DNA of fascism, as it were, to the extent that even liberal, progressive authors working within the genre’s more refined strains often (inadvertently) employ fascistic tropes and strategies. These tropes and strategies interrupt and disappoint certain ideological expectations advertised as, or assumed to be, native to the genre.
Both writers explicitly recognize that this search for one, true SF is a fool's errand, but both play the fool — Roberts admittedly, Santesso more circumspectly, but just as strongly. They are defenders of the faith.

Santesso's essay does a good job of delineating fascist tendencies within particular stories and types of stories. His essay seems to me to be a useful beginning, a sketch of analytical possibilities that would benefit from being expanded, and Santesso's careful definition of the term "fascism" certainly allows readers to expand the ideas themselves. (A good companion to Santesso's work is Barton Paul Levenson's "The Ideology of Robert A. Heinlein" in NYRSF 118, April 1998, which similarly applies a relatively precise definition of fascism to specific texts.)

Santesso's final paragraph is dense, but it's worth working through:
Given his influence on progressive sf criticism, we may give the last word to Jameson, and in particular his celebration of the Brechtian notion of plumpes Denken (“crude thinking”), which he defines as the postulate that even the most subtle, academic, or experimental “neo-Marxist” works must contain a core element of “crude” or “vulgar” Marxism in order to qualify as “Marxist” at all. Jameson alludes to plumpes Denken in order to make a point about science fiction: “Something like this may have its equivalent in SF, and I would be tempted to suggest that even within the most devoted reader of ‘soft’ SF—of sociological SF, ‘new wave’ aestheticism, the ‘contemporaries’ from Dick to the present—there has to persist some ultimate ‘hard-core’ commitment to old-fashioned ‘scientific’ SF for the object to preserve its identity and not to dissolve back into Literature, Fantasy, or whatever” (Jameson 245). Might it also be the case that the fascist energies and ideas of pulp sf are precisely the kind of identity-confirming “core” or definitional element that makes it possible to speak of “science fiction,” even when discussing literary, progressive sf? It is understandable that progressive critics would wish to distance themselves from both the aesthetics and the politics that accrued to a generation of stories featuring scenarios of the Golden Races vs. the Scaly Ones variety. But to deny that politics altogether, to claim that it belongs only to the past, is to evade a serious investigation of what makes the genre work, what gives it its identity and indeed its appeal. It is, ultimately, a denial of “science fiction” itself as a genre worthy of discussion, for surely the point of genre criticism is to identify and trace the various constitutional energies, themes, and plots that animate a form and in doing so account for all its variant strains and trends, not just the ones that accord well with a narrow set of critical pieties. To speak of “science fiction” at all is to admit to certain links and ideological ties that go beyond subject and setting, leading readers and critics into unexpected places and opening up unexpected connections. One cannot simply disown unwanted relatives or pretend not to recognize their features when they pop up in later generations. It is, indeed, precisely those ancestral presences—sometimes odd, sometimes eccentric, sometimes distasteful—that give science fiction its remarkable diversity and continuing vitality.
I'm not entirely convinced by many of the premises here*, but I'm fascinated by the continuing appeal of the desire not simply to define science fiction, but to define it toward a particular ideology, even when the writer knows and admits that this is a simplification or just "dumb".

The assertion that "good" science fiction is, in the view of Roberts et al., "progressive", is a statement that serves to set up criteria for true faith and for apostasy. (It's analogous to the use of the term "literature" to mean "that writing which I value and consider worth study".) Such a desire is similar to the one that propels people to claim that science fiction began with Mary Shelley or Newton or Lucian or Gilgamesh or the Big Bang, all of which are also ideological claims to an origin story that suits the storyteller's self-conception (or, if not outright self-conception, then at least the theological denomination they have chosen to associate with).

The stories told of science fiction are stories that reflect well on the storyteller. If the storyteller is an avid reader of science fiction, then the story is one that justifies that reading. Often, it's the fannish story of SF being somehow at the heart of literature, and therefore worthy of respect and study and love (as opposed to the "mundane" literature of a false church). Sometimes, it's a story of SF being the superior denomination. (My god is an awesome god!) One is not just a reader of science fiction, but a proud reader.

Adam Roberts's Guardian piece is perhaps best described as an example of faith-based writing. Lots of people of faith have written brilliantly, have done great things in the world, etc., so I don't mean this as a condemnation, and Roberts is particularly clear-eyed about his faith. He may be proselytizing, but he's perfectly aware that that's what he's doing. He's like a Campus Crusade for Christ guy standing out in front of the library, randomly accosting people with, "Hey, do you have a minute for Jesus? Jesus is cool!"

Aaron Santesso's essay is a useful corrective to the faith-based initiatives of the One True Church of SF missionaries (for instance, it would be interesting to read Santesso's approach to Iain Banks alongside Roberts's), but Santesso ends up giving in to the theological impulse himself by offering a story of original sin. Perhaps we could call it a Calvinist approach to SF dogma. He gives us an Old Testament sort of god, all grumpy and authoritarian and given to genocides, while Roberts sees science fiction more as a hippie Jesus. This unites the two essays, for Santesso has faith that science fiction can achieve its own new testament, and Roberts seems to think it already has.

As I said, I'm not separate from all this myself, even if I don't understand the fundamentalists and evangelicals. In many ways, I admire and even envy them their leaps and faiths. Perhaps their dogma is more honest than my anti-dogma, which is little more than the habitual uttering of, "Yes, but—" I have my own gods, my own idols and rituals and sacred texts. In that way, perhaps personal taste is always religious, always faith-based. Despite all attempts to figure out the empirical (or ideological) engines of taste, the explanations remain inadequate against the mysteries. Perhaps our passions are not only best expressed but best maintained through expressions of ecstasy. Perhaps faith is the best way to organize our desires, to give meaning to our pleasures and displeasures.

I'm a doubter, and so always and forever chained to maybe and perhaps...

Perhaps your god is an awesome god. Or, perhaps life is richer and more coherent if we believe in a god (or pantheon) that is an awesome god, regardless of whether such a belief itself is rationally justifiable. Maybe we need more tub thumping dumbness, more leaps of faith. Maybe...

Or maybe it's your god that sucks.

---------------------------------
*
My own proclivity is to view SF as a set of discourses sustained and propagated by a network of discourse communities, all of which can and should be historicized — a position certainly not opposed to Jameson or Santesso, but oblique to them.

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18. Interfictions Online: The Indiegogo Campaign

 
Interfictions Online is doing some crowdfunding so that they can continue to pay contributors and not charge readers. Not only am I in favor of paying contributors and keeping material free for readers, I'm also a fan of Interfictions in all its various incarnations, since many of my friends and writers I admire have appeared there, are editors there, etc. And I'm not entirely selfless in passing on the appeal: I had a story in the first Interfictions anthology, and I've got a story coming out in a future issue of Interfictions Online.

You don't have to be selfless, either, though, because there are various items offered to people who give money, including a great set of new e-book anthologies.


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19. Notes on A Strange and Sublime Address by Amit Chaudhuri


Here are some thoughts after reading Amit Chaudhuri's first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, which I read in the collection Freedom Song (which is what the page numbers below reference). I struggled with Chaudhuri — his goals for fiction are not mine. Nonetheless, I found it to be a productive struggle, and enjoyed writing about the book for a seminar on postcolonial fiction from Southeast Asia.

Over the next few days, I'll be posting here some of the material I came up with during that seminar that I doubt I'm going to develop into something more polished, at least immediately, but which seems worth preserving, even if my ideas are based on false premises, misreadings, or other potential pitfalls of quick apprehension...


ASSEMBLING THE INSTANT OF THE CITY 


He did not know what to do with his unexpected knowledge. But he felt a slight, almost negligible, twinge of pleasure, as meaning took birth in his mind, and died the next instant. (117)
             
Here we have the protagonist, Sandeep, discovering the pleasure of meaning in a word and name (“Alpana”), but the moment could be extended to the novel as a whole and, in particular, its perspective on the city of Calcutta. If we accept Majumdar’s proposal that this novel presents a flaneur’s-eye-view of life and the city, then the cityscape of the novel is less a stable conglomeration of stone and steel than it is an ever-flowing multiplicity of sensations. It is a place full of objects, but the objects live in constant moments of being, and those moments of being are created within the perceptions of the people who come in contact with them. Thus, there is no one object, no one city; rather, there is a practically infinite field of encounters, and those encounters erupt and fall into memory within the space of an instant.
 


Gariahat Road and Rashbehari Avenue Crossing, 1993 (Wikimedia)
The city does not exist separate from its inhabitants, then: “they temporarily forgot their own lives, and, temporarily, their minds flowed outward into the images of the city, and became indistinguishable from them” (115). The images exist within their minds, and so the movement cannot be away from those minds (the mind cannot escape itself), but instead away from memory and toward present moments. The self, then, is something of the past — the self is created through self-reflection, and what is reflected is a body of memory from which the self is sculpted. The city offers a temporary escape from the self and its reflected past, a way to move into the present. The present, though, as Sandeep learns, is always fleeting. Once the present is noticed, it is past. 

In that sense, the city allows a play of signifiers similar to the play Sandeep experiences when he looks at Bengali letters he can’t, formally, read. As Sandeep turns these letters into “‘characters’ in both senses of the word” (75), he does not attach some immutable meaning to them, but rather lets them mean what they seem to mean in the moment, much as he allows the images of the city to mean what they will in the moment of perceiving. The city is not, however, an illusion or a solipsism. It is an assemblage of systems and relations. Like an alphabet, its individual pieces can be put together in infinite series of meanings

These insights are not merely the musings of a child. Chapter Thirteen moves us into Chhotomama’s point of view, and he has similar musings on the Bengali word sandeshin its Bengali letters:

The letters, curving, undulating, never still, curving into a kinetic life of their own, reminded him of Calcutta, of buying and selling, of people on the pavements, of office-goers in the mornings, and homecomings in the evenings, of children reading books, of arguments and dissensions in the tea-shops, of an unexpected richness of myriad rooms, all festivities of colour and light. He wanted to return to the city where all things curved and arched and danced like those letters… (111)
            
The letters evoke the city; the city mimics the letters. The letters, then, are the molecules of the city. This is perhaps, too, what distinguishes Calcutta for Chhotomama and, presumably, Sandeep — it is a city that resembles the letters of the Bengali alphabet (kinetic, curved, arched, dancing) rather than the letters of another alphabet, for instance the standardized, separated, impersonal alphabet they would associate with English texts. Such an alphabet might be more appropriate for Bombay.
             
The city is an assemblage, a text is an assemblage, and the city is a text.
            
Let’s consider, too, the ways that texts are structured alphabets. A Strange and Sublime Addressseems like an assemblage without a plot, a city without a story — and yet cities do not lack for stories. Sandeep feels that the “‘real’ story, with its beginning, middle, and conclusion, would never be told, because it did not exist” (54), and yet this is not exactly true; or, rather, it is true but not exactly useful as an insight, especially if we apply it to the text we are reading. A Strange and Sublime Addresshas a first word, a middle word, a last word, as it also has a first, last, and middle sentence, page, chapter. These linear arrangements allow patterns to become meaningful. Stories are told, and stories lead into other stories. This is much like a city. The concepts that we associate with the textual effect we call the character “Sandeep” are concepts that are advanced for a child’s mind, but not entirely unrealistic, and it seems to me that his perception that the “real” story of life could not be told because it is too big and overdetermined for narrative representation is unsatisfying. The desire for one story is the problem. Reality is not one story. Reality is an assemblage of infinite moments, actions, and perceptions. Reality is a system of relations. We can name some of these assemblages and systems — we can call them a city, a family, an object — and we can talk about the beginning, middle, and end of each. Calcutta began somewhere and sometime, and it will end somewhere and sometime. Calcutta cannot sufficiently be represented in a story, but it can be summoned in a million stories. Stories, like cities, are systems of instances. The fictive personality of Sandeep selects instances; the reader notes these selections, responds to them, assumes and imagines patterns of meaning from them, and thus keeps the textual effect we call Sandeep alive for the duration of the text. A fictional character is an assemblage just as a representation of a city is an assemblage: an assemblage of details within the text that are held in the reader’s mind and associated with each other. Sandeep is an alphabet interpreted. The patterns of that interpretation, that assemblage, can then form patterns with other interpretations, other assemblages of instants, other signifiers at play: ones called Chhotomamaand Abhi and the market and summer … and Calcutta. Letters lead to words which lead to sentences which lead to paragraphs. All lead toward and away from each other. Meaning takes birth in the mind, lives in the present, dies in the next instance, but the instances add up and echo, they curve and arch and dance.

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20. Storytellers: Escaping the Nightmare of Myth in Chaudhuri and Rushdie



Continuing on from yesterday's post about Amit Chaudhuri's A Strange and Sublime Address (a novella included in the collection Freedom Song), here's a bit more academic writing about the book. This time, my goal is to undermine, or at least question, the common opposition of Chaudhuri's "realism" to Salman Rushdie's "magical realism". The two writers have frequently been set against each other as polar opposites, but my argument here is that they have far more in common than might be obvious at first...

In his 2009 essay “Cosmopolitanism’s Alien Face”, Amit Chaudhuri tells of a conversation he had with the Bengali poet Utpal Kumar Basu:
We were discussing, in passing, the nature of the achievement of Subimal Misra, one of the short-story writing avant-garde in 1960s Bengal. ‘He set aside the conventional Western short story with its idea of time; he was more true to our Indian sensibilities; he set aside narrative’, said Basu. ‘That’s interesting’, I observed. ‘You know, of course, that, in the last twenty years or so, it is we Indians and postcolonials who are supposed to be the storytellers, emerging as we do from our oral traditions and our millennial fairy tales’. ‘Our fairy tales are very different from theirs’, said Basu, unmoved. ‘We don’t start with, “Once upon a time”.’ (91-92)
Chaudhury goes on to explore the implications of this statement, and of the desire to solidify an idea of pure cultural identity (“Our fairy tales … We don’t start with…”) against ideas of modernism and cosmopolitanism, but here I would like to take the statements in the above paragraph more on their surface and to explore the effect of the stated and implied Once upon a time…
   
Salman Rushdie’s Shame does not begin with exactly those words, but the sense of a fairy tale beginning is strong: “In the remote border town of Q., which when seen from the air resembles nothing so much as an ill-proportioned dumb-bell, there once lived three lovely, and loving, sisters.” The narrator quickly assumes the role of storyteller: “…the three sisters, I should state without further delay, bore the family name of Shakil…” (3), the narrative voice here asserting, for the first of many times in Shame, the kind of presence that most European novels of the 19th century sought to vanquish in the name of realism.

The idea of realism led to third-person narratives unburdened by the presence of a narrator, and the success of that style has created a sense that storytelling was a more primitive tradition, a tradition that the 19th Century European novel first refined and then progressed beyond. The realist European novel is inextricable from a particular idea of European progress, and the aesthetic is strongly located within a specific, and quite narrow, time and place. Storytelling may be universal, written narrative may have a long and multicultural history, but the realistic novel is a particular technology.

The first sentences of Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address draw from that technology: “He saw the lane. Small houses, unlovely and unremarkable, stood face to face with each other.” The narration is submerged within the perception of the character, and in these first lines we don’t even know the character’s name — the character is nothing but a gendered pronoun, and the normal, sense-making syntax of noun followed by pronoun is reversed (there is no antecedent). The first name we encounter is not that of the viewpoint character, but rather what the viewpoint character sees: “Chhotomama’s house had a pomelo tree in its tiny courtyard and madhavi creepers by its windows.” Here, the unnamed viewpoint character possesses knowledge that is not allowed to readers: Who is Chhotomama? How do we know it’s Chhotomama’s house? We begin in medias res, but not so much in the middle of events as in the middle of perceptions. Perceptions are foregrounded, and we, the outside observer, build our knowledge from them. Only once we have perceived can we be provided with even some of the necessary information for ordinary meaning to be possible, but the importance of that information is de-emphasized: our viewpoint character’s name doesn’t appear until a parenthetical remark in the final sentence of the first paragraph: “A window opened above (it was so silent for a second that Sandeep could hear someone unlocking it) and Babla’s face appeared behind the mullions” (7). The technology of the realistic novel doesn’t require this technique; the technique emphasizes a decisive rejection of the storytelling tradition. Not only is there no narrating “I” situating the reader in relationship to the tale, but there is a determined lack of information about the character.

The first paragraph of A Strange and Sublime Address thus forces readers to make connections and draw conclusions, to connect that first “He” to “Sandeep”, while also showing us what may matter in the novel and what may not. Where Shame emphasizes storytelling, A Strange and Sublime Address emphasizes perception. The apparently radical differences between the two books — and the ostensibly opposite aesthetic approaches of Rushdie and Chaudhuri — diminish if we look at the novels’ types of storytelling and thus analyze both texts as metafictions that take different paths to similar conclusions about history, place, and representation.

Saikat Majumdar applies Walter Benjamin’s concept of the flâneur to Chaudhuri, but here we might draw on some other of Benjamin’s ideas, these from the 1936 essay “The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov”, particularly section XVI, in which Benjamin writes of fairy tales:
The fairy tale tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which myth had placed upon its chest. … The liberating magic which the fairy tale has at its disposal does not bring nature into play in a mythical way, but points to its complicity with liberated man. A mature man feels this complicity only occasionally — that is, when he is happy; but the child first meets it in fairy tales, and it makes him happy. (157)
This view of the fairy tale as a tool for liberation from myth is one that aligns well with Shame, but it’s harder to locate the engines of “Once upon a time…” within A Strange and Sublime Address, despite that novel mostly being presented through the point of view of a child. To find the fairy tale, we must locate the pedagogical imperative of the text. Benjamin concludes: “…the storyteller joins the ranks of the teachers and sages. He has counsel — not for a few situations, as the proverb does, but for many, like the sage. … The storyteller is the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself” (162). Chaudhuri clearly wants to teach readers something about perception, materiality, and history, and his writing is determinedly anti-mythic. Further, the novel is strongly concerned with how stories represent the world, and how language and perception intertwine in narrative, which is why I call it a metafiction. To limn the liberatory magic of A Strange and Sublime Address, though, we should begin with the more obvious metafiction of Shame.

Though Chapter 1 of Shame is filled with asides from the narrator, it is Chapter 2 that truly breaks out of the established narrative, bringing us into a more recognizable reality with the first sentence: “A few weeks after Russian troops entered Afghanistan, I returned home, to visit my parents and sisters and to show off my firstborn son” (19). The narrative voice here is more straightforward and unified, and the details fit Rushdie’s known biography to such an extent that some readers and critics have confidently asserted that the voice is Rushdie. It is problematic to associate the writer with a textual effect in any book, and especially so in a book as wild, imaginative, and concerned with questions of history, identity, and representation as Shame, so here I will simply call this Voice 2, as opposed to the narrator of the more obviously fantastical sections, Voice 1.

Voice 2 is intimately related to Voice 1, however, and may logically be seen as the creator of Voice 1 (“I tell myself this will be a novel of leavetaking…” [22]). Voice 2 is an explainer and a ruminator, and the Voice 2 sections read like personal essays. But the genre (or mode) of the novel is remarkable in its ability to contain and recontextualize other genres (and/or modes) — the personal essay becomes embedded within the novel, and so its identity as an essay can no longer be trusted, because it is being put to use for novelistic purposes. It is thus rendered impure, and in a novel about impurities of identity and the translation of being and substance. “I, too, am a translated man,” Voice 2 says. “I have been borne across” (23), and this translation, this bearing across, is as true for the voice’s genre as for the character evoked by that voice.

The problem for Voice 2 is that the storytelling force of Voice 1 comes from a different age and place, and translating the form and tendencies of old aesthetics is, like all translation, a process that deforms and reforms the original, skewing the results. Even if the original could be moved perfectly into a new time and place, the result would still get skewed, as Borges proposed with Pierre Menard’s Quixote. Voice 2 must break in because Voice 1 is inevitably doomed to fail — or, if not fail exactly, to sputter unforseen effects all over the page. Voice 2 is forced to acknowledge this late in the novel:
I had thought, before I began, that what I had on my hands was an almost excessively masculine tale, a saga of sexual rivalry, ambition, power, patronage, betrayal, death, revenge. But the women seem to have taken over; they marched in from the peripheries of the story to demand the inclusion of their own tragedies, histories and comedies, obliging me to couch my narrative in all manner of sinuous complexities, to see my “male” plot refracted, so to speak, through the prisms of its reverses and “female” side. It occurs to me that the women knew precisely what they were up to — that their stories explain, and even subsume, the men’s. (180-181)
Voice 2 here blames the failures and fragmenting of Voice 1 (or, perhaps, Voice 1-1.∞, as the possible voices within Voice 1 are infinite) on “the women”, thus giving the characters an autonomy that might be better ascribed to aesthetic and ideological forces rather than to a plane of reality in which the characters are real people and not textual figures. (Voice 2 is a textual effect that ascribes blame to other textual effects for the shape of the narrative.) We might more productively say that the phantasmagoria is overtaken by what resists fantasy — the factitious overcome by the factual.

This would seem to be a triumph of realism over fantasy, but that would only be true if the fantasy were wiped out, and it is not. The majority of Shame remains phantasmagoric, but differently so, and differently in multiple ways. The reader cannot erase the knowledge of Voice 2 within Voice 1, and so, from Chapter 2 on, we read the phantasmagoria differently than we might were Voice 2 never introduced. Were the book only to include Chapter 1, we could assume a unity to Voice 1 as, simply, the narrator. The introduction of Voice 2 in Chapter 2 offers the reader another hypothesis: Voice 1 is really Voice 2, the controlling power from our own recognizable reality. Passages such as the one quoted above, though, demonstrate that Voice 1 is not entirely controlled by Voice 2, and that, rather than a single narrator, it should be perceived as an assemblage of narrators. As a textual function, then, Voice 1 is plural (though its plurality is often indeterminate) and Voice 2 is singular.

The passage I quoted above begins with the crucial phrase that is missing from the first paragraph of the novel: “Once upon a time there were two families, their destinies inseparable even by death” (180). That could have been the first sentence of the book, but instead Voice 1 fumbled around a bit more. By here, Once upon a time can begin the section, but the section it begins is one about liberation. We have located the liberatory magic. Once upon a time there were “destinies inseparable even by death”, but the past of this tale may not be — or may not have to be — the present of this novel.

We have here located what Fredric Jameson has recently called “the antinomies of realism”.  Jameson’s dialectical approach sets the récit against the roman, the tale against the novel, with the récit as, philosophically, a narrative form based on ideas of destiny and fate (crucially linked to the past) and the roman as a work that creates a narrative and existential present through the use of scenes. The récit relies on telling, while the roman subsumes telling within an overall strategy of showing. (Hence the common 20th Century command to aspiring writers of narrative: “Show, don’t tell!”) The difference between the two forms is, Jameson says, important “not as récit versus roman, nor even telling versus showing; but rather destiny versus the eternal present” (26). In Shame, Voice 1 is the voice of the récit (the [story]teller), Voice 2 is the voice of the roman, with the informational moments of telling subsumed within specific scenes, most dominantly the scene of writing. While the majority of the novel is written within a storytelling mode, the presence of Voice 2 infects that mode and inflects our reading, making Voice 1 into instances of what Voice 2 seeks to show.

Yet Voice 2’s will is a construction, and “what Voice 2 seeks” is itself an instance of “showing” within the text as a whole. The novel is the story of Voice 2 constructing and wrestling with Voice 1.

Jameson points out implications to his antinomies that may be useful as we return to Chaudhuri. In a discussion of the way that an aesthetic that constructs everyday existence as exterior/outside and an aesthetic that constructs existence as interior both avoid and resist genres that impose a prototypical destiny onto lived material, Jameson writes:
It is precisely against just such a reification of destinies that the realist narrative apparatus is aimed, which reaffirms the singularity of the episodes to the point at which they can no longer fit into the narrative convention. That this is also a clash of aesthetic ideologies is made clear by the way in which older conceptions of destiny or fate are challenged by newer appeals to that equally ideological yet historically quite distinct notion of this or that “reality,” in which social and historical material rise to the surface in the form of the singular or the contingent. (143)
In Shame, the two aesthetic ideologies clash through the conflict between Voice 1 and Voice 2, and the synthesis they achieve is literally apocalyptic — the entire dialectic is blown away, making space for something new. The apocalypse synthesizes, perhaps, a new voice. Who is the blinded “I” in the final sentence (“…I can no longer see what is no longer there…” [305]), Voice 1 or Voice 2? We could choose to see them as merged, and thus the new possibilities of Voice 3 — or Voice ? — are born into the blank space.

The two ideologies clash in A Strange and Sublime Address, too, but not as obviously, because the text avoids any first-person narration. Nonetheless, its perspectives shift and there is a strong authorial voice guiding readers through the novel’s paths, a storyteller. We are given information by this voice, for instance: “There are several ways of spending a Sunday evening” (16). The storyteller also provides commentary: “He would become an archetype of that familiar figure who is not often described in literature — the ordinary breadwinner in his moment of unlikely glory, transformed into the centre of his universe and his home” (20). At times, the storyteller presents us with interpretations of what we are reading that are nearly as prescriptive as the interpretations offered by Voice 2 in Shame: “This kind of talk, whether at the dinner-table or in the bedroom, did not become too oppressive: it was too full of metaphors, paradoxes, wise jokes, and reminiscences to be so. It was, at bottom, a criticism of life” (48).

These examples of storytelling clash with the expectations created by the first paragraph of A Strange and Sublime Address and highlight this novel’s heteroglossia. Its polyphonies are not only at the level of narrative voice, but also of perspective, and it is through shifts in point of view that A Strange and Sublime Address makes its case for the location of reality within perception. From the first paragraph, we are set to expect the viewpoint character to be Sandeep, and certainly Sandeep is the primary viewpoint character, but the text moves away from his point of view with some regularity. Early in the novel, a mention of dust moves the narrative away from the room and out of Sandeep’s immediate perception to a simple declaration: “Calcutta is a city of dust,” which then leads to a portrayl of the servants who clean the dust from the rooms (14-15). Later, the text shifts a couple of times into Chhotomama’s point view, sometimes only for a few paragraphs (97), but once he is in the hospital, his point of view is the strongest and most defining (e.g., “But there were times, in the afternoon, when Chhotomama would wake from a nap and find himself facing a bright, hard wall. At first, it surprised him with its sheer presence. Slowly, he came to realise that it was his future he was looking at” (113).

Soon after highlighting Chhotomama’s perceptions, the text unifies the family’s perceptions as they drive away from visiting him: “Watching the lanes, they temporarily forgot their own lives, and, temporarily, their minds flowed outward into the images of the city, and became indistinguishable from them” (115).

Like Shame, A Strange and Sublime Address ends with a kind of obliteration, and one that is, in its implications, nearly as apocalyptic. Chhotomama sends Abhi and Sandeep out to the garden to look for a kokil, and his command is described as sounding “like a directive in a myth or a fable” (120). The search for the kokil puts the boys into the discourse of the pre-novel, the land of the fairy tale. They get distracted, though, and only find the kokil by mistake while playing hide-and-seek with each other. The bird is real, not a creature of myth. It has details that can be shown; it can become a character and not an archetype. The boys watch it eat an orange flower (the sort of apparently meaningless detail that creates, in Barthes’ sense, a reality effect). The first sentence of the final paragraph gives us a representation of perception tempered by probability and inductive reasoning: “But it must have sensed their presence, because it interrupted its strange meal and flew off”, which both provides us with an idea of perception and limits that perception, for it highlights that the kokil’s own perception cannot be known. The sentence is not finished, however. A dash slashes us into a revision: “—not flew off, really, but melted, disappeared, from the material world.” It’s as if the bird goes back into the mythic discourse of Chhotomama’s command. We, the readers, are left with the characters in the material world from which the bird has disappeared. What is that material world, though? It is the words of the book itself, because that is the world we share with the characters. The final sentence is mysterious: “As they watched, a delicate shyness seemed to envelop it, and draw a veil over their eyes” (121). The “it” of that sentence is nearly as mysterious as the “He” of the novel’s first sentence, and much more uncertain, because here we have no subsequent sentences to clarify it. The antecedent could be either the kokil or the material world. (Grammatically, it would be the latter, which is closer to the pronoun.) The kokil, having melted back to myth, cannot be the material world. But the ambiguous pronoun makes the force that veils the children’s eyes uncertain: is it myth or is it reality? Is it the absence of myth within reality?

The “I” of the last sentence of Shame could also have a few antecedents. The indeterminacy is meaningful because it makes us reflect on the importance of the antecedent as opposed to other elements of the sentences. Both novels offer an uncertain pronoun and a certain statement of blindness. “I can no longer see what is no longer there” could be a statement from one of the children in A Strange and Sublime Address. The voices of Shame are united in the indeterminant “I” of the end, as are the children of Chaudhuri’s novel. Both groups are blinded, and the blinding suggests that the mythic and historical past have been obliterated in favor not so much of a meaningful present as for the potential of a future. (In Chaudhuri, our group is, after all, a group of children, who, for all their claims of materiality, can’t help but stand for some sort of future.) Destiny is gone, fate is unknowable. The storyteller’s tale of the past became present voices and present details of the material world, but the present is temporary, as is perception, even when it flows out toward images of a city.

Speaking to Basu, Chaudhuri said Indian and postcolonial writers have been characterized as storytellers “emerging … from our oral traditions and our millennial fairy tales”, and the tone suggests he is skeptical or dismissive of this simplistic characterization, just as Basu is skeptical and dismissive of fairy tales beginning, “Once upon a time…” Both Shame and A Strange and Sublime Address conclude by obliterating fairy tales, myths, the past, and the present. The storyteller is a figure of the present because the story is the antecedent of the teller. The reader is more free, and may be, in fact, freed by the storyteller to shake off the nightmare of myth and the weight of history, to speculate on a future, to see a blankness, a potential, a voice marked by the question of infinity.

The paradox of once upon a time is that the storyteller’s recitation of the past may unleash the liberatory magic that we need. Once the present is named, it is past. Cities produce and receive perceptions and stories, but though their materiality may flow more slowly than perceptions and stories of that materiality do, even concrete and steel bend, weather, erode, melt, disappear. This is what the storyteller teaches, the knowledge that, in Benjamin’s terms, the righteous person keeps hidden until the story pries it loose, pulling away the veil, providing sight. Whether récit or roman, myth or material, the future always looms, a blank space like the blank page after the last sentence of a book.


Works Cited
Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” Trans. Harry Zohn. Selected Writings. Ed. Michael William Jennings and Howard Eiland. Vol. 3: 1935–1938. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 1996. 143–166.

Chaudhuri, Amit. A Strange and Sublime Address. Freedom Song: Three Novels. New York: Vintage International, 2000. 1–121.
---. “Cosmopolitanism’s Alien Face.” New Left Review 55 (2009): 89–106.

Jameson, Fredric. The Antinomies of Realism. New York: Verso, 2013.

Majumdar, Saikat. “Dallying with Dailiness: Amit Chaudhuri’s Flaneur Fictions.” Studies in the Novel (2007): 448–464.

Rushdie, Salman. Shame. 1st Owl Book ed. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

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21. "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.”)
I thought of my favorite Langston Hughes poem, "Let American Be America Again" while reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's extraordinary new essay at The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations" (for which we should just give Coates the Pulitzer right now):
If we conclude that the conditions in North Lawndale and black America are not inexplicable but are instead precisely what you’d expect of a community that for centuries has lived in America’s crosshairs, then what are we to make of the world’s oldest democracy?

One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.
Read the whole essay. If you're a U.S. citizen, or even not, it's unlikely you'll read anything more important today.

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22. Another Armed, Angry White Man


At the Daily Beast, Cliff Schechter has a piece titled "How the NRA Enables Massacres", which, despite some hyperbolic language, is worth reading for the general information, as is his piece on a visit to the recent NRA convention. Schechter isn't reporting anything new, and the pieces are superficial compared to some earlier writings on all this, but it's always worth reminding ourselves that gun massacres in the US are part of a culture that has been carefully manufactured, protected, nurtured, enflamed.

I've written a lot about guns and gun culture here over the past few years. Writing those posts from scratch now, I would change occasional wording in some of them, clarify a few points, etc. (the hazards of writing on the fly), but you could take almost anything I've written previously and apply it to the latest massacre.

The place of hegemonic masculinity in this type of event is especially clear this time, but it's been present before and is a common component to why this sort of thing happens. It's a racialized hegemonic masculinity, too, the deadly scream of the angry white man — a sense of entitlement thwarted. In the book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, Michael Kimmel writes: "As men experience it, masculinity may not be the experience of power. But it is the experience of entitlement to power" (185).

The NRA and the gun manufacturers have become experts at stoking that sense of entitlement and profiting off of it. At every possible moment, the NRA, the manufacturers, and their minions point out as many threats to power as they can imagine, and then they offer their commodities as tools for stabilizing and strengthening that power.




The patterns have been in play at least since the 1980s. James William Gibson's Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America was published 20 years ago, but it's at least as relevant today as it was then. Consider, for instance, his discussion of mass murderers:
Although several of these paramilitary killers went after former co-workers and bosses, and some even killed their families, most targeted a distinct social group... Thus, Huberty seems to have considered the Latinos at the San Ysidro McDonald's to be Vietnamese. Patrick Purdy was found to have been a white supremacist; his choice of Asian schoolchildren was not an accident. Canadian Marc Lepine shot only women. (237)
Gibson's chapter "Bad Men and Bad Guns: The Symbolic Politics of Gun Control" is useful reading for these conversations, and reminds us of the deep history here. Most importantly, it helps show why so many past efforts have been ineffective (though profitable for both the NRA and the gun control organizations). What would have stopped the mass shootings? he wonders. Most of the proposed and enacted legislation would not have. A more accessible and effective mental health system might have helped in some cases. But:
Most of all, stopping the madmen would have required understanding that they were not isolated "deviants" who simply invented their mayhem out of thin air and looked and acted completely differently from the "ordinary" people in the mainstream of American culture. On the contrary, in their killings they gave expression to some of the most basic cultural dynamics of the decade — in the face of either real or imaginary problems, declare an enemy responsible and go to war....

To argue, then, that many of these murderers could have been stopped solely by increased gun control is to pretend that the social and political crises of post-Vietnam America never occurred and that the New War did not develop as the major way of overcoming those disasters. Paramilitary culture made military-style rifles desirable, and legislation cannot ban a culture. The gun-control debate was but the worst kind of fetishism, in which focusing on a part of the dreadful reality of the decade — combat weapons — became a substitute for confronting what America had become. (263-264)
A year after Gibson's book was published, Timothy McVeigh drove to Oklahoma City and showed exactly what the angry white male paramilitary culture stood for.


Siege imagery pervades and energizes that culture, as demonstrated with the Cliven Bundy affair.  One shift it has taken after the end of the Cold War is toward a more general apocalypticism. Instead of yearning for war with the Russians, now the paramilitarists yearn for the breakdown of contemporary society. Like the world's most overzealous Boy Scouts, they are prepared. This is a power fantasy and a religious fantasy: all the "bad" people will be wiped from the Earth, and the "good" people (prepared, armed, ready) will inherit it and thrive. Or something. The details of eschatology don't matter as much as the process of preparation, because that process is a way of reclaiming some sense of power and protecting a feeling of entitlement: I will survive because I deserve to. There's also a sense of revenge in apocalyptic yearning, too: Once the apocalypse comes, you'll no longer be able to laugh at me, dismiss me, devalue me. You'll need me, because I will be ready and you will be miserable.

What's really under siege is the sense of entitlement. That sense is part of a mythology, one killers feed on. Here's part of a conversation between Bill Moyers and the historian Richard Slotkin, whose work has done a lot to delineate the history of the murderous mythology:
RICHARD SLOTKIN: We produce the lone killer. That is to say the lone killer is trying to validate himself or herself in terms of the, I would call the historical mythology, of our society, wants to place himself in relation to meaningful events in the past that lead up to the present.
BILL MOYERS: You say “or her”, but the fact of the matter is all of these killers lately have been males.
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes, yeah, pretty much always are.
BILL MOYERS: And most of them white?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yeah. Yeah, I think, again this is because each case is different, but the tendency that you've pointed out is true and I've always felt that it has something to do, in many cases, with a sense of lost privilege, that men and white men in the society feel their position to be imperiled and their status called into question. And one way to deal with an attack on your status in our society is to strike out violently.
American gun culture has always been racialized and gendered. From later in the conversation with Slotkin:
RICHARD SLOTKIN: ...And Colt-- one of Colt's original marketing ploys was to market it to slave owners. Here you are, a lone white man, overseer or slave owner, surrounded by black people. Suppose your slaves should rise up against you. Well, if you've got a pair of Colt's pistols in your pocket, you are equal to twelve slaves. And that's “The Equalizer,” that it's not all men are created equal by their nature. It's that I am more equal than others because I've got extra shots in my gun.
BILL MOYERS: But you write about something you call “the equalizer fallacy.”
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes, the equalizer doesn't produce equality. What it produces is privilege. If I have six shots in my gun and you've got one, I can outvote you by five shots. Any man better armed than his neighbors is a majority of one.
And that's the equalizer fallacy. It goes to this notion that the gun is the guarantor of our liberties. We're a nation of laws, laws are the guarantors of our liberties. If your rights depend on your possession of a firearm, then your rights end when you meet somebody with more bullets or who's a better shot or is meaner than you are.
BILL MOYERS: And yet the myth holds--
RICHARD SLOTKIN: And yet--
BILL MOYERS: --stronger than the reality?
RICHARD SLOTKIN: Well, yes, the myth holds. And it is stronger than the reality. Because those guns, particularly the Colt is associated with one of the most active phases and most interesting phases of expansion. And therefore it has the magic of the tool, the gun that won the west, the gun that equalized, the whites and the Indians, the guns that created the American democracy and made equality possible.
The angry white men may be a minority of gun owners, and just one of the audiences for the NRA and the manufacturers, but they are the audience most valued, because they are the people who will keep buying no matter what, the people who will, from fear and anger, amass a hoard of deadly tools. The NRA and the manufacturers have cultivated that audience, have encouraged that fear and anger, and have profited greatly from the murders. We should give no credence to their crocodile tears; every massacre means they can return to their favorite profit lines: Now the liberals and feminists and Obama-lovers will come for your guns. Now you will lose your power. Now you will be robbed of what you deserve. Stock up. Prepare. Defend yourself. Be a man. Ready — aim — fire—

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23. For The Years

Hogarth Press first edition, cover by Vanessa Bell
Published in 1937, The Years was the last of her novels that Virginia Woolf lived to see released. Coming more than five years after the release of the poetic and, to many people, opaquely experimental The Waves, The Years seemed like the work of a totally different writer — it looked like a family novel, something along the lines of Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, the sort of book a younger Woolf had scorned.  

The Years became a bestseller in both the UK and the US, and garnered some good reviews — in the New York Times, Peter Monro Jack declared it "Virginia Woolf's Richest Novel". Its fame quickly faded, however. After Woolf's death, her husband Leonard claimed he didn't think it was among her best work, though he'd been afraid, he said, to tell her that, given how long she had worked on it and how hard that work had been for her. As Woolf's reputation increased in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly among feminist academics, The Years tended to get shuffled aside in favor of the other novels and essays. Despite some advocacy from scholars and an extraordinary edition as part of the Cambridge Woolf, The Years remains relatively neglected. This is unfortunate, as it is a magnificent book.


12 April 1937, photo by Man Ray

Some of the best scholarship on The Years occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when scholars began looking at the drafts of the novel. The progress of Woolf's writing of The Years was of interest not just because it took her so long and so much effort, but because her original conception for the book was much more obviously experimental than the final version proved to be. She had conceived it as what she called an "essay-novel" titled The Pargiters (the name of the central family in the book) where essayistic chapters would alternate with novelistic chapters. At one point, she planned on the book covering the years 1880 to 2032 — yes, for a moment, Virginia Woolf planned to write a science fiction novel. But she found the structure she had planned unwieldy, and never wrote beyond the 1880 years in The Pargiters. Instead, she reconceived the book as a novel that would proceed from 1880 to a final section titled "Present Day" (early 1930s), and incorporated much of the research she had done for the essayistic sections into her book Three Guineas.

One result of the research into the early drafts of The Pargiters/The Years — and particularly the publication of The Pargiters (edited by Mitchell Leaska) in 1977 and Virginia Woolf's The Years: The Evolution of a Novel by Grace Radin in 1981 — was a growing perception of The Years as a failed novel, a failed experiment. Both Leaska and Radin seem saddened by Woolf's failure to realize her original plan for a book that alternates between essayistic and novelistic chapters, and they judge the published version of The Years to be incoherent.

But The Years is far from incoherent and far from a failure. I've spent much of the last few months researching and drafting an academic article about the book (which some of the following is part of), and the more time I spent with The Years, the more I marvelled at it.

I first encountered The Years when I took an undergraduate seminar in Woolf in the late 1990s. We didn't spend much time on the book. Nonetheless, I remember liking it, perhaps for similar reasons as some readers in the 1930s: it felt like a nice break after the challenge of The Waves. I thus always had a fondness for it, but didn't return to it until a few years ago, when Samuel Delany said somewhere that he was extraordinarily impressed by it. I returned to it then, and really fell in love with it, but also knew I needed to spend significantly more time to delve into its complexities. Thanks to a seminar this term on British Modernisms, I was able to do so.

The perception of The Years as a failure is tremendously inaccurate. The book is, indeed, a failure of Woolf's original plan, but Woolf's original plan was too schematic and awkward, as she quickly discovered. It's not that she then gave up and wrote a traditional family novel, but that she found a way to create a book that would take the form of a traditional novel while achieving most of her original goals. The Years only looks like a traditional novel — once you slide below its surface, it proves to be nearly as radically experimental as The Waves.

The challenge is to see The Years not as a novel in the traditional sense (much less a family novel) but as a text that uses our assumptions about the novel form to highlight and reconfigure our knowledge and desires. In a way, the text wants us to misperceive it as a traditional novel, but then to recognize — in an almost Brechtian way — that we must shift our perception, and that this shift is, in fact, not merely aesthetic but also ethical.

At the time of writing The Years, Woolf was deeply concerned with fascism: the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, as well as the presence of fascist groups and sentiments in Britain. Leonard was Jewish, and together they traveled through Germany and Italy in the spring of 1935, seeing the fascist states first-hand, a "letter of protection" from Prince Bismark at the London Embassy in Leonard's pocket. (It didn't end up needing to be used, even as they passed through a vehemently anti-Semitic crowd waiting for the arrival of Hermann Göring. The Germans were won over by the pet marmoset Leonard often kept on his shoulder — something that, apparently, they figured no Jew would do.) Virginia's perception of Leonard's Jewishness, and of Judaism in general, has been the topic of much writing and controversy, more than I can get into here. (Julia Briggs thoughtfully considered the question of Woolf's use of Jewish stereotypes, and Lara Trubowitz has recently provided some fascinating context to Woolf's relationship to and representations of Jewishness. Helen Carr gives a good overview of discussions of Woolf, imperialism, and racism in her chapter of the Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, "Virginia Woolf, Empire, and Race".)

But Woolf wasn't only concerned with fascism as fascism. Three Guineas makes utterly clear that to Woolf, fascism and patriarchy were linked. The challenge for Woolf was to find a kind of unity or harmony, something she often referred to throughout her writings from an early age — but not a fascist unity.

In September 1908, as she traveled in Italy and worked on the manuscript of Melymbrosia (which, revised, would become her first published novel, The Voyage Out), the 26-year-old Virginia Stephen wrote in her diary, contrasting her writing with the art of Italian painters:
I achieve a different kind of beauty, achieve a symmetry by means of infinite discords, showing all the traces of the minds [sic] passage through the world; & achieve in the end, some kind of whole made of shivering fragments; to me this seems the natural process; the flight of the mind.
Though she had yet to publish her first novel, a central element of Woolf’s aesthetic sense had already formed. Up through The Waves, this credo served her well, but it seems that by the time she began imagining The Pargiters, she desired something more than tracing the mind’s passage through the world — or, rather, she desired to emphasize the world in a way she had not done since Night and Day (when she was not yet as practiced and skilled at tracing the mind’s passages). As so many of her books (fiction and nonfiction) are, The Years is “some kind of whole made of shivering fragments”.

What Woolf discovered in the 1930s, though, was that the aesthetic and psychological unities she had explored earlier could be developed into a more social, political, and historical unity that was not fundamentally fascist.

U.S. first edition
The Years presents ideas of unity in a variety of ways. Characters yearn for forms of unity, and the text itself unifies through its narrative voices. In The Years, the characters of Peggy and Eleanor — who approach the world in quite different ways — both yearn for a unity that will bring freedom and peace, but both fail to be able to express this desire coherently in words. Peggy tries to share her vision of “a state of being, in which there was real laughter, real happiness, and this fractured world was whole; whole and free”, but “she had broken off only a little fragment of what she meant to say”. Eleanor is the character who returns most often to ideas of wholeness, but words always fail her: “…it was impossible to find one word for the whole”. Again and again, the text demonstrates that the desired wholeness cannot be achieved only through words or only through an elite view — it requires a perspective that can see a system, a distance that delineates the movement of groups.

Each chapter of The Years begins with a kind of prelude, one that shows the world from a distance. It's useful, I think, to see the prelude narrator as a separate voice from the narrator of the main text. The prelude narrator shows that distanced perspective is key to achieving the desired unity: it brings time, space, and event together in a way that doesn’t let any one element dominate. To be more than just a distant, frozen image, though, other elements are necessary, and that's where the novel form's particular ability to represent both a multitude of consciousnesses and a multitude of material details proves useful for Woolf's purposes.

The details of people, places, and things contribute to traditional verisimilitude, but their excess is not the excess of Barthes's reality effect; instead, the details are not excessive enough. This is what causes many readers' frustration with the book — what, they wonder, is the purpose of all these random details?

The details, though, are not at all random, but are, instead, part of a very complex system, a careful pattern built from repetitions and echoes. (Critics such as Alice Van Buren Kelley, Michael Rosenthal, and Julia Briggs have delineated the pattern of echoes and repetitions that produce the book’s meanings, even if, as with Briggs, they find the results “ultimately less consistent than earlier novels”.) On one level, the details provide us information about the characters and their place within the social and material setting. But the characters and setting work in a more fluid, less individual way than they do in traditional novels. (Indeed, some readers' major complaint about the book is that it's difficult to keep the characters straight, since they flit in and out of the text. This is true, but also, I think, a desired and important effect.) The characters and setting are united in memory, both the characters' memories and the readers'. The material world melds into the personal, and vice versa.

On another level, all the details highlight the contrivance of narrative, a contrivance the characters themselves frequently run up against. During a dinner party, for instance, Martin tries to be friendly and to share stories of his life with the young woman he has been made to sit beside, but “what little piece of his vast experience could he break off and give to her, he wondered?”. Novels are too clean in their causalities and inferences, as North thinks when regarding his cousin: “She left the room without looking in the glass. From which we deduce the fact, he said to himself, as if he were writing a novel, that Miss Sara Pargiter has never attracted the love of a man.” Novels, though, provide false certainty: “Or had she? He did not know. These little snapshot pictures of people left much to be desired, these snapshot pictures that one made, like a fly crawling over a face, and feeling, here’s the nose, here’s the brow”. Then North struggles to reconcile the brute facts of Sara with her personality: “The actual words he supposed — the actual words floated together and formed a sentence in his mind — meant that she was poor; that she must earn her living, but the excitement with which she had spoken, due to wine perhaps, had created yet another person; another semblance, which one must solidify into one whole”.

These are, Woolf shows us, failed strategies, failed epistemologies. Vast experience cannot be captured by stories: it always exceeds them, and the excess pushes the honest storyteller toward silence. In a world of fascism, though, silence can too easily become consent or complicity (normalizing discourses don’t mind silence). There is an energy to people, an unpredictable excitement, that exceeds sentences and yet must be accounted for.

Yet Woolf is not Samuel Beckett. Failure and silence are present, but they are not the end point. We must remember the prelude narrator. Without that narrative voice, it would be more difficult to make sense or meaning of the many scattered moments that make up The Years. The prelude narrator does not simply stand (or hover) at a distance, looking down on the unindividualized people below, but rather has the freedom to dart from perspective to perspective, fact to fact, moment to moment — and even genre to genre. While traditional novelistic form totalizes, absorbing into it all other genres and forms,  The Years allows the pieces autonomy within the whole. Its pieces have pieces, its whole is never whole.

We return to the sky at the end of the novel, when the prelude narrator becomes the epilogue narrator: “The sun had risen, and the sky above the houses wore an air of extraordinary beauty, simplicity and peace”. By now, the narrative has taught us some of what is in the houses, and so the word “houses” possesses an extraordinary resonance, as we have observed life and conversation in houses of many sorts across the city and across the years. There is no simple answer to any of the questions the novel raises, any of the possibilities it explores. The houses possess memories of nightmares and dreams. The oppressive power of their walls is undeniable. It is, perhaps, not the houses that we should look to, but the sky, for the possibility of peace resides there, in simple beauty. The novel seems to understand, as Virginia Woolf certainly understood, that that sky might quickly become clouded, its possibilities wiped out by Stukas, bombs, and fire.

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24. Jay Lake (1964-2014)

© 2009 Mari Kurisato

We knew this day was coming, but that doesn't really make it easier.

After years of struggling with cancer, Jay Lake has died.

Jay leaves a legacy of family, of friendships, of writing, and of science. He had his genome sequenced, and he submitted himself to grueling experimental trials. He could have gone more quietly into this good night; he chose instead to try to help the people of a future that has been denied to him. One of his greatest legacies may be to have helped, in some small or large way, to move us closer to a cure for cancer.

In place of eulogy, here's something I wrote when Jay could read it.

Farewell, friend.

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25. The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert

 
I reviewed Mary Rickert's novel The Memory Garden for the Los Angeles Review of Books.I loved the book, but it was a difficult review to write because it's just about impossible to say anything about this novel without ruining a significant effect of the last quarter of it. I'm not a fan of spoiler warnings, and generally think such things give way too much emphasis to plot, but in this case I think it is a book that needs some sort of warning before you read anything about it, because the effect of the last quarter is just so powerful and so much more than merely about the plot. So I said that in the review. Which in and of itself is almost saying too much.

Here's a better review of The Memory Garden: Go read this book!

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