Memoir Monday: Queer Cultural Inheritance in Marco Roth’s The Scientists and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?
October 15, 2012 § Leave a Comment
[image description: a screenshot from Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, this image depicts an aggressively cheerful mother with children in party hats, all singing. The mother holds a birthday cake that reads "happy birthday big daddy," and musical text reads "Big Daddy's a jolly good fellow."]
[image description: a screenshot from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, this image depicts Elizabeth Taylor's character, Maggie, looking askance at the birthday celebration. Her eyebrows are raised, and her arms are crossed.]
The first hour of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the 1958 film based on Tennessee Williams’ play, should be required viewing for anyone wishing to understand what life under compulsory heterosexuality looks like from the outside. The culture of inheritance caricatured and condemned by the film (rewritten ending notwithstanding) reveals itself in all its ugliness in the screenshots above. In the first, we see a family hell-bent on earning its precise inheritance, complete with a desexualized and frumpy mother, artlessly singing the praises of the family patriarch, “Big Daddy,” with her five children. In the reaction shot we see Maggie, played by the incomparable Elizabeth Taylor, whose artful self-presentation in itself rejects the world as organized by Big Daddy, and whose facial expression betrays her loathing for this moment of crass pandering. It’s not that Maggie is a radically antisocial queer critic — like the rest, she wants money, and she even wants men — but, if only by virtue of her intimate knowledge of homosexuality, via her husband, she simply cannot fit in properly to the society of compulsory heterosexuality.
This weekend, I read Marco Roth’s recently-published first book, a memoir called The Scientists: A Family Romance, which tells story of Roth’s father’s battle with AIDS in the 1980s from his son’s perspective. The elder Roth, a doctor, had claimed to have contracted the virus in a laboratory accident in 1984, but later, indeed, after the man’s death, the younger Roth comes to learn that the more likely truth was that his father had been gay, and contracted the virus sexually. Although this central story has to do with a specifically sexual secret, Roth’s focus is rarely on the politics of sexuality, and never offers a sustained critique of the compulsory heterosexuality he nevertheless depicts. Like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Scientists tells a story of significant inheritance, financial and cultural, but unlike the former, Roth’s memoir retains a fantasy of the milieu in which he came of age, represented by his parents’ love for high culture, which is ultimately too precious to condemn politically. Toward the end of the book, he describes his first serious conversation with his mother about his father’s sexuality, in a scene representative of the author’s approach to family dynamics. He says,
“My mother tried to persuade me that I shouldn’t take it personally. It was the era, she said. Not so much today as the ’50s, the long reach of America’s conformist decade. Everyone was afraid. That had been my aunt’s line, too, about ‘bending under the deceptions forged in crueler times,’ as though my parents or rather my family were merely victims of preenlightened conditions. This was also, as far as I was concerned, bullshit historicism. The sociology was another fancy way of making excuses, outsourcing a decision to some higher power. Cowardice is cowardice. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ was a policy for the military, not the family, and a misguided one. Neither did we live among the kind of people who thought AIDS was God’s tough-love epistle to the queers. If the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1980s and early 1990s was not a safe enough milieu to discuss homosexuality with one’s child, then nowhere was…I’d been right to think that [my parents had] deliberately prepared for me a future of disappointment, of a museumlike world of cultural and other goods that I’d never be able to touch or really experience or make for myself. I was wrong that they’d done it deliberately. The taboo under which they both lived had become a generalized ‘Thou shalt not want,’ overshadowing everything to which I put my hand.” (183-4)
- from Marco Roth’s The Scientists: A Family Romance
As soon as Roth is able to level a specific criticism at his parents, he instantly transitions into talking about the general, in this case the “generalized ‘Thou shalt not want,’” which then transitions into the next chapter, a reflection on the author’s fantasies about the value of literature, and how they are entwined with the story of discovering the truth about his father. (184) It’s a good story, and it’s incredibly appealing to readers like me, who’ve enjoyed Roth’s writing in n+1 for a long time, and were excited by the opportunity to contextualize his perspective. However, the book misses the opportunity to engage with broader conversations about queer sexuality and queer sexual politics beyond the occasional well-rendered anecdote about moments in which the author’s own sexuality has been called into question. Perhaps this was not its goal, but I can be forgiven for hoping that it would be, especially because Roth so nicely incorporates one of my favorite Adorno quotations, in which “the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant,” by adding, “This was a slogan and a sentiment I could get behind. After all, my fully enlightened family had been nothing but a disaster.” (70) It is understandable that the author would wish in a memoir to get beyond the stage of quippy social rejection, but a certain critical energy is lost in the process of that trajectory toward mature adulthood, and away from antisocial queer possibility.
Put differently, Roth’s story of his possibly-gay father is subtitled “a family romance,” which raises the inevitable comparison to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, subtitled “a family tragicomic,” which shares that crucial narrative thread. Roth finds his way into a certain kind of safe fantasy space by the end of his memoir, but it is in literature — ultimately, he is at home with his cultural inheritance, if not exactly in the queer questions raised by his family’s narratives of sexuality. In Bechdel, the weight of the terms is reversed; it is literature which helps her to illuminate her fantasies of a queer culture, to which her father could have belonged more fully. Referring to her father’s tendency to deflect serious questions with literary quotations, in this case from James Joyce, Bechdel tries at the end of Fun Home to come to an honest conclusion about what really ties them together as father and daughter. Her fantasy is that they share an “erotic truth,” namely, homosexuality, but she knows that this concept is insufficient. She says,
“‘Erotic truth’ is a rather sweeping concept. I shouldn’t pretend to know what my father’s was. Perhaps my eagerness to claim him as ‘gay,’ as opposed to bisexual or some other category, is just a way of keeping him to myself–a sort of inverted Oedipal complex. I think of his letter, the one in which he does and doesn’t come out to me. [From letter: Your mother] just seems to be suggesting that you keep your options open. I tend to go along with that but probably for different reasons. Of course, it seems like a cop out. But then, who are cop outs for? Taking sides is rather heroic, and I am not a hero.” (230)
-from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Like Roth, Bechdel is aware that the fact of someone’s sexual proclivities does not constitute a satisfying representation of who they are as a person, and that it’s overly simplistic to hope that a sufficiently liberal milieu could solve whatever motivates people to lie and live in illusions of conformity. However, she is more willing to put on display what exactly that illusion looks like — to show her father working to create the family he thought he was supposed to have, with her knowledge of the lie foregrounded throughout. Bechdel’s approach is no more cruel than that of anyone who writes from their own life, including anyone’s perspectives but their own. By foregrounding the fact of her father’s homosexuality, and making it part of her fantasy, she reverses the sexual shame that compelled him to keep it a secret. Roth, because he has located no specific way to set himself apart from his inheritance, aside from the not-insignificant fact of time, completes no such reversal.
Importantly, the rejection of compulsory heterosexuality does not have to mean the rejection of lived heterosexual relationships. The rejection of compulsory heterosexuality begins with a rejection of gendered power dynamics. The Algerian-born French writer Marie Cardinal offers a classic feminist example. In her 1975 autobiographical novel, The Words to Say It, the author describes how she came in psychoanalysis to understand her mother, and her mother’s failure to live the life she might have wanted, had it not been for the society that insisted upon her willingness to reproduce and commit to chastity after divorce. The forward trajectory of history was the primary catalyst for her mother’s realization that her life was built on false principles, but Cardinal notes how a careful attention to language could have revealed this to them both long ago. She says,
“Thus in her sixties, when my mother found herself propelled out of her universe, and when her entire life was called into question because of the war in Algeria, she chose to die. The upheaval was too profound, she did not herself feel capable of taking it on. It was too late. It is my belief that everything collapsed for her when she unconsciously analysed the content of the word ‘paternalism.’ She often said with irritation, ‘It works better to be paternalistic than nothing at all, like those giving us lessons today. The Arabs knew I was taking care of them forty years ago. Those who call us paternalists cannot say as much.’ She understood very well that in this terrible word was the condemnation to be found of what had been her reason for living, her excuse, her justification: Christian charity.” (195)
- from Marie Cardinal’s The Words to Say It
Because Cardinal has no particular investment in Christianity, or her father, whose role in her life she has figured out and does not romanticize, this realization is possible for her in a way that it was not for her aging mother, who had invested so much in a particular image of herself, deeply tied to one specific culture and its gender norms. At this realization, Cardinal can release her anger at her mother’s inconsistencies and see them for what they are, and finally care for her in the way that she deserves to be cared for. No other realization in The Words To Say It is so cathartic, or so neatly ties together the various threads that had kept Cardinal from becoming the woman she wanted to become. Not until she could discredit those aspects of her life that had been arbitrarily assigned to her by virtue of her gender could she figure out how to proceed authentically. Conversations about gender and sexuality have of course grown much more sophisticated, and the conventions of autobiography have been exploded by modes of experimentation that seek to transcend this kind of linear narrative of psychological development. However, it seems to me that a book like Cardinal’s has a lot to offer a conversation about books like Roth’s and Bechdel’s, which continue to do the difficult work of establishing an honest view of generations prior, in order to understand our shared inheritance.
The choices are not only “love your parents, but do not tell the truth” or “reject and humiliate your parents.” The choices are not only “love the past, but do not acknowledge its failures” or “reject the past absolutely and create a new world.” Perhaps the most promising approach, in my view, is to focus on those relationships that help us to develop our perspectives, and to reject unnecessary burdens in favor of our desires and fantasies. A perfect anecdote from Sheila Heti’s recent “novel from life,” How Should a Person Be? illustrates this point early on, when the author is describing the central object of her affection in the novel, her friend Margaux. She says,
“There are certain people who do not feel like they were raised by wolves, and they are the ones who make the world tick. They are the ones who keep everything functioning so the rest of us can worry about what sort of person we should be. I have read all the books, and I know what they say: You–but better in every way! And yet there are so many ways of being better and these ways can contradict each other.
Yesterday Margaux told me a story that her mother often tells about when she was a baby. It took Margaux a long time to talk, and everyone thought she was a little dumb. Margaux’s mother had a friend who was a bit messed up and really into self-help books and all sorts of self-improvement tapes. One day, she had been telling Margaux’s mother about a technique in which, whatever problem you came across in your life, you were just supposed to throw up your hands and say, Who cares? That night, as Margaux’s parents and her slightly older sister were sitting around the dinner table and Margaux was in her high chair, her sister spilled her milk and the glass broke all across the table. Her mother started yelling, and her sister started crying. Then, from over in the high chair, they heard little Margaux going, Who cares?
I’m sorry, but I’m really glad she’s my best friend. If I had known, when I was a baby, that in America there was a baby who was throwing up her hands and saying, first words out of her moth, Who cares? and that one day she’d be my best friend, I would have relaxed for the next twenty-three years, not a single care in the world.” (6-7)
- from Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?
I love this moment because it depicts an origin point for the antisocial queer perspective that we could all stand to cultivate and strategically employ. A mother’s love, a best friend’s love, and a woman’s love for herself are all placed on the same plane of desire, with no need for anything else. Here, in the antisocial act of proclaiming Who cares?, the opportunity for genuine friendship between people, between women, and between generations, arises.
May 23, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I knew I would love the Fawkes comic, but I had no idea how much I would identify with it. It returns to the theme of education so brilliantly explored in the Tink comic, but brings a new generational perspective to it. Rather than the short-tempered undergrad, here we have the dissertating graduate student. I should have guessed that Fawkes was a TA in a Philosophy department somewhere, considering how involuntary my laughter was at his every one-liner, but I would never have guessed that he was writing a thesis about gaming. The title of his thesis is really the highlight of the comic for me, and so I shouldn’t give it away, but I can’t help myself. It’s “Planting Destructive Social Philosophies in Online Gaming.” I would absolutely read that thesis, for the record, and I love this particular angle of exploration for Fawkes’s real-life troll persona. I see the moment he abandoned this thesis for the “Epicurean thesis” to be the real tragic moment of his narrative.
Back to the comic, Jamie McKelvie’s art is a treat, and I’m thrilled that he’s given the whole issue to show off his skills. While I think that the Tink comic was bold and experimental in its inclusion of so many different artists, I think that Fawkes’s inner life was sufficiently unknown as to merit a sustained and consistent exploration in the hands of Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton, for the script, and McKelvie for the art. McKelvie renders Wheaton’s portrayal of Fakwes beautifully, while bringing new depth to his navigation of multiple on- and offline personae. The other members of the Axis of Anarchy, particularly Bruiser, Valkyrie, and Venom, are also given new life by McKelvie’s hand, and it’s a pleasure to see all of them take to the comics medium. In fact, the very first page of in-game action in this comic may be my favorite such page since the Codex prequel; there is magic in the juxtaposition of the overwrought action sequence with Fawkes’s halfhearted dialogue celebrating the victory. The emotional resonance was surely already in the script, but McKelvie’s ambitious portrayal of the spectacle of the action, as well as the Axis characters’ clear pride at their in-game avatars’ achievements, invites the reader to pause over the page for a repeat engagement.
I was so excited to learn that this comic would explore Fawkes’s journey from his injury at the end of Season Four to his unmasking at the Megagame-o-ramacon in Season Five, because this is a character whose love for the world of gaming is, and should be, taken for granted. What I loved about the Codex prequel was the way it realistically depicted a young woman’s spontaneous decision to purchase The Game. However, I think that, for lifelong gamers like Vork, transmedia obsessives like Tink, and self-congratulatory trolls like Fawkes, the appeal of The Game is obvious. With Tink and Fawkes, the question is not what they like about The Game, but rather, in what other arenas they might use the skills they so consistently display there. (For Vork, post-caretaker position, it is clearly in foraging.) Tink and Fawkes are smart in ways that are not fully appreciated in-game, or, as is obvious to them, in the university. Tink found that the traditional classroom could not speak to her desire to understand the world through creative activity, hence, her eventual decision to declare a major in costume design. Fawkes found intriguing structures for living the good life in his philosophy coursework, but then found life as a philosophy TA insufficiently stimulating. He might have assumed that all of his students would share the passion he had for philsophical inquiry as a way of life. Unfortunately, as a TA his job is to help students write clearly about philosophical concepts deemed significant by curriculum creators. Often, these curriculum creators are far removed from the questions of extended adolescent rebellion that animate Fawkes’s lifestyle-based love of the discipline.
Before I go on explaining just why Fawkes is justified for his every socially damaging action, I should probably the elephant in the room that is fan service. This comic is written for, or at least with the clear knowledge that there are, shippers, that is, fans of the romantic relationship between Codex and Fawkes. While such fans may enjoy any aspect of their relationship, including its high potential for train wreckage, this comic offers plenty of opportunities for the romantics among us to enjoy Fawkes’s softer, Lisa Frank heart eyes, side. In fact, it’s all the better if we enjoy both of the aforementioned. The relationship between the two has been a delight since day one, reaching heights, I would say, in the first instance, with the “Highland Sextasy” painting reveal, and now, with the cover of this comic, or perhaps with the pages we see from Fawkes’s journal, revealing a MASH game in which he and Codex get married and move to Paris. Given that, in her real-life persona, Day hosts the Vaginal Fantasy Hangout, in which she discusses her favorite fantasy romance novels, I know that she is playing on these tropes with a wink and a nudge to her audience. However, a skeptical reader could certainly wonder if this particular installment of The Guild storyworld did not represent a hilarious distraction from whatever its broader message was supposed to be. (Only a curmudgeon with no room in his life for pleasurable excess would say such a thing, but he may be out there.)
Personally, I am a fan of every tangent taken thus far by The Guild storyworld, and I think that Day has plans for us beyond our wildest imaginations. However, even if this were the last installment, of course it wouldn’t function as the chronological ending of the series, because the action of the fifth season is just being set in motion as this comic ends. I point this out because there’s no chance, at this point, that Day is actually tying together the many narrative strands that constitute this storyworld with a false romantic ending. My personal hope is for more Axis of Anarchy comics, which explore the attempts at redemption of more trolls, and which envision still more possibilities for digital and fan citizenship and social life online. Sadly, Scott Allie says in the lettercol that no such plans are currently in the works. However, if a group of fans could take up the task of writing Lydia’s thesis on Spike, then surely some of us can band together and write Fawkes’s thesis on planting socially destructive philosophies in online gaming. At the end, an epilogue would appear about hetero-monogamy as the new anarchy. I can see it now. Full disclosure, though, that could be because I spent my weekend at a Queer Studies Symposium, where the shifting meanings of human relationships were lovingly explored by a vibrant scholarly community devoted to the preservation of the unpredictable effects of acting on desire.
April 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
By page 28 of Alison Bechdel’s new memoir, Are You My Mother?, the author’s project is undermined by its own subject, the author’s mother, Helen. “You have too many strands,” she’s proclaimed, laughing over the phone in conversation with Alison. (15, 28) “The narrative is what they want.” (28) The reader can’t help but worry that the criticism is already entrenched, and that the skeptical reader might give up now. No Sunbeam bread trucks are going to crush us with realizations about mortality here. This time, the subject is the messy work of living, specifically, the parts of it about which the general readership, as embodied by a single criticism from Bechdel’s mother, least wishes to hear. Are You My Mother? takes on one-sided phone conversations, initially indistinguishable false epiphanies experienced over the course of decades of therapy, and other doomed quests for validation. Whereas Fun Home offered sympathetic relief in a young girl struggling to grasp menstruation, Are You My Mother? begins its own narrative at the chronological point of its author’s menopause, a topic of truly tenuous interest even to those among the general readership who may be experiencing it for themselves. It’s not only that Bechdel “has too many strands” — a dream, an imaginary conversation with her mother about the book that would become Fun Home, during which she recalls coming out to her mother as a lesbian, and, before that, as having begun menstruation — and all this by page 6! — but that the strands feel simultaneously repetitive and recursive, in a way bound to discomfit any reader looking to learn more.
Page 6. Perhaps at this point the reader flips briefly ahead, just to see what’s coming. There is a beautiful drawing of Virginia Woolf in London (23), preceded by a nerdily attractive diagram of Donald Winnicott’s psychological theory (21), and followed by three different maps of London (25, 26, 27), which elevate the pleasures to which we’ve grown accustomed, via Google Maps, to the level of art. There will be depth here, the reader is assured, and complexity, and if nothing else, evidence of real work, the very component of women’s writing, particularly memoir, that is assumed by skeptics to be missing. But as for a narrative, a path for us to follow on these maps, which reveals a new phenomenon, psychological, cultural, or otherwise, there will be none. The learning will feel more like an amassing of strands, and what’s frustrating about that process is that each strand could reveal so compelling a story. Like Bechdel, I want to know how Winnicott’s patients later understood the analysis they had undergone with the brilliant man. That part’s already a story, though, I guess, because I can remember it. It is a moment. There’s the moment when Alison is enchanted by her mother’s performance as Fanny Cavendish in The Royal Family, which is an amazing moment, surrounded by what seem to be ten other significant moments between Alison and her mother at various theatrical productions. Some of them, like the importance of The Importance of Being Earnest, came up in Fun Home, as well. It’s a reverse Woody Allen problem — the book is so good, and there’s too much of it. In Fun Home, there was too much, too, but, looking back, it fulfilled one’s most basic narrative desires as handily as the recent meta-horror delight, Cabin in the Woods. There was a mystery. There was intrigue. There was a task. There was a manly failure to communicate. There was an enormous snake in the woods, in case my point isn’t clear. But in Are You My Mother?, the parental stoicism is narrated in uncomfortably close proximity to a man, Winnicott’s, theory of the psychological effects of rapid second pregnancy, and thus the basement cobwebs of Bechdel’s dream world seem as unnavigable as womanhood itself.
This conservative trope of womanhood as mysterious, which I just articulated but failed to name as such, is, in one reading, at the center of Bechdel’s mother’s criticism of her work. She claimed that the work had too many strands and lacked narrative momentum, as well as lamenting that it had to take shape within the narcissistic cultural form of the memoir, rather than the safer and more widely-respected mode of fiction. But their true disagreement is less about Bechdel’s form of choice, the graphic memoir, and more deeply about her identity as a lesbian and a feminist, which was made possible by a large-scale rejection of the previous generation’s acquiescence to patriarchal values. This generational and particular difference emerges in conversation when Bechdel and her mother get into an argument about libertarian lesbian writer Norah Vincent, who had recently made a proclamation that “fetuses are more endangered than gays,” which spoke to Helen’s pro-life politics. (123) Alison is mostly annoyed that her mother insists on describing Vincent as “smart,” “attractive,” “independent,” and likeable, because she is struggling with professional envy anyway, and to intertwine this with her mother’s insistence on a libertarian approach to their conversations is psychologically messy, to say the least. (123-125) But further, the conversation offers Bechdel an opportunity to recall that her mother has long been committed to pro-life politics, even, in a rare and therefore memorable political gesture, leaving town to protest the fourth anniversary of Roe v. Wade when Alison was 16. Bechdel herself has long and happily inhabited the feminist Left, where access to safe and legal abortion is fundamental to the fight for gender equality.
But of course, she’s also a particular individual, not simply one of the lovable fictional characters she so adeptly fashions in the fiction she indeed creates, in her long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Though not aloud to her mother, on rendering the argument, narrator Bechdel concedes that pregnancy is “abstract” to her, because, as a lesbian, she’s never experienced “a moment’s anxiety or excitement that [she] might be pregnant.” (124) Bechdel and her mother are not the first family members in history to disagree about politics, but this particular disagreement does seem to illuminate the impasse at which the two have remained for much of their life. It is no wonder, given this context, that Bechdel is so happy to be fascinated by Winnicott’s male scientific explanation of female psychology and the mother’s role in human relationships. Pregnancy is, in some ways, as abstract for her as it must have been for him, and in a way that it simply cannot be for Helen. Therefore, Alison can create highly entertaining fictional narratives about the struggle for abortion rights and other rights of particular importance to feminism in her DTWOF, while her mother is more easily swayed by the rhetorical flourish of a provocative columnist. To create fiction requires abstraction. Conversely, Helen cannot imagine why Alison is so moved to write about her own life if she cannot locate some kind of externally appealing narrative, and why she would devote so much painstaking labor to a mode of artistic production that does not seem to take any audience she can imagine to the state of being moved by art. Both are moved by fiction and non-fiction alike, but their associations with particular subgenres are determined by their views on, and experiences with, social politics.
It was clear that this was so as soon as Helen lamented that Alison’s first publication was “a book of lesbian cartoons,” not just because they were lesbian cartoons, but because they would forever be attached to Alison’s real name. (181) She couldn’t understand it (although she was, as is clearly demonstrated in this book, quite supportive in material ways) when Bechdel wrote Fun Home, and she was just as dubious when she took on an even more complicated, even more exhibitionistic story. Whereas Alison cannot connect to her mother’s very status as mother to a child, Helen cannot relate to Alison’s desire to write her life beyond a diary, to craft it into art, and thus to leave it in the archives of lesbian literature specifically, but also the archives of graphic narrative and, if the bookstore’s current categorization of this work is to be remembered, biography. But there is indeed a central aesthetic question articulated here, too. As Andrea recently reminded me, the idea of the poem, or artwork generally, as an articulation of womb envy, is at least as long-standing as the history of non-communicative fathers. That is not what Are You My Mother? is about in its own center. But the sheer presence of this idea, alongside so many other strands, does serve as a reminder that one of Bechdel’s major talents is recasting the oldest questions in a form (here, a nexus of forms) apparently inadequate to its seriousness. Those prematurely swayed by the apparent lack of momentum will sadly miss an abundance of wonderful moments. The archives will hold onto these.
The Dewey Decimal System, and Other Old-Fashioned Modes of Categorization in Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
March 14, 2012 § 1 Comment
Jeanette Winterson’s latest, a memoir by the pop psychological title Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, looks like the kind of book you would pick up at a used bookstore in an untrendy college town — not the kind with beautiful Verso editions and a few zines in the back, but rather the kind with a lot of biographies and some children’s books with newish covers. I would say that looks can be deceiving, but that’s not really my point. My point is that the memoir is, basically, a memoir, which would be unremarkable were it not authored by Jeanette Winterson, who has up to now been famously cagey about the extent to which her much-loved Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit veils her own childhood experience with fictional markers. By memoir, I don’t mean to suggest that Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal lacks properly literary insight, but, more simply, that it is primarily a story of trauma and recovery, which happens to be told by a celebrity most famous for her literary writings.
In Why Be Happy, Winterson is, at times, sincerely concerned with the status of the literary, but she never turns to polemic or defensiveness in order to justify her own existence within that sphere. Instead, she organizes her insights into sections that overlay multiple contexts. For example, in “The Trouble With a Book…” she connects her adoptive mother’s refrain that “The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late” with her own literary coming of age, with which, indeed, trouble came. On her experience reading T.S. Eliot at age sixteen without a helpful academic or social context, Winterson speaks simply of having wept in the library. Winterson refuses to buy into the idea “that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant,” because “a tough life needs a tough language – and that’s what poetry is.” (40) The weeping is more than merely sentimental for her. It is a site of recognition for a truth about time that her controlling mother denied for theological reasons. “This is one moment, / But know that another / Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy,” she quotes, and the line works beautifully as shorthand for her view of literature. Literature reveals human insights to receptive human subjects in a language that, in its purest form, refuses misdirection. At the end of this section, Winterson becomes a writer, and, true to the memoir form, it’s easy enough to impose a causal link on these events. Winterson was moved to weep, and so she uncovered her latent literary voice. However, this memoir is not driven by writing as salvation from the silence of an unhappy and abusive childhood. It is driven by a desire and need to reflect, particularly on love, but that it happens in literature is as much a sociohistorical fact as it is a reflection on some transcendent truth about the literary. Winterson situates herself as someone who had rare access to the classics of English literature at the Accrington public library, as well as the fortune of a seriousness of disposition, and plenty of enforced solitude, which enabled her to read them well.
On this note, it’s important to note that her mother’s refrain about the trouble with books is not meant to be read as shorthand for a blanket condemnation of the woman. Winterson is clear throughout Why Be Happy that she identifies with her mother more than she condemns her, or sees her as emblematic of everything wrong with the world. Indeed, she lovingly tracks her mother’s home culture as one which had once been animated fully by a nearly 400-year love affair with English literary language, dating back to Shakespeare and the King James Bible, both of which many still read regularly during the first decades of her mother’s life. (The former at community courses held for workers, the latter at church.) Her mother was part of a vibrant storytelling community, who remixed (Winterson simply says “misquoting and mixing,” 28) John Donne as they made daily social intercourse lively and shared their cryptic proverbs with their families. However, this connection was severed with the modernization of the Bible and the encroachment of dialect-normalizing national media, and so, as often happens in rapid transitions, some good things were lost, and some bad things remained unremarked upon. (See her digression on domestic violence in the north, 46.) And so, what seems easy enough based on the structure of the memoir — this is what was wrong and how I overcame it — here becomes chiastic, reliant on a readerly acknowledgement of what is lost when life is made into fiction. One thing that is lost is history, and another, any real possibility of fully-fleshed out competing perspectives. On Oranges, Winterson says in the first section, she “wrote [her]self as hero like any shipwreck story.” (6) In Why Be Happy, the titular question is, at every turn, actually a question, albeit one we’re likely to answer in the affirmative.
Life and fiction are inextricable from one another, although, as the story of the modernization of the Bible perhaps reveals, one’s link to literature, the literature that enables Winterson to understand her life in the context of Shakespeare, Dickens, Woolf, not to mention Engels, Marx, and Jung all at once, can indeed be severed by the rapidly-accelerating homogenization of culture. Winterson is the last person to romanticize provincialism or condemn the opportunities afforded individuals in Britain, as well as the West in general, today, but she also refuses to ascribe herself a politically heroic role in the triumph of the “overcoming” individual. One wouldn’t expect an admission of onetime support for Margaret Thatcher from a writer in Winterson’s milieu, but here it is, on page 138: “I voted for her.” Fortunately, there is a follow-up: “I did not realise that when money becomes the core value, then education drives toward utility or that the life of the mind will not be counted as a good unless it produces measurable results…I did not realise the consequences of privatising society.” (140) It is precisely Winterson’s heroic narrative of getting a place at Oxford, despite her working class Pentecostal background that had sold Thatcher’s ideas to her, and I think that it’s important that she makes this connection so blatant. She says,”If a grocer’s daughter could be prime minister, then a girl like me could write a book that would be on the shelves of English Literature in Prose A-Z.” (138) And of course, with the hindsight that the memoir allows, we know that she was right. But the whole existence of this installment of Winterson’s literary writing, here as life writing, relies on a historical recontextualization of that narrative, which can only be heroic in fiction. The heroism of this memoir is in the emotional work that is almost too painful for her to explain, or so it seems from its spare perfection. I’d best leave that to Winterson.
February 7, 2012 § Leave a Comment
People have been recommending William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition to me at least since I started talking about my dissertation project, and I’m so glad I finally took them up on it. The first hundred pages or so, I couldn’t stop happily underlining — not just because I was so entertained and full of identification, but because I thought, this is what will make sense to people when I talk about fictional fans. These moves, these descriptions, are distilled to just the right point to speak both to people who are themselves fans in the age of online fandom, but also to people who are only mildly aware that such fans exist. There are equally handy descriptions of the anti-brand philosophy, circa 2003, which I happily underlined as well. But my focus here is on the representation of fan life, and, more broadly, the representation of social harmony as it exists online, and the way in which its counterpart IRL serves to provide only money and social anxiety, the first being necessary for long-arc social reproduction, the second being an unhappy but inevitable side effect of the actual/virtual division.
The fandom that provides the primary social setting of the novel is populated by “footageheads,” that is, people who avidly follow new installments in an elusive work of film art, whose meaning might just as easily lie with the detective work of cataloging the installments, as it might with some final interpretation of the completed project. CayceP, the avatar of protagonist Cayce Pollard, is one of the most fleshed-out fan protagonists I have met in literature. The forum is her way “of being at home. The forum has become one of the most consistent places in her life, like a familiar café that exists somehow outside of geography and beyond time zones.” (4) Time zones, jet lag, and British Airways slippers are the unpleasant real-life anchors of identification in this novel — much nicer are the pings that feel like home, even if they contain no more definitive content than the caffeine “bullet against serotonin-lack and big weird feelings” that is to be found in the real world. (18) Two fellow footageheads on the messageboard provide CayceP with a reminder of her social role: Parkaboy, a “Progressive,” as well as her closest friend and ally, and his nemesis, Mama Anarchia, the poststructuralism-wielding “Completist,” who believes that the creator of the footage is intentionally releasing installments of his work out of order and on a serial schedule. CayceP’s role is that of peacemaker, who reminds everyone that, regardless of the actual status of the source material they all love (the footage), they should not allow conversation to devolve into absolute antagonism.
It’s ironic that her role in the virtual world is so conciliatory, because, while she is the only one who can seem to remember that the forum host, Ivy, must “expend time and energy to keep it here,”(48) when it comes to the real world, she can only stand to wear garments that “seem to have come into this world without human intervention.” (8) This ethical disjunction, wherein CayceP possesses an empathy that provides only consternation for Cayce, will of course be revealed in time to provide a key to understanding the footage for what it is, but the exact mechanism by which this unraveling occurs is best left to the novel itself. Instead of providing a crude summary here, I will turn to my general assessments of the novel’s place in fan literature.
Gibson shares much in common with Douglas Coupland, with whom, it is revealed in the final thanks, coffee was drunk during the writing of this novel. Both write ambitious globally-virtual novels that subtly and humorously take on serious questions about 21st-Century labor solidarity, the usefulness of media obsessions, and the increasingly-manipulable (well, increasingly-manipulated at least) human subjects who must navigate this complex world. Both seem to prefer a sweeping map to a transformative emotional analysis, although both write so fluently as to provide many glimpses at what the latter might look like, given its due. It’s strange, from the perspective of 21st-Century literary studies to read these novels, because they are so aggressively general, and thus sometimes, their protagonists’ encounters with the various global Others they meet along the way are, frankly, cringe-inducing. Cringe constitutes the bulk of 21st-Century comedy, to be sure, but this particular cringe factor feels retrograde, and it’s possible that it’s intentionally so. Sophistication does not mean a mastery of utopian global engagement, and, as with the CayceP/Cayce empathy gap, there is much revealed in the space between the two about how we might proceed on that front. As creative status and intellectual sophistication become more and more recognizable across vast differences, the task for literature remains to offer readers versions of a world they can recognize, while raising serious critical questions about what pleasures they find in that recognition.
With more and more publicity surrounding life at Apple factories and the changing face of file-sharing, novels like Gibson’s anchor us in a shared reality worth grappling with. And further, in a world in which major news outlets still treat fanworks with condescension and contempt (although some are closer than ever to getting it right), it’s a rare treat to read a novel that captures so much of the good that happens in online fan communities. Perhaps Pattern Recognition‘s conventional form, particularly its insistence on a certain kind of happy ending, one which so explicitly disavows the pleasurable ambiguities that defined the original mystery, can serve as a reminder that stories set in the contemporary media landscape, including the labor side, are increasingly difficult to tell in old forms. Perhaps New Media experimentation and New Media forms are best suited to one another — hence my eternal return to The Guild as the ultimate example of How to Get It Right (Fiction Edition). But the bar to subcultural entry in that series is still somewhere above Gibson (going on this particular novel — I understand that subcultures age and change and flow, and that his work and position have changed dramatically over time), and I’d hate to say that I look forward to the day that it seems old hat. So it is to inhabit the excitement of the rapidly-changing world of tech-aware storytelling.
January 20, 2012 § 2 Comments
If you read this month’s Technology Review*, and, like me, were intrigued by the shout-out to Jason Scott’s latest documentary, Get Lamp, which is about the history of text adventure games, their players, and their designers, then you will be thrilled to know that it is available to stream right now on YouTube as a Google Tech Talk. That’s not to say that I don’t encourage you to go to the official movie website and place an order for the DVD, or encourage your university library to do the same, but rather that YouTube is kind of the perfect setting for your first viewing. For one thing, you get to “meet” the director at the beginning of the video, as well as learning some crucial background information from the context his presentation provides. Subculture documentaries, by their very nature, raise questions about the authenticity and comprehensiveness of the representation, and it’s clear from the Google Tech Talk that the documentary spoke easily to members and fringe members of the community it hoped to represent, although, as always, there remain minor limitations of time and access to individuals.
Scott himself is fascinating, as well as a great speaker. I was not surprised to discover, after watching his film, that he is listed on Wikipedia as a “critic of Wikipedia,” indeed, one who has given a forty-minute speech about “The Great Failure of Wikipedia,” that is, the ways in which the site, so near and dear to all of our hearts, seductively offers us some of what we want, while inadvertently centralizing information unsustainably. Scott, as a long-time internet insider, can of course be accused of being kind of a cranky old-timer on this issue, although it should be noted that this particular speech, while still highly relevant, was given in 2006, but his positions also reflect a kind of knowledge that is hard to recognize in this Era of the Geek. As an archivist himself, as well as an archival historian and artful creator of complex representations of recent history, Scott knows what good information looks like to the people who most care about it — people like himself and the gamers who appear in Get Lamp, who are willing to put in serious time and effort, if the payoff reveals something new about the world, even if it is only something new about an interactive fictional storyworld.
The first five minutes of Get Lamp alone are worth watching for those who may have tinkered around on a MUD at some point, but know little about the origins of text-based gaming. It turns out that one of the first text adventure games, Colossal Cave Adventure, derived much of its design from developer Will Crowther’s expeditions in Mammoth Cave, in Kentucky. This connection is so nicely illustrative of what an outsider needs to know about the early history of text adventures — they were, in part, an attempt to translate some of the pleasures of living in the world into a new, and thus, newly-engaging, genre of fiction, as well as a new medium, taking advantage of emerging computer technology. It’s quickly clear that the cave is just one model of experience, and not some kind of shared real origin point for the whole genre, but it’s one that provides a kind of shorthand for the ambition underlying the development and play of text adventure games.
The other glorious metaphor is built in to the title, of course: the lamp. Firstly, the grammatical structure of the title anchors the kinds of semantic work that one would do in a text adventure game in order to explore the storyworld. Such language has been parodied in recent years, but it is part of the very structure of text-based games, and is thus useful to internalize. Secondly, one (usually the more observant viewer, that is, not myself) notices at some point during the film that, within each interview Scott conducts, there is a brass lantern. I was pleased to see that this was so, as well as to see that Scott had incorporated this so-called Lamp Game into the film website. As Felicia Day and Sandeep Parikh recently showed in The Guild: Zaboo comic, the incorporation of a mini-game into a narrative about gaming can excite the ludic impulse in the reader or viewer, and thus connect the pleasures being described to those the reader has also experienced, and might wish to experience again. Finally, “get lamp” is a joke — because a good portion of the interviewees in the film are visually impaired, they joke about having been confused by the ubiquity of that command, and its use as a requirement for the exploration of a new environment. I’m a huge fan of Georgina Kleege’s work on visual impairment and visual culture studies, and it was especially interesting for me to think through this new context of text adventure gaming and sensory difference. What seems cranky in the mouths of some (and there is one particularly memorable anti-graphics rant in the film) arises as an accessibility solution at the same time as it is an innovation in storytelling in the mouths of others.
Speaking of personal investments, I should perhaps note that the story, which most broke my heart, was the story of Mary Ann Buckles, which was also written up in the New York Times a few years ago. While undoubtedly, Buckles has happily found much success outside the academy, it was hard to watch her remember her experience of discovering e-mail and computer games in the 1980s, which was so intellectually exciting, rub so harshly against the work she was expected to do for her doctoral thesis. I don’t envy her committee, who had expected her to write about Austrian poetry, but it still seems somehow to speak to the glacial pace of academic publishing that her article on video game aesthetics, now so widely-cited, did not seem to be asking any related questions, or exploring any shared intellectual terrain.
The final comment I wanted to make about the film was the lovely sense of community it evoked in ending on the sentiment, expressed by writers and fans of interactive fiction, that the genre seems to inspire almost everyone who enjoys it to try creating a storyworld of their own, which takes advantage of the genre conventions and evolving media. This speaks to a spirit that transcends fan cultures, to some extent — the invitation to transform participation into authored creation, whatever form it may take. The spirit of interactivity itself, properly understood, is not one of a ratio of words typed to words read, or works created to works completed (Buckles, after all, never completed a text adventure game), but there is something of value in the liminal space between the acts.
*Correction: Originally, I attributed the shout-out to Wired. There was indeed a reference to Sockington in last month’s issue of that magazine, which I had accidentally conflated with Matt Schwartz’s epic Fire in the Library, which features Scott prominently. “Fire in the Library” appeared in the Jan/Feb issue of Technology Review.
December 30, 2011 § Leave a Comment
The Guild: Zaboo comic was pretty awesome on the first read-through, and it somehow got even better when I re-read it with the intent of reviewing it. I’ve always loved Zaboo as a character, and I was excited that Felicia Day and Sandeep Parikh were teaming up, because I love it when they work together, and I definitely wanted to see some of Parikh’s thoughts about his character’s backstory. The one hope I had that was not realized this time around was that we would get to know Zaboo’s mom, Avinashi, better as her own person, but this did not really happen. That said, Season Four does a fairly good job balancing out her negative traits with her positive ones, and so perhaps I’ll just re-watch that for greater insight. I do love the way in which her overprotective parenting manifests in an exploitation of communication/surveillance technology, just like her son’s misadventures in stalking.
The best part of this comic was the minigames, which are actually worth playing, although I’d recommend reading the whole thing first to get the story, and then going back to the games, if you’re as easily derailed as I am. Each minigame was different, but they all serve a primary purpose of helping the reader pay attention to the details of the comic, which is great for readers who are new to graphic narrative, but who are accustomed to games, whether highly complex or ridiculous. I was excited to see them, because they reminded me of the kinds of travel games books I used to take on car trips as a kid, which is oddly appropriate for Zaboo’s eventual bus ride to Codex, but they turned out to be a really fun way to lock in the visual details of the comic. This is especially worthwhile because the art is great, and worth paying attention to.
Zaboo’s emotional baggage has been pretty much front and center since the first episode, so there were no surprisingly heart-wrenching revelations here, in the way that there were in the Bladezz comic, or even the Codex prequel, which took away some of that character’s comedic qualities, and laid them bare for the depressed mindset from which they stem. In fact, in some ways, this comic focuses more on Codex’s emotional state, and Zaboo’s interpretation of it, than it does on Zaboo’s character beyond what we already knew about his sheltered childhood and subsequent arrested development. The question of whether or not to have sympathy for Zaboo’s stalking is closed for some readers from the outset, but I think that this comic enables the most generous possible interpretation, which is that Zaboo had little access to healthy relationships education, and was genuinely concerned for a friend who was genuinely in distress. In fact, the only thing I would judge absolutely in the comic is an ill-placed joke about AIDS, which may match the internet subculture’s sense of humor, but adds little to the panel where it appears.
Overall, I am thrilled with this conclusion to the Knights of Good prequel series, and I sincerely hope that there are more comics in the future of The Guild. The medium is a good match for the subject matter, and it’s nice to get a sense of each character’s perspective on the life/game balance they all inhabit.
October 18, 2011 § 1 Comment
Well, I just finished the first season of Dane Harrington Joseph’s amazing webseries, Drama Queenz, and I can say without reservation that it has become one of my favorite shows, as well as one of my favorite contributions to the exciting and rapidly-growing landscape of Queer New Media. The series, for those who are not yet caught up, follows the lives of three roommates, Jeremiah, Davis, and Preston, who are trying to make it in the theater in New York City.
I love all of the characters, but even more, I love the storytelling. It’s expansive, and the camera work is patient, allowing the actors to do their work and take their time conveying their emotional and physical responses to the events of the series. This is especially important because they don’t merely talk to one another, and fight over the grocery list — although they certainly do both of these things. But they also dance, work out, and otherwise use their bodies to convey a fuller sense of young life in the world of theater. I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out the amazing soundtrack — at some point during every episode, I found myself smiling at the music choice, not because it was ironic or silly, but because it was perfect and served a storytelling purpose.
My favorite episode so far was “By the Sea,” although the first season finale comes in as a close second. While I love following each of the core character’s romantic paths, I am, at least so far, primarily invested in the friendship they share, which serves as the emotional center of the series. I’m interested to see (and plan, of course, to watch) which of the side characters from this first season recur in future seasons, because I do think that another central figure, particularly a woman or a character from a different generation, might flesh out the social world the series portrays. That said, it is common wisdom that three characters are enough to make a feature film, and so perhaps I’m being greedy.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I think is so special about the webseries form — so much of it seems not to need to be said, at least to fans of the form — it allows new creators to create tons of new content on a lower budget, and with little to no censorship! The content is actually less ephemeral than old-form TV, because the creators aren’t so protective of it, and the norm is to offer sustainable access! It is dominated by people who are between slightly-younger-than-me and slightly-older-than-me, and therefore the themes are likely to appeal! All true, and more true of Drama Queenz than of many series. But there’s something more, something specific about the way in which the webseries allows for genuinely experimental storytelling, different-length episodes, and, as I mentioned above, more patient camera work, that seems just right for telling queer stories. Obviously, I’d love to see Drama Queenz on the, er, slightly less small screen of the Network-approved TV, especially if it would mean that its awesome team could be better compensated for their hard work. But for now, I want to celebrate the beginnings, which are a joy to behold. WATCH IT!
October 14, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Oh my gosh, how am I just now catching up with Issa Rae’s amazing web series, Awkward Black Girl? And second question, can I wait til Halloween for the Halloween episode, which looks like it could be the best episode yet? The answers are: 1) because I am a latecomer to everything good, and 2) Yes, I can handle it, but it won’t be easy.
Awkwardness is a theme we who live on the internet love to explore. Whether one ships April and Andy from Parks and Recreation, and streams and re-streams their every interaction, or one participates in hashtags referring to “that awkward moment when,” awkwardness acts as an umbrella term for many of our generation’s questions about the changing social world we encounter every day. (Or, I should awkwardly say, every day we choose to leave the comfort of our screens in order to venture outside.) Awkward Black Girl does a great job, from the first episode, exploring what makes some experiences more awkward for some subjects than others, as well as what degree of awkwardness is reasonable to withstand without commentary. There is a clear distinction, for example, between the overt racism of protagonist J’s boss and the more subtle undermining tactics of her co-workers, but because of the power structure at the office, she is equally unable to comment on either. Thus, the necessity of the story: Here, J tells us about her life as she experiences it, not just in voiceover, but by letting us in to her private moments during her day, like her drive to work. This kind of intimacy of perspective is at the core of the appeal of the web series format, at least for me, and I’m impressed by Rae’s performance throughout. In fact, all of the acting is excellent, never leaning on tricks of editing to create humor where it wasn’t.
In terms of the Story, I love that, in only nine episodes, the show has established at least two friendships I care about, set up layered romantic tension among at least four characters, and offered character development and depth to everyone we’ve met. A series like this raises serious questions for big media as to why their stories require such large budgets, if the core principles are so easy for talented storytellers to convey using less? One of the reasons I’m so excited about this and other web series is that they ask us to consider just what it is we value in the stories that are disseminated about contemporary life — is there any recent blockbuster movie with a female protagonist as complex as J? I can’t think of one. Which is not to say that we should abandon what we’ve had thus far — the bit about the stapler in this series is obviously a shout-out to Office Space, which got stories like this one about office life in precarious financial times going. However, it seems that Awkward Black Girl is the next step in that genealogy, rather than, say, Up in the Air, a movie I enjoyed, but which was adequately described by one critic as a “big-screen American Airlines advertisement.” Perhaps one reason that film was so hard to distinguish from an advertising was the lack of any kind of social critique presented there. Social critique is at the core, for me, of the kind of storytelling that gets people truly invested in contemporary culture, and if film has lost its sense of that, then the web series has a chance to pick it up. It’s not simply a matter of “niche interest” to tell stories from different perspectives than that of the dominant culture — it is necessary, and at the core of what good storytelling can uniquely address.
Which is not to say, of course, that Money doesn’t matter to the creators and cast of Awkward Black Girl. It’s always an issue when we’re talking about new media, especially the web series. It’s important on the one hand not to get wrapped up in the idea that anyone can just throw together a quality web video product, but on the other hand to congratulate high-powered cultural producers who can mobilize support for their work. Just like my favorite web series, The Guild, whose creators have gotten a lot of mileage out of the grassroots narrative of the show’s fan-funded first season, Awkward Black Girl deserves recognition for its achievements in the same sphere. As Felicia Day has pointed out, “big stars have done Web series that have gotten zero people to watch them. There’s no magic bullet; it’s just persistence and making content over and over again and knowing that you love doing it even if you might not get a million people to watch.” Issa Rae and the team behind Awkward Black Girl have definitely demonstrated their commitment to similar principles, taking full advantage of the possibilities created by 21st-Century digital culture.
As for the Future of Awkward Black Girl, I hope that the show continues to expand in whatever way comes most naturally to the story — whether this will mean an expansion into other media, as The Guild has done with music videos and comic books, or a change in episodic structure and an expansion of themes, I think that there is much unexplored potential. Looking forward to Halloween!
October 11, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I’ve posted before about teaching, specifically on how I deal with contemporary texts across media, addressing such examples as Felicia Day’s webseries, The Guild, Aaron McGruder’s comic strip, The Boondocks, and Kim Deitch’s experimental graphic novel, Alias the Cat! Those three examples are drawn from my version of the Reading Popular Culture course, hence I had thought that my multi-media approach had an organic connection to the nature of the material itself. However, this quarter, I am teaching Introduction to Fiction, and I’ve designed the course very differently, and, I had originally thought, much more conventionally, that is, much more like a prototypical English class. However, as the quarter goes on, I’ve noticed that I’m drawn to bringing out the same kind of intertextuality across media in the fiction course as I was in the popular culture course, and that it serves a similar function. To demonstrate what I’m talking about, I offer ten points of entry into Zadie Smith’s 2005 novel, On Beauty, which I have brought to the classroom this fall.
One. Do the “on beauty and being wrong” activity from Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, which served as a major explicit inspiration for Smith’s novel. Scarry says in that lecture, “It seems a strange feature of intellectual life that if you question people—“What is an instance of an intellectual error you have made in your life?”—no answer seems to come readily to mind. Somewhat better luck is achieved if you ask people (friends, students) to describe an error they have made about beauty. It may be helpful if, before proceeding, the reader stops and recalls—in as much detail as possible—an error he or she has made so that an- other instance can be placed on the page in conjunction with the few about to be described.” Before the first day of class, I asked students to come up with just such a case study from their own lives, which they then shared during our first meeting. It set up one of the organizing principles of the novel, which is that the search for beauty often aligns with error, as well as suggesting that, the more aware we are of the contours of our own experiences of beauty in the world, the more we will have to say about the ways in which such experiences are depicted from different characters’ perspectives in the novel.
Two. Introduce Lisa Zunshine’s idea that fiction can “sharpen our ethical sense.” Because I’d never taught a literature course, I wasn’t entirely sure how to go about guiding the work of close reading with the large group of students in the class. So, because I’d noticed in our first discussion that there was interest in discussing different characters’ motivations in terms of ethics, I decided to spend the entirety of the second class on the ethics of various highly questionable social decisions made by the characters at the Belsey’s epic 30th anniversary party. The result was a lively and enjoyable discussion that enabled us to focus on the emotional precision of Smith’s prose, as well as exploring our own potential investments in the storyworld she created in On Beauty.
Three. Bring in Zadie Smith’s review of The Social Network, in order to anchor our conversation about 21st-Century friendship. In that review, as well as in much of the press about Facebook and its hold on our culture, Smith worries about the reduction of friendship (and almost everything else important) to a yes/no binary operation, run by advertising interests. She says, “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.” Because the emotional center of On Beauty is in the value of long-term friendship, including but not limited to friendships that form the basis of good marriages, it is revealing that Smith is so resistant to the implications of The Social Network. It is worth addressing the work her novel does to offer a storyworld guided by older principles, but set in the same era and the same city, as well as populated by a related milieu, as the first half of The Social Network.
Four. Discuss the value of free indirect speech in the portrayal of Kiki’s experience of Mozart’s Requiem. This is a perfect moment to bring in music, and set one’s own experience of instrumental music (which so many of us, myself included, so rarely listen to) against that depicted in this memorable sequence from the novel, allowing one to note the distinction between the thoughts one is able to articulate to oneself about a piece, versus the elusive emotional references best left to the fine-tuning of a good novelist.
Five. Discuss the appearance of Nick Laird/Mr. Zadie Smith’s poem in the novel, there attributed to Claire Malcolm. To read in the age of the internet is so different than what it must have been like before. When I first saw Claire’s poem in Smith’s novel, my thoughts went immediately to a possible poet-referent: Does Zadie Smith have secret ambitions to poetry? Is this a famous poem, and she is conflating Claire with the famous poet who produced it? And once I discovered the truth, I had new questions. What must it be like to have one’s actual work attributed to one of the less sympathetic characters in the novel? In any case, going through this process transparently, in class, updated the elementary school dictum to “look up words you don’t know” nicely for me.
Six. Self-respect and Rembrandt. Katie the ghost student is moved by art in a way unmatched by any other character in the novel, at least as far as we can tell. One can’t help but become curious as to the accuracy of her description, and the validity of her analysis. Just like with Kiki’s take on Mozart, one longs for confirmation. Google images is there to help, and it turns out that Katie’s interpretation is dead-on, and indeed pleasurably trumps Professor Belsey’s in all ways valued by the novel.
Seven. Meet the real Doc Brown, who, in the novel, is the MC of the Spoken Word Night at the Bus Stop, who also happens to be Zadie Smith’s brother.
Eight. Note the eerie connection between the depiction of Kiki’s loss of love for her husband and Adorno’s Minima Moralia 106.“The most blissful memory of a person can be revoked in its very substance by later experience. He who has loved and who betrays love does harm not only to the image of the past but to the past itself. Irresistibly evident, an impatient movement while waking up, a distraught tone of voice, a faint hypocrisy in pleasure, obtrudes itself in the memory and turns the earlier closeness even then into the distance that it has since become.” This is an excellent opportunity to raise again the first day question of the line between psychological realism in fiction and philosophy.
Nine. Explain the Windrush reference at the beginning of the final section. Embedded historical references are important, and are so easy to flesh out when you’ve got a tech-enabled classroom. Again, this feels much more conventional and obvious than showing fanvids or other transformative works, but it is awfully similar in terms of the enhancement of the reading experience.
Ten. Assign Forster’s Howards End, which, along with Scarry’s lecture, was a major inspiration behind the text. I thought it would be cool to talk about adaptation, of course, but particularly adaptation within the same genre. There is an excellent movie of Howards End, as well, but I think that the possibilities created by a discussion of literary adaptation are powerful, too, and will help us to stay focused on the particular, language-based pleasures of literary fiction, which is our focus. Which is, I guess, to say that, while I love everything that technology brings to the teaching of various kinds of texts, I think that it should always be incorporated to extend and contextualize extant pleasures of reading, rather than to replace them, or shift conversations about fiction to conversations about something else.