The Banality of Magic

So we’ve moved on from American Gods to Zone One, but I started writing this post as a discussion of the former and then it sort of languished—mainly because it ended up being far less about American Gods than Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Still, the discussion is germane to a lot of the stuff we talked about in class, and as long as I’ve written it, it might as well go live. (Also, I’m pretty pleased with the way it turned out. So there’s that, too).

Revenge of the Genres

One of my research interests of the moment is a consideration of the way in which some contemporary fantasy articulates specifically humanist, secular worldviews—which, considering the deeply religious nature of such defining texts as The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia chronicles, to say nothing of their medieval source texts, seemed counterintuitive enough to pique my interest. I’ve been thinking and writing about it for about two years now, but the signal moment that sent me down this road happened seven years ago.

The philosophy department here at Memorial used to host a public lecture series, which they put on in the entirely civilized setting of local pubs. (There is something quite lovely about delivering a lecture with a pint of Smithwicks in one’s hand). I had done one in 2007 on American exceptionalism, and when invited to give a talk in fall of 2009, I did something entirely typical of me—instead of actually using the opportunity to develop more fully something I’d already been working on, I instead gave them, on a whim, a title that had been kicking around in my head like an earworm.

“Harry Potter and the Banality of Magic.”

What would it be about? I had no idea, but I liked the sound of it. I have this problem: I’m good at titles, and sometimes I’ll hit on one that demands attention. “The Conspiratorial Imagination” turned into my dissertation. “Accidental History” became an article I wrote on the series Rome. And sooner or later I’m going to have to write my Tolkien article on fantasy and genre, because “Romantic Sediments” is just too good not to use. (This blog has not infrequently been a release valve for this tendency of mine: my recent post on Donald Trump had been abrading my brain all summer, ever since I conceived the phrase “the velocity of mendacity”). “The Banality of Magic” didn’t yet have any content when I emailed it to the series organizer, but the title was too suggestive not to have some sort of hook.

The lecture was well received, albeit a bit raw. The title got attention, though, enough that I was interviewed about it on local public-access cable. (Are you impressed? You should be totally impressed). The lecture itself was at least partially derived from a sample essay I had written for my intro to theory class, in which I did a Marxist reading of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but it burbled enough stuff into my brain that a few years later I started doing library searches on “fantasy and humanism.” (Pro tip: when embarking on a new research project, it’s probably best not to choose as your key words two of the most promiscuously defined concepts in the English language. There’s a reason it’s been three years and I have precisely one publication to show for my efforts. Well, that and laziness, and a magpie-like tendency to be distracted by shiny things).

So, what is the “banality” of magic? I’d started with the fact that in the Harry Potter universe, magic has effectively stultified the magical community, intellectually and otherwise, to the point where in the novels we experience an ironic turn on Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”: the wizarding world is baffled by such muggle technology as telephones and cars, to say nothing of the capacity to not wear stripes with polka dots. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, six novels in, Arthur Weasley reveals that his dearest wish is to know how airplanes stay in the air. As much as I love the series, this made me roll my eyes so far that I had a glimpse of the back of my skull. Seriously? My grade two science fair project was on Bernoulli’s Principle. If Arthur was genuinely that interested, he could have just asked Hermione.

This reversal of Clarke is of course used to great comic effect in the novels, but also to thematic effect: by the time we get to the end of the series, Rowling’s world-building has come to depict an insular, static world with little impetus for innovation or change. Magic is not miraculous but rote, and in that respect allegorizes our own relationship to technology.

(One of the things that always bothered me about the Harry Potter books, starting with the prologue of The Half-Blood Prince, was the idea that high-ranking muggles like the British Prime Minister would be so hapless and baffled upon discovering that wizards and witches dwelt among us, and not mobilize their own resources as a hedge against future threats. To be certain, Rowling never suggested that they didn’t, and a few years ago I wrote a blog post imagining an encounter between Voldemort and James Bond. If I were inclined to write fan fiction, this would be my bailiwick: the muggles fight back! Surely, there’s a Die Hard sequel in which John McLane manages to kill Voldemort with a scrap of metal and a Molotov cocktail …)

Hence, “banality.” This formulation was what got me thinking of fantasy and humanism—the way in which novels like A Game of Thrones, Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, or for that matter American Gods take “magic” (scare quotes very carefully considered there) out of the realm of the transcendental, and make it something pedestrian. Or perhaps not pedestrian per se, but something unremarkable. One thinks of Louis CK’s much-shared rant on Conan O’Brien’s show, his now-famous “everything is amazing and nobody is happy” spiel, in which he expounds on the sheer unthinkability—or the magic, if you like—of instantaneous communication or our ability to cross continents in mere hours, both of which give rise not to the kind of wonder and awe they deserve, but griping and annoyance when they don’t work exactly as we want them to. (Incidentally, the next instalment of posts on this theme will be about the banality of technology as it relates to zombie narratives. Stay tuned!) Magic, whether it’s a glaring absence in A Game of Thrones, or a the product of a tedious set of exercises in The Magicians, or merely the stand-in for the laws of physics in Discworld, plays the role of the iPhone in the hands of someone irritated that they only have two bars.

The point is not so much to denigrate magic as to shift the focus. Stars, Terry Pratchett declared in a public appearance for The Guardian, are unremarkable—there are billions of them. What are remarkable? Streetlamps! Why? Because as far as we know, there are only a few million in the universe—and they were invented and built by monkeys! “We’re monkeys!” Pratchett declares. “Our heritage is, in time of difficulties, to climb trees and throw shit at other trees!” That simple fact is far more awe-inspiring, he argues, than any of the magical thinking that informs religion. “I’d rather be a rising ape,” he says in one of his most oft-quoted lines, “than a falling angel.”

This is the sentiment informing these fantasists who practice what I’m calling “magical humanism”—which is to say, a re-appropriation of secular humanism in the service of opening a space to articulate a humanism informed by the numinous. If ever I manage to write a book on this topic, The Banality of Magic will be its title; at the present moment, I have a handful of articles in the hopper, and one that I published in the journal Horror Studies, on the subject of Joss Whedon and The Cabin in the Woods.

Which is about a good a segue as I’m going to manage to move into a discussion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; I hadn’t planned on this particular tangent, but then there goes my magpie-like mind.

nerd-troika

The Banal Brilliance of Buffy, Season Six

Warning: spoilers.

I’ve been introducing my girlfriend to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel for the past few months, and we’re just now at the end of season six of Buffy (and season three of Angel). While I have on occasion revisited individual episodes of Buffy and some episode arcs, I’ve mostly left season six alone (except, of course, for “Once More With Feeling,” the brilliant musical episode). Why? Mainly because I remember watching the season the first time around and being entirely underwhelmed. It’s a bit of a slog: it starts well, with a sort of post-apocalyptic Sunnydale sans Slayer, and the creepy drama surrounding Willow’s resurrection spell bringing Buffy back. But then it settles into a series of depressingly quotidian storylines: Buffy’s efforts to earn money at a crappy job and take care of Dawn, Dawn’s own exquisitely annoying teenage angst and kleptomania, Buffy’s profound disaffection that leads her into a self-hating sexual relationship with Spike, Xander and Anya’s strained relationship that culminates in his leaving her at the altar, and of course Willow’s “addiction” to magic that plays out like every after-school special about drugs ever.

Also, Giles is mostly absent. Buffy without Giles is like … well, anything without Giles. The only way The Wire could have been a better show was if they’d had Anthony Stewart Head playing a role.

But I digress.

And then of course there’s the season’s Big Bad, the triumvirate of uber-nerds: Jonathan, Andrew, and their tacit leader, Warren. After the Master, Spike and Drusila and Angelus, Faith and the Mayor, the conspiratorial Initiative and the cyborg Adam, and the evil god Glory, these dudes as villains are themselves rather underwhelming. They’re played mostly as comic relief for the better part of the season, which considering how depressing the other storylines are was perhaps a good choice. It’s only late in the season that they—or, more specifically, Warren—become truly sinister, and it happens in a way that fits the tone of the season brilliantly.

On rewatching season six, I’ve completely changed my opinion of it. With the exception of the musical episode and the surprise return of Giles at the end, there aren’t many standout episodes; but, taken as a whole, the season is subtler and more nuanced than almost everything the show had offered previously, precisely because the various storylines are so quotidian. Even taking into account Willow’s hackneyed magic-is-drug-addiction thread (which is at least partially mitigated by her badass final three episodes), Buffy season six is more textured than previous seasons precisely because its subject matter is so … well, banal.

My thoughts on this were clarified in part when I read a wonderful article by M.J. Pack, who identifies Warren as the most terrifying villain in the Buffy legendarium. He is terrifying, she argues, because he is so everyday and banal: an aggrieved man who can’t get over the fact that he isn’t a babe magnet and translates his frustration into misogyny. We encountered Warren in season five: while the other two members of the nerd squad are practitioners of magic, Warren is a brilliant mechanic and engineer, to the point where’s he’s able to build himself a gorgeous android girl-toy … whom he abandons when he meets a real woman, Katrina, who, for whatever reason, likes him. The reappearance of the girlfriend-bot/sex-toy sort of sends that relationship into the dumpster, and when he and the others acquire a “cerebral dampener” that gives them the ability to turn someone into a mindless slave, Warren’s first instinct is to use it on his ex. As M.J. Pack observes,

See, Warren’s always had a thing about girls. He gives off a very Elliot Rodger vibe, the weirdo who never got over being bullied and just doesn’t GET why chicks don’t dig him. In a super creepo move he uses the Cerebral Dampener on his ex-girlfriend (who left as a result of the girlfriend-bot coming after her in the previous season.)

Cue the French maid costume and Warren’s intentions to essentially rape Katrina (and any other women he had planned to use the device on.) When the effects suddenly wear off, however, Katrina tries to escape. And Warren fucking kills her.

What M.J. leaves out of her otherwise excellent account is the fact that, moments before her attempted escape and subsequent murder, Katrina informs the troika of the reality of what they’re doing:

KATRINA: [to Warren] First the skank-bot, and now this? What is wrong with you?
WARREN: I wanted us to be together!
KATRINA: There is no us, Warren, get that through your big meaty head! I am not your girlfriend any more!
JONATHAN: She’s your ex?
ANDREW: Dude! That is messed up.
KATRINA: Oh, you think? You bunch of little boys, playing at being men! This is not some fantasy, it’s not a game, you freaks! It’s rape!
JONATHAN: [shocked] What?
ANDREW: No … we didn’t …

Jonathan and Andrew’s shock and the cognitive dissonance giving rise to that shock is as poignant and depressing an expression of male ignorance in the face of rape culture as anything television has offered (excepting perhaps the entirety of Jessica Jones)—and I say that as a self-identifying feminist who has had to make substantive adjustments to my own presumptions and assumptions over the past few years. It’s not hard to see in Jonathan and Andrew’s obliviousness the blithe acceptance of misogynistic and violent use of women in video games and other media under the excuse of “it’s just a game” or “it’s just a fantasy.” The evolution of the cabal from comic relief to sinister threat shocks the audience, but it also shocks two-thirds of the cabal.

Warren, by contrast, knows what he’s about, and after Buffy figuratively emasculates him towards the end of the season, he acts out in a terrifyingly typical way. As M.J. Pack puts it, “So when Warren enters Buffy’s backyard where she and Xander are sharing a tender moment, pulls out a gun, and fires at the Slayer, it doesn’t feel fun anymore. This isn’t campy. It’s not unrealistic. It happens all the fucking time.The banality of magic becomes, in this moment—and in the moment when Warren kills Katrina—the banality of evil. As M.J. Pack says in the conclusion to her article,

I can go to sleep at night knowing that Glory isn’t going to end the world, Angelus isn’t going to drain my blood, Adam’s not going to assemble an army of monsters. But the sad truth is that there are Warrens everywhere, and they’re not going away any time soon.

Which is precisely why season six can feel so raw, and so unsettling: to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, the value of fairy-tales isn’t in telling children that dragons are real, but in telling them they can be slain. This maxim applies quite liberally across Buffy’s seven seasons, in which the horde of monsters she kills stand in for a horde of human fears and anxieties, but founders on the character of Warren, because he is not a dragon but a human—but a monster nonetheless, whose death at the hands of a grief-stricken Willow is nothing like the unproblematic dusting of vampires, but has traumatic repercussions for her … precisely because of his humanity. And his banality.

 

dark-willow

Don’t piss off Evil Willow.

A Human Interlude

One of the questions I’ve always found interesting with regard to television studies is what is the text we need to consider? Novels, plays, poems, and films all provide us with discrete, self-contained texts that we can consider in and of themselves, and which we can analyze as an aesthetic whole. The episodic and serial nature of television provides us with several levels of texts—episode, season, series—the last of which we cannot fully appreciate until the series ends. And because of the collaborative nature of television at all levels, it has a tendency to be erratic in tone and quality. While this erraticism has lessened in the era of “prestige” TV and the rise of showrunner-as-auteur, the forces and pressures at work on the production end can still wreak havoc with otherwise brilliant shows (season three of Deadwood and season two of Rome, both of which shows were ended prematurely, come to mind; as does the precipitous decline in quality of The West Wing and Gilmore Girls when creators Aaron Sorkin and Amy Paladino, respectively, departed).

Both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were notoriously erratic, and it became something of a fan joke that you knew, episode to episode, which show Joss Whedon was focusing his attention on. Season six is one of the least favourite among fans (though it does not have the lowest iMDB.com fan rating, which was season one, or the lowest rated episode, which was “Beer Bad” from season four), largely for reasons enumerated above: depressing storylines, fractious relations among the characters, the absence of Joss Whedon’s writing (the only episode he authored was the musical—not coincidentally the highest-rated of all of them on the iMdb.com scale), and Dawn being exquisitely annoying.

But on rewatching the season and seeing it with the benefit of hindsight in the larger context of the entire series’ arc, I read it now as a thoughtful and very human interlude, one that brings Buffy et al back into the human realm in preparation for the nigh-operatic showdown of the final season against the ultimate Big Bad—the First Evil. As I argued in my Cabin in the Woods article, it is in season seven that Buffy shatters the last vestige of the fantasy genre’s hold on the show, i.e. the chains of destiny that shackle her to a unilineal descent imposed by ancient patriarchal powers.

But that’s a post for a later date.

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Zone One, Part One: Slumming in Genre-Town

Revenge of the Genres

zone-one-paperbackWhy Zone One?

If Neil Gaiman is a genre author who has attained a certain level of (sometimes grudging) literary acclaim, Colson Whitehead is an eminently literary author who threw a spanner in the works by writing a zombie apocalypse novel. Prior to Zone One, which came out in 2011, he wrote The Intuitionist (1999), John Henry Days (2001), Apex Hides the Hurt (2006), and Sag Harbor (2009); I’ve read all but Apex, and can comfortably say I agree with many of the critics that he is one of the best American novelists of the twenty-first century. His writing is gorgeous, dense but lyrical, and he has a remarkable ability with turns of phrase and a penchant for employing unusual or rarely used words.

His novels prior to Zone One all deal in varying capacities with questions of race and identity in America, employing both realism (in John Henry Days and Sag Harbor), as well as, at times, an almost quirky absurdist sensibility: The Intuitionist is set in a parallel New York in which elevator mechanics are an elite and celebrated group, and the protagonist of Apex Hides the Hurt is a “nomenclature consultant” whose job is to act as an expert in naming things. His most recent novel is The Underground Railroad—currently sitting in my “to read” stack—which is set in an alternate antebellum America in which the underground railroad is not a figurative term referring to slaves’ escape route, but a literal subterranean locomotive.

Can’t wait to get to that one.

Zone One is unusual in Whitehead’s oeuvre insofar as it does not seem at first glance to be concerned with race at all. Indeed, we don’t learn the protagonist’s race until the last fifty pages or so; at that point, however, the revelation has a retroactive effect that colours (pardon the pun) our prior experience of the story and its key themes.

But I’ll address that in a later post.

Why Zone One? Not just because it’s a “literary” author slumming it in genre-town, which is an increasingly frequent occurrence (Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Michael Chabon come to mind), but because of what he does with genre, in this case the ubiquitous zombie apocalypse narrative. I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached peak zombie: there was a ten-year surge in the undead’s presence on film, television, and in fiction, with Zone One serendipitously published at the apogee. The vagaries and themes of the zombie genre will also be fodder for a future post, but suffice it to say that stories of the living dead have emerged from the realm of horror sub-genre to become genre in their own right. And Colson Whitehead toys with the genre’s conventions beautifully.

zombie-graph

Literary Zombies

Reviewing Zone One for the New York Times, Glen Duncan makes recourse to a somewhat cringe-inducing analogy: “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star. It invites forgivable prurience: What is that relationship like? Granted the intellectual’s hit hanky-panky pay dirt, but what’s in it for the porn star?” To start with, I don’t know that such prurience is forgivable; understandable, perhaps, but only if one makes the same assumptions about genre as tends to be made about porn stars: that they’re mindless, intellectually shallow, and solely concerned with pleasure. It’s an unfortunate analogy, not least because it conflates porn stars with their physicality and obviates their potential as thinking, intelligent people.

More specific to my discussion, it’s unfortunate because it betrays an either/or mentality on Duncan’s part that hampers a nuanced reading of what Whitehead is actually doing with genre. Sadly, he also doubles down on this attitude with regard to those readers potentially drawn to the novel because of its subject matter:

Colson Whitehead is a literary novelist, but his latest book, “Zone One,” features zombies, which means horror fans and gore gourmands will soon have him on their radar. He has my sympathy. I can see the disgruntled reviews on Amazon already: “I don’t get it. This book’s supposed to be about zombies, but the author spends pages and pages talking about all this other stuff I’m not interested in.” Broad-spectrum marketing will attract readers for whom having to look up “cathected” or “brisant” isn’t just an irritant but a moral affront. These readers will huff and writhe and swear their way through (if they make it through) and feel betrayed and outraged and migrained. But unless they’re entirely beyond the beguilements of art they will also feel fruitfully disturbed, because “Zone One” will have forced them, whether they signed up for it or not, to see the strangeness of the familiar and the familiarity of the strange.

Speaking as an academic who has, for four years running, delivered quasi-lectures at “Sci-Fi On The Rock,” St. John’s equivalent of Comic-Con, I can cheerfully say that Glen Duncan has no fucking clue what he’s talking about when he characterizes “genre” fans in this way. True, there are a significant number of voices in the fan enclaves of social media that resist the encroachments of “literary” interlopers and anything that reeks of diversity or simple change (see my post from last year on the Sad Puppies), but these are a small number of loud voices. In my experience, fan culture is, broadly speaking, curious, inquisitive, and intelligent—my SFOTR audiences (on two of the four occasions standing-room-only) were more attentive and engaged than most of the classes I have taught over the years. Granted, I was speaking on topics (maps in fantasy fiction, Game of Thrones and The Wire, Terry Pratchett+Neil Gaiman+Joss Whedon, and world-building) in which they had a deep and abiding interest, but I was doing so in a decidedly professorial manner.

A more astute review is the Guardian’s, by Patrick Ness, who offers a far more useful analogy. A novel, he writes, is not a song—it is the performance of a song:

Genre fiction, literary partisans might say, may indeed have interesting songs, but they tend to be sung by the tone-deaf. Who cares how brilliant a sci-fi premise is if you have to wade through pages of indigestible prose to get to it? Literary fiction, on the other hand, is accused by genre lovers of being so concerned with performance alone that it’s devolved into an echo chamber for a diminishing number of elitists.

Here is something we can work with, not that it’s a new distinction: content versus execution, plot versus style. To be “literary” in this estimation is to achieve a certain virtuosity of prose, with less concern paid to content; to be “genre” is to be preoccupied with content at the expense of aesthetics. The latter, says Ness, risks abandoning quality, while the former risks disappearing “up its own arse.” As someone who has read plenty of exemplars of both tendencies, I’m inclined to agree with Neil Gaiman when he invokes Sturgeon’s Law: that ninety percent of anything is crap, be it genre or “literary.”

I’m more than inclined to put Zone One, both as a work of literature as a work of genre fiction, into the other ten percent.

 

The Triumph of Mediocrity

Why? Well, aside from being exemplary of Whitehead’s extraordinary prose, this ain’t your typical zombie story—and indeed, it goes out of its way to subvert expectations, even as it delivers everything we’ve come to expect from the genre, from terror and gore to the inevitable crumbling of barricades before the onslaught of the dead. Of the various reviews I read of Zone One, it was perhaps unsurprising that the best was by a genre aficionado—Charlie Jane Anders at i09.com—who opens her discussion with the observation that “Post-apocalyptic stories are chock full of wish-fulfillment. Rugged individualism holds sway. Every survivor is as special as Harry Potter, just by virtue of being alive.” The fantasy of apocalypse is almost always the fantasy of winnowing—of paring down the world by excising the excess, the unworthy. In my popular culture class this week we’re looking at Independence Day, which is about as explicit on this point as these narratives get: you can practically keep a checklist of the expendable characters as they get killed off (the gay dude, the dumb stripper, the undisciplined pilot, the disobedient wife), while at the end there’s symbolic unity among the caricatures of three traditionally factious dimensions of the American experience (the white leader, the black warrior, the Jewish scientist).

Zombie narratives complicate such clean apocalyptic purges simply by dint of the fact that the dead return to prey on the living, and those who were unworthy can still come back and chomp on your meaty bits. They also tend to be somewhat more nihilistic in the end than your average disaster/alien invasion film, such uplifting examples as World War Z notwithstanding. But as Anders points out, one of the principal attractions of the genre is the survivalist fantasy, in which some innocuous schlub finds his (almost always his) niche when, liberated from the banal sturm und drang of office life or retail purgatory, he realizes a hidden talent as implacable killer and leader of the dispossessed. Shaun of the Dead lampoons this beautifully, not least because Shaun immediately reverts to his slacker ways the moment the zombie threat is eliminated (I’ll have more to say about Zone One and Shaun of the Dead in a future post, but will refrain here because one of my students will be doing a seminar presentation comparing the two tomorrow, and I’d hate to step on her toes or steal her thunder).

Charlie Jane Anders goes on to point out one of the key elements that makes Zone One distinct: the novel, she says, “is about the only thing worse than living through the apocalypse—taking part in a heroic effort to rebuild civilization afterwards.” While the protagonist, a survivor with the unlikely nickname “Mark Spitz” (which is the only name we know him by), provides plenty of standard zombie-horror stories by way of his flashbacks, the present moment of the narrative follows him over the course of three days as he and the two other member of his “sweeper” unit do building-by-building searches in “Zone One,” clearing out the undead missed by the military juggernaut that massacred the zombie hordes. “Zone One” is Lower Manhattan south of Canal Street, where a tall Trumpian concrete wall has been erected. Sweeper teams have the tedious task of securing the area in advance of resettlement.

Mark Spitz is at once the epitome of the zombie genre’s ordinary-joe-turned-undead-killer, and a mordant critique of the very concept. He attributes his survival to the fact that all his life he had been aggressively mediocre, that in school “he staked out the B or the B chose him; it was his native land, and in high school and college he did not stray over the county line.” He assiduously kept to the middle, not that he really seemed to have much choice in the matter:

He was not made team captain, nor was he the last one picked. He sidestepped detention and honor rolls with equal aplomb. Mark Spitz’s high school had abolished the yearbook practice of nominating students the Most Likely to Do This or That, in the spirit of universal self-esteem following a host of acrimonious parent-teacher summits, but his most appropriate designation would have been Most Likely Not to be Named the Most Likely Anything, and this was not a category. His aptitude lay in the well-executed muddle, never shining, never flunking, but gathering himself for what it took to progress past life’s next random obstacle. It was his solemn expertise.

It’s a testament to Colson Whitehead’s talents that Mark Spitz is simultaneously a nuanced and textured character, and a total cipher; he has depth and individuality, but also functions as a neutral screen upon which we can project our own selves into the post-apocalyptic landscape. More significantly, our vicarious experience of the undead-stricken world is necessarily tinged with Mark Spitz’s morbid fatalism. If the pleasure of apocalypse in fiction, as Charlie Jane Anders suggests, is in the singularity of survival—and the thrill of surviving in a world reverted to primitivism—Whitehead systematically denies us that pleasure in giving us a protagonist whose everyman qualities ironically frustrate our desire to take pleasure in the fantasy of survival.

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American Gods Part Three: Gaiman’s Mendicant Gods

I said I had been writing up a storm. This post emerges from a little epiphany I had in the middle of class discussion on Thursday. Because I wanted to get it done before we move on to Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, I’m putting it up without doing anything more than the most cursory research into its main premise, namely, that Gaiman’s old gods comprise an interesting retread of a classic figure in American literature and popular culture: the drifter, the vagabond, the hobo. Actually, I’m pretty confident of that assertion–what I’m less confident of is how I historicize that figure. What I say feels right, but as I tell my students, that’s usually when you tend to drive your argument off a cliff. So know I’m totally prepared to be completely wrong on certain points.

Revenge of the Genres

americangodsWhile some of the gods Shadow meets are sedentary, like Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jaquel in their Cairo, Illinois funeral home, or Czernobog and the Three Sisters in Chicago, the novel itself is decidedly peripatetic and conveys a powerful sense of rootlessness. To be certain, this perambulatory quality is predominantly communicated by Shadow’s constant movement, crisscrossing the continent in Mr. Wednesday’s tow. But between his constant road-tripping and the depiction of the various old gods as marginal and forgotten, eking out an existence on what they can beg, scrape, swindle, or steal, the novel reimagines a common pre-WWII trope in American literature and popular culture: the romanticized figure of the drifter, the vagabond, the hobo.

I’ve only had this idea in my head for about forty-eight hours, and so haven’t devoted any real research to it yet, but it seems to me that the drifter—the sort who rode the rails during the depression, or “lit out for the territories” during frontier days, or for that matter literally drifted on a raft down the Mississippi River—met his end as an American staple after WWII. The world war was a pivot-point for America, transforming it from a middling world power with isolationist tendencies into a superpower that assumed the mantle of global cop, and whose intact manufacturing sector transitioned seamlessly from building tanks and jeeps to building Buicks and refrigerators. The single greatest building project in U.S. history, the construction of the massive interstate highway system, took place under Eisenhower’s presidency; this era similarly saw the growth of suburban sprawl into thousands of formerly rural areas.

hobo-rockwell

When I say that the figure of the hobo or drifter has been romanticized or sentimentalized, I mean that even Norman Rockwell saw fit to make him a piece of nostalgic Americana.

The drifter did not disappear per se; rather, he settled behind the wheel of a car in On the Road or on a motorcycle in Easy Rider, or into the low-rent bohemias of big cities. But the rail-riding hobo, the Tom Joad-esque leftist agitator, or the roving loner who just needs to escape the stultifying conventions if civilization? They effectively disappeared. And though I have no doubt that there are any number of instances I’m not thinking of that contradict this notion, I would still argue that the postwar drifters are different in kind, bounded by an America that has coloured in what Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe called “the white spaces of the map.” It’s telling that in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty’s search for the “real America” ultimately takes them to Mexico, as their blinkered conception of American “authenticity” can no longer reside within its borders.

But what does this have to do with American Gods? Honestly, still working that one out. But it strikes me that if we look at Mr. Wednesday et al in this context, they appear as degraded, disaffected manifestations of the drifter—not the hopeful, romantic sentiment giving voice to “This Land is Your Land,” but figures long alienated by the very newness of a land not amenable to their kind (as discussed in my last post). That America’s “newness,” as compared to their Old World stomping grounds, is part of the problem, reads in this context as vaguely ironic, as it was the putative newness of America that inspired the loners seeking empty landscapes and “that ribbon of highway” that leads off Pete Seeger’s anthem; and it was that “newness” that romanticized their wanderlust.

If the transformation of the U.S. from a frontierland into urban/exurban sprawls interspersed with farmland industrialized by agribusiness have comparably transformed the drifter into an alienated figure seeking escape, Gaiman’s gods appear to us always already alienated by a land that marginalizes and forgets them almost immediately. Indeed, have more in common with the alienation of the Beats, echoing the lost and forgotten human detritus littering the landscape of Allen Ginserg’s “Howl,” the “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” As Mr. Wednesday says to the assembled old gods when trying to persuade them to take up arms against the new,

This land is vast. Soon enough, our people abandoned us, remembered us only as creatures of the old land, as things that had not come with them to the new. Our true believers passed on, or stopped believing, and we were left, lost and scarred and dispossessed, to get by on what little smidgens of worship or belief we could find. And to get by as best we could.

So that’s what we’ve done, gotten by, out on the edges of things, where no one was watching too closely.

We have, let us face it and admit it, little influence. We prey on them, and we take from them, and we get by; we strip and we whore and we drink too much; we pump gas and we steal and we cheat and we exist in the cracks at the edges of society. Old gods, here in this new land without gods.

It is difficult not to read American Gods in the present moment without having in mind the systematic depredations of neoliberalism—the gutting of manufacturing, destruction of unions, erosion of the social safety net, diminution of the middle class, and dramatic increase in income inequality—that have brought the U.S. to a point of such radical disaffection that Donald Trump actually seems like a viable candidate to 40% of voters. While Gaiman’s gods serve to allegorize this disaffection and alienation, the novel also depicts the decline of opportunity and community in the Midwest and the Rust Belt, such as the declining town of Cairo, Illinois (a town that has, since the publication of American Gods, been effectively abandoned).

Nowhere does the novel depict this declination more than in contrast, with the literally preternatural Lakeside: an idyllic, perfect little berg that is prosperous, friendly, and optimistic, free of the scourges of rampant drug use and crime. As noted in my previous post, Shadow realizes that this unusually perfect town can only be so by way of human sacrifice. When Shadow confronts him, Hinzelmann says defiantly, “This town … I care for it. Nothing happens here that I don’t want to happen. You understand that? Nobody comes here that I don’t want to come here.” When Shadow asks if anyone else knows how he maintains the town’s protection, he replies, “They know that they live in a good place. While every other town and city in this county, heck, in this part of the state, is crumbling into nothing. They know that.” When the Sherriff overhears them and kills Hinzelmann, Shadow tells him, “this town is going to change now. It’s not going to be the only good town in a depressed region any more. It’s going to be a lot more like the rest of this part of the world. There’s going to be a lot more trouble. People out of work. People out of their heads. More people getting hurt. More bad shit going down.”

These glimpses of America in decline are not central to American Gods, but nor are they incidental to the map Gaiman draws. On returning to this novel yet again, I am impressed anew by the richness of its critique: as I said in my previous post, we can read it both as an indictment of modernity’s (and especially postmodernity’s) capacity to run roughshod over cultural idiosyncrasies and assimilate them into a monolithic culture industry, and as a guarded endorsement of American Exceptionalism and the United States’ capacity to make good on the promise of blank slates. At the same time, it functions as a critique of the country’s inherent tendency to alienate certain populations and obviate the possibilities for the very dream associated with its most prominent national myth.

***

It’s something of a shame we really do have to move on—I feel like I’m just getting started here. Tune in tomorrow when we shift gears and talk zombies.

(though I will probably put up a post mid-week that started out as a discussion of American Gods but ended up focusing more on Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These things happen when you live in my mind).

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American Gods Part Two: Gaiman, Pratchett, and the Nature of Belief; Or, Where in America is Jesus?

So, I fell a little behind the eight-ball with the blogging this week, but I have been writing up a storm since yesterday. Today’s post is a little like closing the barn door, as we finished up American Gods this past Thursday, and start Zone One next week … but as I said to my students, a course like this is cumulative; which is to say, it takes a couple of weeks to start getting some traction, but once there’s a few texts under our belt, and our understanding of the key themes and ideas gets more thorough, there will be more meat on the course bones. All that is by way of saying, I have little doubt we’ll have more to say about American Gods going forward.

Which is good, because I have at least one more post on Gaiman to put up before the weekend is out.

Revenge of the Genres

americangodsOne of the novel’s mantras, an observation made numerous times, is that America “is not a good land for gods”—compared to elsewhere in the world, it is infertile, difficult for the seed of true belief (that which creates gods and gives them power) to take root. Why this is the case, and what the novel means by “true belief,” was a question we tossed back and forth in class this week. One of the things the novel makes fairly clear is the connection between faith and sacrifice, that the “old gods” primarily derived their power from blood rites, which were a devotion literally made flesh: the killing of animals or other humans.

Gaiman is canny about this: he never explicitly or exhaustively explains the logical apparatus of his mythology, which is probably one of the reasons American Gods is such a good novel. An overabundance of exposition is a trap too many fantasy narratives fall into. But there is the distinct suggestion that the gods, both the new and the old, specifically require sacrifice, for something to be given up. In this respect, the new gods—of technology, highways, media, internet, credit cards, and so forth—have a significant advantage, for while people don’t necessarily focus their worship in the same way as when we personify divinity, they nevertheless sacrifice part of themselves: their money, their time, their attention, or in the case of cars and highways, sometimes their lives. As a class, we agreed that the quality of such worship was inferior to what the old gods received in their day (as it was unfocused and inadvertent), the sheer volume of it more than made up for that.

While some of this sort of speculation falls into the same realm as speculating on how many children Lady Macbeth had—which is to say, sweating speculative details that are ultimately unknowable, and anyway far less significant than the broader themes of the story—it is still useful in helping divine some of the thematic and allegorical nuances. Why is America a bad land for gods? One reason might lie with the unfocused and self-centered nature of the worship of the new gods, i.e. that this is not a nation given to physical or substantive sacrifice in the name of faith. When Wednesday explains to Shadow about “places of power,” he says that in other places of the world, people would be drawn to them and “they would build temples, or cathedrals, or erect stone circles.” In America, people would be similarly drawn to such places but would

respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat-house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.

When Shadow protests that “there are churches all across the States,” Wednesday agrees, tellingly, adding that that made them “about as significant, in this context, as dentists’ offices.”

small-godsWednesday’s almost offhand dismissal of Christianity’s ubiquity speaks to a question I raised in class: if gods exist by way of people’s worship, then where—in a nation in which 70% of people identify as Christian, and over a third of them as Evangelical—where, I asked, is Jesus and the Christian God in Gaiman’s American pantheon? When first I read American Gods, I thought this a big plot hole and something of a cheat: since having an appropriately powerful Jesus would throw the story somewhat askew, I assumed Gaiman just conveniently ignored the question. But on subsequent readings, I’ve amended that opinion, and would now argue that the novel offers a subtle critique on the nature of professed belief, one consonant with Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods. The Discworld novels have the same inversion of humanity and divinity we see in American Gods; in Small Gods, Pratchett’s analogue of fundamentalist Christianity, Omnianism (which worships the great god Om, declares him to be the one and only god in the Discworld firmament, is rooted in the theocratic nation of Omnia, and further holds as an article of dogma that the world is round in opposition to the heretical view that it is a flat plate on the backs of four elephants standing on a space turtle), has become such a monstrous bureaucratic labyrinth in which functionaries are preoccupied with the thousands of pages of commentaries, annotations, and catechism, rather than the original holy scriptures, that the god Om has dwindled in power to the point that he lives trapped in the body of a tortoise.

discworld

Silly Omnians. Everyone knows it’s turtles all the way down.

Jesus isn’t completely ignored in American Gods, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s not a player in the U.S. landscape. Why? Well, I would suggest that, as in Om’s predicament, actual belief has become incidental to the performance of belief: the ubiquitous churches pervading the American landscape, Wednesday would seem to suggest, lack affect. One is tempted to speculate that the megachurches, with their music and laser shows and evangelical pyrotechnics, do more to feed the maw of the new gods of technology and media. One is further tempted to speculate that, in an updated version of Gaiman’s mythology, Jesus and God have been subsumed into the new god of Partisanship, specifically the Red Avatar.

In all seriousness, however, I have come around to a reading of American Gods in which it comprises a fairly pointed critique of American religiosity along these lines. Which is not to disparage the many, many people of sincere faith who work hard to hew to the directives of the Gospels to be charitable, generous, and to comfort the afflicted; it is rather to observe that this critique is directed at those whose mantle of Christianity is worn hypocritically, in direct contradiction of the values just enumerated.

But I digress.

A key thematic moment, which I quoted in my first American Gods post, comes when Wednesday takes Shadow to San Francisco. Shadow, who has been spending a frozen idyll in the Wisconsin town of Lakeside, looks around at San Francisco’s colourful houses, its steep hills, and mild weather, and remarks, “It’s almost hard to believe this is the same country as Lakeside.” To which Wednesday irritably replies,

“It’s not. San Francisco isn’t in the same country as Lakeside, any more than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis.”

“Is that so?” said Shadow, mildly.

“Indeed it is. They may share certain cultural signifiers—money, a federal government, entertainment; it’s the same land, obviously—but the only things that give it the illusion of being one country are the greenback, The Tonight Show, and McDonald’s.”

Wednesday’s irate little speech, as stated above, is one of the novel’s thematic lynchpins, and, I would argue, key to understanding America’s “infertility” as regards the gods. The country is too large, too heterodox to support a national identity that is itself anything more than myth or fiction. That is, indeed, enshrined among the nation’s founding documents in John Adams’ assertion that the U.S. have “a government of laws, and not of men.” One of the most basic tenets underpinning the doctrine of American Exceptionalism is the historical and geographical serendipity that allowed it to benefit from the scientific and philosophical revolutions of the Enlightenment without suffering from the centuries of tribal and religious strife that preceded them, while putting a wide ocean between itself and the Old World’s scars. Wednesday’s rejection of a unitary “America” as an identifiable place is, on one hand, just an acknowledgement of the nation’s deliberately factious architecture: the Jeffersonian dream of disparate, quasi-autonomous states.

On the other hand, we can also read in Wednesday’s irritation (beyond the fact that he was simply being stroppy with Shadow at this point in the novel) a deeper and longer-standing disaffection with America. The formulation of “laws and not men” establishes the need to have a stable intellectual and ideological architecture that can survive the erratic and irrational tendencies of the flawed human beings who have a bed tendency toward oppression and capricious violence when allowed to rule by fiat.

However, as suggested above, “true belief” of the kind that creates and feeds the gods is clearly established in American Gods as something that requires bodies. John Adams’ formulation removes individual, corporeal people from the figuration of national identity, specifically as a bulwark against tribal, ethnic, or racial determining factors in what determines an “American.”

(Which isn’t to say that the actual America as envisioned by John Adams et al has ever completely, or even mostly, succeeded in hewing strictly to the “laws not men” dictum—not least because the language of that crucial distinction elides half the population, or that America’s authors tacitly endorsed the institution of slavery. These fissures are ever more obvious today: as I said in class, it is an odd experience to reread American Gods and think through it in these terms while at the same time bearing witness to an election cycle that has given voice to the ugliest manifestations of American nativism and hatred. My comment above about the God of Partisanship was only slightly ironic).

The kind of belief that creates and sustains Gaiman’s gods is anathema to a large, broad, and diverse population, given its roots in tribalism and superstition. A key moment speaking to this principle comes toward the end of the novel, when Richard Hinzelmann, the eccentric but charming old man who basically acts as Shadow’s host in Lakeside, reveals himself as a Teutonic tribal god:

Where Hinzelmann had been standing stood a male child, no more than five years old. His hair was dark brown, and long. He was perfectly naked, save for a worn leather band around his neck. He was pierced with two swords, one of them going through his chest, the other entering at his shoulder, with the point coming out beneath the ribcage. Blood flowed through the wounds without stopping and ran down the child’s body to pool and puddle on the floor. The swords looked unimaginably old.

In that moment, Shadow instinctively knows Hinzelmann’s story, and sees in his mind’s eye the blood ritual that would sacrifice a child to create a tribal god. “Shadow wondered which of the people who had come to northern Wisconsin a hundred and fifty years ago, a woodcutter, perhaps, or a mapmaker, had crossed the Atlantic with Hinzelmann living in his head.” And Hinzelmann, incarnation of whatever vestigial god had made that trip, founded Lakeside and cultivated it and loved it, and protected it as a perfect and unchanging space through the same means that created him: the sacrifice of youth.

Shadow’s return to Lakeside functions as a coda to the novel. He comes back because he has figured out the connection between the yearly disappearance of preteens or teens, and the betting pool the town has in which people guess what day and time a clunker pushed out on the frozen lake breaks through the melting ice in spring. The murdered children, Shadow realizes, are in the trunks: the sacrifice Hinzelmann chooses to make in exchange for keeping his town safe and protected.

On one hand, one can read American Gods as a critique of modernity’s erasure of cultural idiosyncrasies. One of the other reasons America is a bad land for gods is its very ahistorical qualities, the assimilation of “authenticity” into a culture industry that flattens and denudes cultural specificities into Taco Bell or the Olive Garden. In this respect, the novel allegorizes the immigrant experience, in which successive generations grow increasingly distant from the myths and narratives of their origins, and discard the old gods to wander the margins of America. On the other, one can read Wednesday et al as anachronisms best forgotten, if the cost of “true belief” is that dear.

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From the Decay of Lying to the Velocity of Mendacity, or, The Fiction that is Donald J. Trump

C YRIL. Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.
V IVIAN. I assure you that they do not. They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just as well speak the truth at once.
—Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”

oscar_wilde_portraitLike most people, as I have watched the U.S. election, I have frequently wondered what Oscar Wilde would make of it. And more specifically, what he would make of Donald Trump.

Wilde published his elegant essay “The Decay of Lying” in 1889, and then again with significant revisions in 1891. He composed it as a dialogue between aesthete Vivian and skeptic Cyril, and argues (through Vivian) that a preoccupation with reality and realism has corrupted and denuded art. What, he asks, has happened to the beautiful lie? He laments,

Facts are not merely finding a footing-place in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of Romance. Their chilling touch is over everything. They are vulgarising mankind. The crude commercialism of America, its materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals, are entirely due to that country having adopted for its national hero a man, who according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a lie, and it is not too much to say that the story of George Washington and the cherry-tree has done more harm, and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature.

Like much of Wilde’s writing, the apparent frivolity of his tone and glib assertions of his narrators are just window-dressing for profound insight into our relationship to and with art and literature. What is fiction and poetry, he basically asks, if not a series of beautiful lies? Lies which, Vivian is careful to observe, transform reality itself: it is in this essay that Wilde formed his famous axiom that “life imitates art.” A superficial reading of this aphorism suggests the ways in which people chase after the latest trends in fashion as created by popular culture. Wilde’s point is however more nuanced, and makes a semiotic argument decades before semiotics was all the rage in English departments: namely, that art and literature facilitate and expand a vocabulary of expression that potentially transforms the way we perceive the world. Challenged by Cyril to prove his point, Vivian responds,

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to this particular school of Art.

Again, we have the distinct impression of a tongue stuck firmly in a cheek, but Wilde’s argument—lurking subtly underneath Vivian’s high-handed and ostensibly absurd assertion—troubles the assumption of art as straightforward representation, of Hamlet’s pompous direction to the players that the purpose of art “both at the / first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the / mirror up to nature.” Hamlet comes in for some excoriation from Vivian for this line, as do those who quote it unironically, not understanding “that this unfortunate aphorism is deliberately said by Hamlet in order to convince the bystanders of his absolute insanity in all art-matters.”

But what does this have to do with Donald Trump? Well, that goes to my musing about what Wilde (or his mouthpiece Vivian) would make of this moment’s most magnificent liar. I think we might be operating now outside of Wilde’s wheelhouse, for it isn’t so much that Trump lies as that he embodies untruth. Wilde, I suspect, would be less concerned with the decay of lying than with the sheer velocity of Trump’s mendacity.

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Donald Trump Did Not Take Place

One of the greatest frustrations supporters of Hillary Clinton and those with an affection for Civilization As We Know It have had in this campaign is the double standard for honesty being applied to her and Trump. By any objective measure, as was observed by Ruth Marcus on Slate magazine’s most recent Political Gabfest, “Hillary wins the transparency Olympics.” Which isn’t to say she hasn’t prevaricated, embellished or downplayed the truth, or outright lied—just that when you tally up her untruths and juxtapose them with Trump’s, it’s a molehill dwarfed by a mountain. For a long time it seemed to me as if the media was grading the respective candidates’ honesty on a curve, with Trump benefiting and Clinton suffering from different standards applied across the board.

I’m no longer convinced by that analogy, however, because it suggests that Trump and Clinton exist on the same epistemic continuum, one in which truth and falsity are givens. To be certain, that’s where Clinton is. Trump, however, is no longer there, and it’s doubtful whether he ever was. Rather, he has come to be the embodiment of the postmodernist moment when a fictional character steps off the page or screen into reality, and in so doing troubles “reality” as stable category. As the saying goes, if Donald Trump didn’t exist, we would have to invent him. Except—and here’s the rub—we did.

Donald Trump is a fictional character, and this is why the normal epistemic rules we apply to presidential candidates have been more or less irrelevant to his candidacy. I want to be clear: when I call Trump fictional, I am being wholly unironic. I’m not questioning his empirical, physical reality—he is a person with a history, a body, a passport and (we assume—he’s never showed us) a birth certificate—but asserting that his candidacy, and the frighteningly real possibility that he may be elected, can only be properly understood in terms of fiction.

It’s not that Hillary Clinton is being held to a different standard of truth so much as inhabiting a different epistemic paradigm entirely. She traffics in reality, and is preoccupied with policy and the quotidian details of governance, preoccupied with politics in its classic definition as the “art of the possible.” The experience she has accrued as First Lady, Senator for New York, and Secretary of State is matched by a comparable accrual of secrets, lies, gaffes, scandals (real and imagined), half-truths and embellishments, enmities and connections, losses and victories—in other words, the baggage that anyone of her prominence with so long a tenure in public life amasses. The arguments made about her dishonesty, or her cozy relationship with the 1%, or any of the other issues arising from her life spent in politics are however different in kind from the most basic principle animating Trump’s rump: that it is precisely this experience, which tars her as “establishment,” that is her disqualifying quality. Trump will fix things because he says he will. Nothing factual pertaining to his history of bankruptcies, grifting, shafting contractors and investors and banks, his mob ties, or to the very real likelihood that his net worth is nowhere near what he claims, gains any traction with his supporters, because in the end he is a fictional character.

To help explain what I mean, it’s worth remembering that Hillary and Bill Clinton have a fictional dimension themselves, but one that ultimately serves to solidify their place in the world of truth and falsity. The Clintons have provided fodder for a host of filmic and televisual depictions of the presidency, from direct fictionalizations like Primary Colors and Political Animals, to shows that have been more obliquely informed by the Clinton political saga like The West Wing and House of Cards. Such parallels don’t make Hillary Clinton herself a fiction in the same way as I’m characterizing Trump, however. Indeed, they provide a contrast to reality in the way they idealize (The West Wing), satirize (Veep), or dystopianize (House of Cards) the political life (no, “dystopianize” wasn’t a word, but it is now. Use it in good health). This contrast serves to reinforce the distinction between fiction and reality: these narratives are by turns fantasies of what we wish the Clintons could be, or what we suspect they really are.

Trump, on the other hand, emerges on the political stage fully fictional, built out of the many mendacities of his life-long self-fashioning: posing, over the phone, as his own publicist in order to mythologize his supposed playboy lifestyle; his transformation from builder to brand; his serial marriages to women whose beauty flatters his image; his emergence as a reality TV star. Trump as a human being is about as real as his hair. His persona is a carefully wrought bit of artifice that employs extant, popular American tropes that serve to paper over the inconvenient truth of his silver-spoon upbringing. He’s Horatio Alger and P.T. Barnum, and about as honest as both of them combined. But like Alger and Barnum, he has the innate ability to enthrall an audience, even those who might actively loathe the spectacle. Let’s be honest: we can’t discount the fact that at least part of Trump’s success resides in the same horrified fascination that fuels the box office numbers for disaster films. Even those of us objectively appalled at the prospect of him in the Oval Office kind of want him to win in November, just to see what happens. But that’s because we’re narrative junkies, and that’s one of the reasons for his success: he’s a fictional juggernaut now, writing a story as he goes that none of us—Doonesbury and The Simpsons excepted—could have predicted, but which continues its postmodern encroachment of fiction into reality every day.

I won’t be the first person to ascribe Trump’s candidacy to the pernicious effects of reality TV, and it’s safe to say that his ascendancy is a perfect storm of historical and cultural factors (something made risibly clear by Andrew Coyne in his recent National Post op-ed, in which he literally blames everyone). But it is painfully obvious that Trump is the embodiment of the dissolution of entertainment into reality, something reality TV has been priming us for since it first declared that it wasn’t here to make friends. Every reality TV competition has a villain and a blowhard—those characters that drive up the ratings—and Trump is both. He operates according to those rules, which have nothing to do (ironically, I suppose) with reality, and everything to do with besting the other contestants. The problem in this election cycle is the mind-numbing number of voters who are more than willing to give credence to this logic.

But why? In part because, more than anything else, Trump’s ongoing reality TV candidacy speaks to what people feel is reality rather than any empirical knowledge.

 

GOP 2016 Trump Echoes of Wallace

Make America Great White Trump Again

One can argue endlessly about whether elections have always been more about emotion than thought, truthiness rather than truth, but it is hard to deny that Trump is the ultimate candidate for feelings over facts. The entirety of the 2016 Republican National Convention was given over to how America “feels”—the speeches by the Republican not-so-luminaries who deigned to participate did not cite statistics about a crumbling economy or rampant crime, but asserted instead that Americans feel the economy is tanking, and how they feel threatened by rising crime rates. When confronted in an interview with the objective fact that crime rates are at a thirty-year low, Newt Gingrich doubled down, saying, “As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel, and you can go with the theoreticians.”

And when the people delivering speeches weren’t saying that people felt afraid, they went out of their way to scare the shit out of them. “The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe,” Rudy Giuliani thundered at the start of his speech, and then went on to suggest that Obama’s tenure emboldened terrorists and criminals, and that Clinton would, if elected, blithely allow terrorists to enter along with a massive flood of Syrian refugees. “The cost of Hillary’s dishonesty,” declared Newt Gingrich, “could be the loss of America as we know it.”

“America as we know it” is an instructive phrase. It is of a piece with the “America” of Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” The America that people “know” is invariably different from the America that is, for the simple fact that it is too big, too complex, too disparate in every category from income to ideology, for any one person to have an objectively true perspective. But the closest one can come requires empathy, an open mind, and a grasp of history, something actually demonstrated by the current president when he addressed the blinkered nostalgia animating Trump’s slogan:

Here, President Obama puts into historical context the nostalgic idea of America evoked by Trump: the ascendant, dominant America, with a thriving manufacturing sector in which his aggrieved white supporters would have found well-paying blue-collar jobs. The problem with nostalgizing this Golden Age is twofold: first, it represents a fleeting moment in U.S. history, about thirty years—or 12.5% of America’s lifetime. The suggestion that it was some sort of prelapsarian moment ignores all of the historical factors enumerated by President Obama: that the U.S. emerged from WWII unscathed, with all of its manufacturing capabilities intact, while the other major powers in the world lay devastated by the war. (If you want to talk about American Exceptionalism, this was a time when the U.S. was genuinely exceptional, for the simple reason that its cities had not been pounded into dust). There was an economic vacuum into which the U.S. stepped, overturning its prior inclination to isolationism and embracing and facilitating the expansion of globalization. And in so doing, it prospered hugely—but sooner or later, its dominance would inevitably by challenged as other world powers dug themselves out of their postwar holes. Or in Trump parlance, they started “winning.”

Secondly, the tacit idealization of this period ignores one crucial factor, something a former professor of mine pithily summed up in the axiom “the ‘good old days’ were inevitably bad for someone.” Yes, the postwar years comprised a time of great opportunity and prosperity, provided you were white and male. Even if you ignore the blatantly racist drivel that has dropped from Trump’s mouth, his supporters have embraced a nostalgia for white America.

All that being said, Trump has been entirely vague on what version of America was “great” compared to his depiction of a fallen, postlapsarian nation that has forgotten how to “win.” Again, it’s all about the feelings: the historical facts and the contemporary reality of lower crime and a growing economy are irrelevant to a narrative of decline and fall requiring a strong man to turn the nation around. All of Trump’s critics who modify his slogan to “Make America White Again” aren’t wrong, at least not where his supporters are concerned; but for Trump himself, the slogan should really be “Make America Trump Again,” and the fact that it never was is entirely beside the point.

trump-apprentice

A Probable Impossibility

I keep coming back to Aristotle’s principle than a writer of fiction “should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities” (Poetics XXIV). By which he means it is better to have something unreal behaving logically (a faster-than-lightspeed spaceship, for example, inhabited by believable characters) than something real behaving in unlikely fashion (an everyday Joe winning the lottery three times in as many days). Readers and audiences accept impossibilities, provided they obey the laws of story and narrative.

For some time now I’ve viewed Trump’s success as an improbably possibility: all the way along it has been technically possible for him to rise to the top of the Republican ticket and have a realistic shot at the White House, but possible in the same way that if I started training tomorrow I could win the Boston Marathon in five years. Possible, but infinitesimally unlikely.

I have now changed my thinking. A Trump presidency—or for that matter an America in which 40% of its voters think a mendacious, self-aggrandizing businessman with four bankruptcies and the attention span of a goldfish is qualified to be president—should be impossible. And indeed, the very prospect of his nomination was almost universally considered absurd on the face of it by the media’s brain trust. Those few people, like Rep. Keith Ellison, who warned that it could happen were literally laughed at.

But in the present moment, Trump’s rise has all the implacable inevitability of a disaster film. For a candidacy that privileges feeling over thought, “President Trump” feels probable, as impossible as it should be. It is tempting to joke that “he’s not the president America needs, but he is the president America deserves,” but there would be too much collateral damage in that eventuality. Whether the electorate deserves it or not, American popular political culture has been laying the groundwork for years. Keith Ellison defends his warning by citing the fact that in Minnesota, they elected Jesse Ventura in defiance of all common sense; he could just as well have pointed to the nomination of Sarah Palin as a VP candidate, the two-term reign of the Governator in California, and of course that time the country elected a former B-movie actor as president—twice.

Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” allegorizes what happens when fiction becomes all-consuming and persuasive. When the imaginary world of Tlön captures the world’s imagination, its fiction trespasses into reality:

Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly plant? It is useless to answer that reality is also orderly.

Donald Trump, as I have argued in this post, is wholly fictional. He does not merely lie, he is a lie, one that operates according to the rules of the “reality” of reality television. With this in mind, however, there is one ray of hope: the villains and the blowhards of reality TV may get the most attention and drive up ratings, but statistically they rarely win. Most often, the winners are the innocuous contestants, the ones who stay off the radar while working hard to make themselves valuable without drawing attention. Blowhards and villains eventually piss too many people off, and find themselves voted off the island or out of the house … or fired.

Fingers crossed for that kind of narrative inevitability.

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American Gods Part One: Neil Gaiman’s Legendarium

Revenge of the Genres

Why American Gods?

Every first post I do on a new course text, I’ll ask this question. Why are we studying this? How does it fit into the course? I’d like to think that most, if not all, of my selections are more of less self-explanatory; still, some are more self-explanatory than others, and I’ve always subscribed to the teaching philosophy that self-reflection on the logic underlying a course is a good thing.

americangodsSo: why American Gods? We may well ask this question more pointedly than with other texts for the simple reason that this course is (technically) “American Literature after 1945,” and Neil Gaiman is British. Given however that much of this course will be given over to the dissolution of such boundaries as highbrow lowbrow, literature and genre, to say nothing of the boundaries and distinctions between and within genres, it makes a certain amount of sense to begin the course thinking about the ways in which we divvy up the field of literary study into national literatures, ethnic or cultural literatures, historical periods, and the usefulness of such distinctions. Considering that American Gods is about the tension between mythologies of worship and mythologies of nation, it similarly gives us a set of useful insights into the ways in which genre functions as its own form of myth.

There’s also just the fact of Neil Gaiman himself, a prolific and brilliant author who cut his teeth first as a journalist, and then as an acclaimed writer of comic books. I first read Neil Gaiman in high school when my best friend, himself a comics enthusiast, turned me on to The Sandman—the story of Dream, one of the seven Endless, the embodiments of mortal qualities and behaviours (Destiny, Death, Dream, Desire, Despair, Delirium, and the prodigal Destruction). I have never been much of a comics reader—really, the one enclave of nerdiness that I never cared for—but I was amazed by the dark genius of the stories and the intelligence of the writing. (Also, it didn’t hurt that the titular character looked an awful lot like Robert Smith of the Cure, long one of my favourite bands).

sandman-003

Gaiman’s career has been a gleefully promiscuous mixing, matching, and crossing of genres: comics, children’s books, television writing (Doctor Who, Babylon 5), radio plays, screenplays, novels, YA fiction, live performance—and while most or all of that would once upon a time have been dismissed as the provenance of a hack, not an artist, you would be hard-pressed to find voices in the American or British literati who don’t have at least a grudging respect for his work.

 

Defining Mythology

Mythology is a tricky term, because it comes freighted with a variety of meanings and connotations, not all of which are necessarily consonant with one another. For our purposes, there are three uses I’ll be discussing:

  1. Its association with religion, worship, and the divine—both in the sense of what J.R.R. Tolkien called mythopoeia (more on that below), and in its etiological function of providing a narrative explanation for creation and existence—in creating a pantheon of gods and their interactions with humanity.
  2. Roland Barthes’ designation as “a form of speech”; a metalanguage that emerges when, to quote Barthes, we “confuse history for nature.” That is to say, we create mythologies when we start to see the products of human thought, invention, and discourse as naturally occurring and innate; the assumption that concepts like “justice” or “perversity” are transcendent categories as opposed a cultural consensus.
  3. Finally, the more colloquial use of the term to describe the backstory and history of a given alternate reality. As best as I can divine, this use of the term came into popular use to describe those episodes of The X-Files that expanded upon the show’s conspiratorial prehistory. It has now become common to employ “mythology” in this respect, especially with television franchises like Supernatural or the Whedonverse.

I should hope it goes without saying that American Gods deploys the first two definitions in a host of interesting ways; the third definition is less relevant to us here at first, but worth establishing because we will be talking about it again.

 

American Gods and Fantasy

Neil Gaiman is one of a handful of fantasists whom I’ve been working on for about two years now, looking at the ways in which they’ve (re)deployed the genre of fantasy (loosely defined) to articulate a secular, humanist world-view (others include Lev Grossman, George R.R. Martin, Terry Pratchett, N.K. Jemisin, J.K. Rowling, and Joss Whedon). Fantasy—both in terms of such defining works as The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia chronicles, and in its proto-forms in late Victorian faery-stories and medieval romance—tends to be deeply religious in structure. By this I mean it is often imbued with Christian allegory, such as in C.S. Lewis, but more so that it is predicated on an extrinsic understanding of power as divine and transcendent. Fate and destiny are key watchwords, dictating rigid limits for narrative and character. What is more, as Farah Mendlesohn points out in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy, there is a powerful tendency to treat history as absolute and as transcendent as the powers that be: fantasy, especially portal-quest fantasies, more often than not begin with a “download of legend,” delivered to the protagonist by an authoritative voice—the “story until now,” as it were, whose truth value is unquestioned (think Mr. Tumnus, the faun whom Lucy Pevensie meets in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or for that matter Gandalf telling Frodo the history of the Ring in “The Shadow of the Past”; or, briefer but still working within this custom, Rupert Giles’ portentous narration in early episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, laying out Buffy’s divinely ordained role: “In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer”).

I will return to this topic in a future post on American Gods; for now what is important is to distinguish between the traditional strictures of fantasy and what Tolkien called “mythopoeia,” and what Gaiman does in his novel. “Mythopoeia” is the title of a poem that Tolkien wrote in 1931 and dedicated to C.S. Lewis back in Lewis’ militant atheist days, when Lewis dismissed myth and mythology as “mere lies.” They might be beautiful lies, he told Tolkien, “breathed through silver,” but they were lies nonetheless; and thus, from a strictly Platonic perspective, had no place in intellectual inquiry or discourse.

Tolkien—devoutly Catholic and by this point in his life already knees-deep in the myth-building that would one day resolve itself in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion (to say nothing of the twenty-odd books edited by Christopher Tolkien of his father’s apparently infinite notes)—predictably took issue with Lewis’ dismissive comments, and wrote a poem that celebrates the inventiveness of the mythic imagination compared to the poverty of materialism.

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath and ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jeweled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.

He goes on to declare that “I will not walk with your progressive apes / erect and sapient” (a line that always makes me think of Terry Pratchett’s famous mantra, “I’d rather be a rising ape than a falling angel”). Tolkien’s poem echoes a certain Romantic sentiment, such as expressed in Keats’ “Lamia” when he laments that “Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings, / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, / Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine— / Unweave a rainbow …” Or in other words, materialism’s drive for empirical knowledge might show us the natural world’s inner workings, but will in the process “unweave” its beauty. “We murder to dissect,” was William Wordsworth’s comparable assertion in “The Tables Turned,” in which he begs a friend to leave his books and go outside to see the glory of nature. And of course, there is William Blake’s notorious, mocking rendering of Isaac Newton as a small-minded man absorbed by his compasses and equations, his back turned to the wonders of the world without.

blake-newton

I think if Isaac Newton ever saw this, he wouldn’t care that Blake was mocking him because of how ripped he looks here.

 

Gaiman’s Humanism

As grandiose as some of Gaiman’s visions have been in his work—the landscape of Dream’s kingdom and the rendering of Hell in Sandman both gesture to a Miltonic sensibility—even when in the company of the Endless, his stories are preoccupied with quotidian human qualities. Dream (or Morpheus, or the Sandman, or Oneiros—he has many names) is a meticulous and conscientious craftsman, often irked by his sister Death’s pert glibness, or the venal machinations of Desire, at once deadly serious and humourless in carrying out his duties, but also given to depression and brooding.

American Gods is consonant in a host of ways with the “mythology” (there’s definition #3 for you) of Sandman, though it brings the figures of various pantheons—some of whom, like Odin and Loki, Bast, and Ishtar, show up in Sandman—out of the realms of myth and into the grubby, unexotic, and utterly unglamourous life of everyday people scrabbling a living in Middle America. These gods have been brought to America and forgotten, left to find what meager worship they can eke out by being grifters, con men, whores, or (in the case of Czernobog and the Three Sisters) simple pensioners. As Wednesday says to Shadow,

We have, let us face it and admit it, little influence. We prey on them, and we take from them, and we get by; we strip and we whore and we drink too much; we pump gas and we steal and we exist in the cracks at the edges of society. Old gods, here in this new land without gods. (123)

Gaiman’s brilliant inversion is one he shared with Terry Pratchett: both authors depicted worlds in which human existence is not a function of the gods, but vice versa. Gods come into being based on our worship of and sacrifice for them; their power rises and falls based on the volume and intensity of that worship. In Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, the great god Om has become ancillary to his people’s theocracy, lost in the midst of bureaucracy and dogma, reduced to the point where he is trapped in the body of a tortoise and sustained solely by the guileless belief of a single, vapid parishioner.

So too are Gaiman’s American gods lost to the fickle vicissitudes of humanity’s memory. I want to make an observation here, which I’ll pick up on in a later post: Gaiman and Pratchett’s inversion of humanity and divinity is a profoundly humanist gesture. Pratchett’s mantra about Rising Ape > Falling Angel is of a piece with both the Discworld novels and American Gods, and a repudiation of Tolkien’s mythopoeiac argument: as he says in this wonderful interview with The Guardian, he finds the story of evolution “far more remarkable than any in the Bible.” It teaches us that stars are uninteresting compared to streetlamps, as, so far as we know, there are only a few million of the latter in the universe. “And they were built by monkeys!” There is more wonder to be found, Pratchett maintains, in the fact that we stopped hurling feces at each other long enough to build civilization, than in the prospect that we may be of divine creation and descent—which would itself imply that we have been in steady decline since the days when we first communed with gods, as opposed to slowly, imperfectly, but steadily improving ourselves as a species.

But again, more on that in a later post.

Gaiman’s mythologies in American Gods are twofold: the mythologies of various forgotten pantheons, and the mythologies of America. A key premise of the novel, which I’ll come back to in later posts, is that America “is not a land for gods.” Why that might be the case is an interesting point of discussion, which, again, I will return to later. It is a land ripe for myth, however; one of the key ideas I raise when I teach my second year course on 20thC American fiction is “the idea of America”—how the United States isn’t an innate thing, but a set of often conflicting myths, narratives, and beliefs. This does not differentiate it in kind from any other nation in the world—the very concept of “nation” is necessarily an arbitrary set of consensual delusions—but the U.S. amplifies its fictional nature by dint of its lack of a unitary ethnic sense of self, its relatively short history, and the longstanding philosophy of American Exceptionalism. At the heart of American Gods is the recognition that any nation as large as the U.S. is necessarily a collection of interesting fragments only loosely sutured. Traveling with Mr. Wednesday from the small Michigan town of Lakeside to San Francisco, Shadow looks around at the city and remarks, “It’s almost hard to believe that this is in the same country as Lakeside.”

Wednesday glared at him. Then he said, “It’s not. San Francisco isn’t in the same country as Lakeside any more than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis.”

“Is that so?” said Shadow, mildly.

“Indeed it is. They may share certain cultural signifiers—money, a federal government, entertainment; it’s the same land, obviously—but the only things that give it the illusion of being one country are the greenback, The Tonight Show, and McDonald’s.” (270)

The kind of fault lines implicit in Wednesday’s irritable speech are only too visible at the present moment: if the 2016 election has been about anything, it has been about increasingly recalcitrant American mythologies, and what identifies it as a nation. The New Gods in Gaiman’s legendarium comprise something of a cultural cohesion—tech, internet, media, highways, etc.—but it’s interesting (if deeply disheartening) to see how they’re also serving as the agents of fissure and fracture.

catesby_gaiman

Catesby shows good taste in books.

 

OK, I’ve once again managed to ramble longer than planned. So much for ending on a rhetorical flourish. Watch this space for the third installment of my “gentrification” maundering mid-week.

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The Gentrification of Genre, Part Two

Revenge of the GenresAs I mentioned in a previous post, I’m trying something new with this blog over the next few months. I’m incorporating it into my fourth-year seminar, which is to say I’ll be posting on about a weekly basis on the texts and subjects we cover. The idea is to use it as a jumping-off point for class discussion, as a substitute for me lecturing in class. The idea is I’ll post on Sundays—and hopefully at some points mid-week—raising issues and questions about the texts we’re covering. I joked in our first class today that I’ve never gotten around to writing a textbook that I can force my students to buy, so I’ll have to settle for artificially inflating my blog readership.

In seriousness, though, some of my favourite blog posts have been ones tied to my teaching—most specifically, my Lord of the Rings class. Given that I am hugely excited about this fourth-year seminar, as I described it in my previous post, I’m hoping for a similarly fruitful cluster of posts.

Also, hopefully this just forces me to blog more, and make up for the wasteland of the past year.

So without further ado … at least the first part of this post was my introductory lecture. I apologize (especially to my students, who are obliged to read this) for this post’s rambling quality—it went on rather longer than I had planned.

 

Genre’s Fluidity

My name is Christopher Lockett, and I am a huge nerd.

This should come as a great galloping shock to precisely no one, as the Venn diagram of academics and nerds has a significant overlap to start with. You kind of have to be a nerd to subject yourself to the kind of obsessive studying and research we bring to our different fields.

But several months ago I was sitting in my campus office, lost in thought, when I suddenly realized just how much geek paraphernalia I had accumulated. I have:

  • A mug with the TARDIS on it.
  • A weeping angel, on my desk facing where students sit (just to freak out the ones who know what weeping angels are).
  • A magnet featuring Dr. Seuss’ Whos from Whoville dressed up as the twelve doctors (thirteen including the War Doctor), holding hands and singing in circle around the TARDIS.
  • A Buffy the Vampire Slayer lunch box.
  • A little Tyrion Lannister figurine.
  • A White Walker figurine.
  • A map of Westeros rendered as a subway map.
  • An as-yet to be assembled cutout paper doll of Inigo Montoya.
  • An old Lord of the Rings
  • An old Discworld calendar.
  • A Ranma ½
  • And my prize possession, a large and handsomely framed map of the Shire, which hangs over my writing desk.

This list of course does not include the numerous works of SF/F littering my bookshelves, some of which I’ve actually taught.

tyrion-et_al

A Lannister never blinks.

I offer all this by way of introduction, because it seems the best way to establish how we’re defining “genre” for this course. There are literally hundreds of books and essays that have been written theorizing the question of genre, a not-insignificant portion of which deal with film studies. Much of this body of work is often quite fascinating, and consider the ways in which genres tend to be provisional categories, given to promiscuous overlap, borrowing, and frequent reinvention. We’ll certainly be talking about overlaps and borrowing as we go on.

Another approach to genre, however, is the one that draws a distinction between highbrow and lowbrow, and which tends to sniff at works of “genre” as formulaic and derivative, inferior to works of serious art and literature. In The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson likened the emergence and evolution of genres to the process of sedimentation. All genres, he argues, begin as genuinely revolutionary and subversive new forms of expression. At these early stages they are not genres per se—genre comes about through repetition, as subsequent writers and artists imitate and reiterate the key elements of the original texts, with necessarily less originality and imagination than before. The process, Jameson suggests, is like the laying down of layer after layer of silt, until the form calcifies into something rigid that lacks the revolutionary quality of its earlier incarnations.

As analogies go, this is a pretty good one, and quite useful: we can think of a host of examples, such as the way the revolutionary energies of Romantic poetry ossified into the rigid banalities of late Victorian verse. For some time now, I have been nibbling around the edges of an essay on the way in which Romantic tropes and preoccupations find themselves similarly ossified in The Lord of the Rings, but also the way in which LotR then effectively invents the genre of fantasy as we know it. (Really, the main reason I want to write this essay is so I can title it “Romantic Sediments”).

Jameson’s metaphor has limited applicability, however, once we start to think of genre in the former manner, as provisional and fluid. Like Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence, it provides a useful rubric that breaks down once you stop thinking in terms of linear progression. If we begin and end with the figuration of sedimentation, it doesn’t really allow for what we see all the time, these days—namely, the reinvigoration of rigid formulae, and the popular elevation of genre texts out of the basements of disdain, and into serious consideration, academic and otherwise.

Bloom’s theory of influence is instructive in this respect, as in The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading (and more cantankerously in The Western Canon), Bloom posits a strictly lineal progression in which authors of “genius” struggle with their precursors and produce work that reproduces and revises key elements, but in wholly original and creative ways. The cliché example is John Milton agonizing over Shakespeare’s genius, appropriating the qualities of his great villains (Richard III, Iago, Edmund), and through the alchemy of his own genius producing the Satan of Paradise Lost.

Like Jameson’s sedimentation metaphor, this model is useful but limited, and we can probably easily rattle off a dozen authors and the ways in which they were profoundly influenced by writers of genius who preceded them. It probably goes without saying, however, that Bloom’s model endorses not just the principle of literary canon, but a particular exclusivity in the “genius” club, one that tends to favour white dudes, or when it lets in women or people of colour, it’s because they imbibed the lessons of white dudes of genius (hence, Toni Morrison, in a Bloomian estimation, can credit her own genius to the influence of William Faulkner, as much as anything else).

It doesn’t take too much effort to break down Bloom’s patrilineal Descent of Literature and point out that while great (and not so great) authors have always been influenced by prior Great Writing, they have also been influenced by a host of other societal, cultural, and historical factors: James Joyce might have set himself the lofty task of forging in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, but Ulysses (which is honestly one of the funniest novels ever written, if you read it closely) is peppered with the equivalent of pop songs and contemporary trivia; his protégé Samuel Beckett incorporated vaudeville and music-hall acts into his plays; Charles Dickens was the original SJW; and Shakespeare? Don’t get me started on Shakespeare. Dude was a veritable sponge, sopping up literally everything, and was less concerned with besting Marlowe and Jonson than making a buck.

All of which reaches a certain critical mass in the second half of the twentieth century, as the media and communication revolution amplified these cultural vagaries by way of radio, television, cinema, and so forth. While there are still any number of prominent authors who wear their literary influences proudly—and sometimes defiantly—on their sleeves, and openly disdain our variegated media (Jonathan Franzen, I’m looking at you), many others enthusiastically mix and match the popular culture they grew up with into their writing. Insofar as we can establish a canon of postmodernist fiction, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow has to be on that list—a novel that, as the saying goes, “contains multitudes,” but is as influenced by classic cinema as by any literary traditions. Another canonical pomo dude is Don DeLillo, whose eminently “literary” novels have more to do with advertising and popular culture than literature.

The second text we’re doing on this course is Zone One by Colson Whitehead. Whitehead is as “literary” as a contemporary novelist comes these days, celebrated by the New Yorker set for The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, and Sag Harbor (among others)—exquisitely written novels that deal with race and blackness in America in subtle and nuanced ways. And then comes Zone One, a zombie apocalypse novel. In an interview with The Atlantic, he says that he grew up “devouring horror comics and novels, and being inspired to become a writer because of horror novels, movies, and comic books.” The advent of the VCR, he says, had a profound influence in him in this respect:

[J]unior high, for me, was the rise of all kinds of horror movies, whether it was splatter flicks like Prom Night and other Jamie Lee Curtis classics, or Dario Argento, or John Carpenter. In ’82 and ’83, that was the rise of the VCR. Every Friday, my brother and I would go to Crazy Eddie’s—which was a video store in Manhattan—and rent five horror movies. And that’s basically what we did basically for three years.

Whatever his early fictional forays, he says, “I always knew I was going to write a horror novel.”

The openness to genre fiction and genre forms has been slowly spreading through the liberal arts in the academy by way of a similar generational shift, as scholars reared on the same kind of media and popular culture as described by Whitehead—such as myself, but also like almost every single one of my colleagues in my age range—fill jobs vacated by retirees of more traditional ilk. I work in a department in which, forty years ago, “Canadian Literature” was considered an oxymoron; in my eleven years here, I have taught courses on film, television studies, fantasy and science fiction, The Lord of the Rings … and this course, which in some ways is very much the product of all the preceding ones. We’ve come a long way.

(This is what I remind myself whenever I’m feeling hard done by or irritated by work frustrations. I really do have the best job).

 

New Kids on the Block

All of which is a long and circuitous way of coming around to this post’s main point, which is to explicate what I mean by my title: the “gentrification of genre.” It’s an expression I use advisedly, in all of its freighted connotations. Several years ago I wrote a short piece about The Walking Dead and the irony that the zombie genre, so long relegated to the B-movie ghetto, had emerged into mainstream recognition by way of a medium, television, that had for the better part of its existence been the embodiment of lowbrow culture. I titled the piece “Zombie Gentrification,” without much thought to the term’s broader implications. In the time leading up to this course, I have found myself circling back around the word, thinking through the ways in which it is appropriate to my approaches to the course material.

On one hand, the term implies or entails rejuvenation—the “fixing up” of heretofore marginalized properties, imbuing them with “quality” and making them attractive to more upscale audiences. On the other hand, gentrification also tends to entail erasure—erasure of that which had given certain properties a unique or idiosyncratic character, chasing out those who had inhabited them and alienating those who had loved the properties not in spite of but for their decrepit glories.

(I should add as a caveat the limitations of this metaphor. The “neighbourhoods” of genre and fan culture are virtual, imaginary spaces, and never actually go away: whatever the contemporary landscape of, say, zombie apocalypse stories looks like, the widespread appeal of something like The Walking Dead does not erase the schlocky glory days of B-movie zombie films in the same way the influx of Silicon Valley capital has overwritten entire communities in San Francisco.)

The mainstreaming of genre has tended to entail this sort of “upscaling.” There was an ad in The New Yorker in its December 2007 issue, heralding the fifth and final season of The Wire, which was basically a Q&A with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner. In it, Kushner gushes over how much he loves The Wire, and how the series is “a great work of art.” Whenever I’ve taught television studies, I’ve started by showing students this ad: it is such a perfect example of HBO going out of its way to give highbrow audiences leave to unapologetically watch television. The creator of Angels in America thinks The Wire is great art? Sign me up!

kushner-wire-ad

The Wire, of course, was just one among many of the new crop of television series that brought the “prestige” to prestige television: The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black—many shows of which, not incidentally, reinvented generic conventions. But while television entered its renaissance, genre was having a heyday in other media: the Marvel comics universe vaulting to cinematic blockbusters, the already-mentioned mainstreaming of the living dead, and of course the academic attention being paid to everything from comic books to the oeuvre of Joss Whedon.

Genre has become big business, with more money at stake than ever before, but this gentrification has had a not dissimilar effect to that of urban areas—that is to say, the previous inhabitants are not always keen on the newcomers, and question the authenticity of their fandom. This tendency has been most glaringly on display over the past few years with the Hugo awards. I posted a little over a year ago about the efforts of a group calling themselves the Sad Puppies to “reclaim” the Hugo Awards—which are awarded based on popular votes rather than the decisions of a committee of experts or luminaries—from what they perceived as the encroachments of “literary” and politically correct authors, whom they charge with the slow murder of “old-fashioned” SF/F. The Hugos are ground zero for them specifically because they are given based on the voices of fans, members of Worldcon who nominate and then vote. Given that the Hugos were established to give voice to populist tastes rather than literary pretensions, they should reflect that and privilege unreconstructed space opera, adventuresome fantasy, gritty space marines, and the like. Puppy co-founder Brad Torgersen offers a eulogy for the days when you could still judge a books by its cover:

A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.

Given that I’ve already offered a lengthy and pointed critique of Torgersen’s argument, I won’t rehash it here other than to reiterate a point I made a year ago: whatever else the Sad Puppies, Rabid Puppies, and #Gamergate types claim—whether they’re ostensibly worried about listening to the voices of populism or concerned about ethics in gaming journalism—there is a definitive whiff of resentment at girls entering the treehouse and new kids moving into a neighbourhood that used to be exclusively theirs.

The opening up of genre and the mainstreaming of what used to be fan enclaves is, to my mind, a net positive: it facilitates a lot of creativity and inventiveness, producing many of the sort of texts that are on my course reading list. It also offers a great opportunity to further crack open the carapace of our “literary” designations and think around the ways in which genre itself becomes not just a signifier but a vessel of critique.

But in the process, the neighbourhood’s gonna look a lot different than it used to.

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