Category Archives: teaching

A Blog Post In Lieu of Other Blog Posts That Should Have Been

Revenge of the Genres

junot_wao_coverThe past two weeks have been an unforgivable lapse on my part, particularly so because I neglected to post on the text that was the original inspiration for this course: Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. That I didn’t manage to get anything up on this beautiful novel—which I count as one of the best of the past twenty years—is rather embarrassing. It wasn’t for lack of anything to say: I have copious notes on magical realism, the way in which the novel uses genre(s) to allegorize intersectional identities, and finally I had planned a post about allusion, in which I would have talked about Oscar Wao and Stranger Things.

Alas. A stultifying combination of busyness and post-election rage has made writing anything more than angry notes in my journal rather difficult. It’s that time of the term, when finishing one stack of grading only clears the desk to provide a clear view of the next stack of grading. It doesn’t help that I have a cat for whom stacks of paper are apparently a more attractive bed than, y’know, her bed:

catesby-grading

When I set myself the task of regularly blogging about this course’s texts, I knew there was a fair-to-likely chance I’d fall down on the job at some point, or that this experiment would simply peter out well before the end of the term. I’m actually halfway impressed that I’ve posted as regularly as I have.

I do want to continue with this, however, even after the class ends in two weeks time. I’ve enjoyed this process too much, and have too much in the hopper that hasn’t made it to the page to simply end these posts with the course. The class itself has been a great experience: my students are amazing, and have been quite tolerant of my lengthy digressions and extemporaneous musings. As sometimes happens with this kind of class, I feel as though I’m only now getting a handle on the scope of the topic … so I will definitely be continuing to use this blog as a space in which to think out loud, and hopefully produce some raw material for some scholarly articles.

It helps than next term I’ll be teaching our second-year course on SF/F. Twelve weeks to do science fiction AND fantasy? Yeah, the reading list is pushing the envelope a little:

H.P. Lovecraft, selected stories
China Miéville, selected stories
Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers
John Scalzi, Old Man’s War
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
John Wyndham, Day of the Triffids
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I’m thinking I will continue this blog experiment with this class—there will be, after all, more than a little overlap in subject matter.

engl2811

So … apologies for the missing Oscar Wao posts, which I still intend to write; a little bit like closing the barn door as far as my class is concerned, but I’d hate for the stuff in my head to go to waste. In the meantime, look for some posts on Hamilton to go up soon.

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Fun Home, Part Two

Hello everyone, and welcome back for the second part of my conversation with my friend and colleague Andrew Loman, whose knowledge of comics and graphic novels (as both this post and the last one amply demonstrate) is considerably greater than my own. Last time we talked comics more generally; this time we get into the weeds with Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

Revenge of the Genres

Christopher: Perhaps we can start with something I teased in my introductory Fun Home post: Bechdel introduces her story by specifically citing James Joyce’s autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is just the first of many allusions she makes to canonical literary works in whose mold she specifically crafts her own memoir. Proust also makes a number of appearances as a model. But in some ways, Bechdel is far from alone in creating a graphic memoir—MAUS falls into the same realm, as do Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and a number of other texts (arguably, Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half qualifies, and our own Kate Beaton is currently at work on the story of her time working in the Alberta tar sands). And then you have the work of people like Joe Sacco, who produces historical-journalistic accounts like Palestine. To my inexperienced eye, it seems that graphic narrative has a decided inclination toward autobiography or otherwise documentary formats. Am I just imagining this? And if not, why do you think the graphic narrative has proved so amenable to this kind of storytelling?

 

Andrew: You’re not just imagining this: graphic memoir is a popular genre, both in America and in France (Satrapi’s Persepolis and David B.’s Epileptic being the best-known French contributions, both published by the great publisher L’Association). Depending on how flexible you are with your genre classifications, you might even say that graphic memoir antedates the superhero: in 1931, seven years before Clark Kent first took his pants off and jumped out his window, Henry Yoshitaka Kimanga self-published a book called The Four Immigrants Manga. It dramatizes his life and the lives of fellow Japanese immigrants in early twentieth-century San Francisco. It’s a fascinating book and it suggests that for whatever reason, comics have been a congenial medium for life-writing for longer than even many of its own practitioners know.

spiegelman-hellplanet

But most graphic memoir is of far more recent vintage, emerging as a distinct field of comics in the 1970s. That’s when Spiegelman wrote Prisoner on the Hell Planet – the harrowing account of his mother’s death that he later incorporated into MAUS. Spiegelman has said that he was emboldened to write something so painful and honest upon reading Justin Green’s Binky Brown and the Holy Virgin Mary, which is – how do you summarize Binky Brown? – which is about the psychic travails of a young ardently Catholic boy of a visionary bent. In the first pages, when he’s a small boy, he hears blades of grass talking to him; at the height of the book, he’s hallucinating that a magic ray is emanating from his penis and hitting all the statues of the Virgin Mary in its path. The memoir is alarming and blasphemous and tragic and funny and a bit of a beautiful mess: where Fun Home is tautly constructed and formally elegant, Binky Brown is raw and shambolic. But it had a profound influence on graphic memoir, if only because without Binky Brown, there’d be no MAUS.

As to why the genre of memoir has had such success in comic – who knows? Champions of the form will surely make the argument that there’s something peculiar to the combination of images and words that makes comics an especially suitable form for life-writing. (Here, for example, is Hillary Chute, an eminent American comics critic: “The stories to which women’s graphic narrative is today dedicated are often traumatic: the cross-discursive form of comics is apt for expressing that difficult register….”) I’m allergic to that class of argument, which always sounds to me less like an attempt to explore the quiddity of the form and more like special pleading by comics devotees, but to give the claim its due, there is something about a drawn image that immediately emphasizes the idiosyncrasy of the artist and hence the life. I can’t think of many graphic memoirs where the images are in the vein of old Classics Illustrated comics – inert and bereft of style. (Now, of course, I’m imagining a parodic graphic memoir in exactly that lifeless non-style, an account of a conventional white middle-class American life in mid-century Muncie. R. Sikoryak should write it.)

But as I say, I’m skeptical about that argument. A more convincing one would begin with the economics of writing comics. Relative to other mass media, comics are cheap to make. And that inexpensiveness is of course liberating: it permits artists to explore far more idiosyncratic material. I love Hollywood, but even small-budget films are too expensive to risk exploring the kind of subjects that are common currency in graphic memoir – not if the filmmakers are aiming for the multiplex, at least. Debbie Drechsler’s Daddy’s Girl is a harrowing memoir of child abuse that no one would ever greenlight. It’s conceivable that some Bowdlerized, banalized version of Fun Home will make it to the screen someday, but that will only be possible because the book and the musical have been such successes. Think of the other literary form with a significant confessional tradition: poetry.

But above all, life-writing is a dominant genre in comics because life-writing in the book industry as a whole is a dominant genre. James Frey disguised his work as a memoir because no one was interested in it as a novel. I remember reading an essay in Bookforum by the curmudgeonly Walter Benn Michaels after the 2008 collapse. He was full of hope that the crisis in capitalism would lead to a crisis in the memoir industry: he saw a link between memoir and individualism, and hoped for a reorientation towards less narcissistic literary forms. No such turn is on the horizon, but don’t feel bad for Michaels: he enjoys his splenomegaly. And I think he’s right in drawing the connection. On the first page of Binky Brown, Justin Green makes this combative confession to his readers:

I officially left Catholicism on Halloween, 1968. … I daresay many of you aspiring revolutionaries will conclude that instead of focusing on topics which would lend themselves to social issues, I have zeroed in on the petty conflict in my crotch! My justification for undertaking this task is that many others are slaves to their neuroses. Maybe if they read about one neurotic’s dilemma in easy-to-understand comic-book format these tormented folks will no longer see themselves as mere food-tubes living in isolation. If all we neurotics were tied together we would entwine the globe many times over in a vast chain of common sufferingPlease don’t think I’m an asshole, Amen.

binky

Christopher: “Narcissistic literary forms.” I like that, if for no other reason than that I wonder if there’s any act of literary (or artistic) creation that doesn’t require at least a small measure of narcissism, enough self-regard to assume that one’s voice is worth hearing.

Michaels does get my hackles up a little, however, because however much hubristic self-regard we might read into Joyce or Proust, or for that matter someone like Norman Mailer or Karl Ove Knausgård, the flip side of that memoiristic coin are those people articulating experiences from the margins: the long history of slave narratives from Fredrick Douglass to Harriet Jacobs, for example, accounts that deploy the tacitly ascribed truth-value of confession and revelation in the service of communicating the realities of lives otherwise invisible or ignored.

While I wouldn’t necessarily situate Fun Home in a comparable tradition (though as a queer woman, she does write from a culturally marginal position), Bechdel is very canny in the way she situates her memoir in a canonical context with her allusions to Joyce and Proust, but also ironizes her relationship to such texts. One minor detail I’ve found interesting about her illustrations is the way she replicates text on the page: at various points, we see images of passages from a variety of books, from dictionary entries to the novels she or her father read, rendered carefully but not exactly—she does not simply paste in photographic or photocopied reproductions, but scrupulously draws the fonts and formatting (and does the same with handwritten notes and letters).

proust-lilacs

Again, perhaps this is a minor point, but it seems to me an interesting choice: in conventional documentary forms and memoirs, archival photographs and texts perform a significant semantic role, providing a touchstone to something “authentic” or “real” (and while sparing in his use of such elements, Spiegelman does use them in MAUS). Bechdel’s mimetic reproduction of text self-reflexively references her chosen medium of graphic narrative: drawing Proust’s words gives them a visual tactility we rarely ascribe to printed text. The intrusion of such text as image rather than narration turns it into a visual object, which then in turn highlights the medium in which Bechdel works, which is itself a repudiation of the written word as the apogee of narrative art.

What do you think? Am I completely off base here?

 

Andrew: You’re so far off-base you may be Paul Ryan.

No, you’re not: you’re squarely astride the base.

Let me say first, apropos of MAUS, that the three photographs Spiegelman uses are themselves complicated in all sorts of interesting ways. I think it may be the critic Thomas Docherty who first noted the ironies of the third photo in the book, a portrait of Vladek Spiegelman in camp uniform. One might assume that it was taken while he was an internee in Auschwitz. In fact, it was taken after he had left the camp, in a “photo place,” as he calls it, which had a uniform that people could pose in for souvenir pictures. It’s a photo that might well mislead those naïfs who still imagine that photos point to authenticity and the real, but instead calls attention to its implication in an emergent (and bizarre) culture of remembrance.

In Fun Home, the mediation is a striking feature, and it’s more thoroughgoing than you may realize. Bechdel’s method is to take photographs of herself for every human figure she draws: it’s a way, she argues, of capturing the idiosyncrasies of gesture with a subtlety and specificity that she couldn’t achieve if she were relying only on her imagination. In other words, the mediation you’re noting in her drawings of Proust’s words and elsewhere extends to the whole book, which is altogether a strange palimpsest.

I might, however, quibble with your assertion that Fun Home offers a “repudiation of the written word as the apogee of narrative art.” I’m not sure who would still accept that notion of the written word: surely it’s been tottering at least since the moment that movies turned from a cinema of varieties into a predominantly narrative form, if it ever had much solidity outside the circles of its champions. It doesn’t seem to me to be a battle that Bechdel needs to fight, nor do I see much sign that she feels such a need. If she’s engaged in any kind of struggle or negotiation through her emphasis on the iconicity of the printed word, I think it might be with her father Bruce, who taught English literature when he wasn’t running the family funeral home and whom she identifies, at various moments, with Camus, Fitzgerald, and Proust. She’s crafting a Kunstfigur of this man, who is so strongly identified in her memory with the written word, and maybe that informs her process of graphic mediation. But evidently “repudiation” isn’t the right word to describe her relationship with her father. In a two-page comics essay she published in Granta, Bechdel discusses the photo of her father that she used as the basis for the title page of Chapter One. She struggled, she says, “with the technical challenge of rendering the tonality and blurry motion [of the photo] using only line,” before admitting that “my drawing is as crude a schema of the color photo as perhaps the photo is of the raw, unspooling life it purports to capture.” Perhaps the point of her mediation is to insist on the inevitable crudeness of her schemas – the clumsiness of even this miraculously subtle work to capture the quiddity of her dad’s life.

fun-home-photo

Christopher: Granted, “repudiation” is probably too strong a word for what’s going on—say instead that it troubles or critiques a canonical understanding. I realize it’s perhaps a little disingenuous to discount authorial intent with a memoir—what genre is more about authorial intent?—but I also think it’s valid to see the ways in which a text offers a critique independent of the idiosyncratic and personal dimension informing its production. If this were a fictional narrative, it would be a pretty straight line between her father’s forbidding, aloof, and indeed authoritarian tendencies, and his symbolic connection to these texts that have played a comparable role in the normative discourses of literary study. That Fun Home is a memoir doesn’t necessarily change that fact: I think your reading of Bechdel’s agon with her father as the site and source of her graphic mediation is pretty spot on, but I also don’t think that discounts or obviates a broader reading in which we can see this work as a representative point of resistance to the canonical tradition … whether or not the written word still holds the same status I seemed to be claiming for it.

On that point, I should note that when I brought this up in class last week, I was surprised to find that the balance of my students could not tell me what “the canon” was. As I told them, I didn’t know whether to be dispirited or heartened—dispirited because they’d progressed to the fourth year of their English degrees without having gleaned an understanding of what, for decades, constituted the core of literary study in English; or heartened because it signalled that we’re now past the pro- and anti- canon arguments that pervaded literary study for so long. On reflection, I’ve decided that I’m heartened: whatever other problems bedevil academe in general and the liberal arts in particular these days, I like where we’ve arrived, where we’re (starting to) question long-held assumptions about what makes a given text worthy of scholarly and pedagogical attention.

After you take apart my argument above, I’m curious as to your thoughts on the way Bechdel spatializes the narrative. I may not know much about comics on the theoretical front, but even I can see that comics art is about compartmentalizing: literally framing each image in sequence, except for when we get more elaborate double-page spills and the like. The titular “fun home” of course references the funeral home Bruce Bechdel operates, but it’s hard not to see the title also as an ironic reference to the gloomy, gothic house in which much of the story unfolds, a structure (like all the literary allusions) indelibly associated with him. Again, this is an element Alison Bechdel draws from her life, but which here functions symbolically—the compartmentalization of the lives within the home, which also connotes the metaphor of the “closet”—as well as allusively, bringing to mind the long tradition of novels, from nineteenth-century Irish fiction, to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, to Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, in which the old and often crumbling manor house is itself a character in the story.

I don’t have a question here, I’m just curious to hear your thoughts.

funhome-brothers

Andrew: A discussion about the literary canon isn’t quite the same as one about the written word as the apogee of narrative art, though, is it? Those are different topics, despite having points where they overlap. The kinds of judgement that a would-be canon-builder has to make are different from those of a given narrative form’s champions. The aspiring canon-builder says: “Within this range of forms that we admit as literature, these are the best works.” The champion of the written word says: “This narrative form is superior to that one – and all those others, too.” I took you to be saying that Fun Home attacks the second creature, which I think is such a demoralized and thoroughly confuted shadow of a thing that Bechdel would hardly need to bother with it.

But let me talk about Fun Home as a “point of resistance to the canonical tradition.” It is and it isn’t, which I’ll start to argue by focusing on a related tradition that Bechdel portrays in Fun Home – literary interpretation. When I first read those parts of the work that are set in college, and specifically those portraits of male professors holding forth about interpretation, I felt modestly uncomfortable. Bechdel’s satire on the Jungian literary critic and his genital reading of Heart of Darkness is devastatingly funny, but it cuts to the quick, since I’ve elaborated my fair share of harebrained interpretations to bemused students: “You think the Headless Horseman is Irving’s figure for a man without capital? Isn’t that just a bad pun?” But even as she makes quick work of these dopes, she makes interpretation a key part of her book. What is Fun Home, after all, but an interpretive project, an attempt to solve the mystery of her father’s life and death, using the texts of her own memories and the family archive? It’s a work of interpretation, in other words, that also happens to satirize interpretation. I think it has a similar ambivalence about literature. There’s no question that there’s a connection between her father and the canonic works that he loves and that he teaches, often bullyingly, to his bored and captive students. But at the same time, there are very few comics that are as literary as Fun Home. As you note, the book is crafting itself in the mold of all the literary “classics” it cites. I’ve just distributed the topics for the final essay in my comics course, and one of my questions invites students to pick just one of the references to other books in Fun Home and explore how the cited book works intertextually to illuminate or enrich Fun Home itself. If you find an instance where Helen Bechdel is reading the part of Mommy in Albee’s The American Dream (and you will), then consider how that play’s meditations on national fantasy intersect with similar meditations in Bechdel’s memoir. It’s a perverse essay topic in that by design it invites students to distort the text, a single allusion among hundreds becoming, at least in that thought piece, the key to the memoir. But it’s making a point that I hope won’t be lost on my students, which is that Fun Home is richly implicated – in the sense of being entwined or entangled – in literature. Again, that’s part and parcel of its treatment of her literary father. You’re right to note that he’s forbidding and aloof and has authoritarian tendencies. He’s a terrible husband and often a terrible father. But he’s also intelligent, stylish, seductive, and dryly funny; and he’s vulnerable, and tormented, and desperate; he’s an artist but also an abuser of young men; “in short a complex personality, an enigma, a contradictory spokesman for the truth, an obsessive litigant and yet an essentially private person who wished his total indifference to public notice to be universally recognized – in short a liar and a hypocrite, a tight-fisted, sponging, fornicating drunk not worth the paper, that’s that bit done.” (It wouldn’t be a real conversation between us without someone quoting Stoppard’s Travesties.) Insofar as Bruce stands for the Canonical Tradition, the complex relationship that Alison has with him extends to literature itself. To read the attitude towards Modernist literature as resistance alone doesn’t do the complexities of that attitude justice.

Two last notes on this front. First, the authors identified with Bruce Bechdel are all men. When Alison, in college, starts exploring a Lesbian intellectual tradition, she almost immediately borrows Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness from the library, and we later see, among the books strewn on the bed that she shares with Joan, Adrienne Rich’s Dreams of a Common Language. Even if I don’t agree that the memoir is antagonistic to literary tradition, it’s certainly interrogating that tradition, or inviting us to understand it as a particular, contingent body of works, or to think in terms of literary traditions in the plural. Secondly, as the critic Michael Moon noted in one of the early works of Fun Home scholarship, many of those male authors that Bechdel quotes in Fun Home were gay. Proust is Moon’s key example, but I mentioned Albee, above, and Helen acts in a performance of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, and Henry James figures in a sly literary allusion, too (the short piece in Granta offers a more thoroughgoing reading of the Bechdels alongside James). I mention Moon’s insight to emphasize, first, how judicious Bechdel is in her choice of allusion and secondly, to destabilize once again the notion of a literary tradition as an uncomplicatedly “normative discourse.”

But to carry on. You’re of course right to understand the home of the memoir’s title not only in relation to the Bechdel Funeral Home but also the Gothic revival house that Bruce restores so carefully. It’s in a long line of crumbling manors in American literature, from the House of Usher and the House of the Seven Gables to the Bates Motel – and a cousin, of course, to the crumbling manor houses of other Gothic traditions. In keeping with the allusions to Icarus and Daedalus that pervade the memoir, the labyrinth is a key figure, too: Bechdel writes that “[her father’s] shame inhabited our house as pervasively and invisibly as the aromatic musk of aging mahogany. In fact, the meticulous, period interiors were expressly designed to conceal it. Mirrors, distracting bronzes, multiple doorways. Visitors often got lost upstairs.” And lurking somewhere inside, the minotaur who is also the labyrinth’s inventor. The home is, as you suggest, a metaphor for the closet.

As to how Bechdel spatializes the narrative: the page you include above is a great example of how she finds apt visual metaphors for a given moment in her narrative. The isolation of the Bechdels within their respective bubbles is itself a canny way to figure their absorption in separate pursuits. But placing the viewer outside the house, privileged with a kind of X-Ray vision that nevertheless only reveals the Bechdels’ silhouettes, is another means of emphasizing alienation, in this case of the reader from the five obsessives inside the fun home. That flirtation with the voyeur (if that’s the right way to put it) suggests to me a representational tradition I’m familiar with as a student of early American urban literature. It’s a tradition that’s embodied in what the historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz calls “the fascinating character of Asmodeus, a fictional devil with origins in the Apocrypha, who had been refashioned in the nineteenth century as a devil-dandy who could reveal urban secrets by taking off roofs of houses to reveal the vices of those dwelling within.” The appetite to see these domestic secrets is itself a function of what Franco Moretti has characterized as the “great novelty of urban life, [which] does not consist in having thrown the people into the street, but in having raked them up and shut them into offices and homes.” And into small-town fun homes, too.

But I prefer another example of Bechdel’s use of the comics page – one with some affinities to this one. Bechdel divides the last page of the third chapter into two panels roughly equal in size. The first of these shows Alison and Bruce in profile, sitting alongside one another in Bruce’s library. The two of them are companionably silent, Bruce reading a book about Zelda Fitzgerald and Alison sitting at his desk writing a check that he’s promised to sign. In the caption, the narrator Bechdel is imagining that her father killed himself in “deranged tribute” to Fitzgerald, who was, like Bruce, 44 when he died. But, she reflects, if that were true, then it would mean that his death had nothing to do with her. “And I’m reluctant,” she says, “to let go of that last, tenuous bond.” The second panel, the last one of the chapter, shows them still sitting alongside one another, still in the library, each of them at ease. But now we the viewers are outside, looking in through two windows; Alison is visible through one window, and Bruce is visible through the other. The curtains are a funereal black, and even though the static medium of the comics page means that they’re frozen in place, their appearance at the end of the chapter suggests a closing, after the fashion of a stage play. Alison and Bruce are still in the room together, but the new perspective on them now emphasizes the tenuousness of their bond. The first of the two panels immerses us in Bechdel’s memory of domestic happiness; the second reluctantly retreats from that memory. It’s a beautifully subtle dramatization of mourning that Bechdel articulates primarily through the image.

funhome-library

Christopher: As much as I would love to keep going with this, I’m overdue for posting it, so that will have to be the last word … which is only appropriate, given that it is an eloquent and incisive final word, and far subtler than my own evolving understanding of Fun Home. Thank you so much for your time and thoughts, Andrew. Perhaps we’ll have to do this again when we talk Hamilton in a little more than two weeks.

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Fun Home Part One: Just a Little Introduction

I’m starting to feel this blogging for this course getting a little away from me, at least based on the queue of entries I meant to write (and still mean to write) versus where we are in the course. Not unpredictable, considering the busyness of this term, but I’m going to try and get back on top of things. I have a second post on Station Eleven, looking at how it treats the theme of nostalgia, in the hopper; I’m still working on a final Zone One post, now very overdue; to say nothing of the one or two contextualizing posts I’d meant to put up at the start of the term.

Hopefully, all that will come. But at the present moment, it’s time to move on to our next text, Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home. For reasons that will become apparent when I put up my second (already-written) post, this one will be brief.

Revenge of the Genres

FunHomeWhy Fun Home?

When I started sketching this course out in my mind, I knew I’d want to do at least one unit involving comics and/or graphic narrative, not least because in the last decade or so, it is a form that has emerged from the margins of literary study to be taken seriously academically, as well as making inroads into mainstream reading from its previous enclaves of nerd and bohemian ghettoes. Comics, and its more respectable cousin graphic novels, tend to doubly be genre: genre in terms of form as visual story, and genre in terms of the stories they tend to tell, most notably mask-and-cape superhero sagas.

My problem going into choosing a representative text was that this is an area I am manifestly unfamiliar with—I have never been a reader of either comics or graphic novels. I’ve read some of the usual suspects: Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and as mentioned previously, I have read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series in its entirety. All of these were worthy candidates; I also strongly considered, sight unseen, the current run of Marvel’s Black Panther, authored by the brilliant African-American essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates.

While mulling all this over, I also considered Fun Home—which, though I had not yet read it, was a necessary candidate simply by dint of reputation. With a few days left before I had to make my book orders, I purchased a copy, bought a coffee at the bookstore’s Starbucks, and sat down to read.

By page six, I had made up my mind—Fun Home it was.

Why? Well, even sight unseen, it was a strong contender: not just because people whose opinions I respect rave about it, but also because I wanted to have an eye to gender and racial representation in the course readings, and in the mental game of Tetris that is the fitting together of representative texts on a course, I was keenly aware that I was lacking where women were concerned. (And even including Bechdel, I didn’t do great—2/6 for the course).

But more importantly, the story opens with an extended allusion to Icarus and Dedaelus by way of Bechdel depicting her young self playing a game of “airplane” with her otherwise unaffectionate father. fun-home-icarus-01

fun-home-icarus-02The opening chapter is titled “Old Father, Old Artificer,” an allusion to the final line of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” Out of the gate, Bechdel at once identifies her graphic memoir with an august canon, and ironically signals this identification as transgression. It is a beautifully audacious beginning that reflects back upon the traditional strictures of literary canon, highlighting the fact that not only is this memoir a comic book, it is also written by a queer woman.

funhome-stage

There will be a lot more to talk about in future posts. Stay tuned for my special guest.

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Station Eleven, Part One: “Because Survival is Insufficient”

Sooooo, a bit of a lag there between posts. Apologies, especially to my students—the term is getting really busy between grading and the fact that the vast majority of administrative stuff we want to get done in terms of new courses and calendar changes has to happen before the middle of this week … so I’ve been a bit distracted.

Which means that I’m putting up my first Station Eleven post after we’ve already started the novel in class. Also, I’m not done talking about Zone One—I’ve been pecking away at a final post comparing Whitehead’s novel to Max Brooks’ World War Z, and the instructive contrasts between them. I was going to get that up soon after this one, but I think it will probably be a better idea to get my second Station Eleven post up first. As Liz Lemon would say: blerg.

But without further ado …

Revenge of the Genres

StationElevenWhy Station Eleven?

Neil Gaiman is a genre writer with literary acclaim, and Colson Whitehead is a literary novelist who wrote a genre novel, and both work nicely as examples of how we might trouble our preconceptions of the categories of both literature and genre (and “literature” as a genre). Station Eleven does something different, however—for that matter, it does a bunch of things differently. The novel is vaguely generic, insofar as it follows in the mold of Stephen King’s The Stand, in which the vast majority of human beings are killed off by a particularly virulent strain of influenza. Mercifully, the dead in this case stay dead. But the apocalypse itself, while obviously functioning as a crucial narrative fulcrum, ultimately proves to be a MacGuffin: while in many such narratives the site and source of the mass deaths is crucial to the story and allegorizes some fear or anxiety (natural disaster, alien invasion, weaponized biological agent, zombies), the “Georgian Flu” of Station Eleven is an ancillary detail. It could just as well have been any other means of mass extinction for all the attention it gets paid. Those of us who obsess over nerdy detail will be frustrated: was it a natural mutation of the flu, or was it weaponized? Are the survivors immune, or did they just manage to stay clear of infection? If it’s the latter, isn’t there the danger of the virus returning to finish the job?

Mandel is not concerned with such details: the central theme of the novel is not the mass extinction of most of humanity, but rather the ways in which people adapt and change, and what remains important in the aftermath. Much of the post-flu story follows a traveling band of actors and musicians called The Traveling Symphony, who trek from settlement to settlement and perform music and plays. Their main dramatic stock in trade is Shakespeare: “They’d performed more modern plays in the first few years,” we’re told, “but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.” One of the members of the troupe explains this preference, suggesting that “people want what was best about the world,” a theme that Mandel develops in more complex ways over the course of the novel.

I must reluctantly admit that this line makes me think of that terrible Christian Bale / Matthew McConaughey movie Reign of Fire, a post-apocalyptic story in which the purveyors of the apocalypse are dragons accidentally released from internment underground. And no, Station Eleven doesn’t make me think of that premise, but a moment early in the film when Christian Bale’s character stages a crude theatrical version of Star Wars for the benefit of the children in the fortified enclave he presides over. His audience is enthralled. Though everything else about the film is more or less execrable, and this particular scene is played for laughs, it did make me wonder: what stories will persist in the event of a cataclysm few people survive? What elements of pre-apocalyptic culture will cling to humanity as a basis for future stories, legends, and mythologies?

The idea that Star Wars might be repeated in non-cinematic form is not exactly beyond the pale, considering its own self-conscious basis in myth and romance (George Lucas, besides stealing much of the plot from Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 samurai film The Hidden Fortress, also wrote his screenplay with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces at his elbow); it’s not unlikely that stories that don’t speak to specific historical moments would be more appealing than those requiring knowledge of historical or cultural contexts. Shakespeare’s plays have endured not just because of their poetry, but because they have proved endlessly adaptable, as anyone who has seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in 19th-century Italy, or a Richard III set in post-WWI England.

I have to say, as a lover of Shakespeare and someone who has directed a couple of his plays and acted in a few more, Mandel’s vision is comforting. The idea that people would revert (if that is the right verb) to the classics comprises a generous perspective on humanity, and a seductive one at that: who among us who feels guilty whenever we binge on Netflix rather than picking up a new novel, or when that novel we pick up isn’t something “literary,” hasn’t blamed (at least in part) the busyness of life and its myriad distractions? Sure, we’d get around to reading Ulysses or War and Peace, or reacquainting ourselves with Shakespeare, but who has the mental energy at the end of the day? By the same token, do we not blame social media and the internet for the fact that our younger generations lack the literacy and attention span for such great works?

(Not for nothing, but right now I’m lamenting the fact that I didn’t get my third zombie post written in time, as it deals in part with such tedium and mundanities of daily life).

As extrapolative SF, Station Eleven’s suggestion that we would find solace in Shakespeare is, at the least, a wee bit problematic—there is an element there of wishful thinking, but that might also be because we’re more accustomed to more cynical post-apocalyptic stories in which music and literature are the least of the survivors’ concerns, except as rare wistful moments of nostalgia when someone sings a sad song around the campfire moments before the zombies attack. But Station Eleven makes “culture” in this capacity its primary concern: the lead vehicle in the Traveling Symphony’s caravan (made up of pickup trucks “pulled by teams of horses on wheels of steel and wood”) bears the defiant motto “Because survival is insufficient”—a utopian declaration that being human means more than just getting by, it requires spiritual and intellectual nourishment as well. This, as we learn, underlies the Traveling Symphony’s mandate.

To return to the question of “why Station Eleven?”: if your nerd alarm is clanging, that’s likely because the assertion that “survival is insufficient” is a direct allusion to Star Trek: Voyager, a fact the novel acknowledges unabashedly. The line is spoken by former Borg Seven of Nine, expressing her realization that, as she re-learns how to be human, her need for an imaginative life is as necessary as the basic necessities of life.

There are a few points worth teasing out here, not the least of which is the way in which Mandel performs a cute little bit of prestidigitation, holding up Shakespeare as a cipher for enduring culture while sneaking in Star Trek and comic books. The novel’s title refers to a pair of comic books in the possession of one of the characters, from a series called Dr. Eleven:

Dr. Eleven is a physicist. He lives on a space station, but it’s a highly advanced space station that was designed to resemble a small planet. There are deep blue seas and rocky islands linked by bridges, orange and crimson skies with two moons on the horizon … Kirsten’s taken care of the comics as best she can but they’re dog-eared now, worn soft at the edges. The first issue falls open to a two-page spread. Dr. Eleven stands on dark rocks overlooking an indigo sea at twilight. Small boats move between islands, wind turbines spinning on the horizon. He holds his fedora in his hand. A small white animal stands by his side. (Several of the older Symphony members have confirmed that this animal is a dog, but it isn’t like any dog Kirsten’s ever seen. Its name is Luli. It looks like a cross between a fox and a cloud.) A line of text across the bottom of the frame: I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.

One of the great pleasures of Station Eleven is the way Mandel deftly weaves the stories of a disparate but substantial ensemble of characters together, moving forward and backward in time as we go such that we gradually see how each of the characters are narratively connected. The Dr. Eleven comics function both as a thematic bit of connective tissue, but also as a concrete object anchoring the post-apocalyptic lives of the survivors (Kirsten especially) in memories of the perished world.

The comics also function metafictionally: Dr. Eleven’s story is one of flight and exile from an earth conquered and enslaved by hostile aliens, dystopic SF functioning as a central motif in a novel about a post-apocalyptic world, a novel that itself resists easy generic classification. Though Station Eleven received the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Emily St. John Mandel demurs from the label of science fiction, in part because she does not want to disappoint people who pick it up expecting doctrinaire SF and finding that, aside from the near-extinction of humanity, there is a dearth of anything else resembling SF tropes.

Mandel’s previous three novels were also written, in her words, as “literary fiction,” but as she says, “I was surprised to discover that if you write literary fiction with a crime in it, it turns out you’ve written a crime novel.” Perhaps ironically, part of the reason she shifted gears with Station Eleven was because she did not want to get pigeonholed as a writer of crime thrillers.

I don’t doubt that Mandel is sincere when she professes bemusement over people’s characterization of Station Eleven as SF; dystopias and visions of apocalypse have increasingly become a staple amongst such “literary” novelists as Cormac McCarthy (The Road), Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go), and Margaret Atwood (pretty much everything she’s written in the past decade or so), and even when an author like Atwood enthusiastically embraces the science-fiction classification, booksellers seem reluctant to shelve their novels alongside Isaac Asimov—and indeed, you won’t find Station Eleven there either. But for our purposes, Station Eleven is an instructive text less for the question of how it is classified than for its juxtaposition of “high” culture and “low” in its thought experiment on what art will sustain us.

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Zone One Part Two: The Corporate Apocalypse

Sorry, this one is a day late and half a loaf—I’d intended to write a post comparing elements of Zone One with Max Brooks’ World War Z, but as so often happens, the post grew in the writing … and so in the interests of getting this up sooner rather than later, I’m postponing the second part dealing with Brooks until mid-week.

Revenge of the Genres

zone-one-paperbackAs I quoted Charlie Jane Anders saying in her review of Zone One, Colson Whitehead goes out of his way to subvert generic expectations: not the structural, large-scale expectations of a given generic form, but the small-scale satisfactions and symbolic resolutions that that form tends to offer. Which is to say: Zone One provides the expected and by now rote depictions of post-apocalyptic survivalism, including interludes of relative safety in secure locations, followed by the inevitable collapse of that security as the dead overwhelm the barricades. We meet a veritable checklist of ordinary folk turned accomplished zombie killers, religious fanatics, madmen, would-be warlords, opportunists and thieves, families desperate to stay together in the face of disaster.

But all this typical survivalist fodder takes place in the novel’s past. In the present of the novel, civilization is in the middle of staging a comeback: there are secure camps and a functioning U.S. government (relocated to Buffalo), a well-equipped military, and that symbol of American wealth, commerce, and culture—Manhattan—is in the process of bring reclaimed. This reclamation, indeed, is the focus of the novel’s present moment, three days in which protagonist Mark Spitz and his squad of “sweepers” perform tedious building-by-building grid searches, dispatching what few undead were missed in the marines’ epic initial assault.

The usual zombie movie fare of waking up to an infected world in which one must scrounge and learn martial skills to survive thus unfolds in Zone One as a series of flashbacks—flashbacks that surface capriciously into the narrative, sometimes mid-sentence, in a manner that can at times be bewildering and discomfiting. The effect is twofold: on one hand, Whitehead’s intricate web of memories woven into Mark Spitz’s present impressions and reflections performs post-traumatic stress for the reader. By definition, PTSD (or PASD, as it’s know in the novel, “post-apocalyptic stress disorder”), occurs in part as an inability to distinguish temporally between the traumatizing event and the present moment; Mark Spitz, like all his fellow survivors, lives as much in the memories of trauma as in the current moment of (perceived) safety and security.

On the other hand, putting the typical genre furniture in the novel’s past is simultaneously a distancing gesture. Even as the characters inhabit their memories, readers experience Mark Spitz’s survival tale at a remove from his present disaffection. Whitehead emphasizes this distance by introducing the motif of horror films as a recurrent motif. The novel opens with a flashback to before the plague, when Mark Spitz and his parents would visit his uncle’s Manhattan apartment. His childhood experience of the city—a city that, as New York so often does, functions as a character in this story—is conflated with watching horror films on his uncle’s shiny and impressive audio-visual system:

Millions of people tended to this magnificent contraption, they lived and sweated and toiled in it, serving the mechanism of metropolis and making it bigger, better, story by glorious story and idea by unlikely idea. How small he was, tumbling between the teeth. But the girlfriends were talking about the monster movies on TV, the women in the closet trying not to make a sound or vainly flagging down the pickup that might rescue them from the hillbilly slasher. The ones still standing at the credit roll made it through by dint of an obscure element in their character. “I can’t stand these scary stories,” the girlfriends said before returning to the grown-ups, attempting an auntly emanation as if they might be the first of their number promoted to that office. His father’s younger brother was fastidious when it came to expiration dates.

If you’ve never read anything by Colson Whitehead, this is pretty typical of his prose: elliptical, lyrical, and subtly layered. One of the common conceits of zombie narratives is that they almost invariably unfold in worlds that are completely ignorant of zombie narratives; if such a plague or infection or virus were to resurrect our dead into ravenous abominations, contemporary society would stand a decent chance of survival simply by dint of our massive cinematic archive detailing how to combat the zombie threat. Not so for the denizens of the stories themselves, a fact Whitehead alludes to here on the third page of his own contribution to the genre: the “expiration dates” on the uncle’s girlfriends reflects ironically on the horror genre’s marked tendency to put comparable expiration dates on its ancillary characters, those who lack the “obscure element” that facilitates survival.

At the same time, this passage establishes a handful of themes and motifs to which the novel will repeatedly return, not least of which is Mark Spitz’s recurrent meditation on what “obscure element,” precisely, he possesses that allowed him to live. Also present here is the city as omnipresent, silent character, and the horror film as framing device. The motif is subtle but pointed, as evidenced in Mark Spitz’s extended reflection on how he always imagined himself one of the singular survivors in these movies:

When he used to watch disaster flicks and horror movies he convinced himself he’d survive the particular death scenario: happen to be away from his home zip code when the megatons fell, upwind of the fallout, covering the bunker’s air vents with electrical tape. He was spread-eagled atop the butte and catching his breath when the tsunami swirled ashore, and in the lottery for a berth on the spacecraft, away from an Earth disintegrating under cosmic rays, his number was the last picked and it happened to be his birthday. Always the logical means of evasion, he’d make it through as he always did. He was the only cast member to heed the words of the bedraggled prophet from Act I, and the plucky dude who slid the lucky heirloom knife from his sock and sawed at the bonds while in the next room the cannibal family bickered over when to carve him for dinner. He was the one left to explain it all to the skeptical world after the end credits, jibbering in blood-drenched dungarees before the useless local authorities, news media vans, and government agencies who spent half the movie arriving on the scene. I know it sounds crazy, but they came from the radioactive anthill, the sorority girls were dead when I got there, the prehistoric sea creature is your perp, dredge the lake and you’ll find the bodies in its digestive tract, check it out. By his sights, the real movie started after the first one ended, in the impossible return to things before.

It is in this final sentence that Whitehead makes clear Zone One’s peculiar sensibility (peculiar in the broader context of zombie narratives, at any rate), and subverts the standard pleasures of the survivalist fantasy animating post-apocalyptic stories. As we talked about in class last week, post-apocalyptic narratives that feature the demise of civilization’s infrastructures—electricity and communication, security, and governance—share with fantasy a return to a premodern world shorn of the technology we take for granted. Technology goes from being banal and everyday to rare and precious, precisely because of its newfound scarcity. Life reverts to the faux-authenticity of survival, along with the erasure of moral grey areas: in a kill or be killed environment, we get to slough off qualms about violence, and feel perfectly fine about it because the enemy is already dead.

One comparable element of the zombie narrative that cannot be overstated is the disappearance of the principle of private property, at least in the early days of the apocalypse—it is not for nothing that these stories almost invariably include scenes of survivors gleefully looting shops and stores for supplies while there are still plentiful supplies to be had. True, there are versions in which these scenes are fraught with danger from other looters, such as the one in the film version of World War Z when Brad Pitt, seeking asthma medication for his daughter in a pharmacy gripped in Boschian anarchy, finds himself facing an ostensible thug in a hoodie … only to have the man hand him the medication, saying that it works wonders for his own kid.

But more commonly, such looting is the pleasure of plenty in the midst of danger. We think of 28 Days Later, when they come across a deserted grocery store, delightedly riding shopping carts up and down the aisles and loading them up, of Brendan Gleeson taking for himself a bottle of Lagavulin—and then a second, and a third, and a fourth.

The gold standard for such consumerist excess, however, is the “shopping” montage in Dawn of the Dead, and the comparable sequence in the 2004 remake, in which the survivors—safe for the time being, barricaded inside a mall—play out the fantasy of the uninhibited spree and the hedonism consumerism always promised.

It is easy, in this respect, to make up a checklist of our buttons that the zombie narrative tends to press: transgressive badassery, the erasure of the technological banal, shucking of societal and economic obligations (even in the most dire of apocalyptic scenarios, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I find myself thinking wistfully, “Well, I wouldn’t have to worry about my Mastercard bill”), free stuff, and a life that reverts to a set of simple equations. Which is why Zone One is such a discomfiting novel.

As I said above, Whitehead delivers on the broad strokes of the zombie genre, but on the smaller satisfactions just enumerated, he consistently frustrates us. In establishing horror conventions as a film with the credits already rolling, he takes us out of the fantasy of surviving and into the reality of survival, “the impossible return to things before.” Civilization’s return entails the return of implacable bureaucracy, micromanagement, and consumer culture. Mark Spitz and the other sweepers and enjoined from anything that will cause damage to the buildings they’re securing: no shooting out of windows or glass doors, no casual vandalism, and above all, no looting. However many stores in Lower Manhattan still in possession of their stock are not to be touched. At the same time, the sweepers are gifted with a variety of items, from energy drinks to notebooks (in which to log their activities), from corporate sponsors—from companies that have either survived the apocalypse, or founded by entrepreneurs who saw a new market in the post-apocalyptic world. And the return of civilization itself is subject to branding:

It was a new day. Now, the people were no longer mere survivors, half-mad refugees, a pathetic, shit-flecked, traumatized herd, but the “American Phoenix.” The more popular diminutive “pheenie” had taken off in the settlements, which also endured their round of cosmetics, as Camp 14 was rechristened New Vista, and Roanoke became Bubbling Brooks. Mark Spitz’s first civilian camp was Happy Acres, and indeed everyone’s mood did brighten a bit on seeing that name on the gate next to the barbed wire and electric fencing. Mark Spitz thought the merchandise helped out a lot, too, the hoodies and sun visors and such. The frigid hues and brittle lines of the logo conformed to a very popular design trend in the months preceding Last Night, and it was almost as if the culture was picking up where it left off.

The imagination of apocalypse almost invariably has to do with resolving the intractable problems of the real world by figuratively blowing them up: in some ways, it’s a failure of imagination, an inability to think outside of a given social or cultural system and so resorting to its wholesale destruction (not for nothing, but I firmly believe it is this precise sort of thinking that has given rise to Donald Trump as a viable presidential candidate—but that’s an entirely different post). The genre’s pleasures are thus concomitant with the real-world frustrations they resolve. Which is why Zone One functions as such a subtle, needling bait-and-switch, in which Mark Spitz’s tedious, corporatized sweeper job comes to remind him of the mindless corporate-drone jobs he held prior to the plague.

***

Wrapping this up here, with an eye to a second half in which I expand on Mark Spitz’s disaffection with regard to a comparable critique at work in Shaun of the Dead, and a contrast with the utopian spirit of World War Z (the novel).

Be good my friends, work hard.

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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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