Category Archives: teaching

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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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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The Gentrification of Genre, Part One

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m teaching a fourth-year seminar this autumn that I’m titling “Revenge of the Genres.” Here, again, is my hastily mocked-up poster:

Revenge of the Genres

Yes, that’s the poster from Hamilton that I’ve stolen and over-written; and yes, that means I’ll be including Hamilton on the course. It will be the last thing we cover, in part because it’s the most recent text, but also because I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s promise to film a performance for posterity makes it onto DVD or iTunes before we get to it in class.

This course is the product of several intersecting influences in my own reading and viewing habits, as well as a lot of thought I’ve devoted in the past few years to how genre has come to function in mainstream culture, and how it has come to be regarded in scholarly contexts. My doctoral dissertation, which was on conspiracy theory and paranoia, jumped gleefully between such capital-L literary texts like Gravity’s Rainbow, to classic films like Doctor Strangelove and The Manchurian Candidate, to episodes of The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Anyone who has read this blog more than just occasionally will know of my love for such genres as SF/F, and my addiction to prestige television. And while the traditional canons of literary study still comprise the core of most English departments, not only are interdisciplinary crossovers into different media and popular texts increasingly acceptable, but increasingly expected.

More and more we see cross-pollination between fiction, film, television, poetry, theater, music, and social media; more than perhaps at any point in history, literary influence has been shattered from Harold Bloom’s almost exclusively patrilineal (and white) “anxiety of influence,” which posits that writers of genius emerge out of an agon with the great writers preceding them, into a constellation of cultural forms and texts in which a poet is as likely to borrow imagery from classic Hollywood or post-structuralist theory as from Keats or Yeats.

Purists may wince, and often do, and conservative pundits fill column inches decrying the feckless drift of humanities degrees (if Margaret Wente hasn’t written something on this point recently, she will soon—that’s simply inevitable). But part of the point is that in this expanded universe (to borrow an expression from one particular genre canon), there’s still plenty of room for purists (whatever they may look like these days) and unreconstructed literary curmudgeons who don’t think anything of value was written after 1922.

Meanwhile, this cross-pollination and the general acceptance of forms and media formerly dismissed as lowbrow has opened up an intriguing space in which we can look at how many of these texts use generic conventions—or shrewd critiques or subversions of them—to expand our literary and cultural vocabularies. This space—or rather, these spaces—are what my course will be examining. And as I said in my previous post, I am keen to get this blog back into gear, so one of the things I will be trying to do is write one or two posts a week dealing with whatever text we’re looking at. These posts will be designed in part to foment class discussion (I’ve never written a textbook I can make my students buy, so the least I can do is force them to read my blog).

That being said, I’m also hoping that this course might interest people enough to read along at home, as it were, or to contribute to the discussion if we cover something you particularly love.

Fingers crossed. Meanwhile, here are our readings, in order that we will be covering them:

AmericanGodsNeil Gaiman, American Gods. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been nerding out hard over the last few days with the release of the trailer for the television adaptation. I was concerned at first that STARZ is the network doing it, as they’ve tended to be far more erratic than, say, HBO or AMC. But the team they’ve assembled is stellar: the showrunners are Bryan Fuller, who brought us Hannibal, and Michael Green, whose nerd cred is pretty strong with such shows as Heroes and Smallville. But beyond the showrunners, the cast they’ve assembled so far is mind-blowing: Ricky Whittle (The 100) as Shadow Moon, Emily Browning as Laura Moon, Gillian Anderson (!) as Media, Pablo Schreiber (Nick Sobotka on The Wire, Pornstache on Orange is the New Black) as Mad Sweeney, Crispin Glover as Mr. World, Jonathan Tucker as Low Key Lyesmith, Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy, Kristen Chenowith as Easter, Peter Stormare as Czernobog … but of course if none of those people were involved, I’d still watch to see Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday.

Sorry. Didn’t mean to have that nerd braingasm.

Ahem. Putting Gaiman on the course is a bit of a cheat, as this is an American Lit course, and he’s very much a Brit. He does live in the U.S., however, and the novel is manifestly about America. Gaiman is an example of a literary jack-of-all-trades, moving with alacrity from comic books to prose fiction to children’s literature to TV writing (two episodes for Doctor Who); and all his work is profoundly influenced by myth and legend, and gothic horror. He is a genre author who has attained an enviable level of literary acclaim, and as we’ll discuss on the course, one way to read his figuration of gods and divinity is as an allegory of genre itself.

 

zone-one-paperbackColson Whitehead, Zone One. If Neil Gaiman is a genre author who has garnered literary acclaim, Colson Whitehead is a literary star who confused the literati and intelligentsia of the New Yorker set by writing a zombie apocalypse novel. I’d read his novels The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, and Sag Harbor, and was blown away by all of them: Whitehead writes with extraordinary lyricism about race and blackness in America in all three, but Zone One elides race as a factor until a key moment late in the narrative. It is instead preoccupied with images of a desolate and empty Lower Manhattan. His main character is a “sweeper,” someone tasked with clearing out zombie stragglers in order to secure the city south of Canal Street so that business and industry can return. As with his previous novels, the writing is gorgeous; Whitehead has an extraordinary talent for language, an ability to introduce unexpected and startling metaphors into the description of the most quotidian things.

 

StationElevenEmily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven. I should point out that each of these texts has something bridging it to the next. Gaiman and Whitehead have the literary/genre inversion linking them; Station Eleven picks up from Zone One as a post-apocalyptic novel. In Mandel’s case, the world is wiped out by a virulent influenza, and we follow around a group of traveling actors who make their way performing Shakespeare for the pockets of survivors two decades after the Fall. Why Shakespeare? Because in this post-apocalyptic world, it seems to be the great works that feed the souls of the survivors—and because, as is written on the side of part of the troupe’s caravan, “Survival is Insufficient”—there must be something to survive for.

The fact that the motto specifically comes from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager speaks to the novel’s broader preoccupation with genre, and its juxtaposition with art in the form of Shakespeare. The title refers to a graphic novel called Station Eleven, about a space station shaped like a planet fleeing an alien invasion. The graphic novel becomes something of a talismanic object for the survivors, as its themes come to intersect with their own preoccupations.

 

FunHomeAlison Bechdel, Fun Home. I must confess, of all the geeky obsessions and indulgences I have owned in my life, I have never been a reader of comic books or graphic novels. I don’t know why I find it an effort to read them. But Fun Home had me rapt. I knew I wanted to have a graphic novel on this course, as doing a class on genre in this way without bringing in a visual narrative would be a big elision. Fun Home is particularly appropriate, not just because it is a beautifully drawn and written memoir, but because it leapt genres to become a successful musical on Broadway.

Bechdel’s story of her childhood, of her queer awakening, and the realization that her father—who dies, possibly suicidally, not long after she comes out to her parents—was a closeted gay man, is a poignantly told story that grounds itself in the traditions of Joyce and Proust.

 

OscarWaoJunot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Truth told, this is the novel that really got me thinking about doing a course like this. I’ve taught it several times now in a handful of classes, and it is always a joy to introduce it to students. It tells the story of a hapless young Dominican man named Oscar, who embodies all the negative geeky qualities: overweight, myopic, socially awkward, obsessed with women but incapable of interacting with them, and addicted to every kind of fantasy and science fiction film or novel that crosses his path. The narrator, Yunior, is a closet nerd but corresponds to the masculinist Dominican ideal; his narration is peppered with Hispanic slang juxtaposed with Lord of the Rings references. The novel is, above all else, about the collision of worlds: of male and female worlds, of immigrant worlds with America, of nerd culture and everything else.

 

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton. I so, so hope we’ll be able to watch the filmed stage performance. Failing that, though, the cast recording is not something I ever see myself getting tired of.

Considering how much has been said and written about Miranda’s work of genius, it feels redundant to offer my pale commentary. Instead, here’s their performance at the Tony Awards.

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Winter (term) is coming

I was asked to make a poster to advertise my winter term courses. I was quite pleased with this one.

course posterYep. It will be a term of some serious geeking out.

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