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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The Trumpocalypse Fallacy

We interrupt the planned blog post on the zombie apocalypse for the following rant about the Trumpocalypse (and why it won’t happen).

I watched the highlights of the vice-presidential debate this morning, expecting to be amused by the spectacle of (as one person in my Facebook feed put it) watching your homophobic uncle argue with your nerdy science teacher. Or the epic fight between mayonnaise and margarine. Or … well, choose your own analogy for bland vs. blank.

Instead, I find myself deeply disturbed.

Part of this discomfiture proceeds from other thoughts that have been rattling about in my head. If you’ve been reading this blog lately, you’ll know my last few posts have been preoccupied with apocalypse: most specifically of the zombie variety, but I also had an extended riff in my Pop Culture class last week on disaster films apropos of Independence Day. One of my recurrent points, which I made in my last post, was that narratives of apocalypse reflect a desire for radical change, coupled with an inability to imagine that change short of wholesale destruction. And I reflected parenthetically that this might account, in part, for the rise of Donald Trump.

Why? Because while there is a certain, deeply deluded segment of his supporters who seem to believe that he is a genius businessman who will use his deal-making acumen to fix the country, and another segment who embrace his racial politics to the exclusion of everything else, there are also those who are just so disgusted with the current U.S. government on all levels that they just want to burn it to the ground (to be certain, these are not three mutually exclusive categories—a Venn diagram would show massive overlap).

I had been mulling over a possible blog post exploring this idea: that a large part of people’s desire to see Trump elected proceeds from what Susan Sontag called “the imagination of disaster,” but which many ostensible Trump supporters have likened to a Heath-Ledger-as-Joker desire to “watch the world burn.” Which is itself not nihilistic, but apocalyptic in the true sense of the word: a purgation that would destroy a broken system and open space to erect a new one. Indeed, the most common mantra of Trump supporters is the assertion that “the system is broken” or “Washington is broken.” Thinking in these terms, it becomes easier to see why Trump’s many egregious enormities, his lies and erraticism, and his obvious incompetence, do not count against him—in this scenario, in which he is a bomb thrown by voters, his incompetence is his greatest asset.

Among his supporters, the sense is that he would eradicate the edifices of the smug elites, the politically correct, the “establishment.” And in some sectors of the left, Hilary Clinton is seen as anathema because she would just be a continuation of a broken and corrupt system, whereas—as Susan Sarandon said to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes—“Some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately, if he gets in. Then things will really, you know, explode.” I make no claims for Sarandon’s credentials as a political expert, but she does give voice to a not-insignificant number of disaffected Bernie Sanders’ supporters, for whom Hilary is unacceptable specifically because she will not tear down the system as they believe Bernie would have (which is its own quaint delusion, but that’s a post for another day).

Ever since Trump became the nominee—well, since he first descended that escalator a year and a half ago, but more intently since his nomination—I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this phenomenon. More specifically, I’ve been trying to understand the mindset of people who would vote for him. One thing I’ve settled on is that the only rational reason to prefer him over Hilary (if competence and rationality factor into your decision at all) is if you embrace this nuclear option: that you think he’ll actually explode the system. I understand that line of thinking. I find it morally indefensible, but at least it has a basis in logic.

But here’s the problem: it won’t happen.

This was my realization upon watching Mike Pence’s debate performance. There will be no Trumpocalypse, for the simple reason that for all Trump’s incompetence, bluster, attention deficit disorder, and inability to absorb even the most basic elements of American civics, he doesn’t have the wherewithal to wreak the kind of havoc the apocalypticists desire.

John Kasich’s campaign performed a great service when it revealed that Trump’s people had offered to make him the most powerful vice president in history, giving him oversight of foreign and domestic policy. What would President Trump concern himself with? they asked. “Making America great again.” This offer was a confirmation of something Trump critics had suspected from the start: that he’s uninterested in the actual business of governance.

Whether Mike Pence was made a comparable offer remains unknown, but there seems to be near-unanimity among the punditry that last night Pence looked and sounded more “presidential” than Trump ever has. Indeed, one piece of wisdom that has been floating around is that Pence’s performance was good for Pence, bad for Trump—namely because, probably for the first time ever, we watched a vice-presidential candidate demur from endorsing any of his running mate’s policies, and indeed seemed to inhabit an alternative reality from Trump as he simply denied a host of things Trump has said and done in recent months (and then had the audacity to suggest Tim Kaine was the one in an alternative reality for “imagining” these things).

Conversely, I don’t see Pence’s performance as bad for Trump at all. Trump’s supporters won’t care one way or another, but I can easily imagine Republicans leery of Trump being reassured: Pence’s entire shtick was about suggesting there will be an adult in the White House, and that while Trump is out and about making America great again, he will take care of the important stuff.

Of course, it is impossible to accurately predict what a Trump White House will be like. It may be that he is so bored by the day-to-day details of governance that he essentially abdicates to Pence. On the other hand, it is just as easy to imagine him getting his hackles up at the suggestion that his VP is the one in charge, and capriciously throwing spanners and executive orders into the gears. Certainly, the biggest and most exhausting task in a Trump administration would be damage control every time he holds a press conference or inadvertently insults a foreign dignitary.

But what we need to remember is that the American ship of state is not a sprightly frigate, but a massive and fully-laden oil tanker. It does not change course except by slow increments. I’m not speaking here of policy decisions, but of the deep structure of the federal government, which employs nearly 2.8 million people; there is a huge apparatus of civil servants carrying out the business of government on a daily basis, to say nothing of juggernauts like the Department of Defense and U.S. industry more broadly, none of which would be subject to revolutionary change—certainly not by way of anything Trump (or for that matter any president) could effect.

All of which is by way of saying that Trump’s histrionics in the west wing would wreak havoc, but not with the Republic’s elemental structures. They would adversely affect the most vulnerable: the poor, immigrants, people of colour, Muslims, women; and as for what Trump didn’t inflict, it’s a good bet that Mike Pence, working in concert with Paul Ryan, would pick up the slack, dismantling Planned Parenthood, eviscerating Obamacare, rolling back gay rights, facilitating more draconian law enforcement, slashing taxes on the 1%, doing away with environmental and financial regulations, denuding access to abortion and birth control—enough of which would be consonant with President Trump’s platform that it’s hard to imagine a complaint emanating from the Oval Office (presumably redecorated in gold leaf and Roman statuary).

To say nothing of the fact that everyone standing politically to the left of Attila the Hun would spend four years offering up novenas for the longevity of Justices Ginsburg, Kennedy, and Breyer.

I have little illusion that when I share my political perspectives, I’m doing little more than preaching to the choir of the forty-odd people who read my posts. And given that most of them are Canadians, this makes my editorializing that much more futile. Still: if you know an American, left or right, who sees the Trumpocalypse as a revolutionary possibility, please feel free to share my rant with them.

***

We will return to our regularly scheduled blog posts soon.

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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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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.

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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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