Author Archives: Alejandro

PREDICTABILITY 800+

To open, I wanted to vent a genre-related concern… What else? In response to some previously enumerated concerns, I think Shteyngart isn’t writing romance or necessarily just satire. I think he’s writing really competent (possibly good) science fiction.

It is the duty of science fiction to show us how our world would change in the face of technological/scientific alterations. Sometimes these alterations are sharply noticeable and immense (e.g. faster-than-light space travel, sentient nonhumanoid races, multiverses, etc.) and other times, they’re just probable extensions of the technologies and sciences available to us today (e.g. cloning, genetic engineering, electronic communications, etc.). Super Sad True Love Story falls into the second category, and the only thing holding me back from calling Shteyngart’s novel good science fiction is purely personal: Lenny Abramov gets on my nerves something awful. What’s worse—I think that’s a sign of solid writing.

Let me explain.

Sequoia brings up the element of race in the book, something I also noticed, specifically in reference to Latinos, those who Lenny might refer to as the “vaguely Hispanish” (80). As I can remember, the first inkling we get of any sort of Spanish-speaking people or Lenny’s awareness of them does not come in the form of an actual person or community; it comes in the form of “a poster showing a plucky little otter in a sombrero trying to jump onto a crammed dinghy under the tagline ‘The Boat Is Full, Amigo” (7). This “Mexican otter” immediately sets the tone for Lenny’s own perception of various minorities in the world of äppäräts and chemical immortality and credit poles. Latinos, though physically present in the neighborhoods that Lenny’s parents drove through to feel better when he was a boy, are essentially in a state of para-invisibility. This effect is furthered by Noah Weinberg’s repeated use of Spanish slang during his webcast; much like the movie Blade Runner, the English of the urban future contains elements of various languages. This change, amusingly enough, doesn’t denote any kind of improvement in race relations. It’s just an aggressive form of appropriation for profit–in this case, the rendering cooler of Noah Weinberg through hip-sounding slang.

This para-invisibility that Latinos and blacks and other minorities have in Super Sad True Love Story is, in my opinion, the rather impressive manifestation of Shteyngart trying to write with a sort of futuristic verisimilitude. In the world that Lenny inhabits, he doesn’t have to deal with groups disenfranchised by the privatized surveillance state he works for. Does that make sense?

Abramov’s racism has even stronger ties to the privatized system of government that he supports, but I’m running out of room in this post, so I’ll save those observations for class, but I’ll list them briefly below:

  • The commodification of abuse (e.g. Lenny’s history of dating abused women, the abused woman running a multimedia broadcast of her abuse flashbacks)
  • The racialized commodification/diminution of the Asian female body (e.g. Lenny makes a point of repeatedly describing Eunice as small, he does the same for Vishnu’s girlfriend, Grace)

Echoes & Paratext in Bechdel’s FUN HOME

Where to begin for Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home? It’s easily one of the best comics I’ve ever read. Perhaps I’ll start there. Comic. The term “graphic novel” grates on my ears. Hard. As a lifelong comics fan, I’ve always seen the term “graphic novel” as a ploy developed by marketing departments looking to liken a unique chimera of a medium to something that can be sold in chain bookstores (and NOT just on magazine racks/at newsstands/in specialty shops) or academics who think a difference in nomenclature immediately separates your Bechdels and Crumbs and Pekars from your McDuffies and Simones and Jimenezes, and boy oh boy does it royally tick me right off. That last sentence may have royally ticked you right off, as is your right. We can fight about it after/outside class.

[For the ease of my own citation purposes and to help out folks who might be confused as to citing comics, might I humbly propose a format: (Page #.Panel #). That’s how it works in the majority of the comic scripts I’ve read and I think it’s in keeping with Dark Horse Comics’s in-house style guide, so there you have it.]

Moving right along…

Two things preoccupied me while reading Fun Home: paratext and echoes. The comics medium is great for both, as exemplified by countless predecessors (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Locke & Key, examples abound).

It occurred to me when I hit page 39, panel 4 that Bechdel’s indicative captions with arrows were mostly being used to point out background objects/context from an editorial/commentating level, rather than those of her narrative captions, which seem to occur at the level of the storyteller. What intrigues me about this is whether or not these specific arrowed-indicative captions should count as paratext or not?

In your standard comic book, captions of this specific nature tend to be few and far-between, normally there so the editor can quickly supply necessary context to something provided either by the writer or the penciller (e.g. “Spidey last saw Doc Ock in Spectacular #8 –Smilin’ Stan”). While a lot of Bechdel’s indications merely flesh out the world she creates (“Permanent grease stain from my dead grandfather’s Vitalis;” “Honest to God, we had a painting of a cockatoo in the library”), some of the paratext she provides has direct bearing on the plot, such as correspondence (39.4, 83.1). Perhaps paratext isn’t the right word to describe how she uses her father’s letters to her mother, but what gives me pause about their status is their accuracy; though I’ve never read her father’s handwriting, she seems to be mimicking it to the point of making me question whether or not she scanned the letters and added them in during the inking process (62.2-3). Can anyone help me out here?

Another big element I noticed (or perhaps forced on the text, judging from Bechdel’s attitude towards literary criticism), is her repeated use of echoed images (200.2). Take her depictions of the black rat snake. Bechdel and her siblings are foregrounded with their backs to us and partially obscured by a caption in the first shot, leaving the snake to be focalized; additionally, its size relative to the children is hard to determine, due to the hut-like box (or box-like hut) it slithers out from behind (114.4). Contrarily, the children are focalized in the next shot, while the snake is at least halved and has its back to the camera; Bechdel also appears to be the tallest of her siblings in the picture, whose heights appear much more similar in the previous image (143.3). This leads me to wonder whether or not Bechdel is commenting on the tempering effect of autobiography, as depicted by the relative diminishing of the snake, or perhaps the unreliability of her own narration? She definitely comes back to that idea a whole bunch of times.

There are additional echoes in the comic, but I’ve already gone over the word limit, so I’ll save them for class. Really jazzed to be reading Fun Home for a class.

P.S. I’ve included a link to Bechdel’s own archive of her long-running strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. It’s some really great stuff and I think the majority of it and her other work is available at the PCL.

“A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation” (45).

Methinks this is easily the most ostensibly postmodern book we’ve read all semester. At least, Gilead is definitely the most self-conscious, and I mean that in a good way. Ames the narrator claims “It is actually hard for me to remember how mortal I am these days,” and later mentions having “strayed a little from [his] subject… from [his son’s] begats” (74-75). The text of Gilead seems to be a character in and of itself. The work functions just as much as a genealogy as it does a memoir. It’s person-as-memoir or preacher-as-sermon, the literal condensation of one man’s thoughts, meditations, and history into a text.

Ames/Robinson frequently leaves us hanging with moments of textual self-awareness: It seems that the Ames line of preachers places a high premium on texts in general. Ames the narrator bemoans the loss of his friend Boughton’s sermons, saying they “were remarkable, but he never wrote them out. He didn’t even keep his notes. So that is all gone” (40). Later on, Ames writes about the moon: “Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something. So much does” (119). Did I miss a specific reference to something earlier in the text here, or is Ames merely admitting his own weakness as a narrator? There’s strong emphasis on Ames being aware of his textual temporality as well, when he addresses his son about Jack Boughton:

And you know, from living out years I cannot foresee, whether you must forgive me for warning you, or forgive me for failing to warn you, or indeed if none of it turned out to matter at all. This is a grave question for me. (125)

Robinson seems to align preachers with textual critics, as both have occupations (vocations seems a bit strong, here) depending upon interpretation. I suppose my main question, which is a bit broad, is this: What do we make of this level of textual self-consciousness?

***

I think Sequoia’s metaphor for race (the horse in the road, covered by a tent) is really an apt descriptor of how race appears in this novel. The longest anecdote about the Negro church comes in the form of a lengthy parenthetical on pages 36 and 37 of the first Picador edition, 2006. Della never once appears, nor does Robert; both are motionless in the photo and entirely bound by Jack’s narrative.

Does this sidelining of race tie into the self-consciousness of Gilead as a text? It seems like race is a purely parenthetical topic here.

“…pomo bellowings,” authorial self-hauntings, and trajectories (47)

You’ll have to pardon the quote in the title. Couldn’t resist. While we’re in a confessional mood, full disclosure, I’m a William Gibson fan. I know this must come as a shock. Moving right along…

William Gibson tore up the sci-fi scene of the 80s sci-fi paperback scene with his first novel, Neuromancer, whose disgraced hacker hero is named Case and opens the book essentially allergic to computers. Pattern Recognition’s Cayce Pollard is, as we well know, allergic to all kinds of ad copy, much of which is transmitted via computers. Rather than it just being a renowned author making a winking reference to the work that launched him to sci-fi superstardom, Gibson makes the echoed name of his protagonist a conscious choice on her part; she is referred to as “Case?” by Voytek, and she goes on to explain that “it should be pronounced ‘Casey…’ But I don’t” (31). I’m not quite sure what to make of this echo, but it comes up a few more times throughout the novel, and I’m wondering whether or not Gibson is deliberately trying to link his Blue Ant trilogy (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History) with his famous Sprawl trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive); if I’m not mistaken, that would be impossible, judging from the alt-history Gibson set up in the first series.

In any case, I thought it deserves some mentioning. If there are any other Gibsonites out there who are willing to speculate, then we can talk about it in class on Monday. I want to know what Gibson might gain, from a narratorial perspective, by linking Cayce Pollard with Neuromancer’s Case? Is Gibson deliberately haunting a newer novel that takes place well before an older novel that he set in the future?

I’m also intrigued by the trajectory of heroine-versus-conspiracy novels we’ve read thus far in class, and how Pattern Recognition fits in. The Crying of Lot 49 spans California and sees Oedipa Maas, a swingin’ 60s suburbanite, negotiating secret postal services and countercultural terrain that is completely alien to her; aside from Pynchon’s perfidious and persnickety pop culture references, we don’t explicitly deal with much in the way of the commercial, since both WASTE and Thurn & Taxis are much more concerned with countercultural and subversive political organizations. The Intuitionist never leaves the Ed McBain-esque pseudo-NYC that Whitehead sets up as a much more explicitly commercial battlefield; however, Lila Mae still contends with and ultimately champions a (pseudo?) religious epistemology that guides her to some kind of victory. Here, in Pattern Recognition, Cayce begins the story completely involved in the commercial world as a “coolhunter;” the mystery surrounding footage never gets a chance to assume the sort of religious/mystical nature seen in the 2 previous novels, because Cayce only ever engaged with the footage in 2 equally commercial capacities: 1) a fan/consumer, 2) a coolhunter/investigator hired by a major corporate interest to root out the producer of a desired commodity.

Whitehead Meets Pynchon in “The Big Skyscraper”

Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist is a perfect successor to the postmodern mystery throne, previously held (in our class’s canon) by Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.

While Pynchon’s novel sort of engaged modernism’s epistemological shift to postmodernism’s ontological focus, Whitehead does it better—as well as crafting a world that cleverly straddles the borders of genre and literary fiction. Unlike Oedipa, who was a perfect model of out-of-touch whiteness in the turbulent 60s, Whitehead’s Lila Mae manages to be more relevant while inhabiting a pre-60s (or, at the very least, earlier 60s) world. While Oedipa was more of a cipher where readers could project questions and anxieties, Lila Mae is a character with her own, who we have no choice but to follow. I don’t know if I’d be audacious enough to call this novel a flat-out response to Pynchon’s novel, but it sure as hell reads like one.

It also seems like Whitehead’s use of pop culture references are more structured than those we’ve encountered in past novels. The semi-fictionalized New York City setting (“…the most famous city in the world… The Big Skyscraper” is as close as we get) descends from the Isola of Ed McBain’s 87th precinct novels. Sly reporter Ben Urich and fumbling thug Jim Corrigan receive their names from a reporter in Marvel Comics’s Daredevil and a cop/thug/ghostly detective in DC Comics’s The Spectre, respectively. Both the names suit the characters too perfectly for these to be acts of coincidental naming. Whitehead wrote a great article for the New Yorker on his own background in the world of genre fiction that makes an interesting companion piece to The Intuitionist.

The significance of these references, for me as a geeky reader, is that they add to the novel’s reaction to/resistance of Pynchon’s work in The Crying of Lot 49. Whitehead does give us a slew of genre references wrapped in a narrative that operates (VERY self-consciously) within the bounds of a noir-era mystery, but the presence of these tropes and allusions doesn’t eclipse his deconstruction of race. Instead, the tropes and allusions work as a sort of meta-construction! Whitehead has to contend with literary/genre divide legacies, as well as expectations of a minority author, while Lila Mae must contend with a Kafkaesque racial-political bureaucracy in the novel.

Horror and black fatherhood in Beloved and a fRANTzen, too.

Sequoia will have heard this question from me last semester when we were in Matt Richardson’s class together, but I’m still interested in exploring it: What is the significance of the horror tropes in Beloved? We see poltergeists, revenants, exorcism, underworld imagery, the KKK as vampires, and outright magic in the case of Baby Suggs (79). Does their presence belittle or otherwise alter the more realistic horrors of the novel?

Over the years of having read Beloved for multiple classes (this is the fifth time I’ve read it in a lit course), I’ve heard conflicting arguments as to whether or not calling it a horror novel (or, at the very least, a horrific one) is offensive. Some sides seem to conflate the horror label with both poor craftsmanship and subtle racism, arguing that applying the signifier of ‘horror’ to a novel about an Otherized community is exclusionary and offensive. Does anyone here buy that argument? Alternatively, we could talk about the fact that the horror tropes (like Beloved’s ghostly split subjectivity) work to further amplify the real life horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and its legacy. The argument is ongoing.

Can we also talk about the concept of black fatherhood in the novel? Paul D. vaguely mentions possible children he may have fathered in years of wandering. Sixo begets Seveno. The report of Halle’s death comes from Baby Suggs on the day of Denver’s birth, not to mention the fact that Halle (understandably) goes insane. The fact that Paul D. tries to become a sort of para-father in 124 by exorcising crawling-already is the recognition that the spirit needs to materialize as Beloved, who then proceeds to (literally) push him out of the house. What does all of this say about the state of black fatherhood? (I’m somewhat reminded of Darieck Scott’s Extravagant Abjection, but I no longer have the book with me and am not confident in my ability to paraphrase his comments on Paul D.)

***

Regarding the Franzen and similar pieces I’ve read, it’s simultaneously amusing and curious to me that writers dismissive of genre fiction constantly agonize over the fate of the book and whether or not the reading market will continue to sustain itself and, by extension, their work. If every sci-fi, fantasy, western, mystery, romance, and horror writer put their pens down tomorrow, the publishing industry as we know it would collapse. Jonathan Franzen and all of these other novel-every-few-years types are supported by the prolific output of genre writers, yet very few of their ilk ever seem to acknowledge this reality.

The Great Vesicle Pisces Geek Out

I’m an admitted Philip K. Dick (henceforth PKD) fan and I’ve got a lot to say, so please bear with the schizoid nature of this post.

Consensus reality is a major theme in PKD’s work and the predicament of Mercerism in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a perfect example of it. In one of his various appearances, Wilbur Mercer preaches a gospel of self-reliance and inefficacious but worthwhile sympathy: “How can I save you… if I can’t save myself? Don’t you see? There is no salvation” (176). Rick realizes that Mercer suffers, “but at least he isn’t required to violate his own identity” (176). It is later proven that Mercer, the figurehead and prime symbol of Mercerism, “is not human, does not in fact exist… is a swindle!” (207). Who proves this? Buster Friendly, an android, an artificial being. He is being proven out of existence by an automaton pretending to be an existent human being. Furthermore, despite his being disproven, Mercer later appears to both J.R. Isidore and Rick Deckard offering a sort of psychic succor in their times of dire need and trauma. On another PKD canon-related note, Rick’s bonding with Mercer mirrors PKD’s own religion-inspired delusions; PKD claimed to be living a parallel life as Thomas, a persecuted Christian in the Rome of 1 AD.

I’m not so much concerned with whether or not androids dream of electric sheep so much as whether or not they exist at all in the world of the novel. Stop and think about it for a minute. Androids are identified by a test that cannot differentiate between them and people with various mental disorders and imbalances that restrict or render empathy impossible (e.g. schizophrenics, sociopaths, etc.). How are androids identified, post-mortem? Through examinations of their bone marrow. Androids are clearly different from humans on a physical level: “There’s no automatic cut-in of the vagus nerve… in an android. As there is in a human” (136). These androids are not the clunky, metal constructs of science fiction’s vast reservoir of archetypes. They are biological, thinking organisms. They are machines in the sense that human beings are machines, made of flesh and blood, rather than circuit boards and hydraulics; as Rick himself puts it to Rachael, “Legally, you’re not [alive]. But you really are. Biologically. You’re not made out of transistorized circuits like a false animal; you’re an organic entity” (196). That being established, can we really say that androids are machines, as they are so frequently depicted in the novel? Why are they not considered a wholly separate humanoid race, flawed due to the foibles of their creators? Why is empathy, a trait not present in certain humans, privileged over the more unifying traits of biology and rationality? What can we make of the fact that legality seemingly trumps biology in this universe?

A few other things I feel the need to point out:

Rachael admits to loving Deckard, and then reveals the true reason behind their dalliance (192, 200). Since Rachael is an android and it has been diegetically established that androids are incapable of empathy, what is PKD saying about the nature of love in this universe? Can one love without empathy? Roy “let[s] out a cry of anguish” when Rick shoots his wife, Irmgard; does this disprove the android’s characteristic empathic deficiency, or does it simply prove that human conceptions of android identity are dangerously underdeveloped and need reconsideration? (221).

PKD seems to derisively reference the Mars and Venus cycle of stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs when Pris describes precolonial science fiction to an enthralled Isidore. Is Isidore’s childish fascination a Dickian comment on earlier generations of SF fans?

Finally, a little something for the Hayles fans.

Freakish Children, Dying Mediums, and a Matheson Plug

Anne briefly touched on the idea of Bill’s novel somehow acquiring (at least in his mind) a sort of bizarre and altogether freakish life, but I want to discuss is further. Or rather, I want to discuss the status of books and children in the novel, both here and in class.

Like the spectral maybe-baby that the anonymous woman tries to foist on Scott towards the beginning of the novel, Bill finds himself haunted by his own manuscript, which smells “faintly of baby drool” and hovers “just outside the door” (21-22, 24, 136). I don’t want to waste my entire entry with quotes, but consistent references to abandoned babies/children and Bill’s horrific daydreams of his novel becoming a freakish pseudo-infant for which he is responsible really makes me want to discuss the status of children in the novel. Is DeLillo being entirely apocalyptic? By picturing the novel as a misshapen and monstrous child, is Bill’s desperate worry (“It’s my book after all, so I’m responsible for getting it right.”) a manifestation of authorial anxieties about the effect one’s books can have on a reading populace? (92).

If I remember correctly, multiple characters echo the sentiment embodied in the following quote: “We don’t need the book. We have the author” (71). Various characters seem to hint at the novel’s waning power as a medium. Bill and George’s discussion of Mao’s red book seems to counteract this idea; according to George, the book “was the faith that people carried everywhere. They recited from it, brandished it, they displayed it constantly. People undoubtedly made love with the book in their hands” (162). Whether or not you want to call this declaration comically excessive, it definitely reads like a sharp alternative to Bill’s earlier, apocalyptic musings about the state of his manuscript (and perhaps the novel as a medium).

[On a side note, the bizarre baby-monster that Bill turns his manuscript into reminds me of the narrator of Richard Matheson’s brilliant “Born of Man and Woman.” It’s one of the greatest pieces of American horror fiction ever and you ought to read it if you haven’t.]

Syncretic Scattershot!!

[NOTE: Each paragraph ends with the questions I’d like to address in class.]

Towards the beginning of Chapter 10 (p. 25 in the ’96 Scribner edition) in Mumbo Jumbo, Papa LaBas has an argument with his daughter, Earline. She decries his “conspiratorial hypothesis about some secret society molding the consciousness of the West,” claiming that he “[doesn’t] have any empirical evidence for it” (25). Papa LaBas’s reply, “Evidence? Woman, I dream about it, I feel it, I use my 2 heads. My Knockings…” highlights an epistemological clash that really interested me (25). Though both are natural-born Americans, Papa LaBas exhibits a much more open-minded epistemology, while Earline immediately privileges an empirical, westernized outlook. I guess my actual question here is whether or not this is actually a clash of 2 differing epistemologies? It may be a conflict between ontology, represented by Papa LaBas’s mystically enhanced sensory perception (arguably an ontological condition for an astrodetective/freelance magician), and epistemology, in the form of his daughter’s dependence on empiricism?

I’m also fascinated with Chapter 12 (pgs. 30-53 in the ’96 Scribner edition). There is a lengthy and spirited (pun not intended) exchange between Papa LaBas, Black Herman, and Abdul Hamid. The two older men vilify Black Islam, calling its practitioners “[i]ntolerant just as the Christians are” (35). As soon as it is apparent that no one is watching their argument, Abdul Hamid relaxes and ditches his dogmatic disguise, advocating for a syncretic religion, saying, “Perhaps I will come up with something that will have a building shaped like a mosque, the interior furnishings Victorian, the priests dressed in Catholic garb, and soul food as offerings” (38). The form of the religion he endorses is globally syncretic and actually wider-ranging than the systems practiced by Papa LaBas and Black Herman, which are tied into a pan-African/diasporic heritage. As if to contravene an easy categorization of Abdul Hamid, Reed follows up with the line: “What of it as long as it has popular appeal?” (38). Is this admission pragmatic or insincere? Can we easily draw a line between those two categories, in this case?

Monsters from Beyond Consciousness?

This is the third time I’ve read The Crying of Lot 49, and while my primary interest is horror fiction, my earlier readings were preoccupied with Oedipa as a private detective, fulfilling various mystery tropes of the noir subgenre. Pynchon even lays out a clever red herring for us when Oedipa expresses worry over her continued surveillance of the Tristero courier: “But the private eye sooner or later has to get beat up on” (124). While The Crying of Lot 49 definitely unfolds like and comments on the mystery novel, there is a distinct element of Lovecraftian horror throughout the narrative. Oedipa’s quest to discover just what the Tristero/Trystero might be (and whether or not it even IS) is slathered in a persistent and universal yet somehow obscure dread (forecasting the spectral/ethereal horror stylings of Thomas Ligotti). Oedipa’s repeated fantasies of the Tristero/Trystero as a figure imparting hideous secrets (“would it… bend to her alone among the desolate rows of seats and begin to speak words she never wanted to hear?”) conform to the cosmicism trope of certain knowledge existing beyond human ken for a reason; yet, Oedipa—in the Lovecraftian tradition—continues to press on (54). The Tristero/Trystero’s pan-historical nature and its silent menace do a fine job of reflecting Lovecraft’s common trope of ageless cults dedicated to incomprehensible beings and/or purposes. The consistent allusions gall readers into obsessively tracking them. The repeated back-and-forth tension between an actual conspiracy and the (more frightening?) possibility of Oedipa’s paranoid lunacy indicts the reader, effectively pulling him/her into Oedipa’s position—that of Lovecraft’s perennial scholar, always performing more research than is necessary (or healthy) and uncovering something implacably sinister (and possibly nonexistent) as a result.