The Lizard of Oz: Rachel Ingalls’ “Mrs. Caliban”

Ingalls, Rachel (1983), Mrs. Caliban, Harvard Common
ISBN 0-87645-112-1

There is a risk to this: burdening a book or poem with the weight of a classic work of literature, especially if the work is as iconic as Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The shorter the book, the more frivolous, usually, the reference, in my experience. None of this is applicable to this novel, which wears the reference lightly and plays with it, with ease and joy. Rachel Ingalls is a writer unjustly neglected by the reading public, her work is largely out of print, including this novel, probably her most famous book. Mrs. Caliban was published in 1983, but not a single phrase or scene in it feels dated. Having just finished it, I find it hard to contain my enthusiasm, to put my pure and utter delight at reading this novel into words. Everything about this book fits, every word, every image seems perfectly calibrated. It’s intellectually rich, it’s use of intertextuality is fascinating and challenging, but above all else, it is a great read that races through a fantastic spiral of events, dragging the engrossed reader along. The book is frequently very funny, often rather sensual, but, au fond, as when we hear the protagonist say to her 6-foot lover, “Larry, you’re all I have”, it is a profoundly sad novel, a sadness that, lucky for us, never turns to bitterness.

As is to be expected, no one in the novel is actually called Mrs. Caliban. The protagonist is called Dorothy, which naturally recalls the Wizard of Oz. She is a housewife, whose life feels empty to her. Her husband, Fred, is frequently claiming to be working late, but Dorothy suspects him of actually having an affair; Fred has had affairs before and currently he is distancing himself again from his wife, not touching her more than necessary, moving the beds apart. This last distancing happened after, after an accident and a miscarriage, the pair suddenly found themselves childless. The accident had brought them together for a short period, but the miscarriage had driven them apart. As in so many cases, the husband, irrationally blamed the wife for what happened. Marriage is portrayed as an imbalanced relationship, where the wife is more of a servant than a sensual human being. It’s not just Fred. Estelle, Dorothy’s best friend, finds out that two men are proposing to her in order to acquire a housemaid, already seeking sexual satisfaction on the side with other, younger women. This strange piece of dialog illustrates Dorothy’s need well:

“Oh, Jesus Christ, Dot. You would go get some useless toy dog like that. Fat lot of good that would be if you turn the corner and bump into a gang of roughs who’d beat you up and rape you.”
“With my luck,” she had screamed, “they’d tie me to the railings and rape the dog instead.”

Up to now, Mrs. Caliban has intermittently shown signs of curiousness: the radio seems, for instance, at times to interact with Dorothy, when the radio program is interrupted by a speaker who imparts, sotto voce, soothing messages for her. One day, however, a strange (even stranger?) message, in a loud voice announces breaking news. A giant green sea monster, called “Aquarius the Monsterman”, has escaped from the “Jefferson Institute for Oceanographic Research”. Since her special messages so far had all been delivered in the same tone of voice, Dorothy decides that this has really happened. This broadcast starts off a novel which is preoccupied with a constant flickering of fantasy and reality, and Ingalls displays no interest in telling us what’s real and what isn’t. The fantastic events become more pronounced when “Aquarius the Monsterman” suddenly arrives on her doorstep, turns out to be called Larry and to speak English. Both name and language have been forced on him by the researchers at the Institute, who performed gruesome experiments on him, torturing the poor guy and even abusing him sexually. For the rest of the novel, however, we’ll only know him as Larry.

Larry is something of an antithesis to the world around Dorothy. In contrast to our pop-cultural expectations he does not have an unpronounceable foreign name, which the savvy researchers have shortened to Larry. He was given his name because in his home culture:

“We don’t give names… Everyone knows. We recognize each other.”

The whole culture seems far more intuitive, people do “the same things” and look the same., it seems less like a humanoid society and more like a tender, well-oiled machine, such as nature may appear to be at times. Larry is very tender, careful. Apart from webbed toes and frog eyes he appears to look like any (good looking) man. The fact that he is stark naked quickly awakens Dorothy’s desires, which lay dormant for a long time:

He sat down beside her. He said, looking at her, “I’ve never seen. Men, but not someone like you.”
“A woman,” she whispered, her throat beginning to close up.
He asked, “Are you frightened?”
“Of course.”
“I’m not. I feel good. But it’s very strange.”
A lot more than strange, she thought. And then: no, it’s just the same. They rolled backwards together on the bed.
“Wait. Not like that,” she said.
“Show me.”
“I’m a bit embarrassed.”
“What does that mean?”

She proceeds to have sex with him quite often, everywhere in the house. The novel never describes the sexual act, but shows its reflection in the changes in Dorothy, who becomes happy, relaxed, who suddenly starts to take an interest in life again. She learns what Larry is prepared to eat and what not, she learns about the way he was treated in the Institute. Automatically she assumes multiple roles. She is protective, as of a child, she caters to him as she caters to her husband and, most importantly, of course, she has taken him as her lover. At night he hides in the guest room or drives around town (she teaches him), and whenever her husband is gone, Larry comes out. Events spiral out of control when he kills five louts in self-defense, who attacked him with knives and broken bottles. The media immediately points to the dreaded monster; clearly, he’s no longer safe in her house, people will notice and tell on her. She must get him back to sea, which attempt leads to the cataclysmic finale.

Many of the references to “The Tempest” are obvious, I’d think, but there is a twist to it all. Larry is both Prospero, the man who comes over the sea and leaves again at the end, and Caliban, the native ‘alien’, who is taught the ‘civilized’ culture, who is perceived to be in need of teaching (incidentally, he does not only learn language. He watches a lot of TV and starts, suddenly, to imitate a dancer in a commercial. After learning the performance he asks Dorothy what it means. She replies that it’s just a dance performance and considers telling him about the cultural moorings of dance, but thinks better of it. After a while, twoscore pages later, Larry proclaims to have understood what it means. We are never told what Larry’s groundbreaking insight is, but clearly, using his limbs in the semiotically fraught way of dance is a language, as well, and Larry recognizes this immediately, and learns). Since Larry is, as I mentioned, a representative of the forces of nature (He seems, at times, as naïve and helpless as Prince Myshkin, but their naivety is rooted in completely different circumstances; indeed, it’s rather Dorothy who is a weathered, numbed descendant to the Prince, I think), one may see the world where humans built their cities as the island where Prospero’s rule has wrought many changes. Dorothy, the best candidate for ‘Mrs. Caliban’, supports such a reading. The very name “Mrs. Caliban” is ambiguous. Fred, her husband, is clearly in no shape to be the noble savage, but at the end, Larry and Fred, somehow, have merged in her racked mind: asked about her husband’s name, she produces the name “Larry”. This suggests that it is only at the end of the novel that she has become Mrs. Caliban.

This issue of naming and reference is fickle. Ingalls interrogates two large constructs, both concerned with power and disenfranchisement. There is gender and its intricacies, the relationships between men and women, the roles both automatically assume and the difficulties of breaking out of such a role. Both Dorothy and her best friend Estelle try, and both, in a way, fail at it and both are tragic failures, because we can see it coming. The depressing, claustrophobic domestic situation of Dorothy is emblematic for the world and society she lives in and it takes Larry for us to see that. I say: “for us”, because all the characters are restricted to their world, they are never afforded the opportunity to actually reflect upon their roles and relations. The second large construct is only hinted at, and it concerns the idea of enlightenment and progress. Larry and the Institute are two factors in this discourse, but the criticism does not only strike at blind belief in scientific progress: when a news report about the five dead teenagers moves Fred to rant about the ugly, giant monster, we get more than a whiff of the amount of prejudice and racism that is part of this society’s structure. The fact that the community appears to be completely ‘white’ only adds to the claustrophobia. In order to to this in the brevity she has chosen, however, Ingalls is forced to project very conventional, strangely unproblematic sense of corporeality. It questions many conventions, but bodies just exist and are all functional human bodies. I said ‘strangely unproblematic’ because, after all, we encounter a 6 foot sea monster which has never lived with humans, which doesn’t speak normally, which is irritated by the movements of dance, but this is all taken in stride. The strangest part about this is sexuality.

While emphasizing the needs of sexuality for Dorothy, the novel is less explicit about the effect this has on Larry, who has never had sexual intercourse before. In a way, Dorothy makes him into a man, but we never learn whether this effects any change in Larry. After all, we aren’t even sure Larry exists at all. The uncanny messages that we learn about on the very first page, introduce a sense of surreality. In the sense of Brian McHale’s excellent explication of postmodernism, this is a highly postmodern novel which at no point expresses an interest in finding out what’s real and what’s not. There are parts of the story that conform more to what we conventionally perceive to constitute ‘reality’ and parts that conform less to that, but Ingalls is constantly mixing up her elements. Certainty is not for us, and it’s neither for Dorothy who, in the final chapter, scrambles to hold everything together even as life and fantasy fall apart. In a way, Dorothy is caught up in a Cyclone but she can neither return to Kansas nor land in Oz, so she’s in a state of limbo. Thinking about this I was reminded of Salman Rushdie’s famous essay on the Wizard of Oz where he points out the difference between the Kansas of the book and the Kansas of the movie version. If I do not misremember him, he emphasizes the fact that the Kansas of the Wizard of Oz movie is not a realistic Kansas, as the one in L. Frank Baum’s book is. It is a curiously warped version. In Mrs. Caliban, Dorothy may be living in a country which is the dark twin of that Kansas.

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John Ashbery reading

John Ashbery, together with Paul Muldoon and Geoffrey Hill, is quite possibly my favorite living poet. Here he is, reading his poem “Interesting People of Newfoundland”. My professor used to say that seeing Ashbery read or speak made one want to protect the fragile man from harm, although he does not look fragile.

(via)

Short Circuit: Ilija Trojanow’s “Autopol”

Trojanow, Ilija (1997), Autopol, dtv
ISBN 3-423-24114-4

While not conceiving or constructing it first, the Autobahnen, the German highway system, is still considered to be one of Adolf Hitler’s lasting achievements by many Germans, not just revisionists. In his second novel, “Autopol”, Ilija Trojanow digs deeply into the tar to excavate a horrific dystopia, published in 1997, on the heels of his widely praised debut novel “Die Welt ist groß und Rettung lauert überall” (1996), as part of an Internet project, as a “novel in progress”, published in small, hyper-linked installments. Since then he has been traveling the world and went on to published multiple travel accounts of India, Bulgaria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Mecca, he has also been writing essays, managing his own small publishing house (all of his books, incidentally, were published elsewhere). With all that, it took him 9 years to finish his third novel, “Der Weltensammler”, which I’ve reviewed here. “Der Weltensammler” is, as I said then, a masterpiece, frightfully aware and complex, a mature work in every way, a warm, full-bodied read. “Autopol”, in contrast, is short and very lean, almost angular; it’s also considerably less complex, serving its ideas up hot from Trojanow’s excellent mind.

When it was finished and, finally, published in book form, for a while readers had the choice to read the paper copy of it or the hypertext online version. All I had was the book itself, and while I can see how the novel would have worked as a hypertext, I do not have the option of reading it as such any more, since the online version has disappeared. Contrary to my expectations, ordering all the bits and pieces and binding them into a single book may have rendered the whole enterprise less interesting, rather than more, but that’s purely speculative, of course. The actual book on my desk is certainly worth reading and recommended. It’s a science fiction thriller, told in very small chapters. There are dialogs, conventional narratives, photographs, copies of press clippings, and an official memorandum. The plot is rather conventional, but cutting up the narrative and offering several voices the opportunity to tell the story makes for a quick and varied read. The novel consists of three sections; while the basic mixture of formal genres within each section stays roughly the same, the headings change. This may appear to be an inconsequential change, something that could be seen as simple trickery, but “Autopol” not only relies heavily on such changes but it also draws much strength and insight from them. It’s power is not, after all, derived from the writing itself, but from other elements: scenario, ideas, and formal tricks. The writing, I’m sorry to say, is weak, though it is never actually bad: somehow Trojanow always manages to be at least functional. He conveys what he has to in a decent style without the stylistic embarrassments that plague so much of current German fiction.

The basic idea is simple: a political dissident, Sten Rasin, is imprisoned in a huge prison colony, the eponymous Autopol, where criminals are dropped into to disappear; Rasin subsequently stages a large-scale prison escape attempt, in the course of which hostages are taken and people are killed. In Autopol, there is no rehabilitation, it’s a place where those end up whom the society wishes gone. Thus far, nothing new. The structure of the prison, however, is novel. It’s not a region or a place or, God forbid, one of those prison planets so ubiquitous in SF movies. It is a system of highways, a closed circuit that is cut up into four sectors, each of which has four rest stops. In between the rest stops, cars ceaselessly circulate. These cars are the prisons, and their drivers are called pilots, since the cars are apparently meant to be a mix of high tech buses and modern trains. The rest stops are solely meant for the drivers. Prisoners only get off the buses when they are sick or dead. They eat, sleep and live on the road. This system, closed off the the world bustling on outside, has developed a dynamic of its own. It is not run by the government, it is run by a company; the judiciary has almost unchecked powers to drop people into the abyss that is the Autopol and neither the company nor the people outside care. As it turns out, by now, even if they did care, the system cannot be effectively supervised by the people. Criminals are not just abandoned in the prison; by dropping them into the closed system of the Autopol, they are dropped out of the “open” system of the society outside.

This scenario will evoke several unpleasant historical and cultural associations in most readers. There are roughly three layers of significance. The first, and most unpleasant, is the most obvious one. In my first sentence I mentioned the Führer, and the Third Reich is a central reference here. One of the most salient associations, I think, are the cattle wagons used to move Jews through Europe to their fatal destination. As with the Autopol, the railways were a kind of closed system, with most onlookers pursuing a don’t ask, don’t tell policy in regard to the prisoners. The context here is different, of course, but Trojanow is concerned with the frightening ability of a society to cast out its members without looking twice and asks how this ties into our notions of narrative. “Autopol” dwells quite extensively upon the intricacies of speech and discourse, partly by using different genres, as mentioned, partly by the inclusion of an undercover journalist, who is determined to ‘get the truth’. This is the second major reference, equal parts Natural Born Killers and Katharina Blum. Journalistic ethos and narrative truth are both important parameters here, and questions arise as to how the media shapes our understanding of the world etc. If this sounds unspectacular, it is.

This part of “Autopol” is tedious and repetitive. Much of the resulting boredom is due to Trojanow’s decision to set the novel in a world very similar to the one he lived in then (1997 Germany). He restricts the SF elements to the Autopol. This, of course, makes some of the novel’s predecessors such as Böll all the more obvious, and severely restricts the scope of its criticism. That’s something that we often find in fiction writers who turn to the tools of SF for inspiration, but shy away from going all the way. So ’tis with “Autopol” as well: by restricting the amount of SF elements, Trojanow loses many advantages the genre offers. This restriction is clearly intended to generate immediacy, to make the criticism more directly relevant to today’s readers, and, in this, the novel definitely succeeds. Trojanow is a very good writer, too good not to make this book work at least at one level. His decisions, i.e. opting for sound bites rather than longer prose sequences, and for immediacy rather than complexity, mar the novel, I think. As it is, it is highly readable, well executed, but never rises beyond “good”. Good, but, I fear, forgettable, like a good, strong drink.

A drink, that only speaker/readers of German are able to enjoy, so far. As of today, only three of Trojanow’s books have been translated into English. Adding “Autopol” (or his debut novel!) would not be the worst of ideas. Get to it.

How To Be An Idiot

Haruki Murakami, possibly the world’s most overrated writer, received the Jerusalem Prize and proceeded to spit in his hosts’ face with a hate- and spiteful speech that starts badly:

Any number of times after receiving notice of the award, I asked myself whether traveling to Israel at a time like this and accepting a literary prize was the proper thing to do, whether this would create the impression that I supported one side in the conflict, that I endorsed the policies of a nation that chose to unleash its overwhelming military power.

and gets worse with each paragraph that passes. Read it and cringe.

Wild at Art: Gottfried Keller’s “Der Grüne Heinrich”

Keller, Gottfried (2007), Der Grüne Heinrich (Erste Fassung), Deutscher Klassiker Verlag
ISBN 978-3-618-68023-9

This extraordinary novel, translated into English as “Green Henry”, is generally acknowledged to be one of the great novels of World Literature (we’re not getting into Canonization etc. here, a’ight?), and while I find ranking literature difficult, especially over a large period of time, after finishing “Green Henry” I could not but concede the justness of such a categorization. Please take heed: there are two editions of “Green Henry”, one published in 1854/55, with Gottfried Keller, at 33, still a young, energetic man. The second edition was published 25 years later, its author a settled, paunchy old man, almost as old as me. I read both editions a dozen years ago, this time I only reread the first edition. There are significant changes between the two editions and much of what distinguishes the first edition has been changed in the second, especially the dark ending, “dark as a cypress”, as Keller himself put it. I advise anyone who considers reading this book against reading the second edition first. Alas, I have not been able to find out which edition the English translation is based on.

“Green Henry” is not a perfect novel, far from it. Compared to perfect novels such as “The Good Solder”, this one is almost a formless, youthful, overcooked piece of prose. Keller was writing and drafting the novel while the presses were running, his publisher taking the drafts straight off his hands. Immediately after publication Keller expressed his distaste with the outcome of his work. He planned and drafted this novel for over ten years, assembling odds and ends, shifting parts to and fro. The only thing that stayed constant over all these years was the basic idea and the ending. When explaining why he did not discard the novel instead of trying to revise it into a bearable edition, Keller said that there are parts of the novel which he cannot explain, which he cannot reproduce. There are parts of the novel that “one can only have once, and only give once”, as he wrote. After finishing the novel, the reader will feel himself able to point to phrases, chapters, scenes the writer may have meant. I think this says a lot about the book and the impression it makes on its readers.

The plot is not particularly noteworthy, per se. As a classic Bildungsroman it follows the general rules of the genre. It follows Heinrich Lee, a young man from Zürich, through the first stages of his education, academical and sentimental, up to the dark last pages. One of many remarkable aspects is the structure. After twoscore pages Keller inserts an autobiographical récit. It is referred to as a “Youth history” (Jugendgeschichte) in the novel and makes up roughly half of the length of the complete novel. This section is written in the first person singular; the narrator is Heinrich himself and throughout the rest of the novel he carries the manuscript of the Jugendgeschichte everywhere with him. When he, in the later stages of the book, travels back to Zürich, poor and disgraced, he owns nought but the clothes on his back and the manuscript that contains his Jugendgeschichte. The beginning and the rest of the novel is narrated by an omniscient third person narrator, who is, true to the time, quite judgmental, but he is just judgmental enough to balance the cocky voice of Heinrich which has accompanied us for such a long time. The novel as a whole sometimes feels like one of the long, elaborate dreams related during its course, but it feels eerily balanced. Characters move in and out of it; the Jugendgeschichte starts at the beginning of one volume and ends in the middle of another; the third person narrator is sometimes annoyingly interested in Heinrich’s thoughts and feelings and sometimes he barely registers the existence of these things in Heinrich, but it all, miraculously, seems to cohere. And it’s Keller’s voice and thinking that makes it cohere, not the plot, not the writing and certainly not Heinrich the self-important twat.

Heinrich is driven by an ardent wish to become an artist; he has considerable talent and finds at home in Zürich several teachers to help him on his way. When the Jugendgeschichte sets in he is without a father. His father used to be a famous and brilliant man, and his fame is both a help and a hindrance for Heinrich in his days in Zürich. Heinrich’s mother is a dear, caring, thrifty woman, one of the most endearing characters I have ever encountered in literature. She manages their household money, pays for Heinrich’s lectures and, when he’s of age, endows him with enough money to enable him to move to Munich where he intends to pursue a career as a professional artist. The Jugendgeschichte suffers from having a first person narrator, because Heinrich (the protagonist) is a typical teenager, a know-it-all, who pities himself almost as often as he envisions a golden future; the fact that Heinrich (the narrator) wrote the Jugendgeschichte shortly before leaving for Munich, casting judgment upon his younger self, is making it worse.

There are two basic concerns in the Jugendgeschichte: art and love. Heinrich is a typical teenage boy who vacillates between pining for girls, which includes writing poems and drawing pictures of and for the loved one, and acting cool, in order not appear vulnerable towards the girl who obviously cannot feel anything for him. Granted, my own youth may have been a particularly pathetic specimen (which I still hesitate to turn to for in my writing, no matter how much I’d like to tap that source) but not much appears to have changed, once you subtract obvious (positive) changes in a society’s mores, such as teenage sexuality and the influence of Christian thought on your average thinking teenager. In this, we never see Heinrich grow up. In his infatuations and affairs with girls in Munich, he never stops being his teenage self. If a Bildungsroman charts a maturing of the main character, not just an education, “Green Henry”, I think, violates that rule. His behavior towards the first girl in his life and his behavior towards the last girl are strangely similar. Heinrich, called nicknamed ‘green’ because of the green clothes his mother sews for him, remains green for all his emotional life. He’d rather evade confrontations than talk or sit through them. If he has the opportunity to not open himself up to hurt, he will take it. As someone who can understand the logic of that, I could have told him that hurt is not easily put off one’s tracks; someday, it will catch up with you. Heinrich has this lesson driven home to him again and again yet he doesn’t learn, he remains green Henry.

It is completely different with art. Art, for Heinrich, is a continuous learning process. First he learns from teachers, then, upon visiting relatives in the country, he starts to learn from nature. The Jugendgeschichte is crammed with Heinrich’s ruminations about what real art should and should not do, it discusses the relation between art and nature, between copying a picture and creating one oneself. Time and again we see Heinrich torn between the easy solution of drawing an idea, a cliché ridden image, with no connection to the natural world, and what he sees as the ethos of art, trying to provide as truthful a picture of nature as possible. We find that his relatives in the country, even his peasant uncle who has not seen much art in his life, can easily spot the artifice, the ‘wrong’, the dishonest kind of art. All this is spread heavily throughout the Jugendgeschichte, and it’s tedious. As mentioned, we have two Heinrich’s in the Jugendgeschichte, Heinrich the protagonist and Heinrich the narrator, one more self-important than the other, and their combined odds and ends of education add up to this huge amount of vapid lecturing. The tediousness, however, has a function in the novel. We’re supposed to feel the stupendous amount of youth that lords over all of Heinrich’s actions so as to feel him growing in the second half of the book.

And, in contrast to Heinrich’s emotional life, his understanding of his own creativity and his art really matures and grows. His career as an artist never takes off because Heinrich isn’t willing to make it work, but at the same time, cut off from his home, cut off from nature, he digs deep into his creative urge and instincts. He understands, what works for him and what doesn’t. In a clear contrast to the Jugendgeschichte we barely see him drawing, painting, reflecting. What we get are dreams, where the cultural history of his country and the angsty swamps of his unconscious play out, we see him try to wake up after a year of doing nothing, try to tap into his creativity again, breathe into himself. In a pivotal scene he sits down to draw but he produces an abstract painting. His friends ridicule him, but neither they nor Heinrich himself can help being affected, if only for a moment, by the power of the painting, which is subsequently discarded. It does not fit the idea of good art, and good art, then and now, is equal parts accomplishment and market value. Heinrich admires crassly commercial artists, who are able to make any idea or sujet work with little effort: they just put their usual spin on it and it sells and sells and sells. Heinrich, on the contrary, is still searching for the perfect means to express himself.

Much of this novel seems run-of-the-mill, after all, it’s 1854, some of the most important and well known Bildungsromane have been written and provide a subtext for the novel: Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, Wieland’s Agathon or Jean Paul’s Siebenkäs. Keller clearly has no ambition to better them or to innovate. This novel turns, to look not at the world or literature or things like that, it turns inward. The way that the Jugendgeschichte is strewn over the 4 volumes in which the novel was published originally is significant: Heinrich’s quest is clearly also a formal imperative for this novel, which doesn’t present one long, convoluted plot as a series of skirmishes or battles with Heinrich’s art or himself, and he loses all of them. How ironic that, midway through the novel, he is to win the only actual fight he is in. Heinrich’s character makes us doubt his accounts in the Jugendgeschichte, too often Heinrich appears to exonerate himself from tougher charges; so while we read about his youth, we are constantly doubting the veracity of the Heinrich’s reports of the events relayed to us through his voice and when we watch him bumble through Munich, we are armed with the discussion of nature and artifice, shaken by the long dream sections which sometimes appear to be seamlessly blending into reality, and we start to doubt the evidence of our own ears, which makes for fascinating reading, although you don’t HAVE to read the novel that way. It doesn’t force any reading on you; you are perfectly free to read it as an example of the Bürgerlicher Realismus (bourgeois realism, a genre that dominated especially German 19th century novels in the second half of that century (Same time next week this blog will feature a review of another famous specimen of that genre, Wilhelm Raabe’s popular novel “Der Hungerpastor”)). Fact is, it drew me right in and especially the first and last third just flew by. Highly recommended (but only the first edition, remember!).

"Feminazi"

A debate at two blogs, among them Irene‘s wonderful blogeous ode to inebration, has centered on outrage against prescriptive modern feminists. What they, especially Sybarite (post one, post two), think of strident feminists is well described by the slur “Feminazi” that neither of them uses, but that people who take the exact same line, do use. And yes, it is no accident that their positions, especially Sybarite’s, can be summed up as using a slur coined by Rush Limbaugh. I started to write a comment at Sybarite’s blog but it became too convoluted so I thought I’d take it to my home turf.

Rereading their posts, I think they fail to see a major problem: what some feminists are saying is that you only THINK you are choosing for yourself, that your choice is, in fact, made for you, once you learn language, behavior and manners. The cultural imprint is so strong that it is an illusion to be able to chose for one’s self. And yes, it is a very dangerous balance, between liberating women and rhetorically restricting their behavior. A good case in point is judith butler’s work on feminist matters, which vacillates between severely pessimistic accounts and accounts of freedom. You can’t disprove Butler’s argument easily, especially not by saying: how can I not know myself and my own decisions? which makes it all a tightrope act. Where do you cross into tyranny, into paternalism? I especially feel extremely uncomfortable writing this because my kind have been silencing female voices for centuries, and am I not now engaging in a similar undertaking? That creeps me out, to be honest.

So I’ll keep things brief. One thing, neither of the two mentioned, is the sexualization of little girls, the Bratz dolls are a case in point (also, related, remember the recent scandal over the Sasha and Malia dolls?). The things some feminists are complaining about hurt our children first, there are issues such as bodily self-image, sexualization, plus, most recently, the American culture which has experienced a rollback in sexual morals (will post the study once I dig it out); to cut to pop culture: look at how girls describe their love and admiration for Stephenie Meyer’s inane Twilight books? To brush all this aside by a coquettish moue, saying: But I like it that way! is appalling, to me. The direction our societies are taking is clear, unmistakeable, and ugly.

To reiterate: your own decisions may not be your own decisions, especially since they reinforce cultural stereotypes, which are shown to be culturally specific, most certainly not biological, so if feminists point that out, i.e. the fact that you dress in what amounts to a garb of capitulation to the prevailing cultural misogyny, they may not be “replac[ing] a patriarchy with a matriarchy” (a misogynistic term if I ever saw one) but, on the contrary, point out the mire we’re all still in. still the same stereotypes, only this time we like ‘em. the wide acceptance by the so-called “new feminism” of essentialist, hurtful images and ideas is frightening.

All this is rather vapid, empty blather, since I am reluctant to dish out. It is not my place to speak up here, it just isn’t. My position is best described by Katha Pollitt, an old-fashioned feminist, and an invigorating writer. IN her 2006 collection Virginity or Death! she writes the following:

Women have learned to describe everything they do, no matter how apparently conformist, submissive, self-destructive or humiliating, as a personal choice that cannot be criticized because personal choice is what feminism is all about.”

The bitterness of her words and the trap that she sees there, are both important and noteworthy.

Feminism is a complex issue, not easily resolved. There are very smart feminists as well as utter idiots (Camilla Paglia, anyone?). Arguments such as Sybarite’s, which miss several important points, succeed, because they attack a position by attacking the dimwits among the supporters of such a position. That’s too easy. Take it up with the smart ones.

"C’est ce vide qui m’ennuie"

Facinating article on what fellow blogger Fausto @ tabula rasa perceives as a lack in the francophonic blogosphere; I direct your attention especially to the comment section where a lively (and vitriolic) debate is taking place. I admit I do not share some axiomatic values of Fausto’s complaint, but the utter lack of the kind of blogs he mentions, useless though they may be, is noteworthy. If I may add a personal note: two years ago I looked quite intensively for a francophone discussion board and failed to find one of any quality. How small the francophone blog world is exemplified by the fact that on the one board I did start to frequent, http://forum.fluctuat.net/, the only knowledgeable person I found (Christian G@rp), belongs to the small blog network FFC.

Colson Whitehead: The Intuitionist

Whitehead, Colson (2000), The Intuitionist, Anchor
ISBN 0-385-49300-2

I may be experiencing a streak of luck lately with books I read for fun, but this right here is another excellent novel. It’s Colson Whitehead’s debut, published in 1999.Whitehead has since published two other novels to general praise and won a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant, and reading “The Intuitionist” it’s easy to see why. It is a very well-written, completely original novel about racism and elevators. It’s not perfect but it need not be. “The Intuitionist” is very good and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It makes use of a fascinating kind of allegory: the protagonist is an Elevator Inspector, and the story is set in the Elevator inspector milieu, in a society which roughly corresponds to 1950s America, I think, featuring scenes at Elevator college seminars, in Elevator libraries, at Elevator inspector conventions, not to forget that Elevator inspecting gets done now and then and quite a bit of Elevator theory is relayed to us,including something that is most certainly a kind of Elevator deconstruction. The Derrida of Elevators is called Fuller, and although he’s been dead a while, he has an important part to play. I wager there isn’t a Derrida in actual Elevator inspecting practice. Although Elevator inspectors certainly do exist, it is not an academic profession, and I certainly doubt the existence of Elevator inspecting theory. Elevators provide an extraordinarily original allegory for a whole category of class concerns, but there is a danger. Racism and topics like that can be perceived as ‘dirty’, unpleasant, but clothing them in a clean allegory may help your rhetoric but it often reduces the inherent urgency of a topic like this. Colson Whitehead is smart enough to recognize that.

On top of this ingenious construction, he has crafted a suspenseful thriller. The plot is wonderfully complex and, true to its genre, only unravels slowly, as the protagonist finds out about intrigues and secrets hidden in every nook of the Elevator inspecting milieu. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, is the first black woman to become Elevator inspector. Inspector Watson. As someone who, in the center of power, is relegated to the peripheries, she is made to be the fall guy in what at first appears to be a union dispute. Two factions fight for the leadership of the Department of Elevator Inspectors, and as elections approach, they will use any means necessary to secure an advantage. A pair of elevators recently inspected by Watson suddenly free-fall and crash. Although nobody has been harmed, this is a terrible accident that makes headlines and puts Watson’s faction at a disadvantage. In an effort to clear her name, Watson follows up on different shady leads, has a run-in with the mob, reveals a few secrets and falls in with a bad guy. The book, as far as genre is concerned, is a cross between the bookish thrillers of Dan Brown or Elizabeth Kostova and the detective novels of Chandler, but it is, of course, far more than that.

To understand the way the allegory is weaved into the novel, I think this passage, early in thew book, is significant:

For the first time it occurs to Lila Mae that someone might have been hurt. “That’s impossible. Total freefall is a physical impossibility.” She shakes her head.
“That’s what happened,” Chuck reaffirms. He’s still looking up at the ceiling. They can hear some of their colleagues whooping outside the door. “Forty floors.”
“Which one?”
“Number Eleven, I think.”
She remembers Number Eleven distinctly. A little shy, but that’s normal in a new cab. “The entire stack is outfitted with the new Arbo antilocks,” Lila Mae argues. “Plus the standard reg gear. I inspected them myself.”
“Did you check them,” Chuck asks tentatively, “or did you intuit them?”
Lila Mae ignores the slur. “I did my job,” she says.

In this innocuous passage several important references are hidden. Arbo is an elevator manufacturer, one of the two giants of the trade. The other is called United. The important reference, however, can be found in the dichotomy between “check” and “intuit”: the two aforementioned factions fundamentally differ in their approach to elevators. One of the factions prefers a hands-on approach, to look at the wiring and the mechanical parts of the elevator to check it. They are called the Empiricists and the current Chairman of the Department of Elevators is an Empiricist. The others intuit, they feel the Elevator, they try to sunder elevators and elevator-ness. They are called Intuitionists, and Fuller, the Derrida of elevator theory, is the founding father of that discipline. Lila Mae Watson is an Intuitionist, of course. Interestingly, one of the premises of the novel is that this approach, mad as it may sound, actually works. In fact, the Intuitionists can boast better results and Lila Mae Watson is the best of them all.

The fact that the narrator calls Chuck’s reference to Intuitionism a slur, when it could also be read as a factual question, since, after all, it’s what Watson actually did, points to the fact that it is actually the precarious balance between these two ways of reading Chuck’s words that defines many conflicts in the book. It is not surprising that Lila Mae Watson, the woman on the margins, chooses this discipline. And a secret, not revealed until late in the novel, about the founder of Intuitionism, further expounds upon that intricacy. Empiricism is more than the received and dominant doctrine. It is also the ideology of the dominant power paradigm, reflecting the society’s axiomatic values. So, in a black-and-white reading, Empiricism (as defined in the novel) is white, male, commonsensical, anti-intellectual bullshit. This is reinforced by passages like the following:

See, the Empiricists stoop to check for tell-tale striations on the lift winch and seize upon oxidation scars on the compensating rope sheave, all that muscle work, and think the Intuitionists get off easy. Lazy slobs.
Some nicknames Empiricists habe for their renegade collegues: swamis, voodoo men, juju heads, witch doctors, Harry Houdinis.

One of many strengths of this novel, however, is that such a reading, tethered solely to those in power, does an injustice to the actual intricacies. Watson is the only black Intuitionist, and her guild turns out not to have clean hands, either. For one thing, the novel reflects upon the intricacies of center and periphery, not opting for the easy way out. Pompey, the first black inspector, attacks Watson two thirds into the book:

This is a white man’s world. They make the rules. You come along, strutting like you own the place. Like they don’t own you. But they do. […] I was the first one in the Department. I was the first colored elevator inspector in history. In history! And you will never, ever know what the hell they put me through. You think you have it bad? You have no idea. […] You had it easy, snot-nose kid that you are, because of me. Because of what I did for you.

Problems of identity play a central role in the novel, questions of blackness (Whitehead has clearly read Aimé Cesaire) for example and questions of class, inasmuch as income, erudition and related issues are concerned. The extent to which corporate America was inimical to the young black men and women, to which it has pitted one isolated African American against another, to which it has silenced black voices to better hear the white screech.

Now here’s where the academic dispute becomes salient. It’s clearly intended as a satire on the academic world. In chapters that sketch Watson’s professional career, we are availed of large batches of elevator theory and we are clearly not supposed to take any of that seriously. In fact, as we will find out later, some central textbooks were expressly written as a joke. Personally, however, I think this is not just satire. Communication is a central issue in the novel: I think an especially important reference here is Henry Louis Gates jr.’s theory of the Signifying Monkey. Gates’ theory rests upon the assumption that African Americans have a way of communicating which is all their own, which creates a nonviolent way of coping with oppression and the oppressor, of opening a channel of communication among the silenced. In “The Intuitionist”, all the black characters ‘signify’, in Gates’ understanding of the term; in fact, Intuitionism is, partly at least, most certainly the practice of reading and concentrating upon a subtext in order to order one’s understanding of the whole. All this is wrapped in a light package.

This book is very easy to read and it is enjoyable on a very basic aesthetic level. The language is certainly rich and assured, although, as is expected of a debut novel, it hits a few shrill notes now and then. As I said before, Whitehead manages the genres he’s using very well: it is a suspenseful thriller, until the ending, which is a disappointment but not necessarily because of Whitehead’s ineptitude. On the contrary, I think Whitehead is slowing the book down deliberately at the end, to let his points sink in. He is clearly not interested in letting the reader breeze, untouched by his thinking, through a thriller set in a strange elevator world. He wants, no, he makes us understand what we have been served. And one of the last points we are made to understand is that it is no surreal fantasy world, after all: “The Intuitionist” presents a world that is almost a mirror to ours, a city that is like ours, just with elevator theory. It’s Gotham City, with elevators.

We are never told which city the City actually is, but like Gotham, we are pretty sure the city in question is supposed to be a distorted version of New York. And so, last but not least, “The Intuitionist” can be read as an ode to New York, since, among other things, the City is described as the one which the whole world looks to where elevators are concerned. It is a precarious city, and New York is a precarious city, the city of integration, but also a city of race riots, a city of chances and death traps. When Watson, after the underwhelming finale, decides to start anew, she stays in New York and we accept this: where else would she go, but to Gotham City? Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. “The Intuitionist” shows us a society that is under a heavy strain by racial and class conflicts, that is on the brink of eruption, with the tired, poor, huddled masses leading this revolt; and it shows us a way out, not the way of assimilation, but the way of intuition, of communication, of finding a voice, and hearing the muffled voice behind the thick metal doors.

Mouthfuls

Recently I discovered not just the fabulous blog A Literary Cocktail (anything that encourages drinking in style and on a regular basis is lovely) but the affiliated blog Bookbabble, I found it necessary and remarkable to point out the book talks posted there (among others, Irene of the Literary Cocktail partakes from time to time). Here’s the latest:

Visit the Widget Gallery

Excuse me, please

I rarely post poems that don’t meet at least a minimum standard. Recently, poems that meet these criteria have been few and far between. That does not mean I don’t finish poems. They are just not very good. I am afraid, however, that if I don’t post them, they’ll just vanish completely and that’s not satisfactory. I lost five poems during the past two weeks. Not acceptable. So, please excuse the low quality of the poems I will post during the next weeks. I try to write the best I can, under the circumstances. I am also thankful for any and all comments.

Flotsam: Stephen Marche’s “Shining at the Bottom of the Sea”

Marche, Stephen (2007), Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, Riverhead Books
ISBN 978-1-59448-941-9

Mark my words. Stephen Marche will be enormous, one of the greats of English language literature, if his second book, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, is any indication. This is is an excellent book. Well conceived and well executed, this is a book the kind of which is rarely encountered. It is a book of fictions that is itself a larger fiction that touches upon many interesting and necessary issues. Before I lose myself in the alleys of my mind, let me tell you: I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is doubtless among the best books I’ve read during the past months, and Stephen Marche may well be becoming one of my favorite living writers, if he can sustain this quality in his future work as well. This book has many ancestors but perhaps none so obvious as Borges and the divine Nabokov, author of a book that is quite similar to Marche’s masterpiece, in several regards: Ada, or Ardor. It is also heavily informed by theory, especially poststructural and postcolonial philosophy. Marche quotes luminaries of the fields in question such as Homi K. Bhabha or Jacques Derrida, but the work is never bogged down by these references and I will try to steer clear of Derrida and Bhabha in this review as well.

“Shining at the Bottom of the Sea” has a lot to say but it does it in a light and enjoyable manner. The fat sweaty man of theory that so often rolls upon the unsuspecting reader in books concerned with postcolonial issues, is luckily completely absent here, although the basic premise and structure suggests elsewhere. The book claims to be an anthology of writers from a former British colony: Sanjania, a Caribbean island. It is completely fictional, as is everyone of the 21 (unless I miscounted) Sanjanian writers included in the Anthology. Stephen Marche pretends to be merely the editor of the volume, who provides an informative preface and a glossary of the writers included in the anthology. The anthology contains Marche’s preface, an introduction by Leonard King, the most famous living Sanjanian writer, three sections of stories and one section of literary criticism by Sanjanian critics and others (including a letter by Ernest Hemingway to John Dos Passos). The scholarly parts of the anthology are (formally speaking) perfectly annotated and bibliographed, most references, of course, being completely bogus.

There is a caveat here: this is a careful book that does not sweep up the reader in a ravishing feat of storytelling, although Marche certainly would have the chops to pull this off. No, many stories here not terribly engaging nor are they supposed to be: most stories take less up less than ten pages, and the reader is not allowed to settle into them before he is thrown out again by the scruff of his neck. Some stories we are sad to leave, sad stories about love and death, pride and humiliationsome, I’m sorry to say, just pass us by. It’s a credit to Marche’s powers as a writer that we don’t feel this as a loss, it all adds up the big picture. Because this is, after all, what the pattern of stories is about. The stories manage to convincingly recreate a whole culture, the culture of a fictitious country, no less. With the very first story, the very moment Marche steps up to the plate, a swashbuckling history called “The Destruction of Marlyebone, the Private King” by a “F.R. Fisher”, we are captured by Sanjania. This story is three pages long but it packs the punch of a dozen more pages at least.

This story demonstrates many of the strengths of the whole collection. It never descends into low trickery, it does not fiddle with orthography or funny accents. There is a fine line between representing a voice and slipping into racism, and funny orthography is frequently amusing, but not necessarily evocative, certainly not in and of itself. Marche avails himself of an English that is predominantly modern, even in these early stories, supposedly written at the beginning of the 20th century (we’ll return to this in a moment), but he puts a peculiar spin on it, creating a tone that is all his own and that, after a few stories, we will recognize as “Sanjanian”. There are small tweaks on the syntax, but the larger part of the tone is carried by composites such as “oceanshrouded”. Marche fits these words snugly into the fabric of the stories, they never feel odd or like curios, instead we as readers accept that this choice of words is part of the rhythm of Sanjania. Marche’s success works on two levels, this one, the immediately pleasuring power of his writing is one of it.

The other level is cerebral. There is, as would be expected of a project like this, a double bottom to it all. This book is so carefully, intelligently, yes, slyly, constructed it provides hours of cerebral entertainment, even before we come to the “criticism” section. After all, in the first third of the stories, we have yarns that read like 17th century stories, or 19th century Romantic recreations. From the biographical notes, however, provided for each writer, we learn that they, as previously mentioned, are contemporaries of modernism. The style is clearly anachronistic, even within the fictional framework, Mr. “F.R. Fisher” undoubtedly intended it as a stylistic throwback. It’s propaganda, reaching back to one’s cultural roots to strengthen one’s cultural identity against the colonizer, in this case, the “Britishers” as they are often referred to in this book. A second detail that most will immediately remark upon is the very name of the island, since it refers both to the largest and most well known British colony (India) and to the odyssey of the Zoroastrians who fled what is know today as Iran and trekked all over Asia until they settled in India, where they are known today as Parsi.

This kind of cultural fluidity with a strong inner core that travels well (see Clifford and others) works as well for Sanjania. Both culture, that is, cultural travel and identity, as well as geography, literal and metaphorical, play an important role. In a central story, “Flotsam and Jetsam”, a bookseller expounds upon his theory that Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” was written by a Sanjanian and is set in Sanjania. Travelers, i.e. people, ideas and books, are just so much flotsam and jetsam, thrown into the river of time in distress, with all the stories expressing a yearning for the time when the shipwrecks of old Sanjanian culture sailed under full sails (yes, with all the problematic issues associated with that). Again, not to be too repetitive, but the very fact that I can write this attests to Marche’s evocative capabilities, evoking a culture that does not even exist, and doing it in a light and readable manner to boot.

All of this raises numerous questions about culture and colonialism, not least because Marche’s method works from an English core, a colonial norm, everything here reaffirms the strength of the culture of the colonialist, and displays the maze one is sent to when one seeks out one’s own cultures central ideas with the tools provided by the colonialist. It also shows to what extent we’ve all become cultural colonialists, to what extent we’ve become readers who have, theory be damned, accepted certain framings of the story. Marche’s book does a merry jig in our frames, toys with them, by constructing a world without representing an actual world, solely with the constructs we use. He is a jester, laughing at us: this book does not evoke a world in the sense of representing it, it just taps our convention of how a world is to be evoked, read, (re)presented. Marche does not hit us over the head with these ideas, he lets us realize them, as we glide through a sea of stories, flotsam, all of us. This is a very good book. Read it.

Watch this movie!

I just look at the dopeness. But you, it’s like you just look at the wackness, you know?

I’ve just watched The Wackness, which is an extraordinary movie. I suspect the direction and the camera work’s sloppy, but I can’t judge this movie, I’m so enchanted and moved by it. There you go. I’m a sad sappy sucker. And old, so old. But I love this movie.

Land of the Free

10news.com reports this:

A woman who wore an Islamic head scarf to a local bank said she was turned away and singled out, and is a victim of discrimination.
Amal Hersi and her family moved to the U.S. from Somalia in search of freedom. Hersi said she’s had the freedom she’s wanted, up until last Saturday.
“I felt like a criminal. I felt humiliated. I fell ashamed,” said Hersi.
Hersi said she was waiting in line at the Navy Federal Credit Union in Mission Valley when she said she was stopped by an employee.
“So she goes, ‘Ma’am, could you follow me?’ And at that point I was like what did I do wrong?” said Hersi.
Hersi said the reason was because she wore a traditional Muslim scarf.

Hulkatrice: Ramblings on "The United States of Tara" (TV)

[This is only my second attempt at writing about a TV show, so please excuse my clumsiness and/or stupidity]

The new TV show “The United States of Tara” is a huge success, as far as I am concerned. As I type this short piece, I am watching episode three, delighted by every second of it, as I was delighted by every second in the previous episodes. It is a success in every possible way. The writing is delicious, getting so many pitches just right, as when Kate’s husband talks about the “big diff”, or when having a scene involving both T’s 1970′s hipster jargon and Kate’s 2008′s jargon: Diablo “Juno” Cody’s writing is always clear, always on point, but it would not work as well with actors less great than the cast of this show. The acting is the main selling point. Tony Collette is as good as we’ve come to expect of her, but Keir Gilchrist, who plays Tara’s son, is absolutely astonishing. The premise of the show is easily described: Tara Gregson, who works as a painter of nursery room murals, is a mother of two kids and suffers from D.I.D., dissociative identity disorder: she has multiple personalities which she calls ‘the alters’.

So far we’ve encountered three of them: there’s T, a sixteen year old would-be punk, trapped in this middle-aged woman’s body. She can be rude but she’s actually very friendly and warm. The exact opposite is Buck, a male Vietnam vet, who likes to shoot guns and get into a fight. And then there’s Alice, a 1950′s woman, who appears to be a Super-mom, albeit fitted with 1950s ideas of sex (although she is learning) and morality. Tara is married to Max (played by John Corbett, a.k.a. Aidan from SatC), who is (I think) a gardener, and the weakest character of the whole show, so far. He is little more than a prop in this story: very friendly, very patient. He has trouble resisting the sexual advances of the two female alters, but other than that we don’t get much of him except indulgent smiles and sighs. The Gregsons have two kids: a son, Marshall, and a daughter, Brie. Brie’s your typical teenager, rebelling against her parents (T, of course, is exempt from teenager derision). She is blond, pretty and thoroughly unremarkable. Like her father, she is little but a foil to demonstrate the dynamics of Tara and her alters. Marshall is a closet homosexual 14 year old. He is shy and has just fallen in love with what appears to be a homophobic Christian jock. His character is the only one in the family which is interesting even when not interacting with Tara.

At this early point there is little I can say about the show that is less trite than the previous two paragraphs. I will, however, state what fascinates me about the show, maybe that’s more interesting. I read Tara as a sort of anti-Hulk, or a female Hulk. Now, from our embarrassing comic knowledge we all know about Jennifer Susan Walters, a.k.a. She-Hulk. That character, who chose to keep the Hulk shape, is an endless source of discussions about women and power and feminism. You can go to your local MLA archive for more and smarter work on the She-Hulk. Tara is different in many respects. She does not have superpowers, in the sense of super-human powers (yes there are a couple of classic and not so classic characters who share that with her but we’re comparing her to Hulk now) and she does not prefer to stay in her other state(s). She is closer to the original Hulk, the incredible one. Bruce Banner turns into Hulk when he’s angry just as Tara turns into one of her alters when she’s under stress. She cannot control this and she’d rather just be Tara, just as Mr. Banner’d rather stay himself. Her alters, while not equipped with superhuman powers, can be seen as superpowers in the sense that they represent the ‘shortcomings’ of any regular mom.

Alice is a perfect cook, she can talk and soothe mad teachers and suspicious parents and she keep the house in tip-top shape in the most efficient way possible. T covers a different area of trouble: the teenage child. T can effortlessly em- and sympathize with Brie, she knows what the girl is thinking or feeling because she thinks and feels it as well. Buck, finally, represents a third, and largely underrated area of expertise: when a woman ‘needs to be a man’. We encounter Buck for the first time when Tara witnesses Brie’s Goth boyfriend hit her. When Tara tries to confront him, she fails and this triggers Buck’s appearance, who, in the course of this episode, engages the boyfriend in a fistfight, thus ‘defending Brie’s honor’. The alters are also different in appearance from Tara, although just in the way they are dressed and made up. So, having brought up some similarities to the incredible green guy, why’d I call Tara the anti-Hulk?

My reading stems from the standard reading of Hulk, who is generally read as representing the repressed part of the human character, in Freudian terms: the id, yadda, yadda (for smarter comments, again, do consult the MLA). If Hulk is the id, Tara’s alters could be seen as the super-ego. Hulk is a way for Banner to break out of his mold (the genre expression “mild-mannered” has multiple layers, after all), whereas Tara’s alters are a way of breaking into the mold (also, remember Marcuse’s modifications?). They are her way of conforming to the gender expectations, providing three facets of the perfect wife, the roles she is supposed to play; yes, they are clearly essentialist, but then they’re supposed to be, they are, as I said, not fully formed characters, but gender roles, informed by cultural parameters. The way they interact with their environment speaks volumes of the contradictions inherent in such roles.

There is a limit to this, however. Through all the characters and their interaction a simple moral line is threaded, but there is a lot of promise, especially if we look at fields like heteronormativity. Another intriguing tangent of the whole set up is sexuality. There’s not just Freud/Marcuse, as mentioned. Clearly, the extent to which sexuality is foregrounded almost asks for us to include Reich, doesn’t it? Not so far, however, but the potential’s there. All the characters develop a sexual relation of sorts with Max, their bodies, although they all share a body with Tara, appear to have a different sense of body-ness. This includes a wide range, from the different gait of the four characters to Buck’s declaration that his penis had been shot off in ‘Nam. Sadly, there, too, is a limit to the reflection. Health, height, strength and other things are a given. Still, to wrap this pointless blather up: there is a lot of promise in the “United States of Tara”. As it is, it’s enjoyable and fascinating. It could be great but we’ll see about that. It’s worth at least taking a look.

Die guten und die bösen Deutschen

Vor ein paar Wochen haben wir uns ja allesamt über das hier gefreut, schöne große antisemitische Massenkundgebungen. Ich hätte ja verschiedene Bezeichnungen gefunden dafür, nicht aber “bürgerliche Demonstrationen gegen Krieg und Gewalt”. Ich wurde aber eines besseren belehrt, als ich folgende Frage samt Antwort in einem Interview fand, das der NRW-Verfassungsschutz-Chef Hartwig Möller den Ruhrnachrichten gab:

Muss Deutschland die eindeutige Instrumentalisierung von Demonstrationen gegen Krieg und Gewalt hinnehmen?
Möller: Extremisten freuen sich über die Aufmerksamkeit, die sie erzielen, wenn sie sich bei bürgerlichen Demonstranten einklinken. Rechte, Linke oder beide gleichzeitig versuchen immer wieder, bürgerliche Demonstrationen für ihre Zwecke zu nutzen. In einer offenen Gesellschaft darf eben jeder demonstrieren, auch Extremisten, solange sie sich an die Spielregeln der Gesetze halten.

Daß es sich bei besagten Extremisten keineswegs um Islamisten oder andere Freunde des gepflegten Judenhasses handelt, wird klar wenn wir sehen, daß es in dem kompletten, wirklich lesenswert-bekloppten Interview ausschließlich um die Antideutschen geht,

eine eindeutig linksextreme, antifaschistische und antiimperialistische Bewegung, die allerdings in der linken Szene eine Minderheit darstellt.

Mir schien die Tatsache, daß diese ‘Szene’, soweit ich sie aus der blogwelt mitbekomme, sehr zersplittert ist, immer ein interessanter Fakt zu sein, sowas weist ja oft darauf hin, daß die Dichte an einigermaßen selbstdenkenden Menschen besonders hoch ist. Da habe ich mich allerdings getäuscht, denn

es gehört zum Selbstverständnis der gesamten linksextremen autonomen Szene, jegliche Strukturbildung zu vermeiden, die man dann verbieten könnte.

So einfach ist das. Ich kenne mich natürlich nicht so gut aus, weder kenne ich besonders viele Antideutsche noch bin ich der NRW-Chef des Verfassungsschutzes, aber mir persönlich kommt es vor, als ob da jemand von sich, i.e. seiner eigenen Denke, auf andere schließt. Aufklärung ist mir hier willkommen (Herr Kulla vielleicht?).

Persönlich möchte ich schließen mit meinem Neid auf den Interviewer, dessen Gemütsruhe ich gerne hätte. Wieso kann ich mich nicht darüber freuen, daß die “israelische Reaktion [...] vergleichsweise moderat [war]” und hoffen, daß diese Schädlinge am Volkskörper “erst einmal” wieder “verschwinden” jetzt wo die aktuelle Gazakrise vorbei ist. Fritsch, der das Interview führte, ist ein guter Deutscher. In einem kurzen Artikel darüber, wie Frau Sommer, die NRW Erziehungsministerin, das Erziehungsziel “Ehrfurcht vor Gott” erreichen will, stellt er klar, daß das morgendliche Gebet, dessen Verbot in einer Klasse in Neuss vernünftigerweise gerichtlich durchgesetzt wurde, nicht irgendein Gebet ist, sondern es ist

ein einzigartiges historisches Dokument christlichen Trostes und christlicher Zuversicht aus der Feder des seinerzeit inhaftierten evangelischen Theologen und NS-Gegners Dietrich Bonhoeffer handelt, der kurz vor Kriegsende 1945 hingerichtet wurde.

Ist die Klage der Mutter gegen das Gebet nicht irgendwie auch ehrabschneidend? Muss Deutschland sowas hinnehmen? (via Lizas Welt)

Billige Härte

Rekrutierungen:

Die in Nürnberg sitzende Bundesagentur für Arbeit (BA) hat in Berlin Anfang des Jahres 2009 mehreren Dutzend Hartz-IV-EmpfängerInnen mit Leistungskürzungen gedroht, sollten diese nicht dazu bereit sein, sich beim Inlandsgeheimdienst als „Observationskräfte“ und „Truppführer für den mobilen Einsatz“ zur Verfügung zu stellen. Einziges „Anforderungsprofil“ für die neuen Schlapphüte sei „ein Interesse an politischen Zusammenhängen“, „körperliche Fitness“, „die Bereitschaft zur Unterziehung einer Sicherheitsprüfung“ und „eine flexible Arbeitszeitgestaltung“.

(via classless)

Rationality: Beryl Bainbridge’s “Harriet Said…”

Bainbridge, Beryl (1977), Harriet Said…, Fontana
ISBN 978-0-00-614650-6

“Harriet Said…”, was written in 1958, in fact it was the very first novel Beryl Bainbridge wrote but, as it happened, when a publisher in 1972 finally agreed to publish it, it was the third of hers that was published. Bainbridge has since gone on to become one of the most renowned British novelists of her generation, but these days, several of her novels are out of print, including “Harriet Said…”, which is a big shame. This is an excellent novel, almost flawless; it is also a short novel that contains several other novels’ worth in its pages. It’s a sweet recollection about childhood, a complex evocation of interpersonal dynamics and a dark meditation on the emptiness in the souls of three families, that continues to build momentum until it ends in a climax that provides no resolution nor relief to the helpless reader. Since the book is extraordinarily well written, I almost could not resist reading the whole book in one sitting.

Part of that is the writing, and the eerie way that Bainbridge conveys the irreality of childhood experiences. Thinking back, haven’t we all got memories that appear to be, somehow, less than ‘real’? Language has always been an able medium to convey things like these; to my sensibility it seems that language, as our mediator between our synapses and the world outside, is uniquely qualified to express different ways of worldmaking, of perceiving what we are up against. Writers like Beckett manage to convey this without having to resort to manhandling language the way Rushdie does. Rushdie’s a writer on the adult side of the spectrum who tries to duplicate the other side. In contrast to him, Beckett seems to operate from within language. Apart from a few peers, the only batch of writers who also achieve this effect regularly are writers of children’s literature. They have to appeal to a child’s way of making the world, and they realize, like so few ‘adult’ writers do, to what extent children -and we- are, to use that old phrase: at the mercy of language.

Beryl Bainbridge’s book, however, balances on that divide between these two writings. One, which is conscious of our part in making the world, and the other, larger, adult one, which just accepts the world as a given (see, Rushdie molds the given into shape. He derives his effect from the contrast with the conventionally perceived way of worldmaking). In a way it is a novel on the adult side of the divide, looking over the fence at the Beckett side, if that makes any sense. Details are hard to provide. Odd phrases,words, transitions that sound exciting, and then on the other hand, imagery that is quite explicitly surreal, like this passage that could be the intro to a scene in a musical:

An old man on a bench further along began to whistle between his teeth, tapping his stick on the ground. When the red red robin goes bob bob bobbing a-long…A row of thin knees jerked up and down, a row of polished boots clumped in time to the tune. Any moment now, I thought, Harriet would fling her arms wide and sing at the top of her voice. She was probably only waiting for a tired chorus of old women in shawls and tattered skirts to dance over the stones, massive bosoms a-bobbing, before she began.

The writing is a source of joy. It seduces the reader from the very first page. Novels where the very language keeps surprising the reader are rare. This is one of them. Despite all this, I had to stop to catch my breath and continue reading it the day after. The plot that thus affected me revolves around three families, or rather: two girls (best friends), an old man, and their respective families. The two girls’ relationship is what powers this novel. One of the two is the first person narrator; the other’s the eponymous Harriet. The title is an apt description of the dynamics between the two thirteen-year-olds: the protagonist listens and acts, while Harriet speaks. Harriet appears to know her way around the world: she explains how best to treat their environment and, more significantly, she explains how to read it. The narrator keeps a diary but Harriet dictates her the entries.

Harriet knelt upright, drew out a box from under the dresser, opened it and handed me the diary. “We’ve neglected it,” she said as I took it. “I’ve lots to write about.” (…) Harriet gave me the pencil and lay on the floor again. “Put; ‘She has been away in Wales.” I began to write and kept my face averted, trying to be neat and quick at the same time. “ She has been away in Wales. What next?” “Put, ‘I have been here alone’.” Harriet’s voice was muffled against the carpet. “And that you have become more intimate with the Tsar.” It was always Harriet who dictated the diary, but it was in my writing in case her mother ever discovered it.

More significantly, it’s also from her perspective, not Harriet’s. The idea behind this is the fact that, in case of failing memories, a diary is the best evidence as to what events transpired, and Harriet, as the smarter, more mature friend, is better qualified to be in control of such an important task. She does not, however, stoop to picking up the pen herself (w/ one exception). She’d rather dominate the narrator, getting her to write, as she is also getting her to do fuck and murder. As events unravel, the narrator appears to be coming into her own, mostly through contact with the old man, Mr. Biggs, who is referred to as “the Tsar” by the pre-teen couple.

Early on, she thinks that she has fallen in love with the Tsar, despite the fact that she clearly does not know what it is to be in love. Harriet advises her on how to woo him, which explains why the narrator’s attempts at seducing the old pedophile quickly evolve into cruel games of domination. The narrator is an apt pupil, and is slowly developing a sense of self esteem, as she nudges the old man about. However, this self-esteem is highly unstable since she proves to be completely helpless where direct manifestations of love are concerned. She is unable to deal with situations where Harriet’s instructions are not helpful; there is a reason for the inadequacy of Harriet’s instructions in that area: when it comes to love, Harriet herself meets her limits. Thus, the two of them stumble through a sequence of events, fumbling for the right moves both in the literal as well as the figurative dark. Their helplessness and the lonely despair of Mr. Biggs make for a dense spiral of events.

There is a terrible tension in the book, which is getting worse and worse the further the novel progresses, until it approaches horror, of the kind we know from novels like Doris Lessing’s “The Fifth Child”. The kind of horror that arises from what dwells within us, not in our souls or dross like that but what hides within our communities, what dire things our social structures can beget. In other words, the horror is not in what the characters do. Like in many novels on, for instance, the Third Reich, terror is, partly in the readers’ recognition of the irrational rationale at work, the fact that we are never in the dark about their irrational rationale and can recognize it and fit it all too well into our world. Partly, we also find terror in the fact that these two girls can use their hometown as a place for cruel experiments without anyone noticing, anyone caring, any repercussions. These two girls are daughters of the enlightenment, and the events that unfold are not at odds with that tradition. This is our good ol’ friend, the instrumentelle Vernunft, dontcha know. And here we have two girls, defenselessly exposed to rationality.

This is an extraordinary novel, suspenseful but poetic. It is well written and conveys to us both the joy of childhood and the terror of the evil in our midst. It is highly intelligent and complex, but it remains accessible and readable at all times, if one can stand the darkness. It’s easier than in the aforementioned “Fifth Child”, but that’s because the light writing mitigates it. A most remarkable book, highly recommended to anyone.

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Enemy Action: Ian Fleming’s “Goldfinger”

Fleming, Ian (2002), Goldfinger, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-14-200204-9

This is one of dozens of new editions of the James Bond novels. It’s safe to say that everyone will have seen at least one of the movies made on the basis of the novels and stories penned by Ian Fleming, former Navy commander. Most of the movies have clearly ascended to the rank of classics by now, and so have the novels. Since I suspected that their classic status was conferred upon them not by virtue of literary quality but on account of the influence that these novels exerted over not just British but world literature (and influence, as we well know, does not per se make for good reading) I have not read any of these books yet. So, on a whim in December, I went and bought Goldfinger, since that always used to be one of my favorite movies. This book took me ages to finish and bored my socks off. It’s not a complete disaster, though. There are a few interesting issues in the novel.

The first issue is racism. Ian Fleming’s novels are infamous for being both racist and misogynist, to such an extent that these things had to be toned down in the movies, and we’re talking about a series of movies here that are both racist and misogynist, so that’s quite something to say. The novel appears to disappoint these expectations right at the beginning: when the character of Goldfinger is introduced, a decadent, rich, greedy man with a name that is close to stereotypical Jewish names, Fleming directly addresses his readers. He points out explicitly that Goldfinger is not Jewish, but Latvian. Clearly Fleming knows what his antisemitic readers would expect or assume. He does not interrogate these attitudes or assumptions, he does not criticize them in any way, he merely acknowledges their existence. That is enough, however, to issue this book with a peculiar context. It tells us, or suggests to us how to read certain other passages, such as this one:

Bond intended to stay alive on his own terms. Those terms included putting Oddjob and any other Korean firmly in his place, which, in Bond’s estimation, was rather lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.

Since Fleming knows that he can rely on the less savory instincts on the part of his readers, the explicit way this is formulated points to the fact that the important part of this passage is not the racism but “in Bond’s estimation”. This is especially relevant, since some other prejudice, concerning both women and homosexuality, is brought up in a casual manner and not reflected at all by the narrator.

Thus, this racism is part of Fleming’s characterization of Bond. The agent with the license to kill is shown to be a rather simple, old-fashioned conservative, with a distaste for the modern world, with its streaks of decadence and the tendency towards cosmopolitanism. Indeed, Bond, the tireless traveler, who speaks multiple languages and can handle several countries’ cultural customs, is a well-garbed nationalist, a leftover imperialist, who mourns his country’s demise and is slowly but surely turning into a cultural pessimist. The less than favorable depictions of Americans attest to that. He is linked to his enemy, Goldfinger, by their mutual distaste for modern paper money, if they need to have it at all. Bond hands away huge amounts of money without blinking an eye and Goldfinger doesn’t actually care about the monetary value of his gold, he craves gold both as an object and as a means to achieve something. Build a house, train servants, win. There is but one major difference between the two, as constructed in the novel’s black-and-white world: Goldfinger’s a commie.

Goldfinger, published in 1959, at the end of that era of American politics known as McCarthyism. The basic methodological idea of McCarthyism corresponds to the basic methodological idea of the Inquisition: the accusation is the best proof the prosecution needs. The accusation is enough as it is. The epistemological method of the novel at hand works in the same way. Once the idea that Goldfinger works for the Soviets is lodged in Bond’s brain, it immediately turns to fact. He came up with the idea by pure conjecture, there was nothing pointing in that direction that would have justified coming up with that connection, yet as the novel progresses we find out that, yes, indeed, Goldfinger is a commie. Clearly the novel shares certain ideas about communism with luminous contemporaries (well, almost) such as McCarthy; it turns these common ideas, that even today are shared by center and right wing politicians, into personal faults of Goldfinger.

The novel is not well written, by any measure. It is, however, interestingly constructed. Its concept of truth and proof is not the only aspect worth mentioning. Another one is its use of suspense and action. The novel is plainly not interested in block buster action. There is plenty of that, but it’s crammed into surprisingly few pages, especially when we consider the amount of space that is devoted to a simple game of cards or golf or a meeting of thugs and gangsters. All of these scenes, and many more, are not about action but upon the suspense that is culled from a so-called battle of wills. I forget which famous writer (Clausewitz? Bah who cares.) said it, but it has been said that a battle is decided the moment it starts. This is the case in Goldfinger as well. In the game of golf or in a demonstration in Goldfinger’s mansion we see battle lines drawn, we see troops marshalled, we see two generals facing off. The actual fighting is decided the very moment the troops embark. When Goldfinger tells his foe:

Mr. Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

he is saying that even the first two events, a game of cards and the aforementioned game of golf, have been enemy action already. My tolerance for boredom is rather low, so I won’t be doing it, but it’s certainly worthwhile to read through Fleming’s oeuvre in order to monitor it for these battle lines, for the net of suspicion and subterfuge before the first shot is fired. If you have limited time for reading, I cannot recommend this book, but if you can spare the time, it is certainly worth a peek.