Gung Ho: Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother”

Doctorow, Cory (2008), Little Brother, Harper Voyage
ISBN 978-0-00-728842-7

Here’s the thing. I’m not one of those weirdos who make a distinction between good books and fun books. When I had fun reading a book, I had fun and that’s a good reason to recommend any book. But with Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, and his first young adult novel, I must say, I don’t know. Cory Doctorow is no relation to the great American master E.L. Doctorow, as far as I know, but if he were, the apple, as they say, would have fallen far from that beautiful tree (or has it?). Among several flaws, I’m tempted to call the writing sophomoric (but I’m not going to, for reasons detailed later) and, most damagingly, the novel appears to have been conceived in the early 1990s. Hackers, anyone? That said, the book was a whole lot of fun. Thursday on the train to Wuppertal, I was giggling with joy so much that people looked at me strangely (even more than usual). Also, I have ordered it for a friend’s birthday immediately and will continue to recommend it in the future. It’s an insane amount of fun, plus it’s smart and really educational. Any novel for kids that references Emma Goldman and contains a bibliographic essay that recommends Ginsberg’s “Howl” is very commendable. And really, it’s an awful amount of fun.

So, since I just reminded myself of the fun, I’ll start with the good stuff. The story, set in San Francisco, is about four kids who are engaged in a game of Harajuku Fun Madness, which is a quiz/geocaching type of game. The four of them are high school kids who are talented computer/tech whizzes. Marcus Yallow, the main character, has loaded up on gadgets and trickery to circumvent his high school’s increasingly oppressive surveillance tricks. He is the captain of their Harajuku Fun Madness team, and almost indecently paranoid. His home computer, which he has built from scratch, by the way, downloads his email from the server once per minute and then deletes it from the server. During that game of Harajuku Fun Madness, something happens. Terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge, killing thousands in the process. The four kids are near the site of destruction and in the ensuing chaos they are picked up by a group of masked men and thrown into a van. As it turns out, the masked marauders are actually agents of the Department of Home Security (DHS), who suspect the four of being perpetrators of the attack or at least associates of the perpetrators. The fact that they have backpacks loaded with technical devices that are, as I mentioned, indecently well protected, isn’t helping either.

In the course of the next days they are tortured, mostly because the DHS agents are irritated that someone who is so paranoid and thorough with encryption would have nothing to hide. When they are turned out again, one among their number is missing and Marcus and friends are in a state of complete shock. The city, meanwhile, has stepped up the surveillance, control and persecution as we see the DHS taking control of the city. Marcus, humiliated, concerned for his friends, comes home to a father who is trumpeting patriotic hooey, to a school where social sciences has been taken over by a class where patriotism and the importance of the DHS are taught, etc.. The hacker can’t believe his eyes. Powered by a different kind of patriotic fervor (the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are quoted roughly 6 or 7 times throughout the novel) he decides to do something. Among other things this involves creating and maintaining an underground Internet-ish web (ok, before we continue here, let me just state that I am probably the most inept guy of my age group when it comes to computers and technology and related issues, so ’tis is very rough and probably wildly inaccurate. If you know my other reviews, you know I’m bad with details, but this is worse. I won’t even attempt to describe what the kid does with Xboxes and chips I never heard of.), and building devices which turn some of the surveillance mechanisms in place into a farce. This then evolves into a nonviolent guerrilla war, complete with a war for media control and the truth. As I said: loads of fun.

And it’s educational, too. Every kid who watches the news and starts to believe the toss about security, Doctorow hands him the intellectual tools to understand the idiocy of such statements, by putting all of this into context. He evokes hallowed American icons such as the Bill of Rights and the American tradition of dissent and revolution. This is a point worth making: Marcus is in strong disagreement with the way the society around him changed, and he rebels. He stands up and takes action. This is no dystopia, the America depicted is not much different from the America (or Germany) today. These changes are all imaginable and quickly implementable. Doctorow is suggesting to his young readers: what would you do? In the final chapter, with everything cleared up (Oh c’mon, it’s a genre novel.), Doctorow has his protagonist work at a company that seems very similar to Doctorow’s own, making it easy for his readers to make the connection to the here and now. In a way his is a fictional enterprise similar to Philip Roth’s The Conspiracy against America, but whereas Roth’s smooth end that blended into history as we know it, was the most damaging weakness of an otherwise great novel, Doctorow’s last chapter invites his audience to do as Marcus does. Read online material, rethink your ideas, stand up for your convictions, hack something.

Here is where my two main gripes with the book come in: ideas and audience. We’ll start with Audience. The book is strangely written. The style is simple and artless, it is functional and generic, which is not a bad thing necessarily. The book is not badly written. To write a book in a way that makes for fluid and fun reading is no mean achievement. What bothered me is something else. A novel that talks about a scene as specialized as Marcus’ and about technologies so far removed from everyday speech habits, needs to make sure that those in the know are not bored and that everybody else knows, roughly, what all the hullabaloo is about. The most obvious way to do this is to include a nincompoop who needs to have all the complicated ideas and terms explained to. This is not just the most obvious way to do it, it is also the most usual. So it’s refreshing that Doctorow’s tactic is different: he opts for the direct address: Marcus appears to talk to someone. Since he turns into a semi-professional blogger at the end it is safe to assume that Little Brother is some kind of extended blog entry. There are two problems with this: one is disappointment: direct address can make for great effect, as all sorts of books have shown (I’ll review two of them within the next week). The other is awkwardness. There are numerous irksome phrases. For instance, each time the word “h4wt” comes up in a circuitous, generic phrase I cringed. Doctorow clearly has trouble fitting these two registers of speech. But then, see, I don’t think he’s interested in doing that.

The same applies to to my second main gripe, his awkward juggling of ideas. His discussion of revolutionary action takes place on a backdrop of American patriotism. The Internet, and especially the hacker scene has, if my outsider’s perception is right, always been highly international. Doctorow is having none of this. He does sprinkle his stars-and-stripes menu with a few international guests, but they are always just that, guests on the sideline. The most impact that other countries’ journalists and hackers have is this:

Most notable is the global attention the movement has received. […] The issue came to a head last night, when the British Broadcasting Corporation’s National News Evening program ran a special report on the fact that no American broadcaster or news agency has covered this story. Commenters on the BBC’s website noted that BBC America’s version of the news did not carry the report.

This is criticism of America, but patriotic, righteous criticism: look what these countries are doing! Why are we not doing this? Thus, it fits the rhetoric, that the journalist, who finally steps up to the plate, is not just an American journalist, but a local one. But compared to other aspects, this is no major problem.

What is one is this: the American system is shown to be fundamentally sound. Again, there are hints: his friend Jojo is trying to cut down on his activities in the revolt because he is likely to be targeted first, as a Chicano American, but the fact that he’s merely afraid of this is a joke. The events after 9/11, in most western countries have demonstrated, that repression is not color-blind. Jojo makes his point well, he criticizes the racial bias of the judicial system:

White people get caught with cocaine and do a little rehab time. Brown people get caught with crack and go to prison for twenty years. White people see cops on the streets and feel a little safer. Brown people see cops on the streets and wonder if they’re about to get searched.

But Jojo isn’t caught, and in the prison where Marcus and his friends are held and tortured, Marcus sees a few Arabs, but that’s it. This discussion feels forced, and in contrast with the main points, it falls by the wayside, and fails to make any didactic impact. If this were not as didactic a novel as it is, it would not be its fault. But it is, and it is. I won’t even mention the fundamental affirmation of capitalism that Doctorow’s romantic idea of hacking puts forth. Well. The book has a clear didactic goal and a laudable one, as well. Doctorow may have chosen right when he decided to narrow his focus as he has done in this book. And this is something he shares with the great E.L., whose novels are also often very focused upon a didactic goal, trying to drive one particular point home. And the results, in E.L.’s case, are masterpieces such as The March. Does Little Brother fall short because the vision it presents it too pedestrian? Maybe.

For a different take on the topic, tune in next week, when I’ll review Charles Stross’ SF novel Halting State. Minus points: no Emma Goldman. Plus points: less flag-waving. I’ll see you.

Frontiers: Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy”

Morrison, Toni (2008), A Mercy, Knopf
ISBN 978-0-307-26423-7

Toni Morrison is the last American winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and Americans have been whining about not getting another one ever since. Increasingly I have heard people complain that now that Updike has died and that Roth isn’t exactly young anymore, maybe Morrison should not have gotten that prize, if awarding it meant that neither Updike nor Roth would get one. Add to this the fact that her most famous and well-loved novel, Beloved, was published all the way back in 1987 and you understand why almost every single review of her latest novel, A Mercy, breathed an almost audible sigh of relief. Finally! Finally a return to form. And the topic was slavery again! Yes, I raised my eyebrows, too. But whatever the reasons for the exuberant praise that’s been showered on this novel, it’s well deserved. A Mercy is a very good novel. It’s smart, moving and, despite its short length, has a story is of epic proportions. With a writer of Morrison’s quality, this should not come as a great surprise, but it bears saying: the writing is so good, so clear, so sure that you read each page as you would a poem.

The book is ingeniously constructed: its story is told from multiple points of view, with chapters narrated by different characters. Most characters’ voices are relayed to us in a third person narrative, except for Florens’ voice and her mother’s which are told in the first person. We don’t get one long story, instead we get multiple stories, one for each important character,which actually, when we get down to it, form one vibrant history of a place and of the catastrophic events that the place and its inhabitants head towards. Morrison’s technique makes sure we understand every character and the society in which that character lives. At the center of the novel are three female slaves who work on a farm. We learn everything about the house, reading episodes about the acquisition of each of the slaves and similar events. Their owner is Jacob, a trader, who is very reluctant to become a slave owner.

When Jacob, a small-scale trader […] found himself an heir of sorts, he relished the thought of becoming a landowning, independent farmer. He didn’t change his mind about that. He did what was necessary: secured a wife, someone to help her, planted, built, fathered….he had simply added the trading life.

He opts for female slaves because he wants the “steady female labor” and is afraid of men causing mischief in his absence, since he was “a traveling man”. Jacob did not plan on having three slaves. He bought them as and when an opportunity arose. He bought Lina, his first slave, to do the kind of work a wife would do for him, which is a hint of the slots in place for people in Jacob’s society. Note that in the quote above, he talks about “securing” a wife. He and Rebekka, the woman he eventually marries, have not yet met.

In Rebekka’s voice we hear about her fate, about the reasons why she was married off to Jacob and how she experienced her arrival in the New World. In the discussion about slavery and racism, questions of class have increasingly cropped up during the past twenty years, for instance Ignatiev’s classic study on How the Irish became White (1995) or, better still, David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness (1991). While not foregrounding it here, Morrison is certainly highlighting the question when she choses this as the angle which ‘Rebekka’s chapter’ is exploring. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, we can’t help but notice similarities in the way that Rebekka was ‘sold’ and shipped off and the slaves were, not without being reminded of the differences time and again.

The similarities and the differences are reinforced in one of the most powerful episodes of the novel, one that is, perhaps, the turning-point for the events that form the main story. The youngest of the three slaves, Florens, is sent to get help. On her way she finds shelter at a widow’s home, whose daughter is accused of being a demon, because she has a lazy eye and is possibly exhibiting irregular behavior. A committee investigating the question arrives just that moment and the blackness of Florens’ skin is taken as evidence of Florens’ being a demon herself. Even after Florens produces a letter by her owner, the case is still not clear. The debate amongst the townsfolk is verging on absurdity:

A woman’s voice asks would Satan write a letter. Lucifer is all deceit and trickery says another.

So, clearly, there are similarities in what would raise suspicions among gullible puritans, but, as the widow’s daughter helps Florens with her escape, we are reminded, who, even among outcasts, is in charge and who is not. After all, it is Florens’ very skin that makes her suspicious, not her behavior. It’s her skin that she cannot shed, not change, even if she wanted to. Her being black is a clear signifier in the Manichean world of the townsmen and -women. The fact that her blackness is a cultural signifier, referring back to archaic notions of good and bad is important in a novel like A Mercy that works so much with archetypes. The three female slaves could be said to represent the virgin, the mother and crone, and so on.

Morrison is using these archetypes because her novel is less about telling a story (although it does tell a story and what a moving story it is!) than about history and the cultural assumptions that shape our understanding of it. These assumptions, clearly, involve religion. Everything here is tinged with religion, or rather religions. As we see Rebekka arrive at her new home country, we also see that this is not a New World. It is rather a conglomerate of old people owning a world they don’t understand nor care about, many of them getting rich off of the black backs of slaves. We hear Rebekka tell us about the religious intolerance in England, the intolerance that, as we all know, drove the Puritans to the shores of this New World. And we hear Rebekka’s sorrow at being confronted with the intolerance of the citizens there, who will not baptize her children. Thus, her grief at watching her children die early is deepened by her belief they will not be able to go to heaven.

Religious belief buttresses most of the cruelty that forms the backdrop to what happens. The reader should not that Morrison decides not to include the brutality within the pages of her book. A Mercy is insightful, not shocking. She channels the constant threats of brutality and cruelty through a few select emblematic episodes and images, such as, for instance, Florens’ decision to wear shoes.

When a child I am never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody’s shoes, even on the hottest days […]. As a result, Lina says, my feet are useless, will always be too tender for life and never have the strong soles, tougher than leather, that life requires.

And right enough, as worse comes to worst, she loses the pair of boots she is currently wearing, and, as her life breaks into pieces, so do the soles of her feet (as is typical of this novel, these images are much more layered than I can possibly convey here. Amongst many other things, the pair of boots she wears and then loses are a pair owned by her owner. So, when the boots are stolen, his protection vanishes as well. And I have not even touched upon the issue of sexuality that is raised in this context).

The novel works with oppositions, such as free versus enslaved, and toys with them. Thus, among the reduced cast of this short book we have a black freedman, two white male indentured workers, women, and, of course the three slaves. Thus, we have different varieties of shades between these two oppositions. Another of these oppositions is civilization versus wildness.

I am remembering what you tell me from long ago when Sir is not dead. You say you see slaves freer than free men. One is a lion in the skin of an ass. The other is an ass in the skin of a lion. That it is the withering inside that enslaves and opens the door for what is wild. I know my withering is born in the Widow’s closet.

This, spoken by Florens, states as clearly as it could that “the Widow’s closet”, by which the confrontation with the demon-hunting townsfolk is meant, woke the wildness in her, i.e., the conflict with the land-owning, slave-selling civilization there. It is here that we should perhaps mention, although it may have become rather obvious by now, one of the major literary allusions of the novel The Scarlet Letter and other texts by the divine Hawthorne, just, again, with roles reversed in interesting ways. In the first chapter of that novel, Hawthorne talks about the necessities when founding a new community–you need a prison and a cemetery. Hardened, Hawthorne puts his finger on the essential properties of what, in A Mercy, as well, constitutes civilization. Punishment, i.e., restricting religious and secular behavior and the control over life and death is necessary, since a civilization needs to make rooms for its own dead. It is greedy.

The tiny farmhouse society with two white owners, three slaves and two indentured workers differs from the society around them. Every single person there feels that difference, which is positive for the slaves, who are treated more humanely than their fellow slaves elsewhere, and hurtful for the whites, since the village does not let them forget they’re different. Thus, when Jacob is killed while building a stately mansion on his land, i.e., while he was trying to stop being a traveling man and settling down, becoming part of the society at hand, the tiny society is breaking down. At the same time it is, in a way, being subsumed into the larger society around them. There is, as expected, a bitterness in the title of the novel, and much of that bitterness is due to the fact that the novel’s main characters appear to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, as described.

As with Hawthorne’s work, we are made aware upon what sort of foundations modern society is erected. By interweaving the personal history of its characters with a steaming rich cultural subtext, it makes this story part of our story. I have elsewhere talked about how Hawthorne’s writing can feel like a fist jab to the stomach. There is an urgency and a drive to Hawthorne’s work that I have never found elsewhere. Morrison’s tone is different. She is a powerful, composed writer. Her level of verbal control sets her apart, but her characteristic way with images and archetypes introduces a different kind of urgency. Morrison is writing in a tradition that is a white tradition, that is the tradition of those who enslaved Florens, Lina and Sorrow. Hence the concern with slipping in and out of opposites. As we saw, the slavers are white male Puritans, with a Manichean mentality. They thrive off dichotomies. White and black. As I must have said a dozen times on this blog, Gilroy and Morrison herself in her landmark study, have demonstrated the extent to which these opposites have become culturally ingrained. There are many ways writers to deal with these complexities, none like Toni Morrison’s, who is one of the best novelists of her time. And then there are those who, ever so slightly, affirm the old oppositions, with elegance and irony, like John Updike. My allegiance as a reader is clear.


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Kulla Kämpft

Classless Kulla gibt sich kämpferisch und frustriert:

Ich will den Kapitalismus überwinden wegen der Dinge, die er den Menschen antut bzw. wegen der Dinge, die sich Menschen im Kapitalismus antun; aber in letzter Instanz will ich den Kapitalismus schon allein wegen der Dinge überwinden, die er mir antut. Und weil ich es hasse, mich angesichts des allgemeinen Elends mit diesem beschissenen Zustand auch noch privilegiert fühlen zu müssen.


James Merrill’s work contains many places; we have, in the past pages, mentioned a few of them. I could well have picked other poems, those I picked, however, offered enough diversity, in terms of publishing date, length and content, that the findings cannot be blamed on a cluster of any of those factors. They could indeed be blamed on selective choosing of poems yet I am confident that as the paper progressed my findings became more and more evident and plausible since I would argue that the general approach works for every poem of place in Merrill’s work. We also discussed how these places are portrayed or used in the poetry; from our discussion we developed, step by step, an understanding of the mechanism and developed our own terms to describe that mechanism.

In this conclusion we will take a final look at that mechanism and its range and limits. The first thing to notice is that we multiplied the number of places since we claimed that memories and dreams are treated in the poetry as if they were separate places. This is in no way a proposition about some actual place or something comparable. This proposition is only concerned with the workings of the poetry, where memory is, indeed, a sort of place, as is dream. There is one major difference between these sort of virtual places and actual places: With actual places we discussed the possibility of them being home or a home, we graded them on a scale from very far away from home, such as Japan in the “Prose of Departure”, to very close to home, such as New York. Memories and dreams are left out, since one cannot live in dreams or memories, much as one would like to do it.

Memories are places constructed by the remembering mind, which recollects a few salient objects. The same applies to dreams. This is rather similar to writing, which makes it especially important in a poet such as James Merrill. Merrill is a poet of detail: an abundance of puns, rhymes, meter, as well as countless allusions and numerous details are defining properties of his writing. The mechanism which creates the memory and dream places is thus one that is at the heart of James Merrill’s poetry. This is the first meaning of the title of the thesis. The second, and arguably more important one is concerned with ‘real’ places. We put “real” in inverted commas not because we adhere to a skepticist postmodern idea of reality, but because we found out quickly that real places and the cultural layer through which we perceive them, are virtually indistinguishable.

The speaker of Merrill’s poems casts this cultural layer over his descriptions, it is like tinted glass, without knowledge of the exact colors in the glass. The indistinguishable quality is mostly derived from selection and cannot be checked afterwards. Objects, persons and events that have fallen by the wayside are irretrievable, since our undertaking here is literary criticism and not biography. All we have, to cite that old chestnut, is the text, which presents the preselected, preformed version of reality. The cultural layer, insofar as it can be gleaned from the text, is not only a hindrance. It is also a key to understanding the speaker since it speaks volumes about his background. The important thing here is to step away from calling the cultural layer, as I have admittedly just done, a hindrance. Instead it is a special way of framing places.

Places in James Merrill’s poetry are a conglomerate of different factors. Roughly speaking they consist of real place plus the speaker’s perception of the place. We already noted that this perception is affected by what we called the cultural layer. This is, however, but half the story. In our discussion of poems like “The Thousand and Second Night” as well as “An Urban Convalescence”, we pointed to a second factor: the speaker’s body. Between the body of Merrill’s travelers and the place they visit strange relationships develop. The sickness of a city may translate into a immobilizing sickness of the speaker and the speaker’s convalescence may find a mirror in the city’s parallel process of convalescence. Again, the caveat: this is not about actual causality, but about the inner workings of Merrill’s poems. And there we find that the speakers, while perceiving places cerebrally through the cultural layer, also often perceive them viscerally, via their bodies. This dependence upon bodily travel is remarkable and noteworthy in as literary and abstract, even, a poetical language as Merrill’s. If we recall our chapter on Sandover, we find that the visceral, bodily kind of perception is also the one most directly involved in receiving the spirits at the Ouija board, where the reception takes place in the “RED CELLS”.

Thus, to iterate, places in Merrill’s poetry are real places plus the culturally or bodily mediated experience of them. This leads to a few points of interest which, due to length and focus of this thesis, we have not been able to address, yet are sure could and should be addressed at length in later studies of Merrill and his work. The first is the question of performativity. Merrill, as has been pointed out almost ad nauseam in secondary literature creates rooms within his poetry (cf. for instance Lundquist). They are not places in our understanding of the word, not if we want to keep the word meaningful and not a catch-all term. However, I did mention how close the process of mentally creating a place and the process of creating a poem is, especially since all we have is the created poem, which mimicks the mental process. Recollection is a gesture, a function of Merrill’s poetry. Performativity also, however, refers to questions of identity, which, whether it touches upon questions of gender or sexual preference, is highly interesting as a topic in Merrill’s poetry. Secondary literature on Merrill has focused too much on direct intentionality, which we owe to the fact that the leading scholars on Merrill, Kalstone, McClatchy and Yenser, have all been friends with the poet, and their understanding of the poet has developed in key with their communication with him, so that the two elements have become inseparable, which is, as I mentioned in the introduction the reason why I used so few secondary sources to argue my readings of the poems.

This leads us to the next large issue that I have not been able to touch upon yet which
seems to be a fecund issue to explore in more detail: language and communication. First the actual language used in the poems: James Merrill’s poetry is written in American English, sometimes it contains, for example, pieces of French, when expressing aspects of his speaker’s cultural layer, and sometimes it contains pieces of, for example, Greek, when focusing upon the local cultural layer. The second aspect is the way that language is molded in poems like Sandover: the spirits often deviate from common usage. Questions are turned into “?s”, for example, divinely inspired work is called “V work” and for a while, Mirabell prefaces each metaphor with a bracketed ‘m’. Also, the orthography is sloppy. This is so interesting because it raises questions of voice and questions about the boundary between the written and the spoken word. After all, Sandover is a dialogue, only one side never utters an audible word. Instead it makes a cup move upon a wooden board, letter by letter. This is remarkable. What seems like quick, effortless dialogue has been dictated letter by letter. Even if done at the utmost speed, taking such a dictation must take quite a while.

The last large issue is connected to the two already raised: unquestionably Merrill writes from a position of privilege. How is this reflected in his work? Secondary literature tends to either attack him for inhuman arrogance in Sandover or snobbish ignorance in his other work, or it completely exonerates him. I have yet to see either position cogently argued. Both positions are usually written like preachings to the choir. Here, again, much of the focus would rest upon Sandover, where a complex web of discourses about authority, racism, power, identity, has been woven, and people misrepresent it usually.

Merrill is, however, a writer easily misrepresented. The complexity of his work, both on the level of allusions, on the formal level and on the plain level of content assures that even a thorough study will pass some points by. By concentrating on a series of close readings I hope to have found a way to cope with the issue as good as possible. My intent was to demonstrate how places, be it cities or countries, are represented in James Merrill’s poetry and to argue that places are central to that poetry. The mechanics we uncovered/invented are useful instruments to tackle all poems by Merrill, because the tension between self and the environment, which is debated time and again in the poetry, is Merrill’s constant theme. Merrill’s is a poetry of places: it is a poetry about places, where the reader is transported all around the world. And it is a poetry where places play a formative role. Merrill’s speakers all have bodies, they are somewhere, they have had corporeal experience. If this sounds trite, please reconsider: Merrill uses, like few other poems of his caliber, his speaker’s bodies as a constant way of grounding them, while developing one of the most conceptually daring poetries of his time. His ability to reconcile these two extremes rests on his treatment of places.