Anniversaries / Per molts anys!

Anniversaries / Per molts anys!

If wind asked permission
we might wait and listen
as if night stopped its blue
curtain and wheat bent without scattering
its hope of what happens in the dark,

and happens by accident.
"On Love"

[1] Why this particular stupid, savage method of causing pain, and no other? Why not stick pins into the shoulder of some other part of the body, compress the hands or feet in a vise, or something like that?

English / Spanish version

Every morning, when I wake up under the blanket of the sky, I feel that for me it is our anniversary. Opening the wood shutters to let in the fresh air, I am greeted by the thought of you. Again! Damp rises from the street. Today will be a special day. Greens, sprouts, health foods to celebrate our birthday! I am eating better for you. Oh I hope so! Why not? Today will be a special day.

Waiting for your call. Waiting. As far as human temporality the day is infinite even with the light changing or growing darker. I crawl into bed and out. Take another walk by the river and hear the water tremble and sigh—that night! Night comes but still the same day hangs about: per molts anys! Years that will surely come. It will surely come (it must come!). I will die if it doesn’t.

Waiting for the call that will come and take place of absence and of the knowledge of absence. How I lie! There are ghosts in the village for sure! Se ha dado cuenta: in the year 1313 there were 13 jueus catalans here. Jewish families that is. It is the anniversary of their absence. A fire que frio because of «that» (auctoritate nostra ignis iudicio concremandos). BUT I just cannot take you seriously and in comic sans no less.

What do I think of the language of love? Cliché like a stupid anniversary. Still you could cut me some slack. Your presence or a Hermès Handbag.

Six years ago or six months. The same for me. We shared what happens in the dark, and happens by accident. The next morning you were surprised I'd woke up into desire. Then I marked up a piece of paper and drew a grid. Miss your private messages. I prefer a hard copy. Better to have those little hand-drawn numbers to count in the corners. Feels more real. They say you remember more what you read on paper. But really who cares what they will say!

I wait enveloped in your absence. Am hungry again, a stomach aches. Cross off another day. Burn the paper. Mark up another. Drawn here, a fool that waits. Your fool. I peel back the skin on another ingrown hair. See: red! It hurts to fall and I sprain my ankle. My aunt has an accident and there is blood in her skull. I recall your absence and that pain is real and take refuge in being vulnerable again.

They say that chronology is the backbone of history. But we also need to accept that there are four or five fundamental dates that every good person keeps lodged in their brain, which have played bad tricks on history. Happy anniversaries. Per molts anys! Such dates are indifferent to desire… I say let’s begin again! Love is here and I open the shutters. It’s you, it’s the inquisition

Juliana Nalerio currently resides in Hostalric, Catalunya and at Stanford in the Modern Thought & Literature program. As a transatlantic Ph.D. student she is fascinated by looking, writing, and waxing poetic. She works on race, literature, and critical theory with a historical slant. She has also studied at the Universities of Valladolid and Salamanca in Spain.


Aniversarios / Per molts anys!

Traducido del inglés por Natasha Hakimi Zapata

[1] ¿Por qué este particular método estúpido
y salvaje de causar dolor, y no otro? ¿Por qué no
pegar los pasadores en el hombro de alguna otra
parte del cuerpo, comprimir las manos o los pies
en un tornillo de banco, o algo así?

Cada mañana, cuando me despierto bajo la manta del cielo, siento que para mí es nuestro aniversario. Abriendo las persianas de madera para dejar entrar el aire fresco, soy saludada por el pensamiento de ti. ¡Otra vez! La humedad se alza por la calle que frunce el ceño. Hoy será un día especial. ¡Verdes, brotes, alimentos saludables para celebrar nuestro cumpleaños! Estoy comiendo mejor para ti. ¡Oh espero que sí! ¿Por qué no? Hoy será un día especial.

Esperando tu llamada. Esperando. En cuanto a la temporalidad humana, el día es infinito, incluso cuando la luz cambia y se oscurece. Me meto en la cama y me salgo. Tomo otro paseo por el río y escucho el agua temblar y suspirar — ¡esa noche! La noche llega pero el mismo día sigue pendiente: ¡per molts anys! Años que seguramente vendrán. Seguramente vendrá (¡tiene que venir!). Voy a morir si no lo hace.

Esperando la llamada que llegará a tomar el lugar de ausencia y del conocimiento de ausencia. ¡Cómo miento! ¡Hay fantasmas en el pueblo, seguro! Se ha dado cuenta: en el año 1313 había 13 jueus catalans aquí! Es decir, familias judías. Es el aniversario de su ausencia. Un fuego que frío por «eso» (auctoritate nostra ignis iudicio concremandos). PERO simplemente no te puedo tomar en serio, ni siquiera en comic sans.

¿Qué pienso del lenguaje del amor? Cliché como un estúpido aniversario. Aún así me podrías dar un descanso de tanta tortura. Tu presencia o un bolso de Hermes.

Hace seis años o seis meses. Lo mismo para mi. Compartimos lo que ocurre en la oscuridad y sucede por accidente. La mañana siguiente te sorprendió que me despertara en el deseo. Luego marqué un trozo de papel endeble, dibujé una rejilla. Echando de menos tus mensajes privados, prefiero una copia impresa. Es mejor tener esos pequeños números dibujados a mano para contar en las esquinas. Se siente más real. Dicen que recuerdas más lo que lees en el papel. ¡Pero realmente a quién le importa lo que dirán!

Espero envuelto en tu ausencia. Tengo hambre de nuevo, me duele el estómago. Tacho otro día. Quemo el papel. Marco otro. Dibujado aquí, una idiota que espera. Tu idiota. Retiro la piel de otro pelo encarnado. ¡Ve, rojo! Me duele caer y me torcí el tobillo. Mi tía tiene un accidente y hay sangre en su cráneo. Recuerdo tu ausencia y ese dolor es real y me refugio en ser vulnerable otra vez.

Dicen que la cronología es la columna vertebral de la historia. Pero también tenemos que aceptar que hay cuatro o cinco fechas fundamentales que cada buena persona mantiene alojados en su cerebro, que han jugado malos trucos en la historia. Feliz aniversario. Per molts anys! Tales fechas son indiferentes al deseo. ¡Yo digo, empecemos de nuevo! El amor está aquí y abro las persianas. Eres tú, es la inquisición

Natasha Hakimi Zapata is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American Literature at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain, and an assistant editor at Webby award winning site Truthdig. Hakimi also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University. Most recently, she won a 2016 L.A. Press Club Award for her book review of the poetry collection "I Am the Beggar of the World." Also in 2016, Literal Publishing released bilingual editions of her translations of Alicia Borinsky’s My Husband’s Woman and Liliana Lukin’s Theater of Operations. 

Maria and the Portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio

Maria and the Portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio

“A woman must continually watch herself.
She is almost continually accompanied by her own
image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room
or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can
scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping."
Ways of Seeing


Maria stares resolutely at the portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio; she has been wondering about the lives of the aristocracy since discovering that her great-grandfather was a nobleman in the service of the British empire. He was a colonel in the East India Company’s army and was sent to India to oversee the administration of the Company’s trading regulations. He became a Resident in one of the Indian states and married an Indian woman of high caste. Maria’s great-grandmother died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her sixth daughter; the townsfolk gossiped about the curse of the White Man’s blood. Maria’s relationship with her aristocratic family is laced with tension; any questions of her family history met with either a defensive silence or a click of her grandmother’s fiery tongue. Maria learnt long ago not to rock the family boat.

Ginevra’s skin has a peachy glow; her cheeks are accentuated with a muted rose tone blusher. Maria is mesmerised by Ginevra’s immaculate creamy complexion, she has skin so fair that its almost translucent; Maria’s is three shades darker by comparison, a result of the tropical sun and her Indian father whom she never met. Yet, her grandmother insists that they are of British stock. The mystery of grandmother’s obsession with skin tones never ceases to amuse Maria; her grandmother who has an olive complexion was always trying to lighten it by washing herself in lemon juice. How many shades of brown can there really be? Claudine, Maria’s mother, is obsessed with Vitamin D much to her mother’s vexing. Claudine who has dark green eyes with a hint of blue is constantly trying to make her skin a shade tanner. Maria stays out of the UV rays because she knows that the sun can cause aging.

Maria notes that Ginevra’s chin shows some signs of aging; Ginevra would be about 38 years old; maybe even 40. Maria is a facial therapist, she knows faces. It’s her job to advice women on the conditions of their skins and how to combat signs of aging through regular facial treatments and products made by skin labs in Europe. Her clients are mostly wealthy women - old money - as this strata of society is called in Delhi who are preoccupied with staying young and fair-skinned.

There is a slight sagging of the chin just below the jaw line but the artist has painted Ginevra in a good light. There are no visible wrinkles around her left eye; an opening, a window perhaps, shows the city below; Ginevra is looking out, her gaze fixed at a point not visible to Maria. Ginevra’s eyes are set deep and framed by a faint brow which has been pruned according to the beauty requirements of Ginevra’s time. There is a stoic resignation in her thin lips which belie any emotion. Maria can’t tell if this aristocrat is happy or sad; her face gives away nothing. Maria, by contrast, wears her heart on her sleeves.

“This child has the mannerisms of a peasant,” grandmother’s voice penetrates the silence of the room where Ginevra’s portrait hangs. Grandmother is always present in the grey mass of Maria’s subconscious.

It intrigues Maria that aristocrats extol certain ways of behaving. Grandmama - with an inflection on the last syllable ‘ma’ - as her grandmother preferred to be called, used to say that princesses would never behave this way if Maria were to slip out of line during their routine Sunday lunches at her grandparents'. Claudine simply chewed her meal in silence and glugged down her wine. It’s bad form to drink so heavily and noisily, Claudine knows, but she is past caring about how her mother feels. The wine is the only liquid that would calm her nerves when chai wasn't available. Claudine doesn't stop her mother from chastising Maria; there is no ammunition powerful enough to combat an angry dragon. The hurt of being a kutcha butcha has led to years of unresolved rage and Claudine can only shield her daughter so much as she grapples about how she can save herself. Her defiance in keeping the bastard child of a summer fling with an Indian intern at the bank resulted in a wave of unmitigated rage in her mother. Claudine’s English father remained determined that her rebellion was to spite him for insisting on remaining in India when many of Claudine’s cousins had left for Canada or England. Robert FitzWilliams was born in India to English expatriates and India was where he wanted to remain. Little did he know, it was really Claudine’s insistence on brining an Indian child into this world that was the reason for keeping Maria. She would bring Maria up Indian and Feminist.

The sudden discovery of blue blood in her family connected the missing dot for Maria. It explains why grandmama insisted so incessantly on her keeping out of the sun and why she should refrain from being too dark-skinned. This discovery led Maria to researching her family roots, of probing into a racial category of people known previously as the Eurasians before finally being called Anglo-Indians.

Since then she is enveloped by a sense of calm; Maria also knows now why her mother insists on a bohemian existence in the city where she teaches yoga and meditation. Yoga helps in focusing the mind and meditation helps in keeping the mind still; both are ancient practices that predate Hinduism and Buddhism; importantly, both are practices that Claudine chose to mark her identity as Indian.

As for Maria, she has never doubted her Indian identity. She is resolute about who she is and remains so even after discovering that she has blue blood.

Ercole de’ Roberti (c. 1451 - 1496) was an important painter in the Early Renaissance. He was one of the painters of the School of Ferrara. Ferrara was ruled by the Este family who was well known for being patrons of the arts. Ercole de’ Roberti rose to being a court painter for the Este family.

The art historian Giorgio Vasari documented de’ Roberti’s life and work in his famous book which is still used today by scholars of the Renaissance to understand artists from that period. Vasari writes that de’ Roberti was a bon vivant. De’ Roberti died young from his excesses; his paintings are few and many of his works have been destroyed. Those that survive show his skills and talent.

This portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio has a partner: The portrait of Giovanni II Bentivoglio, Ginevra’s husband, who was known for being tyrant. The two portraits can be found at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Portraits were symbols of status during the Renaissance. Only the wealthy and powerful had the means to commission artists to paint them in their true likeness. Portraits were also documents of fashion and style; Renaissance scholars are able to understand how the wealthy families in Italy dressed and looked by studying their portraits. De’ Roberti painted Ginevra Bentivoglio so meticulously that her pearls and gems seem real. I like this painting for its realistic reflection of Ginevra’s dress and head dress. I see lines and shapes in her profile and bust which indicate de’ Roberti’s skills as a draughtsman.

Apart from portraits, de’ Roberti also painted diptychs and icons. The National Gallery in London exhibits ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ and ‘The Dead Christ’. The two portraits form ‘The Este Diptych’ and were bound together in purple silk velvet. They belonged to Eleonora of Aragon, Duchess of Ferrara who was also the consort of Ercole I d’Este. She would have used the portraits as an aid to meditation and prayer.

Eva Wong Nava lives between two worlds.  She combines her love for art with writing personal reviews and anecdotes; she sometimes turns these anecdotes into fiction.  She reads copiously and writes voraciously, flash fiction being her preferred genre.  Her flash fiction is published and forthcoming in various places, including Jellyfish Review, Peacock Journal, and Flash Fiction Magazine.  Her art writings have appeared in several independent arts magazines.  

She holds a degree in English Literature and Language; a Post-Graduate Teaching Certificate and has a qualification in Art Writing.  A MA in Art History is on the way. Meanwhile, she teaches children and adults how they can use writing for communication and play. 

Eva is also the founder of CarpeArte Journal, an online space for fiction, essays and ramblings of the art sort.  She is interested in the intersection between art and words and the stories that meander within us when we look at visual art. You can find her stories here. 

Is she really a woman?

Is she really a woman?

Is she really a woman or a rock face?

On the first floor of the museum, hidden in the darkness that surrounds windows on sunny days, is a small canvas. She could either be a quartz cliff or a draped, half-naked woman with nothing in her eyes. The canvas makes a rock stack of her – the Old Woman of Hoy maybe, further out at sea, surrounded by turbulent water to the point of turning water to wine and honey at night. Brushstrokes solidify her.

Like all small canvases, she draws you nearer. Smell the hydrangea heads and roses from the garden, chosen for perfume more than lifespan. Linger there. She is taller than man, she is taller than sea. Her neck is Leda’s Swan. And the closer you get, the deeper her dark becomes, the more holds you can identify in her drapes and in the shapes of her breasts, to make your way up with rope, slings and the right cams, some skill, from toe to head. Some crack climbing up the drape-like section to her crotch, a small roof at her waist and an easy climb from nipple to collarbone on an inward incline. She would not move.

In the room where she’s displayed, George Sand tolerated Chopin’s whining and his telling and re-telling of his near-death story by wild doctors in Majorca.

‘Three doctors visited me, the first said I was dead; the second said I was dying; and the third said I was about to die,’ he said.

‘Maybe we are always all three,’ she said.


But on the ripped silk of this exhibition room walls, a plaque reads that here is Margaret holding her dead child. Not rock. Not canvas. Margaret who is holding her dead child. Like my own grandmother, Marged, who gave birth to a dead boy; its blood, that baby’s, the wrong colour, blue, all blue instead of red; a biological mistake. Marged, breasts exposed and ready to suckle, eyes matt and fixed on something we don’t see or isn’t there. So, in this painting of a stranger, my grandmother lives and her dead child lives and with them Sand and Chopin who rattled about and argued in this bedroom, and me in the same art-safe light, bending over to understand.

I look again at a dead baby, rock-climbing on cotton: what I didn’t want to see. Its hip against its mother’s hip, right foot ready to swing for a foothold, right arm reaching for a crevice. It does its damndest to nuzzle nose-first through her bellybutton, back to the womb.

And the sea of wine and honey is not that at all but men coming into shape. Two men look up from what was before the sea, one unable to raise his eyes and burying his head, the other with eyes as gold as the gilt-frame, sets his gaze at nothing but the sorrows of earth in a blanket at Marguerite’s bellybutton.

1 At a party hosted by Marie d’Agoult, Chopin met the French author George Sand. She repelled Chopin – ‘what an unattractive person la Sand is. Is she really a woman?’

Siân Melangell Dafydd is an author, poet and translator. Her first published novel, Y Trydydd Peth (The Third Thing; Gomer, 2009) won her the coveted 2009 National Eisteddfod Literature Medal. She writes in both Welsh and English and often collaborates with artists of other disciplines (dancer Sioned Huws’ Aomori Project; the book Ancestral Houses: the Lost Mansions of Wales/Tai Mawr a Mieri: Plastai Coll Cymru with poet Damian Walford Davies and artist Paul White [Gomer 2012]). She was the co-editor of the literary review Taliesin and Y Neuadd online literary magazine for six years. Her second Welsh language novel and a collection of hybrid literature, Spitting Distance are forthcoming. She works with authors and poets internationally to translate literature between minority languages and is undertaking research in yoga and writing as parallel practices. Check out her yoga and creative writing workshops and retreats all over Europe. She works as a lecturer in Creative Writing at the American University of Paris, France and course leader of the MRes in Transnational Writing at Bath Spa University, England.

A Search

A Search

"We know the truth of life, which is that everything
comes and goes; everything is conditional. So how do you
make a joyful, productive life in the face of that knowledge?"

I sometimes look back at my life and wonder, how did I end up here? I have been fortunate enough to study the things that I wanted to, without thinking too much of where it might lead me. I have followed my instincts and chosen paths that called me. At times, however, these choices have seemed to be contradictory, mutually exclusive even.

In search of meaning, I decided to study theology at the University of Helsinki. I felt the call of the sacred, of God, if you like. Nothing else seemed important. Or at least as important. After a few years, I decided to apply to a music school - almost as if I was giving music one last chance before I let it go. Music had followed me my whole life and I didn’t quite know how to stop it. But neither did I know how to find a meaningful place for it in my life. And just to confuse matters further, I was accepted. I had to start the long process of painting a picture of myself where both of these sides coexisted.

Of course, we all know that we are much more than what we do, but to me both fields seemed to demand my whole self. Or nothing. After years of studying both subjects at the same time, I first graduated from Uni and, two years later, the music school. I then had to start making some decisions – ideally I would have made them a lot earlier, but what can I say, a classic generation Y situation?! Suddenly I was asking The Big Questions, like - What will I do with my life? Which path should I continue on? The result was, I started doubting everything I had ever chosen. All at once it seemed to me that there was no logic to my life. Did I just keep running in different directions at random? I may even at one point have Googled “What do I do if my life is a mess?” Incidentally, that question gets about 37 million(!) hits. I was not alone.

Now, let me take a step back in time. My goal with my theology studies was to become a pastor in the protestant church in Finland. I have always been interested in what people actually feel when they say they believe in God, or indeed any divinity or higher power. What is it that makes them believe that they believe? What do they experience? How would they describe this experience of ‘the divine’? During my religious studies I came across a definition that appealed to me. According to some line of thought ‘the holy’ can be described as something ‘wholly other’ or ‘separate from the mundane’. To me this made perfect sense. The idea of ‘the holy’ being simply something Other than our everyday lives – things that we can see and feel, hear or touch - gave words to the experience that I had had.

However strong these experiences were, during my studies I started to doubt. To the point that I realized that I couldn’t say the words which would be required of me, with sincerity. When I realized that I wasn’t at all sure that ‘the holy’ could be found in the theological frameworks that I knew and had grown up with, I was understandably doubtful about the kind of pastor I would make... I realized that my problem was not with the idea of God, but with the words that were used to express and contain him. Her. It. You see my point.

This didn’t mean that my search for something Other was cancelled. I still felt ‘the call’ - I just needed to figure out where it was coming from.

I remember once listening to a piece by the Baroque composer Georg Muffat (I strongly recommend his concertos if you feel like listening to some beautiful baroque music) when I felt that my heart was being simultaneously torn to pieces and mended by the extreme beauty of the harmonies. The experience was so profound and surprising I felt out of breath and ready to cry. I probably was in an emotionally receptive state anyway, but that doesn’t matter. The experience of beauty was something not of this world.

But can I call it a holy experience?

According to some I could. According to me I could. This realization gave so much sense to my life. It hasn’t been random. It hasn’t been illogical. It has always been a journey in search of beauty, of something beyond the mundane.

Someone said that, ‘... sacred moments allow us to enter again and again that timeless and transforming psychological space from which renewal and creativity emerge.’ I found that space. For me - and of course this is a completely subjective experience - the theological words prevented me from freely experiencing beauty, but in music I found a way to let myself feel, truly and profoundly. That is why I choose to be on the path I am on. I have to keep walking it. I have a deep need to be surrounded by a beauty that touches my soul over and over again – I find this beauty in music.

I guess my point with this story is that weather it is God or Krishna, music, a peaceful landscape or you know, a perfect balance between the taste of lingonberry and caramel sauce, that gives you a feel of something beyond the immediate reality, hold on to it. Cherish it. It is beautiful and gives hope.

Like anyone, I still wonder who am I and where I’m going, but the experience of beauty makes it easier.

Eerika Pynnönen is a Finnish musician. She has a classical training in viola and music education and is currently exploring her opportunities in Paris. She has a background in theology, where she focused her studies on New Testament exegetics and the social situation of the first Christians in particular. She is composing music for one of the short films we are doing in collaboration with leading film schools, writers and the StoryVid initiative.

Possible Wor(l)ds: The Social and Literary Significance of Spanish to English Code-Switch Tags in Junot Díaz

Possible Wor(l)ds: The Social and Literary Significance of Spanish to English Code-Switch Tags in Junot Díaz

Any exploded society, like the Dominican Republic, in some ways
you could say has multiple existences. It’s funny how some people
in the Dominican diaspora don’t see any diaspora whatsoever—
who believe that somehow, miraculously, at some imaginary level,
that a nation exists as some sort of pure territorial space, and that therefore

the insane level of connectivity that late modern capitalism brought and
that international divisions of labor, which produced a lot of
fucking waves of immigration – that all of these things don’t exist.


Junot Díaz’s stories emanate from a hybrid, translated linguistic landscape that politicizes language as the setting of a very real conflict. The Dominican-born author and his work do not fight to inhabit a nation of land, but rather to expand and enrich a nation of words. Via his short stories and novels, Díaz actively participates in a discursive battle taking place at the level of language, although it is effectively and operationally larger, intertwined with society itself. The conflict in question, concerned with what language(s) may be used, and in what world(s), is particularly heated in the author’s country of residence, the USA. In fact, many will remember that Díaz’s literary project was criticized for its overuse of “Spanglish” much before it was accepted, even renowned, as it is today. The academy’s initial criticism of Díaz and his use of Spanish peppered English was just one battle in the war over (discursive) national boundaries under discussion. In essence, it is a conflict over the American lexicon which continues today, occurring at every level, from the personal to the political. In the idiosyncrasies of a Díaz text this conflict is expressed lexically, or formally, in the alternating use of English and Spanish popularly conceived of as his distinctive prose style. It has also been critically assessed as Díaz’s particular brand of literary code-switching (see Eugenia Casielles-Suarez) different from the bilingual style of other authors like Giannina Braschi or Susana Chavez-Silverman. The goal of this paper is a dually linguistic and theoretical analysis of “lexical setting,” or what I call “linguistic territoriality,” in Díaz’s short story collection This is How You Lose Her (2012). To clarify, the use of “setting” here should not be confused with the once conventional notion of setting as a mere backdrop where plot and conflict occur. Rather, this study prescribes to a postmodern notion of setting that is exceedingly aware of language and brings the linguistic component of narration to the fore. Ergo, more than the rivers and suburban compounds of New Jersey populate Díaz’s short stories, it is within the language of the narration itself that the author’s most heated and byzantine conflicts unfold.

Historically, it goes nearly without saying that the Earth’s finite inhabitable land masses were the primary territory fought over by neighbors and enemies. For most of the history of civilization, the foreign foe’s particular parlance, the language they happened to speak, seemed far less important than that key terrestrial asset. A select few, the Greeks among them, placed limited importance on the strange sounds made by foreigners as a means to distinguish between “us and them,” between the citizens and the barbarians (who made nonsense sounds i.e. bar bar). More representative of history are the feudal societies, for example, which concentrated power in the landholding few, leaving the rest to squabble and tillage in poverty. Nevertheless, it can also go nearly without saying that in contemporary times, however, the majority of land and sea areas have been colonized and staunchly partitioned by the power invested in the modern nation-state and government. As a consequence, it is land that has finally succeeded to language as the territory up for disputei. In Díaz’s brief but pertinent analysis of the Dominican Republic above he provides us with a site-specific explanation as to why the prevalence of language as disputed territory is a consequence of our postmodern and postcolonial times.

Following Díaz, Dominican society is reeling from the social ramifications of globalization and is now fragmented, mobile, and unsettled. He goes so far in the quote as to insist that the Dominican Republic (furthermore the DR) be thought of as an “exploded society,” selecting the particular adjective exploded in order to invoke a set of specific cultural characteristics caused by the explosive globalization process. Interestingly, those features are near equivalents to those described as “liquid” by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. In Bauman’s theory of postmodernity, our current fluid experience of time and space is the result of the dismantling of modernity’s solid promises by late capitalism. The overlap of their ideas is apparent when Díaz explains that “late modern capitalism” detonated the Dominican explosion via its globalizing effects and aftereffects. Espousing essentially the same argument as Bauman and many other social theorists of our time, Díaz asserts that late decadent capitalism is both an effect of, and cause for, the organization of society today. The same thought process informs Bauman’s complex argument in his many published books on the subject (see Liquid Modernity, Liquid Love, and Globalization: The Human Consequences). Díaz moves a step further in concretizing this notion by ascribing it to a particular nation—the DR—and mimetically exploring the way modernity has altered the conventions and spaces of that society via the literary exercise. By asserting that the once island-inhabiting society is currently in a diasporic state—or “not a nation that exists as some sort of pure territorial space”—and that one would be crazy not to see it, he implies another feature: that is, that the nation exists in the Andersonian sense of an imagined community wedded by a shared language and culture, but importantly in the case of the DR, not by a homeland. In other words the territory or island of the historical DR itself no longer solidly defines the Dominican nation having been cast into diaspora by liquid modernity. As a member of that diaspora and author, Díaz’s literary project reflects this “homelessness” in that it emphasizes the search and fight for language as an attempt to construct a Dominican identity in diaspora.

Arguably, the explosion of Dominican society as a result of globalization intensified an emergent conflict over language to which Díaz was and is connected via live wire. By and large, it is not at all atypical for communities in diaspora to fight to maintain the use of their heritage language as a way to identify with their larger body politic, scattered as they may be. As a result language often becomes one of the dominant politicized features of those communities (and may radiate outwards, unsettling the lexical communities into which they arrive, as well). Therefore, for the Dominican community in exile, a subsequent effect of the aforementioned “explosion” has been the posterior development of a novel linguistic landscape outside of the DR. On the US side, this lexicon, we argue, took on “liquid” or “smooth” characteristics as they are described by Bauman and Deleuze and Guattari, respectively (explored later on in this paper). Ultimately, as a consequence we might anticipate that the confluence of these occurrences be displayed in novel and innovative language derivations, in particular, at the contact zones where the fight for rights to language and identity are underway—in literature as much as in the street. Such is the case with the work of Díaz. His texts represent and figure this “discursive battle” at the lexical level through the uninhibited use of code-switching between his native language, Spanish, and his second language, English. In addition, a further theoretical dimension of this analysis claims that in this discursive battle to occupy the cultural space of language and to dominate it, the deterritorialization and reterritorialization of language occurs so that what Deleuze and Guattari (1987) refer to as a smoothening of striated space—in this case linguistic space—also takes place across Díaz’s texts.

First see that, yes, language is a highly politicized cultural space. For centuries, the historical Jewish diaspora identified the Israelite nation not with a specific territorial space but in the declaration of themselves as “the people of the book,” or, “the nation of the book.ii” This is to say that imagined communities territorialize and claim rights to language as much as to physical spaces, a tendency we have been arguing is exacerbated by the diasporic condition. In reality, today, in postcolonial America, hybridic-diaspora is the norm and not the deviation. A fact that, as pointed out by critic and theorist Shirley Geok-Lin Lim,iii carries with it an array of cultural consequences: the contestation of the notions of purity, of homeland, and the deterritorialization of language. The deterritorializing motion is away from singular, purist readings of language such as that of Octavio Paziv and towards reimagined contemplations of both novelistic and/or organic language that see it for what it has always been—the hybrid form that Bhaktin problematizes back in the 1930s, unpacking its double nature in The Dialogic Imagination (358-360). Contemporary society’s preoccupation with what has been labeled “code-switching” is endemic to this cultural development, a feature of our postcoloniality.

“Code-switching” is on everybody’s lips, a trend word fast turning into the quickest mediation for a fascinating socio-linguistic phenomenon: the hybridization of language. With its widening appeal, the sense of what it means to code-switch has transformed. For some scholars, to code-switch means to utilize any notable alternation in register even within a single language. According to other scholars of linguistics, code-switching rather designates “the alternation of two languages within a single discourse, sentence or constituent,” (Poplack 583). Qualifying code-switching as the alternation of two distinct languages by a speaker rather than as merely of two or more registers in the same language is essential when considering its relevance to the linguistic struggles pertinent to diaspora; clearly, the linguist’s definition is the more viable for this analysis. Nevertheless, still further sub-categories exist within the linguistic notion of code-switching.

In the 1980s text of seminal importance to the theory and research of code-switching, Shana Poplack’s Sometimes I Start a Sentence in Spanish Y Termino en Español: towards a topology of code-switching, Poplack presents research findings from a case study of twenty Puerto Rican heritage New Yorkers living in East Harlem. Poplack’s sample is in fact not a distant linguistic match from Díaz’s primary speaker in This is How You Lose Her, Yunior. The Díaz protagonist is, similarly, a first-generation Dominican American living in the New York metropolitan tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut during his later childhood and into adulthood. Returning to Poplack’s linguistic study, the sample of heritage and immigrant Spanish/English speakers she analyzes is divided following the types of code-switches they perform. The two main types Poplack identifies are (1) “intra-sentential” and (2) “emblematic” code-switches. The first type, labeled as more intimate and complex:

i This thesis is a derivation on the theme of Foucault’s biopolitics. Foucault scholar Giorgio Agamben explains that “According to Foucault, a society’s “threshold of biological modernity” is situated at the point at which the species and the individual as a simple living body become what is at stake in a society’s political strategies. After 1977, the courses at the Collège de France start to focus on the passage from the “territorial State” to the “State of population […]” (10). This is what we also try to address, the turn away from “territorial” politics to a politics of agency, voice, and language in this case.

ii The book was the Torah, or Old Testament.

iii Lim writes, “as people move from their natal territories, notions of individual and group identity, grounded in ideas of geographical location as a national homelands and of segregated racial purity become contested and weakened. The literatures being produced today by immigrant populations and by nationalists reflect, address, express, and reconstruct the late-twentieth century preoccupation with and interrogation of concepts of “identity,” “home,” and “nation” (294).

iv Literary critic Ilan Stevens quotes Octavio Paz in his book, Spanglish: the Making of a New American Language, as having said of the mixing of English and Spanish, “ni es bueno ni es malo, sino abominable” (4).

[I]nvolves a high proportion of intra-sentential switching as in (7) below.
(7) a. Why make Carol SENTARSE ATRAS PA’ QUE [...] everybody has to movePA’ QUE SALGA [...]? ( 589)

According to Poplack, linguists agree that intra-sentential code switching is the “real” code-switching (589). Her definition and example cited above emphasize that “intra-sentential” code-switches involve alternations between two code systems that must fit together grammatically. Surely, that an intra-sentential switch displays greater grammatical complexity in comparison to the other code-switch forms contributes to the large interest it holds for linguists. Of more interest to our own argument are the second type, the “emblematic” switches that are also called “tag-switches,” or simply “tags.” They are referred to as being ‘emblematic’ in that they are considered a type of emblem of the speaker’s ethnic identification. They implicate a change in a single noun or noun group, giving them the name “tag,” and are considered to be grammatically less complex although more culturally charged:

Another [type] is characterized by relatively more tag switches and single noun switches. These are often heavily loaded in ethnic content and would be placed low on a scale of translatability, as in (8).

(8) a. Vendía arroz [...] ‘N SHIT.

      b. Salían en sus carros y en sus [...] SNOWMOBILES. (589)

Poplack’s topology of code-switching affirms the social significance of its practice, especially to those who make use of “emblematic” switches, as in above. The definition of the emblematic code-switch (furthermore ‘tag’) provides us with the grounds to further along our argument about Díaz’s own use of code-switching: first off, based on the token sample and definition Poplack provides here (Vendía arroz n’ shit) it is apparent that Díaz exploits ‘tags’ or “emblematic” code-switches in his work more than any other type of code-switches. His strategy “goes from the sentence and even the phrasal level inwards down to the word level” (Casielles-Suarez 2013: 485). In the paragraph below, we provide examples of Díaz at work with tags for comparison. More importantly, Poplack also establishes that this code-switch type is most often performed as a kind of identity politics: she writes, tags are “heavily loaded in ethnic content” and “constitute an emblematic part of the speaker’s monolingual style” (589). She goes on to say that the use of a tag signifies something about the speaker’s membership in a group (589). Specifically, the use of tag-switches increases when a speaker is interacting with a non-group member, whereas the use of intra-sentential code-switching increases during communication with in-group members (599). Explained colloquially, tags are dominant when it is necessary to “defend one's turf,” or assert oneself in a foreign context—as does Díaz in the space of the English language.

In the particularities of Díaz’s code alternation, we can observe in his texts that the most frequent speaker, Yunior, tags the American English Black Vernacular he grew up with emblematic tokens from the Dominican lexicon. Words such as “pópola” (2012: 47), “deguabinao,” and “estribao” (2012: 101) appear alongside more normative American Latino formulations, such as “hijo de la gran puta” (2012:134) or “gringo children” (2012:133). However, his code-switch tags are at their strongest in alternations that meld and fuse languages seamlessly in novel and delicious sounding noun-groupings such as, “for the record I didn’t think Pura was so bad […] Guapisima as hell: tall and indiecita,” (2012:101). Guapisima as hell sounds incredibly natural to the English-Spanish bilingual, so much so that it nearly hurts to see its novelization, as if it had been co-opted from a friend’s mouth. Another telling example: “These viejas were my mother’s old friends […] and when they were over was the only time Mami seemed somewhat like her old self. Loved to tell her stupid campo jokes,” (2012: 92). Campo jokes. These tags produce an in-group feeling that transmits insider cultural knowledge and reminders of folk identities from the island to inside readers, but more importantly, they provide outsiders with an equally out-of-group feeling, making the English language strange to the most native and “pure” English speakers/readers.

Ultimately, tags are also a way to invade and occupy, to territorialize the major language one is forced to use, with the minor language that constitutes an aspect of speaker identity. It is a politic. Tags are part and parcel of what I have been calling the discursive battle to occupy the cultural space that is language. Let us think about this from a different angle for the length of a few paragraphs. Metaphorically, a code-switch tag functions almost identically to the visual tag of the graffiti artist. Both are means of declaring and asserting one’s own culture and alliances over others in the encounter with an Other who may not share the same background. As Poplack affirms about the tags of code-switching, the “tagz” of graffiti are also “heavily loaded in ethnic content;” that tags/z are considered “emblematic” of an artist and their particular style rings at least equally as true to those enmeshed in the world of graffiti (if not more so) as to those cognizant of the world of linguistic tagging. At their most obvious, both linguistic and graffiti tags/z are a type of swag a type of style fashioned to be seen by others. Appreciated subtly, tags/z communicate details about an individual’s personal, ethnic, and group identity to the rest of the world (i.e. non-group members). The tagz of the street writer, after all, are most often an epithet for the name of the graffiti artist and their artistic persona. The characteristic word is then painted in unique form on numerous city walls and abandoned buildings in a very public fight “to get up,”or to dominate, on the “scene.”

New York City Tag In Process

New York City Tag In Process

Also important is that each interlocutor in this battle hopes to dominate over other authors as much as to sabotage and threaten the bureaucratic space of the city wall. The tag embodies something of lawlessness, transgression of the codes and norms of society—something buccaneer. Whether it be leaving your personal mark on a public or ordered space as in the graffiti artist, or tagging a major language with a minor one i.e. Díaz, both graffiti tagz and code-switch tags are a means of reterritorializing established linguistic spaces and rearranging them to give way to an author’s (minor) idiosyncratic language. In “Bombing modernism: Graffiti and its Relationship to the (Built) Environment,” design writer Amos Klausner explains graffiti’s subversive signifying potentiality: 

[It has the] ability to reconsider letter forms, reformulate language, and destroy the accepted hierarchies of communication. With no artificially imposed order and the inherent decentralization of postmodernism as its guide, graffiti writers used irony (in the form of the oppressor becoming the oppressed), double coding (writers communicated simultaneous messages to different social groups), and paradox (the inherent illegibility of their work), as tools to change our shared expectations of how, where, and why we communicate. It [graffiti] is an archetypal study in semiotics where signs and symbols are used to recognize how meaning is formulated and perceived. (3)

In the essay, “The Smooth and the Striated,” Deleuze and Guattari develop an ontology of (cultural) space offering a series of explanations throguh various “models” of the dialectic between the two (1987: 474-500). As the title suggests the smooth (rather than the smooth-en-ed) is the original space of departure, of unbridled creativity and immanence. The striated always implies a once smooth space. Deleuze and Guattari cite the ocean in all its “intensities” as the representation of original smooth space par excellence (though other examples include the smooth space of the fetal uterus in the early stages of gestation, for example) until “maritime space” was striated by measures, bearings and maps, and its striation set forth by the Portuguese in 1440 (1987:479). In addition, Deleuze and Guattari establish smooth space as nomadic space, drawing heavily on examples of cultural artifacts and practices of nomadic people to illustrate inhabited smooth space throughout the chapter. When the smooth versus striated (or nomad versus state) opposition is applied to language, we can say with some certainty that the striated textual fabric of today’s linguistic landscape has its origins in the smooth. The oral traditions of traveling storytellers and poets were at some point commodified and transformed into the institution of the Western Book (Manzanas and Benito 2003: 13). In literature, the bourgeoisie novel more than poetry has traditionally been a striated space, the artifice representing a striated linguistic and social environment back to itself. Also consider the strict categorization of literature by nationality, the staunch editing procedures of the publishing house. Yet, we are at a turning point and the hype around code-switching likely reflects a smoothening linguistic landscape across levels and cultural spheres. What Junot Díaz does in his work—smoothing the striated linguistic space of published literature—is a symptom of the times.

Before remarking on what makes Junot Díaz particularly “nomadic” in the Deleuzian sense, a few preliminary words should be said on the author in general. Díaz is aggressively creative. Having been criticized for his use of English interspersed with Spanish, and measured against a status quo instituted by language purists who set up impassable barriers, he was eventually embraced, even glorified by the establishment, teaching creative writing at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. He is on the board of the world-renowned Pulitzer Prize. The purpose of this anecdote is not to suggest that Díaz in particular has been successful at elevating code-switching in the eyes of the literary establishment, but that this event reflects transformations underway in even the most firmly-ensconced institutions’ relationship with language. One might even say that the cultural boundaries dividing languages are in the process of being gutted and reformulated.

As further exploration, let us begin with reflections on the (textual) city. Described by Deleuze and Guattari as “the striated space par excellence,” (1987:481) the city is and also represents the established, striated, codes of modernity. From the unmoving asphalt wall, up to the gridlocked skyscrapers of the metropolis, we find striated spaces stifling creative vision and movement. In that same vein, the catalogued Spanish of the Academia Real Española and the measured English of Oxford’s Cambridge English exams striate linguistic spaces: classifying, subordinating, restricting. Just as city buildings subordinate pedestrians to specific trajectories, as Deleuze and Guattari explain: “in striated spaces, lines or trajectories tend to be subordinated to the trajectory: one goes from one point to another” (1987: 478) without wandering or questioning. In another seminal text on the urban landscape, “Walking in the City,” Michel de Certeau examines the human inhabitation of cities in their spatial and metaphorical aspects, concluding about the act of being a pedestrian: “they are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban “text” they write without being able to read” (93). The code of the city dictates to its users, as language to its speakers, to blindly follow the preordained path from one point to another with little to no awareness of their implicit participation in etching the boundaries still deeper, its stories rigorously and staunchly conventional.

Yet we return to the fight, which disrupts and rewrites the code that encourage a blind surrender to fixed boundaries. Díaz and other taggers’ rebuttal in this dually discursive and urban battle is the practice of developing what Deleuze and Guattari call nomadic smooth spaces (1987: 481). Their minds and imaginations become smooth spaces that liberate trajectories of intellectual and imaginative wandering As a result, their innovations can presumably smoothen the striated. Returning to Díaz, he himself has remarked that his use of code-switching is a result of a kind of liberation of his tongue, or in his English-Spanish lexicon:

One of the things that’s helped me is that I have a particular amount of shamelessness around these different idioms that I love. […] I’ve never felt any shame of misusing the language that I grew up with […] It takes so much more energy keeping these things apart. (2009)

His code-switching is the result of an organic mixing of languages that ultimately comes more naturally to him than maintaining their striation and maintaining apart his multilingual capacities. Although the tags and code-switches present in his work are arguably carefully planned representations (re-formulations) of an authentic linguistic vernacular, they re-establish an uninhibited non-order across the linguistic landscape of the text and bring the reader to (surprised) attention and to unanticipated feelings and readings. It is from this point that a “migrational, or metaphorical, city thus slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city,” (DeCerteau 93). Meandering through the enclosed frontiers of striated factual space, dodging the mines and pitfalls detonated by a threatened literary status quo, Díaz and other nomadic taggers at their most effective “insinuate other routes into the functionalist and historical order of movement,” (105) smoothening and liberating striated urban and linguistic landscapes.

As in the picture on pg. 18, the graffiti artists’ tagging, or “bombing,” completes much the same function across the code of the city landscape. After the artist's nomadic quest through the city to find an appealing space, their tags will reroute and rewrite the code of the striated space of the urban wall via novel, rhizomatic and chaotic lines and trajectories. The nomads mark their turf in the reterritorializing process. As DeCerteau suggests and Deleuze and Guattari aptly point out once again, striated spaces can at times become smooth, depending on the trajectories and manners of the sentient beings that live in that space and how they occupy it:

[I]t is possible to live striated on the deserts, steppes, or seas; it is possible to live smooth even in the cities, to be an urban nomad (for example, a stroll taken by Henry Miller in Clichy or Brooklyn is a nomadic transit in smooth space; he makes the city disgorge a patchwork, differentials of speed, delays and accelerations, changes in orientation, continuous variations […] (1987: 482)

Deleuze and Guattari offer Henry Miller’s occupation and movement through the city landscape as an example of “living smooth” in a striated urban space. Similarly, Junot Díaz’s code-switches are a way of living, writing, and speaking smooth; linguistic meandering is part of his hybrid identity, forged in a linguistic landscape complicated by the diasporic condition. Like Henry Miller’s path through the city, Díaz and the other speakers sampled by Poplack in her landmark study mark a new path through linguistic space; their free code alternations make striated language space “disgorge a patchwork” and “change orientation” in that they inhabit a creative, diasporic wandering between the world(s) of Spanish and English, shamelessly discarding conventions of parlance. Combining guapisima as hell with the Foucalt-referencing (Díaz 2012: 15) theory and jargon part of his vocabulary as a university professor, Díaz etches a unique path through the city: through linguistic registers pertaining to various socioeconomic classes and races, he is able to narrate the language heteroglossia that authoritative discourse would rather deny. Díaz’s insistence on the relevance of Spanish words and phrases to his literary project, in the face of an outspoken American public majority xenophobically declaring the Star-Spangled Banner (the American national anthem) be recited in English only, is powerful.

In this paper, we have observed a unique link between the signifying of the lexical tags in Junot Díaz’s narrations with the tagz of the graffiti artist. Tags and tagz seem to overlap in shared meaning; attesting to a battle of the discursive sort being waged in the frontier lands of North America, and globally as the contact zones between cultures inevitably expand. In a move resembling the linguist’s analysis of demographic and language-oriented features of a sample, I have presented tokens of the Díaz protagonist Yunior’s code-switching in This is How You Lose Her for the analysis of its language, not as a closed system, but as a socially situated tool. We did not propose to undertake a rigorous empirical linguistic analysis of the Junot Díaz short story collection This is How…. Rather, this peculiar metalinguistic, discourse analysis has been offered in support of broader claims about the changing linguistic landscape of postmodernity—with special attention payed to a concrete analysis of the hybridity that postcolonial critics, for example, have been referencing for the past fifty years. Furthermore, we have argued for the popular manifestation of code-switching as a form of identity politics, not only site-specific to Diaz’s literary texts, but observable in the general linguistic landscape particular to our society today. We have also tried to demonstrate this feature as a symptom of a “smooth-en-ing,” in the Deleuzian and Guatarrian sense of the linguistic landscape occurring in today’s globalized and—perhaps Díaz says it best himself—exploded societies. 

Juliana Nalerio is a PhD researcher at the University of Valladolid, Spain, in American Studies and Comparative Literature. Working at the intersection of literature and critical theory, her research explores the aesthetics and ethics of modern American literature in the continental sense. She is currently working on her doctoral dissertation, a project that attempts to unpack literary violence in its symbolic, systemic, and subjective forms in both North and South American novels and short story texts. She holds a master's degree from The University of Valladolid (Premio extraordinario) and a B.A. from New College of Florida-the Honors College of Florida, as well as certificates from studies at Middlebury College, The University of Chicago, The University of Edinburgh, as well as Birkbeck, University of London, and Texas A&M University (upcoming).

Juliana is a member of the national research group, "A Critical History of Ethnic American Literature: An Intercultural Approach," directed by Dr. Jesús Benito Sánchez.

The Virtue of Hilary Mantel

The Virtue of Hilary Mantel

When I chose to make Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety the subject of my dissertation, there was a dearth of scholarly work available on the author. But by the time I replaced A Place of Greater Safety with Mantel’s second Booker-winner, Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel had become, in the words of the chairman of the judges of the 2012 Booker panel, “‘the greatest modern English prose writer’ working today” (Stothard qtd. in Brown). For three decades—from her completion of A Place of Great Safety in 1979 to the publication of Wolf Hall in 2009—Mantel persevered with her work not only as a novelist but also as a reviewer and journalist, creating an impressive collection of novels, short stories, reviews, sharp-witted social critiques, and a memoir. Yet, until the breakthrough of Wolf Hall, Mantel’s fiction was “relatively neglected” (Wallace 211). Her first historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety (1992), was dismissed by one British reviewer as “upmarket soap opera” (Smith). Yet Mantel’s persistence in avoiding narratives about “sweet people” (Atwood) in favor of exploring the “dark purposes” (Atwood) of the human condition paid off. The story of her emergence as a preeminent author following her two Booker-Prize wins is one of how Mantel developed an awareness of evil at an early age, overcame the prejudice of misogynistic literary critics, and persisted in the exploration of the “dark purposes” of men and women, but returned to exploring it in the public and private lives of historical power brokers.

A child’s early experience with evil—or even the suggestion of an evil presence that Mantel’s medium from Beyond Black, Alison Hart, would have detected—can irrevocably influence that child’s worldview. When Mantel was seven, as she recalls in her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, she encountered a malevolent force, nothing more than the “faintest movement, a ripple, a disturbance of the air” (Ghost 93): something neither visual nor audible, yet something that with “its motion, its insolent shift, [made her] stomach heave” (93). The effect on young Mantel was the dark underbelly of an epiphany: “Grace runs away from me, runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse” (93). After this experience, Mantel confesses that she “ceased to expect much good from the world” (Ghost 108). She identified the apparition in the garden as evil, ever since trying to understand it:

“Is evil simply—simply?—an outgrowth of human nature, or is it detachable from the human, a force at large in the world like a mercenary for hire, looking for a human master to serve, never without one for long and always worth the whistle?” (Ghost 109)

Mantel first began to explore humanity’s “dark purposes” in A Place of Greater Safety, a dense, long narrative about the power, corruption, and Machiavellian-style of virtue1 amongst three leaders of the French Revolution: Maximilien Robespierre, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Camille Desmoulins. Its length of nearly nine hundred pages no doubt contributed to the novel initially being rejected by publishers. The first novel Mantel did publish, Every Day is Mother’s Day, was an exploration of a modern-day, vitriolic relationship between a failed medium, her socially deviant daughter, and the social worker obliged to save them. Her next novel, Vacant Possession, is set ten years after the end of the previous novel and focuses on the manipulative, vengeful daughter, recently released from an asylum. Mantel recalls in a 2009 interview that her first two novels were read as women’s domestic fiction and, as such, were “read as domestic black comedies” (Mantel, “accumulated an anger”), despite her intention that one is a condition of England novel: “[Vacant Possession] was set in 1984! It’s a bit of a clue” (Mantel, “accumulated an anger”). Her third novel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street—based on Mantel’s own experience living in Saudi Arabia when her husband was posted there—was similarly categorized as a domestic story, despite Mantel’s insistence on its insights into Islamic fundamentalism (Mantel, “accumulated an anger”). Set in the 1980s, the book is also an interesting study of a reversal of the kind of imperialism that saw the Middle-Eastern countries around Saudi Arabia overtaken by the British, the Americans, and other Europeans in between the two world wars. The protagonist, Frances Shore, is a cartographer who is not only unable to map Jeddah—the colonizers’ first endeavour to bring under control a perceived-barbaric country—but finds her identity subsumed into the purgatory of women’s lives in that country. If these three novels failed to receive serious literary attention, perhaps it is because those reviews were influenced by the preponderance of male literary critics found in the magazines and newspapers that publish book reviews.

In 2009, Vida: Women in Literary Arts first documented the gender imbalance found in the underrepresentation of female reviewers at publications such as The Atlantic, the Boston Review, the London Review of Books, and the New York Review of Books. This discouraging statistic was matched by the underrepresentation of reviews of female authors’ works in those same publications. No Vida count was made prior to 2009, but, ironically, it was a female critic for the Independent who said, in a review of Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (Mantel’s fifth published book), that Mantel’s novel is an “upmarket soap opera” (Smith) compared with the venerable Simon Schama’s chronicle, Citizens: the “French Revolution as human tragedy” (Smith). Moreover, in a New York Times review, Mantel’s huge historical novel is criticized for leaving the reader stranded on the uncertainty of whether “we [are] reading history amplified by the empathy of the novelist or fiction dressed up in historical costume” (Bernier), an uncertainty the male reviewer says is never resolved. Despite this negative criticism, Mantel received growing respect as a “gifted writer” (Bernier), something that would solidify as female scholars found reasons to celebrate Mantel in their assessment of historical fiction in Britain.

In one of her essays about historical fiction, A. S. Byatt returns to the above-mentioned “uncertainty” in A Place of Greater Safety, about the unresolved areas of fact and fiction that are endemic to historical fiction. Byatt argues that “there is a new aesthetic energy to be gained from the borderlines of fact and the unknown” (55), suggesting that Mantel, rather than disappointing readers, is leading them in a new, unexplored direction. She compares Mantel’s use of the present tense in A Place of Greater Safety (the same tense she uses in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) as something the author shares in common with Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. Byatt further praises Mantel’s “apparently straightforward, realist narrative . . . recreating the intellectual and emotional turmoil of the time both on the grand scale and with precise images of small, local details of pain, excitement, curiosity, terror and desire” (54). What she found in its “innocently realist[ic]” story was an “old-fashioned psychological narrative which is the imaginative form she gives to the lives of real, partially known men” (55). Byatt praises Mantel equally with Pat Barker—a Booker Prize winner for The Ghost Road in 1995—for the intimate focus the authors provide through their unnamed narrators. She is not the only literary scholar to compare Mantel to Barker.

In 2005, when Mantel published Beyond Black, Diana Wallace released a study of historical fiction written by British female authors across the decades of the twentieth century. She also finds similarities between Mantel and Barker, as well as between Mantel and Penelope Fitzgerald, because these authors appear, superficially, to be writing in the realist tradition while using strategies that also subvert that tradition. In Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, Wallace argues that, although Mantel focuses the story on three major, historical figures, she situates the reader in and amongst them rather than giving a bird’s-eye view of these men and their roles in history. Wallace also argues that Mantel’s strategy of presenting dialogue in the form of a dramatic play “disrupts the usual practice of the realist novel and thus draws attention to its fictionality” (Wallace 205). Moreover, Wallace identifies an aspect of Mantel’s fictional exploration of historical characters that re-emerges in her Cromwell novels: “Mantel . . . is particularly interested in the disjunctions between the private early lives of [Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulin], when little is known of them, and their public personae as world historical figures” (205). By identifying this preoccupation of Mantel’s, Wallace emphasizes the author’s precision at re-imagining the private lives of men before they become famous, but also their navigation of the competing demands of the public and private realms when they are at the height of their power.

When Wolf Hall won the 2009 Booker prize, journalistic attention on Mantel increased; more importantly, the reviews revealed excitement and respect for her prose. The Guardian praised the novel for being “[l]yrically yet cleanly and tightly written, solidly imagined yet filled with spooky resonances . . . it’s not like much else in contemporary British fiction” (Tayler). Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt declared the novel “a startling achievement, a brilliant historical novel focused on the rise to power of a figure exceedingly unlikely . . . to arouse any sympathy at all” (Greenblatt). But it was perhaps Christopher Hitchens—who gave his review of Wolf Hall the title “The Men Who Made England”—who best reflects the impression the novel has made on many of its readers. He begins his review by reminding his readers how the effects of the English Reformation can still be felt today, before describing how the novel engages with “the origins of this once world-shaking combat, with its still-vivid acerbity and cruelty” and acclaiming it a novel of “quite astonishing power” (Hitchens). In a review that features many excerpts from the novel and a scathing attack on the Robert Bolt representation of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, Hitchens ends by declaring Mantel to be “in the very first rank of historical novelists” (Hitchens). This kind of praise only escalated with the release and subsequent Booker win of Wolf Hall’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. In her review of the latter novel, Margaret Atwood summarized Mantel’s oeuvre as a general avoidance of “sweet people” in preference to the exploration of “dark purposes” and Mantel’s writing as “deft and verbally adroit” (Atwood). However, at least one other female author, who had endured the same kind of literary sexual discrimination as Mantel had, was sceptical about whether Mantel’s historical, second-Booker win meant anything had really changed for female authors:

Well, it’s tempting to be cynical about it and note that, after a respectable but underappreciated career of writing mainly about women, she was finally recognized as a literary heavyweight once she produced a novel that was all about men. . . . Maybe it’s more simple—maybe it’s just that, with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel has hit her stride as a novelist; that her writing, now, is too good for anyone to ignore. (Waters qtd. in Mantel, “Unquiet Mind”)

As if to affirm Sarah Waters’s reflection that Mantel had become “too good for anyone to ignore,” Mantel’s previously maligned historical novel about the French Revolution has recently received the attention of a scholar honoured by the Modern Language Association with an Award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement: Fredric Jameson.

In Antinomies of Realism, Fredric Jameson praises Hilary Mantel’s representation of Maximilien Robespierre in A Place of Greater Safety. According to Jameson, Mantel “turn[s] Robespierre into a believable character” (277), far removed from the “satiric weight of political vilification and the caricature of his personality and private habits” (278). According to Jameson, the benefit of the rehabilitation of an infamous historical power broker like Robespierre, often portrayed as a two-dimensional villain, is that his “political program [of the politics of Virtue] can now again be taken seriously” (278-79). Jameson emphasizes the contemporary significance of Robespierre’s stance against corruption, most notably explored in a speech that Robespierre gave to the Convention on 5 February 1794, in which he outlines his emphasis on the role that virtue plays in politics. In reaction to the corruption under which the former French aristocracy operated—the regime that the Revolution had ousted—Robespierre insisted that his fellow deputies always strive to “maintain[n] and develo[p] virtue . . . that which is immoral is impolitic, that which is corrupting is counterrevolutionary” (Robespierre qtd. in Shusterman 216). Jameson suggests this approach of Robespierre’s is an antidote to “the universal tolerance of corruption” (279) that thrives today.

Since her childhood haunting by an evil presence, Mantel has been attuned to the darkness in her world: of people, of society, of politics, of power, of history. In her fiction, she has explored the nature of evil in slim narratives about mothers and daughters, children and parents, women and society, men and women, and women and the spiritual world. Despite the dismissiveness of male literary critics during the years when Mantel devoted herself to exploring how evil can be “a ripple, a disturbance of the air” and “a force at large in the world (Ghost 93). Despite the disappointing—mostly male—reviews, Mantel continued to write, honing her skills in various forms of writing, building her creative strength for the novel that she’d been wanting to write since the 1970s (Mantel, “accumulated an anger”): a novel about Thomas Cromwell. By finally succumbing to the “robust[ness]” (“accumulated an anger”) of Thomas Cromwell, Mantel has reached the position of an author respected for her “ingenuity, skill, and ability” (Bondanella 93) and an author “who will be read and studied forever” (Hamilton qtd. in “accumulated and anger”).

Terri Baker is an instructor at two institutions in Calgary, Alberta: Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary. Her dissertation, “‘Beneath every history, another history:’ History, Memory, and Nation in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies,” examines the contemporary social critique Mantel makes in the novels and was defended in 2014. Her publications include a review of Mary Novik’s Muse for Canadian Literature, an essay on Ian McEwan’s Saturday for the anthology Writing Difference: Nationalism, Identity and Literature, and an essay contribution on Victorian women collectors for the anthology Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices and the fate of Things. Other publications include numerous book reviews and a feature article on Mary Novik’s Muse for the Historical Novel Review.


Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “The downfall of Anne Boleyn.” Rev. of Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. Theguardian. The Guardian News and Media Limited4 May 2012. Web. 10 May 2012.

Bernier, Olivier. ‘Guillotine Dreams. Review of A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel. The

New York Times, 9 May 1993, Accessed 27 Dec 2016.

Bondanella, Peter, translator and editor. The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli, Oxford UP, 2005.

Brown, Mark. “Hilary Mantel Wins Man Booker Prize for Second Time.” Theguardian, 16 Oct. 


Accessed 23 Oct. 2014.

Byatt, A. S. “Forefathers.” On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. Chatto & Windus, 2000, pp. 36-64.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “How it must have been.” Review of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The New York Review of Books, 5 Nov. 2009, 10 April 2012.

Hitchens, Christopher. “The Men Who made England: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.” Review of Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Arguably, Signal/McClelland & Stewart, 2011, pp. 146-151.

Jameson, Fredric. Antinomies of Realism, Verso, 2013.

Mantel, Hilary. Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir. Fourth Estate, 2003. 

---. “I accumulated an anger that would rip a roof off.” Theguardian,16 Oct. 2012, Accessed 23 Oct. 2014.

---. “The Unquiet Mind of Hilary Mantel.” Interview by Sophie Elmhirst. NewStatesman, 3 Oct. 2012, Accessed 25 Nov. 2013.

---. Wolf Hall, 4th Estate, 2009.

Smith, Joan. “The rough and tumbril of history.” Review of A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary 

Mantel. Independent, 5 Sep 1992, Accessed 27 Dec 2016.

Shusterman, Noah. The French Revolution : Faith, Desire and Politics. London, GB: Routledge, 

2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 29 December 2016.

Tayler, Christopher. Review of Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. theguardian, 2 May 2009 28 

Dec 2016. 

Wallace, Diana. The Woman's Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000, Palgrave 

Macmillan, 2005.

1 In his translation of The Prince, Peter Bondanella defines the concept of the virtue of which Machiavelli alludes as “a decidedly masculine quality, denoting ingenuity, skill, and ability (93).

A Night in Belgrade
The Dream of a New Way to Read Comics

The Dream of a New Way to Read Comics

Notes about the possible worlds and the implicit readers in ¨Calliope¨ by Neil Gaiman

The new reader of comics

The comic book is a format that combines literary text and image in a balanced way, within which the superhero comic is just a genre. The problem arose when this genre acquired such predominance that it started to be regarded by the general public as ¨The Comic¨, which resulted in much prejudice. Even today, a common estimation of comics is that it is a highly limited genre, aimed at a very particular readership, who remain quite underestimated. The typical suits, the multiple universes, the crossing of characters in the different series, the iterative time form, the horizon of expectations of comic readers in the USA, readers who constituted a well-defined market which big editorials aimed at. In contrast, in the mid 80’s there appeared a series of works that flocked behind the title graphic novel, a term that, from the very beginning, marks a direct link with what we will call ¨high literature¨.

In 1986, three of the great works that became the forerunners of the movement were published: Maus by Art Siegelman, a work of biographical and testimonial character that won the Pulitzer award in 1992; The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. These three works present what might be the defining characteristic of graphic novels: their ¨intension of totality¨ (Castagnet, 2012: 8). What we mean to say is that, although they were published in a serialized way, they had a limited extension, a definite beginning, development and conclusion and a unique writer or team of writers. All of them broke away from the multiple universes, the iterative time and the compulsory intertextuality within a series. In the case of Maus and Watchmen, there was also a fundamental link with the history of the 20th century, in particular with the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War.

In 1989, Neil Gaiman, a practically unknown English scriptwriter, begins to publish a series with DC Comics. His editor, Karen Berger, let him choose any hero out of the editorial universe (provided it was not an important one) and reinvent it. This is quite common in the world of U.S. comics: the characters do not belong to a unique author, but are ¨handled¨ by decisions of the editors who make decisions overseeing the common universe. In this case, Gaiman chose Sandman, a character created by Gardner Fox in 1939 (a detective without supernatural powers) and reinvented by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby between 1974-76 (in this case, Sandman was a psychiatrist who reaches a dimension from which he can control people’s dreams). This way, the author begins his story within the genre of the superheroes, but modifying the format so that it breaks with the horizons of expectations of the readers: the new Sandman is presented as the Lord of Dreams and the Prince of Stories, a dream manifestation, his embodiment in a being that changes his name and body and reigns over the dreams of all creatures. Gaiman builds, in this way, a highly complex character who has little to do with the traditional superheroes, and that may (and will) be the shadow that walks beside the readers through several narrations which recreate the motives and characters of the universal mythology, history and literature.

Throughout the first seven volumes of the series (compiled in a unique volume, Preludes & Nocturnes), the scriptwriter does not break with the genre of superheroes abruptly, but he subtly slips the plot from the universe of DC into his own. Along these initial publications, Gaiman’s Sandman comes across the former Sandmans (in the typical intertextuality of the DC comics) and links the three plots into one. This way, Gaiman does not make ¨a clean break¨ but he takes the parallel dimensions generated by his predecessors and unifies them coherently, in which the former Sandmans are explained through their relationship with Morpheus. Thus, the eternal present of the comic of superheroes acquires a past and advances towards a future, the multiple dimensions are interconnected, the present of The Sandman is the historical present of a reality such as ours, and his world and a realistic world cross each other.

The Sandman, therefore, was presented as a comic of superheroes and launched into the market by DC as such, but throughout its development it built a highly complex fantastic tale with a convergence of different literary genres, narrative styles and intertextual echoes of several works from the Western canon. This story, which, in the view of the hypothesis of this work, presents two types of implicit readers, thus revolutionizing the market of the U.S. comic to such an extent that DC created a new editorial seal dedicated exclusively to graphic novels. 


Sub-creation, mythopoeia and possible worlds

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories” (1939), the British writer and philologist J.R.R. Tolkien develops his own definition of fantasy and fantasy literature through the analysis of traditional tales. Considering the ideas of this author, there was a time in which the great journeys made the world become too small a place for men and elves to share, so the existence of a fairy land, Fantasy, became necessary.

This other world (or secondary reality) is a sub-creation which arose from a poet’s imagination with the “the inner consistency of reality” (1983: 139):

The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination. (...) The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality”, is indeed another thing, or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation. (...)

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will problably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode. (Tolkien, 1983: 139-140)

It is possible to draw a parallel between these early ideas conceived by Tolkien and the semantics of the possible worlds applied to the analysis of literature through the exposed theory of the fictional worlds by Lubomir Doležel. This author exposes the several limitations of the literary theories of mimetic order, which draw a referential connection between literature and a unique real world. Now, Doležel affirms that an alternative to the mimesis could be a fiction theory based on the semantics of possible worlds where Literature’s fictional realities could be analyzed as fictional worlds independently from the real. They are possible worlds, populated by possible creatures and objects but without a real existence. These worlds, constituted from different categories (entities) and modalities (limitations), are sustained by their internal coherence or consistency. Mario Vargas Llosa mentions the writer’s power of persuasion by which the writer makes the reader accept the illusion of autonomy of the story and the characters from the real. But the novel’s power of persuasion: mayor cuanto más independiente y soberana nos parece ésta, cuando todo lo que en ella acontece nos da la sensación de ocurrir en función de mecanismos internos de esa ficción y no por imposición arbitraria de una voluntad exterior. Cuando una novela nos da esa impresión de autosuficiencia, de haberse emancipado de la realidad real, de contener en sí misma todo lo que requiere para existir, ha alcanzado la máxima capacidad persuasiva (Vargas Llosa, 1997: 35).

... the greater the novel’s power of persuasion is, the more independent and sovereign the novel seems to be, when everything that takes place in it impresses us as if it were to be occurring in view of fictional internal mechanisms and not due to thearbitrary imposition of an external will. When a novel gives us the impression of self-sufficiency, of having emancipated from the real reality, of containing everything it requires to exist in itself, it has reached the maximum persuasive capacity. (our translation)

All these seem to be talking of different forms of the same idea, of the difficult task of creating a secondary or fictional world where the green sun will be credible, creation that requires of a great narrative skill that few dare to undertake. 

Neil Gaiman was one of the few who dared undertake such risky tasks, in The Sandman he created a possible fictional heterogeneous world formed by multiple realities: apart from a dimension that corresponds to ours, there is the “Dream”, the kingdom of the images of imagination and all other stories. In fact, throughout the series, we can see the appearance of multiple dimensions (to the Dream, are added Faerie, the fairyland, and a Miltonian Hell, among many others) that, though independent, they cross each other; such is the case of the Yggdrasil from the Northern mythology where there is a way that joins them and the characters can take it. In this way, the series that had started as a comic of superheroes is recreated in a completely different way, creating a world where the world of all stories converge, and a reality such as ours (with its history and present time) is crossed by the multiple realities of the fiction stories that, after all, are also part of it, as we are make by our dreams and the tales we read.

Un mundo mitológico, sin embargo, es una estructura semánticamente no-homogénea, constituida por la coexistencia de dominios naturales y sobrenaturales. Los dominios están separados por rígidas fronteras pero, al mismo tiempo, están unidos por la posibilidad de contactos inter-froterizos. (Doležel, 1997: 87)

A mythological world, nonetheless, is a semantically non-homogeneous structure, constituted by the coexistence of natural and supernatural domains.  The domains are separated by rigid borders, but, at the same time, they are linked by the possibility of inter-border contacts. (our translation)

Then, unlike fantastic literature, where our primary reality is invaded by another, altering the natural order of things, the universe of The Sandman presents multiple interconnected realities. This interconnection is constitutive of the natural order of things since many of the historical facts and characters of the primary reality are explained through the this reality. It is what Doležel himself points out as the pass from the classical myth to the modern myth: the borders between the natural and supernatural realms blur, become permeable, and “the dyadic mythological world becomes a unified hybrid world” (1999: 264).

These characteristics made The Sandman to be considered as a “modern mythology” (Railly, 2011: 26). Nevertheless, the myths are usually presented as timeless narrations, outside the known history and world, which does not happen in The Sandman. Sara Reilly, in her work “The Old Made New: Neil Gaiman´s storytelling in The Sandman”, proposes the term “mythopoeia”, also taken from Tolkien’s work: 

Rather than a mythological writer, it is more useful and accurate to describe Gaiman as a mythopoeic writer, a description that aligns him with modernist authors such as Joyce, Eliot, and Yeats; popular culture icons such as comics author/illustrator Jack Kirby; and filmmakers such as George Lucas. The term mythopoeia (or mythopoesis, as also used in this context) was first coined by J.R.R. Tolkien. As explained by Henry Slochower, the term is taken “from the Greek poien, meaning to make, to create” and refers to the “re-creat[ion] of the ancient stories” (15). Slochower distinguishes mythopoesis from mythology, arguing that while “mythology presents its stories as if they actually took place, mythopoesis transposes them to a symbolic meaning” (15). Mythopoesis, then, is purely literary; it does not present itself as truth, but as symbolism. The old stories are made new. (Reilly, 2011: 27-28)

“Mythopoeia”, the name of a poem by Tolkien edited together with the essay mentioned above, makes reference to the sub-creation: through art, the worlds of imagination can have the “the inner consistency of reality” (1983: 139); through art, the old worlds of imagination can be recreated, by reading them in the way it is done in nowadays.

El pensamiento contemporáneo acerca de los orígenes de los mundos posibles no se limita a las presuposiciones metafísicas de la filosofía de Leibniz. Los mundos posibles no se descubren en depósitos lejanos, invisibles o trascendentes, sino que son construidos por mentes y manos humanas. Esta explicación nos la da explícitamente Kripke: “Los mundos posibles se estipulan, no se descubren con potentes microscopios” (Kripke 1972:267; cf. Bradley y Swatz 1979: 63 y ss.). La construcción de mundos posibles ficcionales ocurre, primariamente, en diversas actividades culturales -composición poética y musical, mitología y cuenta-cuentos, pintura y escultura, actuaciones de teatro y danza, cine, etc.- sirven de mediadores en la construcción de mundos ficcionales. Las ficciones literarias se construyen en el acto creativo de la imaginación poética, la actividad de la poiesis. El texto literario es el mediador de esa actividad. Con los potenciales semióticos del texto literario, el poeta lleva a la existencia un mundo posible que no existía antes de su acto poiético.  (Doležel, 1997: 88)

The contemporary thought about the origins of the possible worlds is not limited to the metaphysical presuppositions of Leibniz´s philosophy. The possible worlds are not discovered in faraway, invisible or transcendental deposits, but are constructed by human minds and hands. Kripke explain this this explicitly: ¨the possible worlds are stipulated, are not discovered with powerful microscopes¨ (Kripke 1972:267; cf. Bradley and Swatz 1979: 63 and ss.). The construction of possible fictional worlds takes place/ occurs, primarily, in different/ diverse cultural activities – poetic and musical composition, mythology and storytelling, painting and sculpture, theatre and dance performances, film-making, etc.- mediate the construction of fictional worlds. Literary fictions are constructed in the creative act of poetic imagination, the activity of the poiesis. The literary text mediates that activity. With the semiotic potentials of the literary text, the poet brings to existence a possible world which did not exist before his poetic act. (our translation)



“Calliope” is chapter #17 of The Sandman and belongs to a series of four self-inclusive stories published in 1991 that formed the third compilation volume, Dream Country.

In “Calliope” Gaiman makes what we have defined before as mythopoesis, that is, the recreation of the myth. In this case, part of the structure of the story is formed by the motif of the kidnapping, typical of the Greek mythology, and the conception of inspiration as of divine origin. Besides, it probes somehow the Aristotelean principle of unity, as it is a self-inclusive chapter in which the complete story is developed in very few pages. In this chapter, besides, the muse Calliope is not only presented as a character inside the narration, but her story and nature as the epic muse also become a constitutive part of The Sandman’s world. Gaiman does not only bring to the scene a character, a name, as it occurs in the typical intertextuality of the comics of superheroes so that the informed readers can identify them, but he also includes the story of Caliope, her condition, her nature, the elements around her, and sets her in her own world.

The story begins with the writer of a unique successful novel called Richard Madoc who can no longer write: he has a mental block, he lost his inspiration. It is then that he resorts to another writer’s help, the already elderly Erasmus Fry, who gives him (in exchange for a bezoar) a muse: Calliope, “Beautiful Voice”, “The Muse of Epic”, “Homer’s Muse”, as she is called in the same text.

This old writer had kidnapped her nearly sixty years before, while she was bathing in water fountain in Mount Helicon. the motif of the kidnapping, as it has already been mentioned, is quite common in Greek mythology, where we can find many stories that refer to the kidnappings of young lad or maiden by men and gods.

The old writer had had the muse as a prisoner for many years, but he finally parts with her exchanging her for a bezoar. This treatment of the goddess as merchandise could be somehow interpreted as an expression of the modern vision of the world, where even inspiration can be purchased. This could be seen as a far-fetched interpretation, however, although we have pointed out the typical elements of the classical myth in the story, the fact that the main argument is presented in a reality such as ours should not be left aside.

The young writer, who had written only one successful novel and was under pressure due to a contract with the editorial, obtains his muse and forces her to inspire him by raping her. At this point, we can see the recreation of the myth inside the modern world. The kidnapping had taken place by means of the irruption of the modern man into the myth: the writer travels to Mount Helicon to search for a muse, ready to take her by force using “certain rituals”, taken from the ancient myth. In this second part, instead, the classical conception of the inspiration as a divine act (the poet receives the words from the goddesses and tells them to men) is introduced in the modern world. Madoc’s inspiration comes from the muse, he takes her words by force, but they are Calliope’s, and he finds himself writing great novels and epic poems in the England of the late 1980’s. 

The works thus obtained become best sellers and an editorial phenomenon on which films and plays are based. The young writer gains fame and recognition, but this is only the ephemeral glory of post-modernity. This is suggested by his predecessor’s slow fall into darkness. Erasmus Fry (also inspired by the enslaved muse), whose death is barely noticed, had unsuccessfully asked for the reediting of his novels for a long time.

This way we can see how motives, characters and conceptions of the Greek mythology are recreated in The Sandman’s present world. Nonetheless, there is a substantial change in these mythological elements: the humanization of the goddess. At first, Madoc does not recognize her and he even doubts her divine nature, something absolutely unthinkable in the world of Greek mythology (since Calliope does not present herself in someone else’s shape).

She’s not even human, he told himself. She’s thousands of years old. But her flesh was warm, and her breath was sweet, and she choked back tears like a child whenever he hurt her./ It occurred to him momemtarily that the old man might have cheated him: given him a real girl. That he, Rick Madoc, might possibly have done something wrong, even criminal…/ But afterwards, relaxing in his study, something shifted inside his head. (Gaiman, 2002, 19)1

Finally, Calliope is set free with Sandman’s help, and Madoc receives a terrible punishment: he becomes the victim of an uncontrollable inspiration, the ideas get to his mind one after the other, faster than he can write or think, and drive him to the verge of madness. Such cruel punishment, though absolutely opposed to what is typical of the comics of superheroes, gives the readers a sort of relief. This impression, the certainty of justice imposed by superior powers to man’s law (not imposed by the gods but which arises out of the necessity to reach a balance intrinsic to the world order), is proper to the Greek culture, and that the protagonists, after falling into excess and receiving their punishment, should recognize such justice constitutes an essential part of the tragedy. 

Esquilo concibe el destino como una fuerza humana y sobredivina, pero en la cual la voluntad del hombre participa. El dolor, la desdicha y la catástrofe son, en el sentido recto de la palabra, penas que se infligen al hombre por traspasar la mesura, es decir, por transgredir ese límite máximo de expansión de cada ser e intentar ir más allá de sí mismo: ser dios o demonio. (…) Ver en el teatro de Esquilo la triste y sombría victoria del destino es olvidar lo que llama Jaeger “la tensión problemática” del soldado de Salamina. Esa tensión se alivia cuando el dolor se transforma en conciencia del destino. Entonces el hombre accede a la visión de la legalidad cósmica y su desdicha aparece como una parte de la armonía universal. Pagada su penalidad, el hombre se reconcilia con el todo. (Paz, 1986: 202-203)

Aeschylus conceives destiny as a superhuman and superdivine force, but a force in which man’s will participates. Pain, misfortune, and catastrophe are, in the literal sense of the word, punishments inflicted on man because he has exceeded moderation, that is, he has transgressed that maximum limit of expansion of each being and has tried to go beyond himself: to be a god or a demon. Beyond moderation, the space on which each one can unfold himself, sprout discord, disorder, and chaos. Aeschylus steadfastly accepts the avenging violence of destiny; but his piety is virile, and he rebels against man’s fate. To see in Aeschylus’ theater the sad and somber victory of destiny is to forget what Jaeger calls “the problematical tension of the soldier of Salamis.” That tension is relieved when pain is transformed into consciousness of destiny. Then man accedes to the vision of cosmic legality, and his misfortune appears as a part of the universal harmony. Having paid his penalty, man is reconciled with the whole. (Paz, 1976: 416-7/644)

This can be seen in the last vignettes of this chapter, when Madoc says:

It’s her revenge, you see. Or his revenge. I said I needed the ideas...But they’re coming so fast, swamping me, overwhelming me…/ You have to meke them stop./…/ Go upstairs. At the top of the house there’s a room. There is a woman in there./ Let her out. She’s locked up in there, you see./ Tell her… Tell her she can go. That I free her. Make her leave. Make her go away./…/ Make it stop. Tell her I’m sorry…/ (Gaiman, 2002, 32)2 

Based on the analysis of this chapter, we can reach then the development of our hypothesis. As it has been mentioned before, “Calliope” is built through the intertextual links with the Greek mythology, links that form the narrative structure and the sense of the story (since, as Iser points out, the sense of the narration rests on its structure. Thus, it is logical to think that the implicit reader of this work should be the one able to reconstruct these links based on his knowledge about mythology, however, The Sandman was published by DC Comics and (despite holding the seal of the mature readers lebel (2)/ label) it was read massively by a public which also included the regular readers of comics of superheroes. We can conclude then that the mythopoetic nature of the story, which recreates mythological motives and characters in the contemporary reality and humanizes divine characters who may generate the reader’s sympathy and identification, makes it possible even for readers who are unable to reconstruct all the intertextual links of the story to grasp the horizon of sense. Karen Berger analyses the curious phenomenon of the reception of The Sandman in the following way:

Like the landmark series before it (The Dark Night return, Watchmen, and V de Vendetta) The Sandman’s appeal has transcended the traditional comics market. And there’s good reason for that. Ultemately, Neil Gaiman loves to tell stories, and the stories he tells are timeless, resonant, and universal. His work on The Sandman appeals to people from different walks of life, attracting a constellation of readers who normally don’t inhabit the same literary orbit. The Sandman also has a desproportionate number of women who read the series, probably the most of any mainstream comic. In a medium that is still widely occupied by males, that in itfelf is a major achievement. (Berger, 2010: 6)

It could be thought, following this analysis, that “Calliope” in particular and The Sandman in general were composed with a narrative structure which allows the horizon of sense, the totalizing perspective of the comprehension, to be achieved by two kinds of implicit readers: one, the reader of the comics of superheroes who incorporates the structures of a different way of reading through the smooth passing of The Sandman from this genre to its own (related to the literature of fantasy), the links that the series keeps with the universe of DC and its mythopoetic way of narration, recreating the old stories in the new world. The other is the reader of “high literature” who enjoys the reading of a comic and acquires its particular structure of reading so foreign to this kind of readers through the intertextual links of The Sandman with mythology, traditional tales, poetry and works belonging to the western canon that form an essential part of this work.

To conclude, and although this might be beyond the scope of this work, we could wonder about the following: Why would Gaiman choose this way of telling stories? What is he trying to tell us? Why is Calliope the muse prisoner of a best-selling writer in the 20th century England? Why do excess, punishment, recognition (the essential elements of tragedy according Aristotle) take place in the story?

The world of myth is far from our world and our time, but, from the very beginning, it helped explain them. The world of tragedy placed men in the position of gods, spectators of men’s drama, of their excesses and punishments, so as to learn from them. Perhaps Gaiman chose to tell the story of the young writer persecuted by editorial deadlines and contracts which little have to do with inspiration and art so as to place his own story out of himself, in order to observe it. Perhaps he chose Homer’s muse, kidnapped and humiliated in the present, to remind us of the time before scripture and history, when art was not constrained by market rules and there was time to compose an epic poem by heart and memory.

“El sueño de una nueva forma de leer cómics: notas sobre los mundos posibles y los lectores implícitos en “Calíope” de Neil Gaiman” was first published in “DOSSIER Mundos ficcionales y teorías de la ficción”, proceedings of the 1st Conference of Fictional Worlds and Fiction Theories organized for the Luthor Magazine.

Translated from the Spanish by Natalia Accossano Pérez and Mariela Accossano, with additional translation assistance by Mia Funk.

Natalia A. Accossano Pérez is from Patagonia, Argentina. She has B.A. in Literature and is beginning her PhD on Nineteenth Century European Literature and its influence on contemporary Essay Film, with a scholarship from the National Research Council of Argentina (CONICET). She enjoys teaching literature and is an assistant in the Cathedra of European Literature at the National University of Río Negro. First and foremost she is a voracious reader and comic fan. She loves Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Jean Rhys, ancient mythology and the Romantics. In Spanish, she is always reading and re-reading Jorge Luis Borges and Alejandra Pizarnik. She writes essays about sublime landscape and feminist prose for work, and diaries and short fiction for fun. Once in a while, she writes essays about non-academic literature and comics, which feel like fresh air, just like the one you can read here.


    •    Text included in three capsules of narration, throughout two vignettes.

  •  Dialogue between Madoc and Felix, a secondary character who develops along six vignettes. In the quotation only fragments of Madoc´s dialogue balloons are included.



Berger, K. 2010. “Introduction”, Gaiman, N. The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, New York: DC Comics: 4-6.

Castagnet, M. F. 2012. All Along the Watchmen: Elementos paratextuales en la novela gráfica de Moore_Gibbon. Tesis de Licenciatura, UNLP. Recuperada el 12/08/2013 en: / 

Doležel, L. [1988] 1997. “Mímesis y Mundos Ficcionales”, Teorías de la ficción     literaria, (Antonio Garrido Domínguez, comp.), Madrid: Arco/libros S.L.

[1998] 1999.  Heterocósmica. Ficción y mundos posibles, Madrid: Arco/Libros S.L

Gaiman, N. 2010. The Sandman: Dream Country, New York: DC Comics.

Iser, W. 1987. El acto de leer. Teoría del efecto estético (J. A. Gimbernat y M. Barbeito, trad.), Madrid: Taurus.

Paz, O. 1986. “El mundo heroico”, El arco y la lira, México: Fondo de Cultura Económica: 198-218. 

1973. “The Heroic World”, The Bow and the Lyre (translated by Ruth L. C. Simms). Austin: University of Texas Press: e-book.

Reilly, S. 2011. “Old Made New: Neil Gaiman's Storytelling in The Sandman”, Honors Projects Overview. Paper 52 12/08/2013 In:

Tolkien, J. R. R. 1983. “On Fairy-Stories”, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983: 109-161.

Vargas Llosa, M. 1997. Cartas a un joven novelista, Barcelona: Planeta.

El sueño de una nueva forma de leer cómics: Notas sobre los mundos posibles y los lectores implícitos en “Calíope” de Neil Gaiman

En Estados Unidos durante la década del ochenta, se desarrolló un movimiento rupturista en el campo del cómic, cuyas obras se denominaron graphic novels. Este género, difícil de delimitar, se caracteriza principalmente por vincularse con la “alta literatura”, separándose de las estructuras narrativas, las exigencias editoriales y los lectores habituales de los cómics de superhéroes.

En el presente trabajo nos proponemos analizar las rupturas que este género presentó con la forma tradicional de escribir y leer cómics a partir de los conceptos claves de la estética de la recepción literaria: el horizonte de expectativas y el lector implícito. Particularmente, centraremos nuestro análisis en el modo en el que se construye la estructura narrativa de “Calíope”, el capítulo #17 de la serie The Sandman de Neil Gaiman. Nuestra hipótesis es que “Calíope” fue elaborado de forma mitopoética, lo que implicó dos tipos distintos de lectores capaces de constituir el horizonte de sentido de la obra: el lector de historietas y el lector de literatura. Gaiman construye de tal modo el mundo posible ficcional de The Sandman que reúne en él los marcos de referencia y las estructuras narrativas propias de tres géneros diversos, el cómic, el relato breve fantástico y la mitología. Se crea, así, un mundo en el que una realidad como la nuestra se fusiona con los motivos y los personajes de un mito griego. 


1. El nuevo lector de cómics

El comic book o la historieta es un formato que combina en partes iguales texto literario e imagen, dentro del mismo el cómic de superhéroes es sólo un género. El problema resultó cuando este género adquirió tal predominancia que pasó a ser concebido por el público en general como “El Cómic”, lo que dio lugar a múltiples prejuicios. Aún hoy, las ideas predominantes dentro del sentido común son que las historietas son un formato sumamente limitado, propio de un tipo muy limitado de lectores, bastante desprestigiados. Los trajes característicos, los universos múltiples, los entrecruzamientos de personajes en las distintas series y el tiempo iterativo conformaban el horizonte de expectativas de lo lectores de cómics en Estados Unidos, lectores que constituían un mercado bien definido y era a éste al que se dirigían las grandes editoriales. En contra de esto, surgen, a mediados de los '80, múltiples obras que se abanderan bajo el título graphic novel, término que desde el principio marca un vínculo directo con lo que llamaremos la “alta literatura”. 

Durante 1986 se publicaron tres de las grandes obras que se instituyeron como precursoras del movimiento: Maus de Art Spiegelman, una obra de carácter biográfico y testimonial que ganó un premio pulitzer en 1992; The Dark Knight Returns de Frank Miller y Watchmen de Alan Moore y Dave Gibbons. Las tres obras presentan la que quizás sea la característica definitoria de las novelas gráficas: su “pretensión de totalidad” (Castagnet, 2012, 8) . Con esto nos referimos a que, si bien fueron publicadas en forma serializada, tenían una extensión limitada, un principio, un nudo y un desenlace definidos y un único autor o equipo de autores. Todas ellas rompieron con los universos múltiples, el tiempo iterativo y la obligada intertextualidad entre las series. En el caso de Maus y Watchmen, además, existía un vínculo fundamental con la historia del siglo XX, en particular con la Segunda Guerra Mundial y la subsiguiente Guerra Fría.

En 1989, Neil Gaiman, un guionista inglés prácticamente desconocido, comienza a publicar una serie dentro de DC Comics. Su editora, Karen Berger, le había permitido elegir cualquier héroe del universo de la editorial (siempre que no fuera importante) y reinventarlo. Esto es común dentro de las grandes editoriales de cómics estadounidenses: los personajes no pertenecen a un único autor, sino que son “manejados” por decisiones de la editorial dentro un universo común. En este caso, Gaiman eligió a Sandman, un personaje creado por Gardner Fox en 1939 (una suerte de detective, sin poderes sobrenaturales) y retomado por Joe Simon y Jack Kirby entre 1974-76 (en este caso, Sandman fue un psiquiatra que llega a una dimensión desde la cual puede controlar los sueños de las personas). De este modo, el autor comienza su historia dentro del género de los superhéroes, pero modificándolo de forma tal de romper con los horizontes de expectativas de lo lectores: el nuevo Sandman se presenta como el Señor de los Sueños y el Príncipe de las Historias, una manifestación del sueño, su encarnación en un ser que cambia de nombre y de cuerpo y reina sobre los sueños de todas las criaturas. Gaiman construye así a un personaje sumamente complejo que poco tiene que ver con los superhéroes, y que puede ser (y será) la sombra que acompañe a los lectores a través de múltiples relatos que recrean motivos y personajes de la mitología, la historia y la literatura universales. 

A lo largo de los primeros siete números de la serie (reunidos en un único tomo recopilatorio, Preludes & Nocturnes), el guionista no rompe abruptamente con el género de superhéroes, sino que desliza la trama sutilmente del universo de DC al suyo propio. Durante estos números iniciales, el Sandman de Gaiman se cruza con los Sandman anteriores (en la intertextualidad propia de los cómics de DC), y enlaza las tres tramas en una sola. De esta forma, Gaiman no hace un “borrón y cuenta nueva” sino que toma las dimensiones paralelas generadas por sus predecesores y las unifica coherentemente, en la que los Sandman anteriores se explican a partir de su relación con Morpheus. Así, el presente eterno del cómic de superhéroes adquiere un pasado y avanza hacia un futuro, las dimensiones múltiples se interconectan, el presente de The Sandman es el presente histórico de una realidad como la nuestra y su mundo y un mundo realista se cruzan.

The Sandman, entonces, fue presentado como un cómic de superhéroes y lanzado al mercado por DC como tal, pero a lo largo de su desarrollo construyó un relato fantástico sumamente complejo a partir de la confluencia de diferentes géneros literarios, estilos narrativos y la intertextualidad con múltiples obras del canon occidental. Relato que, siguiendo la hipótesis de este trabajo, presenta dos tipos de lectores implícitos, revolucionando el mercado del cómic estadounidense al punto que DC creó un nuevo sello editorial dedicado únicamente a las novelas gráficas. 


2. Sub-creación, mitopoeia y mundos posibles

En su ensayo “Sobre los Cuentos de Hadas” (1963), el escritor y filólogo británico J.R.R Tolkien desarrolla su propia definición de la fantasía y la literatura de fantasía a partir del análisis de los cuentos tradicionales. Siguiendo las ideas de este autor, hubo un momento en el que los grandes viajes hicieron del mundo un lugar demasiado pequeño para que los hombres y los elfos estuvieran juntos, entonces, fue necesaria la existencia de una tierra de las hadas, Fantasía, en otro lugar. Este otro mundo (o realidad secundaria) es una sub-creación, surgida de la imaginación de un poeta con la “consistencia interna de la realidad” (2007, 60): 

Una cosa, o un aspecto, es el poder mental para formar imágenes; y su denominación adecuada debe ser Imaginación. (...) El logro de la expresión que proporciona (o al menos así lo parece) “la consistencia interna de la realidad” es ciertamente otra cosa, otro aspecto, que necesita un nombre distinto: el de Arte, el eslabón operacional entre la Imaginación y el resultado final, la Sub-creación. (...)

Crear un Mundo Secundario en el que un sol verde resulte admisible, imponiendo una Creencia Secundaria, ha de requerir con toda certeza esfuerzo e intelecto, y ha de exigir una habilidad especial, algo así como la destreza élfica. Pocos se atreven con tareas tan arriesgadas. Pero cuando se intentan y se alcanzan, nos encontramos ante un raro logro del Arte: auténtico arte narrativo, fabulación en su estado primario y más puro. (Tolkien, 2007: 60-63) 

Es posible trazar un paralelo entre estas tempranas ideas de Tolkien y la semántica de los mundos posibles, aplicada al análisis de la literatura en la teoría de los mundos ficcionales expuesta, entre otros, por Lubomir Doležel. Este autor expone las múltiples limitaciones de las teorías literarias de orden mimético, que trazan un vínculo referencial entre la literatura y un único mundo real. Ahora bien, Doležel sostiene que una alternativa a la mímesis podría ser una teoría de la ficción fundada a partir de la semántica de los mundos posibles, donde las realidades ficcionales de la literatura podrían analizarse como mundos ficcionales independientes del orden de lo real. Son mundos posibles, poblados por objetos y criaturas posibles pero sin existencia real. Estos mundos, constituidos a partir de diferentes categorías (las entidades) y modalidades (las limitaciones), se sostienen a partir de su coherencia o consistencia interna. Vargas Llosa habla del poder de persuasión del escritor, del que depende que el lector acepte la ilusión de autonomía de la historia y los personajes respecto de lo real. Pero ese poder de persuasión de la novela: mayor cuanto más independiente y soberana nos parece ésta, cuando todo lo que en ella acontece nos da la sensación de ocurrir en función de mecanismos internos de esa ficción y no por imposición arbitraria de una voluntad exterior. Cuando una novela nos da esa impresión de autosuficiencia, de haberse emancipado de la realidad real, de contener en sí misma todo lo que requiere para existir, ha alcanzado la máxima capacidad persuasiva (Vargas Llosa, 1997, 35)

Todas estas parecen distintas formas de hablar de la misma idea, de la tarea arriesgada que representa la creación de un mundo secundario o un mundo ficcional donde un sol verde resulte admisible, creación que requiere de una gran capacidad narrativa y a la que pocos se atreven.

Neil Gaiman fue uno de esos pocos que se atrevieron con tareas tan arriesgadas, en The Sandman creó un mundo posible ficcional heterogéneo, compuesto de realidades múltiples: aparte de una dimensión que se corresponde con la nuestra, existe el «Sueño», que es el reino de las imágenes de la imaginación y de todas las historias. De hecho, a lo largo de la serie, vemos surgir múltiples dimensiones que, aún independientes, se entrecruzan; como el Yggdrasil de la mitología nórdica, hay un camino que las une y los personajes pueden tomarlo. De esta forma, la serie que había comenzado como un cómic de superhéroes se encausa de manera totalmente diferente, creando un mundo en el que confluyen los mundos de todos los relatos, y una realidad como la nuestra (con su historia y su actualidad) se ve atravesada por las múltiples realidades de los relatos de ficción que, después de todo, también la conforman. 

Un mundo mitológico, sin embargo, es una estructura semánticamente no-homogénea, constituída por la coexistencia de dominios naturales y sobrenaturales. Los dominios están separados por rígidas fronteras pero, al mismo tiempo, están unidos por la posibilidad de contactos inter-froterizos. (Doležel, 1997: 87)

Entonces, a diferencia de lo que ocurre en la literatura fantástica, donde nuestra realidad primaria es invadida por otra, quebrando el orden natural de las cosas, el universo de The Sandman presenta realidades múltiples interconectadas entre sí. Esta interconexión es constitutiva del orden natural de las cosas, ya que muchos de los hechos y personajes históricos de la realidad primaria se explican a partir de ella. Es lo que el mismo Doležel señala en relación con el traspaso del mito clásico al mito moderno: las fronteras entre los dominios natural y sobrenatural se diluyen, son permeables, y “el mundo mitológico diádico se transforma en un mundo híbrido unificado” (1999, 264)

Estas características llevaron a que se considerara a The Sandman como una “modern mithology” (Railly, 2011: 26). Sin embargo, los mitos tienen la cualidad de presentarse como relatos atemporales, fuera de la historia y del mundo como se lo conoce, y no es el caso de The Sandman. Sara Reilly, en su trabajo “The Old Made New: Neil Gaiman”s storytelling in The Sandman”, propone entonces el término “mitopoeia”, tomado también de la obra de Tolkien: 

Rather than a mythological writer, it is more useful and accurate to describe Gaiman as a mythopoeic writer, a description that aligns him with modernist authors such as Joyce, Eliot, and Yeats; popular culture icons such as comics author/illustrator Jack Kirby; and filmmakers such as George Lucas. The term mythopoeia (or mythopoesis, as also used in this context) was first coined by J.R.R. Tolkien. As explained by Henry Slochower, the term is taken “from the Greek poien, meaning to make, to create” and refers to the “re-creat[ion] of the ancient stories” (15). Slochower distinguishes mythopoesis from mythology, arguing that while “mythology presents its stories as if they actually took place, mythopoesis transposes them to a symbolic meaning” (15). Mythopoesis, then, is purely literary; it does not present itself as truth, but as symbolism. The old stories are made new. That is, the old myths are re-appropriated by a modern author and recreated for a modern audience. Gaiman’s efforts, in fact, have been twice recognized by the Mythopoeic Society, founded in 1967 in order to support such literature (“Awards”). (Reilly, 2011, 27-28) 

“Mitopoeia”, el nombre de un poema de Tolkien editado en conjunto con el ensayo antes citado, hace referencia a la sub-creación: a través del arte, los mundos de la imaginación pueden tener la “consistencia interna de la realidad”; a través del arte, los viejos mundos de la imaginación pueden ser re-creados, puestos en relación con la forma de leer de la actualidad. 

El pensamiento contemporáneo acerca de los orígenes de los mundos posibles no se limita a las presuposiciones metafísicas de la filosofía de Leibniz. Los mundos posibles no se descubren en depósitos lejanos, invisibles o trascendentes, sino que son construidos por mentes y manos humanas. Esta explicación nos la da explícitamente Kripke: “Los mundos posibles se estipulan, no se descubren con potentes microscopios” (Kripke 1972:267; cf.Bradley y Swatz 1979: 63 y ss.). La construcción de mundos posibles ficcionales ocurre, primariamente, en diversas actividades culturales -composición poética y musical, mitología y cuenta-cuentos, pintura y escultura, actuaciones de teatro y danza, cine, etc.- sirven de mediadores en la construcción de mundos ficcionales. Las ficciones literarias se construyen en el acto creativo de la imaginación poética, la actividad de la poiesis. El texto literario es el mediador de esa actividad. Con los potenciales semióticos del texto literario, el poeta lleva a la existencia un mundo posible que no existía antes de su acto poiético.  (Doležel, 1997, 88)

3. Calíope

“Calíope” es el capítulo #17 de The Sandman y pertenece a la serie de cuatro historias autoconclusivas publicadas en 1991 que conformaron el tercer tomo recopilatorio, Dream Country. En “Calíope” Gaiman realiza lo que hemos definido anteriormente como mitopoesis, es decir, la recreación del mito. En este caso, forman parte de la estructura de la historia el motivo del rapto, propio de la mitología grecolatina, y la concepción de la inspiración como obra divina. Además, comprueba en cierta forma el principio de unidad aristorélico, ya que se trata de un capítulo autoconclusivo, en el que la historia completa se desarrolla en muy pocas páginas. En este capítulo, además, no sólo se presenta a la musa Calíope como un personaje dentro de la narración, sino que su historia y su naturaleza como musa de la épica pasan a formar parte constitutiva del mundo de The Sandman. Gaiman no trae a escena sólo a un personaje, a un nombre, como ocurre en la intertextualidad propia de los cómics de superhéroes, de forma que los lectores informados puedan identificarlos; sino que incluye en el relato la historia de Calíope, su condición, su naturaleza, los elementos que la rodean, y le da un lugar en su mundo. 

La historia comienza con el escritor de una única novela exitosa, llamado Richard Madoc, que ya no puede escribir: está bloqueado, no encuentra la inspiración. Entonces, recurre a la ayuda de otro escritor, el ya anciano Erasmus Fry, que le da (a cambio de un bezoar) una musa: Calíope, “la de hermosa voz”, “la musa de la épica”, “la musa de Homero”, como se la nombra en el mismo texto (Gaiman, 2002, 17, 18 y 20). 

Este escritor anciano la había raptado hacía casi sesenta años, mientras ella se bañaba en una fuente de agua en el Monte Helicón. El motivo del rapto, como ya se dijo, es común en la mitología grecolatina, donde se encuentran muchísimas historias que refieren los secuestros de jóvenes mancebos y doncellas por parte de hombres y dioses. 

El viejo escritor tiene prisionera a la musa durante años, pero finalmente se deshace de ella, cambiándola por un bezoar. Este tratamiento de la diosa como un bien de mercado podría leerse de alguna forma como una expresión de la visión moderna del mundo, donde hasta la inspiración puede comprarse. Esta podría parecer una lectura un tanto rebuscada, sin embargo, a pesar de estar señalando los elementos propios del mito clásico en la narración, no hay que dejar de lado que la historia principal se presenta en una realidad como la nuestra.  

El joven escritor, que tenía una única novela exitosa y se hallaba presionado por el contrato con la editorial, obtiene entonces su musa y la obliga a inspirarlo, violándola. En este punto, tenemos la recreación del mito dentro del mundo moderno. El rapto se había dado mediante la irrupción del hombre moderno en el mundo del mito: el escritor viaja al monte Helicón a buscar una musa, preparado para sacarla de allí a la fuerza. En esta segunda parte, en cambio, la concepción clásica de la inspiración como obra divina (el poeta recibe las palabras de las diosas y las dice a los hombres) se introduce en el mundo moderno. La inspiración de Madoc proviene de la musa, él las toma por la fuerza, pero son las palabras de Calíope y se encuentra escribiendo enormes novelas y poemas épicos en la Inglaterra de finales de los '80. 

Las obras así obtenidas se convierten en best sellers y fenómenos editoriales de los que se hacen películas y obras de teatro. El joven escritor adquiere fama y renombre, pero ganando sólo la gloria efímera de la post-modernidad. Esto lo sugiere la paulatina caída en la oscuridad de su predecesor, Erasmus Fry (también inspirado por la musa-esclava), cuya muerte pasa casi desapercibida, luego de pedir durante mucho tiempo que vuelvan a reeditar una de sus novelas, sin conseguirlo. 

De esta forma, vemos como motivos, personajes y concepciones de la mitología griega se recrean en el mundo actual de The Sandman. Sin embargo, hay un cambio sustancial en estos y es la humanización de la diosa. En un principio, Madoc no la reconoce e incluso duda de su naturaleza divina, cosa absolutamente impensable en el mundo de la mitología griega (puesto que Calíope no se presenta en la forma de nadie más). 

Ni siquiera es humana, se dijo. Tiene miles de años. Pero su carne era cálida, su aliento dulce y se tragaba las lágrimas como una niña cuando le hacía daño./ Se le ocurrió por un momento que el viejo podía haberle engañado: que fuera una chica de verdad. Que él, Richard Madoc, hubiese hecho algo malo, incluso criminal.../ Pero luego, mientras se relajaba en su estudio, algo se movió en su cabeza. (Gaiman, 2002, 19)1                                                                             

Finalmente, Calíope es liberada mediante la ayuda de Sandman y Madoc recibe un terrible castigo: es víctima de una inspiración incontrolable, las ideas le llegan a la mente una tras otra, más rápido de lo que puede escribir o pensar y lo abruman hasta el borde de la locura. Este castigo tan cruel, absolutamente opuesto a lo propio de los cómics de superhéroes, deja, sin embargo, en los lectores una suerte de alivio. Esta impresión, certeza de justicia por parte de poderes superiores a la ley de los hombres (que no es impartida por los dioses sino por una necesidad de equilibrio intrínseco al orden del mundo)2, es propia de la cultura griega, siendo una parte fundamental de la tragedia que los protagonistas, después de caer en el exceso y recibir su castigo, reconozcan esta justicia. Esto se encuentra presente en las últimas viñetas de este capítulo, en las Madoc dice: 

Es su venganza, sabes. O la de él. Dije que necesitaba ideas... Pero vienen tan rápido, me inundan, me abruman.../Debes detenerlas./.../ Ve arriba. En el piso superior hay una habitación. Allí hay una mujer./ Déjala salir. Verás, está allí encerrada./Dile... dile que puede irse. Que la libero. Haz que se vaya. Haz que se marche. /.../ Haz que pare. Dile que lo siento.../ (Gaiman, 2002, 32)3 

A partir del análisis de este capítulo, podemos llegar entonces al desarrollo de nuestra hipótesis. Tal como se vio anteriormente, “Calíope” se construye a partir de los vínculos intertextuales con la mitología griega, vínculos que conforman la estructura narrativa y el sentido del relato (ya que, como sostiene Iser, el sentido de la obra se encuentra en su estructura). Es entonces lógico pensar en el lector implícito de esta obra como uno que pudiera reconstruir estos vínculos a partir de sus conocimientos sobre mitología; sin embargo, The Sandman fue publicado por DC Comics y (a pesar de llevar el sello de mature readers lebel) fue leído masivamente por un público que incluía también a los asiduos lectores de historietas de superhéroes. Creemos entonces que la naturaleza mitopoética del relato, que recrea motivos y personajes de la mitología en la realidad contemporánea y humaniza a los personajes divinos, volviéndolos capaces de generar comprensión e identificación por parte de los lectores, permite que el horizonte de sentido pueda ser actualizado incluso por lectores que no pueden reconstruir todos los vínculos intertextuales presentes en la historieta. Karen Berger analiza el curioso fenómeno de la recepción de The Sandman en estos términos:

Al igual que el resto de las series que marcaron una historia antes que ella (léase The Dark Night return, Watchmen y V de Vendetta), el atractivo de The Sandman a transcendido el mercado tradicional de los cómics. Y eso se debe a varias razones. Al fin y al cabo, a Neil Gaiman le gusta contar historias, y las historias que cuenta son atemporales, universales y resonantes. Su trabajo en The Sandman interesará a gente de diferentes formas de vida, atrayendo a una constelación de lectores que normalmente no cohabitan en la misma esfera literaria. The Sandman también cuenta con un número desproporcionadamente alto de mujeres lectoras, probablemente el mayor de toda la historia de los cómics. (Berger, 1999, 6)

Se puede pensar, siguiendo este análisis, que “Calíope” en particular y The Sandman en general, fueron compuestos con una estructura narrativa que permite que el horizonte de sentido, la perspectiva totalizadora de la comprensión, pueda lograrse por dos tipos de lectores implícitos: uno, el lector de historietas de superhéroes, que a partir del suave pasaje de The Sandman de ese género al suyo propio (relacionado con la literatura de fantasía), los vínculos que la serie continúa manteniendo con el universo de DC y su forma mitopoética de relatar, recreando las viejas historias en el mundo nuevo, incorpora las estructuras de una forma de leer diferente. El otro es el lector de literatura, que a partir de los vínculos intertextuales de The Sandman con la mitología, los cuentos tradicionales, la poesía y las obras del canon occidental que forman parte fundamental de la obra, disfruta de la lectura de la historieta y adquiere su estructura particular de lectura, alejada de la experiencia de este tipo de lectores.

Para terminar, y aunque escape de los límites de nuestro trabajo actual, nos cabe plantearnos estas preguntas: ¿Por qué elegiría Gaiman esta forma de contar historias? ¿Qué es lo que trata de decirnos? ¿Por qué está la musa Calíope prisionera de un escritor de best sellers en la Inglaterra del siglo XX? ¿Por qué tienen lugar el exceso, el castigo, el reconocimiento?

El mundo del mito está fuera de nuestro mundo y de nuestro tiempo, pero desde el principio sirvió para explicarlos. El mundo de la tragedia ponía a los hombres en el lugar de los dioses, espectadores de los dramas de los hombres, de sus excesos y sus castigos, para aprender de ellos. Quizás Gaiman, eligiendo contar la historia del joven escritor perseguido por plazos editoriales y contratos que nada tienen que ver con la inspiración y el arte, estaba poniendo su propia historia fuera de él mismo, para observarla. Quizás eligió a la musa de Homero, raptada y humillada en el presente, para recordar ese tiempo antes de la escritura y la Historia, en el que el arte no estaba sujeto a las reglas de un mercado y había tiempo para componer de memoria un poema épico.

Natalia A. Accossano Pérez es Licenciada en Letras y está iniciando su doctorado en Literaturas Europeas del siglo XIX becada por el Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones de Argentina (CONICET). Desde hace muchos años vive en la Patagonia Argentina. Le gusta mucho dar clases de literatura y actualmente participa como ayudante adscripta en la cátedra Literaturas Europeas I de la Universidad Nacional de Río Negro. Primero que nada, es una lectora voraz y asidua a los cómics. Entre sus autores favoritos están J. R. R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Jean Rhys, la mitología y los Románticos. En español, siempre está releyendo a Jorge Luis Borges y Alejandra Pizarnik. En su trabajo, escribe ensayos sobre el paisaje sublime y la prosa feminista, y diarios y relatos breves sólo por placer. Una vez cada tanto, también escribe ensayos sobre cómics y toda esa parte de la literatura que queda afuera de la academia, como el que pueden leer aquí.


1. Texto incluído en tres cartuchos de narración, a lo largo de dos viñetas.

2. Al respecto, ver: Paz, O. 1986. “El mundo heroico” En: El arco y la lira. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica: 198-218.

3. Diálogo entre Madoc y Félix, un personaje secundario, que se desarrolla a lo largo de seis viñetas. En la cita figuran sólo fragmentos de los globos de diálogo de Madoc.


Bibliografía citada

Berger, K. 1999. “Introducción” En Gaiman, N. Preludios Nocturnos (Ernest Riera, trad.), Barcelona: Norma Editorial S.A: 4-6. 

Castagnet, M. F. 2012. All Along the Watchmen: Elementos paratextuales en la novela gráfica de Moore_Gibbons . Tesis de Licenciatura, UNLP. Recuperada el 12/08/2013 en: / 

Doležel, L. [1988] 1997. “Mímesis y Mundos Ficcionales” en: Teorías de la ficción literaria, (Antonio Garrido Domínguez, comp.), Madrid: Arco/libros S.L.

[1998] 1999.  Heterocósmica. Ficción y mundos posibles, Madrid: Arco/Libros S.L

Gaiman, N. 2002. País de Sueños (Ernest Riera, trad.), barcelona: Norma Editorial S.A 

Iser, W. 1987. El acto de leer. Teoría del efecto estético (J. A. Gimbernat y M. Barbeito, trad.), Madrid: Taurus.

Paz, O. 1986. “El mundo heroico” En: El arco y la lira. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica: 198-218.

Reilly, S. 2011. “Old Made New: Neil Gaiman's Storytelling in The Sandman”, Honors Projects Overview. Paper 52. Recuperado el 12/08/2013 en:

Tolkien, J.R.R. 2007. “Sobre los Cuentos de Hadas” En Árbol y Hoja, Buenos Aires: Minotauro. Vargas Llosa, M. 1997. Cartas a un joven novelista, Barcelona: Ariel / Planeta.

The Choreographer

The Choreographer

At last, he understood that all his life had been choreography for his funeral. He came to this not through therapy, but during a walk in the woods on his friend Bernstein’s sheep farm in southern Oregon.

It was January, he’d been invited to spend the week, and early Monday before the others were up he went walking in the cold, the maples still holding brilliant leaves on their lowest branches, his boots crunching ice along the path. He stopped at the pond, broke off a pane of ice from its surface, held it up, saw his own crazed reflection there, an abstraction he was proud to appreciate, and he wanted to tell Bernstein about it, Bernstein a painter, tell him about the fascinating distortion, the outline of the nose limning a raised ridge in the ice, the chin line carved along the edge—he wanted his friend to know that he understood abstraction. And when he came back into the house, went into his paneled room overlooking the sheep pen, took off his jacket and gloves and rehearsed his quick speech about the glassy ice, he knew then, in the quiet of the house, that the entire speech was meant to plant in Bernstein’s head the possibility, the suggestion, of his painter friend rising at his funeral and saying, “I just want to say that he understood abstraction.”

He sat on the bed, and in a moment less of honesty than of a long life’s filtration, saw that almost everything he had said or done in his life after, say, age thirty, had been funeral choreography.

For decades now, he admitted, he’d pictured the exact room of his memorial: warm yellow light, metal chairs, a bank of windows revealing a mature garden, wine and hors d’oeuvres on a table at the rear, a crowd larger than the capacity of the place. A winter afternoon—perhaps not unlike what today’s afternoon will be, he thought.

How familiar he was with that place. It had been his, detail after detail added, for thirty years now—was always there when he spoke, didn’t speak, acted, didn’t act.

When he was a lover, he was a lover in order that the beautiful woman he was caressing might, at that memorial, stand—only at the end, mind you—and in a soft voice say I just wanted to mention that he was a wonderful lover, and then ten women, emboldened, would stand and in a quickly accelerating crescendo say He certainly was, and it would be a moment of great humor, memorable.

When he took time to speak with the postman who brought his mail and he asked after the postman’s kids, it was in hope, really, that the postman would rise that same day and say, He always asked about my family, always remembered my kids’ names.

When he was a teacher, he taught not so much to share knowledge but to assemble a legion of potential memorial-goers, each of them standing to say He taught me so much, and He was so important to me formatively, and The world will never be the same . . .

And so it went: when he visited the sick, helped a neighbor change a transmission, bought season tickets to the symphony, studied the Ramayana, traveled to difficult places—all was toward memorial accolade: He brought tenderness to everything he did. He’d give you the shirt off his back. He was an underground scholar. He knew more about John Cage than most musicians I know. He could name the streets of Nairobi in his sleep, and of course, his friend Bernstein’s abstraction comment, and his good wife positioned at the side of the room surrounded north, south, east, west by his four kids, all of them laughing and weeping.

He couldn’t know, though, on this clear winter day in southern Oregon, that his memorial would be nothing like that.

His wife would have arranged a simple service in the Presbyterian Church, word of his death would not have gone out widely—one of his sons having missed the deadline for the obituary—and there was a storm: brutal rain, dangerous driving. Family and extended family would come, but Bernstein would be in Hawaii, the postman long dead, students spread around the globe, most of them hearing of his death only months later, and no lovers: not one. Why would they have heard? A neighbor would rise to say He helped me change my transmission, and I still have the scars to prove it, but the little joke would have gone over badly, sounding strangely bitter.

But for this Monday morning, he was at peace with himself, the confidence of a choreographer just before opening night, certain that his dancers know their moves, that the stage is clean, the music cued, the lights just right, the understudies stretching in the wings.

From The Choreographer, Sixteen Rivers Press (San Francisco), 2013

Gerald Fleming is the author of The Choreographer (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013), Night of Pure Breathing (Hanging Loose Press, 2011), and Swimmer Climbing onto Shore (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2005). He lives in California.

Hilary Mantel and the historical novel

Hilary Mantel and the historical novel

From an essay by Sara Knox first published  in Twenty-First-Century British Fiction, Bianca Leggett and Tony Venezia (Eds.). Canterbury, U.K.: Gylphi, 2015.

What the literary historical novel is, and what it should or shouldn’t do, are questions that have long exercised critics, readers and authors from the period of the genre’s triumph to that of its decline.…In a frequently quoted letter dated 5 October 1901, Henry James warns Sarah Orne Jewett of the almost impossible requirements for a true representation of an era, and its habits of mind. ‘You may multiply the little facts to be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like’, writes James, but ‘the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its absence the whole effect is nought; I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness.’ His last word to Jewett was about the cheek of it all: ‘you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force — and even then it’s all humbug’  (quoted in Horne, 1999, 360). James’ letter is itself too frequently ‘simplified back’ to those final three words: ‘it’s all humbug’, forgetting what a perfectionist James was; how high set was his bar. Literary naturalism’s critique of the historical novel is that some feats of imagination are hubris: efforts beyond the artist and therefore beneath the art. But this is to miss James’ qualifier: ‘The real thing is almost impossible to do’, which means: it can be—might be—done. Which is surely reason enough to make the attempt. 

The question of what the literary historical novel is, and what it should and shouldn’t do, seemed to have found its moment in 2012, the year in which Hilary Mantel won her second Man Booker prize for Bring Up the Bodies—17 years after the publication of her first historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety. Bring up the Bodies is the second instalment of three novels on the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell. The first, Wolf Hall, had won Mantel the Man Booker in 2009. Peter Carey, J. G. Farrell, Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee are the only other authors to share the honour of having won two Booker prizes, but Mantel is the only person in the history of the prize to win twice in quick succession, and to win for historical novels in series. Mantel’s Man Bookers (should we call these Man-tel Bookers?) are also distinctive in that her novels represent an era more remote than any other winning ‘historical’: 250 years earlier than those treated, say, by Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. What is notable, then, about Mantel’s double-win is not only how pre-eminently ‘historical’ the novels are, but also the complexity and breadth of the history they offer, intra- and extra-textually. They play out along the same line of historical events—what Wolf Hall begins, Bring Up the Bodies continues—but differ in technique and strategy, as the author learns her subject (Tudor history and the political and intellectual progress of the Protestant reformation) and her Subject (Thomas Cromwell, from whose point of view the events are narrated)


In Bring Up the Bodies we are closely schooled about narrative partiality—the second novel builds on the first book by strengthening Cromwell as a pivot of its action. He is agent and doer, an author of change. This is not only a matter of our orientation to Cromwell as the central character (who is speaking? ‘He, Thomas Cromwell’ is speaking) it is an argument in the making about Thomas Cromwell (Mantel: ‘look to my book for accuracy where I can contrive it, but don’t look to it for impartiality’ [Mares, 2009]).  Taken together, the series proposes a history. That they do so troubles some people—particularly (and predictably) Tudor historians. Susan Bordo takes issue with the author’s partiality in Bring Up the Bodies, arguing that what gets storied (or omitted from the story) tells on Cromwell, with whom both author and reader are closely tied. Mantel ‘excludes some key historical material’ that ‘might cause readers to question (her) Cromwell’s view of Anne [Boleyn] as an unfeeling strategist’, and show Cromwell to be ‘more like a thug’ than the author would have us take him (Bordo, 2012). Or rather a different kind of thug—Mantel’s Cromwell is not at all averse to cowing people, though he does so less with violence than by play upon other people’s expectations about what kind of man he was, a man from a ‘dishonourable estate’ (WH, 70), with a past career as a soldier in Italy. Bordo’s concluding judgment vindicates Mantel the novelist but condemns her as a writer of history: ‘the imaginative fiction of “Cromwell’s point of view” is both the novel’s greatest achievement and a handy rationale for playing very loose with the facts’ (2012). But the judgement sits beneath an equivocation (the subtitle of the piece): ‘whether we approve of the liberties taken with history depends on who is taking them—Hilary Mantel or Showtime’ (Bordo, 2012). Mantel’s current pre-eminence as a novelist, and the referred glamour of that eminence on literary historical fiction more generally, secures the ground for the return of a long embattled genre to respectability. 

I would here like to assess the contribution of Hilary Mantel to the historical novel—and the question of its existence, its reason for being—by taking up a thread left dangling by A. S. Byatt in her essay ‘Forefathers’ where she talks about the relationship of the historical novel to secrecy, revelation, and the power of interrogation. Byatt first observes the tenacity of writers working in the genre to imagine an ‘extraordinary variety of distant pasts’ (Byatt, 2000, 36) despite the dictum that ‘we cannot know the past … and therefore should not write about it’ (38). Whether a technique of ‘historical ventriloquism’ like that practiced by Peter Ackroyd in The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), or ‘novels which play serious games with the idea of narrative itself’ like Graham Swift’s Waterland (Byatt, 48), or the ‘apparently straightforward, realist narrative’ of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (Byatt, 2000, 54), she finds the contemporary English historical novel effectively engaged in telling us what we cannot know (2000, 56). Discussing Mantel’s ‘experimental third person narrators’ in A Place of Greater Safety as inheritors of the ‘knowledgeable narrators’ of George Eliot (2000, 54), Byatt suggests that narrators do not have the ‘omniscience of a god’ mistakenly taken to characterise the nineteenth century narrator, but are fictive narrators of small compass and considerable acuity, who ‘can creep closer to the feelings and the inner life of characters…than any first-person mimicry’ (2000, 55). Her sense of Mantel’s ability to ‘tell us what we can’t know’ hinges partly on the novelist making history accessible (viz. the past we cannot know) and partly in her success at bringing the made world near to the reader where the historical record—Henry James’ ‘little facts’—might leave the reader hanging. But the question of what we cannot know shades into that of what we should not know when Byatt observes in passing that there is an ‘interesting path to be explored along the connections between modern historical novels and the popular genres that tell stories about secrecy’ (2001, 57). She quotes historian Richard Cobb on the compulsions of the historian to get the ‘foot in the door, to get behind the façade, to get inside’.  For that ‘is what being, or becoming, an historian is all about—the desire to read other people’s letters, to breach privacy, to penetrate into the inner room’ (quoted in Byatt, 2001, 56). The idea of trespass presumes a realm of privacy, but is imagination the realm of privacy against which all trespasses must be defended? Or is imagination the culprit, the trespasser on fact and the real of a vanished past? 

In Hilary Mantel’s historical novels the question of knowledge—its standpoint, its limitations, its rights—looms large. So too does that question loom large in the criticism of her work, and of the genre more broadly: in regard to the construction of the historical novel (narrative technique and plotting); in terms of the weltanschuang—what James’ terms the ‘old consciousness’—that the novel must evoke; and in the way historical novels are weighed as historiographical representations, as propositions for imagining a specific past and historical persons. 


The use and abuse of the record, and the question of knowledge—facts promulgated or withheld, ideas traded upon or proscribed, associations owned or denied—is at the heart of Mantel’s … historical novels. In her evocation of the Royal Court, of Cromwell’s Putney, and of county and country in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies the covert is dangerous, although a danger Cromwell recognizes as ‘the way of the world’—and like the world—a danger that even-handedly presages a bad end: ‘a knife in the dark, a movement on the edge of vision, a series of warnings that have worked themselves into flesh’ (WH, 76). These threats are general, even democratic, but they loom large for Cromwell since he’s made himself so much the centre of things, agent—even—of actions accounted to others. ‘He used to say, “the king will do such and such.” Then he began to say, “We will do such and such.” Now he says, “This is what I will do.’” (WH, 28). And the spectre of knowledge haunts Mantel’s earlier historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety, where questions posed by Enlightenment social thought are answered by ever more bloody inquiries into the workings of order as Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins work to imagine and bring into being a revolution that is something more than the one events have served them. 

The question of what-is-knowable but also of who-knows-what leads us to narrative authority and to techniques of narration, but also brings into view the historiographical nature of literary historical fiction in its constructed-ness and subjectivity … as well as its intrusiveness: its tendency toward trespass. That impulse would not be foreign to Mantel, the author, or to her characters. It’s hard to imagine Thomas Cromwell or Camille Desmoulins scrupling much at reading another’s letters, or even from writing them: as Cromwell does for the King (BUTB, 210). And Mantel could not have served the history, or drawn her character, without having read letters—Cromwell’s letters—as they are ‘virtually our only source’ (Mares, 2009) in the documentary record where Cromwell speaks directly, for himself and as himself. To read an historical resource is not to trespass, where the past—and the dead—have by rights given up their ground, but nevertheless the spectre of trespass, and questions about the propriety of knowledge, haunts Mantel’s historical novels.

Mantel’s protagonists are animated by tensions between the impulse to know and the countervailing pressure to repress some knowledge—to obscure a fact, keep a story from the gossips, or suppress a thought. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies treat a period in which the concept of privacy as we recognize it did not exist, while the concept of rights upon which privacy discursively rests is only coming into view in the period of revolutionary upheaval in Europe, the larger world enclosed by the ‘inner rooms’—the domestic interiors—within which the action of A Place of Greater Safety is staged. It narrates the revolution from a near, even an intimate, proximity to Desmoulins, Danton and Robespierre (and to a lesser extent, the wives of Desmoulins and Danton) in a ‘blurring of the boundaries between the political and the domestic’ (Hidalgo, 2002, 205). Seldom do we glimpse the public revolutionary about his work, unless it is in the moment just prior to a significant political act or utterance, at its formation but not its completion. Someone says something to someone else; a joke is made at another’s expense while the real cost—a career, a corpse—is still to be counted; the seed of a plan is sown, a rumour set about, an accusation made; something is committed to writing, for private record or publication. In A Place of Greater Safety it is not the concept of privacy per se that is canvassed but the disappearance of the ‘private’ (private life sacrificed to public vertu; private rooms become meeting houses). That the ‘private’ is so swiftly disappearing is fateful for everyone caught up in the revolutionary events in Paris, but particularly so for Danton and Desmoulins. A newly minted man of the people for his part in the street riots leading to the storming of the Bastille, Camille finds his likeness turned out on crockery: ‘[t]his is what happens when you become a public figure, people eat their dinners off you’ (APOGS,  249), while Gabrielle Danton discovers that she and her husband are to have little space to themselves in their new apartment: ‘[a] curtained alcove sheltered twin beds, marked off their private territory from the patriotic circus it had become’ (APOGS, 346). The private is a preserve of privilege and privilege is quickly becoming a liability, as Mirabeau lugubriously observes: ‘I can remember the days…when we didn’t have public opinion. No one had ever heard of such a thing’ (APOGS, 325). This is a response to Danton’s fondly barbed characterisation of Camille, who ‘has to be running ahead of public opinion all the time’ (APOGS, p. 324). Camille leads opinion, but there is also something fugitive and vulnerable in all this ‘running ahead’.


It is over this distinction between the public and the private that the crisis ensues. Danton falls after being implicated in a conspiracy of profiteering (the revolutionary nation is at war), a ‘stock market scandal’ characterised—tellingly—by ‘insider trading’ (Mantel, 2009b). And what condemns Desmoulins, finally, is his commitment to private life—not his own so much as that of an increasingly wide-array of citizens condemned by the Committee for Public Safety, with its private proceedings and its process bearing down on evidence that is, as likely as not, public rumour. Camille remonstrates with Robespierre as the Terror deepens, first doing so in public, and then face-to-face. His article about the tyranny of the reign of Emperor Tiberius makes its accusation by analogy, his revolution having become the thing it derides: ‘the corruption of all human feeling, the degradation of pity to a crime’ (APOGS, 770). Desmoulins means the reader to see Robespierre’s agent, Antoine de Saint-Just, as the instrument of tyranny, but when Robespierre reads the article he recognizes himself. When they meet to discuss this last instance of Camille’s fervor for liberty, it is on a bridge over the Seine, for ‘inside’—as Robespierre puts it—‘you can’t keep secrets’ (APOGS, 771). To which Camille replies,  ‘you see—you admit it. You’re eaten away with the thought of conspiracy. Will you guillotine brick walls and doorposts?’ (APOGS, 771). Those ‘brick walls and door posts’ are what sets home off from the world—border to the last preserve of the private. But for Robespierre there is only one inside that counts, one sanctified preserve. After he has agreed to Saint-Just arraigning Camille before the Tribunal, Robespierre tells him: ‘[w]hen this business is over, and Camille is dead, I shall not want to hear your epitaph for him. No one is ever to speak of him again, I absolutely forbid it. When he is dead, I shall want to think of him myself, alone’ (APOGS, 862). This inside is the place of greater safety. Not that arch public face of memory, posterity (‘your epitaph’), nor even the grave itself: it is thought, and that fragile vessel, memory.

For the Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the place of greater safety is even more remote, beyond his power to conjure or keep. It is not memory, for the dead do not dwell only there: after his wife, then his daughters, die they can be glimpsed on the stair, they put their small hands beside his on the page as he stands reading by the window. Despite his faith, Cromwell finds little practical comfort in his own inviolate soul: it is not a ground to stand upon; it does not even belong to him. When he imagines the dead in their afterlife, it is in Augustinian terms, resurrection in the shadow of mourning (Augustine: ‘the flesh resurrects in order not to possess but to be possessed, not to have but to be had’ [quoted in Segal, 2004, 279]). When his eldest daughter dies of the sweating sickness Cromwell thinks of her, suddenly complete, not the girl still learning Greek, but the girl ‘who knows it now’. He wonders if that is how it is ‘in a moment, in a simple twist of unbecoming,’—the dead suddenly knowing ‘everything they need to know’ (WH, 152). For the Cromwell we meet at the height of his power, there is only one place of respite from its burdens, only one way to shake off the constant nagging fact of what needs to be done (what he must do). After he has terrified Mark Smeaton, breaking him for the confession that will condemn Anne Boleyn, Cromwell retires to bed. He cannot sleep, and ‘it is only in his dreams that he is private’. Cromwell nurses his wakefulness, remembering the ascetic Thomas More, who ‘used to say you should build yourself a retreat, a hermitage, within your own house. But that was More: able to slam the door in everyone’s face. In truth you cannot separate them, your public being and your private self....’(BUTB, 281) Cromwell would not follow More’s thinking, being Wolsey’s man. When Cromwell first marked down Mark Smeaton it was with the thought ‘the cardinal always says, there are no safe places, there are no sealed rooms’ (WH, 199): meaning, nowhere we won’t have an eye and an ear on you, Mark Smeaton. But in the context of his later interrogation of Smeaton, ‘no safe places’ and ‘no sealed rooms’ has a meaning more pointed. It’s Cromwell who is without a place of greater safety. 

Early in the novel of that name, we find Robespierre crafting his public position on the matter of private interests: ‘…private interests and all personal relationships must give way to the general good’. The young lawyer from Arras then puts down his pen and remonstrates with himself: ‘this is all very well, it is easy for me to say that, I have no dearest friend. Then he thought, of course I have, I have Camille’ (APOGS, p. 109). Put in mind of his friend, he searches for his last letter from him, which is ‘rather muddled, written in Greek’. It seems to Robespierre that by ‘applying himself to the dead language, Camille was concealing from himself his misery, confusion and pain; by forcing the recipient to translate, he was saying, believe that my life to me is an elitist entertainment, something that only exists when it is written down and sent by the posts’ (APOGS, 109-110). The passage draws for the reader the whimsical Camille and shows us the central tension—and tragedy—for Robespierre, the seed of his betrayal of his friend to the guillotine.  But so too is there something of the reflexive here, a take on historical narrative, the novel, and the historiographical all at once: ‘elitist entertainment’,  ‘something that only exists when it is written down’ and transmitted; something that obliges a work of interpretation, and something that obfuscates as much as it reveals.

While it would be too much to suggest that Mantel’s historical novels are ‘historiographic metafictions’ in Linda Hutcheon’s terms they nevertheless do ‘problematize the question of historical knowledge’ (1996, 474) without either the play of the mendacious or the self-referential knowingness of the postmodern historical novel. Respect for fact and the historical record grounds the fiction for the author must keep the ‘conjecture…plausible and grounded in the best facts one can get’ (Mantel, 2009). This commitment to the history in the fiction does not forestall the scholar/story-teller’s healthy respect for the labour of interpretation, whatever the degree of its imaginative working of the facts. ‘The past is not dead ground,’ writes Mantel, ‘and to traverse it is not a sterile exercise. History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we retell it.’ Then, implicating herself in the comment, she adds: ‘the most scrupulous historian is an unreliable narrator’ (2009). In Bring Up The Bodies, Thomas Cromwell meditates on the slippery Thomas Wyatt, ‘the cleverest man in England’ (BUTB, 347).….and the slipperiness of … his craft: 

…you trap him and say, Wyatt, did you really do what you describe in this verse? He smiles and tells you, it is the story of some imaginary gentleman, no one we know; or he will say, this is not my story I write, it is yours, though you do not know it. He will say, this woman I describe here, the brunette, she is really a woman with fair hair, in disguise. He will declare, you must believe everything and nothing of what you read. 

(BUTB, 348)

The substance of the art is indivisible: it can’t be ‘taxed’. Cromwell is admiring the infuriating Wyatt, how self-contained he is; that collected hauteur under interrogation. But from whence comes that strength? ‘You point to the page, you tax him: what about this line, is this true? He says, it is poet’s truth. Besides, he claims, I am not free to write as I like. It is not the king, but metre that constrains me. And I would be plainer, he says, if I could: but I must keep to the rhyme’ (BUTB, 348).

The whole passage can be read as at once a justification for, and a critique of, the imaginative work of the historical novel and the ‘trespasses’ of the novelist. Consider the context for the passage: Cromwell is characterising Wyatt—the Wyatt who is lucky, protected. There is evidence that could have damned him along with the other ‘conspirators’ in Anne’s sexual betrayal of the King but when Mark Smeaton is naming names, and blurts Wyatt’s, Cromwell is definite: ‘No, not Wyatt’ (BUTB, 283). Partiality and evidence contest here, and partiality wins. It is necessary for Cromwell to preserve Wyatt, for Wyatt is a principal embodied—albeit a troubled principal. The passage tellingly turns from its mediation on art (‘A Statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it’ [BUTB, 348]) to the messages of Angels, and the elusiveness of their nature. Cromwell has no doubt that Angels exist, but knows not whether they have the ‘plumage of falcons, crows, peacocks’ (BUTB, 348). And the only evidence he has from someone (‘a turnspit in the papal kitchens’) who has seen one provides little comfort, for ‘the Angel’s substance was heavy and smooth as marble, its expression distant and pitiless; its wings were carved from glass’ (BUTB, 349). These are terrifying emissaries of the only truth that counts, the truth toward which a ‘poet’s truth’ is aimed, but can never reach. 

In this passage—from Cromwell explaining Wyatt to Risley, to the meditation on art and the nature of angels—it is difficult not to hear the author remonstrating with critics like Bordo: ‘You point to the page, you tax him: what about this line, is this true?’ Mantel’s defence is ‘poet’s truth’: ‘I would be plainer, but I must keep to the rhyme’. For the literary historical novelist, history is ‘the king’ that does not constrain, and form ‘the metre’ that must. But if this is a defence, it is a qualified one: recognising the privilege of the interpretation, and its trespass (Wyatt is favoured, Wyatt is protected; Wyatt’s ‘lines fledge feathers’—so just leave him to his work). For there are Angels, they hover at a farther horizon. They are History—which is the blind passing of human time on this earth, not the ‘history’ that remembers us.

Sara Knox is an Associate Professor in the the Writing and Society Research Group and the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney. She is the author of Murder: a Tale of Modern American Life (Duke University Press, 1998) and other notable works on violence and representation. Her most recent publications include work on Hilary Mantel, including a study of the moral geography of violence in Mantel's novels,  and the regeneration of the historical novel as literary genre. Her novel The Orphan Gunner (Giramondo, 2007) won the 2009 Asher Literary Prize and was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Age Book of the Year.
Her blog can be found at:



Bordo, Susan (2012, May 6) ‘When Fictionalized Facts Matter: From ‘Anne of a Thousand Days’ to Hilary Mantel’s New Bring Up the Bodies’, Chronicle of Higher Education, URL (consulted December 2012):

Byatt, Antonia S. (2000) ‘Forefathers’, On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London: Chatto and Windus.

Hidalgo, Pilar (2002) ‘Of Tides and Men: History and Agency in Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, Estudios Ingleses de la Universidad Complutense 10: 201-216.

Horne, Philip (1999) Henry James: a Life in Letters. New York: Viking.

Hutcheon, Linda (1996) ‘The Pastime of Past Time: Fiction, History, Historiographic Metafiction’, in Hoffman & Murphy (eds.), Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. London: Leicester University Press.

Mantel, Hilary (2008a, 24 May) ‘Author, Author’, The Guardian. URL (consulted December 2012)

Mantel, Hilary (2009a, 17 Oct) ‘Booker Winner Hilary Mantel on Dealing with History in Fiction’, The Guardian. URL (consulted December 2012)

Mantel, Hilary (2012) Bring Up the Bodies New York: Henry Holt and Company. 

Mantel, Hilary (1992) A Place of Greater Safety. London: Viking.

Mantel, Hilary (2009) Wolf Hall. London: Harper Collins.

Mares, Peter (2009, 18 June) ‘Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall’ [Radio Interview], The Book Show. ABC Radio. URL (consulted December 2012)

Segal, Alan (2004) Life After Death: a History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. New York: Doubleday.

The Others

The Others

 "It is the absence of facts that frightens people:
the gap you open, into which they pour
their fears, fantasies, desires.” 
Wolf Hall

We’re having a good time—bottle of red wine, spaghetti, we’re here in our garden, warm breeze scented with lilac, light on its way out.

Others, though, are having a better time. In Newport it’s three hours later—already more advanced than we—and those others sit not only with their spouses but with four friends on a verandah overlooking the Atlantic, torch-lights behind them, the ocean a swath of black, only its sound in the cove—easy waves, rolling pebbles—announcing it. Theirs is an understated ocean. Their wine is better, their dinner later, and there’s laughter. One of the women has on your favorite perfume, and were we there, its scent would come our way. Someone in the kitchen with deft hands has cooked their meal, another serves it attentively, and there is no guilt.

But each guest knows in his longing that elsewhere others are having an even better time. Just outside D.C., for example, on a marble terrace overlooking the Potomac there’s a similar dinner—the same number of couples plus one—and it’s the addition of that couple that has made all the difference. The wine a little older, and the food, though served in smaller portions, richer—ah, but that one couple, the man black, the woman white—has energized the group, put everyone at their best. Listen: people are joking in German, saying sexy things in Italian, cursing in Russian, laughing in French. They’re almost raucous, but just shy of raucous—they know exactly where the line lies—it is there, in the mist above them; it will not descend. And look how well they’re dressed: the men in linen shirts, earth-tone slacks, the women’s breasts exposed slightly from each trimmed dress, each guest almost completely in the moment, this warmest night of the year.

They, too, though, know of those others, those betters, off the coast of Carolina in the stateroom of the hundred-foot Harmonium as it drifts in its easy private sea. The same number are there, but there’s a confidence, an intimacy lacking in the others. Same wine as Washington but more of it, plates garnished more imaginatively, dinner not even on until midnight, a little dancing just before, a switch of partners for one spin around the circular floor, and now they’re at table: how hearty they are, each of them an artist, not a banker among them, each smart & funny, intuitive & wise, their humor more subtle, implied. When they speak—which is often—there’s a largesse about them, a sense of kindness toward their host. They know each other well, the ship rocks languorously, honeysuckle scent from the coast. They could communicate simply by looking into each other’s eyes.

And we all know that after dinner that is what they do. A little tipsy but none drunk, they move to love each other on the deep carpet of the stateroom floor—all of them there, each knowing the others’ secrets, fit bodies melting into fit bodies, one moving being, many skin tones, many special sighs, the ship swaying imperceptibly, each to each to each, and as the first rays of sun fall across the bow someone says, Let’s sleep…

And we here, in this pitiful garden...

From Night of Pure Breathing, Hanging Loose Press (Brooklyn), 2011

Gerald Fleming is the author of The Choreographer (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013), Night of Pure Breathing (Hanging Loose Press, 2011), and Swimmer Climbing onto Shore (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2005). He lives in California.



And then a brief experience with drugs had the same kind of liberating effect [...] having access to new dimensions and to the certainty that our five senses only show us one version among others of the world. It is through this that I became interested in animal perception, these creatures who also have their view of the world. Their own kind of cinema, if you like.

“I had a job as a kind of watchman in a church in St. John's Episcopal Church [...] And I just sat in the nightly-appointed library and read. So, you know, among the jobs I had when I was quite young, that was certainly my favorite.”



I was at a job interview the other day & 

they asked if I wasn’t doing what I was doing what 

I would like to do & 

I told them be a mermaid &

they looked up at me like, what the—? & 

whose stick is she trying to shake anyway

this is a job interview not 

a joke & 

that’s when I said, Really, I’m not 

kidding. It might not 

show that I have experience with that 

on my résumé, but some things don’t 

fit on the page. Huh, they laughed, 

she says she wants to be 

a sea cow, basically & drink 

from shells. Like she knows what 

she’s saying. 

I didn’t think I’d get the job after this & 

think I didn’t want it to begin with but 

you don’t have to not listen  

when someone tells you stuff, I mean they were the first 

ones I told about this & it makes you think 

maybe you think too much sometimes, & 

that whatever skills it takes to be 

a mermaid, I can learn them. You see, 

I told them, I can swim & dive &

decide later about drowning the sailors, 

sailors are useful & sometimes cute & not 

every mermaid has to do that killer sea singing &

any luring I’d keep to myself. I applied for

your job because there’s nothing tempting 

about it & I’m good at hiding things. Well, 

they said, we don’t need someone who wants to not 

be part of our team, we’re about industry & 

overtime, not sea cows. Don’t call them sea cows, 

I said, Call a name a name. I would not  

tattoo Lorelei rocks on my arm for example, if I get this 

job, I would promise to not 

talk to the fish in the fish tank too much & not 

wear revealing miniskirts, oh, the fins.    

Lady, they said, we’ve got a lot of candidates to 

choose from & we’re just saying, no 

discrimination in the workplace, but, sounds like you

would rather be a sea monster & 

stuff & if you come here, we’d have to deal with complaints &

police reports, because, hiring an aquatic creature these days 

can be tricky. It sounds like you’re talking 

about giving all this up, they said,

to be fusiform. It’s not practical to not

have feet. 

About some things they were right & for 

sure I would spend time at work messaging pirate friends & 

doing my own stuff, because some-

times in life you have to go in the direction you have to go 

& sometimes that’s straight to the sea—

your arms steering waves & onward, to estuaries 

Syrenka, maid of the wave, 

sun on your back, 

this is immense, this is not somewhere else—

hey, I said, 

look out the window & up, repeat 

after me: rise, rise, rise. 

First appeared in The Literary Review, Vol. 56, Issue 3
from the collection
Adult Swim, Carnegie Mellon University Press 2016

Heather Hartley is Paris Editor for Tin House magazine and the author of Adult Swim (2016) and Knock Knock (2010) both from Carnegie Mellon University Press (distributed by University Press of New England). Her short fiction, poems, essays and interviews have appeared in or on PBS Newshour, The Guardian, Tin House, Slice, The Literary Review, Post Road and other venues. She has presented writers at Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, and her column about literary Paris, “Apéritif,” appears on the Tin House website. She has taught creative writing at the American University of Paris and the University of Texas El Paso MFA program.

Etgar Keret On Lying: three examples

Etgar Keret On Lying: three examples

In the story “Days like today”, from Keret's first book, Pipelines, published 23 years ago, the squad commander tortures Yoav, the new soldier, by lying:  

"So, what are you saying? That I'm a liar?" 
"He had a malicious smile on his face, and both him and Yoav knew he was lying […] and both of them knew that there is nothing Yoav can do about it, and he knew it even better then Yoav did".  

(Translated here by the author- D.S.S.) 

Lying is the worst form of abuse for the young soldier, who explicitly declares that the things he hated most were "thieves and more than that–liars". Rather than the military combatant he was supposed to be training for, Yoav perceives himself as a champion of justice. However, he has no choice but to be part of the IDF reality, in which "everyone is eating shit". Yoav is caught in between the rock that is what is right in the real world and a hard place of what is right in the IDF world, where all the rules are twisted.

In Yoav's case, coping with the lie is a dilemma of a person on the border between childhood and adulthood. The young soldier has to decide whether to react again as he did "once, when he was in the Scouts", or as an adult, as is expected of him in the current situation. Yoav reacts with an uncontrolled, but hidden, sobbing, while he pays the price for calling the squad commander out on his lie. The lie is something wrong, cruel and immoral but the accepted social codes direct Yoav to accept it, to make peace with it, and basically to grow up: "Yoav kept repeating in his head that this is the IDF, and everyone eats shit here, he went on and reminded himself time and time again that what he is doing is exactly what’s right". 

The squad commander’s habitual, petty, and mostly-obvious lying is used as a "realty-check" that allows Yoav to recognize his place and act according to the situation. Or not. The wonderful ending of this story manages to hold at one and the same time the option of revenge and that of restraint, while insinuating both. 


Unlike Yoav, Robbie from “Lieland” (From: Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, 2012. Translated by Miriam Shlesinger) does not "eat shit". His lies led him, ever since he was 7 years old up to his 30's, to eat ice cream while avoiding any and all consequences. He does not use his lies to torture others nor does he torture himself over them. He lies easily to benefit himself, always using the same technique: "He made up these lies in a flash, never thinking he'd have to cross paths with them again". Telling lies, before the discovery of “Lieland”, keeps Robbie in the naïve forgetfulness and embracing world of childhood.  

Robbie dreams "a short, fuzzy dream about his dead mother". The dream forces him to act in the real world. He wakes up at 5 a.m. and drives all the way to his childhood home to discover Lieland:

"Here” was a different place, but a familiar one too. […] Stark white, no walls, no floor, no ceiling, no sunshine. Just whiteness and a gumball machine.


This "infinite white surface" only seems empty. In fact, it contains all of Robbie's oral-history. The idea of a close and artificial space, where one faces his own imagined creation had visual representations on the screen as well: The late 80's Star-Trek: The Next Generation introduced the Holodeck, a virtual space in which one loads different reality-programs (even though it was a black space with green coordinates rather than white). Another well-known example is the 1999 blockbuster The Matrix in which the loading program is a white space called "the Construct", that holds everything and nothing at the same time. Lieland of course, is a much simpler space from the Holodeck or the Construct; its internal logic is not fully clarified, and its borders and influences are not thoroughly examined, mostly due to genre limitation (it is a short story and not part of an epic TV series or philosophical film trilogy–but perhaps one day).     

In films and TV shows, as well as for Yoav, the young soldier, the main issue is controlling the lie or the narrative, and the protagonist's ability to draw the line between reality and virtual reality. On a similar note, Robbie's insight about the way people do not believe "positive lies" resembles the premise of The Matrix, in which the imprisoned human minds naturally rebelled against perfect and harmonized virtual reality, while willingly accepting the mimicry of the world as was known, and as we know it, filled with suffering, tensions and anxieties.  

In the dream about his dead mother, Robbie has no control, nor does he have control over the lies in Lieland (therefore being "kicked in the shins" and robbed by the redheaded boy). However, from the moment he discovers the mechanism, he gains control in both worlds: He can keep lying in the real world without suffering any consequences, Lieland will hold it all, ensuring that the lies will not threaten nor undermine the real world. A perfect childish escapism. In Lieland, the quantity and nature of the lies change: Robbie actually takes better care of his lies, giving them a better life in Lieland. He is still a child in the real world (lying stupid lies and getting away with them) but becomes the good and merciful god (or father) in Lieland

Robbie allegedly "deals with his lies", but in fact all of his lies, even those "Lies without arms, lies that were ill" are not mad at Robbie for making them what they are, they are OK with it. The redheaded kid laughs, hits and runs, Igor thanks Robbie for the crippled dog he invented for him, and even the beaten niece is not mad at Robbie for her tragic destiny and helps him and Natasha. 


In “Fat Cat”, a short segment, first published in 2010 and lately in the memoir The Seven Good Years (Translated by Sondra Silverston), Keret is the father of 4 year-old Lev and has to deal as a parent with severe accusations. The kindergarten teacher accused Lev of manipulating the school cook and telling lies:

"little Lev had forged a secret pact with the school cook, that she was bringing him chocolate on a regular basis, even though the board of education had strictly prohibited children from eating sweets on school grounds".

Lev explains to his puzzled father why he is getting a lot of chocolate, but never gives the other kids in his class:

“I always explain to them that I can’t give them any, because kids aren’t allowed to eat sweets in school.”
“But if kids aren’t allowed to eat sweets in school, why do you think you can?” [asks the narrator]
“Because I’m not a kid,” Lev smiled a pudgy, sneaky smile. “I’m a cat.”
“You’re what?”
“Meow,” Lev answered in a soft, purry voice. “Meow, meow, meow.”

The next morning, while reading the paper, in particular reports regarding former Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert's trial as well as the sentencing of former Finance Minister, Avraham Hirshson, to life in prison, the narrator realizes something:

"Those men, just like my son, cheat and steal and lie only because they are sure they are cats. And as adorable, furry, cream-loving creatures, they don’t have to abide by the same rules and laws all those sweaty two-legged creatures around them have to obey."

Just as Natasha talks to Robbie in “Lieland” "in a gentle, almost therapeutic voice" and thinks that the humor of this "nutcase" and "oddball" is some form of joke, the narrator in “Fat Cat” is using the same gentle and therapeutic way to look at Olmert andHirshson. By ascribing the kid's lie to the public figures who transgressed, a lie that was sweet, harmless, and irresistible, Keret transformed a very personal family story into a cynical and sad one, as it reflects not only the parallelization of the simple man facing a public figure that bluntly lies, but also reflects the crazy Israeli atmosphere that enables those lies to sound reasonable and even legitimate. As stated by Keret in interviews regarding his latest book (The Seven Good Years), it is the first book in which the child’s point of view – a perspective which was considered to be indicative of Keret’s prose style – is no longer present, instead we are offered the point of view of an adult and a parent.  


When comparing these three lies, a common thread is found: even if they evoke discomfort on various planes, they nevertheless are all accepted. They do not undermine reality; Yoav probably "swallowed" his squad commander's lies. Robbie and Natasha probably made together some "happy lie, full of light, flowers, and sunshine […] maybe even a baby or two". And also, the "the pathological Israeli combination of violence and normality", as the world of Suddenly, a Knock on the Door is described by Nissim Kalderon, will remain a good platform for corruption and lies of public figures. 

In a way, “Lieland” may offer some twisted comfort to all of the truth-loving people in this world: it conveys the idea that even if in the real world lies are everywhere and can "pass" as truth, lies do not disappear. They are all waiting for us in some other space to "Hit us in the shins” and knock us "Down on our knees".

A version of this paper was originally delivered at the International Conference “Keret’s Happy Campers: Etgar Keret and the Fate of Israeli Culture in the World Today” held at the University of Chicago in 2015.

Dekel S. Schory is a PhD candidate (since 2011) at the department of Hebrew literature at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Israel. Her dissertation title is To live and write in a linguistic exile: Jewish writers in the German-speaking sphere and their linguistic selections (1930-1900). The advisor is Prof. Yigal Schwartz, a leading researcher in the field. Dekel taught in the department of Hebrew Literature in BGU university, Sapir College among other institutes. Dekel Holds a BA from Tel Aviv University (Hebrew Literature and Linguistics), and a MA diploma with honors from Ben-Gurion University, (Hebrew Literature). The MA thesis title was "To breath in a different world": Linguistic aspects as a way of poetic analysis of G. Shoffman. The MA thesis was awarded with the Gershon Shaked prize (2014).   

Her main subjects of interest are Modern Hebrew literature, German-Jewish literature, connections between languages and cultures, urban thought.






Class-Consciousness, Violence, and Dystopia in George Saunders

Class-Consciousness, Violence, and Dystopia in George Saunders

The Semplica Girl Diaries: Class-Consciousness, Violence, and Dystopia in George Saunders’ Vision of Contemporary America

To speak meaningfully about those who ‘work at the margins,’ it is advantageous to have a term with which to contextualize the presence of the Semplica Girls in this story. Like Johan Galtung’s ‘structural violence,’ Slavoj Žižek’s “systemic violence” refers to forms of “objective violence” that while not necessarily visible, hold sway on society to large extent through its systems and institutions. Nevertheless, Žižek moves quickly to specify the actor of this violence as Capitalism. Žižek explains systemic violence as: “the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.” A few pages later Žižek clarifies, “[it is] the violence inherent in a system: not only direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence.” While both go far in naming the insidious presence of a supposedly invisible violence, it is Saunders’ story that provides a most tangible representation of systemic violence. His Semplica Girls are a clear and palpable embodiment of systemic violence in short story. The SGs are literally the metonymic representation of the commodification of life and living beings by and through capitalism. The girls strewn on the line are ‘a part’ alluding to ‘the whole’ of the history and actuality of migrant/illegal/slave labor—the subjugation of marginal bodies for the use and benefit of the dominant classes—a part of Foucault’s “the asymmetries of power.” The family, on the other hand, is at times victim to and at other times benefactor of Pierre Bourdieu’s “symbolic violence.” That is, the power and honor mistakenly ascribed to status its real source being economic and cultural capital and which authorizes the perpetuation of its practices and resulting stratification of the social space. They are victims and perpetuators of what critic Ana Manzanas calls “the society of sameness and accumulation” in which the SGs represent the “dominant model of life” as much as if not more so than their predecessor, “the assembly line of the early decades of the twentieth century.” 

Aesthetically, “The Semplica Girl Diaries” works on readers in ways subtle and yet jolting. Saunders employs a variety of techniques to reveal the violent ‘heart of darkness’ at the opaque center of affluent American life. This opacity is something like a dusty mirror to a narcissistic America that finds itself embarrassingly impotent to avoid or adjust the reflection away from its unwanted margins. Just as in the story the narrator cannot maintain the discourse of optimism however hard he tries. Although obfuscated this mirror represents a growing postmodern sense of self-awareness about inequality and violence in the North Atlantic societies, a subject we return to later in this paper. To make matters worse, though this violence is considered deplorable, its presence is accepted because it is the very system upon which America was and is constructed. This appears in “The Semplica Girl” via the threatening presence of a sub-textual narrative—a doppelganger narrative of violence and fear—juxtaposed on the story being told, looming just below the surface at the subconscious level like a nightmare, or at the subterranean level, like the basement of a suburban home. In particular, Saunders builds an extended analogy between the Semplica Girl diary and historical slave owner diaries. This simulacrum rises to the surface in poignant moments offering semantic clues. When the Semplica Girls escape, they are described as “connected via microline like chain gang”. In another example, during oldest daughter Lilly’s birthday party—what should be the happy, domestic scene of a family celebration—the children play a game of “crack the whip.” Although a real children’s game, in the context of the story and in light of the backdrop of the Semplica Girls swaying on their line as did punished slaves, the name can only be read as a satirical allusion to lashing slaves. This analogous story of slavery from the “naïve” colonialist perspective is arguably more disturbing than when told from the slave perspective. The family’s indifference, and, moreover, pride in the SGs agonizing existence marks the party with violence. This extended analogy with colonialist slave owner narratives is also present in the characters’ obsession with their yards. Their overabundant admiration for their lawns is not unlike the colonialist’s pruning of the plantation. In fact, the SGs’ presence can be equated to the colonialist estate’s mandatory spectacle of human property working on the horizon. Saunders acknowledges having read slave owner and abolitionist diaries during the writing of “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” One can imagine that Saunders’ story imitates the tone of quotidian normalcy with which the slave owners approached their daily habits on the plantation: at nine in the morning, breakfast, at ten, study Latin, and, at noon, a slave lashing.

In his book on violence, Slavoj Žižek takes as a point of departure a childhood story about the Russian philosopher Nikolai Lossky. He and his family were members of the Russian bourgeoisie exiled during the Bolshevik revolution. As a boy Lossky could not understand why he received scathing remarks in school or why the others seemingly wanted to destroy his comfortable and normal way of life. What problem was there with the family’s servants, nannies, and love for the arts? Žižek argues that the boy was blind to the systemic violence latent in the social arrangement beneficial to him—like those slave owners that had normalized even the subjective violence of life on the plantation mentioned in the paragraph above. Similarly, in “The Semplica Girl Diaries” the latent violence beneficial to wealthy American families is realized and embodied through the Semplica Girls. While most of the family feigns naivety in order to legitimate their middle class desires, the Semplica Girls are a constant reminder of the violence used to maintain and secure their position. The Semplica Girls are a specter, an embodiment of the modern day and historical structures of systemic violence that loom over the postcolonial world as sustained after-effects. The Semplica Girls bring to the fore those mechanisms Foucault describes as being “on the underside of the law, a machinery that is both immense and minute, which supports, reinforces, multiplies the asymmetry of power” as well as “those ‘sciences’ that give it a respectable face.” The Semplica Girls remind of the proximity of a bloody past and an equally troubling present; one that relegates the violence at its center to its margins in an incredible exercise of the illusion of distance and periphery to gain a profit. The dehumanization of the Semplica Girls as products and docile bodies that can be bought, sold, and strewn up on a line as an adornment is mirrored by their place in the narrative—they are not even characters in their own right. In our diarist’s account they are purely background, never really stepping into the foreground and speaking only through indecipherable whispers.

Here we pick up the loose end in our comparison between the modern sense of guilty self-awareness in the face of affluence vs. the historical naivety. In the continuation of the description provided by the narrator of his initial sighting of the SGs in the paragraph above, he writes, “Wind stops, everything returns to vertical. From across lawn: soft sighing, smattering of mumbled phrases. Perhaps saying goodnight? Perhaps saying in own lingo, gosh that was some strong wind.” Here we can see the difference between our modern day narrator and the slave owners in their diaries. The modern day narrator seems to know the SGs are people even if dehumanized and occupying the place of lawn ornaments. In trying to interpret their signs, he displays an at least minimal comprehension and awareness of their humanity and possibly their subjugation. Yet his perspective is limited showing little to no understanding of causality as the story progresses. He seems incapable of--or positions his narration in such a way as to avoid--offering meaning to his readers, especially concerning the reality of the SG trade. The construction of this limited perspective adds another layer of intertextuality to the already layered scene, one in which the narration displays commonalities with the slave narrative form, as well: “To varying degrees all slave narratives are conditioned by the narrator’s partial understanding of his situation [...] He is a blind receiver whose perspective on the motive behind all the demands and actions which govern his life have been short circuited.” At a difference from the slave owners who held a justified stance backed by law on why the slaves were only three-fifths of a person, Saunders narrator simply avoids providing a realistic frame for the SGs subhuman conditions. It is common knowledge that in the past, wealthy planter aristocracy effectively conceptualized slaves as property or animal livestock in the same way that a pig or cow was (is). Again, this is not to say that the slave owners were somehow on moral high grounds because of their belief in this fallacy. Both groups, the modern and historical, have their delusions that allow for them to sustain a sense of morality in the face of the unethical. Rather, the point here is similar to the one brought forth by the anecdote about the Patriarch’s Balls; part of modernity is a sense of self-aware guilt about perpetuating inequality and benefiting from it. There are no more Nikolai Losskys. The modern day affluent class is aware that they benefit from the domination of the poor and working classes of the world and that they live at arm’s length from its margins, even if, as is the case for Saunders’ narrator, they simply try to avoid it. On a different note, it goes without saying that the use of the limited point of view in slave narratives had a different expected outcome: to avoid accusations of falsehood on the part of the author (accusations that white abolitionists were writing the diaries) and to defamiliarize the images of the slave trade to which contemporaries would have been desensitized. 

Saunders’ stories can often appear at first glance comical and absurd, yet their messages require audiences to reexamine cultural notions that may feel as intimate to them as a “second skin.” Saunders compels readers to confront the realities of their societies while urging us to continue onwards towards individual responsibility and purpose given that current, prevalent methods of confronting those same realities can echo the absurdity of the condition itself. To illustrate Saunders' use of the absurd as rhetorical strategy, one has only to look at the verisimilitude between his formulations and the absurd (and manipulative) rhetoric emerging in the American linguistic landscape of today.  Saunders' playful revisiting of these linguistic realities involves using them as the basis for absurd themes and situations in the fictional worlds he creates. Ultimately, their 'absurdity' serves a function, inciting readers to question the logic underpinning the supposed values and ethics of contemporary consumer culture. Warranting Saunders’ caustic humor, in the United States inequality already has a meme, a twitter hashtag, a name in popular culture: “#First World Problems.” Referring to a problem that is relevant to the First World but admittedly irrelevant and gloating when contextualized globally, the phrase seems to get to the heart of America’s digitally enhanced self-awareness and American pop culture’s peculiar way of addressing it. Furthermore, as in the curt, jumpy, almost journalistic language of Saunders’ narrative, the hashtag points towards the violent severing of language necessary to rationalize the irrational. If there is, as well, some kind of perverted ethics implicit in the hashtag, the character most representative of this ethical sense in the story—if in more genuine derivation—would be the narrator’s youngest daughter Eva. However, she does engender her honest concern with an almost anachronistic sincerity only capable of a child, or, of Saunders himself. Literary critic Sarah Pogell has pointed out that Saunders’ reverent treatment of human conflict and emotion could easily garner him accusations of maudlin triteness. I would have to agree that his desire to address real world problems demonstrates an optimism he may not share with the majority of postmodern writers and theorists, but which may be exactly what Literature with a capital “L” needs. Saunders’ attention to real-world problems and his Eva character, rather, link the story generally to the realist tradition of anti-slavery literature and specifically to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The seminal American text prominently features a character—“little Eva”—that is also a depiction of the innocent girl-child vehemently against slavery. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as we know, Eva befriends Uncle Tom after he saves her life and she begs her father to buy him. Towards the end of the story Eva once again pleads with her father this time to free his slaves and specifically to free Uncle Tom. The resonances with “The Semplica Girl Diaries” are quite clear, again pointing towards the story’s intricate and intentional connections with slave literature. In a kind of sad, happy and ironic ending, “Eva” of “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” eventually frees the SGs out of sympathy to their pain, this time leaving her parents with loads of debt to pay—modernity’s brand of indentured servitude. 

The intuition that the story is set in our own contemporary world—Saunders’ brand of realism—is joltingly suspended when the mechanism of the Semplica Girls’ acquiescence is revealed. In a postmodern, sci-fi twist characteristic of the writer, we are asked to observe the apparatus of the semplica girls’ pain but also to ontologically question the proximity of this world to our own: “[A] microline though brain that does no damage, causes no pain. Technique uses lasers to make pilot route. Microline threaded through w/silk leader,” explains the father to the story’s most conscientious objector, aforementioned Eva. Saunders writes the SG girls as literally having a hole burned through their skulls for easy hanging in the yards of yuppie Americans. Nevertheless, this invention approaches reality when the narrator assures Eva that the mechanism does not hurt as doctor “Lawrence Semplica” ingeniously designed it. This is Saunders’ nod towards a world not only entrenched in corporate discourse, but also as Foucault diagnosed in the 1960s and 70s, hegemonically invested in the rhetoric of science and medicine to a fault. Consider that many people are willing to undergo potentially lethal and expensive cosmetic surgery based on the promise of comfort and ease doled out by doctors (and, of course, those mimetic desire machines called “style magazines” aid the process). The establishment of science as the official discourse of knowledge—“an indefinite discourse that observes, describes and establishes the ‘facts’”—endowed the medical/scientific community with alarming power (as during slavery). In short, the violent mechanism used to hang the SGs is disturbing but so is the narrators willed belief that it could be as innocuous as a simple haircut, again revealing the violent subtext underlying the characters’ daily-lives which surfaces at key points in the story.

But the SGs’ acquiescence, we are told, is not only a byproduct of the subjective violence that literally holds them in place. Short bios on the girls called “microstories” comically gesture towards the saturation of “societal marketing programs” in modern media while also realistically providing a backstory to the SGs forced immigration to the US. Saunders employs the postmodern aesthetic of embedded narrative and discourse to remind readers of the similitude between the world of the short story, however absurd, and their own. At the same time, Saunders also sardonically points towards how “#First World” guilt is co-opted and managed by the capitalist system.  By now, most people are quite aware of the methods of “societal marketing” and can immediately identify the sort disseminated by the Semplica Girl Company and reified by the family themselves:

Pam: Sweetie, sweetie, what is it?

Eva: I don’t like it. It’s not nice.

Thomas: They want to, Eva.  They like applied for it.

Pam: Don’t say like

Thomas: They applied for it.

Pam: Where they’re from, the opportunities are not so good.

Me: It helps them take care of the people they love.

Then I get idea: Go to kitchen, page through Personal Statements. Yikes. Worse than I thought: Laotian (Tami) applied due to two sisters already in brothels. Moldovan (Gwen) has cousin who thought was becoming window washer in Germany, but no. sex slave in Kuwait (!). Somali (Lisa) watched father + little sister die of AIDS, same tiny thatch hut, same year. Filipina (Betty) has little brother “very skilled for computer,” parents cannot afford high school, have lived in tiny lean-to with three other families since their own tiny lean-to slid down hillside in earthquake. 

Saunders’ family portrays postmodern American culture’s concepts of responsibility and idealism, as well as its political, economic, and social superiority and personal identity. In his aforementioned book on violence, Žižek critiques the tendency of modern-day capitalists like Bill Gates to refer to themselves as ‘liberal communists’ and with fanfare laud their latest donation to charity in front of the media. Žižek asserts that it re-establishes the balance essential to the capitalist system’s ability to perpetuate itself and the objective and systematic violence at its heart. “The same structure-the thing itself is the remedy against the threat it poses-is widely visible in today’s ideological landscape” poses Žižek. Like the nuclear family version of Bill Gates, the American family are “good people who worry…the catch, of course, is that in order to give, first you have to take.” The societal marketing method of packaging the human element via story for consumers is used to accommodate the family’s sense of the charitable. Their profiles, and the family’s bourgeois sense of philanthropic righteousness, are consequently bought and consumed along with the physical girls themselves legitimating their violent and painful existence on the lawn. For the speaker the embedded semplica girl narratives undoubtedly re-invoke his existant sense of guilt—but their true function is the one of evoking a sense of relief and complacency. As a father, he is also able to or at least hopes to transform the microstories into manageable tales of hope for daughter Eva. Žižek analyzes this function of ideology in The Sublime Object of Ideology concluding that “the function of ideology is not to offer us a point of escape from our reality but to offer us the social reality itself as an escape from some traumatic, real kernel.” Hence, the “microstories” engender that false sense of knowledge that Žižek alleges exists in today’s ideological landscape; the father escapes the real of his guilt into the social reality of the girls’ awful conditions on the lawn—finding a solace in them that is in equal parts utterly believable and preposterous so as to be offensive. Furthermore we see ideology at work in the family’s paradoxical belief that the exchange of money for power over human beings, however marginal, is the morally correct action to take in order to combat the very issue of modern slavery. “Only violence can put an end to violence, and that is why violence is self-propagating”. 

On another level, these prepackaged narratives of the lives of each Semplica Girl are a form of symbolic violence themselves—just like the narrative, another “line” to assuage the pain. Symbolic violence, a term used by Bourdieu and later by Žižek, can describe the violence enacted by a symbolic community via its rites and rituals of stratification, or, by its use of language and representation. Here language’s capacity for violent “essencing” is used to strip the girls of humanity reducing their entire lives into nothing more than a sterilized pair of compressed sentences. Furthermore, this is yet another form of the linguistic distancing that the narrator practices throughout his archiving of the girls’ story. He consistently uses semantics to deceive himself, as in his refusal to acknowledge the girls’ utterances as “language” instead calling it “lingo” or in his willed belief that the microline “does no damage, causes no pain.” Across the story, this symbolic violence enacted through language and discourse is generally evident in the pervasiveness of the curt, reduced syntax the narrator uses to write the diaries—more reminiscent of journalistic briefs than of the diary form in which he claims to write. As some would argue about modern news media, the narrator’s focus on ‘the now’ and on his own desire blinds him to the importance of history and more importantly to the particular history behind the Semplica Girls and their seemingly immaculate and estheticized presence on the lawn.

Saunders writes an all too familiar America with a sardonic twist, but does so for the purpose of revealing an urgent need for readers to overcome beliefs made popular by modern times, chiefly the grass root tendencies that cultivate and protect systemic violence at all levels. Saunders incisive criticism of the capitalistic ways of the USA is at its best when unpacking (or ridiculing) the sense of class-consciousness that informs the hopes, desires, and decisions of its households. As we noted at the beginning of the paper, the speaker’s impetus for buying the Semplica Girls derives from his feeling of inadequacy and ineptitude at not being able to “keep up” with his affluent peers. In a critique of capitalist dogma, Saunders helps us to understand that class-consciousness today simply equates to acquiring the same or better products as the others in our imagined community. Our narrator buys the SGs in order to “keep up with the Joneses.”

We step out. SGs up now, approx. three feet off ground, smiling, swaying in slight breeze...Effect amazing. Having so often seen similar configuration in yards of others more affluent, makes own yard seem suddenly affluent, you feel different about self, as if you are in step with peers and time in which living. 

Saunders could just as easily have written that the family had “stepped up” a rung on the invisible ladder that is social mobility and class (at least conceptually) in the USA. He includes the narrator, “stepping out,” and reportedly finally feeling “in step with peers and in time.” This is what class-consciousness translates to in contemporary America warns Saunders. An invitation to The Patriarch’s Balls would signify less today than the size of one’s house and its contents. The systemic and subjective violence implicit in the seemingly miraculous apparition of the objects that populate our domestic lives is of little importance although one can imagine. Nevertheless, by story’s end the family no longer owns Semplica Girls, who having escaped with the aid of the narrator’s youngest daughter, Eva, are now labeled illegal immigrants “on the loose.” The loss of the SGs results in the Greenway Company indicting the family with some $8000 dollars in due back-charges. This, of course, plunges the family into debt. And with that the family’s precious social status descends to equal or less than that of the beginning of the story. Debt in modern-day America is clearly the primary capital of the working classes, if not of the petite bourgeoisie, as well.

“The Semplica Girl Diaries” is an attempt to narrate the violence we inflict on ourselves and on others during the mindless and irresponsible pursuit of happiness. Saunders’ rendition of the modern American family takes into account power as a byproduct of colonization or in the least globalization as it is contemporarily understood. He offers a critique of the coloniality of power and those ways of knowing that often complement and uphold its systems, which are also constitutive of modernity. This critique, or Saunders’s message, appeals to readers to free themselves from social and political definitions of success, instead embracing individualized concepts of ethical responsibility towards others. It is this sense of responsibility that child character Eva seems to represent, suggesting that we are born with a capacity for empathy that society and its funny games quickly takes from us. Furthermore, Saunders reveals discourse as one of the mechanisms used to rationalize the irrational and humanize the profoundly inhumane. As a result we contemporaries may suffer a guilty awareness, more so than our historical counterparts, but as in the wealthy estates of the past there always is a trapdoor, a manner in which to ask to be excused from the table, to leave early from the ball. Nevertheless, by bringing the First World’s exploitation and dehumanization of third world bodies to the center of American family life, Saunders also performs an act of magic allowing the Semplica Girl to be in two places at once: at the center of his story and sweating in the factories of the Global South.

Excerpt of “The Semplica Girls Diaries: Class Consciousness, Violence, and Dystopia in George Saunders' View of Contemporary America”, first published in Miscelenea: A Journal of English and American Studies.

Juliana Nalerio is a PhD researcher at the University of Valladolid, Spain, in American Studies and Comparative Literature. Working at the intersection of literature and critical theory, her research explores the aesthetics and ethics of modern American literature in the continental sense. She is currently working on her doctoral dissertation, a project that attempts to unpack literary violence in its symbolic, systemic, and subjective forms in both North and South American novels and short story texts. She holds a master's degree from The University of Valladolid (Premio extraordinario) and a B.A. from New College of Florida-the Honors College of Florida, as well as certificates from studies at Middlebury College, The University of Chicago, The University of Edinburgh, as well as Birkbeck, University of London, and Texas A&M University (upcoming).

Juliana is a member of the national research group, "A Critical History of Ethnic American Literature: An Intercultural Approach," directed by Dr. Jesús Benito Sánchez.

Post-9/11 New York: 
Jay McInerney’s The Good Life (2006)<sup>1</sup>

Post-9/11 New York: 
Jay McInerney’s The Good Life (2006)1

Of all American metropolises, New York has become one of the most interesting and representative cities for writers, some of whom, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, have tried to reflect in their fiction the consequences of this traumatic event. In this essay I want to deal with one of these novels, Jay McInerney’s The Good Life (2006), which uses the image of a “broken” New York after the attacks as a metaphor for a society that, for a while, had its social rules and organization deeply altered. McInerney’s fiction is inextricably linked to New York since his main novels, Bright Lights, Big City (1984), whose first edition cover had featured the Twin Towers, Story of My Life (1988), Brightness Falls (1992), Model Behaviour (1998) and, of course, The Good Life (2006), are all set in New York and deal with Manhattan’s narcissistic and shallow upper classes. The author’s interest in superficiality, money, sex and drugs aroused the suspicion of some literary critics, who believed the 9/11 subject was too serious to be handled by a social satirist like McInerney, who has often been accused of sharing the values of the same wealthy and shallow New York socialites he vividly portrays. However, McInerney seems to have changed his style and has constructed a touching story in which the physical disintegration of the city causes the temporal disintegration of the glitterati’s narcissistic values. In this essay I will analyse to what extent McInerney’s eye for social satire, together with his portrayal of Manhattan as a theatre of social action, brings forth one of the most vivid representations of the effects of terrorism in New York.

The literary critics’ misgivings about the novel cannot be understood without briefly reviewing McInerney’s career as a writer. In 1984 the author hit the bestseller lists with his debut novel Bright Lights, Big City about a young aspiring writer who works as a fact checker at a prestigious New York magazine. At night he spends his time in nightclubs and bars, consumes cocaine and has casual sexual encounters. McInerney’s interest in sex, drugs and morally corrupt characters linked him to two other young writers, Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis, and together they came to be known as the “Brat Pack.” At the time, the label was usually attached to a young generation of actors like Rob Lowe, Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez, who had starred in very popular teenpics. In 1988 Bruce Bawer applied the term to a group of writers who, just like the Hollywood Brat Pack, had in common their being young, overly hyped and who shared an excessive sense of their own importance. Their works combined a minimalist style with a focus on urban angst and the surface details of contemporary phenomena (Bawer 16). As in the case of the other Brat Pack members, McInerney’s loose lifestyle as a literary celebrity has marked his career and the way his novels have been received.

Apart from the original Brat Pack label, McInerney is also considered part of Blank Fiction, a term which was first used in 1992 by Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveney. According to James Annesley (1998), Blank Fiction writers deal with contemporary urban life and violence, indulgence, crime, sexual excess, media overload, decadence, drugs, consumerism and commerce. Excess is a key term in their novels since they draw their material from the extreme particularities of the 1980s and 1990s. Postmodernity and late 20th-century life are vividly portrayed through references to all aspects of consumer culture: specific products, labels and celebrity names build up the superficialities of the time. Instead of using dense plots and elaborate styles, they favour a blank style and a flat, affectless, atonal prose. Although the subjects they deal with are usually very controversial, they tend to choose first-person narrators that keep a distance from the morally despicable acts described and who do not usually condemn them. This distance is one of the most criticized aspects of Blank Fiction. 

McInerney shares with other Blank Fiction writers his choice of subjects and his interest in the lifestyle of the vapid urban upper classes, but his style is more satirical and his characters are not as morally vacant as Bret Easton Ellis’s, his best friend and quintessential Blank Fiction writer. However, his image as a bon vivant is strong and most reviewers of The Good Life mentioned it. For example, in The Village Voice Benjamin Strong noted that it was difficult to approach the novel without making reference to McInerney’s well-documented hedonism and his “smug, bespoke-suited public persona—the rail-blowing, model-dating, sommelier-in-a-club-chair frat boy.” In The San Francisco Chronicle Heller McAlpin also considered that the author had been personally drawn to the self-destructive excesses of the high life he satirises in his fiction. As a result of these initial preconceptions, some reviewers accused McInerney of being too charmed and fascinated by the people he intended to criticise (Caldwell; Parini) and of being magnetised by the worlds of celebrity and fashion (Mars-Jones). For some other reviewers, this fascination made it impossible for the author to construct a story in which the privileged Manhattanites realized the superficiality of their values since “the author so clearly cherishes every upscale item and behavior that he thinks he deplores” (Mallon). In the same line, Paul Gray in The New York Times and Louis Menand in The New Yorker concluded that McInerney found his characters both fascinating and blameless and expected his readers to do the same.

In spite of this criticism, The Good Life shows a new direction in McInerney’s career. He still deals with the upper classes and many of his characters are morally vacant socialites but the main characters in the story are aware of the shortcomings of their social atmosphere. In the novel, the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks gives way to important social changes and part of McInerney’s ironic distance and satire is softened in the chronicling of the romance between Corrine and Luke. McInerney himself announced in The Guardian that his blank style would have to change to face the topic of his new novel (“The Uses”). This article was a response to VS Naipaul, who had declared in an interview for The New York Times that only nonfiction could capture the complexities of today’s world. For the Nobel Prize winner fiction falsifies reality and it is of no account since the world cannot be contained in the novel (qtd. in Donadio). In his response McInerney defended fiction from these attacks. He admitted that, after 9/11, fiction had seemed inadequate for a while but by 2005 people wanted to have a novelist process the experience. McInerney claimed that he had to confront the most important and traumatic event in the history of New York, which had always been his proper subject. However, he also admitted that he had to change his style to do it: “At the very least, certain forms of irony and social satire in which I’d trafficked no longer seemed useful. I felt as if I was starting over and I wasn’t sure I could” (“The Uses”). When the New York 9/11 terrorist attacks took place, many commentators claimed that it meant “the end of the end of history” (Zakaria), “the end of irony” (Gordon), “the death of irony” (Rosenblatt) or “the death of postmodernism,” (Bennett) whereas others believed that irony was what Americans needed most (Fish; Beers; Didion). McInerney offers in the novel some of his usual social satire but also some ethical guidance, since we see how the physical disintegration of the city parallels the temporal disintegration of the glitterati’s narcissistic values. 

It is interesting that in order to change his style the author chooses to continue the story of the main characters in one of his previous books, Brightness Falls (1992). This book was the story of Corrine and Russell, a yuppie couple who pursue successful careers in New York in the 1980s, Russell as an editor and Corrine as a stockbroker. The excesses of the 1980s that engulf them—drug addiction, AIDs, casual sex and conspicuous consumerism—together with their ambition, come to an end on 19th October, 1987, when the 1980s bubble bursts with the Wall Street crash. In The Good Life we find the same couple ten years later about to face a different crash: the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Russell Calloway, still an editor, Corrine Calloway, now a housewife, and their 6-year-old twins live in a rented loft in TriBeCa and are “trying to subsist on less than two hundred and fifty grand a year” (18). Their path will cross with that of another wealthier family: Luke McGavock, an ex-investment banker, his wife Sasha, a professional beauty and socialite, and Ashley, their teenage precocious daughter, who live on the Upper East Side and enjoy a seven-figure income. Although both couples seem wealthy enough the money they earn and where they live set them apart in the pre-9/11 status-conscious Manhattan. On 12th September, 2001 Luke and Corrine meet and start volunteering at a soup kitchen to feed rescue workers. As they fall in love and start an adulterous affair their world changes completely and so does the geography of the city and the social difference it had entailed.

Guy Debord considered the city the locus of history because of its concentration of social power and its consciousness of the past. In fact, he even claimed that universal history was born in cities (124-125). Of all cities, New York has established itself as an image and symbol for America since it contains its contradictions and both the dream of success and the risk of failure. Writers have helped construct this symbolic image through the many representations of the city in literature. As Shaun O’Connell states:

The pressures of New York have lent the city’s literature a rare intensity. The tests, personal and public, imposed by the City upon its residents, new and old, have made it America’s most interesting and revealing city for writers. (307)

The Twin Towers were New York landmarks and a symbol of US power. Michael Sorkin and Sharon Zukin have called them “fluorescent chessboards against the black night sky” and “the Everest of our urban Himalayas” (vii). They were a symbolic reference but also a geographical sign since many New Yorkers looked for them in the sky to find their way downtown. The collapse of the Twin Towers altered New York’s geography and brought chaos to an ordered world in which boundaries had been clearly established. According to Lewis Mumford, alterations in the city affect the behaviour of its inhabitants since the city is a theatre of social action and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity. As he claimed:

The physical organization of the city may deflate this drama or make it frustrate; or it may, through the deliberate efforts of art, politics, and education, make the drama more richly significant, as a stage-set, well-designed, intensifies and underlines the gestures of the actors and the action of the play. (480-1)

The collapse of the towers deflates the drama in the theatre of the city. Suddenly people are at a loss because the roles they used to play are changed by the enormity of the events. Facing the threat of personal disintegration, Luke and Corrine suspend their daily routine to find a new sense of purpose at the soup kitchen at Bowling Green.

In The Good Life, the geography of the city and its role as a theatre of social action is clearly established from the very beginning. The Calloways live in TriBeCa in an old, small, tunnel-style loft. They moved there in 1990 before the process of gentrification of lower Manhattan and they have not benefited from it because they didn’t buy but rented the loft. As a result, it is now too small for the couple and their twins. However, the idea of moving from Manhattan to Brooklyn or Pelham is something Russell refuses to accept. On the other hand, the McGavocks are further up in the social scale as they live on the Upper East Side. Their double-height living room seems “to be holding its breath, as if awaiting a crew from Architectural Digest or House & Garden to set up and shoot” (27), even though Sasha wants to change their Biedermeier neoclassical decoration because it looks too mid-nineties. Luke has also rented a little studio over on Seventy-sixth to write a book about samurai films and they also have a place in the Hamptons. This lifestyle is apparently about to come to an end because Luke has decided to take a sabbatical, which has made Sasha alarmed at the prospect of a declining standard of living. Sasha lives in a world in which the people she knows do “the three-house thing—one place an hour outside the city and another in the Hamptons for the summer” (202). The previous year she had wanted to move to 740 Park, where one of her wealthy friends lives, even though the apartment had been smaller and on a lower floor. The short address is 

resonant with talismanic significance in her rarefied world. This simple address on an ecru Crane note card consecrated the embossee as an Olympian who had attained the heights of Manhattan social aspiration. (213)

Social identity is inextricably linked to place-identity in the novel. Proshansky, Fabian and Kaminoff define place-identity as a “pot-pourri of memories, conceptions, interpretations, ideas, and related feelings about specific physical settings, as well as types of settings” (60). Place-identity is a factor that contributes to the formation of self-identity together with gender, race or social class. In the novel place-identity is an obvious component of social class. In fact, geographical space defines social identity to the extent that geographical references are used to describe people’s dressing style. For dinner Russell wears a stripy English dress shirt with a blazer and jeans, which Corrine finds “[v]ery Upper East Side at home for the evening” (18). Washington looks “very downtown, black suit over a black shirt with a seriously long and pointy collar—black on black on black” (34). Ray Levine, a neighbour of the Calloways is “the very image of a downtown ad guy with his salt-and-pepper goatee, black turtleneck, and black jeans” (108). For the pre-Christmas lunch at “21” Sasha is dressed “conservatively, Upper East Side matronly, in a tweedy vintage Chanel suit, accessorized with a single string of grape-size pearls” (346). The use of place references to pigeonhole people and describe their dressing style underlines the close connection between geographical boundaries and social boundaries. 

In the novel the events of 9/11 destroy all these neighbourhood niches and social conventions for a while. According to Zulaika and Douglas, the real efficacy of terrorism lies in its power to provoke disruptions of the existing order and in creating media spectacles by attacking symbolic buildings (76, 84). In a way, the World Trade Centre represented both the economic power of the city and its symbolic power. In the novel its collapse makes many New Yorkers believe they are witnessing the beginning of the end of the whole idea of the city. Suddenly, the city seems fragile because of the bomb threats, chemical scares, the sirens… Due to this symbolic function, the collapse of the World Trade Centre distorts the whole city. Police barricades are established at Fourteenth Street, isolating the whole downtown area. As the love affair between Luke and Corrine develops, the barricades keep moving down from Fourteenth Street to Canal Street, then down to Chambers, ending the siege of Corrine’s neighbourhood. The day before Thanksgiving they close the soup kitchen where Luke and Corrine have been volunteering. In a way, that closing also marks the end of their affair, turning the distance between TriBeCa and the Upper East Side into an insurmountable barrier again.

The changes in the city affect its own divisions in a literal way, through the barricades, but also in a metaphorical way, through the flow of people going both uptown and downtown. In contrast to the initial chapters, in which the worlds of TriBeCa and the Calloways and the Upper East Side and the McGavocks were presented in separate unconnected chapters, after the attacks “the borders had gotten porous, at least until the eleventh, when the word downtown had acquired an ominous new meaning” (223). The downtown area and the soup kitchen suddenly become the centre of Manhattan and both the wealthy and the less socially favoured are drawn towards it. From the day of the attacks, Luke’s thoughts tend downtown (79) and, as the story develops, Luke feels protected there with Corrine. In fact, every morning after their night shift at the soup kitchen he panics at the thought of going back uptown (168). 

The physical changes in the city boundaries also bring about important social changes. As Lewis Mumford claimed, the city’s 

unified plans and buildings become a symbol of their social relatedness; and when the physical environment itself becomes disordered and incoherent, the social functions that it harbors become more difficult to express. (481) 

In this sense, the soup kitchen becomes a melting pot where social differences are unimportant. Obviously, Corrine shares with Luke “a certain tribal sense of identity, affinities of background and education that weren’t supposed to matter anymore, at this leveling moment” (94). The real levelling is seen in the range of people they meet at the soup kitchen. Its main organiser is a carpenter who embraces and accepts Luke “despite his Bean boots, chinos, and rugby shirt, some Upper East Side dilettante” (93). Corrine feels especially close to Captain Davies, a policeman from Brooklyn: 

Until a few days ago, the chances of their sharing a cup of coffee together would have been astronomically remote, but by now Corrine knew a great deal about Davies’s family, his boat, and the intricacies and inanities of the NYPD pension plan. (95) 

The range of the volunteers includes a Russian exotic dancer who is recovering from her latest boob job, a hippie girl from Brooklyn who works as an herb gardener in Prospect Park, an insurance adjuster who commands a National Guard contingent camped out in Battery Park and three young women who work at Ralph Lauren. When Luke visits his family, who live a few miles south of Franklin and who think Luke has become a city snob, he is eager to tell them about the demographic range of his new acquaintances. 

The attraction that Ground Zero exerts is also satirised in the book. In fact, McInerney’s eye for social satire is undeniable and most reviewers saw it as one of the highlights of the novel (McAlpin; Block; McKenzie; Zipp; Bailey; Matthews). The shallowness of some upscale New Yorkers does not come to an end with 9/11; in fact, as a way to recover consumer confidence, they were encouraged to go out, shop, and eat in expensive restaurants. New York Magazine published an article detailing 17 ways to help New York since “eating and drinking and theatergoing and spending (not to mention giving and volunteering) are the patriotic duty of all who consider themselves New Yorkers” (“New York”). The socialites in The Good Life take their “patriotic duty” all too seriously. For example, Casey, a crass socialite and friend of Corrine’s, has gone “to the Ralph Lauren boutique to do her bit for the city’s traumatized economy, just as the mayor had advised everyone to do” (92). After the attacks, publicists and party-planners cancelled or rescheduled parties in New York because they felt people were not in the mood for partying. A mood also reflected in the novel when Sasha and other socialites fear that the autumn benefits may have to be cancelled. However, they become suddenly interested in the soup kitchen when they realise that they can do a joint benefit for the soup kitchen and the ballet. 

Gaining access to Ground Zero has also become a sign of social status and power, as we notice when Sasha’s friends compete to get a pass down to Ground Zero. For example, we learn that the Portmans got “a tour” because he is a big Republican donor (181). In the same line, the new must-have fashion item for Manhattanites is a Cipro prescription. One month after the attacks panicked patients were asking their doctors for Cipro prescriptions as a result of the mail-based anthrax attacks. In an article written in October, 2001 we could read that Stephen Kurtin, an Upper East Side dermatologist, had written more than 100 prescriptions for Cipro (Kaufman). Since these prescriptions were not easy to get, in the novel they become the perfect present party hosts can offer their guests. As wealthy Casey proudly explains: 

I was at Minky Rijstaefal’s for dinner—you know Minky; her husband’s Tom Harwell, the plastic surgeon—and it was so sweet: Folded inside the name cards at the table, we all had prescriptions for Cipro. (212-3) 

The attacks have not changed socialites’s wish to buy the very best but now their choice is not between a Louis Vuitton or a Gucci bag but a Marine Corps or a Israeli combat-grade gas mask (212). Circumstances have changed but the behaviour of some self-absorbed New Yorkers has not.

Apart from these touches of social satire, McInerney reflects especially well two moods of the moment: the sense of community and the need to leave the city. In The New Yorker Louis Menand noted that New York turned into a small town after 9/11, the asymmetries of metropolitan life disappeared and people made eye contact. McInerney had already noticed this trend in an article published four days after the attacks. In his description of what he had witnessed and the way the city had changed, McInerney underlined the way New Yorkers had left behind their capacity for jaded equanimity and felt part of a community (“Brightness Falls”). This change in the city may have led McInerney to the belief that he had to change his blank style in the novel. After all, Blank Fiction novels usually depict mass society, which, according to Dominic Strinati, “consists of atomised people, people who lack any meaningful or morally coherent relationship with each other” (6). The links in mass society are contractual, distant and sporadic instead of communal and well integrated. There is no sense of community to provide values and, as a result, people in mass society turn to fake moralities and find in mass culture and mass consumption “the moral placebos of a mass society” (7).

In a way, this is the society McInerney presents in the novel before the attacks, but both Corrine and Luke have always felt outsiders in the jaded mass society of New York. Corrine hates about the city “how you were supposed to be cool and take for granted the awe-inspiring people and events you’d fantasized about back home in Altoona or Amherst” (10). Luke also feels like a social outsider in the life that her socialite wife wants to lead. The night before 9/11 they attend a charity benefit at the central park zoo where

[t]he women were beautiful in their gowns, or at least glamorous in their beautiful gowns, their escorts rich in this richest of all cities, and Luke had never felt less like one of them, reminded now of the figures he’d seen this summer in Pompeii and Herculaneum, frozen in their postures of feasting and revelry. (59)

Both Luke and Corrine feel that their couples are too jaded and that the city has destroyed any innocence they may have shown in the past. Corrine misses the sensitive and insecure Russell she met at Brown University, who was intimidated by native New Yorkers (104). Luke longs for Sasha’s past provincial enthusiasm for the city and her appetite for the more innocent pleasures it provided, before she became “the epitome of a certain rarefied type of urban sophisticate” (87).

Some critics claimed that the banality of Luke and Corrine’s affair is at odds with the enormity of the cataclysm of 9/11 (Matthews; Reese); however, Luke and Corrine’s dramatic meet-cute is in a way the result of the new sense of collective identity, purpose and intimacy that invades New York. After the attacks Luke spends the night digging at Ground Zero because he was supposed to meet a friend for breakfast at Windows on the World the morning of 9/11. Luke cancelled at the last minute and fears his friend never got the message and is somewhere under the burning rubble. Covered in ash, Luke meets Corrine, who offers him not just a bottle of water but a bottle of Evian—this is after all a novel by Jay McInerney and brand names do find their way into the novel. She gives him her telephone number and asks him to phone her once he has made it home safely. A connection between two needed strangers is established in a city where strangers used to be too jaded and distrustful to speak to each other: this is the spirit of wartime camaraderie which is all over the city. Even though they had not talked for a year due to a domestic dispute, the Calloways are invited to share a meal at their neighbours’ penthouse the night of the attacks (108). When Russell’s building is evacuated because of a bomb scare there is “a sense of collective identity and purpose on the anarchic impulses of the urbanites” (125). In this atmosphere it is only normal that the wartime intimacy and camaraderie of Luke and Corrine should turn into a love affair.

As part of this general sense of community, there is also a strong need to leave the city for the suburbs, which become the place to find a face-to-face community of identifiable people. Some of Luke and Sasha’s acquaintances are moving out to their houses at the Hamptons, and Russell’s friend Washington and his family decide to move to New Canaan. Corrine’s mother wants them to leave New York and move to Massachusetts, an idea that Russell has also considered, but among the simple articles of his faith is the belief that “lawn care and commuting were incompatible with the higher pursuits, that the metropolis was the source of the life force” (125). This philosophy is best summarised when Ashley decides she does not want to study in New York but in Tennessee. She tells her mother that there is life outside of New York but Sasha’s answer is clear enough: 

There’s life on the bottom of the ocean, Ashley, but fortunately for us, our ancestors crawled up on the beach and developed lungs and feet, not to mention hand-stitched Italian footwear.(364) 

The suburbs and the countryside are seen in the novel as a place of innocence. This is especially obvious in the case of Ashley, who after overdosing flees to her grandmother’s house in Tennessee, where she becomes aware of the superficialities of the city and its upper classes. The quiet life and family bonds she finds in the rural and natural landscape at her grandmother’s home lead her to a crystal-clear conclusion: “I don’t want to be a selfish bitch […] I want to be a good person, like Gran” (336).

However, for most people life still turns around the metropolis, and the idea of moving to the suburbs or the countryside horrifies them. Lewis Mumford found these instincts justifiable since “in its various and many-sided life, in its very opportunities for social disharmony and conflict, the city creates drama; the suburb lacks it” (481). Both the Calloways and the McGavocks decide to stay in the city and resume their life. Russell and Corrine organise a dinner similar to the one opening the book. However, there are some important changes in the list of invited friends and in their attitude towards life. Jim Crespi died in the attacks and his widow, Judy, has become a much more sensitive and less shallow person. Hilary, Corrine’s promiscuous sister, comes with Dan O’Connor, a policeman she met when visiting Corrine at the soup kitchen and who has left his family for her. From the soup kitchen also comes an overdressed Jerry, the carpenter who opened the soup kitchen and who is the first to leave the party. Washington and Veronica are also there but now they are about to move to New Canaan and start a new life. The McGavocks also return to the social scene and attend the pre-Christmas lunch at “21,” but there are some noticeable changes as well. Both Ashley and Luke can see through the superficiality of the event and the people who attend it. Ashley is much more confident after her stay in Tennessee and does not need her mother’s approval as to her dressing style. Luke sees people with a distance:

It all seemed a little unreal to him, like some tableau from the distant past; the centre of Luke’s city had shifted south, to a downtown loft he’d never seen but which he’d measured and furnished in his mind. . . . (343) 

The changes in the city have also brought forth changes in their lives and their personal horizons.

The end of the novel brings us back to Mumford’s idea of the city as a theatre. The “stage” is the Lincoln Center Plaza where the Calloways and the McGavocks finally meet. Neither Luke nor Corrine have told the other that they plan to go the ballet to see “The Nutcracker” with their families. In the middle of the plaza Luke sees Sasha walking towards him and notices that Corrine is just five feet to her left. Corrine and Russell become to Luke’s eyes “an enviably handsome family that appeared, from this distance, to illustrate some cosmopolitan ideal” (367). He also remembers something his mother had told him, that love involved putting someone else’s well-being ahead of your desires, and decides to let Corrine go. The two families end up bumping into each other and both Corrine and Luke feel embarrassed for having lied to each other. The situation is presented in both theatrical and dramatic terms: “In that moment, the nighttime plaza with all its swirling throng blurred and faded as if engulfed in a sudden storm of sand or snow”  (369). Luke’s last thoughts bring us back to the centrality of the city and its power. He hopes they will meet again in the city as one used to in New York “before the idea of the protean city as eternal and indestructible had been called into doubt” (370). He imagines the city again as a backdrop to the dramas of daily life and he takes “comfort in that vision of the city as the setting for a future encounter with Corrine, and in the fact that he could imagine it now” (370).

The Good Life is an urban novel that focuses on the lives of the privileged Manhattanites and glitterati. The subject is characteristic of Blank Fiction literature and, taking into account McInerney’s career, it was to be expected that there would be plenty of name-dropping, brand names, consumerism, drugs and shallowness. The fact that this is a post-9/11 novel and is set against the backdrop of the terrorist attacks affects the way McInerney deals with these common topics in his fiction. 9/11 did not cause the “death of irony” or the “death of postmodernism” but it is undeniable that McInerney constructed a touching and sincere story in which social satire is accompanied by romance. Luke and Corrine are not morally faultless but, by contrasting them with their more shallow partners, they are morally grounded. Through their eyes we see the way the terrorist attacks softened jaded New Yorkers and broke with the rigid social system and its niches. For a while, the physical disintegration of the city also put an end to narcissistic values and made people feel part of a community rather than a mass society of isolated people. 9/11 may not have been the end of all Blank Fiction but, in the case of Jay McInerney, it softened his style, making it less ironic and less blank.

“Post-9/11 New York: Jay McInerney’s The Good Life (2006)” was first published in Literature of New York, edited by Sabrina Fuchs-Abrams (Cambridge Scholars Publishing: Newcastle Upon Tyne, 2009)

Sonia Baelo-Allué is an associate professor at the University of Zaragoza (Spain), where she primarily teaches U.S. literature. Her current research centers on trauma studies and 9/11 fiction. She has published Bret Easton Ellis’s Controversial Fiction: Writing between High and Low Culture (Continuum, 2011) and co-edited The Splintered Glass: Facets of Trauma in the Post-Colony and Beyond (Rodopi, 2011) and Between the Urge to Know and the Need to Deny: Trauma and Ethics in Contemporary British and American Literature (C. Winter, 2011). She is also co-editor of Miscelánea: A Journal of English and American Studies.

Works Cited

Annesley, James. Blank Fictions: Consumerism, Culture and the Contemporary American Novel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Bailey, Blake. “The Trivial Life: Why Jay McInerney Should Embrace Frivolity.” Slate 20 Feb. 2006. 27 Nov. 2008

Bawer, Bruce. Diminishing Fictions: Essays on the Modern American Novel and Its Critics. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1988.

Beers, David. “Irony is Dead! Long Live Irony!.” 25 Sept. 2001. 27 Nov. 2008

Bennett, William J. Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2002.

Block, Allison. “A Couple Redeemed by 9/11: Jay McInerney’s ‘The Good Life’ Showcases.” Chicago Sun-Times 12 Feb. 2006. 27 Nov. 2008

Caldwell, Gail. “All Fall Down: Amid the Ashes and Grief of 9/11, Two Manhattan Marriages Struggle to Survive.” Boston Globe 12 Feb. 2006. 27 Nov. 2008

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. 1967. New York: Zone Books, 1994.

Didion, Joan. Fixed Ideas: American since 9.11. New York: New York Review Books, 2003.

Donadio, Rachel. “The Irascible Prophet: V. S. Naipaul at Home.” New York Times 7 Aug. 2005. 27 Nov. 2008

Fish, Stanley. “Condemnation Without Absolutes.” New York Times 15 Oct. 2001. 27 Nov. 2008

Gordon, Devin. “The End of Irony: Where Were You on Sept. 11? A New Generation Comes Face to Face with its Defining Moment.” Newsweek, 27 Sept. 2001. 27 Nov. 2008

Gray, Paul. “Collateral Damage.” New York Times Book Review 19 Feb. 2006. 27 Nov. 2008

Kaufman, Joanne. “Doctor’s Dilemmas.” New York Magazine 15 Oct. 2001. 27 Nov. 2008

Mallon, Thomas. “In the Ruins of Love.” Wall Street Journal 28 Jan. 2006. 27 Nov. 2008

Mars-Jones, Adam. “Still Dazzled by Bright Lights.” The Observer 5 March 2006. 27 Nov. 2008

Matthews, Charles. “Mired in Mush: Jay McInerney’s Novel about 9/11 Undone by Banality.” Houston Chronicle 12 Feb. 2006. 27 Nov. 2008

McAlpin, Heller. “McInerney’s Party People Feel the Hangover of 9/11.” San Francisco Chronicle 5 Feb. 2006. 27 Nov. 2008

McInerney, Jay. Bright Lights, Big City. New York: Vintage, 1984.
—. Brightness Falls. New York: Vintage, 1992.
—. “Brightness Falls.” The Guardian 15 Sept. 2001. 27 Nov. 2008
—. “The Uses of Invention.” The Guardian 17 Sept. 2005. 27 Nov. 2008
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McKenzie, Thomas Scott. “The Good Life.” PopMatters 6 Feb. 2006. 27 Nov. 2008

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Mumford, Lewis. The Culture of Cities. 1938. New York: Harvest Books, 1970.

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O’Connell, Shaun. Remarkable, Unspeakable New York: A Literary History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

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Proshansky, Harold M., Abbe K. Fabian, and Robert Kaminoff. “Place-identity: Physical World and Socialization of the Self.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 3 (1983): 57-83.

Reese, Jennifer. “The Good Life.” Entertainment Weekly 27 Jan. 2006. 27 Nov. 2008

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Zakaria, Fareed. “The End of the End of History.” Newsweek 24 Sept. 2001. 27 Nov. 2008

Zipp, Yvonne. “Love and Society Among the Ashes of Manhattan.” The Christian Science Monitor 14 Feb. 2006. 27 Nov. 2008

Zulaika, Joseba and William Douglas. Terror and Taboo: The Follies, Fables, and Faces of Terrorism. London: Routledge, 1996.


The research carried out for the writing of this essay has been financed by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Technology (MCYT) and the European Regional Development Fund (FEDER), in collaboration with the Aragonese Government (no. HUM2007-61035/FILO). I also want to thank the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies in Berlin for awarding me a grant to carry out research at the Institute’s library.


The Fever Is In Here <BR>—Paris, France

The Fever Is In Here
—Paris, France

“You are looking at life through an old pair of eyes and a new pair of eyes.
And there's always that ambivalence–Where do you belong? And how do you belong?
And I do think these are advantages of immigrant writers
or writers with two languages or who have two worlds.”


Story appeared in Slice Magazine, “Resistance” issue # 16

“URGENT!” Giovanni’s text said, “Call now,” and the list of catastrophic fears that a person lists went through my mind. He picked up right away: what took you so long, been trying to call for hours, ovens on super sale, you want one, tell me pronto, before someone else takes them, only two left, OK got one in my hands RIGHT NOW, store is closing RIGHT NOW. 

It was hard to believe that this would be our third oven together and all of them here in Paris. The first two had been delivered by our Neapolitan truck driver friend, Lello, who made weekly Napoli-Paris runs for a produce wholesaler and who packed stuff for us in his extra refrigeration storage area underneath the truck cabin. Over the years, he’d brought us drills, capers in salt, duct tape, Titina’s preserved tomatoes (Giovanni’s mother), tubs of glue, homemade red wine (Giovanni’s), sweaters, a Chinese sword, books (Italo Calvino, chess strategies, and a big cookbook of pasta sauces), screws, prosecco, an old pair of tennis shoes, Gaeta olives, homemade limoncello (Giovanni’s). Not that they didn’t have some of this stuff in Paris, but over the years we’d gotten in the habit of asking Lello, and he didn’t mind doing it. His was kindness in the form of industrial refrigeration. It was thanks to Lello that I’d first tasted scialatelli, the flat and square-shaped spaghetti from the Amalfi Coast that were as near-perfect a match as you could get for a puttanesca sauce. 

Everything arrived cold—all the way through, the kind of cold that can’t be burnt or baked out when it gets into your fingers. The sort of cold that you can feel in the one thousand miles between Paris and Napoli, and the cold that in summer months makes your hands smart.

By the time we bought the third oven, I’d been in Paris for a decade, Giovanni and I had been together eight years, and we’d been living together for four. We were long distance between Paris and Napoli for the first four years; it was hard, but you get used to a lot of things and the traveling part was really good. On one of my first trips to Napoli, I remember looking out the airplane window at the soft brown-green slope of Vesuvius and being surprised by how much it looked like a flattened-down mountain. Some people say it’s a big oven waiting to burst. We went to the top of the Vesuvius once, and there was a lot more loose dirt than I’d expected. Around the bottom of the crater and as we kept walking up, there were clusters of tiny yellow flowers poking through the grayish-brown slope, and parts of the ground spit out little bursts of sulfur clouds. The area right around Napoli, like the little city where Titina was born, is in the zona rossa, red zone, of the volcano, which means that if there’s an eruption, entire cities will be in the direct line of lava flows and ash. 

* * *

Giovanni and I first met in Paris through a mutual friend, and we met in English because I didn’t speak any Italian and he didn’t speak any French and English can be easy for some things. These many years later, we get by on a hybrid of his cobbling together of French, my bad Italian, a few words of Neapolitan, and his fearlessly attempted English. We’ll start talking and aren’t sure in what language the conversation will finish. 

We ended up having a fight the night that he brought home the third oven. It stayed in its box for days. I tried not to think about it each morning at breakfast. (The oven was right there.) The fight about the oven was about the toothpaste that was about how wasteful I could be and how rigid he could be. “You don’t squeeze out enough,” he said. “You know there’s more in there.” The part about being wasteful or rigid was about having a hard time committing—to the oven temperature, to the toothpaste, to things between us. “You don’t love the same way,” he said, waving towards the oven. He forgot it, you don’t love it the same way.

* * *

Lello usually arrived at the Rungis International Market outside of Paris around midnight, when it was dark of dark: trucks in nightfall, empty roads, only a few signs outside of restaurants that were open all night, mostly seafood places—blinking neon crabs or a sea creature, crooked, spilling out of a stewpot. Lello owned his eighteen-wheeler and had photos of his family (wife and two young daughters) and a prayer card of the Madonna dell’Arco pasted up in the inside of his cabin and a flashing colored light sign above the rearview mirror: *L*E*L*L*O*. Everything had been customized, and the cabin was swanky, like a miniature luxury hotel room only with a steering wheel, gearshift, and monogrammed floor mats. The cabin was much more than a cabin for him. He had a special light system installed underneath the berth of the truck that shone out onto the highway at night, flashing the colors of the Italian flag: green, red, and white. 

In the summer of 2005, Lello stopped coming to Paris for a while when there was the big fire in the Fréjus Road Tunnel that connects France and Italy. The tunnel is nearly eight miles long, and opened in 1980, and in the first twenty years, more than twenty million vehicles drove through it. There was a leak, a fire started and spread, and two truck drivers were killed. It took six hours to bring the fire under control. One of the survivors said, “I suddenly saw smoke and started to run towards Italy.” You don’t always know where danger comes from. See fire, run towards Italy. 

* * *

The oven was the size of two shoe boxes. You get used to reduced size in Europe—small cars, tiny hands. Things fit differently into things. The big bonus of this oven, in addition to the price, was that it featured a spit. “Think of the meats we can roast,” Giovanni said, thinking of me because he didn’t really like meat. I thought of a suckling pig, turning and turning on the spit, in the miniature oven, roasting in our ten-square-foot kitchen, our faces lit up and soft from the color of the heating mechanism. 

The cooking indications on the oven weren’t in any language; they were smudges of drawings, the kind that scratched off with your fingernails or that dripped and melted after the first couple times something had been cooked. Two temperatures were marked: 0 and 235 degrees Celsius. Maybe that’s all the choice you need. 

On the fourth day with the unopened oven, I told Giovanni that we should open it. “Don’t care,” he said. He forgot the you, or he forgot the I: you don’t care, or I don’t care. He didn’t say. Maybe we didn’t love the same way. It wasn’t the first time that I had thought that. Maybe it was a question of degrees.

Heather Hartley is Paris Editor for Tin House magazine and the author of Adult Swim (2016) and Knock Knock (2010) both from Carnegie Mellon University Press (distributed by University Press of New England). Her short fiction, poems, essays and interviews have appeared in or on PBS Newshour, The Guardian, Tin House, Slice, The Literary Review, Post Road and other venues. She has presented writers at Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, and her column about literary Paris, “Apéritif,” appears on the Tin House website. She has taught creative writing at the American University of Paris and the University of Texas El Paso MFA program.

I remember driftwood

I remember driftwood

"Obviously, it is the place of childhood, that exerts a powerful spell over us through our lives."


—for Georges Perec & Joe Brainard

I remember making mud pies with friends behind our apartment when I was eight 

I remember the crunch (very gritty) when we tasted them once 

I remember one of the friends, maybe his name was Dan, & Dan

looking on, standing on the train tracks 

I remember his high-waisted longish black shorts

I remember loving ceramics class in second or third grade 

Loving it because the teacher was cute, Mister Smith

I remember how ceramics class smelled like baked beans cooking

I remember pouring hydrogen peroxide on the roots of my hair with 

my friend at the beach, Nags Head North Carolina 27959 USA 

I remember running back from the beach to the hotel room after thirty 

minutes to check & see if my hair was blonde yet 

I remember pouring more peroxide on because it needed to 

be blonde that minute 

I remember that minute being divine

I remember driftwood 

I remember our hotel & its smell of rattan & sand & rain

I remember seashells on shelves & mantles 

& that big piece of driftwood in the darkened sitting room

No one ever sat in there

I remember American History Class in eighth or ninth grade 

I remember the boy in front of me much better. (He sat near the front.)

I remember school Valentines & the Valentines boxes we made with a slit 

on the top of the box for cards 

My hand almost fit in there

I remember my fourth grade boyfriend: desk next to mine, to the left 

I remember the Dorothy Hamill haircut 

I remember loving the idea of her bowlish beautiful hair 

I remember not loving the way it looked on my head 

I remember the skating rink and, “All skate, everyone skate,” 

I remember “shoot the duck” meant you crouched down & tucked one 

leg under yourself with the other one out in front and you rolled 

around in a circle in the rink 

I remember being scared 

I remember how good one boy was & how we all had a crush on him 

I remember being tested for Gifted Class 

I remember not testing high enough to get in

I remember they got to take Field Trips to Cultural Places & 

Represent the School in Important National Things 

I remember butane hair curlers 

I remember the girl’s bathroom at school & that particular smell of butane (strong)

I remember salt-water taffy

that that was what summer was, because it was Nags Head 

I remember dressing up in Old Western outfits for a funny 

photo there with my friend. (We dressed up like saloon girls.) 

I remember not really knowing what a saloon was & holding a toy rifle 

The photo was going to be in sepia  

I remember we giggled our heads off until the guy took the photo & 

for that moment, our image carked down on our heads & 

he swallowed us whole in his lens, camera obscura, down side up, 

& I remember he 

did it again & again, kept shooting &

we weren’t dead & 

we weren’t afraid 

"I remember driftwood" appears in Heather Hartley's second poetry collection, Adult Swim.

Heather Hartley is Paris Editor for Tin House magazine and the author of Adult Swim (2016) and Knock Knock (2010) both from Carnegie Mellon University Press (distributed by University Press of New England). Her short fiction, poems, essays and interviews have appeared in or on PBS Newshour, The Guardian, Tin House, Slice, The Literary Review, Post Road and other venues. She has presented writers at Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, and her column about literary Paris, “Apéritif,” appears on the Tin House website. She has taught creative writing at the American University of Paris and the University of Texas El Paso MFA program.

Invisible Writer, Invisible Readers

Invisible Writer, Invisible Readers

Not only is the writing process invisible—a process of dreaming, imagining, envisioning–the (woman) writer is also invisible, according to Joyce Carol Oates. Since Oates has been a public figure for decades–she appeared on the cover of Newsweek in December 1972–how can she possibly describe herself as invisible? The answer, she says, is that a woman is not truly “seen;” she is more often defined and judged in terms of her body–is she an attractive or unattractive woman?—rather than in terms of her writing. Thus, her true self, her thinking, creating, observing self, is a phantom–invisible. Yet, as Oates’s creativity demonstrates, to be an invisible woman is not necessarily disabling. For while a woman is intensely immersed in the creative process, she is not limited by how others perceive her. While imagining herself as “other,” dividing herself into different characters, a (woman) writer escapes gendered notions of identity. Describing her creative process, Oates has said, “Most writers divide themselves up lavishly in their novels” (New Heaven, New Earth). She has also asked, in an essay published in 1984, “Does the Writer Exist?” (New York Times Book Review), a question she answered in 1994: “’JCO’ is not a person, nor even a personality, but a process that has resulted in a sequence of texts” (Keepsake on exhibit, University of Rochester Library).

If such a notion of an authorial self, or selves, seems extreme, we have only to reflect upon our own experiences of “self” while engaged in a creative activity. At such times—whether as writers, musicians, painters, or even as readers–we may lose all awareness, not only of the passage of time, but also of our social selves. Deeply immersed in a novel, engaged in a kind of “time travel” (another Oates metaphor), we imaginatively divide our reading selves into different genders, races, classes, and nationalities. To apply to readers another of Oates’s metaphors for writing, while reading we may “marry” ourselves to different characters, wedding our minds to theirs and, in some instances, refusing fidelity to “them.” (See, for example, how this metaphor is employed in Oates’s short story collection, Marriages and Infidelities). If the writing is powerful enough—if the writer has successfully imagined herself as “them”—we, her readers, willingly suspend our disbelief to become “them,” if only temporarily. In short, while engaged in reading, we become invisible. Some readers may resist such deep engagement, especially when asked to imagine those who commit acts of violence; however, as Oates has stated, she writes in order to “bear witness” for—and to develop readers’ sympathies for— those who are too poor or uneducated or unsure to speak for themselves (Kenyon Review, Fall 2014).

In a book‐length study titled Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates (Mississippi UP, 1996), I examine Oates’s notion of an invisible writer, as well as her multivocal and historical concept of authorship. As stated in the book’s introduction, the name “Joyce Carol Oates” does not refer to an absent writer, but rather to the many voices and texts represented in novels published between 1964 to 1994 under the name “Joyce Carol Oates.” In each decade, Oates’s novels reveal a different author‐self: an anxious author in the 1960s; a dialogic author in the 1970s; a communal author in the 1980s. Of course, Oates has published many novels since 1994, as well as novellas, short stories, poetry, plays, critical essays, book reviews, art criticism, journals, and a memoir. Joyce Carol Oates has also written novels under at least two pseudonyms, Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly. She continues to be a visible public figure, as, for example, when President Obama awarded her the National Medal of Humanities in 2010. Yet in a twitter post in July 2016 Oates insisted, once again, that the writer does not exist: “The artist remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence.”

Brenda Daly
University Professor of English Emeritus, Iowa State University

Brenda Daly’s scholarship on Joyce Carol Oates’s novels and short stories includes numerous articles and one book, Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates (1996). She has also published a personal scholarly book, Authoring a Life: A Woman’s Survival in and through Literary Studies (1998), and co-edited a collection, Narrating Mothers: Theorizing Maternal Subjectivities (1991).  She has published numerous articles on multicultural pedagogy and contemporary women’s trauma narratives and phototexts. She is a former director of Iowa State University’s Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities (2005-2008), and a former editor of the National Women’s Studies Journal (2004-2007).

Love, Suddenly: Etgar Keret Invents Hebrew Romance

Love, Suddenly: Etgar Keret Invents Hebrew Romance

The article looks at the emergence of romance as a viable literary device in Israeli literature in the 1990s, especially in the works of young writers who used the privacy of romantic coupling as an escape from the more national thematics of previous literary generations.  Historically, modern Hebrew works paid little attention to romance, certainly in comparison to the ubiquity of romantic love in other contemporary, nineteenth century European literatures. In Hebrew literature, romance played a secondary role that was usually subordinated to communal, Jewish and later Zionist concerns. During the 1980s, however, especially after the first Intifada in 1987, this dynamic began to change. The article examines this change in the works of Etgar Keret as a representative voice of a new Israeli cultural generation. 

One of the illustrative ways Hebrew literary critics characterized and distinguished literary generations from one another during the past century has been to focus on the common use and function of the narrative voice as an expression of the age.1

Thus, the anguished and introverted voice of the lonely first-person singular narrator in many works of the Hebrew Revival came to symbolize the hesitant and precarious beginnings of a new Hebrew culture in the Land of Israel at the beginning of the twentieth century. Similarly, the first person plural of the following literary generation, the 1948 Generation, came to symbolize the next stage in the Hebrew cultural revolution and its success in establishing a cohesive national culture whose members strongly identified with it at the expense of more personal concerns. The turn to a plurality of first person narratives in the 1960s, during the State Generation, marked a break from the group culture of the first native, Israeli generation and a rebellion against it. By looking closely at works by Etgar Keret, this essay suggests the emergence of yet another narrative voice or literary grouping in Israel in the early 1990s: the “first-person dual” or the romantic voice. Although the first-person dual, "גוף ראשוניים", does not exist as a grammatical category in Hebrew, the sense of a pronominal narrative voice in many works by Keret and his contemporaries is neither that of an individual “I” or a communal “we,” but that of the romantic couple.

Characterized by terse narratives that usually unfold in urban settings, the new romantic writers abandon the grand Zionist narrative of the past in favor of stories that are both smaller and larger in scope—the preoccupation with romantic love as the ultimate fulfillment of the human condition. Unlike previous generations, many works by contemporary romantic writers like Etgar Keret, Uzi Weil, Gadi Taub, Gafi Amir and others, appear largely unconcerned with Jewish identity, Jewish nationality or Jewish history. Moreover, the move these authors make away from the particular and the local toward more universal literary themes, and especially the construction of the romantic experience within a capitalist framework, is distinctly marked by the abandonment of the tension between individual and community, that has stood at the center of modern Hebrew literature since its inception. Instead, these writers attempt to seclude themselves within the protective confines of the lovers' nest rather than in relation to a community.

The emergence of romance in Hebrew literature is noteworthy and intriguing because, historically, modern Hebrew works paid romance scant attention, certainly in comparison to its ubiquity in European literature. After all, the development of modern literature in Europe—the novel in particular—is directly linked to romantic love as an individualizing force; a mode of rebellion, liberation and fulfillment in an increasingly bourgeois, capitalist and secular world. The very name for the novel, român, in many European languages makes clear the extent to which the literary form itself centered on relations between the sexes.2

Generally speaking, this was not the case with modern Hebrew literature, which waged a different cultural war at its beginning and focused more on reforming the Jewish community and forging new connections between its members that were not based on religion.

There were, to be sure, genuine attempts to incorporate romance into modern Hebrew letters. The most obvious example would be the very first modern Hebrew novel, Avraham Mapu's 1853 Love of Zion (אהבת ציון). Other notable examples come from the Hebrew Revival at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth (Berdichevsky and Gnessing, for instance). But most of these served more ideological than romantic concerns. Mapu's novel was a maskilic critique of the moribund Jewish community of his day, while he precarious freedom that Revivalist heroes won from their traditional Jewish communities often came at the expense of their love life, which tended to be tortuous and abortive. That is, the failed love affairs of the uprooted young Jew, the Talush, were yet another indication of his existential limbo, stuck between the declining old world and an unknown Jewish future.

More contemporary successors of these early writers, with the exception, perhaps, of S. Y. Agnon, did not use romance more significantly either. Most of the works that appeared immediately before and after 1948 did not dwell on romance because they were much more concerned with the urgent matters of state-building. The next literary generation, often called New Wave or State Generation, continued to [dis]use romance. Amos Oz epitomized this in his signature novel of the period, My Michael (1968), when he endowed the love life of the heroine, Hanna, with distinct national symbolism.3

For many of these writers, romance played a secondary role that was usually subordinated to communal, Jewish and Zionist concerns.4

During the 1980s, especially after the first Intifada in 1987, this dynamic began to change. Among the influences that brought these changes about and opened up Israeli culture to greater outside influences were the deep political and economic changes after the Six Day War. Throughout the 1980s, Israel experienced accelerated development and the greater establishment of a western, capitalist society, a trend which was expedited by the emigration to Israel of hundreds of thousands of Russians in the early 1990s and symbolized by the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993.

The addition of nearly one million workers and consumers to Israel’s economy, and the first real chance of peace with the entire Arab world, or at least a glimpse of what it might look like, jolted the country and began to change it in what seemed at the time as profound ways. It brought Israel much closer to Western consumerist society and exposed it to its popular culture, especially American television programs that saturated the air after deregulation opened up the local media market at the beginning of the 1990s. The new programming was eagerly embraced by a public thirsty not only for entertainment choices but for a confirmation that it really belonged in the West. Inevitably, these changes made Israeli society more susceptible to global trends as well, in particular the millennial atmosphere of the 1990s with its anxiety and uncertainty regarding the future, which often give rise to the kind of “nostalgic yearnings for a secure, familiar past” that reverberate in many works by Keret and his peers.5

This may be the reason for the appeal which Keret and other romantic writers had for an an increasingly fragmented society, especially in an age that was distinguished by the expansion and richness of its literary output, by women, Mizrahim, gays, religious writers, and Arabs.6

Throughout the 1990s Keret and his confrères were repeatedly mentioned in the daily press as well as in more academic venues, individually and as a group, as the voice of a new Israeli age; an age that was alternatively called postmodern or postzionist. Their resonance in the unraveling society of a “fin de siecle” Israel and the ability of what I call romantic writers to reach across a plurality of voices by constructing a fragile but distinct voice is the subject of this study.7

The romantic writers developed against this millennial background and staged what Gadi Taub has so poignantly called a “dispirited rebellion.”8

Taub, himself one of the romantic writers, published in 1997 a collection of essays in which he defined a new Israeli generation in what was essentially a post-national era. The importance of Taub's thesis resides in the window it opened into the mindset of a generation of Israelis who were born after the 1967 triumph and whose consciousness was forged in an increasingly safe, economically advantaged and militarily strong Israel.9

The romantic writers were the products of this generation and, somewhat paradoxically, derive their anxieties from their unprecedented privilege as powerful and secure Jews.10

One of the more notable consequences of this cultural shuffle has been a crucial change of priorities in the nation's cultural agenda, a kind of “privatization of collective memory and prioritization of the private, domestic sphere,” as Miri Talmon calls it.11

Indeed, a mounting tension between the private and the public spheres, an increasing pessimism about Israel's political course, a heightened frustration with the ability to change it and an acute wish to disengage from it in order to protect one's sanity and psychological integrity in the face of it marks Keret's generation.

The first Intifada did not trigger this dynamic as much as clarified and articulated it for many.12The ground for this realization was laid long before it broke out, not just by the changes in the country's material culture, but especially by so-called new historians and sociologists, whose challenges to well-accepted perceptions of Israeli history gradually entered into academic and then public discourse since the beginning of the 1980s. Studies such as Benny Morris' 1987 The Palestinian Refugee Problem, Ella Shohat's 1989 Israeli Cinema, and Tom Segev's 1984, 1949, The First Israelis, and his 1991 The Seventh Million, to name the most prominent of them, began to reexamine some of Zionism's most deep-rooted and hallowed claims about Israel’s wish for peace, about its relations with Arabs, about its immigration and social integration policies, and about its relationship to the Holocaust and its survivors. Although these challenges were not immediately accepted and were strongly resisted by the establishment, some of the well-researched and pointedly argued alternative explanations they provided slowly gained credence, especially with younger people. A sense that Israel might not have been right at all times, that it was not always the victim and that there are other, legitimate sides to the Mid-East story slowly enfeebled Zionist dogma.13

The preeminence of romantic love in the works of Keret and others was in many ways an escape from the confusion of a frustrating reality and a rebellion against it. One of the peculiar characteristics of works by young writers like Keret, who began to appear on the literary scene in the 1990s, is their urban imagery and setting: bars, gun-toting detectives, nightly taxi rides in the city and beautiful, mysterious women, which often seem taken from generic American films and television programs. In this “capitalist realism,” as Eva Illouz calls it in her illuminating study about the connection between love and modern consumerism, romantic love is perceived as inherently liberating and individualizing, a mode of rebellion, escape and fulfillment in an increasingly alienating world. It is after all a commonplace that Romantic Love replaced religion in twentieth century Western culture and has become one of the most pervasive mythologies of contemporary life in the West. But since nationality, not religion, held center stage in Zionism, the closer identification with the West and the eager adoption of its values, especially love, undermined in the Israeli case nationalism not religion.

This kind of romantic consumerism occurs most conspicuously in the rebellion of post-army Israeli youth, who take prolonged trips abroad, especially to the Far East. Such excursions serve a double purpose. On the one hand, they allow young Israelis to disengage physically and mentally from a dismal local reality that is still stuck, as it were, in a primitive and anachronistic conflict while the rest of the civilized world is out having fun. But the trips also foster closer associations with the West through the consumption of tailored tours to exotic locations, replete with extreme sports and drug parties. Today we know that these changes were not as enduring, and that in many ways, the economic boom and the chance for peace were artificial. But the promise of both, the economy and the peace, was nevertheless powerful and alluring at the time, perhaps even more so because they were not yet real. It goes directly to the nature of Keret's writing and the writings of his contemporaries, who were sometimes labeled urban, lean-language or post-modernist writers.

For the most part, these young men and women, most of whom were journalists as well, were quick to perceive the new trends and comment on the possibilities they held for a truly western, civil society in Israel, a middle-class Israel that would finally be able to lead the bourgeois life it always craved despite its nominal adherence to a regnant statist socialism.

This, essentially, is the sentiment that Keret as a romantic writer expresses in his works, which usurp the grand Zionist narrative of the past in favor of a more Western-universalist one. While the new narrative retains elements of the former, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide and secular-religious tensions, these no longer hold the same values they held before. As part of a post-modern, post-national literary universe, they are subsumed under and serve a grander romantic narrative, to which Jewish history, culture and identity are in many ways incidental.

Etgar Keret began writing as a young soldier in the early 1990s. He sent his first stories to so-called lowbrow, popular media, such as the teenage weekly Ma'ariv lano'ar and the glossy women's magazines At and La'isha because, as he confessed tellingly, he preferred to be read by many than evaluated by few.16

Whether Keret meant this in earnest or not, popular and critical acclaim swiftly followed the publication of his first anthology of short stories, Pipelines, in 1992.17

Throughout the 1990s the daily press was full of passionate critiques of Keret's stories which seem to have hit a public nerve. Common to most of these critiques is Keret's ability to succinctly express some of the seemingly irreconcilable tensions of the new era, that is, the unbearable lightness of Israeli being in a post national age. So many of Keret's stories revolve around misfits, wrote one critic, that the Other becomes the most well-defined group of the 1990s; a passive and haphazard collection of individuals that replaces the actively unified "we" of previous, more nationally-minded generations.18

Numerous critics recognized Keret's existential angst and noted his particular writing style, his ability to translate the visual sensibility of a video clip into words as a critical component of his popularity: the accessible, spoken idiom, the frenetic tempo, the accumulation of disparate cultural elements, the visual and verbal quotes, and the extreme brevity of the text. Keret's cinematic writing style has been noted especially after the publication of his second anthology of short stories, Missing Kissinger, two years later in 1994. One critic who reviewed the new volume described Keret not only as a typical product of the mass media generation, but went even further to suggest that his allusions to popular TV series, comic books and detective films is reminiscent of the way older Hebrew writers used biblical allusions.19

That the writing style of young Keret appealed to his peers, to the first generation of Israelis who grew up with a substantial presence of commercial media needs little explanation. His popularity in more judicious quarters is less obvious. One reason that may explain this concordance is the fairly quick way in which Keret came to be regarded as a postmodernist, a category that was bandied freely in Israel in the early 1990s. Like any new critical method of inquiry, postmodernism drew a lot of attention as a novel method of cultural analysis when it began to make inroads into the Israeli academy in the late 1980s and early 1990s.20

Iconoclastic studies questioning the various truths of the Zionist story that began to emerge in the 1980s were boosted by the academic respectability of postmodernity, which doubts the legitimacy of any system of values, encompassing theories and grand narratives. Despite its instability as a systematic method of inquiry, postmodernism became a potent source of fuel for the changes that swept Israel at that time.21

Because Keret's stories were written so "visually" and because many of them presented a confusing, mean and hellish Israel they were described fairly early on as quintessentially postmodern.22

Even when critics did not literally define them as such, they pointed out many postmodern elements in Keret's works, like the influence of the mass media,23generic blurring,24the confusion of style and substance,25 obscuring the boundaries between representation and reality,26 and an ostensible disconnection between writer and narrator.27

The influence of the mass media, especially films and television, was one of the most frequently mentioned postmodern features of Keret's writing. The lack of generic coordinates and the jumbled accumulation of disparate cultural artifacts were often perceived as the absence of a moral compass as well; a moral relativism that is revealed in the alleged absence of an implied narrator, that ephemeral moral voice usually invoked by the tension between the actual writer and the narrator he or she creates.

Many of these signs can be detected even before reading Keret's actual stories by looking at the jackets of his anthologies. The 1992 Pipelines, for instance, features a detail from Edvard Munch’s famous etching “the Scream,” which, significantly, is rendered in pink.28

The choice of Munch’s work highlights the haunting nature of many stories in the anthology, which remains Keret’s most obviously political or socially-aware work to date. The stories in Pipelines deal with the legacy of the Holocaust, Jewish-Arab relations, army service, the Intifada and the dissolution of civil society in Israel because of it. At the same time, the very use of “the Scream,” which the cover serves up as a cliché of a cliché, in its choice of detail and the lurid pink instead of the dramatic darkness of the original painting, undermines the haunting dimension of the stories by manipulating the meaning of the etching through a manipulation of its surface, appearance or “performance,” to use postmodern parlance. The painful substance of the disturbing etching is not changed or removed but trifled with by cheerfully coloring it. The conversion of the original scream into a pop-culture artifact atenuates the tension between the overwhelmingly articulate image and the raw and seemingly inarticulate etched lines that produce the work's affect in the first place. In other words, the pink color silences the scream by reversing what Andy Warhol did in his famous series of lithographs. Instead of elevating an ordinary, ubiquitous commercial product to the level of art in a defiant, warped mimicry of consumerism and mass production, which was what Warhol did, the jacket of Pipelines commercializes a unique and meaningful work of art.29

One of the most obvious examples of Keret’s adroit use of postmodern stylistic devices is the story “Arkadi Hilwe Takes the Number Five.”
The title of the story offers the first hint about the tight symbiosis in the story between style and content as well as the volatile potential of its disparate elements; a potential that is fully realized in the story. Although the title reads like a smooth colloquialism, a casual reference to someone's bus ride, the discord begins already with the passenger's name. Arakadi is an obvious Russian name. Hilwe is an obvious Arabic name. Joining them together as someone's first and last name is immediately jarring to Israeli ears and highly ironic. The number five bus is also significant, not just because it traverses Dissengoff Street, Tel-Aviv's central and most symbolic street that often stands for the city itself. One of the first and most devastating suicide bombing attacks in Israel would take place aboard that bus on October of 1994, marking a shift in the conflict with the Palestinians that eventually led to the withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank more than ten years later.

True to its title, the story continues to describe an especially horrific Israel, a terrifying universe devoid of compassion, a disintegrating society awash with blood whose conflicting elements clash violently with one another in a cacophonous jumble. The story is packed to excess with gruesome images that are delivered with a chilling detachment that accentuates the horror. The first words that open the story are "son of a bitch," uttered by a fat drunkard who is waiting at the bus station with Arkadi, spoiling for a fight. Arkadi ignores him and continues to read his paper, which is plastered with gory pictures of mutilated bodies. "I am talking to you" the drunkard persists, adding the epithet "stinking Arab" for good measure. "Russian, Arkadi replied, hastening to hide behind the side of his family that was not maligned yet. My mother is from Riga. Sure, said the fat man with disbelief, and your father? From Nablus, admitted Arakadi and returned to his paper to look at a picture of "Burnt Kurdish dwarfs flung out of a giant toaster" and another picture of lynching.

The vulgar belligerence of the drunkard and the grisly pictures in the paper are but a prelude to a story that reveals a Clockwork Orange-like world of senseless, random violence that is fueled by the disparate ethnic and political factions that make up Israeli society, culture and history. Arkadi responds with chilling violence to the drunk's persistent nagging. "It was five o'clock and the bus did not arrive yet. In a speech on the radio the Prime Minister promised rivers of blood and the fat man was a head taller than him. [Arkadi] kicked the fat man's balls with his knee and followed it immediately with the crowbar he hid between the pages of the paper. The fat man fell to the ground and began crying, Arabs! Russians! Help! Arkadi gave him another smack on the head with the crowbar and sat back on the bench."

The frightening miscommunication continues in Arakadi's conversation with the bus driver, with an old passenger and finally with his mother. Don't worry about him, "he's epileptic," Arkadi tells the bus driver who wants to help the sprawled and spasmodic fat man. "If he's epileptic, where's all the blood from," the driver inquires. "From the Prime Minister's speech on the radio," Arakadi replies apathetically. Once inside the buss, Arakadi sees an old passenger working on a crossword puzzle and asks if he can help. "Was I talking to you, you stinking Arab," the old man snaps at Arakadi. In a twist on a crossword puzzle definition, Arakadi rejoins with "a question often used by Border Patrol policemen (28 letters)." Minutes later he gets off the bus and as it drives off he ducks behind a garbage bin anticipating the blast of the explosives he just left on it. "The explosion came seconds later covering Arakadi with trash." On his return home he finds his grandmother sitting in a tent on their roof-deck watching a commercial on TV in which a sexy swimsuit model "was swimming the backstroke in a river of blood that flowed along Arlozorov Street." Arkadi fantasizes about having sex with the model and does not hear his mother, who is trying to tell him that his grandfather was crucified this morning at the central bus station during a special operation to enforce parking regulations. "Are you talking to me?" he asks her. "No, I am talking to God," his mother replies angrily and curses in Russian. "Oh, Arakadi said in return and went back to the TV. The picture now focused on the model's lower body parts. The slimy blood flowed all around them without touching them. There was a supertitle above it and the emblem of the city, but Arakadi resisted the temptation to read it."

It is not hard to follow the different elements of Israeliana that crowd this short story. Recent Russian immigrants, dissipate Israeli youth; fat, lazy and gone bad, Arabs, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Intifada, the greater conflict in the Mid East, suicide bombings, social disparity, injustice, violence, racism, political cynicism, and above all the apathy of a society who has been flooded ad-nausea with all of these images by an invidious mass media that replicates and amplifies them until they cease to make sense, to represent a recognizable reality. The end of the story exemplifies the gory, macabre collage that makes it and by extension the country itself. Each of its pieces is packed with so much symbolism that it quite literally explodes or collapses and loses its ability to represent anything in a meaningful way.

Among the elements in this story that make no sense, the protagonist, Arakadi, is the least possible, a textual contrivance that highlights the text's postmodern stance as well as Keret's vigorous sense of humor. Although all literary characters are essentially textual inventions, they are inventions based on key mimetic values such as individualization, psychology, complexity and depth.31

In modernist texts characters are ontologically secure beings that construct the text and produce its meaning. Readers decipher the literary conventions and codes that make up a character and assemble them by translating these conventions into a coherent image drawn from recognized life experiences. Postmodernist characterization tampers with the assemblage of traits so that characters fail to develop a personality and become instead purely textual effects, empty signifiers that point nowhere. In extreme cases—Arakadi for instance—the postmodern character is not representative at all but illustrative, a cartoon that cannot be read for psychological subtext or representation of identity but as a political and social illustration of an ideological reality.

As a Russian Arab Arakadi is a conceivable character, but not a very plausible one. He is a signifier that cannot be easily signified in contemporary Israel where Jews and Arabs rarely socialize and seldom marry. But even if he were, his political allegiance makes his character improbable still. As an Arab-Jew blowing up Israeli Jews Arakadi is literally cutting his nose despite his face. This is also where the texts deepest irony lies. Arkadi's very being negates itself so that he no longer refers to a recognized reality and exits as a self-referential linguistic entity. By drawing attention to the impossibility of representation, the notion of character itself is deconstructed here. Arakadi thus becomes a stylistic device, a "wordy" creation that eliminates the mimesis of reality in fiction and causes the character to collapse into the discourse, as Buchweitz writes.32

It is here, when the traditional categories of interpretation fail to explain Arakadi, where Keret's style becomes his message. The writer's inability to cope with an uncertain, unstable, and insecure Israeli reality is conveyed through the abuse of literary norms designed to lament the loss of direction, meaning, and ideals. The textual chaos simulates disillusionment. Instead of attempting to pursue authenticity, the text abandons it and promotes the corruption of narrative conventions as a comment on a world that exhibits a similar disruption or collapse. 

One of the most affective ways in which narrative technique is corrupted in the story is the maintenance of a superficial, textual level that connects the story's disparate elements seamlessly. The story is made up of a string of jarring scenes or situations that are only circumstantially connected, placed one after the other in an artificial continuum. Almost none of them flows from what precedes it either syntactically or logically in the way we usually expect a traditional narrative to progress. 

"Son of a bitch," the fat man muttered and hit his fist hard against the bench of the bus station where he was sitting. Arakadi continued to look at the pictures in the paper, ignoring completely the words that surrounded them. Time went by slowly. Arakadi hated waiting for buses. "Son of a bitch," said the fat man again, this time more loudly and spat on the pavement close to Arkadi's feet. "Are you talking to me?" Arkadi asked, somewhat surprised and raised his eyes from the paper to meet the alcohol-shot eyes of the fat man. "No, I'm talking to my ass," the fat man yelled. "Oh," said Arakadi and returned to his paper. The paper had a color picture of mutilated bodies heaped high in the city square. 

Although the fat man announces himself loudly and crudely, Arakadi is oblivious to his existence. Not because he is uncomfortable or afraid of him, as we later learn, and as most people would in a similar situation. Arakadi simply does not see him or hear him and engages in a leisurely reading of his paper, dwelling on the mundane inconvenience of waiting for public transportation. Nothing in his behavior belies the ominous fact that he is a violent terrorist who in a few moments will execute his mission in cold blood. The mission itself is unimagined because Arakadi is presumed Jewish. Like the bloody pictures in the paper that are separated from their explanatory text, Arkadi remains cryptic as well, undecipherable. His literal reaction to the fat man's facetious reply, "no, I'm talking to my ass," only simulates understanding, and underscores the lack of communication between them or even the willingness to connect and empathize. So is Arakadi's final refusal or inability to read the supertitle on TV, which functions as a symbolic writing on the wall. But since Arkadi himself is a symbol he cannot interpret or comprehend his surroundings without an intermediary. He is one more symbol in a world populated by symbols.

It is perhaps strange, therefore, that many of Keret's other allegedly postmodern stories promote surprisingly naive, old fashioned and even conservative ideals such as patriotism, heroism, true friendship and especially true love. This has not been the most common assessment of them, although it was among the first. In one of the earliest interviews with the young writer, Gil Hovav declares Keret the first Jewish musketeer: "finally, we too have a charming and adventurous gunslinger, quick tempered and ready to fight, someone who will do everything he can to save his lady or civilization." Considering the clear system of values in Keret's 1992 Pipelines, writes Hovav, values that include honor, honesty, manliness, loyalty and a sense of adventure, one wonders if this interdisciplinary musketeer was born in the right century.33

Even those stories that initially shocked and confused readers and earned Keret a defiant, rebellious reputation promote a bourgeois, civilized world above all; bourgeois civilization with all its attendant ideals, including propriety, respect, fairness, chivalry and especially romance. 34 Although much of Keret's language and plots make such an assessment sound initially strange, one of the shortest stories in Pipelines, “Shlomo, Homo,You Mother-Fucking Fag” (שלמה הומו כוס אל-אומו), illustrates this point convincingly.

The story reads almost like a prolonged joke that decries the absence of meaning and grace. Shlomo is a miserable schoolboy who is picked on by his classmates during a class trip to the park. The teacher, who ostensibly is the only one who feels compassion for him, tries to comfort him some during the trip. But when at the end of the day Shlomo asks her pathetically: “Miss, why do all the kids hate me?” the teacher shrugs her tired shoulders, puffs on her cigarette and replies casually: “how should I know, I’m only the substitute teacher.” While the story deals flippantly with a harsh injustice, it offers no explanation or consolation for it. In many ways it even exacerbates the injustice and the atmosphere of violence and aggression by adding the epithets from the title to Shlomo’s name every time it is mentioned. The teacher, who significantly is a substitute teacher, not a “real” one, like the park, the artificial lake and the giant statue of an orange, which are all mockups of Zionist achievements, goes through the motions and helps Shlomo only because it is part of her job description. That she has no real compassion for the child becomes clear in the end, when she cannot or will not offer the boy any words of consolation. The boy is thus left alone in the desert of a new Israeli society that does not make a real effort to provide a meaningful message that would unite its disparate elements under a redeeming narrative.

Perhaps this is why some critics believed Keret's works bespoke despair and evinced a sense of gloom and helplessness about the state of the country. Author Yoram Kanyuk, who himself took part in the cultural revolution that transformed Israel after 1948 from a cohesive pioneering society to a more pluralistic and liberal one, commented with a mixture of admiration and regret on Keret's generation. Kanyuk delighted in the lean language of the young writers, in which he may have found an expression of his own efforts at limbering the stiffer Hebrew of his day.35 But he saw little connection between their mode of writing and the cultural agenda he and his peers promoted in the first decades after statehood. Young writers, comedians, and journalists today, Kanyuk wrote, seem to have abandoned the greater idea of the State in favor of a new kingdom, that of the city of Tel-Aviv, which they made into the capital of its own culture. This kingdom, he contends, has nothing to do with age-old Jewish traditions (נצח ירושלים) or with the more recent Zionist heritage (יפי הלילות בכנען). Keret's generation, Kanyuk seems to be saying, is not interested in carrying on a dialogue with former literary traditions, as his and former literary generations did. This is a generation content to shut itself in a Tel-Aviv of its imagination, detached from the rest of the country, floating in a vacuum.

Urbanity as a sign of sophistication, complexity and artifice as well as a designation of place was indeed one of the most distinct features of Keret's generation. Generally, it was understood as a defiant stance against what Kanyuk calls Zionist heritage, which valorized the land and vilified the city for reasons that had to do with Zionism's own revolutionary agenda. Perhaps this is why some readers understood Keret's hyper urban spaces as an expression of despair; despair of contemporary Israeli reality, as Gavriel Moked also writes.36 A society that is hermetically confined to the kind of urban spaces it occupies in Keret's literature must be ailing, these critics quipped, especially if one measures it against Zionist ideals that sought to sever the “problematic” connection between the Jew and the city. That this kind of critique was still leveled in the 1990s, even if most of the ethics that animated early Zionism faded by then points to the tenacious hold Zionist ideals had on a culture that was created in their image.

The confusion which Kanyuk and Moked felt about Keret and other writers is strange because both critics identify some of the core issues that constitute the literary dialogue these young new writers conducted with his predecessors without identifying it as such. But as "Arkadi" and many of Keret's other stories make clear, the sense of despair clearly denotes disillusionment. The abuse of literary norms that grabs readers' attention, the postmodern patina of the texts should not be read as literary negligence or incompetence. Keret's Israel is populated by black-and-white stick-figures as a stance against a treacherous reality that has flattened rounder figures and made their existence doubtful and problematic. His literary engagement with the times differs from the engagement of his literary forerunners only in kind but not in principle. Keret's alleged withdrawal from contemporary Israeli life—Kanyuk and Moked probably mean the traditional commitment by Israeli authors to social issues—ensconcing himself in a semi-virtual urban bubble called Tel-Aviv, marks the peculiar passive aggression that distinguishes his generation. Unable or unwilling to influence what they perceived as a dysfunctional, morally relative culture that seemed to lack the instinct for social and cultural reform, Keret and some of his contemporaries retreat into more confined worlds of their own making over which they have much better control: they can warp these fictional worlds in a frustrated act of displacement or recreate them anew on a smaller and more manageable scale in which romance functions as an element of escape, consolation, and grace.

Indeed, Keret's preoccupation with romance and love was far less noted than the jarring postmodern idiom that characterized his works and conveyed their apocalyptic tenor. Although Keret's frustrated heroes often punish themselves and direct their aggression against their own person, they often find refuge and solace in the pursuit and attainment, however brief, of so-called romantic love. These opposite solipsistic expressions—passive aggression and emotional fulfillment—that transpire within the confines of one's own privately created world, mark an easing of the tension between individual and community that was the hallmark of modern Hebrew literature since its beginning. In other words, the desire and search for True Love becomes an organizing principle of redemptive significance.

A simple statistical examination of Keret’s works will clearly show how in the four collections of short stories he published between 1992 and 2002— Pipelines 1992, Missing Kissinger, 1994, Kneller’s Happy Campers, 1998, Cheap Moon, 2002—the number of stories devoted to relationships, not just with women actually, but with male friends and even with pets, but always and repeatedly relationships involving two, has increased from a fifth of the stories in the first anthology, Pipelines, to two-thirds of the stories in the last anthology, Cheap Moon. 37

Love, romance or abiding friendships gradually emerge in Keret’s works as answers to some of the existential confusion they portray, to a world that lost its moral compass and makes little sense. This takes place already in the last story in Keret’s first anthology, Pipelines, a story called “Crazy Glue,” in which a married couple is isolated from everyone and everything around them in a brief moment of connubial bliss. In the story, the couple’s relationship is threatened by an affair the husband has with a colleague at work. Fearful that his wife suspects the affair, the husband decides to come home early one day instead of staying out late with his mistress. On his return he discovers that his wife glued down everything in the house: “I tried to move one of the chairs and sit on it. It didn’t move. I tried again. Not even a millimeter. She glued it to the floor. The refrigerator didn’t open either, she glued it too.” The narrator finally finds his wife glued as well, “hanging upside down, her bare feet attached to the living-room’s high ceiling.” Confused and annoyed at first, he tries to peel her off but then gives up and sees the humor in the situation. “I laughed too. She was so pretty and illogical, hanging upside down like that from the ceiling. Her long hair falling down, her breasts poised like two drops of water under her white T. So Beautiful.” He then climbs on a pile of books in order to kiss her. “I felt her tongue touching mine, the pile of books pushed away from under me; I felt that I was floating in the air, touching nothing, hanging only by her lips.”

The magical-realism with which the story ends masks the more conventional and even conservative values it promotes of marital fidelity and constancy. Strangely, the beginning of the story feels like a throwback to earlier times, with the husband hurrying to work in the morning and the wife staying at home to do house chores. The mise-en-scene as well as the dialogue seem deliberately conventional, almost clichéd, including the husband’s parting words “It’s already Eight, … I must run,” after which he picks up his briefcase and kisses her on the cheek, and his predictable addition “I’ll be home late today because…” These, as well as the row the couple has before that, somehow conjure up a 1950s American film, pastel colors and all. The only indication it takes place in Israel is the Hebrew of the story and the mistress’ name, Michal.

The fact that the happy ending of such optimistic films is realized by the end of the story through magic—albeit ironically—only heightens the pathos and deepens the longing for such solutions in the contemporary Israeli context. This is true for the magical superglue as well, which is another metaphor for the frustrating wish for clarity and stability. Placed at the end of a volatile anthology, then, “Crazy Glue” presents a solution of sorts that privileges permanency and especially love. The story also exhibits two major components of Keret’s writing: the longing for the restoration of bourgeois values and the universal frame of references and imagery, especially from popular media, through which these values are manipulated and delivered.39 The final image of the story combines the two whimsically and eloquently by expressing reconciliation, unity and the permanence of love through a common cinematic device, the “freeze frame.”

This sense of isolation within the confines of a romantic relationship, unhinged from the immediate spatial and temporal surroundings is much more pronounced in Keret’s second anthology, Missing Kissinger, in which almost half of the stories deal with coupling. These stories abandon larger social or moral issues and instead retreat into the narrower, simpler confines of 1-on-1 relationships. The narrator finds refuge from an incomprehensible world of disappearing borders, shifting meanings and contradictory messages in the clear and simple allegiance he pledges to and demands from his immediate partners and derives his very reason for existence from the strength of these relationships.

The world in Kissinger is certainly a violent world of disillusioned adolescents who grow up to discover that there are no dreams, that the relative safety of childhood is gone forever and that life is in the gutter, to use a familiar Israeli phrase (החיים בזבל). However, the protagonists compensate for it by moving between nostalgia for the past—albeit often a problematic past, with broken homes and dysfunctional families—and attempts to find companionship and love, even briefly, with someone they hope to forge a special connection that will return a sense of stability, meaning and belonging to their life.

The story “Corby’s Girl,” in which two guys vie for the same girl, conveys this sense eloquently. At the beginning of the story the beautiful, tall and blondish Marina dates Corby, a common street thug (ארס). The uneven pairing is quizzical, especially to the narrator’s brother, Miron, who eventually woos the girl away from Corby. Corby does not fight to have his girl back, but he does punish Miron. “You stole my girl while I was still dating her,” he yells at Miron after beating him up with a crowbar and kicking him hard in the ribs. But then he does something peculiar that is less in keeping with his image and reputation. “Do you know,” he says to Miron, “that there is a commandment against what you did.? … It’s called ‘thou shalt not steal.’ But you, it runs past you like water.” He then grabs Miron’s brother and forces him to repeat what the bible proscribes as punishment for violating that commandment. Fearing Corby’s brutality, the brother refuses to comply but is finally tortured into confessing it: “Death, I whispered. Those who violate it deserve to die.” Satisfied, Corby lets the two go and turns to his friend. Did you hear that? He says to him, “he deserves to die. And that, he pointed toward the sky, did not come from me but from the mouth of God. There was something in his voice as if he too was about to cry. Yalla, he said, lets’ go, I only wanted you to hear who's right.”

Actual displays of love or romance barely if ever appear in this story, certainly not warm and compassionate expressions of them. Yet the story is one of Keret’s most tender and romantic stories in which love does conquer all. It subdues even a brutal thug like Corby, whose violence is really a seering expression of his heartfelt devotion to his lost girlfriend. Love elevates the uneducated, inarticulate Corby into a literate judge and turns an idle bum into a moral and ultimately also a kind and forgiving ogre. Corby does not really think of his girlfriend as property that can be stolen. But he does subscribe to a rudimentary gentlemanly conduct, which Miron violated. Under these circumstances, Corby’s vindication is perceived as both right and fair toward Miron, and touching toward Marina. Even Miron sees it at the end. Was it worth it, his brother asks him, now that she’s with you? “Nothing in the world is worth that night,” replies Miron, who confesses to his brother that he has been thinking a lot about Corby since then. It is not as if Miron thinks Marina or any other girl unworthy of the hassle he went through. That’s not it. He is extremely sorry for taking Marina away from Corby. What he mourns at the end of the story is the demise of Corby’s true love.

“Corby’s Girl” is one of many stories by Keret in which the quest for romance ultimately fails; not just romantic relationships between lovers, but also romance in the sense of a naive belief in an idealized existence, like in the story “A Hole in the Wall” (חור בקיר). “On Bernadot Bouleverad,” begins the story, “right by the central bus station, there’s this hole in the wall… Someone told Udi once that if you shout your wishes into that hole in the wall, they come true.” Although Udi didn’t believe it, he tried his luck one day and shouted into the wall that he wanted Dafna to fall in love with him. The wish did not come true, but another one Udi made, to have an angel for a friend, did materialize. The angel, however, turned out to be a bit of a dud. He walked around with his wings folded under a big coat, refused to fly and seemed altogether depressed. The two hang out together for a few years and seem to bond until one day Udi pushes the angel off of the roof, “for kicks, he didn’t mean anything bad by it, he just wanted to make him fly for a bit… But the angel fell down five stories like a sack of potatoes” and splattered on the pavement below. Udi then realizes that, “nothing the angel ever told him was true; that he wasn’t even an angle, just a liar with wings.”

Romance in this story is inverted. Ostensibly, nothing in it is romantic except, of course, for its highly romantic premise. Udi’s life itself is utterly devoid of romance. Like his friend the angel, he seems slightly depressed, someone who leads a glum existence without purpose or joy. It is surprising that Udi even bothers to go to the wall and shout into it because that would denote either gullible optimism or desperation, the first of which Udi seems to lack and the second he is beyond. It is surprising still what Udi wishes for, an angel, and that his wish actually comes true. But the most surprising thing of all is Udi’s reaction at the end of the story, his shock and dismay not at the death of the man, but at the death of the angel. The real romantic core of the story is Udi’s naiveté, his unrequited longing for a “miracle” even after years during which the magic slowly wears away.

In part, Keret's focus on relationships or love is the legacy of earlier trends that began in the 1960s, especially by female writers (Amalia Kahana-Carmon, Yehudit Hendel, Shulamit Hareven). Their cultivation of intimate, interior spaces over the larger national and social engagement that characterized many of their male contemporaries slowly came to dominate Hebrew fiction since the 1980s. But even these earlier texts by women, that explored the economy of romantic relationships, were contextualized within a viable and discernible Israeli environment, even when they rebelled against it. What distinguishes the pursuit and attainment of love, or more precisely “couplehood” in the narratives of the 1990s is not just a rebellion but a disengagement from a clearly identifiable Israel; a literary world that looses much of its local color in favor of elements borrowed from a more global culture. Love becomes chief among these elements not only because it insulates against a problematic Israeli present but also because of the central place it occupies in the lending culture, the popular culture of the West.

Keret may have written extremely brief texts that never develop the wealth of issues they touch on, like a string of trailers that are never followed by an actual film, as one critic put it. 39 But what these “trailers” denoted was precisely the problem - the absence of an actual film; a film in the sense of a grand, national narrative. There was no “film” because there was no “script” and there was no script because, metaphorically speaking, no one knew what to put in it and how to write it in a post-Zionist or post national age. Critics may have been annoyed at what they called Keret's contrived pose, at his smarmy linguistic imitations twice removed in which everything sounded so “cool,” like “two tourists stuck in a minefield.”40 But this is just how a young Israeli X Generation felt at the time, and Keret, better than many of his peers, gave that generation one of its most poignant and evocative voices.

Dr. Yaron Peleg's scholarship is concerned with the history of modern Hebrew literature as well as the invention or production of Israeli culture in the first half of the twentieth century and the legacy of such key cultural innovations as language, literature, body culture, militarism, religious holidays, and music in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. His most recent publication, Directed by God, Jewishness in Contemporary Israeli Film and Television, looks at the ideological changes in Israeli society in recent decades and the growing influence of the Jewish religion on secular culture in Israel. He is the Kennedy Leigh Lecturer in Modern Hebrew Studies at University of Cambridge.

"Love, Suddenly: Etgar Keret Invents Hebrew Romance" was first published in Hebrew Studies 49, no. 1 (2008): 143-164.

1 Gershon Shaked is the most persuasive proponent of this distinguishing feature. See his הסיפורת העברית, 1880-1980 (Hasiporet Ha'ivrit, Hebrew Fiction, 1880-1980) (Jerusalem: Keter, 1977, 1988).
2 See Robert Polhemus, Erotic Faith (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1990), in which he documents and investigates the connections between romance and the novel during the genre's hay day in the nineteenth century.
3 This has been a common reading of the novel as illustrated by Gershon Shaked, for instance, in גל חדש בסיפורת העברית (Gal hadash ba-siporet ha-ivrit, New Wave in Hebrew Fiction) (Merhavyah: Sifriyat Po'alim, 1974). The same can be said for New Wave female writers like Yehudit Hendel, Amalia Kahana-Carmon and Yehudit Almog, who, generally speaking, seem more concerned with a feminist agenda than with the potential for romance in their works from that time. In the long run, the focus of these women writers on physical and psychological interior spaces and on the political dynamics of romantic relationships legitimized such concerns leading, eventually, to the more integral incorporation of romance into Hebrew letters.
4 This is an obviously cursory list and a truncated literary history that is meant to draw attention to the general lack of interest or attention given to romance in Hebrew letters in comparison to other western literatures.

5 Miri Talmon-Bohm, A State of Becoming: Transitions in Israeli Cinema and Culture, unpublished manuscript, p. 2.
6 See Gilead Morahg and Alan Mintz, The Boom in Israeli Literature, (Hanover, NH : Brandeis University Press) as well as Avner Holtzman, מפת דרכים (Road Map) (Hakibbutz Hame'uhad, 2005).
7 One of the most prominent writers of the 1990s, Orly Castel-Bloom, may seem glaringly absent from this analysis. It is my contention that despite her obvious post-modernist style, Castel-Bloom's works continued to engage directly with the national issues that preoccupied her predecessors. The legacy and future of Zionism deeply inform her works and are central to their understanding. This is not the case with the works of Keret and his ilk.
8 Gadi Taub, המרד השפוף (Hamered Hashafuf, The Disspirited Rebellion) (Tel-Aviv: Hakibbutz Hame'uhad, 1997).
9 On the significance of the Six Day War in Israeli history and its profound influence on its culture and politics, see Tom Segev, 1967 (Tel-Aviv: Hakibutz Hame'uhad, 2005).
10 I am referring here to the 1970s and 1980s during which Israel's military and economic power were firmly established and were not yet eroded morally by the escalating conflict with the Palestinians and its current reverberations in Israeli and world politics.
11 Ibid, p. 3

12 Early in his book, Ibid., Taub credits this sense of disconnect to the first Intifada. He writes, "as long as the political problems in Israel had to do with the nation's very existence and Israelis agreed on a common and more or less just way to ensure it, the personal and the communal coexisted well together" (pp. 13-14). But since 1967 this coexistence began to unravel, becoming increasingly uneasy after the 1982 war in Lebanon and especially after the Intifada in 1987. "A system of values based on secularism and humanism," continues Taub, "cannot support the occupation of another nation beyond a certain point," and a soldier who is required to forcefully maintain this control has to find at some point a rationale for his own behavior and that of his government. If the soldier is not religious, "he must find a political justification for his actions. The search for political rationalization becomes a deep psychological need, more than an intellectual one so that, suddenly, a lot of weight is placed on the political" (p. 14). Among the most common reactions to this tension was a great wish to disconnect oneself from anything political, a refusal to deal with it and a tendency to turn away from it and look elsewhere.
13 The first Intifada broke out against this background, and when the country was rallied to fight the Palestinians in the name of some of the tired old slogans about self-defense and existential threats, the call did not ring so true anymore. Moreover, the discrepancy precipitated a cognitive dissonance of national proportions that could not be maintained for long. Taub quotes an angry teenager who had this to say in 1988:
Life is not what it used to be, on all counts. All the great visions, which in our case means the overused Zionist vision, are preparing us for a vague fulfillment that will never materialize and designate our lives here and now as an interim stage, a state of emergency full of dangers whose end no one can predict. The paranoid assumption, even if true … that our proud and small Jewish state is constantly under threat, is used as a shrewd ploy to unite the people and as a wonderful excuse for all the things we ought to have accomplished but never managed to after forty years, five wars and thirty four records by Hava Alberstein. (p. 19)

This heated but unusual response for the a-political 1980s ends on a more typical postmodernist note: forty years of Zionist development are dismissed by comparing them with a veteran, folksy singer, Hava Alberstein, ridiculed here for her old-fashioned music and goofy lyrics from a bygone, gullible era. The majority of young people who were of army age did not actively engage with this tension, certainly not politically. In fact, a sense of disillusion and political disengagement marked the age and distinguished it from past generations. Taub predicates his book on this phenomenon, which he defines by the oxymoron "dispirited rebellion."
14 Eva Ilouz, Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1997). p. 91.
15 These references were ubiquitous throughout the 1990s. See the footnotes below for key texts in which they were made.
16 Gil Hovav, “סיפורים מהביצים של הנשמה” (Stories of the Balls of Your Soul) כל העיר (Kol Ha'ir), Feb. 28, 1992. Eventually, the stories were published in more respected media, like the socialist daily דבר (Davar), the Tel-Aviv weekly העיר (Ha'ir) and the Jerusalem weekly כל העיר.
17 Both the reading public and the literary establishment doted on Keret almost from the start. His stories captivated disinterested teenagers as well as the heart of more seasoned critics. Students in a problematic Bat-Yam high-school, for instance, who usually had no stomach for literature, reacted enthusiastically after their teacher introduced them to some of Keret's stories: "See, that's the way to write! Short, with a little violence, a little sex and some humor beside. Now, that's literature!" Ibid. Enthusiastic gut reactions of this kind were soon accompanied by more considered evaluations by leading writers and critics like Batya Gur, who pronounced Keret's stories "genuine works of art." See, Batya Gur, הארץ (Ha'aretz), June 17, 1994 (no title).
18 Fabiana Hefetz explored the internal world of those misfits. Keret's contemporary protagonists, writes Hefetz, live in a truly pluralistic universe; a morally defunct environment that has no clear or set system of values. However, through adroit literary manipulation readers find themselves enjoying what they would otherwise find offensive: bad language, violence, various descriptions of hell and even death, almost as if they were watching a good TV show. See, F. Hefetz, “רק הגיל צעיר” (Young only biologically), ידיעות אחרונות (Yedi'ot Aharonot), March 6, 1992. 19 Yehudit Orian, “ליצנות מרירה ופסימיזם מחוייך” (A Smiley Pessimism), ידיעות אחרונות, May 6, 1994. This is a strong statement that puts Keret on a par with older masters of canonical literature and legitimizes his innovative incorporation of popular "low" culture by comparing it to the Bible.
20 See Laurence Silberstein's study of this critical trend in, The Postzionist Debates: Knowledge and Power in Israeli Culture (New-York: Routledge, 1999).
21 Abraham Balaban, for instance, predicated an entire study of contemporary Hebrew literature on some of its definitions and analyzed the works of Keret and others according to them. See, גל אחר בסיפורת העברית: סיפורת עברית פוסטמודרנית (Gal aher basiporet ha'ivrit: siporet ivrit postmodernistit, Another Wave in Hebrew Fiction: Postmodern Hebrew Fiction) (Keter: Jerusalem, 1995).
22 In 1996 David Gurevitch conclusively presented Keret as a postmodernist in his article, “חלומות ממוחזרים” (Recycled Dreams), in which he includes other writers, most notably Orly Castel-Bloom and Gafi Amir. See, עיתון 77 (Iton 77), vol. 194, March, 1996, pp. 38-43.
23 Y. Orian, ibid, F. Hefetz, ibid, Alon Gayer, הארץ, June, 12, 1994.
24 B. Gur, ibid.
25 Gideo Samet, הארץ, August 19, 1994, Einat Avrahami, “הרבה בקרובים - והסרט איננו,” (Lots of Trailers but No Movie), מעריב (Ma'ariv,) May 6, 1994, Liza Chodnovsky, “?האם קיימים חורים שחורים” (Do Black Holes Exist?), עיתון 77, August-September 1988, Gavriel Moked, מעריב-יומן תל אביב (Ma'ariv-Yoman Tel-Aviv), December 18, 1998.
26 Yigal Schwartz, “הפוך על הפוך” (Twice Inverted), הארץ ספרים (Ha'aretz Book Review), May 14, 1997, p. 6.
27 Asher Reich, “לאתגר קרת לא אכפת” (Etgar Keret Doesn't Care), מעריב, June 22, 1994.
For reasons beyond the publisher's control the cover of the second edition was replaced with an original illustration of black lines over a pink background depicting a tranquil Tel-Aviv street scape in which various small details are surrealistically warped or missing. The affect is similar to what I describe above.
29 A similar twist occurs in the jacket of Keret's second anthology, Missing Kissinger, which features a reproduction of “the Crying Child;” a sentimental painting that is probably the most recognizable icon of kitsch in Israel, sold in popular street markets as posters, oil paintings, painted rugs etc. The kitschy quality of the picture resides in the utter lack of ambivalence about the rosy-faced little boy with his sandy hair, sad, blue eyes, button nose and sweet, red lips. Even the tears that trickle down the boy's plump cheeks are meant to highlight the simple, emotional affect of the image at the expense of a more complex artistic engagement. One of the most important aspects of the garish portrait, and indeed of kitsch in general, is its excess, the overabundance of sentimentalism, sensationalism, melodrama and romance that finally numbs viewers to any and all of these emotions. See Gurevitch's discussion of kitsch this in his article, ibid. Many stories in the anthology are presented through similar excess; through the accumulation of familiar cultural references and quotes that ostensibly stay at surface level and never leave it to reflect on it from above by providing a more distant perspective.
30 Pipelines, Ibid, pp.62-64.
31 My discussion on postmodern characterization here is based on a paper delivered by Nurit Buchweitz at the NAPH conference in Stanford, California in June 2005 titled The Evacuation of Character in Postmodernist Prose: The case of Keret and Kastel-Bloom.
32 Buchweitz does not analyze this particular story. I extrapolate from her more general discussion.
33 Gil Hovav, ידיעות אחרונות, Feb. 28, 1992.
34 Arik Glassner writes that “Keret’s heroes are not entirely losers. They are goody-two-shoes in a macho world, that is, losers in one context but part of the hegemony in another,” “לקרוא את מסעי גוליבר באיסלנדית” (Likro et mas'ot Guliver be Islandit, Reading Guliver’s Travels in Icelandic), הארץ, January 28, 2004.
35 "I read [the works of Keret's generation] and I feel jealous. When I did similar things in my days the critics tore me to shreds. Keret is being taught at the university and will receive the Israel prize yet… Keret's ability and that of his peers to express themselves this way vindicates my own failure." Yoram Kanyuk, “כמו אדישות שמחה” (Like Happy Apathy), הארץ ספרים, Dec. 16, 1998, p. 6.
36 Gavriel Moked, יומן תל-אביב, מעריב, Dec. 18, 1998.
37 And this peculiar fact holds true for Keret’s contemporaries as well, Taub, Weil, and Amir, who published less than Keret during that same time, but whose collections of short stories—always short stories—deal primarily with the dynamics of romance in urban settings.
38 The appellation “bourgeois” here is meant positively as a sign of stability, propriety, civility etc., and not in the more derogatory sense it had in socialist-Zionist discourse.
39 E. Avrahami, Ibid.
40 Y. La’or, Ibid.



"Whereas some people think perhaps there is some division
between comic and the poetic, actually I think
there are no writers who I admire–with maybe a few exceptions–
that don't have some sense of humor. [...]
I can’t think of a serious writer who doesn’t have a sense of humor."


When my grandfather died of diabetes, I was just glad I got to leave camp early. I’d tired of swimming in the brown water of the lake. There were no bathrooms at the camp and the latrine smelled of urine. I had to pee into a hole in the dirt with flies flying all around me. After the funeral which I wasn’t allowed to attend because I was too young to understand death, we took an airplane to Florida so my father could clean out his father’s condo which was being put up for sale. We brought back my grandfather’s car, an old, orange Pontiac, on the Autotrain but the Autotrain only went as far as Washington D.C. From there, we drove to New York. We were supposed to see the White House before we departed but we didn’t. Instead, my brother and I spent the trip fighting in the back seat. My father had threatened to keep on driving if we didn’t stop but we didn’t believe him until we rode past the monuments.

Robert Kaplan earned his MFA in fiction at Columbia University’s School of the Arts (2015). He is currently at work on his first novel, The Mother. He also holds a BA in Political Science and Economics from the University of Michigan. His interests include but are not limited to literature, science fiction, crime novels, the Ancient Greeks, evolution, causation, non-zero sum games and entanglement theory. He is a Brooklyn expatriate living in New Jersey with his three children.