What Are Your Thoughts?

What Are Your Thoughts?

I wrote this story over a year ago, before Trump announced his presidential bid, when he was still a joke, just the guy at the helm of The Apprentice who liked to brag and put his name in big gold letters on everything.

Now, of course, the joke is real and I'm even afraid to satirise because doing that somehow feels like reducing his presidency to entertainment, but the decisions he makes in office are not a joke–they affect us all. It was never really supposed to be a story about Trump. It's a story about a journalist who wakes up one day to discover a hideous growth in his ear–a little human head which won't stop talking, which keeps growing stronger every day. It's a story about the choices we make. Do we come down on the side of beauty, sensitivity, feelings...or do we take the other course and cultivate our ruthless side, attack the weak and the vulnerable? It's a story about the responsibility of journalists and the choices they make for the sake of drama and ratings. The growth was a thinly-veiled metaphor for a metastasised cancer. So, like I said, it was never supposed to be about Trump...

 

THE SHRIVELLED GROWTH is now nine weeks old, measuring over an inch from ear to ear. Too late to get rid of it, Dr. Moore says. Either I could wait a little longer and then cut it’s head off or––

 “It’s got a head?”

 “It is a head.”

 Way Dr. Moore says it, like this happens every day. Apparently it does, sometimes, mostly to people in my profession. Though he won’t name names, I have an idea who, former television hosts who suddenly left their jobs and turned to radio. Recluses and other whack-jobs perpetually going around like they have a chip on their shoulder. Turned out they did. But Dr. Moore can’t tell me anything. Doctors and their oaths. Like I’m going to tell anyone.

 Can’t think about them now or care. What happened to who in the past. All I care about is me, but Moore doesn’t get that. He says, Some even lived––what, is that supposed to make me feel better? I’ve got a massive cyst thing growing inside my head and it’s about to breach.

Don’t you care? Nicole used to say when I’d shoot something down, an idea of hers, an opinion, something she’d done and was proud of and wanted to show me. Like a child she was, dependent on my opinion. Didn’t realise they were just opinions, not even mine, I felt, most days like they didn’t come from me. Just a job to say the worst or the cleverest or most contrary thing. The opposite of whoever the guest was that day or the other person on the panel. Dick measuring contest, only we used our mouths. Sometimes, most times we felt nothing. Or only so-so. Our palettes dead from too much culture. It can do that, you know, expose yourself to enough and eventually you go blind. Literally. Once I’m racing through the Prado as fast as I can, trying to accumulate enough culture and sarcasm so I can earn the right to go back to my hotel suite at the Catalonia and just chill. There it was, the whiteness. The heat did it or maybe the rushing. Out of breath, I find Velázquez and his Las Meninas. The one I’d gone all that way to see and I can’t see a fucking thing. I’m so tired I could murder a cold beer, instead I’ve disappeared behind a haze of white smoke. Not literally. But it felt like. Smoke. Burning up my eyeballs. All I see is that, minutes maybe, I don’t know. Hard to tell time without the visual clues. Hear them, all the cultured people, all the blind cultureless people waiting for me to tell them what to think. And me. Only one there I bet who really needs to see for a living, actually blinded.

Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Walk it off. It comes back, eventually. I’m in the central hall trying to pass like l’m not panicking like crazy. Looking for a guard or someone, trying to remember what Spanish I know and when it returns, as fast as it went it’s back again and now I see. At first a fog and then a haze and then pure sight. So clear. And sharper than ever before. I run right out of the museum. Who gives a damn about art. I want out of there. To breathe. To feel the actual light. Just watch some girls sitting there on the grass verge flirting with themselves, their skirts blown up by the wind. Bare legs glistening in the sun. One is jealous of the other, you can tell. Trying to swallow it, but you can always tell. The other one less aware because she’s always been at the centre of any room she walked into. The light falling right on her and none of the others in the room. I wrote my piece on Las Meninas based on those two girls. Didn’t bother returning to the museum. Could have, still open, but why waste a perfectly good afternoon. When I could be out walking, living, tasting real life. The tapas on the patio of a bar off Calle de Santa Isabel got more of my attention. The waitress and the Caseras potato chips, flash-fried until they achieved the perfect architectural curve, better than Bilbao, than Zaha Hadid. A bowlful of post-structuralist masterpieces. Empty it and waitress brings me another. Wide secretive smile she has makes me think of Goya’s Clothed Maja, but when she walks away––la chingada!––I’m not thinking of that maja anymore, I’m thinking of La Maja Desnuda. Made my notes on a napkin and drank, waiting for night to fall.

La maja vestida and La maja desnuda by Diego Velázquez, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Was the best piece of art criticism I’d ever done, they said. And I’d done it blind. Couldn’t do it again. Why did you stop? they said. Couldn’t tell them I’d done it blind. It was pure bullshit. That I was all bullshit. I mean, if they couldn’t tell I was all bullshit I wasn’t going to say otherwise. They offered me a column, but didn’t seem right. Candy from a baby and all.

Besides, I preferred books. Or rather, tearing them down. Film, too. More to get your hooks into. Artists such easy targets. And so damned earnest. It was something Nicole said that stopped me, Do you know how hard it is? Do you have any idea how hard it is, and you’re just making it harder...she was the most earnest of them all.

No sense of irony.

Why she’d never be a great artist. She was too emotionally linked to it. You can’t believe in a thing if you’re going to sell it. You have to simultaneously believe and not believe. Be able to question yourself and have doubts. Believe too much and it will just come across as fake. Too opaque. Best artists, sometimes, the ones who believe in nothing, I think. Well, I would. I believe in nothing, so satire is the one thing that feels real to me. And cynicism, a good cynic believes in nothing. That’s my church. The unbelievers.

I was going somewhere with this, I swear. Or was I just digressing as usual? Harder to think now there’s a shrunken head taking root at the base of my brain. Or my ear. How the hell can I tell. Dr. Moore says it’s in my ear and slowly making it’s way through the canal. Like a snake. Wants to do another CT scan, but. What if. Not going to risk it. Can’t promise that the Thing won’t metastasize. Sprout eyes, ears, a body. Hard to think about it without getting sick.

Am starting to get superstitious about it. This thing in me, wondering has the little bastard always been there? Driving me. Goading me. (Is maybe even more me than me.) The inner voice, writing the reviews. Like I’m on autopilot, practically asleep, just kept going by this little wisecracker hitching a ride in my head. One night I was working against a deadline and kept falling asleep over the keyboard, nodding off, couldn’t keep my eyes open, but next morning there’s the review staring at me on the screen. Did I do that? I couldn’t for the life of me remember. Every panelist has had the same thing happen, you come unprepared, but somehow these things just come out of your mouth, you don’t know how they got there.

The first time I heard my voice on radio I said, “Who is that guy?” Voice two octaves lower than it sounded in my head. Maybe it was him all along, finding faults, picking things apart, getting stronger, and all this time I didn’t know I’ve been dying for years.

Nicole would say, You focus on anything long enough and it manifests itself. And boy was she right.

Last night it sprouted. I turned over in bed. It was taking forever to get to sleep. Couldn’t figure out why. Of course, it was the little guy. (That’s the name I’ve given it.) Dr. Moore had told me it would be at least another three weeks. Guess he was premature. Go to the mirror next morning and there it is. His little butt peeking out from my eardrum. Or not butt, I guess, Moore says, It’s a nose, but it sure looks like a butt to me. See the cute little hairline cleft in the middle, he says. Great. Adorable, I say. Want to adopt him? Now can we pull him out of there? Like today.

Says I have to wait a while till there’s more that his pinchers can grab onto. Try it now and it could just slip back in and then they’ll never be able to get him out.

 Oh my god, the thought keeps me awake at night. Picturing him nested there, like one of those worms you’ve got to wrap around a matchstick once a day until he’s all out. Some of those things are up to twenty feet long, Dr. Moore cheerfully informs me. His bedside manner sucks. Last time I see him he can’t tear himself away from his computer screen to look me in the eye. Finally I peek behind to see what’s so damn fascinating––he’s playing poker online. What is wrong with him. ‘It’s nothing serious. I wouldn’t worry about it,’ he tries to assure me, ‘Good odds you’ll beat it.’

 Fucking doctors! What did I do to deserve this idiot? I have to keep going. Have bills to pay.

Am now wondering if I can really trust Dr. Moore and if he’s really treated as many of these cases as he says. Or else: why is my growth such a novelty to him? He’s videoed it and wants to show his friends, make himself famous at my expense, build his reputation on it––I was the guy who dragged that thing out of that poor guy’s head before he died.

 Horrible headaches since he did that thing with the mini torch. Can’t even write straight. Past and present, mixing up all the time. English feels like foreign language. It’s because I’m not hearing well anymore. Read that once, dyslexia related to bad hearing or something. Shit. Shit. Shit. Can’t afford to be going stupid. Always said I’d rather die than. But scratch that. I want to live. I don’t care if I’ve got the next Dalai Lama growing out of my ear, I’ll wear a basket if I have to. I want to live. When he put that needle thing in to test it, Jesus, the white hot pain. The Thing went berserk in there. I felt the hot trickle flowing down my cheek and saw his expression, real horror, silent film style. He couldn’t disguise his disgust.

 “What’s happening, what’s wrong?” Holding the side of my neck and feeling the hot red.

 “That’s not supposed to happen. You must have very thin skin.”

Fuck you. That’s my face, my brain’s seeping out––and you’re sorry? I’ll sue the shit out you, you incompetent asshole. I mean it.

He said he was sorry several times after that and gave me a hat to wear. “No one will notice,” he said, trying to keep a straight face as he gave me his home number and penciled me in for next week “or sooner if anything goes wrong in the meantime.” He keeps referring to us as “The Thing and I.” He opened the door. “See you guys next week!” How you guys getting along? One great big joke to him. He doesn’t even realize how unfunny that is. I’m not developing a relationship with it. I just want to get it out of my head.

 “I’m me, you’re not me!” I’m telling myself in the bathroom mirror that night.

 “Who are you kidding,” the Thing says back.

 I was dumbfounded, literally. To think I used to laugh at people who heard voices in their head.

Did my cellphone cause this? Used it nonstop for 20 years. Meanwhile, getting very hard to work or keep the respect of my colleagues wearing this hat now in the radio station. Great hat, they all say, but I know what they’re thinking. Thank god it’s radio, otherwise I’d be screwed. They don’t say anything, thinking it’s some kind of crude fashion statement––like the time I grew the woodsmen’s beard––and meant to be ironic. Or they just think I’m half mad anyway and aren’t surprised to see me wear a protective lycra cap to work.

 “Cool dude,” the stoner in the diner tells me one day. “Been there, man. Bad karma, get yourself some wheatgrass.”

 Overhear Cathy and Seth laughing over at the espresso machine. “He’s fucked.”  “I’ve seen worse,” she says. “Where? Not here. It’s the worst I’ve seen.” My antenna for insults superhuman now. My hearing for everything else next to zero. I’m starting to teach myself to read lips, but only get it right about 10% of the time. Last week during lunch hour, thought Cathy told me that she felt selfish and crap. What she’d really said was she “felt like shellfish and crepe.”

 It’s making me cranky, I realise that. And a little weird. Sitting at my desk one afternoon, I hear the little bastard humming to himself. Actually humming a tune. Like he’s bored and needs to keep occupied. Softly at first and then really cranking it up death metal style like someone singing in their car, except I’m in an open plan office where anyone can walk by, and I’ve got my own private pirate radio station playing in my head.

And Ingrid, this girl I’ve been trying to impress since forever, passes my desk and hears it. But there’s no way to cover that kind of racket except yammering on like a lunatic. Funny thing is as soon––I mean the exact moment––she walked away the Thing went completely silent.

*

I used to be centered, but I’m losing my compass. Could tell you my opinion on the flip of a coin. Sometimes it didn’t even matter which side I took. I’d drive to the station, get there with minutes to spare and say to the other reviewer, “Which one you want to take?” Like if we both felt the same way about a film or book. Or if we both felt neutral. And I’d jump in and say I’ll do for. You do contra. Or, no, actually that’s bullshit. Most times I’d take contra. More fun doing contra, the rest is just cheerleading, and I’m a crap cheerleader. I mean there’s only so high you can jump before the audience begins suspecting you’re suspended by strings. I’m good at contra, and that’s that. Wish it were the other way. That I could finely pick apart the detractors and come out on the side of beauty, on the side of grace. For––For what? ‘Art’? No one really believes in that anymore. All they want is what I do. Build up something just high enough that it’s fun to watch it fall.

*

Last night I dreamt I was on The Apprentice and Donald Trump was wearing a doctor’s coat and giving me a choice.

Trump:  We can’t remove it. I thought we could, but...One of you has to decide or the other one will. I like you both. It’s hard, but that’s life.

Me:  How can you sit there and tell me that? Like it’s not...Like it’s nothing.

Trump:  I’m not explaining it very well. Obviously, we can remove it. It’s just chances are... (The little guy is now completely breached. Sure he’s small, but he has moxy. Personality. And I can tell, even though The Donald won’t say it, that he’s been backing him from the start. Now Trump scrunches up his chin and makes a Donald Trump pout.) I’m not going to make it easy for you. One of you has to choose. Who will it be? Which of you guys is stronger?

I know what Trump means. The little guy is a better person than me. Smarter. But I’m fucking bigger. If you could just pull him out, I’ll stand on the bastard till he’s dead.

Trump puts his palms flat on the boardroom table. The sign that he’s letting me choose.

Me:  I’ve always told the truth.

Trump:  That’s why I’m asking you. Who do you think will have a better chance in the world? You did a great job, a great thing, so I want to give you the chance before he gets any bigger.

Me:  I can feel myself draining away.

Trump:  If you wait any longer, it won’t be a question of asking you whether you want to kill it. The choice will be made for you.

Me:  But he’s a part of me.

Trump:  This is a very, very difficult question for me to have to ask. But––you know what I’m going to say––do you think he’s better than you?

Me:  Not better. Better at certain things. But not...I have other skills. It’s just he’s more ruthless. I used to be, but it’s like I’m not myself anymore. Give me a chance. I can try to be ruthless again, it’s just...

Trump:  He’s better at it. He’s fucking with your head.

 I nod.

Trump:  So, are you saying that you should die, and he should live? You’re giving up, and you don’t have any fight left in you anymore? I’m surprised. Really. I didn’t expect this. Are you sure you want to do this? I’ve always respected you. You’re a good guy.

Little Guy:  What about me?

Trump:  You’re not so good.

Little Guy:  Yeah, well maybe not more creative. But is that so important? I’m better. Just better.

Trump:  Better at being an asshole, basically.

Little Guy:  I wouldn’t say asshole.

Trump:  But I would. You don’t have to say it. (Turns to me.) He’s an asshole. He’s very good at being an asshole. Not afraid to be ruthless. You’re good at other things. Fine sentences and all that. More of a dreamer, would you say? More. What’s that word...more earnest. More sincere.

 (Sincere? Was he talking about me?)

You don’t have to be embarrassed. It’s good to have feelings. Feelings are a good thing. I have feelings. Not like you, but I have them. Not necessarily useful in your line of work, but useful. I can see why the choice could be difficult for you. He’s really much more competitive than you.

 (Now I find myself pleading, and this could be a gamble, I realize. Trump has no time for whiners. He likes fighters.)

Me:  I don’t mean he doesn’t have feelings. It’s just that I believe in things more than him and––I don’t see why that has to be a bad thing.

Trump:  But it is. For a critic, to lose their faculties like this. Because that’s what you’re talking about, isn’t it? Losing your faculties. You’re whining like a kid. Where’s your edge, Stephen? Where’s it gone? I don’t recognize you anymore. Where’s all this love come from? It’s kind of unprofessional, isn’t it? (Turning to the others around the boardroom table). Am I wrong? He’s like a different person. (Shaking his head.) What would you do? It’s a hard choice. Glad I don’t have to make it.

*

Next morning, I get up and everything is so clear. Don’t know exactly what happened during the night, but I can guess. Neck and sheets and medical cap. Hot red mess. Call Dr. Moore, but it’s Saturday and he’s not at his office. Drive to his home covered in blood. His two daughters playing on the lawn...what is it about this image that makes me pause?...skirts spread wide like the start of summer. Here, at last, are my Las Meninas. Dr. Moore, rising up and rushing across the grass so his daughters won’t have to see me.

 “So, you have made your decision?”

Mia Funk is an artist, interviewer and founder of The Creative Process, an exhibition of her interviews and painted portraits of over 100 esteemed writers, which is traveling to universities. Her portraits of writers and artists appear in many public collections, including the U.S. Library of Congress, Dublin Writers Museum, Office of Public Works, American Writers Museum (forthcoming), and other museums and culture centers. Funk has received many awards and honors, including the Prix de Peinture from the Salon d’Automne de Paris and has exhibited at the Grand Palais, Paris. She was commissioned by the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival to paint their 30th anniversary commemorative painting of over 20 jazz legends. Her paintings of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud won the Thames & Hudson Pictureworks Prize and were exhibited in Brussels for Bacon’s centenary, in Paris at the American University, as well as international arts festivals in Europe. As a writer and interviewer, she produces a column and podcast for Litro (UK) and the Portrait of a Writer column for TinHouse.com, and contributes to various national publications. She serves on the National Advisory Council of the American Writers Museum.

We Were the Daughters

We Were the Daughters

"The beginning is like an incision.
She is forever revisiting the beginning;
it stands out distinctly in the course of her life,
whereas what follows seems back to front,
or cut off, or in disarray."
–MARIE DARRIEUSSECQ

Men

 

 

We were the daughters 

Of the witches 

Who could set fire to skeletons

Of the ones who wanted 

To castrate and crush

The petals of our flowering youth

To get their hands fragrant. 

We played this 'fire-game'

But not all the time, 

We had our moments of transcendence too,

 

We also had licked the sweat of the men,  

Who could brew us coca beans

Who could feed us bread, 

We also had our territories of peace,  

With our men in our land of significance, 

We were not witches but the daughters

Of the ones who once had gotten bewitched

Not because they wanted to, but they were asked to. 

 

Unlike our mothers we knew the meanings of tenderness and love-pecks, 

We could let our lovers use their bones 

On our paper-flesh as pens, 

We could sip the stories from their lips

But we also knew, where and when, 

To leave them desertedwith their strangled isolation haunting their no-more-lovely faces. 

 

We were the daughters of the witches they forgot to burn in the wombs of their mothers.

 

Ramsha Ashraf is an emerging Pakistani poet. Her debut poetry collection, Enmeshed, was published in 2015. She writes in three langauges including Urdu and Punjabi. Other than that she is linked with teaching Langauge and Literature in Pakistan. A believer of humanism and pragmatism, she is still learning to live a life worth living.

Sufferer’s Grave

Sufferer’s Grave

“But loneliness is as delusive a belief in the pertinence
of the world as is love: in choosing to feel lonely,
as in choosing to love, one carves a space next to oneself to be
filled by others - a friend, a lover, a toy poodle, a violinist on the radio.” 
― YIYUN LI,
Kinder Than Solitude

Translated from Turkish by: Suğra Öncü

–Loneliness is maddening, he groaned. You may go mad with pleasure. The pleasure of pain!

The night had not yet given way to the morning. The curtains were drawn tightly. Fog was everywhere. The bitter cold was like the Angel of Death.

– Now imagine eternal loneliness. Eternal… Loneliness!

After a moment of hesitation, once again:

– Eternal loneliness! This is how God went mad! We were the children of a lonely, mad God in pain. We were equally in pain. We were lonely. That’s what we said. But were we? Didn’t God blow the spirit of life into his creation?

Screeching owls were heard from the hills. Were they screeching because day light hurt their eyes? Outside, a funeral procession came down the street. A coffin on shoulders passed in front of the coffeehouse.

He slumped into the chair next to me.

– God created us. Then he wanted to be alone. So he got rid of us. He had given up on us. At first it was gratifying. It had a scary grandeur. But then… Then his loneliness turned into pain. Pain, pain, pain….

He stared at my face as if he was searching for the impression his words made. But my face was blank and I was lost for any words. There was anger in his eyes. He was angry at God, and he didn’t try to hide it.

– To relieve the burden of his loneliness God began to pull us one by one to his side. Wars, epidemics, poverty, depravity. We were trapped inside the agony of his spirit. God was going mad. God created. God gave life to his creation and then he took it away. Again and again…. God never had enough. God will never have enough. This will never end. God’s madness… The immortality of mortality… God will pull us all to his side, but God is wrong. It will never be enough.

He had a terrible cough. He was coughing as if his lungs would burst. He was a ragged man in his sixties. A freezing winter had settled over him. His firm pale lips broke into a shattered smile. He was a madman. That’s what they said. But was he, really?

He talked persistently:

– Something you create, is it enough for your loneliness? To what extent?

The funeral procession crossed to the other side of the lake, moving towards the graveyard where cypress trees kept their vigil.

– Is what you have created in your mind and what you have been dreaming of, is it enough for your loneliness? If it were, would you dream again? No! There is no end to dreams. Neither to loneliness…

I heard my heart saying, ‘Love is in it, too.’ He must have heard it:

– It never occurred to me.

– It didn’t? Well, it’s time it did.

From then on, the chair I was sitting in seemed too small to carry the burden inside me. I stood to leave, to follow the funeral procession to the graveyard.

***

A woman’s shadow falls on the half open window of a yellow house with damp walls, where magnolia incense burns inside. The curtains part. A two-horse carriage passes the deserted houses where wild weeds grow on their soil roofs. On the corner, a sad orange-colored girl plays a harmonica. A young man with a hangover moves his tobacco-stained lips to say hello. At thirty-five, a golden flurry passes in front me. A broken man walks behind me, swearing without pity for beautiful things. Clouds walk in the sky. It starts drizzling. Growing circles of waves move over the surface of the lake. My feet sink into a bed of leaves. The broken man never stops talking.

– Land of the dead! Graveyard of the lonely!

They had already dug a hole. I volunteer to perform a duty. Picking up the shovel lying on the ground, I begin to help the man throw soil on the grave. At first I feel a secret satisfaction. Then my heart feels like bursting through my chest. The man stops; I turn my gaze to where he is looking. Two people are approaching: a young man in a tweed jacket and an old woman on his arm. It's her, Havin. The dead man’s ex-wife.

How life’s weight and hardship has wiped the freshness off her face. It baffles me. Her whole life seems to be reflected in her eyes, shadowed by their long white lashes. I remembered her hair as pitch dark, all about the night. And now? The thin, ghostly strands showing on her drawn cheeks from underneath her scarf… What has God done to her?

She is like the memory of a dream. I visualize things that once could have happened but never did.

– God shouldn’t have let her be this way, says my inner voice. – He would have done me a big favor. Old thug! Come to your senses!

But still, all those years aren’t enough to suppress the beating of my heart. Those years of her life… It would never be enough. The feeling she awakens in me… That feeling, it is so intense!

She is still far away. She gently puts her hands together in front of her… Are they cold? Right now, I would willingly give away five years of my life just to take those hands to my lips and warm them with my breath. There isn't much left to do anyway. That is my only wish from God. If God makes my wish come true, I won't sit up till morning in coffee houses. I won't drink… That is, not that much…. I'll drink less. And gambling? Never again! When it comes to women…. They don’t come to me anymore, they are gone. It’s been quite a while since I left all that behind… That is, I was going to be a good person. I’m not that bad anyway. I mean no harm. I’m good. So why bargain with God? I’m already good, God must know this. I haven’t given to God any reason not to make my wish come true.

She moves nearer. Grabbing the shovel on the ground, I start lifting the soil again. With every move, I feel a burst of energy. I am in ecstasy. A feeling of satisfaction surges inside me! There, it's done!

A yellow butterfly perches on the tip of her shoe. We seem to be only a few words apart. I raise my head. She looks at my face as if she never knew me at all… as if she doesn't recognize me. Her face reflects the spirit of whiteness in this place. I shiver. The hope inside me gradually vanishes before her eyes. An abyss flings us apart. A howl rises and the ground begins to shake. Heaven and earth tremble. I think that I'm shouting, but nobody turns to see. Nobody hears!

I lower my eyes to the ground. The voice behind me has already died away. Because her lips are sealed in silence. I have a sinking feeling as I think of that man suffering under the ground. The man who never admitted being mad, going mad, just like….

I kneel down, my soul covered by his soil.

Don’t we, I say, don’t we ultimately all bear the spirit of God?

Şeyma Koç was born in a district called Yahyalı, Kayseri in 1994. She completed higher education in Akdeniz University, department of Political Science and Public Administration. Her short stories have been published in several magazines, including Varlık, Evrensel Kültür, Dünyanın Öyküsü, Sincan İstasyonu, Güncel Sanat, Kasaba Sanat, Tmolos Edebiyat, Çıngı, Aşkın E Hali and Bireylikler. Her first short story collection Küllerin Şehveti was released in November, 2015. Her stories have translated to Greek, Kurdish, German and English. Apart from literature, she is actively engaged in NGO projects and workshops concerning the education and the rights of women.

In My Dreams

In My Dreams

“Hours of patient sleep, waiting for the dream to come.
And now—nothing, worse than nothing..."
–ETGAR KERET

“On the Nutritional Value of Dreams”

In my dreams we are moving through corridors and taking each other by the hand and there is music playing in other rooms, but we barely hear it for the pulse of blood that leads us to leave our lives behind. All the children and the mothers and disappointed lovers who are waiting for us in other rooms with all their obligations and timetables and needs and certainties and clockwork lives.

In my dreams there are no clocks, only shadows and cries of love, and arguments which end in lovemaking. In my dreams there are no mornings, only nights and late afternoons, and cats climbing in and out of windows like acrobats, arching their backs and purring and asking to be petted. There are flowers on windowsills which sometimes break and shatter but never make a sharp noise which could cut our ears. And anyway in my dreams we don’t hear the voices of others, only raindrops and footsteps and children playing outside our window. I close the blinds and watch the sunlight filter through making strange shapes upon the ceiling and walls and the sheets of our bed. A car passes and I am removing my dress with its pattern of flowers and snowflakes. I feel your fingers slipping between the zip and feel myself being slowly unwrapped like a present on Christmas Eve. First the bow and then the wrapper and then the lid is cracked and I am there inside, naked and waiting.

In my dreams we do not speak or I do all the talking. You are quiet, or more quiet than you are with others, with whom you joke or feel a need to please. To be smart and earn their praise. You know you need to do nothing to please me. I am already yours.

Are you dreaming the same dream as me? Or is your dream just a cheap fantasy and my part could be played by any bit player, any woman at all would do. As long as she has a nice face and a good figure and is willing.

I want to clarify your intensions because if it is one of those dreams, I don’t want to be a part of it. It would be so easy to stay here under the covers with my eyes closed. Is that your dream–it will be hard and it will hurt–but if that’s your dream I will force my eyes open

And I will rise

and wake to a world

without you.

 

"In My Dreams" is currently being adapted for a dance performance. It will be filmed and included in our short film series which we are doing in collaboration with Etgar Keret and Dov Alfon's StoryVid project. If you are a writer, director or film student and would like more information on collaborating on short films, please contact us.
Music by: Shigeru Umebayashi

*

Mia Funk is an artist, interviewer and founder of The Creative Process, an exhibition of her interviews and painted portraits of over 100 esteemed writers, which is traveling to universities. Her portraits of writers and artists appear in many public collections, including the U.S. Library of Congress, Dublin Writers Museum, Office of Public Works, American Writers Museum (forthcoming), and other museums and culture centers. Funk has received many awards and honors, including the Prix de Peinture from the Salon d’Automne de Paris and has exhibited at the Grand Palais, Paris. She was commissioned by the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival to paint their 30th anniversary commemorative painting of over 20 jazz legends. Her paintings of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud won the Thames & Hudson Pictureworks Prize and were exhibited in Brussels for Bacon’s centenary, in Paris at the American University, as well as international arts festivals in Europe. As a writer and interviewer, she produces a column and podcast for Litro (UK) and the Portrait of a Writer column for TinHouse.com, and contributes to various national publications. She serves on the National Advisory Council of the American Writers Museum.

Greasy Lake: The Evolution of a Bad Protagonist

Greasy Lake: The Evolution of a Bad Protagonist

Greasy Lake written by T. Coraghessan Boyle is the tale of a young man utterly engulfed in the rebellion of adolescence and loving it. However, he is sobered by the reality and consequences of attempting to live the ‘bad life’. The attitude of the protagonist shifts into 3 stages throughout the entire story and these stages reveal the evolutionary change of the main character. The protagonist is first committed to being bad, then contemplative and lastly, contrite over his actions. The protagonist is committed to his lifestyle and deems himself a sort of rebel of all that is orthodox. After he begins to reap the consequences of his choices, he starts to contemplate his choice to be bad and nonchalant about life. As the story winds to a close, we see the main character broken and contrite by his actions and sobered by the reality of what the bad life brings.

Boyle’s main character and his two friends are on a quest to be the epitome of bad with a “we don’t give a shit about anything” attitude (294). The main character is a nineteen year old under the influence of drugs, alcohol, peer pressure, and the freedom that comes with summer break. Accompanied by two friends of the same age (Digby and Jeff), they are all eager to find some sort of adventure to satiate their hormonal appetites. The protagonist is a model of his times; “courtesy and winning ways went out of style, when it was good to be bad” (294). The protagonist is utterly opposed to all standards in his quest to live free, reminiscent of a 1970’s hippie. Boyle places more density on the protagonist’s character with each paragraph.

The protagonist is committed to being bad, and he is committed to embracing the barbarity of living unchained from standards and morals. He is committed to following the crowd and being spontaneous, willing to do whatever feels good at the moment with full confidence in his ignorance. He and his friend Digby and Tony go down to Greasy Lake “because every one went there”, they never questioned the philosophy or why they did what they did (294). They just wanted to have a good time and enjoy some cheap thrills. They wanted to, “sniff the scent of possibility, watch a girl take off her clothes, drink beer, smoke pot, and listen to the incongruous full-throated roar of rock and roll against the primeval susurrus of frogs and crickets…This is nature” (294). The protagonist even views the frogs and crickets as outdated and too common and congruent for a lifestyle such as his. Living spontaneously and embracing change of all things is the protagonist’s new definition of nature.

The protagonist’s friends are like fuel to the fire of his attitude and further encourage his commitment to being bad. The protagonist describes his friends as being, “dangerous characters”, Digby ‘allowed’ his father to pay his tuition and Jeff was contemplating dropping out of school to become a painter/musician/ head-shop proprietor (294). After the protagonist and his friends had made their rounds at all the closing bars, ate all they could, harassed hitchhikers, and vandalized property, they were left with their last resort for fun; Greasy Lake. The protagonist drove his mother’s Bel-air staion wagon to Greasy Lake as Digby pounded the dashboard and sung, while Jeff vomited out the window, streaking it across the wagon’s side. Greasy lake is their last resort for some excitement, so they jump at the chance to harass their buddy Tony Lovett, who they suspect is pulled over by the lake having his way with a female in his blue Chevy. However, they are in for a rude awakening when it is not Tony Lovett’s car but rather a “bad character in greasy jeans and engineer boots” (296).

At this point the protagonist begins to contemplate his mistakes, where as he had not before. Now he realizes there will be consequences for his bad actions. He recollects his first mistake was dropping his keys after jumping out of the car; the second was mistaking the blue Chevy to be Tony Lovett’s. Seeing the bad character that hopped out of the car was not looking to have a civil conversation, the protagonist begins to develop a sense of right and wrong all of a sudden. After being sprawled out in the dirt by a kick from the bad character in the blue Chevy, the protagonist becomes less nonchalant about his situation. He contemplates the unfolding situation, “knowing things had gone wrong, that I was in a lot of trouble, and that the lost ignition key was my grail and my salvation” (296). After failing to find his keys in the dirt, his friends not putting up much of a fight against the greasy character, the protagonist is terrified and resorts to the tire iron under his car seat. He charges the greasy character and with one swing of the tire iron he knocks him limp.

The protagonist is convicted of his actions looking at the limp greasy character in the dirt contemplating “headlines, pitted faces of police inquisitors, the gleam of handcuffs, clank of bars, the big black shadows rising from the back of the cell…” (297). Believing the man was dead, the protagonist is brought back to the reality that he may have murdered the man. However, his remorse is short lived as he and his friends spot the half naked fox the greasy character was having his way with before they showed up. Like animals they pounce on her with the lustful intent to rape her. The protagonist states, “we were scared and hot and three steps over the line—anything could have happened” (296). Before the protagonist and his friend could do anything to the girl, someone pulled up and their headlights shone on them, each particle of light convicting then, and catching them red handed in the act. They froze; the protagonist describes them in that moment as being “dirty, bloody, guilty, dissociated from humanity and civilization” (297).

The protagonist’s standard of nature has changed since the beginning of the story, he initially felt smoking pot, drinking, listening to rock and roll, and being bad was nature. Now contemplating jail time for murder and an attempted rape, he deems himself dissociated from civilisation. Now being bad is no longer good. The protagonist and his friends bolt into the murky swamped woods of Greasy Lake away from the incriminating headlights and the scene of the crime. As the protagonist is running he is “imagining cops and bloodhounds” trekking through the muddy polluted water looking for him (298). The Protagonist stumble upon a corpse he somehow knows to be 3 days dead since he’s been at the lake the past 3 nights since the start of summer break. He is horrified and begins to have a contrite heart about his actions when he comes in contact with the corpse of this bad character. The corpse was a symbol of what the bad life brought, and the protagonist begins to regret his commitment to being bad.

In light of seeing the dead body and believing he killed the greasy character in the engineer boots he contemplates: “I was nineteen, a mere child, an infant, and here in the space of five minutes I’d struck down one greasy character and blundered into the waterlogged carcass of a second” (298). Seeing the dead man’s soggy lifeless body took the protagonist from a contemplative state to a contrite heart. The protagonist makes the connection between the abandoned motorcycle and the dead man in the murky water, and concluded he was a bad character. The greasy character he had struck with the tire iron and two blonde haired jocks that pulled up during the attempted rape had pulverized his mother’s bel-air. Overwhelmed with the thought of how he would explain the mashed up car to his parents, the protagonist states: “ I contemplated suicide…Then I thought about the dead man. He was probably the only person on the planet worse off than I was…who was he…?’ (300).

At the end of the story, the protagonist has changed his perspective on life. He no longer deems the bad life good, seeing what the bad life resulted in. The greasy character and the blonde jocks are long gone as the protagonist emerges from the muddy waters. “I pushed myself up from the mud and stepped into the open”; this line is symbolic of the protagonist’s mental shift from dark to light. As dawn approaches, the protagonist has another epiphany that reveals a changed perspective. “Now the birds had began to take over for the crickets, and dew lay slick on the leaves…the smell of the sun firing buds and opening blossoms…everything was still. ‘This’ was nature” (300).

The main character’s view of nature shifts significantly from the beginning of the story to the end. Assessing the damage to his mother’s car, the protagonist looks to his friend Digby who states, “at least they didn’t slash the tires” (301). It is ironic that the protagonist rebelled against standards and regulations, however, those tires set to regulation was his savior out a bad situation and back to normalcy. Approached by two girls looking for their friend named Al, the owner of the bike, now a corpse in the thick of the lake, the protagonist is broken by this reality. As the drugged girl leans into his window; “I looked at her. I thought I wanted to cry” (302). Here at the stories end, the protagonist is broken, sympathetic for the druggy, the dead man in the lake, and contrite over his foolishness in wanting to be bad.

Travis Thomas is a writer, speaker, thinker, reader, poet, musician, traveler, and ambassador in cross-cultural relations. Currently Living in Mount Dora, Florida. He is given over to a vast imagination and unafraid to push the boundaries of the real and ideal. He writes on any and everything, from global politics, philosophy, theory and theology. He believes as G.K. Chesterton stated, “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man”, and he enjoys exploring these riddles and questions of existence while pursuing wonder in every corner of life through writing, performing and cross-cultural action.

"Ouch! This Sure Herts!": Narrative Perspective & Reader Empathy...

"Ouch! This Sure Herts!": Narrative Perspective & Reader Empathy...

"Ouch! This Sure Herts!": Narrative Perspective and Reader Empathy in George Saunders' Short Fiction

The freedom to change perspectives in order to elicit empathy for a character exists within short story collections, as each story can have a different point-of-view. Short story authors are able to experiment with different narrative styles within one collection, and the styles found in American contemporary short stories often affect the connection one has with the characters. As a studied example, George Saunders implements first and third person narration to elicit reader empathy for a character (or characters) in his short story collection, Tenth of December. The way in which the author utilizes the perspective can vary. For example, a first person narration could be applied to form a connection with the narrator, or could be used to form a connection with another character aside from the narrator. In order to understand how empathy forms through differing narrative devices, this paper will take a closer look at the styles employed in two of Saunders' short fictional pieces.

The first work under study is Saunders’ “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” A standard notion of the effect of first person narrative is that “as a reader, we are not only limited by what the character shares, but what the character knows. He/she may not have all the information or knowledge about events. We would also not know what other characters are thinking,” (Surber). Not knowing what other characters are thinking/feeling is not the same as not being able to associate with the emotions of other characters. Through Saunders' first-person narration, it is possible to relate to the narrator even though the subject at hand is another character and to connect with other characters and reject the personality of the narrator.

One way of applying the first person narrative in order to evoke empathy for a character is represented in “Semplica-Girl Diaries.” Saunders devises a narrator through the first person diary entries of a middle-aged married man. The protagonist is representative of middle-class America in Saunders' alternate-present setting. The protagonist writes, “Stood looking up at house, sad. Thought: Why sad? Don’t be sad. If sad, will make everyone sad. Went in happy, not mentioning bumper, squirrel/mouse smudge, maggots” (Saunders). The protagonist's clipped sentences and a colloquial manner of speech show the personality of the protagonist. Throughout the story, one continues to experience the narrator's frame of mind. The more one reads the protagonist's thoughts, the more unsavory his opinions and ethics become. It is through this disconnection from the protagonist that empathy for the Semplica-girls is achieved.

In his article, “The Impersonal Voice in First-Person Narrative Fiction,” Henrik Skov Nielsen explains that “the protagonist in first-person narrative is often recognizable by his idiolects, idiosyncrasies, prejudices, etc., as these directly appear in the rendering of the narrative,” (Nielsen). Saunders uses the first person narrative of diary entries in order to get into the head of the protagonist. He states, “Do not really like rich people, as they make us poor people feel dopey and inadequate. Not that we are poor. I would say we are middle… it is not right that rich people make us middle people feel dopey and inadequate,” (Saunders). The protagonist is consumed by the idea of middle-class America struggling to keep up with upper-class families, and this is expressed through the clipped, blunt nature of the narration. His thoughts may be clipped because they are familiar, and this implementation of colloquial speech expresses his unfiltered opinions of his thoughts on status. The protagonist's casual, middle-class voice highlights his position in society and reiterates his status for the reader throughout the piece. Though one may not agree with the protagonist's statements, one can identify his point-of-view and can gain an insight to his personality through his unique voice.

Saunders adopts the concept of disagreeing with the protagonist throughout the work. The more sympathetic and contrasting character to the protagonist is his eight-year-old daughter Eva, who is conflicted about the purchase of the Semplica-girls (third-world country workers who function as lawn ornaments, and have “holes in their heads, for one thing; the surgery is risky; they’re away from their families for years at a time; it’s incredibly boring; and all the while, they have to watch this other family happily living right over there, in that warm, cozy house,” (Treisman)). Saunders' writing creates a first-person narrative that does not lead to reader empathy for the narrator. Instead, one experiences the same conflicting emotions that Eva feels. Eva, though not the protagonist, is the character that holds a connection with the reader.

The first-person narration in the work also aids in the exploration of Eva's emotions. The protagonist describes his daughter's school drawing, noting “In yard, SGs frowning. One (Betty) having thought in cartoon balloon: “OUCH! THIS SURE HERTS.” Second (Gwen), pointing long bony finger at house: “THANKS LODES.” Third (Lisa), tears rolling down cheeks: “WHAT IF I AM YOUR DAUGHTER?” (Saunders). There is an interesting point to note here Saunders' construction of the story. Though the protagonist is speaking in the first-person, so are the Semplica-girls in Eva's drawing. Eva expresses her worry and connection to the Semplica-girls through a first-person depiction of each of the girls. She humanizes the girls, and in doing so expresses empathy for them.

With his daughter's objections to buying the Semplica-girls, the protagonist continues to alienate himself from the readers, as with humanity, from an empathetic standpoint. When describing how the Semplica-girls look before being strung up by their heads in the yard, he states, “SGs holding microline slack in hands, like mountain climbers holding rope. Only no mountain (!)” (Saunders). He speaks of the girls holding the line strung through their brains in a light and joking manner. His perspective is detached from Eva's opinion and the reality of the Semplica-girls' situation, but this detachment establishes the dichotomy between Eva and the protagonist. As David Galef's review of Saunder's says, “At their best, the voices are ridiculous and poignant at the same time, defeating their own pitiable qualities with a half-realized truth about love or justice in this world” (Galef). The protagonist here embodies the “ridiculous” voice, while Eva represents the “poignant” moral compass.

The protagonist seems to be in denial about the ethical implications of having the Semplica-girls. When the girls are being strung up by the doctor, he says “[Doctor] gives me meaningful look, cuts eyes at Pam, as in, Wife squeamish? Pam somewhat squeamish. Sometimes does not like to handle raw chicken. I say, Let’s go inside, put candles on cake,” (Saunders). Here Saunders depicts the protagonist as someone avoiding the unpleasant in order to obtain social acceptance. This is achieved through the first-person as one sees into the reasons the protagonist decides to do what he does (though it must be noted that this “seeing” is not an automatic reaction to all first-person narratives). The narrator's continued self-absorption and immorality does not bolster an empathetic connection to him. As the girls are strung up by their heads, he has decided to decorate a cake, which signifies his disconnection from the Semplica-girls' terrifying reality. He has shielded his wife and children from viewing the Semplica-girls being mounted in the yard, which suggests that he has a vague understanding of the grotesque nature of the concept; however, he ignores the negativity (or in his mind, perhaps, the inconvenience) of the Semplica-girls' shared medical procedure. This is supported by his statement, “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... feel different about self” (Saunders). The blunt first-person entry shows the protagonist's complete obsession with his family's place within society, and how he gets satisfaction from being affluent, even if that involves the exploitation of lower-class people. This concept can be connected to the current exploitation of undocumented Latin and Central Americans in the United States: their low pay scale, their long working hours, and their grueling jobs that middle-class United States citizens do not wish to do (e.g. manually harvesting peas from 5 in the morning until 9 at night for a season whilst away from family (Berger)).

After Eva releases the Semplica-girls, there is a moment where the protagonist finally muses on the mind-set of the girls. However, this is in relation to his own hardships (for lack of a better term) in losing the girls and being responsible for their replacement fees. He says, “SGs very much on my mind tonight, future reader. Where are they now? Why did they leave? Just do not get,” (Saunders). The protagonist's narration highlights the empathy one experiences for the Semplica-girls. The statement “do not get” invokes the reflection of why one, unlike the protagonist, “gets” it. One has empathy for the girls through the alienating nature of the protagonist's first-person narration. The last line of the piece solidifies the materialistic nature of the protagonist and the existence of the Semplica-girls as ornamental objects instead of human beings. He states in annoyance, “Empty rack in yard, looking strange in moonlight. Note to self: Call Greenway, have them take ugly thing away,” (Saunders). Now that the rack no longer has the exploited girls on it, the protagonist does not want to look at it. It has become “ugly” to him merely because it is no longer a status symbol. This end leads to the ultimate rejection of the opinions of the narrator and to empathy towards the Semplica-girls.

Third-person narrative is arguably the most common form of narrative in fictional pieces. Dina Felluga's Introductory Guide to Critical Theory states that third-person narrative “is perhaps the most common sort of narration,” (Felluga), and there are many different ways third-person narrative can be used in short fiction in order to cultivate a connection with a character/characters. George Saunders' “Tenth of December” has a third-person omniscient narrator that fluctuates between the actions and thoughts of two protagonists, leading to the possibility of the reader emotionally connecting with two differing characters.

“Tenth of December” consists of language that divides the two protagonists from one another and creates a familiarity for the reader with the personality of each character. For example, Saunders gives each protagonist a different voice, even through third-person narration. For example, when the boy, Robin, is the focus, the narration includes words such as, “Wham!” “dunderheads,” and “peen.” These are words which would normally be used by a pre-pubescent boy. This vocabulary is not uttered by Robin, but is described by the omniscient narrator. Phrases are used, as well, to express Robin's age and personality. The narrator describes Robin's emotions towards a dying raccoon: “That was sad. He didn't do well with sad. There had perchance been some pre-weeping by him, in the woods,” (Saunders). One can understand and experience Robin's emotions and his childish mentality.

The first time one sees the second protagonist, Don Eber, is through the eyes of Robin. Robin describes Don as looking “sort of mental. Like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa,” (Saunders). The narration shows Robin's description in his own words, and one can relate to how Don must look, even if Robin's perspective would not be correct for an adult to say out loud. Saunders allows the third-person narration to describe the second character through the eyes of the first, giving the audience an impression of Don Eber before having met him.

When the story changes perspectives, the language and word-choice changes as well. Following the aged, ailing man named Don Eber, the third-person narrative morphs into a vocabulary retained by an adult who is experiencing memory loss. This begins slowly with nuanced slips such as “...begat. Began. Goddamn it. More and more his words. Askew. More and more his words were not what he would hoped. Hope,” (Saunders). One feels the frustration of Don through his confusion with words and his expletives while trying to remember the correct usage. As the story continues, Don's sense of vocabulary becomes scattered. As he plunges further into the cold woods, the narrator states the thoughts occurring in Don's mind: “Let me pull this off. Lord, let me not fuck it up. Let me bring no dishonor. Leg me do it cling. Let. Let me do it cling. Clean. Cleanly,” (Saunders). This deterioration of Don's psyche is exemplified by Saunders' choice in narration, vocabulary, and sentence structure. By showing rather than telling the condition of Don's mind, Saunders creates a character that is more impactful for the reader to connect to within the story.

As Don strikes up dialogue with himself, so does Robin in the form of the fictional representation of the girl, Suzanne (a girl from his class who calls him “Roger” and does not socialize with him). Saunders applies the third-person narrative in order to have Robin interact with a fictionalized “Suzanne”, thus giving the audience a deeper look into Robin's state of mind. This excerpt shows the role Suzanne plays as the subconscious voice in Robin's head:

“He doesn't have much time, Suzanne said, bordering on the hysterical.

There, there, he said, comforting her.

I'm just so frightened, she said...

He must cut across the pond, thereby decreasing the ambient angle, ergo trimming valuable seconds off his catch-up time.

Wait, Suzanne said. Is that dangerous?

It is not, he said. I have done it numerous times.

Please be careful, Suzanne implored.

Well, once, he said.” (Saunders)

 

The interaction between the two runs in a string of sentences without quotation marks or conventional punctuation. This creates an air of excitement and speed for the reader. The hasty nature of his thoughts and his reassuring of Suzanne make the reader connect with Robin and the fears he projects onto Suzanne. Having a hurried stream-of-consciousness places the reader's mind at the same pace as Robin's, and the story depicts Robin's rushing through thoughts by short, quick dialogue. However, by the end of the exchange he has calmed “Suzanne,” in effect calming himself. The narration slows pace once more by returning to a narrative sentence structure. The third-person perspective shows one the emotional range Robin experiences through Suzanne, and this creates empathy for Robin and his plight by the expression of his doubts through a fast-paced (inner) dialogue.

The narration is third-person omniscient, and Saunders advantageously changes the point-of-view of the narration multiple times. As Robin contemplates crossing the lake with the help of the imaginary Suzanne, Don Eber is shown attempting to freeze himself to death. The third-person narration explains the inner-thoughts of Don as it has done with Robin: “Ouch, ouch. This was too much. He hadn't cried after the surgeries or during the chemo, but he felt like crying now. It wasn't fair. It happened to everyone supposedly but now it was happening specifically to him,” (Saunders). This is an interesting device between interior-monologue and free indirect discourse. The words “Ouch, ouch. This was too much” suggest that Don is thinking this to himself, however the next sentence is clearly in the third person. Saunders has blended the vocabulary of Don within the third-person dialogue to create an emotional connection between the reader and Don. The same tone continues as Don succumbs to the cold. The narration states, “This was it. Was it? Not yet. Soon, though. An hour? Forty minutes? Was he doing this? Really? He was. Was he? Would he be able to make it back to the car even if he changed his mind? He thought not. Here he was. He was here,” (Saunders). As with Suzanne and Robin's rapid conversation, these questions and answers create an anxious tone. The representation of the tone and the emotion allow and encourage the reader to associate to the protagonists through the third-person descriptions of thought processes.

When the two protagonists interact with one another, Saunders continues to shift between protagonists through his narration. This produces the ability for one to oscillate between two points-of-view and to continue a connection with both protagonists. One can experience the terror Robin felt after falling through the lake “...there was no him, no Suzanne, no Mom, no nothing, just the sound of some kid crying like a terrified baby,” (Saunders), and Don's determined overcoming of fear through self-deprecation “He was afraid he might fall in. Ha. Dope. Poser,” (Saunders). Through this juxtaposition within the narrative, one feels and understands both of the protagonists' emotions that has been supported through their inner-monologue, candid consciousness, and individual vocabulary.

The end of the story culminates in the conclusion of the fiasco of the tenth of December. Saunders does not stray from his pattern of third-person omniscient modulation of viewpoint. He keeps the inner-dialogue of his protagonists separate through word choice, and this serves to show the audience the emotions of the two characters. The narrator says that Robin had “bolted. He'd bolted on the old guy. Hadn't even given him a thought. Blimey. What a chickenshitish thing to do,” (Saunders) and that Don had “embarrassed [his wife]. He saw that. He'd embarrassed her by doing something that showed she hadn't sufficiently noticed him needing her,” (Saunders). Robin feels guilt and disgust at leaving Don, and Don feels guilt and disgust at leaving his wife.

In regards to the protagonists' emotions, both characters experienced two different scenarios together, but ended up feeling the same emotional strains by the end of the piece. Galef points out that, “Saunders iterates his message of empathy in his essays [and] has really thought long and hard about what ails us... He advocates one human's helping another,” (Galef). Here, Galef believes that Saunders focuses on the emotional experiences within humanity, as well as each individual's ability to empathize with another through shared experiences. This is considered empathy as opposed to sympathy in that Saunders attempts not only to explain/understand a character's emotions, but also to create an emotional effect on the reader. In this piece, for instance, Saunders shows both characters feeling as if they should have done more, while at the same time knowing that they had tried to help the other. This relationship between two different humans and the representation of that connection to the audience forms the foundation of empathy within the work.

These examples of Saunders' use of first and third person narratives show the importance of the application of a particular viewpoint in order for the reader to associate empathetically with characters. When Saunders constructs empathetic fiction, point-of-view is taken into account in regards to how the characters are portrayed. It should also be highlighted that egocentric characterizations hinders an audience's empathetic experience; the attempt to evoke empathy will always be vulnerable to this risk, though Saunders has utilized egocentricity to elicit empathy for other characters apart from the protagonist. In conclusion, Saunders uses these forms of narration in non-conventional ways to evoke empathy for a character. By using narrative voice skillfully, the desired connection of the audience to a character occurs within Saunders' "Semplica-Girl Diaries" and "Tenth of December," representing Saunders' overarching themes of pursuing empathy within humanity.

Amanda Bigler studied English and French at the University of Kansas. She then completed her Masters in Literature and Creative Writing from Loughborough University. Currently, she is finishing her PhD at Loughborough University focusing on contemporary American short fiction and empathetic writing devices. Her first novel, The Takers, was published in 2015. She is an English lecturer at the University of Lorraine and Sciences Po in Nancy, France.

Berger, Joseph, Long Days in the Field, without Earning Overtime (New York Times: August 7, 2014) < http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/08/nyregion/in-harvest-season-endless-hours-with-no-overtime-for-new-york-farmworkers.html?_r=0> Accessed 14 November 2014.

Felluga, Dino, Terms Used by Narratology and Film Theory (West Lafayette: Purdue University: January 31 2011) <http://www.cla.purdue.edu/english/theory/ narratology/terms/narrativetermsmainframe.html> accessed 16 November 2014.

Galef, David, 'Fiction in Review: George Saunders', in The Yale Review (New Haven: Yale University, 2014): 141-51.

Nielsen, Henrik Skov. 'The Impersonal Voice in First-Person Narrative Fiction', in Narrative (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2004): 133-50.

Saunders, George, "The Semplica Girl Diaries" in Tenth of December: Stories (New York: Random House, 2013) 109-68.

Saunders, George, "Tenth of December" in Tenth of December: Stories (New York: Random House, 2013) 215-251.

Surber, Katie, First Person Narrator: Definition & Example (1 January 2014) <http://education-portal.com/academy/lesson/first-person-narrator-definition-example.html#lesson> accessed 14 November 2014.

Treisman, Deborah 'This Week in Fiction: George Saunders', in The New Yorker (New York: The New Yorker, 4 October 2012).

All The Doers

All The Doers

“This is the eternal origin of art that a human being confronts a form
that wants to become a work through him not a figment of his soul but

something that appears to the soul and demands the soul’s creative
power. What is required is a deed that a man does with his whole being.”
–MARTIN BUBER,
I and Thou.

The practice of clinical psychology does not have much in common with the creative process. Clinical psychology is a science. That is how it has defined itself, and in an effort to be believed, it long ago made a decision to pursue the objective, measurable behavior of human beings as its focus, leaving the mysteries of consciousness to other disciplines.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when philosophers and psychologists were easy to spot as being from the same family. It was William James, who is considered to be “The Father of Psychology,” who originally conceptualized psychology as a science primarily concerned with the study of subjective mental experience, or consciousness. The method of inquiry being introspection. Then, in 1912, John Watson introduced behaviorism and, to put it simply, that was that.

In my daily work, I think quite often about this schism between the objective, physical, measurable aspect of an individual action and the internal, meaningful, lived experience of each person. It is said that the ability of the mind to think, reason and process information is what makes us distinctly human. But, perhaps it is also the very thing that most separates us from our true nature.

I work with patients who have dementia, and the illness directly impacts their ability to think logically, problem solve, reason, process information. The very stuff by which we define humanness. My patients have started to wander away from the objective material world that most of us inhabit everyday and into a different space altogether. It is a space in which dualism begins to break down, discursive thought begins to lose its hold, communication is less about labels, judgments, narratives, and instead, awareness turns to things that can’t be spoken because there is no language. It is the experience of one’s personal internal conscious being, unfiltered, direct, filled with meaning. It is the land of archetypes, symbols and synchronicities.

My patients have all “been somebody” in the world they are leaving behind. They have been mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, lovers, teachers, thinkers, dreamers, artists. They have all been doers. The doing is clumsy now, where it’s possible at all, and so, they are becoming, to greater and lesser degrees, planted only in being.

Let me say that I did not always know this to be true. For the longest time, I was practicing good clinical psychology, observing, measuring, monitoring, essentially colonizing my patients. I wasn’t looking for internal lived experience, symbolic meaning or conscious being. Those things aren’t measurable, and they weren’t things that I either knew how to or thought to share with the people I worked with. It was one of my patients, an artist of some renowned in her day, who taught me the thing that I was missing.

Martha was a painter. Now, she resides in a skilled nursing facility. She is 92 years old, a sturdy woman. She uses a wheelchair to get around and does so easily. Her hair is fully grey and straight, a bowl cut shapes her rounded face. Her hands are arthritic, and she wears rectangular gold wire framed glasses, but they don’t help much now. She smiles nicely twice, once when she knows that you are actually interested and once when she talks about her paintings.

One day, after I had finished measuring Martha, I had some extra time. So, I started reminiscing with her about some of the paintings that she had hanging on the wall of her room. Because they were difficult for her to see from her chair, I took one down from the wall and brought it close for us to be able to see together. She held it for me the way she might have held open a book to read to a small child, and she invited me into the canvas.

Martha has dementia, and her ability to encode new information, or to recall recent events, or to accurately place herself in the world is poor, but she vividly and imaginatively remembers everything in her painting. It is a living present moment for her, as it would become for me, too. At first, I understood her simply to be describing the scene depicted in the painting. “This was my sister’s cabin in Maine...and this little building here was way back in the woods, and they rolled it seven miles...and just over this little hill here...”

After a few minutes, she pointed to a tree in the painting. It wasn’t a particular focal point; nothing about it would necessarily draw the eye, but it became clear to me that this tree was more than a tree to her. So, I made an effort to listen, less with my thinking mind, and more with my awareness. And she went on. “And you see this tree here...this part...its trunk...it was hit by lightning...here...so, now there is just this bow...in its trunk.”

She was pointing to the tree that she had painted all of those years ago, to a place where she had once observed how a lightning strike had removed a large chunk of bark and wood from the trunk of a tree, and how it was now stooped over, like an old woman, as a result of its wound. I realized she was telling me her story as she was telling me the story of this tree. Martha had had a stroke. She was stooped and no longer able to walk, and she experienced constant pain from her wounds. She and this tree had the same lived experience. They knew and understood each other, and now she was helping me to understand them both.

She paused for a moment and I asked her, “What happened to this tree?”

“Well, it got struck...and then it just...tied its branches into bows…”

“And carried on?” I offered.

“And carried on,” she affirmed with a nod and a smile.

There were no other words between us that morning. We sat still and waited together, contemplating, in the way that one might absorb a poem, or engage a painting, or know a flower. And then, when it was time, she lifted up her arms high above her head, tied her branches into bows and got on with her day.

This is an excerpt from "All The Doers".

Paige Parsons has a BA in English Literature from The University of the South (Sewanee), Sewanee, TN and a PhD Clinical Psychology, Walden University, Minneapolis, MN. She practices Clinical Geriatric Psychology in Upstate New York, working primarily with elderly patients with dementia.

Cinders of the Evening Sun

Cinders of the Evening Sun

"Dreams are very important to me.
I have good recall of them and I record them,
and I know I am in a good place to write when my dreams
become big and transpersonal. I am very curious about
the nature of time and the boundaries of our individual selves."
–HILARY MANTEL

Translated from Turkish by: Begüm Berber

An inglourious desire was awakened in me. I jerked myself up from the bed.

-How are you, sir?

A male voice was heard from the street. Who knows to whom this menace question was asked? What a poor soul had that morning, whereas my lips were hurt at one of the nights of that street.

After that night whenever someone asked me how I am, it resonated in me once more as I asked myself: How was I? I was fine. “I am fine” then I say. I believed in this fine lie more and more with each passing day. Nobody cared how I was. They asked it only to be asked. How they were? What is important was that.

I bolted shut the window and sat at the table. The enthusiasm boiling in me, turned into a serenity wrapped with determination just as I picked the pen into my hand. I stared at the blank page and watched it for minutes. Didn’t effected me…wished it had. Oh my, wished it had touched me for once… I belonged to him, to it. Maybe, he knew that, maybe it knew that and was that because? Just occurred to me, the paper is under an oath to like not its very supporters.

Although it was hard, I started to write a letter to him under the haze of my eyes. As soon as I managed to finish it, I was startled. I winced back. Then, instead of putting aside everything that I can afford, I put it in an envelope and throw myself out the street immediately. It was September, The first leaf that falls off of autumn.

I had posted the letter to his business address as usual; he was at home this time, which means I had posted it to his wife. I had calculated it neatly. First, she was going to find out our relationship then a strong fight and she was going to leave him! He would come back to me. Maybe he would be angry at first but certainly… Certainly he would come back. No, No! I didn’t even need to think otherwise.

I returned home in an extreme pace and started to wait as if all these things would happen in a moment and I was no longer allowing myself to leave here. I had already taken my annual leave.

I was on the window sill and the street was under my restriction of limits. The day was heavy as if it is made from lead. The letters that the postman delivered were either from a friend in long distance or from my mother. I couldn’t call him, though my hand was kept slipping towards the phone. I couldn’t place the things within me. I was alone. I was the calling faith of waiting. I was the pain of the faith. I was anxious. I steered the day to fears, the night to hopes… I waited. “He is coming!” I said. On my window sill, I was keeping myself busy with a silence of a shape shifting shadow. “Maybe tomorrow” I said “Maybe the other day…”

In my nights sleepless dreams, I tore the sky with my eyes by which I gave birth to the other day. I swaddled it by the curtains. Warmed on my left breast both its anger and its compassion. However, my window had no news. He wasn’t coming. For weeks there were no calls, not even a word… O! I was the fallacy. The fallacy of the devastating nights.

I wrote another letter incase the first one had gone missing. “Maybe he got it before his wife” I thought and wrote once again. It was apparent that she was kept in a cage by his words, then again… I couldn’t help myself. I had been subjugated by a force beyond my will. I was constantly writing. My loneliness was widening between the narrowing distances of letters. During the dawn and the dusk, I was still standing behind the same bars. I only heard from my mother. The wind was blowing cold. I was finishing up the bottles one after the other. I was like poison! It was like poison whatever I had taken in my mouth. I was throwing up. I was throwing up the fear within me, thinking their togetherness. However, it was obvious that they gave no thought. As a fact, the crimson red circle of the sun was suffocating my heart. Nevertheless, I was living obstinate.

The worst is the – one day more-. Although there was nothing to legitimize my waiting, I was writing the same things over for the 40th time, but this time I was unable to write things until it reaches a closed-end. My pencil became blunt and my palms were sweaty. To mention my fingers, they were trembling as the quivers seen on the surface of a water that is about to be boiled. The tears falling down from my eyes suddenly possessed my neck completely. I had filled with his existence to the point of overflow. I was being suffocated. I opened the window. There was a nipping frost outside. After I hid a deep breath within me and pulled the covers off of my suppressed feelings, I picked up the phone. My heart was if on the other side! How it was pounding! Yet, although I have dialed the number many times, I couldn’t reach him. Then the compass of the road pointed him. To the point of no return, I encouraged the anger and the life in me. I was going!

I arrived at his office with a nervousness, travelling between steps, about that I am going to see him again. They said that he quitted the job about two weeks ago. But why they were telling this as if I had done something bad and with looks angry and waiting for an apology?! Of course I couldn’t stand there and ponder over it. However, I couldn’t help to ask myself when I was walking away with long and heavy steps “Had I done something that necessitates me to be pardoned?”

It was the first time my feet stepped to his door. They couldn’t go further anyway. The house was abandoned. I swore at the void of the windows without curtains! Which shit hole had they gone? Where had they moved? Maybe they had left the city. I had knocked out myself. God knows now which… No! God didn’t know anything. God must have shut of His eyes while all this was happening. Maybe I was okay with this attitude of God. Weird and tired, I returned home.

No matter what I had done, I couldn’t get to the bottom line of the things. They were disappeared. In time, my being late and his untraceable escape felt like liberation. I was feeling that foggy happiness of all liberations carried within and now I got into the everyday routine of the former order. When I got home from work, I was opening the window, even for a short time, I was standing there to watch the state of the street. However, I wasn’t expecting anything. This was how I pay my debt to the window which offered me light in times of faith and torment.

On such a day, despite the harsh cold cauterizing my face, I was watching the street with my elbows leaning on the sill. There were two bus stops. The tram line was in between them. I saw the postman on the corner. When I saw him approaching to our building, I pulled myself in and stood behind the tulle curtain. He stopped after a few more steps. He looked up at my window. At that exact moment, I stuck out my head to look at him. He waved his hand to indicate I had got a mail. “Mother it is” I said. I stuck the letter that he slipped to my hand to my pocket and returned again to the window sill. I wasn’t wrong. It was from my mother. However, there was another letter behind it. That moment my heart pondered at my hands! It was him! He was telling me that I had been writing letters to a dead woman, his wife had a car crash on the fourth day of our break up and that he was writing this letter to me from the station. In the meanwhile, two busses come to stop on each bus stop and take two people staring at each other for minutes. I watch them go. The tram goes by in between them. A bird flies splitting the sky! When the ember that blazed the clouds of the sky is saying its good-byes to the roofs of the city it wondered above, a woman whose face is unknown to me is emptying the cinders of the heater stove on the snow. Her little daughter is pulling her skirt as if she was trying to tell her that she is cold. Suddenly, I don’t know how it happens but the woman tilts her head up and looks at me!

I wonder when I am closing the window;

“If I could turn back in time, would I take another road in order not to encounter with him this time? No! I wouldn’t. What was lived has lived with him and some stories are meant to be short.”

As for my little girl, she was still pulling my skirts.

seyma-koc-the-creative-process2.jpg

Şeyma Koç was born in a district called Yahyalı, Kayseri in 1994. She completed higher education in Akdeniz University, department of Political Science and Public Administration. Her short stories have been published in several magazines, including Varlık, Evrensel Kültür, Dünyanın Öyküsü, Sincan İstasyonu, Güncel Sanat, Kasaba Sanat, Tmolos Edebiyat, Çıngı, Aşkın E Hali and Bireylikler. Her first short story collection Küllerin Şehveti was released in November, 2015. Her stories have translated to Greek, Kurdish, German and English. Apart from literature, she is actively engaged in NGO projects and workshops concerning the education and the rights of women.

The Drawer

The Drawer

Dad’s got a gun in his drawer, he’s got a dirty book.

And a jumpknife, too.

That drawer’s not taller than me anymore.

 

Dad’s got a gun in his drawer, he’s got a dirty book.

And a jumpknife, too.

 

Sometimes when I come home ahead of the others

I go back & get out the gun & sit on the bed.

The drawer’s quiet when it opens.

Get the gun sometimes & sit on the bed.

Sometimes get the book.

 

The gun’s got a leather holster. Smooth,

worn smoother. Darker where a man’s hand goes.

But it’s got no bullets. How heavy it is, how good

it feels in my hand.

 

Dad’s got a gun in his drawer: I heard him call it

Luger. But he won’t talk about it,

won’t tell us how he got it.

 

Dad’s got a dirty book. That drawer’s not

taller than me anymore. What’s a book doing

in a drawer? Sometimes I get home early—

before the others. Get the book, sit on the bed,

sun coming in.

 

The book’s beside the gun. It’s a stupid book, a stupid

story, lots of pages folded back. He’s got a jumpknife, too.

It’s about a man unbuttoning a woman’s shirt.

He runs his hand across her tits, it says,

 

and she rises to meet him with her lips. He pulls off

some of her clothes and throws them on the floor. Take me,

she says. What does she mean?

Sometimes I get home early, before the others.

Sometimes I go for the gun, sometimes the book, sometimes

 

the knife, but last week more for the book

than the gun or knife. I like the way no matter what day

I come in it tells the story again.

 

The gun, the book, the jumpknife—

springblade, sharp. He got it in the paratroopers, won’t talk about it.

Got it in the 101st. All he said was You need a quick knife

when you hit the ground. All he said about the knife.

 

Sometimes I get home before the others & get the knife

& sit in the sun on the bed & flick it. Close it. Flick it.

Close it. Flick it. I love its silver button. First

it’s nothing, then it’s a knife.

 

Sometimes I spread them all out, there in the sun:

the book, the knife, the gun, on the big bed.

Mostly I wish the gun had bullets.

 

From Swimmer Climbing onto Shore, Sixteen Rivers Press (San Francisco), 2005

 

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.

The Devil From Supermarket: Images of Postmodernity in After the Plague

The Devil From Supermarket: Images of Postmodernity in After the Plague

In his interview with Peter Wild for 3:AM Magazine, T.C. Boyle said:

Literature can be great in all ways, but it’s just entertainment like rock’n’roll or a film. It is entertainment. If it doesn’t capture you on that level, as entertainment, movement of plot, then it doesn’t work. Nothing else will come out of it. The beauty of the language, the characterisation, the structure, all that’s irrelevant if you are not getting the reader on that level – moving a story. If that’s friendly to readers, I cop to it.”

As an incredibly productive writer (T.C. Boyle is an author of twenty-three books of fiction – approximately one book per year of his thirty-four year long writing career) he has mastered the art of literary entertainment to perfection: his fiction is witty and enjoyable, moral but not overtly didactic, it deals with issues of current importance but doesn’t fall into historicism. Although Boyle tries to maintain an image of an unpredicted writer (“I want to defeat your expectations. I don’t want you to pick up any of my stories or books and have any idea what it’s going to be,” says Boyle in the same interview), there is certain thematic and stylistic unity to his works. Most of Boyle’s favoured themes are sure to attract the widest audience: he addresses the issues of masculinity, sexuality, politics, drug abuse, illegal immigration to name just a few. His fiction is rooted in popular culture and often adopts characteristics of other genres. In the above cited interview Boyle continues:

Literature has taken a third seat to film and music. You could go as far as to say a fourth seat, if you factor in games. Fair enough, a fourth seat, but I do think it remains viable because of its magic. The reader creates it as much as the writer does and that can’t be said of any other art form. Except for maybe interactive games – which is a kind of a novel… Forget what I was saying, that’s the doom of literature right there. It’s all over, our time is up!

This interview was taken in 2003, shortly after the publication of his collection After the Plague (2001). It is not surprising, that the short stories of this collection are reminiscent of mainstream cinema and computer-games; here Boyle uses dark comedy and satire to draw pictures of post-apocalyptic society (After the Plague, A Friend of the Earth) and to comment on American social issues (Killing Babies, Mexico, She Wasn’t Soft). In many stories Boyle uses images from consumer culture to illustrate the postmodern context of the plot. The author recreates the world which is seduced by the image, dominated by Baudrillardrian simulacra and in this sense representative of the crisis of postmodernity.

Thomas Boyle was born in 1948 and as a representative of the baby-boom generation, experienced many of the social and cultural swerves of the second half of the 20th century. In his first novel Water Music published in 1982 the author already used many conventions of postmodern literature, including blurring the line between history and fiction: in his foreword Boyle admits that he does not claim “historical accuracy or even faithfulness to contemporary accounts whose reliability is doubtful anyway” (“Water Music”). In the short story collection Greasy Lake and Other Stories published three years after the appearance of Boyle’s first book, the writer moved away from the seriousness of a literary formula into entertaining his readers: in his own words “a story has failed when it requires a critic to mediate between the reader and author” (“Greasy Lake”). These 16 stories are set in present-day America and their plots are often organized around an extraordinary event in the life of an average working-class man – the story-line favoured by the pulp-magazines’ stories.

Although Boyle decided to disregard the intellectual prerequisite of the postmodern prose, he nevertheless continues to follow the canon in a number of other principles. Here I refer to postmodernism in the light of Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality, which addresses the symbol as more real than reality itself: “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting signs of the real for the real” (Baudrillard, 4). In this sense, the age of postmodernism may truly be called “the age of symbol and spectacle. […] The new technologies of information and communication permit spectacularizations that have not been possible before, leading to the fabling of the world” (Firat, 250).

Boyle opens his 2003 collection After the Plague with a story Termination Dust, which starts with a following paragraph:

There were a hundred and seven of them, of all ages, shapes and sizes, from twenty-five- and thirty-year-olds in dresses that looked like they were made of Saran Wrap to a couple of big-beamed older types in pantsuits who could have been somebody’s mother – and I mean somebody grown, with a goatee beard and a job in MacDonald’s. I was there to meet them when they came off the plane from Los Angeles. [...] We came up to the first of the ladies, Susan Abrams, by her nametag, and started handing out corsages, one to a lady, and chimed in chorus, “Welcome to Anchorage, Land of Grizzly and the True-Hearted Man!” (Boyle, 1).

Boyle uses easily recognizable cultural signs (young women in tight transparent dresses, middle-aged women in pantsuits, countermen in fast-food restaurants, an image of a manly man as related to an archetypal symbol of a bear) in order to recreate experience that is defined by the plurality of images. This is what William Carlos Williams called “no ideas but in things”: as the reader is being drawn into the plot of the story, the author provides little characterisation apart from a collage of vivid cultural icons, which invite the reader to recreate the missing details in the description.

Similar stereotypical characterisation is also present in other stories of the collection, including a story Friendly Skies – here the main male character Michael is described as “either a writer or a journalist”, who “works on his laptop, the gentle blue glow of the screen softly illuminating his lips and eyes, and drinks Chardonnay.”

Such accumulation of seemingly random domestic images epitomizes literary minimalism of the late 1970s (which Boyle was very well familiar with as this was the time he started his writing career and soon afterwards received a PhD diploma in Creative Writing and Literature). The paragraph exemplifies minimalism’s reliance upon the seemingly unordered presentation of everyday domestic details.

Andrew Hoberek describes minimalism as “a school of realist writing characterized by neo-Hemingwayesque aesthetic of terseness and excision, working-class characters and settings, and a preference for the short story over the novel that came to dominate American fiction during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In this period minimalism arose to challenge the prominence of the big, non-realistic postmodern novel associated with writers like Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and Robert Coover” (Hoberek, 103). John Barth in this short piece entitled A Few Words About Minimalism invokes this school of fiction as “K-Mart realism,” “hick chic,” “Diet-Pepsi minimalism” and “post-Vietnam, post-literary, post-Postmodernist blue-collar neo-early-Hemingwayism” (qtd. in Hoberek, 104).

However, minimalism needs to be understood less through its frequently domestic content than through its formal commitment to discrete objects divorced from systems that give them meaning. In other words, minimalist text presents images stripped of the organizing principles of linear narrative. For example, in the story Friendly Skies Boyle never directly describes the aircraft – the main setting for the story’s events, but makes it vividly realistic by numerous images, such as Plexiglas windows, “Fasten Seat Belts” sign, tray tables, a boarding pass, overhead bins etc. Moreover, to make the illusion of reality even more palpable, the author also recounts objects commonly associated with planes: “a neat French braid of a flight attendant”, paperback book, pretzels and pieces of fruit, “sloughed shoes”, “the handbags skittering by underfoot” to name just a few. In Boyle’s extensive list, these objects, autonomous from each other, are deprived of references to their use, and consequently become icons of their images. The space of a plane then becomes “a construction of language and discourse” (Firat, 244), or rather of popular and common idea of itself.

Here is a thread towards the postmodern context of a minimalist narrative. The text’s investment in fragments shows a Lyotardian suspicion to metanarrative, similar to how DeLillo depicts a postmodern decentring of the self in White Noise. In this sense we can argue that the postmodern interest in Petite Histoire (Hassan, 6) caused the appearance of minimalism as the further step away from the modernist grand-narrative. The minimalist stories about consumerism embrace “merely personal experience” and replace historic postmodern narratives: they “retreat from the kinds of things one finds in history books” into “the smallness, privacy, and racial homogeneity of domestic life” (McGurl, 407).

In his stories Boyle uses various images to depict the every-day life of America, among them the strongest marker being multiple references to food and drinks. Although technically being a sign of a minimalist domestically-oriented style, they at the same time refer to the postmodern idea that reality is a construct of well-recognizable signs. Boyle’s frequent mention of food brands and ethnic dishes not only intensifies the idea of the supremacy of images in the hyperreal, but also suggests fragmentation of cultural and social spaces. In the story Friendly Skies the characters are offered “stale beer at the airport bar”, peanuts on board, “a dry six-dollar bagel and three-fifty cup of espresso at one of the airport kiosks”, and “(the eternal question) chicken or pasta for lunch”.

In the story everyone seems to be consuming food for its mere availability, without actually wanting or enjoying it: “Everyone had got free drinks and peanuts, but nobody wanted peanuts, and the drinks tasted like nothing, like kerosene.” In postmodern terms this suggests that the characters are freed from the necessity to find consistent reason in every act, they are “engaged in nonlinearities of thought and practice, in improbable behaviours, contingencies, and discontinuities” (Firat, 255). Each individual pursues multiple consumption experiences, which represent the variety and availability of images in the postmodern era.

This assumption leads us to another peculiarity of a postmodern text: symbolically comprehensible food images not only serve as a background for the action, but also become signs of commodification and prosaicness of consumer culture. To use Barth’s terminology, “the reaction to the all but inescapable hyperbole of American advertising” has caused the consumer society to equate commercial images with their real-life projections. This is to say, the postmodern culture of consumerism has transformed linguistic signs into cultural stereotypes. The author’s portrayal of the two characters flirting over an airline meal is erotic and ironic, if not sarcastic:

Their meals had come. The broad-faced attendant was again leaning in confidentially, this time with the eternal question – “Chicken or pasta?” – on her lips. Ellen wasn’t hungry – food was the last thing she wanted – but on an impulse she turned to her neighbour. “I’m not really very hungry,” she said, her face too close to his, their elbows touching, his left knee rising up out of the floor like a stanchion, “but if I get a meal, would you want it – or some of it? As an extra, I mean?”

Following the tendency to depict social stereotypes through food, Boyle chooses to characterize his characters by their preferences in drinks. In the same story Friendly Skies the nameless “saddlebag face woman with a processed pouf of copper hair” orders “Sprite”: she is so unremarkable that the only other reference provided to her by the author is that “the dull thump of her voice is swallowed up in the drone of the engines”. Sophisticated and charming journalist Michael asks for a Chardonnay, whereas the protagonist Ellen’s multiple glasses of Scotch-and-soda add certain restrained masculinity to her character (after all, she doesn’t want to drink her whiskey neat) and to some extend foreshadow her violent break-down at the end of the story.

The identities of Boyle’s characters are neither stereotypical sketches, nor the author’s play on the reader’s expectations, but the readers’ interpretation of their discourse. The readers recognize the well-known images and combine them into a kind of “speculative identity” (Zizek, 36). In the second story of the collection, She Wasn’t Soft, the female character is understood as a ferocious and powerful woman through the meal she is having together with her boyfriend:

She wasn’t shy about [eating] – not like the other girls he’d dated, the ones on a perpetual diet who made you feel like a two-headed hog every time you sat down to a meal, whether it was a Big Mac or the Mexican Plate at La Fondita. No “salad with dressing on the side” for Paula, no butterless bread or child’s portions. She attacked her food like a lumberjack, and you’d better keep your hands and fingers clear. Tonight she started with potato gnocchi in a white sauce puddle with butter, and she ate half-a loaf of crusty Italian bread with it, sopping up the leftover sauce till the plate gleamed. Next it was the fettuccine with Alfredo sauce, and on her third trip to the pasta bar she heaped her plate with mostaccioli marinara and chunks of hot sausage – and more bread, always bread. He ordered a beer, lit a cigarette without thinking, and shovelled some spaghetti carbonara, thick on the fork and sloppy with sauce” (Boyle, 25).

It is not accidental that Boyle describes the meals of the partners in contrast with each other, so that the man’s indecisiveness is opposed to the self-control and willpower of the woman. Boyle thus alludes to one of the most damaging effects of postmodern consumer culture that is the process of diluting gender differences which allows women more freedom in a male-dominated society but at the same time feminizes men. Just as a minimalist story replaces historic narratives of postmodernism, emasculated and feminized characters of the consumerism era substitute heroic protagonists of the late modernism. Sally Robinson in the article Gender and Consumption in the Critical Reception of DeLillo’s White Noise claims that “the crisis of postmodern culture [is represented in the] descriptions of ‘the consumer’ as the ‘quintessentially passive figure’ and of consumerism as a replacement of authentic experiences with ‘phony’ ones” (Robinson, 98). The critic continues her argument saying that “the crisis of postmodern culture that consumerism subtends is a crisis of traditional masculinity” (Robinson, 99).

Boyle’s characters strive to regain their masculinity but often do it in an unfair or unlawful manner, which causes their defeat. In the already mentioned story Friendly Skies an archetypal plotline of Prince Charming fighting and defeating a dragon is recomposed through the postmodern false mirror. Although at first Michael, the main male character of the story, stands-up to the evil, represented by another passenger’s assault against the passengers and crew of the aircraft, he is immediately defeated: “in a single motion, [Lercher] snatched the laptop from Michael’s hand and brought it whistling down across his skull, and Ellen felt him go limp beside her.” Understandably the postmodern parody causes “the fair lady” to take a sword and kill the dragon herself:

At that point she didn’t know what she was doing. All she knew was that she’d enough, enough of […] this big, drunken, testosterone-addled bully and the miserable, crimped life […], and she came up out her seat as if she’d been launched – and in her hand, clamped there like a flaming sword, was a thin steel fork that she must have plucked from the cluttered dinner tray. She went for his face, for his head, his throat, enveloping him with her body, the drug singing in her heart and the Scotch flowing like ichor in her veins.”

The narratives which aim to describe crisis of masculinity commonly turn to the description of violence. Slavoj Zizek is among the scholars who relate the society’s conformism with violence to the development of consumer culture. The critic argues that aggression is inherent in every aspect of society’s existence, but individuals distinguish violence when it is “experienced against the background of the non-violent zero-level” (Zizek, 2). In other words, the society’s sensitivity level for understanding violence is distinguished by the culture, whether it accepts or refuses it.

In the story Friendly Skies violence is constantly present in the background of the events, so it is perceived as a normal way of the characters’ interaction with each other (“The man in front of him lifted a great, swollen dirigible of a head over the seat back and growled, “Give it a rest, asshole. [...] This is bullshit. I’m not going to sit here squeezed in like a rat. I paid full fare, and I’m not going to take this shit anymore, you hear me [...] Fuck, that’s all we need. There’s no way I’m going to make my connection now. [...] What do you mean, I have to check it, you idiot.”) When these situations are considered within their context, the characters’ anger is understandable if not justified. Boyle constructs and at the same time deconstructs the rationality of social conditions to respond to the postmodern pluralities, instabilities and paradoxes of everyday life.

In other words, we can argue that the images of consumer culture in Boyle’s stories are aimed to reflect and represent the postmodern era. Although his works can hardly be distinguished as purely postmodern, the postmodern canon still continued to influence the cultural context of the early 21st century. Because of the author’s desire to attract and entertain his audience, he creates a text with numerous cultural icons which help the readers relate to the plot. The stories do not ‘celebrate’ the simplification of an image, but the author’s mimicry of cliché and contradicting the traditional stereotypes allow us to relate the collection to postmodern practice.

–Mariya Doğan
Department of American Culture and Literature, Hacettepe University
Ankara, Turkey

Mariya Doğan graduated from Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv (Ukraine), where she received her Master’s degree at the Department of Foreign Literatures. She now lives in Ankara, Turkey, and is a graduate student at the Department of American Culture and Literature, Hacettepe University. She is a member of International Organization of Folk Art (IOV), Centre for American Literary Studies in Ukraine (CALSU) and Association of American Studies of Turkey (ASAT). Her area of interest and research include contemporary Jewish-American fiction and focus on representations of ethnic identity, trauma and violence.

Works Cited:
Barth, J. (26 Dec. 1986). A Few Words About Minimalism. The New York Times Books Review.

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Boyle, T.C. (2001). After the Plague: Collection. London: Bloomsbury.

Boyle, T.C. (2003). Interview by Peter Wild. 3:AM Magazine.

Firat, A. F., Venkatesh, A. (1995). Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption. (pp. 239-267). Journal of Consumer Research, Vol.22, No.3.

Gleason, P. W., Bruccoli, M. J. (2009). Understanding T.C. Boyle (Understanding Contemporary American Literature). (pp. 1-32). University of South Carolina Press.

Hoberek, A. (2010). Foreign Objects, or, DeLillo Minimalist. (pp.101-125). Studies in American Fiction, Vol.37, No.1.

McGurl, M. (2009). The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. (pp. 399-410). Harvard University Press.

Robinson, S. (2013). Shopping for the Real: Gender and Consumption in the Critical Reception of DeLillo’s White Noise.” Postmodern Culture.

“Water Music (Novel).” (Inc.25 Aug 2004). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation,

Žižek, S. (2008). Language, Violence and Non-Violence. IJZS - International Journal of Žižek Studies. Vol. 2, No. 3

Žižek, S. (2009). Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. Big ideas: small books. Profile Books.

Les Figures du rêve dans The Sandman de Neil Gaiman

Les Figures du rêve dans The Sandman de Neil Gaiman

"Les Figures du rêve dans The Sandman de Neil Gaiman" is Isabelle L. Guillaume's Master's thesis. It was defended in 2012 in the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon. The full text (187 pages, with footnotes) can be found on Academia.edu

Excerpt from conclusion, translated into English (for original French version, see below)

Throughout this study, I have focused on the notion of dreams in Sandman, in order to understand how such a central theme fits with the other topics tackled by Gaiman. I have shown that Gaiman subtly alters the meaning of the word, leading the reader to understand that literary creation and oneiric vision are roughly synonymous, or at least share the same place of origin – that is, the realm of the Dreaming. Significantly, the spaces that Gaiman depicts as forming part of the Dreaming are sometimes “real” dream places (eg. the individual dreams that Morpheus moves through, or visits), sometimes mythical or legendary lands (eg. Fiddler's Green, the heaven of sailors lost at sea), sometimes an elaborate landscape taken from a fictional narrative (eg. The Land in A Game of You)

The point is that Gaiman does not draw a clear-cut limit between the various products of human imagination. At the heart of The Dreaming is a library of books which Gaiman calls “dream” books, but which are in fact a product of imagination, or daydreaming. Likewise, dreams are a vast concept within which various levels of fiction and metaphor coexist. With this unifying gesture, Gaiman sets up a narative which aims at blurring the frontier between reality and fiction, for the reader as well as for the characters which are part of the narrative. Indeed, their awareness of their own fictionality distinguishes Gaiman's characters from other figures which are traditionally associated with fairytale or myth:

BARBIE : Is this real ? Or is it just my imagination ?

CUCKOO : If you tell me what the difference is, I might be able to tell you. (Game Of You p. 126)

In fact, Gaiman insists on questioning the limits which mankind takes for granted in daily life, and which allow all of us to maintain some stability. Through a play on words, Gaiman calls into question the concept of the frontier, and the necessity to go beyond the line it draws: in “August”, Dream offers advice to the Emperor on the request of “Terminus. He who walks boundaries.” He is, of course, referring to the Roman god Terminus. But later, when Dream takes a train back to his kingdom, a narrative box informs us that “the castle of dreams shivers and re-forms as the train approaches. What was a fortress is now a terminus”. A “terminus” is an ending (for Morpheus who is about to die) but it also contains the possibility of moving beyond them, as the god Terminus does.

This use of polysemy suggests the impossibility of using a monological approach, and reminds us that a frontier is an end that mankind creates for itself. Between fiction and reality, truth and lies, object and subject, internal and external, daily life expects us to walk the tight rope that separates a notion from its opposite. Without that exercise, no efficient way of seeing the world would be possible. Yet it is our imagination which allows us to move beyond the limits of utilitarism. Significantly, in Sandman, each Endless also delineates its opposite notion: Destruction brings creation, Death brings life, etc. This might be Gaiman's way of saying that aesthetic sensitivity, exists for its own sake; it claims to embrace everything within a single textual unity. Sandman therefore reaches the ultimate stage of fiction, where nothing is true except the text's fictionality.

This paradox should remind us of the peculiar logic underpinning dreams: seen from within, the only possible truth is that of the dream, which appropriates the memories coming from waking hours. Dreams, because of their very nature, stand as an emblem for fiction. Gaiman steps away from an interpretive approach of dreams, and prefers to assert their essential polysemy. The point is not to refuse the possibility of deciphering dreams as messages fro the unconscious, but to assert that this is an artistic rather than a scientific act.

Interpreting is an individual act which cannot be reduced to normative discourse. This discourse needs to become poetry, the reader needs to see it as a mental game in order to explore imagination itself. Dreams, narratives and myths are related in Sandman because they all offer, through different means, to recenter the subject's vision on a fictitious object which can be utterly believed in, although it contradicts daily reality and depends on the person experiencing it : it is true, truer that the real, for as long as the subject accepts it as such.

The nature of dreams in Sandman inform us as to Gaiman's poetical programme: he aims at creating for his readers a form of total fiction which perpetually claims its own fictionality, allowing them to draw their own conclusions as to the nature of imagination. The openness of the graphic text fit Gaiman's ambitions, for it is indeed possible to re-read Sandman, each time with increased pleasure.

Isabelle L. Guillaume specializes in Anglophone cultural studies; she is currently writing a PhD on the influence of British scriptwriters within the American comics industry between 1983 and 2013. She edited an anthology on the body and its representations in comics (Les Langages du Corps, l'Harmattan, 2015). Her other fields of interest include gender studies and translation theory. She also translated Craig Thompson's latest graphic novel, Space Dumplins, into French.

Extraits de l'introduction:

En 1988, lorsque paraît aux Etats-Unis le premier numéro de The Sandman, la série est avant tout destinée a faire connaître au public le nom d'un certain Neil Gaiman. A vingt-huit ans, celui-ci a déjà travaillé sur plusieurs séries, en plus de son activité de journaliste et d'écrivain ; avec Dave McKean, qui restera l'illustrateur de toutes les couvertures de Sandman et une influence artistique majeure au cours de la série, il vient d'achever la minisérie intitulée Black Orchid, d'apres un personnage mineur de l'univers DC.

Or, DC doute de la viabilité économique de la publication de Black Orchid, qui devra afficher un prix élevé du fait de la qualité des illustrations (entièrement peintes) et dont l'héroïne méconnue pourrait rebuter les fans, car on est encore a l'époque ou les personnages féminins, à tort ou à raison, sont perçus comme se vendant mal. Pour ne rien arranger, le scénariste autant que l'illustrateur sont deux Anglais inconnus, récemment repérés par Karen Berger, "DC’s British liaison", lors d'une expédition outre-Atlantique à la recherche de nouveaux talents devant alimenter la “British Invasion of Comics” débutée en 1984. Devant ces difficultés, Berger résout de réserver la publication de Black Orchid a une date ultérieure. En attendant, Gaiman sera chargé de collaborer avec Sam Kieth (au dessin) et Mike Dringenberg (a l'encrage) sur une série mensuelle visant a remettre au goût du jour un autre personnage issu de la tradition DC, The Sandman.

Ce "marchand de sable" est à l'origine un personnage créé en 1939 par Gardner Fox et Bert Christman, répondant au nom de Wesley Dodds, et dont le trait distinctif est un masque a gaz lui permettant de se protéger des effets du gaz hypnotique qu'il utilise contre ses ennemis. En 1942, le personnage sera modifié dans une direction plus nettement superhéroïque par Joe Simon et Jack Kirby. Ces derniers décident en 1974 de reprendre le concept sous un autre angle, et créént un nouveau Sandman, Garrett Sanford, superhéros beaucoup plus convenu et doté de la panoplie complète du justicier, cape comprise. Enfin, en 1988, DC propose a Gaiman de créér sa propre version du personnage.

Gaiman débute donc l'écriture de sa première BD mensuelle, au sujet d'un Sandman qui n'était guère que son choix par défaut ; il s'attend à ce que la série soit au mieux un succès critique mineur, et expire discrètement apres une année de publication, faute de lecteurs :

I figured we’d do eight issues, and after the eighth issue, someone at DC would ring me up and say, ‘it’s a minor critical hit, but it’s selling twenty thousand a month. We’ll give you until the end of the year; go to issue twelve and we’ll cancel it after issue twelve'.”

Pourtant, dès le premier numero, les ventes sont excellentes ("Sandman #1 did about 89,000, which for the time was incredibly good"), et la tendance s’accentue progressivement jusqu’a ce que, dans les dernieres annèes, la serie finisse par dépasser Batman et Superman en termes de tirage. Le travail de Gaiman est salué presque unanimement par le public, mais aussi par toute la profession, comme peut en attester l’impressionante liste de prix et recompenses amassés en sept ans, notamment quatre Eisner for Best Writer de 1991 a 1994, et deux Harvey for Best Writer, en 1990 et 1991.

Le scénario du premier pan de l'intrigue, publié ultérieurement en volume relié sous le titre Preludes And Nocturnes (episodes 1 à 8) et rédigé presque d'une traite, prend la forme d'une quête d'objets magiques à la trame plutot convenue mettant en scène un personnage surnaturel nommé Dream, incarnation immortelle du principe du rêve. Pour résumer de facon sommaire, le lecteur fait la rencontre de Dream lors de son emprisonnement par un groupe d'occultistes en 1916, qui le garderont captif durant une période de 72 ans, jusqu'a ce qu'il parvienne enfin à s'extraire de sa prison en brisant le sceau qui l'entoure. Libre mais considérablement affaibli, Dream doit encore se lancer a la recherche des trois attributs de pouvoir qui lui ont été dérobés, à savoir sa bourse de sable (une reference au conte du marchand de sable), son casque (dont l'aspect est un clin d'oeil au masque a gaz de Dodds), et son rubis, un artefact contenant une grande partie de sa puissance en tant que Maître des Rêves.

Les trois éléments sont récupérés l'un apres l'autre, conférant au personnage principal une puissance grandissante, selon une structure relativement commune qui rappelle autant le conte de fées ou le récit d'initiation que le jeu vidéo – un roi déchu part combattre ceux qui se sont arrogé les possessions qui lui reviennent de droit, et reçoit pour cela l’assistance de divers adjuvants. Le roi va voyager et affronter une succession d'épreuves jusqu'a recouvrer son statut légitime par le biais d'objets et d'actions symboliques.

Au-delà de cette structure conventionnelle, ce qui transparait de ce coup d'essai c'est avant tout la dimension expérimentale de la narration, qui se traduit aussi de facon visuelle. Sam Kieth systématise des effets tels que l’encadrement, l’illustration de l’arrière-plan, ou encore la suppression des espaces intericoniques, afin de créér une impression de saturation sémantique. Les cases se tordent, debordent ou se brisent, comme pour insister sur la malléabilité du materiau qu’emploie l’artiste, et sur l’instabilité du domaine du rêve. Ainsi que l’explique Gaiman, les premiers episodes sont une série d'histoires ‘à la manière de’, où le ton d'ouvrage ésotérique le dispute au policier et au roman d'horreur, en attendant que Gaiman trouve peu à peu la voix qui lui est propre. Tout donne à penser que le processus créatif est initialement une affaire de relectures, de réutilisation d'éléments disparates inclus dans un macro-récit totalisant.

Au niveau visuel, de nombreux personnages empruntés a l'univers de DC font leur apparition, à tel point que le lecteur peu familier de l'immense fresque formée par l'intersection de ses différentes séries ne sait plus très bien qui est une création originale de Gaiman, et qui doit par son nom et son apparence graphique inviter au saut intertextuel. Pourtant, toutes ces créatures de papier se côtoient au sein d'une page unique, créant ainsi une image unifiée. L'espace qui s'offre à l'oeil du lecteur est bien une totalité organique, qui n’apparaît pas comme un collage, à moins que le lecteur ne construise autour du texte un réseau de références, conditionné par sa connaissance des autres séries DC et de la littérature en général.

Contextuellement, Sandman s'inscrit dans le sillage de plusieurs ouvrages essentiels ; Maus, d’Art Spiegelman, qui permet de faire connaître au grand public le potentiel narratif de la bande dessinée mais aussi Watchmen, d’Alan Moore et Dave Gibbons, et The Dark Knight Returns, de Frank Miller. Chacun à leur façon, ces derniers proposent une révision du paradigme le plus représentatif de la bande dessinée américaine, celui du héros éternellement jeune, fort et vertueux. Miller prend pour base les aventures de Batman et nous donne à voir ce qui arriverait au personnage s’il atteignait la quarantaine sans pour autant renoncer à son désir de justice. Moore, pour sa part, crée un groupe de justiciers masques aux motivations diverses, dont chacun possède une personnalité forte, et observe leurs interactions avec la societe dans laquelle ils vivent ; de fait, "none of the characters live up to a standard heroic ideal". Dans les deux cas, il s’agit de mettre en question la moralité des actions d’un héros qui se situe au-dessus de l’humain, tout en prétendant pourtant le defendre. Ces titres propulsent donc la bande dessinée dans la catégorie des lectures considérées comme “sérieuses”.

Et si Alan Moore, Frank Miller et Art Spiegelman restent selon de nombreux critiques les trois figures ayant contribué a l'émergence du comics comme medium voué a l'art et non plus seulement au divertissement, Neil Gaiman se pose en légataire et admirateur. Il ne manque d'ailleurs pas de rappeler que c'est Alan Moore qui lui a "appris" à écrire des comics, lui transmettant au passage son goût du scénario bavard - Moore est connu pour rédiger en moyenne 80 pages de script pour un episode standard de 24 pages dessinées ; Gaiman tient la seconde place avec 48 pages. Moore précise :

When Neil asked me 'How does one write a comic script?', I showed him how I write a comic strip. And that’s what’s doomed Neil, and everybody who works with him, to these huge, mammoth wedges of paper for every story he does.

Contrairement à Moore, qui quitte rapidement le milieu du comics mainstream, Gaiman parvient à développer avec le geant DC un modus vivendi certes parfois fragile, mais qui lui permet du moins de faire entendre sa voix, d'une part en ce qui concerne sa propre liberté de création sur la série, et d'autre part son statut en tant que créateur. Il est apparemment l’un des premiers a être parvenu a faire modifier les termes de son contrat apres la parution des 12 premiers épisodes. Il explique :

DC gave me more Sandman than I had in the beginning, […] giving me a creator’s share in Sandman of the characters that I genuinely did not have in my original contract which was completely « work-for-hire, we own the whole shebang ».20

La série pose aussi un certain nombre de jalons qui sont de petites victoires sur le fort contrôle éditorial exercé par la maison-mère (censure verbale et graphique), mais qui contribuent à tracer une voie nouvelle pour les comics mainstream, où l'autocensure diminue au profit d'une plus grande liberté d'expression et de la reconnaissance du caractère pleinement ‘adulte’ du medium. De fait, Sandman est l'un des titres phares de la collection Vertigo créée en 1993, rassemblant les differents livres etiquetés " for mature readers ".

Il s’agit de parvenir à faire voir la bande dessinée comme un medium dont les possibilités sont indépendantes du contenu effectivement presenté jusqu’alors – comme le rappelle Scott McCloud, " The artform – the medium – known as comics is a vessel which can hold any number of ideas and images […] the trick is to never mistake the message for the messenger ". La bande dessinée a longtemps eu mauvaise presse dans la société américaine ; d’abord considérée comme une forme intrinsèquement violente et choquante, voire accusée de pervertir les jeunes esprits, elle a été, sous l’action du Comics Code de 1954, purgée de tout référence moralement douteuse.

Dans la période qui suit, il faut choisir entre les grandes maisons telles que DC et Marvel, qui, comme le prévoit le Code, s’engagent a produire des bandes dessinées soigneusement balisées s’adressant presque exclusivement aux enfants, et la bande dessinée indépendante et provocatrice de l’underground. Sandman est issu de la premiere catégorie de publications ; et bien qu’en 1988 les choses aient déjà considérablement evolué en direction d’une liberté plus grande, l'oeuvre de Gaiman a permis de modifier d’une part les préjugés du public, d’autre part les exigences commerciales des éditeurs. La série est volontiers decrite comme un " comic book for intellectuals ", démontrant ainsi au public que l’on peut lire de la BD apres la majorité sans que cela ne doive paraître régressif.

Ceci dit, la série est aussi le résultat de deux paramètres peu habituels dans la personnalité de Gaiman, qui contribuent grandement à sa spécificité ; d'abord, un point de vue extérieur au circuit fermé de la BD américaine, puisque Gaiman est anglais et pas nécessairement le plus fervent des lecteurs de comics, ensuite, une tendance très nette à la littérarisation dans l'approche du medium BD. Il s’agit pour Gaiman de mettre a profit une vaste connaissance de la narration romanesque afin de nourrir sa pratique de la bande dessinée, domaine dans lequel il a finalement peu d’expérience. Néanmoins, il n’est pas question de réduire le medium du comic book a un genre, et encore moins à un genre littéraire tel que le roman, meme si ce dernier est perçu comme plus légitime car plus ancré dans la culture savante. Si Gaiman émaille son recit de références littéraires, ce n'est pas pour promouvoir l'accession soudaine de la bande dessinée au statut de production artistique par le biais d'une filiation légitimante, mais pour prouver qu'il peut y avoir dialogue entre ces deux formes d'expression qui restent, en un sens, des modalités jumelles du livre.

Sandman reste néanmoins issu de l'industrie du divertissement de masse, ce qui détermine en grande partie sa forme de publication en episodes de longueur égale, avec une rotation relativement rapide des illustrateurs (" En comptant Dave McKean, il y a eu 36 dessinateurs pour 75 episodes de Sandman. "38) et une équipe de production à forte division du travail, où dessin, encrage, couleur et lettrage sont realisés a plusieurs mains. En ce sens, c'est cette fois la permanence de Neil Gaiman en tant qu'unique scénariste qui peut paraitre exceptionnelle pour une série aussi longue que Sandman. Malgre les différentes ambiances visuelles du comic, la voix narrative de Gaiman oeuvre en faveur d'une approche globale de la série. Lui-meme renvoie d’ailleurs l’image d’un auteur presque tout-puissant ( " I always felt that as a writer, you get to be God ") exercant sur son objet une maitrise parfaite, mais egalement dévoué entièrement a son oeuvre. Il affirme par exemple :

There were periods near the end of the series where Sandman seemed larger, deeper, more important than my whole life was […] I remembered all of it, at all times – panel for panel, line for line, word for word.

En ce sens, la position de Gaiman suppose donc une perception proprement littéraire du rôle de l'auteur en tant que figure centrale de la création, et c'est cette ambivalence constante entre la tradition populaire de la bande dessinée et les connotations héritées de la “grande” littérature.

Le projet de Gaiman repose en effet sur la multiplicité des influences ; les lecteurs parcourent les époques, les continents et les plans de réalité, parfois en l'absence totale du personnage-titre (et ce n'est pas le moindre exploit de Gaiman et McKean que d'être parvenus a convaincre DC Comics de les autoriser à ne pas representer Dream sur chaque couverture, afin de privilégier la variété et la créativité des illustrations). La série dépasse de tres loin l'histoire du seul personnage principal, lequel est d'ailleurs remarquablement different d'un héros de comic book standard. le “sandman”, qui donne son nom a la série et dont on attendrait qu'il occupe le devant de la scène, connaît finalement un effacement progressif, jusqu'à ce qu'il soit possible de provoquer sa disparition sans que la narration s'effondre (de fait, plusieurs episodes se déroulent encore alors que Morpheus est mort et que le nouveau Dream est entré en fonction). Selon la même logique, Gaiman montre que les humains continuent a rêver meme lorsque le Roi des rêves est incapable d'assumer son rôle. Symboliquement, c'est donc le lecteur qui peut persévérer dans son état malgre la perte du héros de l'histoire. On assiste là à une altération progressive du pacte de lecture habituel aux comic books.

Il faut donc chercher ailleurs que dans la figure du héros le facteur unifiant permettant de maintenir la cohésion de la serie. En un sens, Morpheus tient dans la diégèse un rôle analogue à celui de Gaiman dans la genèse du livre. Figure indéniablement marquante, il s'efface cependant devant l'élaboration de la narration elle-même ; c'est en fait la nécessité de raconter une histoire qui domine, attirant a soi tous les artistes prenant part au projet. De même, tous les personnages de la série suivent une trajectoire que guide d'abord la thématique centrale de la narration comme acte, de l'histoire comme motif récurrent. Rien de très novateur a cela, puisque Gaiman, en plus de multiplier les situations de narration dans le recit, donne lui-meme la clef de lecture ; " The Ten Volumes of Sandman […] comprise a story about stories. " En d’autres termes, Sandman est “a narrative whose central character is narrative”.

Si Gaiman crée un cadre narratif lâche, c'est donc avant tout pour construire une structure qui puisse accueillir en elle les mille et une histoires qui demandaient à etre racontées. Et c'est à dessin que l'on emploie l’expression française ‘raconter des histoires’ , qui signifie aussi ‘mentir’ : Gaiman se plaît en effet à rappeler que le rôle d'un écrivain est d'abord de raconter des histoires (make stuff up).

 

Extraits:

Portraits du Lecteur en rêveur

Le pacte de lecture implicite auquel doit adhérer le lecteur au seuil de toute oeuvre de fiction repose sur la suspension consentie de l’incrédulité (suspension of disbelief, theorisée par Coleridge). Ceci revêt une importance toute particulière dans le domaine de la fantasy, auquel se rattache l’oeuvre de Gaiman. Au cours de cette étude, on conservera le terme fantasy en anglais, afin d’éviter les confusions qui resulteraient d’une assimilation au genre fantastique. Dans l'usage français, le fantastique se distingue du conte à proprement parler, dans lequel la question de la réalite est perçue comme non problématique (on se situe ‘il était une fois’, dans un ailleurs temporel et spatial). Le travail de Gaiman se rattache d'ailleurs plutôt à la logique du conte, car il n’entretient pas activement le doute concernant la véracité des événements décrits. Au contraire,

Le fantastique est fondé sur une hésitation du lecteur – un lecteur qui s’identifie au personnage principal – quant à la nature d’un événement étrange. Cette hésitation peut se résoudre soit pour ce qu’on admet que l’événement appartient à la réalité ; soit pour ce qu’on décide qu’il est le fruit de l’imagination ou le résultat d’une illusion ; autrement dit, on peut décider que l’événement est ou n’est pas.

Bien que le rêve soit un procédé typique du genre fantastique, ce qui importe ici est que, dans Sandman, réel et surnaturel ne sont pas distincts. Les événements problématiques ne se limitent pas aux moments de rêve, a moins de considerer que tout est rêve dans Sandman, ce qui revient a annuler le concept de réalité vigile. L’intervention du surnaturel ne doit donc pas a priori être perçue comme susceptible de briser la suspension d’incredulité. On voit bien qu’en un sens, ce consentement n’est rien moins que la reproduction a l’etat de veille de ce qui s’opère en nous lorsque nous rêvons : la non-discrimination entre deux réalités dont seule l’une des deux sera toujours considerée comme telle a posteriori, tandis que l’autre sera rétrospectivement qualifiée de fiction.

Le rêve comme récit

Dans Sandman, le rêveur peut non seulement s’extraire de son rêve grace a un effort de volonté, mais il semble aussi bénéficier d’une lucidité bien supérieure à celle dont il fait preuve dans le monde réel. Le rêveur est conscient qu’il rêve, et sait à tout instant que tout n’est qu’illusion. Il est vrai que les derniers épisodes de la série, particulièrement l’arc narratif The Wake, insiste encore et encore sur la présence du rêve, sur sa qualité particulière, sur l’état de conscience qu’il suppose. Néanmoins, cette préoccupation traverse l’oeuvre tout entière. De facon générale, la présence de Morpheus semble déclencher une prise de conscience de la condition du rêveur ; Hob Gadling, lui aussi, sait qu’il est en train de rêver lorsqu’il declare : “Well, it was lovely seeing you. Even if it is only a dream.”

S’agit-il d’une pure fantaisie de la part de Gaiman, visant comme tant d’autres a créer une complicité entre le lecteur et le personnage, et qui nous montrerait le rêveur conscient de son statut, à l’instar d’un personnage de bande dessinée qui brise le quatrième mur ? C’est probable, bien qu’il soit difficile d’établir une norme du phénomène onirique, quand chacun en a une expérience singulière qu’il ne peut entièrement faire partager a autrui. Si, de fait, il arrive régulièrement a l’auteur de ces lignes de penser pendant le sommeil que ‘tout cela n’est qu’un rêve’, la difficulté de la délimitation du rêve (au moment ou je suis conscient de rêver, ai-je déjà quitté mon rêve ? ) et la nécessaire incertitude du souvenir posent immédiatement problème. A ce sujet, toujours dans ‘Soft Places’, on trouve la conversation suivante :

RUSTICHELLO : I’ll wake up, and you’ll be gone where dreams go.

MARCO POLO : I’m not a dream.

RUSTICHELLO : Oh, you’re a dream all right. Only question is whose. I think you’re mine. But maybe I’m wrong. Hey, boy. Who’s dreaming you?

Gaiman fait ici référence, de façon à peine deguisée, à l’un des passages les plus celèbres de Through the Looking-Glass, connu justement pour le paradoxe qu’il expose au sujet du rêve. Un extrait en est d’ailleurs repris textuellement dans Preludes & Nocturnes (p. 45). Alice, en compagnie de Tweedledee et Tweedledum, vient de rencontrer le Roi Rouge, qui somnole au pied d’un arbre.

He’s dreaming now,’ said Tweedledee: ‘and what do you think he’s dreaming about ?’

Alice said ‘Nobody can guess that.’

Why, about you !’ Tweedledee exclaimed […]. ‘You’re just a sort of thing in his dream!’

If that there king was to wake’, added Tweedledum, ‘you’d bo out – bang! – just like a candle!’

Tout le problème est ici de savoir qui est le rêveur veritable. Or, comme on l’a dit, le phénomene du rêve suppose nécessairement que l’individu soit à la fois objet et observateur ; en tant que tel, il n’a pas plus de réalité que les autres éléments du rêve. En poussant jusqu’au bout le raisonnement, on peut supposer que le rêveur dans le rêve perd tout lien avec le réel ; de fait, l’Alice ou le Marco Polo du rêve ne persisteront ensuite que sous forme d’un souvenir, facilement oublié. Il y a donc fictionnalisation du rêveur dans le reêve, dedoublement qui lui permet d’être a la fois soi-même et un autre, avec toutes les conséquences angoissantes que cela implique concernant la solidite réelle de l’existence, et la puissance que cela confère a l’acte d’imagination, qu'il soit inconscient (comme dans les rêves) ou volontaire (comme dans la fiction). En meême temps, Gaiman entretient une relation d’égalité entre fiction et réalité, suggérant, en un sens, que la vie n’est qu’un songe (“we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”, rappelle Shakespeare dans The Tempest), rendant par là-même le passage entre rêve et récit plus aisé, en appelant “rêve” toute fiction.

Que retenir de tout cela ? D’abord, que Gaiman ne cherche pas a rationaliser entièrement le phénomène du rêve, et qu’il lui ménage au contraire des lacunes devant préserver tout son mystère. Ensuite, que les actes de lire et de rêver sont vus comme analogues, en raison de leurs nombreux points communs et surtout du rapport particulier (mais en aucun cas exclusif) qu’ils entretiennent avec l’image. Le lecteur, dont on ne sait plus bien s’il n’est pas d’abord spectateur, accède par la vue a un différent type de realité.

Conclusion

Nous avons tâché au cours de cette étude de définir le rêve dans Sandman, afin de comprendre comment cet élément thématique central s’articule avec les autres préoccupations de l’oeuvre. Il fallait notamment chercher la raison du glissement subtilement opéré par Gaiman et qui amène le lecteur à considérer la création littéraire comme une notion à peu près synonyme de la vision onirique, ou du moins procédant des mêmes sources – en l’occurence, le royaume de Dream. On remarque que, de façon significative, les espaces que donne à voir Gaiman à l’intérieur de The Dreaming sont soit de 'véritables' lieux oniriques (les rêves individuels que Morpheus traverse ou visite au besoin), soit des endroits mythiques ou légendaires (Fiddler’s Green, le paradis des marins perdus en mer), soit encore les décors d’un récit fictionnel bien plus élaboré qu’un rêve (The Land dans A Game of You).

C’est que Gaiman n’établit pas de frontière nette entre les différents produits de l’imagination humaine. Au coeur de The Dreaming se cache une bibliothèque de textes que Gaiman appelle ‘rêvés’, mais qui sont bien plutot imaginés, issus d’une rêverie ; de la même manière, le rêve est un concept global au sein duquel cohabitent divers degrés de fictionnalisation, de métaphorisation du réel. C’est par ce geste unifiant que Gaiman parvient a mettre en place un recit destiné a brouiller les frontières entre réalité et fiction, a la fois pour le lecteur et pour les personnages impliqués dans le récit. C’est d’ailleurs la conscience permanente de leur propre etrangeté qui distingue les personnages de Sandman des figures traditionnellement associées au conte ou au mythe :

BARBIE : Is this real ? Or is it just my imagination ?

CUCKOO : If you tell me what the difference is, I might be able to tell you. (GOY 126)

De fait, Gaiman s’attache a mettre en question les lignes de démarcation que l’être humain a tendance à tenir pour acquises dans sa vie quotidienne afin de maintenir une certaine stabilité. Une fois encore, Gaiman rappelle, à travers un jeu de mots, l’importance du concept de frontière, et la nécessité d’aller au-delà des limites qu’elle trace : dans ‘August’, Dream offre son conseil a l’empereur sur la demande de “Terminus. He who walks boundaries” : il est ici question du dieu romain Terminus. Plus tard, Dream regagne son royaume en train, et un récitatif nous informe cette fois que “the castle of dreams shivers and re-forms as the train approaches. What was a fortress is now a terminus”. Un “terminus” est une fin de parcours (pour Morpheus, qui est sur le point de mourir) mais le terme contient également en lui la possibilité de dépasser cette frontière, comme le fait le dieu Terminus.

Le jeu sur la polysémie suggère l’insuffisance d’une approche monologique en nous rappelant qu’une frontière est une fin que l’homme s’impose a lui-même. Entre fiction et réalité, vérité et mensonge, objet et sujet, interne et externe, il faut dans la vie courante marcher sur la corde raide qui separe une notion de son contraire, sans quoi toute conception efficace du monde est vouée a l’échec. Or, c’est la faculté d’imagination qui permet de se projeter au-delà des limites d’une vision proprement utilitaire. D'ailleurs, dans Sandman chaque membre des Endless définit une notion,mais aussi son opposé : Destruction implique une forme de création, Death est présente à la naissance, etc. C'est peut-être la façon choisie par Gaiman pour signifier que la sensibilite esthétique de l’être, existe pour elle-même, et non dans un état de division conceptuelle ; elle prétend tout englober au sein d’une unite textuelle unique. Sandman atteint donc le stade ultime de la fiction, celui ou rien n’est vrai excepte la fictionnalité du texte. Ce paradoxe rappelle la logique particulière qui régit l’extension du phénomène onirique ; si l’on se

place à l’intérieur du rêve, alors la seule réalité envisageable est la réalité onirique, qui récupère à son propre compte les souvenirs rapportés de l’état vigile. Le rêve, de par sa nature, est érigé en emblème de la fiction. Gaiman se détourne de la vision interprétative du rêve, pour en affirmer plutôt l’essentielle polysémie. Il ne s’agit pas de refuser l’idée que les visions oniriques puissent être décryptées comme des messages provenant d’un domaine inconscient, mais d’affirmer le caractère artistique et non scientifique de cette démarche.

L’interprétation est un acte individuel que l’on ne peut réduire à un discours normé. Il faut que le discours se fasse poésie, que le lecteur l’aborde comme un jeu de l’esprit, afin de permettre l’exploration des processus imaginatifs. Rêve, récit et mythe se ressemblent chez Gaiman car tous trois proposent, par des moyens différents, de recentrer la vision du sujet sur un objet fictif pouvant faire l’objet d’une croyance absolue, qui contredit la réalité quotidienne et dépend de la personne qui en fait l’expérience (ils sont vrais, plus vrais que le domaine réel, aussi longtemps que le sujet accepte cet état de fait).

De la nature du rêve dans Sandman, on peut donc déduire le programme poétique de Gaiman ; créer pour le lecteur une fiction totale qui se denoncerait à tout instant comme telle, en lui laissant le soin de tirer ses propres conclusions quant a la nature de l’imagination. L'ouverture du texte est à la hauteur des ambitions de Gaiman quand il affirme que Sandman doit pouvoir être relu plusieurs fois, avec un plaisir chaque fois augmenté. 

Isabelle L. Guillaume specializes in Anglophone cultural studies; she is currently writing a PhD on the influence of British scriptwriters within the American comics industry between 1983 and 2013. She edited an anthology on the body and its representations in comics (Les Langages du Corps, l'Harmattan, 2015). Her other fields of interest include gender studies and translation theory. She also translated Craig Thompson's latest graphic novel, Space Dumplins, into French.

The Rats: a Malediction

The Rats: a Malediction

The rats are not doing well, and I want them to do worse. Ten days rain: Harold’s bin of chicken grain across the road tight in its tin can, the duck grain & goose grain gone & tucked under the house, unattainable. None of the neighbors chucking kitchen-scraps out the windows anymore, no fruit in the trees, no nuts. Leaflessness, no grass seed, no dead deer, just deluge: water off the hills, rivulets on the slightest slope; meadows recall their lakes. Wet nights for the rats, wet nights.

I want them to shrivel, stumble, starve. Prolific in the attic, I want them desperate for the peanut butter on the ten traps I set—traps that smell of old death—let them smell that death but be hungry, hasty, and let each trap snap & snap well—slice a neck, crack a skull, flip & sink them into insulation, stinking in dead rat silence.

Because I hate their entry, which I can’t find, I have caulked & filled, found each hole larger than a dime, stuffed coarse steel wool, cut screen, nailed it in, gone up the extension ladder & down, reshingled, soffited, and still they get in.

Because I hate their acrobatics, clawing across the rafters, gnawing the soft joists smooth, rolling their goddamn acorns across the false ceiling or squealing as they’re screwing, I see every one of their beady eyes from our bed.

Because I hate the smell of their sweet piss in the attic—unmistakable—on summer days it rises through the vents, rides the breeze.

Because I have tried poison, which they take, seek water, sway across the fields toward the creek, speared by an owl, now the owl’s poisoned, so I poison no more.

Because they are huge. Because they are healthy—the one who flipped down from the attic last week, dead from the trap, his coat shining, lamp-black & gray, lovely.

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.

Crucifixion, Kinetic

Crucifixion, Kinetic

Often, the scene depicted as tranquil—fait accompli, three men in their proper places, on crosses, assorted provokers and grievers below, sky leaden, sense overall not meat but vegetal, varnished, tableau.

Let’s say it did occur.

Then: cross? This planed and surfaced lumber in pictures we knew long ago—in Giotto, Raphael, even Goya?

No. Rough spar. Oak, or cedar. Maybe an adze hacked away the bark, maybe a few draw-knife marks, but it’s still tree, still round, chunks of its skin left on, bleeding sap, lots of knots—strong enough, though, to hold a man.

Each upright so tall no mother at night might take down a son, no brother a brother. And the cross-strut surely not mortised, fit tight/square to its vertical other, but cruder stuff: hemp-rope to lash the X together, coarse fiber, the cross-strut at front, main beam behind, rope laps raising it farther so that a man’s deltoids and pectoralis majors are either racked backwards, spine arched out from the upright, or else his arms straight, pinned at wrists and elbows, thoracic vertebrae torqued inward, rolled; he’s hunchbacked.

The tying’s done on the ground, of course, crowd gathered ’round, a few protesting at first, most goading, quick-tempered, spinning to kick dogs fighting underfoot.

And of the three: do they accede, span themselves over each cross? Not likely.

Struggle, boots to the gut, the men blindsided, bare-knuckled, yanked down, faces struck and kicked, clothes ripped, and their cursing—all three, and all three self-mucused and bloodied and pissed, pinned now at the wrists, ankles crossed and bound, four soldiers to a man, More rope! More rope! Knives tossed to slice the hemp, and they’re stilled now, fixed, the crowd cheering Yes!—one of the men in the crowd with a hard-on.

Some few curse the soldiers, their epithets kept under breath.

Three tall crosses, one by one to be raised.

Who dug these goddamn holes? Not deep enough! One-third the length of each pole! Who trained you fools—your mothers?

And the laborers, new men, bend again, fifteen minutes’ work, their blades shear rock, much complaint, the tied men still supine, new rubble beside the postholes, and now the call to raise: a soldier at each side of the struts, two at the vertical, they count, lift, the wet wood heavy and the bound man heavy, no balance to be had, pitching backward, swaying, Lift higher! says one with a helmet on, and the cross is lifted, lowered into its hole, voice of man on pole dolorous and lost in the crowd, but still it’s not plumb, It’s leaning, and they heave too far left, foolish workmen, compensate now too far right, finally straight, the workmen shamed, angry, There—now fill it in, shovelers packing rubble into the hole, slapping it with the back of their blades, the pole-holding soldiers still shouldering it, heroic poses in opposition to each other, more rubble, more soil. Done. Next one.

The second one plumbed, and now to the third man, still on the ground, bound, the one they were told to nail. The nails flat-shafted, pounded on an anvil, tapered, black. The man’s right wrist bound tight, one nail straight through the capitatum. That’s no pain, they say, you woman. Want nails in the tips of your fingers? Now the left.

The man’s feet, wrong in literature and tableau, here crossed at the ankles, bound in hemp, loosed briefly so that each crossed foot can find a surface for nailing. Two men on their knees—each takes a foot, jerks it downward, works it around the side of the post, nails it in. The cord tightened again.

The man himself now, as if oiled: in blood, in sweat, in piss, and the noises he makes animal noises, inhuman. He is raised, the skies leaden, yes, the birds already circling, the soldiers folding their arms, well pleased.

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.

Joyce Carol Oates Revisits the Schoolhouse Gothic

Joyce Carol Oates Revisits the Schoolhouse Gothic

Essay first published in American Gothic Culture, An Edinburgh Companion, Joel Faflak and Jason Haslam (Eds.). Edinburgh University Press, 2016. Reproduced with permission of Edinburgh University Press via PLSclear.

The history of the Gothic as a counter-Enlightenment discourse, albeit an ambivalent one, suggests the suitability, if not the inevitability, of the Gothic portrayal of education and educators. Previously, I have designated representations of teachers, students, and academic institutions that rely on Gothic tropes such as the monster, the curse, and the trap as ‘Schoolhouse Gothic.’ Works in this mode examine schooling in relationship to central Gothic preoccupations such as the tyranny of history, the terrors of physical or mental confinement, reification, and miscreation. Considered together, they suggest that schools are haunted or cursed by persistent power inequities (of race, gender, class) and, ironically, by the Enlightenment itself, which was to rescue Western civilization from the darkness of the past but which had a dark side of its own, born of its compulsion to dissect, define, and dominate nature and humanity alike. 

No stranger to the Gothic, Oates has returned more than once to the school as a source and scene of horror in novels like Zombie (1995) and Beasts (2002), which use zombification and consumption as metaphors for the effects of formal education. The Accursed, published in 2013 but conceived and partially drafted in the 1980s (shortly after Oates began teaching at Princeton), both exemplifies and diverges from the Schoolhouse Gothic. Like other works in this mode, The Accursed portrays the university as a place of mystified power, physical isolation, social stress, and emotional disintegration. Unlike these works, however, school does not leave its primary student-figure, Josiah Slade, permanently damaged, vengeful, and monstrous. Josiah’s most significant literary ancestor is fellow Ivy League student Quentin Compson of William Faulkner’s The Sound the Fury and Absalom, Absalom, and neither character experiences physical or psychological abuse at the hands of their professors, nor victimizes others in retaliation. Both are compared, implicitly or explicitly, to the most famous of literary students, Hamlet, and appear more melancholy and ineffectual than monstrous. Comparing the two brings into focus the political and economic implications of the Schoolhouse Gothic, an oblique feature of Beasts but more prevalent in works like Poe’s ‘William Wilson’ and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which, as I have previously argued, portray the democratizing promise of American schooling as a grimly parodic threat. In comparison, The Sound and The Fury and The Accursed say less about democracy than about capitalism. Harvard represents for Quentin Compson an accursed future of loss and failure that must be avoided, a capitalistic nightmare inferior to the elegant, mythic Southern feudalism he has been raised to mourn, while Princeton represents for Josiah Slade an accursed capitalist past that can be replaced with a more promising socialist future. Quentin’s breakdown is permanent and irrevocable, while Josiah’s makes possible the development of a new, more ethical consciousness, one in which Enlightenment values such as intellectual curiosity, unsentimental objectivity, and faith in human reason are recuperated and redirected, but only after being severed from their customary but accursed educational, political, religious, and economic entanglements. 

The Accursed, a sprawling, summary-resistant tale of the so-called ‘Crosswicks Curse’ that plagued Princeton, New Jersey and the Ivy League university for which it is known from 1905-1906 features a large cast of characters and weaves together the fictional and the historical, the realistic and the fantastic. Its fictitious author, M.W. Van Dyck II, eventually revealed to be the son of a Princeton Philosophy professor who died trying to murder him when he was an infant, is pedantic, prudish, anxious about his authority as a historian, and prone to interrupting the story to comment on the shortcomings of previous chroniclers, brag about obtaining and deciphering a wide array of often bizarre primary sources, bemoan the challenges of writing the history of such a singular event, and offer his personal opinions about various figures and topics in the narrative. The tale he constructs illustrates what a central Gothic formula defined by Chris Baldick: ‘a fearful sense of inheritance in time [a curse]’ combined ‘with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space [a trap], these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration.’ While curses in the Gothic can be metaphorical in nature, Oates’s titular curse appears to be literal, complete with ghosts, demons, vampires, and hellish alternate dimensions that may be manifestations of supernatural intervention, psycho-sexual repression, mass hysteria, or some combination of the three. As is typical in the Schoolhouse Gothic, the trap is the claustrophobic campus, here inseparable from the equally claustrophobic town after which it is named.

Josiah Slade is the grandson of prominent and beloved minister, former New Jersey governor, and Princeton University President Winslow Slade, and the heir to Slade fortune, which came from ‘railroads, real estate, manufacturing, and banking,’ and, further in the past, from the slave trade. When the curse begins, Josiah has already graduated from Princeton, abandoned his studies at West Point out of restlessness and boredom, and occupied himself with unknown pursuits out west before returning home with a vague notion that he might study German idealist philosophy at Heidelberg or pursue a career in law, medicine, or journalism. The curse first strikes publicly at his sister’s ill-fated wedding and appears to have arisen from a decades-old crime committed by his grandfather when he was a student. During the time of the curse, Josiah inadvertently kills his favorite professor while trying to prevent him from murdering his own infant son (the author), injures one of his literary heroes, suffers a mental breakdown caused in large part by his failure to protect his sister or defend the family honor from invisible enemies, embarks on an ill-advised polar expedition to escape voices telling him to cleanse Princeton in an apocalyptic fire, and takes a suicidal plunge into the icy water to rescue his phantom sister from a demonic seducer. After the curse, he repudiates his family privilege, joining (along with his sister) an agrarian socialist commune sixty miles away from Princeton, and marrying an artistically-inclined childhood friend known in their hometown as a scandalously independent woman. 

Despite their very different fates, Josiah Slade and Quentin Compson share a series of instructive commonalities. Both come from prominent, ‘aristocratic’ families (one southern, one northeastern) and grow up in the shadow of legendary but morally compromised grandfathers; both are willing to endure hellfire to defend the honor of their sexually fallen sisters but fail in their chivalric quests and experience psychological breakdowns as a result; both hear voices and drown themselves. In addition, both are students at Ivy League universities in the first decade of the twentieth century and suffer from a profound sense of guilt over this privilege. In fact, school is truly ‘accursed’ for each.

These similarities are unlikely to be accidental, given Oates’s well-documented fascination and engagement with William Faulkner. Oates described herself to Lee Milazzo as having been ‘bowled over by Faulkner,’ and she told Greg Johnson that as a high school student, she wrote ‘a bloated trifurcated novel that had as its vague model The Sound and The Fury.’ Johnson also reports that in a 1982 interview, she described Faulkner as ‘the most significant writer’ among her contemporaries. Scholars have noted Faulker’s influence on Oates; for example, Anna Sonser’s A Passion for Consumption: The Gothic Novel in America, describes Bellefleur, one of Oates’s most famous and successful novels, as ‘an imitative recasting’ of Absalom, Absalom, ‘an ironic inversion that engages the metanarrative that tells the “story” of America, its mythology, omissions, and distortions.’ In addition to actively imitating and imaginatively revising Faulkner’s works in her own writing, Milazzo notes that she has taught at least one of the novels: The Sound and The Fury

Readers will not readily connect frightening schools, teachers, and students with the writings of William Faulkner, who did not complete any formal education past the 11th grade, though he attended classes at the University of Mississippi for three semesters before dropping out. Instead, Faulkner’s name calls to mind the decaying houses, farms, and barns of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi and the haunted, luckless, or depraved planters, servants, and criminals who inhabit them. Indeed, biographer Philip Weinstein asserts that schools ‘never play more than a negligible role’ in Faulkner’s works. Nevertheless, educators and schools that do appear in those works, both within and beyond Yoknapatawpha, are typically portrayed as cruel, corrupt, or incarcerating. For example, before marrying Anse Bundren, Addie, the adulterous wife and distant mother of As I Lay Dying, had been a schoolteacher whose only pleasure in the job was whipping the children in her care. Hapless schoolteacher Labove attempts to sexually assault young student Eula Varner, and Houston runs away from school and the woman who pushed him through it in The Hamlet. A date to a school dance gone wrong becomes the occasion for horrific violence for university student Temple Drake, who then condemns an innocent man to a terrible death, in Sanctuary. But the most Gothic of Faulkner’s schools is neither in nor near Yoknapatawpha: it is Harvard University, where Quentin Compson narrates Absalom, Absalom and commits suicide in The Sound and The Fury.

While The Accursed presents a global, multi-faceted view of 1905 Princeton University, The Sound and the Fury portrays 1910 Harvard University exclusively through Quentin’s eyes and ultimately as Quentin’s death. For Quentin, Harvard represents at once the ‘dream’ of his emotionally unavailable mother, the loss of the family land particularly cherished by his mentally stunted brother Benjy, the place that ‘form[ed] [the] character’ of his sister Caddy’s manipulative fiancé Herbert Head, a source of guilt and humiliation, and ‘a fine dead sound.’ Quentin’s obsession with his sister’s purity, combined with his incestuous desire for her, cause him to behave differently from skirt-chasing classmates, who then tease him by calling his roommate Shreve his ‘husband.’ His morbid, guilty preoccupations also lead him to a Quixotic fight with the strong, handsome, nouveau riche Gerald Bland. Ultimately, Harvard comes to symbolize for Quentin not a cursed past, but a (paradoxically) cursed future, the defeat of an elegant past at the hands of a crude modernity.

 

The section of the novel narrated by Quentin takes place on the day of his suicide, and, although it moves unpredictably back and forth between the past and present, it remains a linear narrative punctuated by the coercive, oppressive bells of Harvard.  Quentin’s section opens in the morning as he contemplates his watch, remembers his Father’s aphorisms on the absurdity of fighting time, and endures Shreve’s interrogation about his plans, accompanied by the reminder that the bell indicating the start of chapel will ring in two minutes.  When the bell does ring, Quentin notes that ‘it stayed in the air, more felt than heard, for a long time.  Like all the bells that ever rang still ringing in the long dying light-rays and Jesus and Saint Francis talking about his sister.’ While the bells evoke in Quentin memories of Caddy’s ill-fated wedding, among other things, they also symbolize time, Harvard, and the whole slew of cultural expectations that Quentin strenuously resists.  They also call to mind uncomfortable childhood moments in which his ‘insides’ would ‘move . . . in school when the bell rang’ because his countdown to release ‘never could come out even with the bell,’ and he would lose track of his lesson and risk humiliation.  Before committing suicide, Quentin embarks on a day-trip designed as an escape from what Foucault’s Discipline and Punish would suggest are the surveillance tactics of the university and of society at large—tactics known to produce the likes of banker Herbert Head—culminating in the ultimate escape of suicide, defined as the state of being ‘dead in Harvard.’  During the course of the day, he identifies with the uncatchable fish sought by the three boys at the lake and tells them that it ‘deserves to be let alone’ and becomes agitated at the sound of the bells. Quentin’s association of the bells at Harvard with the bells at Caddy’s wedding makes thematic sense in that both signal the loss of the mythical past for which Quentin longs, leading him to muse, ‘Somewhere I heard bells once.  Mississippi or Massachusetts.  I was.  I am not.’  His suicide is the concurrent denial of Caddy’s wedding (his primal loss), of Harvard, and, finally, of modernity itself, all of which are equivalent to non-being.  Confronted by the forces of surveillance impinging upon him, he retreats into the feudal past and rejects the self and the future that Harvard offers. In the end, he grimly notes that calculating the amount of weight in flat-irons required to drown himself is ‘the only opportunity [he] seemed to have for the application of Harvard.’ 

Although Oates’s portrayal of Princeton University is more layered than Faulkner’s portrayal of Harvard, Princeton is as ‘accursed’ for Josiah Slade as Harvard is for Quentin Compson. The university represents, however, a blighted past that Josiah must reject rather than a cursed future he must annihilate himself to prevent. The Accursed depicts the Princeton of 1905 as a place of mystified but anxious white male authority characterized by a terror of encroaching modernity not unlike Quentin’s. This fearful future is marked especially in Oates’s portrayal by the threatening demands of ‘Jews’, ‘Negroes’, ‘hysterical females demanding “rights”’, and teachers of ‘heretical evolutionism’ and ‘atheistical socialism,’ groups whose demands are both feared and derided by every authority figure in the novel, including the ones with reputations for being politically or culturally progressive. Woodrow Wilson, the president of Princeton during the Crosswicks Curse and a central character in the novel, repeats with pride that the university will incorporate ‘no new ideas’ into its curriculum, signaling the commitment of the academy to defend tradition at all costs. Oates depicts the university as inseparable from the town and its entrenched class hierarchies and as serving a critical function in preserving and perpetuating those hierarchies, replicated in a student body which, while ‘naturally gracious and schooled in courtesy,’ concerns itself less with intellectual discovery than with getting into, while cruelly banishing others from, exclusive ‘eating clubs,’ and with perpetrating ‘unspeakable’ hazing practices discussed in hushed tones throughout the novel. The university’s stance of intellectual detachment enables it to give an apparently rational defense of irrational prejudices, as well as a veneer of respectability. In addition, its much-celebrated integration of learning and faith appears in the novel as pathological enmeshment, where vulnerabilities or deficiencies in one are hastily shored up by the other in an endless cycle that unleashes terror upon university and town alike.

 

    Josiah’s privileged background and family money protect him from even the (relatively light) hazing that Quentin experiences and prevent him from seeing this dark underbelly of Princeton until the curse strikes. In contrast to the narrator of The Accursed, who simply ‘will not speak’ of his undergraduate days at Princeton except to report that he would commit suicide rather than relive them, Josiah had been a ‘sought-after’ freshman, not unlike Quentin, whom Mrs. Bland pursues as a friend for her son out of respect for the ‘blundering sense of noblesse oblige’ she associates with his background. Josiah had been, in fact, ‘the envy and awe of all’ after receiving and ‘ignor[ing], in his Slade arrogance,’ an invitation to join Ivy, the most exclusive eating club on campus. His friends, identified as ‘few,’ came from ‘elsewhere’ in the school, outside the coveted cliques and clubs. In many ways, Josiah is an ideal student in that he ‘merit[ed] high grades’ and was ‘at times, even a brilliant …student’ and in that ‘friendship and popularity had not seemed to him the point of college.’ After Josiah graduates, however, the curse and the suffering that it brings to the Slade family force him to rethink everything about his identity and his education.

 

    Josiah’s sense of self, deeply bound to family history and tradition, begins to disintegrate when that family and those traditions appear radically altered amidst the ravages of the Crosswicks Curse. More significant for our purposes, however, is the part of Josiah’s identity rooted in his relationship with his Dr. Pearce van Dyck, the narrator’s father and Josiah’s favorite professor. Josiah feels less ‘comfortable’ with his own father Augustus than with van Dyck, a long-time friend of Josiah’s family and ‘a specialist in Kantian idealism,’ who is ‘taciturn by nature, scholarly and earnest’ and known for ‘expecting a great deal of his students, and grading them severely.’ In other words, Josiah resembles many Schoolhouse Gothic protagonists in that he strongly desires the approval of a professor that is clearly marked as a parental figure. Part of what attracts Josiah to this professor is his lack of sentimentality, which Josiah associates with van Dyck’s chosen discipline, Philosophy, in which ‘one cuts through subterfuge …; one goes for the jugular.’ When a ghost appears on Slade property, Josiah picks up some unusual flowers near the sighting of the apparition and brings them to van Dyke, an amateur botanist. Van Dyck tries to identify them and explain their pungent odor and rapid decomposition. Josiah does not initially tell him where he found the flowers but basks in his professor’s confident pronouncements, which ‘seemed the very essence of the philosophical temperament: to wrench some sort of sense out of senselessness,’ an effort that ‘gives the illusion of comfort.’ Van Dyck’s identification of the flower as a cala lily turns out to be wrong, and the flower is eventually revealed as a toxic ‘Angel Trumpet’ capable of producing ‘a gradual deterioration’ of the brain characterized by ‘paranoid suspicions and rage.’ Shortly after Josiah brings the dessicated flowers to his professor, van Dyck begins to do what so many Princetonians do in the course of the novel: he ‘turns.’ The line between ‘turning’ and simply having one’s true self revealed is, however, never very clear in The Accursed.

The Philosophy professor’s uncompromising rationalism and philosophical detachment deeply appeal to Josiah but come to manifest themselves in horrific ways that lead to van Dyck’s death and Josiah’s terrible, Oedipal guilt. As disappearances, demon sightings, and murders begin to happen with regularity in Princeton, van Dyck’s wife Johanna becomes pregnant with a child that van Dyck tells Josiah cannot be his own. The professor invites Josiah to observe and admire an intricate ‘Scheme of Clues’ he has created in order to track manifestations of the curse and the activities of mysterious and possibly demonic interlopers, including Annabelle Slade’s seducer. Van Dyck explains that the chart represents his attempt to bring the ratiocination of his hero Sherlock Holmes to bear on the Crosswicks Curse. When Josiah protests that the Holmes mysteries are not real, van Dyck responds with ‘disapproval’ at being challenged by ‘a former, favorite student’ who should, in the professor’s mind, regard him as a ‘protector, mentor—savior.’ The professor defends his fictional hero by describing the Holmes tales as ‘distillations’ of life’s ‘messy, impenetrable mysteries’ that are, in fact, ‘superior’ to real life. After some time passes, and the van Dycks have temporarily relocated to an isolated and purportedly haunted property belonging to Johanna’s family, Johanna invites Josiah to visit as a way of distracting her increasingly insane husband from his chart. The Philosophy professor then receives a nocturnal visit from Sherlock Holmes himself, presumably a hallucination brought on by the toxic flower Josiah brought to his office. Holmes admonishes van Dyck to eschew the ‘contemptible’ ‘life of emotion and sentiment’ so as to clear his mind and see that his son is ‘the spawn of a demon’ that the professor must kill even if doing so means murdering his wife as well. Holmes enlists the professor’s ‘beloved Kant’ in making his case that ‘local law’ must sometimes be ‘transcended.’ Van Dyck moves to attack the child with a hot poker, and Josiah, awakened by Johanna’s screams and mysteriously admonished by his sister Annabelle’s voice, rushes to the nursery, grabs the hot poker with his bare hands, and knocks his professor to the floor. Van Dyck soon dies from a head injury, adding to Josiah’s considerable burden of accumulated guilt and filling him with despair for betraying a man who had ‘trusted’ him ‘as a son’ and for turning from van Dyck’s ‘admiring pupil’ to his ‘executioner.’ Although Josiah does not publicly admit to bringing the poisonous flowers to van Dyck’s office and is found ‘blameless’ in his professor’s death, Josiah becomes increasingly paranoid that ‘all of Princeton [is] observing him, and passing judgment,’ as though he bore the ‘mark of Cain.’ Killing the professor he most loved and admired, even in defense of a helpless baby, irrevocably alters both Josiah’s self-concept and his relationship to Princeton.

Unlike Quentin Compson, for whom a ‘Harvard self’ is a contradiction in terms, Josiah Slade flails helplessly as his Princeton identity slowly disintegrates. His violent encounter with Dr. van Dyck, whose philosophical detachment had become both a mask and a justification for murderous impulses, is paradigmatic of his relationship to Princeton. The Crosswicks Curse exposes a nightmare world that reveals the worst in everyone he has been trained to respect and exposes the dark side of everything that Josiah has been trained to be—proud, refined, paternalistic, detached.

The Crosswicks Curse destroys the complacency and pride that came with Josiah’s wealth, status, and elite education. During his sister Annabelle’s absence from Princeton, she appears to have been suffering in a hellish alternate dimension, the ‘Bog Kingdom,’ where servants have overthrown aristocrats and subjected them to degrading, deadly service and horrific abuse. Instead of interpreting her experience as a nightmare revolution and an affirmation of the inherited order, she resolves to ‘consecrate’ herself ‘to freeing … fellow-sufferers’ and after she returns (and dies giving birth to a deformed and possibly monstrous child, who also dies), Josiah begins to read the works of socialist writers like Jack London and Upton Sinclair. Josiah is alarmed to discover that Sinclair’s most famous work, The Jungle, exposes the unsanitary conditions and shocking labor practices in meat-packing plants owned by Slade family friends. After reading The Jungle, he realizes with great mortification that his expensive education has left him wholly ignorant of basic realities such as the sources of his own wealth as well as the wealth of the rest of his set. Although he experiences ‘envy’ and ‘a yearning for his lost youth’ while watching Princeton undergraduates go about their studies, Josiah feels an increasing ‘revulsion for his ‘Slade-self, seeing this individual through the eyes of others, as one of privilege and shame in equal measure.’ 

The Crosswicks Curse also brings religious disillusionment. Although Josiah is skeptical by nature and has ‘long abandoned the hope of acquiring his grandfather Winslow’s combining of faith and intelligence,’ Winslow’s reasonable, moderate, post-Enlightenment Presbyterianism is an integral part of Josiah’s upbringing and sensibility. As a young child, he had even ‘imagined’ Winslow to be ‘God himself.’ By the end of the novel, however, Winslow has confessed to murdering a young girl and allowing another man to be executed for the crime, an old injustice that appeals to have triggered the Crosswicks Curse. This blatant hypocrisy, however, represents only the simplest part of the novel’s commentary on institutional religion and its enmeshment in industry, politics, and education. The novel’s epilogue suggests that Winslow regarded the curse as God’s punishment for experiencing true love for his grandchildren and failing to live up to a dark ‘Covenant.’ In a bizarre final sermon that Winslow spoke about but died before he could deliver, a sermon the author claims to have acquired years later at an estate auction, Winslow declares that after his crime, God revealed to him that he treasures men most ‘WHEN THEY GROVEL IN DESPAIR’ and ‘TAKE NO SOLACE IN HUMAN LOVE.’  At this time, God also agreed to protect Winslow from disgrace and punishment if he would ‘preach discord while employing a vocabulary of love’ and ‘disguise the workings of evil on earth with a pacifist smile.’ In other words, just as the novel presents Dr. van Dyck’s philosophical detachment in a horrific light, it also highlights the role religious moderates of the period played in perpetuating injustice. The epilogue also adds to the novel’s commentary on class by intimating that Winslow’s nightmarish vision of God may be a product of the distortions that come with pride and privilege. Winslow writes in his sermon, ‘I am a Slade, and ordained by God; and guilty of no crime; for all that falls from my hand must be God’s own desire, and cannot be deemed sin.’ The Accursed simultaneously indicts religious moderates whose reasonableness and caution mask a deeper complicity with institutional evil and a wealthy class whose extreme sense of entitlement allows for no distinction between its behavior and God’s will. Neither identity remains an option for Josiah.

Given the hypocrisy and violence lurking within Josiah’s ‘dreamlike’ town and ‘enchanted’ university, it is little wonder that he becomes increasingly ‘altered and strange’ as the ‘jeering voices’ in his head instruct him to ‘purify’ Princeton with a ‘torch.’ Like Quentin Compson, he is plagued by fantasies of suicide. Unlike Quentin, he struggles mightily against them rather than calmly and quietly succumbing. To escape Princeton, he joins an ill-conceived and under-resourced expedition to the South Pole reminiscent of Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, explaining in a letter to his parents that ‘the Southern sky has no history, …& no memory; no mind.’ Early in the journey, he obtains a brief respite from the voices, but they eventually return, urging him to commit all manner of heinous and self-destructive acts, from seducing and murdering the captain of the ship (provocatively named ‘Oates’) to plunging into the arctic waters so that he might investigate the sea like a proper ‘man of science.’ Increasingly, he sees the ‘Ice Kingdom’ as his own ‘Scheme of Clues,’ and he is visited by visions of his grandfather, his Philosophy professor, and many other figures from his past. When he finally plummets into the sea, he does so in the belief that he is rescuing Anabelle from the ice, marking even his suicide as a gesture of hope. That hope is fully realized when the Crosswicks Curse is lifted, an event that coincides with the moment that Josiah’s recently deceased cousin Todd defeats Annabelle’s demonic seducer in a game of draughts in the Bog Kingdom, as well as the moment that Winslow Slade dies at the front of a crowded church eager to hear the simultaneously esteemed and cursed Princetonian deliver a sermon. At this time, all of Winslow Slade’s grandchildren are miraculously restored to life. Having experienced a complete breakdown of identity, however, Josiah leaves his Princeton self behind forever.

Despite the myriad similarities between Quentin Compson and Josiah Slade, their stories imply quite different views of history, modernity, gender, class, and learning. Quentin, incapable of empathy and lost in a world of abstractions (family honor, southern womanhood, noblesse oblige) rendered meaningless by history, succumbs to narcissism and madness. His story dramatizes the pathos of losing a cherished, though untenable and defeated, way of life that Harvard, ‘a fine dead sound,’ cannot replace. He neither sees nor desires a future, particularly one exemplified by the crass ways and tastes of nouveau riche Harvard classmates like Gerald Bland. In contrast, Josiah ‘discover[s] that a traditional way of thinking, whether of theology, intercollegiate sports, or the eating clubs on Prospect Avenue, was disagreeable to him’ and rejects the ‘accursed’ customs and habits of his upbringing and education. Instead of surrendering to religious fatalism or melancholy; adopting a narrow and imperious but acceptably ‘masculine’ rationalism; clinging to fantasies of racial superiority and inherited privilege; or pursuing success on bourgeois capitalist terms, Josiah embraces an agrarian socialism and takes his place in a community committed to promoting social justice and caring for (rather than dominating) one another and the earth.

Although the novel concludes on a decidedly anti-capitalist note, Oates does not canonize the socialists who play a role in the tale. In fact, she depicts Upton Sinclair as earnest but pedantic and devoted to an asceticism that is destructive to his own health as well as that of his young wife, who contemplates suicide and eventually leaves Upton and returns with their son to her well-to-do family. Worse, she portrays Jack London as a narcissistic, hyper-masculine alcoholic whose socialism is compromised by fantasies of racial superiority. When Josiah meets the very drunk London in a restaurant after a socialist rally planned by Sinclair, London wrongly accuses Josiah of sending covert ‘signals’ to his lady-friend, and a fight ensues in which Josiah ends up knocking London to the floor just as he did to his beloved professor, though London does not die from his head injury. Despite the failings of these characters, as well as the fact that 2013 is hardly an historical vantage point from which the socialist vision of the early 20th century can be portrayed without irony, that vision is presented within her novel as the only real alternative to a sordid and corrupt Princeton.

Significantly, Oates presents Josiah’s new socialist consciousness as one that recuperates certain aspects of the Enlightenment humanist tradition typically rendered horrific in the Schoolhouse Gothic. The qualities that made Josiah Slade an ideal student—his curiosity, his earnest but unsentimental bookishness, his habits of observation and analysis, his skeptical nature, his Enlightenment faith in the human mind—do not destroy him and the people around him, as they do in most works of the Schoolhouse Gothic. Instead, those qualities enable him to play a significant role in making the ‘Helicon Home Colony’ a success, ‘self-sustaining, and even profitable,’ as he and his comrades teach themselves ‘such disciplines as agronomics, organic agriculture, animal husbandry, and greenhouse-horticulture.’ His Enlightenment frame of mind is, however, divorced from the corrupting influences and interests of Princeton society and its esteemed university. The end of the novel provides scant details but paints an idyllic picture marred only by ‘an arson-set fire’ targeting the colony, a fire survived by all of the principals. The novel proper ends with the ‘double wedding’ of Josiah and Wilhelmina and Annabelle and Yaeger Ruggles, at which Upton Sinclair proclaims, ‘It is the dawn of a new day! Revolution now!’ Although an epilogue containing Winslow’s disturbing sermon follows this exultant scene, Josiah is left secure and happy. Instead of continuing his prestigious formal education, as he once seemed destined to do, he chooses to join a community of learners devoted to one another and to nature. As such, he represents a new development in the Schoolhouse Gothic: the student who escapes the curse of institutional schooling and breaks its cycle of terror.

Juhl and Jørgensen have described the Gothic novel as ‘a protest against bourgeois rationalism which claims that human reason can master nature as well as itself.’ Such a formulation identifies the dark underbelly of the Enlightenment not as human reason itself, but as human reason enmeshed in capitalist exploitation, bent on domination, and unchecked by the equally human capacity for respect or empathy. It is precisely this type of ‘bougeois rationalism’ that Josiah rejects. We could attribute his achievement to hero worship on the part of an unreliable narrator who owes Josiah his very life and may wish to remove his rescuer, ideologically and physically, from a town and university he regards as hopelessly compromised. We could also credit Josiah’s renunciations to the fantastic elements of the novel in which he appears, a novel unbound to strictures of realism that might render his choices implausible. While these formal considerations do ironize Josiah’s portrayal, the fact remains that in The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates has granted a student character an uncharacteristically happy ending that sharply contrasts with the bleak fates suffered by most of his fellow Princetonians and by other students in her own Schoolhouse Gothic canon. By imagining an alternative socialist future for this character, she foregrounds political and economic considerations that Gothic and Schoolhouse Gothic texts typically incorporate but sometimes downplay or obscure. At the novel’s conclusion, Josiah has embraced not the familiar, seductive posture of neutrality that masks a deeper complicity with the capitalist status quo, but rather a healthy rationalism directed towards achieving harmony with the environment and with others. He has repudiated the inherited wealth, corrosive elitism, destructive competition, and mystified institutional power of his time—and challenged students and educators alike to imagine how we might do the same in our own.

Sherry R. Truffin was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio and holds English degrees from Baldwin-Wallace University (BA, 1993), Cleveland State University (MA, 1995), and Loyola University Chicago (Ph.D., 2002). She has held teaching posts at colleges and universities in Georgia, Illinois, and Ohio, and she is currently an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University in North Carolina, where she teaches courses in American Literature and English Composition. Her research interests include Gothic fiction, popular culture, and literary stylistics. In addition to her first monograph, Schoolhouse Gothic, she has published essays on works by Edgar Allan Poe, James Baldwin, Chuck Palahniuk, Donna Tartt, Stephen King, Bret Easton Ellis, and Joyce Carol Oates. She has also written about postmodern storytelling in The X-Files and the Gothic literature of New Orleans, Louisiana.

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Bauer, Margaret D. (2000), ‘“I have sinned in that I have betrayed innocent blood”: Quentin’s Recognition of His Guilt’, Southern Literary Journal, 32:2, 70-89.

Brooks, Cleanth (1952), ‘Primitivism in The Sound and The Fury’, English Institute Essays, 13-14.

Faulkner, William (1930), As I Lay Dying, New York: Vintage International, 1985.

Faulkner, William (1929), The Sound and The Fury, ed. David Minter, 2nd ed, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994.

Hanson, Elizabeth (2011), ‘Fellow Students: Hamlet, Horatio, and the Early Modern University’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 62:2, 205-229.

Hanson, Philip J. (1994), ‘The Logic of Anti-Capitalism in The Sound and the Fury’, The Faulkner Journal, 10:1, 3-27.

Johnson, Greg (2006), Joyce Carol Oates: Conversations, 1970-2006, Princeton: Ontario Review Press.

Juhl, Marianne and Bo Hakon Jørgensen (1993), ‘Why Gothic Tales?’ Isak Dinesen: Critical Views, Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press. 88-99.

Milazzo, Lee (1989), Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

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Roberts, Diane (1995), Faulkner and Southern Womanhood, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

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The Dystopian Red Bow

The Dystopian Red Bow

The short story “The Red Bow” by George Saunders superficially is a story about a group of men attempting to find and slay the dogs that kill Emily, the narrator’s daughter. Gradually, the dog hunting becomes more extreme; the hunting group finally launches the policy to kill all animals in the town. In George Saunders’s “The Red Bow”, the story contains the traits of totalitarianism in which the leader uses the propagandas to convince people in the community to totally agree and vote to kill animals to eliminate the threat in response of the death of Emily. These traits--the totalitarian government, the demagogue launching propagandas, and the illogical legislation--in the story imply to readers that this community undoubtedly soon becomes the dystopian society, and lead the readers to recognize the irrationality and injustice of the totalitarian regime.

First of all, a dog hunting team is a model of the totalitarian government. For instance, the group is egocentric and wants everything to go the way they want regardless of the feelings of others. They go to visit Bourne, an old man who considers his dog Cookie as a best friend, and decide to shoot infected Cookie in the field. They just would like to get revenge on the dog by killing it regardless of how mournful Bourne is. Also, they go to Father Terry’s place to check up his dog Merton whether it is infected. Although Uncle Matt has not been sure about Merton’s symptom yet, he arbitrarily shoots it dead, in the name of validity, to make sure that the infection would not be spread. However, the readers learn from Ed’s narration that Uncle Matt hates Father Terry as hell. It is a reason why Matt accuses Terry without any evidences that Father Terry would tell nothing if he notices the symptom of his dog. Impliedly, the readers know that Matt kills Merton not only because he would like to stop the infection but also because he is biased against Father Terry. At this point, the readers notice the hypocrisy of the hunting group, and discern the injustice and insensitivity of it as the tyrannical regime ruled by a small group of people without democratic ideals.

Secondly, Uncle Matt is the representative of a pragmatic demagogue of the state. He is effectively capable of convincing the villagers to have the same idea like him by using his propagandas. He uses a photo of “color-enhanced” red bow with Emily’s photo and “tiny teethmarks” (which is supposed to be dogs’ teeth marks) as symbolic reminders to enhance the community’s anger towards the dogs. Also, he, wearing a T-shirt with Emily’s smiling face on it, holds up the ‘big new bow’ before the crowd to unite the villagers to fight with the brute animals. Moreover, he makes a great persuasive speech as he says, “All of this may seem confusing but it is not confusing if we remember that it is all about This, simply This, about honoring This, preventing This.” He unites the community by getting rid of their confusion at first and convincing the villagers to remember the loss of Emily. Therefore, Uncle Matt can practically propagandize against the animals and induce people to share the same emotion and wrath to agree with his policy to kill all animals in the village. The readers could notice that all propagandas are made up and hardly true. Whoever makes them surely has political agenda which coerce the citizens to worship the state, to think that life under the regime is good and just, and to think that all threats must be completely eliminated. 

Besides the dictatorial government and the effective demagogue, the new legislation of community plays a key role in the story. In the story there are some new rules launched after Emily’s death. For example, Uncle Matt and Dr. Vincent claim themselves as the experts and use the scientific knowledge to launch a new policy “Three-Point Emergency Plan” to be a resolution; all animals must receive an “Evaluation”, all “infected or suspected infected” animals must be terminated and burnedat once to prevent the “second-hand infection.” Also, Uncle Matt claims that the evaluation is reasonable because the assessment of finding the suspected infected animals is done by “fair-minded persons.” Furthermore, another violent law is not only against animals but also against humans as Ed’s wife declares, “Kill every dog, every cat. Kill every mouse every bird. Kill every fish. Anyone objects, kill them too.” Obviously, the readers realize that these rules are the trait of dystopian world. The assessment which is judged by so-called “fair-minded” persons cannot be surely objectively accurate; and it does not seem just at all. In addition, the readers surely recognize the illogicality of the strict conformity that the dissenters are not wanted and must be sentenced to the death penalty like the animals. The readers are capable of discovering that the unfair and unreasonable laws launched by the tyranny which could not only fix the problems but also cause more difficult ones.

All in all, in “The Red Bow” by George Saunders, the readers realize the irrationality and injustice of totalitarianism by learning from the depiction of the story which the characteristics of totalitarianism exist through the story. The story makes the readers predict that the community, in the near future, would become a dystopian society ruled by the totalitarian government; Uncle Matt is inclined to be the first leader of the state. Also, the citizens are completely manipulated to do what the state wants; they would comply with the state’s policies just like they always do. They would examine each other; if someone does not follow the norms, they would destroy the dissenters. Therefore, if the readers do not want their societies to become like this community, they must not follow the same way that the villagers in “The Red Bow” do. 

Kitipong Metharattanakorn is a senior undergraduate at Thammasat University, Thailand with a major in English Literature and a minor in Sociology and Anthropology. He is interested in feminism, culture and society, gender, and politics. He likes travelling because he wants to know whether I can get away from myself by moving from one place to another.

THE ART OF TRANSLATION

THE ART OF TRANSLATION

My interest in translation began in high school, as we had to translate English and Spanish literary works into French. Throughout my “classe préparatoire”, I had to do not only translations into French but also translations into English and Spanish. For instance, I had to translate into English Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir and translate into Spanish Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse

This labour of translation requires precision and a sense of detail that consists in choosing the right word in accordance with the context. As a result, one has to be sensitive to the original text but on the other hand, a good translator needs to have hindsight to produce a translation that does not like one.

That is why I was glad to be the translations organizer for Mia Funk’s Creative Process, which took place in March 2016 at the Sorbonne. Mia sent me the full interviews that she had with writers such as Douglas Kennedy. I had to select the most meaningful extracts and divide them to give them to the four girls who worked on the translations with me: Lou Churin, Ariane Ravier, Lilas Cuby, and Vasilena Koleva.

My selection process had two stages. First, I listened to what Mia told me about writers: how she saw them and painted them. Then, considering what I heard about each writer, I selected the extracts that were most likely to be understood by the public. My goal was to aide comprehension of Mia’s paintings through the extracts posted next to each painting. For example, light-blue tones, which are almost transparent, convey perfectly the dreamy aspect of some writers. In this case, the extract chosen must have a quiet narrative tone.

I chose to translate Hilary Mantel’s entire interview. Everything was fascinating: from her interest in women’s history under Henry VIII to her connection with theatre, everything.

Having been impressed by the intelligence, imagery and intense metaphoric nature of Marie Darrieussecq's interview, meeting her at Mia Funk’s exhibition opening was a great opportunity to get to know her in another way than through her interviews. 

One often says that choosing also means renouncing. Choosing to translate an extract and not another one is the translator’s stance. It is his ability to express himself, because otherwise the translator is the one who totally disappears when he translates someone else’s words. I am very thankful that Mia Funk gave me this opportunity and I hope you will enjoy our translations as much as we enjoy doing them!

Olivia Reulier is currently studying law and philosophy in La Sorbonne. Before that, she was in a literary “classe préparatoire” for two years.

 

L'ART DE LA TRADUCTION

Mon goût pour la traduction a commencé dès le lycée où nous avions à traduire des œuvres littéraires (anglaises et espagnoles). Pendant toute la durée de ma classe préparatoire littéraire, j’ai été amenée à faire non seulement des versions mais aussi des thèmes. Ainsi, nous devions traduire L’Assommoir d’Emile Zola en anglais et Bonjour tristesse de Françoise Sagan en espagnol. Ce travail de traduction nécessite une rigueur et un sens du détail qui consiste à choisir le mot juste en fonction du contexte. Il faut donc être sensible au texte original et également s’en détacher pour proposer une traduction qui n’en paraît pas une. 

C’est pourquoi j’ai été ravie d’être responsable des traductions pour le Creative Process de l’artiste Mia Funk qui a exposé à La Sorbonne en mars 2016. Mia m’envoyait ses interviews entières qu’elle avait eues avec des auteurs comme Douglas Kennedy. Je devais ensuite sélectionner les extraits qui me paraissaient les plus significatifs et répartir les différents extraits aux quatre filles qui travaillaient avec moi sur la traduction : Lou Churin, Ariane Ravier, Lilas Cuby, and Vasilena Koleva.

 

Etant très intuitive, mon processus de sélection des extraits se déroulait en deux temps. D’abord, j’ai écouté ce que Mia me disait de chacun des auteurs, comment elle les voyait et les peignait. Ensuite, en fonction de ce que j’avais entendu des écrivains, je sélectionnais les extraits les plus susceptibles de parler au public, de lui faire comprendre pourquoi Mia les avait peints de cette façon. Ainsi, les tons bleu clair presque transparents traduisent parfaitement le côté rêveur propre à chaque écrivain. Dans ce cas, l’extrait choisi doit avoir un ton plutôt lent et narratif. 

Une interview que j’ai choisi de traduire en entier est celle de Marie Darrieussecq. Tout était passionnant. De son goût pour l’histoire des femmes à l’époque d’Anne Boleyn à son lien avec le théâtre, tout.

Après avoir été impressionné par l’intelligence, l'imagerie et de la métaphore intense nature de son interview. Avoir en plus l’occasion de rencontrer Avoir en plus l’occasion de rencontrer Marie Darrieussecq lors du vernissage a été l’opportunité de rencontrer celle que je connaissais qu’à travers ses interviews !

On dit souvent que choisir c’est renoncer. Choisir de traduire un extrait plutôt qu’un autre est une prise de position de la part du traducteur. C’est la possibilité pour lui de s’exprimer, lui qui s’efface totalement pour traduire avec le plus d’exactitude possible les propos de quelqu’un d’autre. Je remercie Mia Funk de m’avoir laissé cette liberté et j’espère que vous apprécierez nos traductions autant que nous avons apprécié leur composition ! 

Olivia Reulier étudie actuellement le droit et la philosophie à La Sorbonne. Avant cela, elle était dans la littérature «classe préparatoire» pendant deux ans.

Zombies in the Classroom:Education as Consumption in Joyce Carol Oates

Zombies in the Classroom:Education as Consumption in Joyce Carol Oates

"Zombies in the Classroom: Education as Consumption in Two Novellas by Joyce Carol Oates" first published in Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education, Andrew Whelan, Ruth Walker, and Christopher Moore (Eds.). Intellect Ltd., 2013.

George Romero’s 1979 film Dawn of the Dead features what Kyle William Bishop describes as a ‘Gothic mall’ in which survivors of a zombie apocalypse seek shelter, indulge in ‘a fantasy of gluttony,’ and merge ‘life with shopping.’ The living dead, for their part, gravitate to the mall by force of habit or residual memory and in search of living food. The parallel is clear: humans and zombies alike go to the mall to consume. Following Romero’s lead, Edgar Wright’s satirical 2004 film Shaun of the Dead suggests that if a zombie contagion were to wreak havoc on a modern urban population, the walking dead might be indistinguishable from most commuters, office workers, or cell phone users. Since 9/11, there has been a renaissance in zombie cinema, and enterprising filmmakers wishing to capitalize on the trend might be looking for new spaces in which to explore the theme that humans are already zombies. If so, they would do well to consider a Gothic schoolhouse setting.

Nightmarish schools and menacing teachers already make frequent appearances in literature and film that is Gothic in mood, plot, or theme. To review the history of the Gothic as what Davenport-Hines calls a ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ is to see the suitability, if not the inevitability, of the Gothic treatment of education and educators. Schools and schoolteachers are keepers and transmitters of enlightenment, entrusted to transform childish naïveté into confident rationality, replace infantile illusions with hard facts, and initiate students into a life-long quest for knowledge. At the same time, schools and teachers are figures of power. They decide when children work, when they play, when they take trips to the lavatory, and whether they are prodigies or problems. As a result, they can appear to wield an inexhaustible and inscrutable authority. The conflicted mix of promise and terror associated with schools and teachers makes them appropriate subjects for the Gothic, a genre or mode that registers an ambivalence toward post-Enlightenment rationalizations of cultural authority and power similar to what we see in contemporary cultural representations of schools and teachers. 

Previously, I have gathered such representations under the designation ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ and included under this rubric not only fictional works by writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, David Mamet, Stephen King, and Joyce Carol Oates, but also academic and pedagogical discourse by figures such as Michel Foucault and Henry Giroux. Fiction of the Schoolhouse Gothic takes place in a wide variety of settings (primary schools, high schools, universities, and even non-academic settings that are controlled by teachers or academics), but it is united in portraying Western education, its guardians, and its subjects using explicitly Gothic tropes such as the curse, the trap, and the monster. The non-fiction variety of Schoolhouse Gothic characterizes the academy using themes suggested by such tropes: the tyranny of history, the terrors of physical or mental confinement, reification, and miscreation. In the Schoolhouse Gothic, the academy is haunted or cursed by persistent power inequities (of race, gender, class, and age) and, ironically, by the Enlightenment itself, which was to save us from the darkness of the past but which had a dark side of its own. Traps take the form of school buildings, college campuses, classrooms, and faculty offices, which are Enlightenment spaces analogous to the claustrophobic family mansions, monasteries, and convents of old. According to Chris Baldick, when curse meets trap, the result is paranoia and ‘an impression of sickening descent into disintegration.’ To these products can be added violence and new, monstrous creation. In the Schoolhouse Gothic, a haunted, incarcerating academy transforms students into zombies, psychopaths, and machines. The pervasiveness of the Schoolhouse Gothic implies that our educational institutions are sites of significant cultural anxiety, and the zombie subset of the Schoolhouse Gothic suggests more specifically that schools are places in which teachers and students alike consume and are consumed.

Although Joyce Carol Oates has produced a large and diverse body of work, she is best known for provocative, violent works that examine American culture through the prism of the family, as Wesley argues; appropriate and revise a masculine literary tradition; as Daly contends; and dramatize the divisions of the self, particularly the female self, as both Creighton and Daly maintain. Creighton describes Oates as ‘deeply, if somewhat ironically, subscribed to the traditions of American romanticism’ and, as the editor of Plume’s American Gothic Tales (1996), Oates is no stranger to Romanticism’s dark sister. Further, Oates has returned throughout her career to the school as a source or scene of alienation, abuse, and violence; ‘In the Region of Ice’ (1967), for example, is loosely based on her experiences teaching a troubled young Jewish student who eventually planned and executed a public murder/suicide at a synagogue (she revisited this subject in ‘Last Days’, 1985). Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (1993) features a group of high school students who, among other things, conspire to publicly humiliate a high school math teacher who degrades one gang member in class and gropes her breasts in detention. In Zombie (1995) and Beasts (2002), Oates develops and enhances the Schoolhouse Gothic by comparing schooling to zombification and using consumption as a metaphor for the effects of formal education. Both novels feature hallmarks of the Gothic such as haunted, paranoid protagonists, claustrophobic spaces, and monstrous behavior. These works portray the academy as a cursed, suffocating place in which various forms of mystified authority make monsters both of those who wield its power and those who are subjected to that power. Considered together, they use the trope of the zombie to suggest that schooling does not enlighten young minds and develop their capacity for higher thought but rather enslaves and consumes them, transforming them into mindless servants, amoral shells, or savage cannibals. Education becomes a form of consumption in which the line between consumer and consumed disappears.

Both Zombie and Beasts liken students to the zombies of Caribbean folklore and of 1930s and 1940s cinema, zombies created and controlled by voodoo priests or, in this case, professors. According to Kyle Bishop, the zombie is ‘a fundamentally American creation’ (author’s emphasis), the ‘only canonical movie monster to originate in the New World,’ and a ‘creature born of slavery and hegemony.’ The American movie zombie originates not in European folklore or literature, as do most monsters of the Gothic, but rather in the complex colonial history of the Americas, especially the Caribbean, as translated into film. The zombie has a ‘complicated genealogy’: it is a figure from Haitian folklore co-opted into narrative by western observers. The word zombie, according to ethnographers Ackermann and Gaulthier, is related to African terms for ‘corpse’ or ‘body without a soul’ and the zombie is a creature ‘deprived of will, memory, and consciousness,’ as well as speech, by a voodoo priest or sorcerer. The zombie is a slave, a silent worker whose humanity has been consumed and whose existence is a living death. Bishop argues that before George Romero’s 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead transformed the zombie into the mutilated, decaying, lumbering cannibal so familiar to moviegoers, the source of fear was not the zombie itself, but rather the one who could create a zombie. 

The portrayal of teacher as zombie-maker and puppeteer animates Schoolhouse Gothic, especially in Oates’s Zombie and Beasts. The former novel is told from the point of view of the zombie-maker, and the latter from the perspective of the zombie/student who eventually destroys her master/professor. Zombie takes place in the mid-1990s and is inspired by the life of Jeffrey Dahmer in general and by Lionel Dahmer’s A Father’s Story (1994) in particular, the latter being a memoir that Oates reviewed favorably. The narrative alternates between first- and third-person perspectives in a style that is busy, loud, and juvenile, full of sentence fragments, parenthetical asides, capital letters, dashes, and italics, as well as sketches and illustrations. It is divided into two sections: ‘Suspended Sentence’ describes protagonist Quentin P’s family, his past crimes, and his life on probation, and ‘How Things Play Out’ describes, with an exuberance that is jarringly dissonant, the stalking, abduction, and murder of a would-be zombie that Quentin names ‘Squirrel.’ The similarities between Quentin and Dahmer are myriad – the development of alcoholism at a young age, an ability to seem invisible or to project harmlessness, and so on – but among the most significant is the way that Quentin has failed to distinguish himself academically and lives in the shadow of a well-educated, successful father. Jeffrey Dahmer’s father held a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and worked as a chemist with PPG Industries, while Quentin’s father holds dual Ph.D.s, and dual teaching appointments in Physics and Philosophy at his university. When Oates re-imagines Dahmer and his crimes in fiction, she makes academia central to the story, more central than it appears to have been in Dahmer’s life. Her character Quentin associates school with humiliation, surveillance, judgment, and control. It continues to exert a powerful fascination for him well beyond high school graduation, and ultimately becomes the source of his darkest fantasies.

School is omnipresent, and mostly threatening, in Quentin’s life. He is a careless, indifferent student at the technical college that his father, who holds a professorial position at a nearby university, regards patronizingly but nevertheless wants him to attend. Quentin serves as caretaker of an apartment that houses university students, and he easily poses as a graduate student himself when he wants formaldehyde. His sister is a junior high school principal whose interest in him surges after his molestation arrest; as Quentin sees it, ‘having a sex offender for a kid brother is a challenge to her, and she is not one to back off from challenges. Like I am one of her problem students.’ He gives letter grades to his experiments: ‘my first three ZOMBIES—all F’s.’ While stalking a young victim who attends his former high school, Quentin remembers how much he ‘hated’ the school and how he ‘wished’ it had ‘burnt to the ground. With everybody in it.’ His therapist is his father’s university colleague, and his questions remind Quentin of being ‘blank and silent blushing like in school when I could not answer a teacher’s question nor even (everyone staring at me) comprehend it.’ Most of his remarks about school are about being watched, bringing to mind Foucault’s description of schools as sites of modern disciplinary control enacted through surveillance strategies and enforced by the figure of the ‘teacher-judge.’ Quentin’s father is his model for all teachers, but he is an ‘impatient’ man, ‘always finding fault,’ as though ‘his only son was a student failing a course of his.’ As an adult, Quentin’s compulsive avoidance of his father’s judgmental gaze becomes an axiom for life: he continually reminds himself to avoid ‘EYE CONTACT’ with anyone for fear that someone will ‘slide down into [his] soul.’ To be looked at is, for Quentin, to be evaluated and found wanting: it is a profound threat to his personhood.

Quentin fears the professorial gaze, but, sensing its power, goes to a large lecture hall at his father’s university and attends a class that marks the start of his quest to create a zombie that will be his slave and toy. Quentin does not seem sure of his motives for attending the lecture, but he takes steps to ensure that his lecturer-father does not see (i.e., judge) him. He listens to his father speak about cosmic rays, black holes, ‘quantifiable and unquantifiable material,’ and mysterious, undetectable parts of the universe disobedient to known physical laws. The lesson that he takes from the lecture is the insignificance of human life: ‘seeing the Universe like that … you see how fucking futile it is to believe that any galaxy matters let alone … any individual.’ In the moment, however, Quentin watches students furiously taking notes and decides that ‘almost any one of them would be a suitable specimen for a zombie.’ Unlike Quentin, who is thinking about the implications of an unknowable galaxy in which even the laws of physics cannot be taken for granted and finding in his father’s words justification for embracing the monster within, the students are mindlessly consuming instruction and information, apparently with no motive beyond pleasing their professor when exam time comes and earning a letter grade that may or may not reflect understanding or engagement. In this, the most important episode in young Quentin’s life, teaching is dehumanizing in both form and content. The student is represented as a zombie bowing before its master and devouring facts like meals, and the lesson is that moral laws are meaningless and that humanity is inconsequential. The predatory nature of the academic is further underscored when it comes to light that Quentin’s father’s mentor, a famous physicist, had experimented on mentally handicapped children by feeding them radioactive milk. The lecture delivered by the father parallels the experiment performed by his own academic father figure: the latter feeds toxic milk to children, while the former feeds psychologically toxic lessons to students. Both children and students are consumed in their acts of consumption.

Beasts portrays education in much the same way as Zombie but switches the point of view from victimizer to victim, saying more about the process of academic zombification by which a student is rendered incapable of reason, judgment, or discrimination. It also dramatizes the return of the repressed as the slave rebels and the consumed becomes the avenging consumer. The novella opens and closes in 2001, but the bulk recounts four tumultuous months in the mid-1970s, when Gillian, the protagonist, was a student at a women’s college in New England. Early on, Gillian learns that her parents are divorcing and reveals her infatuation with a Creative Writing professor named Andre Harrow, a ‘verbose, bullying’ countercultural figure whose name suggests plunder and pillage. Harrow rhapsodizes about the writings of D.H. Lawrence and the Beats, is rumoured to have been arrested in a Vietnam War protest, and behaves in class like ‘the father who withholds his love, with devastating results.’ Gillian is also fascinated by Harrow’s exotic artist-wife Dorcas, who has recently displayed on campus disturbing, controversial sculptures inspired by ‘primitive’ fertility carvings. As the months proceed, Harrow makes a sexual advance towards Gillian, who pushes him away in confusion. He then claims to have been ‘joking,’ thus supplying ‘the narration, the interpretation, for what had happened, as, in his lectures and workshops, he controlled such information.’ In retaliation, however, Harrow begins to bully and belittle her in class while encouraging her classmates to do the same. Ultimately, Harrow seduces Gillian and draws her into a sexual relationship with himself and his wife. During this time an arsonist begins to victimize the campus, and the suspects include Gillian’s poetry workshop classmates and dorm mates, who are also, it is suggested, fellow victims of the professor and his wife. 

Oates presents Harrow’s teaching as demeaning, exploitative, and manipulative, calculated to make students desperate for his approval and keep them emotionally, intellectually, and ethically off-balance. After Gillian fails to respond to his ‘biting kiss,’ Harrow stops complimenting her poetry in class and starts patronizing it, prompting other students to join in on the attack. In addition to demeaning Gillian individually, he bullies and insults the class as a whole with voyeuristic assignments and misogynist remarks. He scorns and rejects what he calls ‘nice-girl bullshit,’ instructs the students to write journals in which they scrutinize their ‘emotional, physical, sexual lives’ as if they were ‘anatomical specimens,’ and teaches them not to violate the ‘one cardinal rule’ of his class, which is that he not be ‘bored shitless.’ He demands revealing, confessional journals with ‘a focus upon childhood, traumatic and demeaning memories’ and advises against ‘self-censorship,’ which he refers to as ‘self-castration.’ When Dominique jokingly asks if women can be castrated, he responds, ‘Dear girl, women are castrated. You must struggle to reverse your pitiable condition,’ and Gillian recalls that while the students laughed, Harrow ‘wasn’t smiling.’ Harrow teaches them to scorn conventional morality and speaks approvingly of the ancients, whose ‘gods were passions. Obsessions. Appetites’ that ‘terrified’ them. The theme that Gillian derives from her study of Ovid is that ‘human happiness [is] possible only through metamorphosing into the subhuman,’ and Harrow appears to concur with what he calls ‘Ovid’s judgment on the “human.”’ He also praises D.H. Lawrence, who, according to Harrow, prized ‘sensual, sexual, physical love’ but detested ‘“dutiful” love—for parents, family, country, God’ because in it he ‘saw the “rotted edifice” of bourgeois/capitalist morality.’ Such statements frighten and excite his students, and Gillian later reflects that ‘we, Mr. Harrow’s students, had no way of refuting such logic’ and reports that ‘we believed, or wished to believe, it was true’ because ‘it was believed that Andre Harrow knew “everything.”’ Andre Harrow plainly abuses his power in order to strip his students of their defences and render them vulnerable to his advances. At one point, a student says in class, ‘if I’m a puppet, I intend to choose who will be my master. From now on.’ As her classmate speaks, Gillian senses her yearning to look at Harrow. The dazzled, needy young women feed Harrow’s ego, cater to his sexual desires, and even clean his house.

Harrow’s abusive teaching is explicitly compared to ‘soul murder.’ Towards the end of the novel, Gillian and her dorm mate Penelope have a conversation about evil. Gillian takes a morally relativistic position because Harrow would have been ‘furious’ with her if she did not deride conventional, bourgeois values. Penelope suggests that Gillian’s relativism is overly facile, and Gillian assumes that her friend is being contrary out of jealousy. Penelope claims, ‘there’s such a thing as soul murder, … except you can’t see it, the way you see the other.’ She goes on: ‘there are evil people. Cruel people. People who should be punished. If there was anyone to punish them.’ Within the context of the tale, her remarks only make sense in reference to Harrow and his wife. 

‘Soul murder’ is a psychiatric term defined by Leonard L. Shengold in 1979, and refers to a type of abuse whose effects closely resemble zombification. Shengold picked up the term from Daniel Paul Schreber’s nineteenth century Memoirs (1903), themselves the subject of one of Freud’s case histories (1911). Shengold uses the term to describe a specific set of ‘traumatic experiences’; namely, ‘instances of repetitive and chronic overstimulation alternating with emotional deprivation … deliberately brought about by another individual,’ normally a parent or substitute parent. He argues that alternating periods of abuse and neglect distort ‘the primal fantasies that motivate human behavior’ and have a devastating impact on the emotional and intellectual development of the victim, ultimately robbing that victim of an authentic sense of identity. According to Shengold, this kind of abuse ravages the victim’s ‘individuality, his dignity, his capacity to feel deeply (to feel joy, love, or even hate)’ and smothers ‘his capacity to think rationally and to test reality.’ He describes a male patient whose parents, in an effort to toughen him up, had deprived him of warmth and ensured that others did the same. These same parents would ‘cultivate the rivalry’ between the patient and his siblings; they would fight viciously; their fights would often ‘end in turbulent and exhibitionist sex’ near their ‘terrified children’; and they would ‘sometimes disappear for weeks.’ Many such victims become, as Shengold puts it, ‘destructive and self-destructive’ robots. Their humanity is, in short, consumed.

Andre Harrow and his wife can be aptly described as soul murderers, and the negative effects of soul murder are apparent in Gillian and her classmates. The Harrows may not be performing makeshift lobotomies like Quentin P., but they are making zombies out of students nonetheless. The professor and his wife represent substitute parents for Gillian, replacements for biological parents who are cold and negligent. When Gillian visits the Harrows’ home, she is plied with drugs and overly rich food, overwhelmed with noise (from the stereo and/or the pet parrot), and sexually exploited. During the visit that leads to the Harrows’ deaths, Gillian is sickened by the food Dorcas cooks, and she vomits. Disgusted, Dorcas slaps Gillian’s face and pushes her out of the room. The couple proceeds to have sex upstairs, and while she listens to their noises, she thinks, ‘they want me to hear, I’m their witness’ (129). Sometimes the Harrows withhold their attention or their presence altogether, leaving Gillian to feel neglected and abandoned, as is the case with a ‘misunderstanding’ about whether or not Gillian would accompany them on a holiday trip to Paris. Such neglect seems intentionally calculated to increase the pliability and vulnerability of the Harrows’ victims. When Gillian is able to ‘bask’ in the glow of attention and approval, she feels ‘like a dog that has been kicked but is now being petted, and is grateful.’ At school, Harrow compounds the emotional torment of his victims by actively cultivating the rivalry for his attentions and approval among Gillian and her classmates, effectively isolating them from one another. This mistreatment takes its toll on Gillian by disrupting her emotional and intellectual development, leaving her ‘head filled with static,’ rendering all classes but Harrow’s an undifferentiated ‘blur,’ and causing her to look, act, and feel like a ‘sleepwalker,’ a ‘doll,’ a ‘puppet,’ and, of course, a ‘zombie.’ 

Abuse and zombification consume Gillian and her classmates, rendering them anonymous and indistinguishable, even to themselves, as is evidenced by Gillian’s slippage between first-person singular and first-person plural in her narrative: ‘I had no choice,’ ‘we were dazed,’ ‘we felt the sting of his lash.’ Her facelessness is not, however, simply a matter of her own distorted perception. When Gillian follows Dorcas to the post office at the beginning of the story, Dorcas notices her and demands, ‘which of them are you?’, and her words echo in Gillian’s head thereafter, as if to haunt her with fears of her own insignificance. After Gillian and Penelope’s conversation about soul murder, Penelope’s parents arrive to pick her up for the holiday, and they mistake Gillian for another student and call her ‘Sybil.’ When Gillian investigates a file cabinet of pornographic pictures at the home of her professor, she cannot confidently identify a single classmate, but many of the photos remind her of her peers and of herself. She thinks to herself, ‘They’d been drugged, like me. They’d been in love, like me. They would keep these secrets forever. Like me. We are beasts and this is our consolation.’ Clearly, she has learned the lesson that Andre and Dorcas worked so diligently to teach her. When she was first invited to the Harrows’ home, she felt that she was ‘blessed’ and unique because the couple loved her. After she comes upon the pictures, she knows better. She, like the totem to which Dorcas eventually affixes Gillian’s severed braid, is only ‘minimally human,’ stripped of anything that distinguishes her as an individual. 

Teaching in Beasts is enslavement and it is also, of course, consumption. Harrow calls D.H. Lawrence ‘the great prophet of the twentieth century,’ whose ‘god was the god of immediate physical sensation, a god to devastate all other gods,’ and so it is no surprise that Harrow, who relishes the teaching of ancient mythology in which appetites are gods, does not hesitate to satisfy his own cravings. Right before Harrow kisses Gillian the first time, he smiles at her, ‘baring his teeth’ and leaving her ‘shivering as if he’d drawn those teeth over” her. There is more than a little of the cannibal in this professor, and he and his wife eventually consume his students by helping to create the conditions that result in their anorexia. Throughout the novel, Gillian and her classmates lose alarming amounts of weight and appear increasingly skeletal, as though the process of being emotionally and intellectually consumed is manifesting itself physically.

Much of the literature on anorexia, including the work of Calam and Slade, suggests that it represents an attempt by young women who feel powerless to exert some kind of control over their lives and their bodies. The need to feel powerful is particularly acute for those who have experienced sexual abuse, especially at the hands of an authority figure or at times ‘of other major problems and upheavals in their lives,’ such as Gillian’s parents’ divorce. At least one of Gillian’s many doubles also fits the profile of the anorexic; her classmate Marisa is ‘painfully thin,’ perhaps even ‘starving herself to death; and she confesses in workshop to having been sexually abused first by a cousin, then by a family friend, and finally by a ‘much-beloved grade school teacher.’ Eventually, Marisa attempts suicide, confesses to setting the fires on campus, recants her confession, and is hospitalized. When Gillian confesses that she cannot ‘live without’ Harrow, he responds, ‘we don’t want you to live without us either.’ Harrow does more than simply use and abuse his students: he devours them – mind, soul, and body. 

Anorexia has been further linked to ‘soul murder,’ or the reduction of the human to a zombie-like state. Louise Kaplan’s Female Perversions describes anorexia as ‘the outcome of one of those little soul murders of childhood in which, to survive, a child gives up aspects of the self she might have become and instead becomes a mirroring extension of the “all-powerful” parent.’ Female Perversions challenges the psychoanalytic tradition represented by Freud, Karl Abraham, and others that regards perversions as ‘pathologies of sexuality’ that primarily afflict men; in contrast, Kaplan defines perversions as ‘pathologies of gender role identity’ that can be found in both men and women. She argues that identity formation in both men and women is hindered by ‘infantile ideals of sexual prowess demanded of men and sexual innocence demanded of women,’ and that perversions develop when such ‘infantile ideals’ are reinforced rather than challenged by ‘soul-crippling social gender stereotypes’ that ‘assign certain narrowly defined characteristics to one sex, and equally narrow but opposite characteristics to the other sex.’ According to Kaplan, male perversions such as fetishism and masochism both reveal and disguise a man’s hatred for his own shameful feminine traits or longings. A similar strategy is at work in female perversions, which, according to Kaplan, have been neglected by psychoanalysts both because of the male-normative history of the field but also because the perverse strategies of women are not always explicitly sexual. For Kaplan, various forms of self-mutilation, including anorexia, represent not only a young woman’s bid for control but also her attempt at ‘forestalling final gender identity and denying that the illusions and hopes and dreams that made life endurable are lost forever.’ As such, they lend ‘expression to forbidden or shameful’ masculine desires. Anorexia allows the young woman to present ‘herself to the world as a sexless child in a caricature of saint-like femininity’ that hides ‘a most defiant, ambitious, driven, dominating, controlling, virile caricature of masculinity.’ Anorexia is, in short, an unconscious, compulsive refusal of female identity and sexuality as culturally prescribed.

Kaplan’s view of anorexia, the consumption of the physical and sexual self, is clearly evident in Beasts. Harrow observes that Gillian ‘must weigh eighty-nine pounds,’ and he refers to her as a ‘little girl’ immediately before making his first sexual advance. In other words, she is far from womanly, and his desire for her has a paedophilic component. Gillian remembers her mother’s disappointment at her refusal in high school to try ‘to be pretty like the other girls,’ and she wonders if she ‘might have smiled more’ and used more lipstick; clearly, she has neither embraced feminine stereotypes nor pursued adult sexuality. Nevertheless, remembering Dorcas’ adolescent totem with her braid on it causes her to muse on the ‘delusion of young-female power,’ the belief that ‘in your beautiful new body, you will be treated with love.’ Power is linked in her mind not to self-efficacy but rather to attractiveness to and love from others. In some ways, however, despite her frailty and passivity, she imagines herself throughout the novel as quite powerful and aggressive, like a ‘hunting dog picking up a scent’ while following Dorcas, for example. Given her experiences, it is not surprising that Gillian’s ambivalence towards her gender, her sexuality, and her sense of self is profound. Her anorexia is a sign of that ambivalence. 

Gillian’s sexual ambivalence is part of her distorted and monstrous self-image, but her monstrosity is an important part of the narrative in its own right. Thus far, the horror of the zombie-makers Quentin and Harrow has been considered, but not the horror of the zombie itself. In Zombie, the would-be zombies are pure victims, in part because Quentin is unsuccessful at lobotomizing the young men and ends up murdering them instead. Quentin is the only monster. In Beasts, however, the zombies, while victims, are also sources of terror. Harrow robs Gillian and her classmates of the ability to think rationally, which makes them behave throughout the novel either mechanically, ‘by instinct’ or ‘as a child might.’ Though her mental faculties have been destroyed, she has not, however, lost the ‘indomitable will of all life to survive’ that she attributes to (or projects onto) the snow-covered evergreens that surround the Harrows’ isolated house. Those survival instincts find expression in her murderous act of setting fire to the Harrows’ home while the owners enjoy their drunken, post-coital slumber, and it would appear that by the end of the novel, Gillian, like Ovid’s Philomela, to whom Harrow has cruelly compared her, refuses to be a ‘passive victim’ and instead ‘takes bloody revenge on her rapist.’ Of course, Gillian’s motives for setting the fire do not seem particularly clear, even to Gillian: if she is out for revenge, then it might be revenge for the abuse and exploitation she suffered at the hands of the Harrows, but then again, it might be revenge for their exclusion of her from the primal scene or for Andre’s refusal to leave his wife for her. From the beginning of Beasts, there are many suggestions that Gillian is not simply a victim of monstrous abusers but may be something of a monster herself. Throughout the novel she regards herself, perhaps defensively, as having a degree of control that seems ludicrous, considering the power dynamics involved. In any case, she appears to have internalized the amorality that her professor tried to inculcate in her and her classmates, and she feels no remorse about their deaths. Harrow appears to have consumed Gillian’s ethical sensibilities along with her intellectual capacities, her sexual identity, and her physical body. She says that her story is ‘not a confession’ because she has ‘nothing to confess.’ She may believe that she had no choice, no other avenue of escape, but then again, she may have come to regard guilt the way that Quentin and Harrow do: as ‘superstitious and retro,’ in Quentin’s words. Either way, it is safe to say that if zombies represent enslavement, then the possibility of a slave uprising is always around the corner. The consumers are always in danger of being violently consumed.

Zombie and Beasts clearly portray formal education as the consumption or zombification of the student. Less fully developed but worth briefly noting are their further suggestions that students are consumed in another sense, which is to say, commodified. Quentin consoles himself for his failure to create a proper student-zombie by taking ‘mementos’ or ‘good-luck charms’ from his victims, often items of clothing and sometimes body parts that can be transformed into accessories. He describes these items in detail (including, in some cases, their brand names) and wears them to blend in with other students at his college. In addition, he compulsively fondles them to trigger the sexual excitement he felt in subjugating their former owners. Quentin’s dehumanization of his victims, in short, literalizes Karl Marx’s concept of ‘commodity fetishism.’ In Beasts, the students have been reduced to pornographic images for sale and resale. When Gillian rifles through the Harrows’ mysterious file cabinets and locates a cache of pornographic pictures, she inspects the files in a horrified daze, wondering ‘would [her] photo turn up in a porn magazine; had that been their intention all along…?’ She examines the magazines and guesses that the Harrows have been exploiting young women for at least a decade, and when she looks at the pictures, she feels ‘as if someone had struck [her] a numbing blow between the shoulder blades.’ She recognizes that a part of her has been sold, and she is overcome with a desire to destroy the proof of her ‘degradation.’ Like the young women around and before her, Gillian may also have been reduced to a pornographic image endlessly produced, reproduced, and circulated. Harrow has exploited both the use and the exchange value of his students. He has consumed them on every level, and he has profited from ensuring that they will continue to be consumed. For her part, Gillian has been schooled in a great many ways, and while the economic dynamics of the education she has received at Harrow’s hands have not been the focus of her story, neither have they been completely erased from it.

Critics of the Gothic tend to speak of it in therapeutic terms: both David Punter and Maggie Kilgour, for instance, call the Gothic a form of ‘cultural self-analysis,’ and Punter sees the curative powers of the Gothic in its provision of an ‘image-language in which to examine … social fears.’ Some of the most familiar components of this ‘image language’ are tropes under consideration here: curses, traps, and monsters. A curse is a reminder that we are never as free from history as we might think or wish. A trap suggests limitations on our movement, physical and psychic. Monsters manifest evils of all kinds, internal and external. These and other Gothic tropes literalize our fears, forcing us to regard them in their most extreme, grotesque forms. They are psychological caricatures, which is to say, exaggerated portraits from whose broad lines something of the ‘real’ might nevertheless be inferred. The zombie embodies our fear of enslavement to others, to our own animalistic instincts, or to our daily routines. It represents our fear of being consumed or of consuming others. When the zombie appears in the Schoolhouse Gothic, it manifests a range of cultural anxieties about such things as the role of public education in a modern, pluralistic, secular America and the degree to which the academy both preserves culture and serves a progressive agenda. It raises questions about the nature and meaning of learning and the role of power in the classroom. Most educators will say that far from consuming students, university appears not to interest them in the least, that students should be more consumed, more absorbed, more engaged in study. One explanation for the zombie-like appearance and behaviour of so many students is overstimulation from technology, but there are many others, including the impact of the consumer model of higher education, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have recently argued in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2011). The zombie subset of the Schoolhouse Gothic challenges us to think about education as consumption, an examination that can happen on a local and personal as well as a global level. Many educators want to see their students consumed by study, absorbed by the subject at hand, able to internalize and recreate a body of knowledge. Joyce Carol Oates challenges us to see the fear that lurks behind that ideal and serves as its dark Other: the fear that what educators really want is to feed their egos with their students. Teachers confronting zombified students should consider how they have contributed to their state, or worse, whether they secretly want to keep them that way.

Sherry R. Truffin was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio and holds English degrees from Baldwin-Wallace University (BA, 1993), Cleveland State University (MA, 1995), and Loyola University Chicago (Ph.D., 2002). She has held teaching posts at colleges and universities in Georgia, Illinois, and Ohio, and she is currently an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University in North Carolina, where she teaches courses in American Literature and English Composition. Her research interests include Gothic fiction, popular culture, and literary stylistics. In addition to her first monograph, Schoolhouse Gothic, she has published essays on works by Edgar Allan Poe, James Baldwin, Chuck Palahniuk, Donna Tartt, Stephen King, Bret Easton Ellis, and Joyce Carol Oates. She has also written about postmodern storytelling in The X-Files and the Gothic literature of New Orleans, Louisiana.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ackermann, H.W. and Gaulthier, J. (1991), ‘The ways and nature of the zombi’, Journal of American Folkore, 104: 414, pp. 466-494.

Baldick, C. (1992), The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bishop, K.W. (2010), American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (And Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company.

Creighton, J.V. (1992), Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years, New York: Twayne Publishers.

Calam, R. and Slade, P. (1994), ‘Eating patterns and unwanted sexual experiences,’ in B. Dolan and I. Gitzinger (eds.), Why Women? Gender Issues and Eating Disorders, London: The Athlone Press, pp. 101-109.

Daly, B. (1996), Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Davenport-Hines, R. (1998), Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil, and Ruin, New York: North Point Press.

Davis, D. (1995), The Jeffrey Dahmer Story: An American Nightmare, New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks.

Foucault, M. (1977), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans A. Sheridan, New York: Vintage.

Kaplan, L. (1991), Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc.

Kilgour, M. (1998), ‘Dr. Frankenstein meets Dr. Freud,’ in R. Martin and E. Savoy (eds.), American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, pp. 40-53.

Marx, K. (1867/1992), Das Kapital, Vol. I, trans. B. Fowkes, New York: Penguin.

Oates, J.C. (1996), American Gothic Tales, New York: Plume/Penguin.

Oates, J.C. (2002), Beasts, New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers.

Oates, J.C. (1995), Zombie, New York: Ecco.

Punter, D. (1996), The Literature of Terror, Vol. 2, London: Longman.

Schreber, P. (1903/1955), Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, ed. I. MacAlpine and R. Hunter, London: Dawson.

Shengold, L. (1979), ‘Child abuse and deprivation: soul murder,’ Journal of the American Psychological Association, 27: 3, pp. 533-559.

Truffin, S. (2008), Schoolhouse Gothic: Haunted Hallways and Predatory Pedagogues in Late Twentieth-Century American Literature and Scholarship, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Wesley, M. (1993), Refusal and Transgression in Joyce Carol Oates’ Fiction, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

 

Review: Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret

Review: Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret

There is a weird zeitgeist about my reading these days. I will pick up a book that I am unfamiliar with, because of a friend's recommendation or a short review in the Sunday papers, and then all of a sudden I am seeing see it everywhere. I began reading Etgar Keret's collection of short stories, Suddenly a Knock on the Door, after seeing it reviewed in the Sunday NYTimes two weeks earlier. While I was half way through it, I was tidying up the house when a magazine from back in February fell open to a review of the book announcing its upcoming publication. I had read the review back then, but had forgotten completely about it. And then again on Wednesday in the Metro–the free paper given to commuters each day and hardly a go-to read for literary suggestions–the book was advertised on the front page and reviewed inside. On Friday, a co-worker told me the library had just called to tell him the book he had requested had arrived: Suddenly a Knock on the Door.

What is with all the buzz? Keret's publicists must be very good.

And to a large degree it is worth it. Keret's thirty-seven stories (translated into English by three different people) are short, zippy, and fun. They straddle the world between stark realism (suicide bombers and bratty children) and magic (talking fish, pissed-off angels). The subject matter often seems to be fiction itself--the fictions of the literary mind and the fictions of liars.

The collection is bookended by two stories in which they author is forced to write a story in front of us. In the final story, he is being filmed by German Television and they want to film him writing, want to record the actual creative process. In the first, he is being forced by three men--a terrorist, a poll taker, and pizza delivery man--who have invaded his home and demand a story. Violence is threatened if he doesn't come through with a story they approve of. When the narrator begins telling a story about what is actually happening at the time--the most current form of realism--the pizza delivery man demands something more magical: "Things are tough," he says. "Unemployment, suicide bombings, Iranians. People are hungry for something else."

And something else is what Keret gives us.

In one story, "Lieland," a man is pulled into a world where all his past lies have come alive. The fabrications he has made up throughout his life in order to deceive his mother, his employers, his girlfriends all confront him in a world that is harrowing and freeing. In "Unzipping," a woman, tired of her current lover, finds a zipper in the man's mouth, and unzips it to reveal a new person inside, who is indeed a different sort of lover. In still another, a woman has only slept with men named Ari--twenty-eight of them previously and now her current boyfriend and the landlord.

Yet all is not silliness.

The number of suicides and suicide bombings in the stories are many. One beautiful story, "Not Completely Alone" begins "Three of the guys she dated tried to commit suicide. ...One of them even succeeded." The last paragraph begins "Four of the guys she dated tried to commit suicide. Two of them succeeded." It's only after going back to read the first sentence that we realize the narrator is the fourth guy--and the second success. In another, a man's life is completely changed after emerging from a extended coma that was caused by ajumper landing on his head after falling eleven stories to his death. In another story "Joseph," a smarmy producer in a cafe boasts about his talent for reading people but is not clever enough to spot the sweating man with the bomb strapped to him. After a discussion of final words by those who die a violent death, we learn of one bombing victim whose last words are the bathetic "Without cheese" as he orders a kosher "cheeseburger" in the story "Cheesus Christ."

In "Pick a Color," a black man is beaten badly when he moves into a white neighborhood. In the hospital, he falls in love with the white nurse who tends to him, and, whom, confined to a wheelchair, he marries in a ceremony presided by a Yellow priest whose family also had been beaten because of their color. When the white nurse is murdered by brown men, the man turns to the Yellow priest for explanation of the statement "the God who loves you and wishes you all the best." When that God shows up, in a wheel chair like the black man, the explanation that God gives is not what any of us probably expected.

In relating these stories here, they seem much darker than they are upon first reading. The stories do zip by, some of them only a page and a half long. There is much "smoke-and-mirror" playing with reality, turns with truth and illusion. There is banality, as there is always in life, and there is beauty. A young son gives animal names to the prostitutes who visit the old man on the floor above...a dying man gets his dying wish for peace on earth...a mourning widow comes to some closure through cooking in her diner.

Nathan Englander, in the title story of his collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, has a character say that the difference between Israel and Miami is "the space" –that there is none in Israel.  In Etgar Keret's collection (in which Englander translated seven of the stories), space is also the focus. Ketger looks closely at the spaces between lies and truth, between life and illusion, between hope and reality. The stories are clever, witty, and fun. There are enough "wow" moments, enough times when you breathe out in relief or exasperation, and plenty of times when you simply smile knowingly to yourself.

In the blurbs on the paperback edition, there are statements by Salmon Rushdie, Amos Oz, Yann Martel. But my favorite is by Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story. Talking about Keret's novel The Nimrod Flipout, Shteyngart calls it "the best work of literature to come out of Israel in the last five thousand years... ." That's quite a claim. Maybe I'll see if it's in our library. And maybe not that far from the truth.

 

A longer version of this article was first posted on: jpbohannon.com

J. P. Bohannon is a writer and teacher living in Philadelphia, PA. His fiction and poetry have appeared in journals and magazines in the U.S., U.K. and Ireland. His collection of poetry The Barmaids of Tir na Nog is available through Harrowood Books. www.jpbohannon.com

Review of Paris Trance, Out of Sheer Rage, But Beautiful, by Geoff Dyer

Review of Paris Trance, Out of Sheer Rage, But Beautiful, by Geoff Dyer

There was not particular reason to include these 3 books in the same review, except that published some time ago (respectively in 1998, 1991 and 1997) are re-published as eBooks by Picador, and are by the same author which gives them a certain consistency. And I could not noticed it have I not read these 3 books in a row. First, there is a common theme that unites this book – the unresolved tension between life and work (in particular artistic creation). Second, Geoff Dyer, a successful and clever writer, is a portraitist. He does not so much seem interested in the stories than in the people who live in them and cares about what happens to them because of them, not the other way around. And I would venture that he cares for his characters depending on their choice about life or work. This implies that, as a reader, you are also interested in what happens to the characters that populate Dyer's books because (if) you care about them. Otherwise … But this is an hypothesis. To demonstrate it would require to go thoroughly though all his writings. In the meantime, let us illustrate it with a non-representative sample of his work.

Paris Trance is a novel but not a 'story'. Alex, the narrator, is clear about that at the very beginning of the book: the events and situations he recounts are not sufficiently woven into a narrative to make a 'story'. Even the 'plot' – Luke comes to Paris to write a book –, one may add, is not a plot. And the dramatic end that seems promised should have been more dramatic. It would have contributed to make the point of the novel – life or work – clearer: Luke fails to write his book because he, along with Alex, Luke's friend and the narrator, their girlfriends, Nicole and Sahra, and a few others, chooses to live: sex, drugs and alcohol and some food and bicycling and soccer and more sex and more drugs and more alcohol. This is what Paris Trance is about. It could have been fun, young and sexy. It is boringly repetitive and artificial and uninteresting. Dyer so perfectly succeeds to convey this sense of emptiness, of inutility that you paradoxically do not care to what happens to the characters. Unless you care for the characters themselves. If you do, you will enjoy it. But, young, hot, sexy, Luke, Alex, Sahra and Nicole are also full of themselves, not funny, childish, but not vain because they are childish, behaving as teenagers at more than 25 years old, exasperating. Dyer is so successful in making them unlikable that you end up by not liking them and you do not even want to care for them – especially for Luke. Paris Trance is a novel without a central figure for whom to care. As a result, I must confess, I lost interest in the conversations, dinners, meal preparations, parties, soccer games, fucking parties – even the fucking parties, that are really hot – around which the book is built. Another paradoxical failure, now due to the success of Dyer as a portraitist.

This is exactly the reverse with But Beautiful, in which, again, 'whatever makes the events into a story is entirely missing' (Dyer, in Paris Trance). This is about people. But, in that case, this is not a problem. The book – not a novel but a set of poetic short-stories – features Charlie Mingus, Theolonius Monk, Bud Powell, Art Pepper. It proposes beautiful portraits of these great jazzmen – that eventually forms a humanistic history of jazz. And, obviously, Dyer feels a lot of sympathy for them. He cares for them, loves them – their music? He writes with passion and gentleness. Everything is beautifully tense, flabbergasting, full of life and also full of melancholy, of violence – the violence these great artists had to suffer in their lives – and of emotion. Is it because they chose to live through their art, to live as artist and, to some extent, to sacrifice their lives to their art? It is hard to tell. But the contrast is so stark with Paris Trance that it is also hard not to think about this explanation. While Paris Trance is a hymn to emptiness, a book about life-without-purpose, But Beautiful is an ode to life-as-art. The alcohol Monk, Powell, Mingus or Pepper drink does not taste as bad as the one Luke and his friends drink. Dyer is successful in making his characters beautiful that you accept their flaws and understand their maladjustment – a price to pay for higher achievements. You accept that because you care for them. And you care for them because Dyer draws so beautiful portraits. And you end up reading these 'stories', following these jazzmen in what they live, because you care about them. The only thing that one wants to do after having read the book is to listen to their music, with tears in the eyes thinking to what you have read in this book. A book that could turn everyone into a jazz fan.

Out of Sheer Rage – a title that is borrowed from a quotation by D. H. Lawrence – stands in between Paris Trance and But Beautiful, sharing features with both of these two other books. The narrator – Dyer himself? – lives in Paris, is trying to write a book, like Luke in Paris Trance, and roughly is as irritating as Luke in Paris Trance. The book starts with confessions about his incapacity to decide anything – whether or not to write an essay or a novel, to stay in the apartment he is sub-subletting or not, to move to Rome or not, to love Laura or not … It is life and trivial. But, trivial or not, all this is told in such a flourished style and self-deprecating tone that, as in Paris Trance, one looses interest in what happens to him. It is probably meant to be funny and to make these (in)decisions bearable. The insistence to laugh about himself proves exactly the reverse of what it is supposed to prove and what actually is an incredible lack of humility; if one had missed it, the narrator puts himself on the same footing as Lawrence, Rilke, Nietzsche or Barthes. So, once again, a character whose adventures are not much exciting. And once again we don't really care. But this time we are hooked because the narrator is trying to write an essay on D. H. Lawrence. Will he write it? You have to read the book to know. But the narrator shares with us some of the pages he writes about Lawrence. And then, everything changes. Like in But Beautiful, the narrator no longer speaks of himself and the book becomes luminous, bright, right, full of emotion. The style is simpler. The tone less look-how-I-am-funny like. You follow the narrator – and you read the book – because you want to read more about Lawrence. And you keep on reading the book, a fascinating book.

Il faut travailler, que travailler”, wrote Rilke as quoted by Dyer in Our of Sheer Rage. The tension between work (as creation) and life is at the core of these three books. Interestingly, Dyer does not seem to take sides. But his style clearly indicates what is his choice. The consequence is that what he writes about creators, artists is much more interesting than the rest. And this is simply beautiful.

Paris Trance, Out of Sheer Rage, But Beautiful, by Geoff Dyer
published by Picador (eBooks)

Alain Marciano lives in southern France, teaches economics at University of Montpellier, but also writes poems and short-stories and draws. He has published short stories and poems in Pif Magazine, Bohemian Pupil, Ink, sweat and tears, The Rampallian, Collective exile, Shelf life magazine, Unlikely stories IV, Animal Farm, Death of a ScenesterDown in the Dirt magazine, Forge magazine, Eclectic Eel, and Circa. A literary Magazine.
https://alainmarciano.wordpress.com/

Etgar Keret and Israel

Etgar Keret and Israel

When Etgar Keret compares Israel to the Titanic, where passengers, instead of dealing with the sinking ship, are trying to get themselves assigned a better cabin, it leaves a clear impression. In fact, if Keret, who lives the Israeli reality day after day, believes that democratic values are in peril and hopes that the country may redefine itself on the basis of more liberal values, there seems to be something to worry about. And Keret is certainly not the usual self-hating Jew. And he does not live in Berlin or in Rome.

But nothing comes from nothing. Today more than ever, the Jew is pushed into the corner by a generalized anti‐Semitism that mistakes every Jew for Israeli people, and Israeli people for the State of Israel, and the State of Israel for its government. Perhaps the same way every Palestinian is mistaken for Hamas, and Hamas for ISIS. But they are always the victims, and Israel always the executioner. By a strange search for compensation and retaliation, this is the way the world likes to see things. Simplification of categories, in fact, is always the easiest way for ignorant people and poor in spirit who build their own beliefs from the newspaper headlines and the screams of second‐hand politicians.

Shoved into a corner like a leper, the Jew is again forced to flee (now from France, and the Netherlands) and is forced to defend himself, and defends himself by taking extreme positions because, mindful of the past, there’s no one he can trust. Understandably so. Faced with a policy that looks at Israel through deformed lenses, the frightened prey defending his den pulls out its claws and scratches, no longer recognizing right from wrong, only guided by a spirit of self‐preservation. And the Israeli Jew, from victim, becomes the aggressor. We have been repeatedly saying that we should not be like “them”, where “they” are the visceral anti-Semites and the murderers. But some of us seem to have chosen that road. We did not realize that someone was taking certain positions that could only lead to those outcomes.

Evidently, no lesson has been learnt from the Rabin assassination; on the contrary, some people are even celebrating. Of course, there were those who tried to dissuade us from acceding to these simplistic and exploitable ideas, but they were soon accused of anti-Semitism, of self‐hatred, because to say that your brother is wrong is considered a crime and a betrayal, and must be condemned on the walls of the city. We have to protect each other. Mafiosamente. On the other hand, don’t the Palestinians protect themselves and justify one another? Did they ever condemn a terrorist attack at a Jerusalem bus stop or in a bar in Tel Aviv? But in war, as we know, there is not only the common enemy, the enemy without, there is also the enemy within, the one who, in his irrational, inhuman race towards self-destruction, drags along all those who are in his way.

At the time, then, where one should take collective political responsibility, it is ridiculous to read such subtle distinctions as “It wasn’t me who did it!”, “That was a madman!”, “He was a fanatic!” Because there are the religious traditionalists, the Orthodox, the moderate ultra-Orthodox, the ultra-Orthodox fanatics, and who knows how many other categories and distinctions. And there are the good settlers and then perhaps the bad settlers, and even the nasty ones, along with the very good ones. And besides, there is the ordinary Palestinian, and there is Hamas, and there is Fatah, and there are probably also dissidents. And there are pacifists who do not shoot, but justify terrorism calling it “partisan struggle”, and so on and so forth. Language is used as a convenient screen for our subtle distinctions and we thus divert our gaze and attention from what moves all this inhuman thing that we call “madness”. No one wants to see that behind it there is a razionalissima, thoughtful policy. Well meditated upon and clearly pursued for some time.

The voices of Grossman and Yehoshua and Oz are not enough to launch a cry of alarm. Not even the lucid awareness of President Rivlin, apparently an anti-Semite himself, driven to self-destruction by self-hatred and hate of his own country, will produce a change of direction. Someone said that he should end up like Rabin. Only a few murderous beasts should stay alive. What must be killed, above all, is thought and conscience. We have always been made to believe that the danger is outside. Now we realize that there is no longer just Hamas or Tehran to frighten. There is a greater, all-consuming danger, which is eroding our consciousness. And we risk feeling guilty, once more, for the extremism to which we were pushed. They will tell us the culprits are us. Remember? We were forced to be usurers and then, for centuries, the practice of usury has been thrown in our face.

Someone is convinced that our values can be a precious contribution to the society in which we live. Today this belief seems decidedly false, an act of arrogance unheard of. And, if it is not, it should soon be proven by facts.

Dario Calimani
Ca’ Foscari University of Venice

Translated from the Italian by Mia Funk and Heather Hartley.

Dario Calimani is Professor of English at Ca' Foscari University of Venice. He has written books on Harold Pinter, T.S. Eliot, modern English theatre, Shakespeare's Sonnets. Has edited Yeats's theatre and poems (Marsilio 2011 and 2015) and has recently published a new important edition of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (Marsilio 2016). He writes extensively on Jewish themes and culture, also through weekly contributions to Moked, the online organ of the Italian Jewish Communities.

He is a former President of the Jewish Community of Venice and former member of the Council of Italian Jewish Communities.

 

Etgar Keret e Israele

Quando Etgar Keret paragona Israele al “Titanic, dove i passeggeri invece di occuparsi della nave che sta affondando, cercano di farsi assegnare una cabina migliore" fa una certa impressione, perché se Keret, che vive la realtà israeliana giorno dopo giorno, dichiara a rischio i valori della democrazia, e auspica che il paese si ridefinisca in base a valori liberali c’è forse di che preoccuparsi. E Keret non mi sembra il solito ebreo che odia se stesso. E non vive a Berlino.

Ma nulla nasce dal nulla. Oggi più che mai l’ebreo è spinto nell’angolo da un antisemitismo generalizzato che confonde ogni ebreo con Israele, e confonde il popolo israeliano con lo stato d’Israele, e lo stato d’Israele con il suo governo; e forse allo stesso modo confonde ogni palestinese con Hamas, e Hamas con Isis. Ma loro sono sempre le vittime, e Israele sempre il carnefice. Al mondo, per una strana ricerca di compensazione e di contrappasso, piace così. Nella confusione, la via più facile è sempre la semplificazione delle categorie in cui più facilmente si ritrovano ignoranti e poveri di spirito, coloro che costruiscono le proprie convinzioni dai titoli dei giornali e dalle urla dei politici d’accatto. 

Spinto nell’angolo come un appestato, l’ebreo è di nuovo costretto a fuggire (per ora dalla Francia, e dall’Olanda) ed è costretto a difendersi, e si difende prendendo posizioni estreme, perché, memore del passato, non si fida più di nessuno. Comprensibilmente.

Di fronte a una politica che guarda a Israele con lenti deformate, la preda che difende impaurita la sua tana tira fuori gli artigli e graffia, e non riconosce più il giusto dall’ingiusto. Conosce solo lo spirito di conservazione.

E l’ebreo israeliano da aggredito diventa aggressore. Ci si è detti più volte che non dobbiamo diventare come ‘loro’, dove ‘loro’ sono gli antisemiti viscerali e assassini. Ma qualcuno sembra aver scelto quella strada. E non ci siamo accorti che qualcuno la stava imboccando, che certe posizioni non potevano che portare a quegli esiti. Evidentemente, l’omicidio Rabin non ha insegnato abbastanza; c’è chi sta ancora brindando. Certo, qualcuno aveva cercato di mettere in guardia dall’adesione a idee troppo semplicistiche e strumentalizzabili, ma era stato tacciato di antisemitismo, di odio di sé, perché dire che un tuo fratello sta sbagliando è considerato crimine e tradimento, e va denunciato sui muri della città. Bisogna proteggersi l’un l’altro. Mafiosamente. D’altro canto, che cosa fanno i palestinesi se non proteggersi e giustificarsi l’un l’altro? Hanno mai condannato un attentato terroristico alla fermata dell’autobus a Gerusalemme o al bar di Tel Aviv? Ma si sa che nella guerra non c’è solo il nemico comune, quello esterno, c’è anche il nemico interno, quello che nella sua corsa irrazionale e disumana all’autodistruzione vuol trascinare con sé tutti coloro che si trovano sulla sua strada. Nel momento, poi, in cui ci si dovrebbe assumere la responsabilità politica collettiva, è ridicolo leggere tanti sottili distinguo: ‘quello non sono io!’, ‘quello era un pazzo!’, ‘quello era un fanatico!’ Perché esistono i religiosi tradizionalisti, gli ortodossi semplici, gli ultraortodossi moderati, gli ultraortodossi fanatici e chissà quante altre categorie fra cui distinguere; ed esistono i coloni buoni e poi i coloni cattivi, e forse anche quelli cattivissimi, assieme a quelli buonissimi. E del resto, esiste il palestinese qualunque, ed esiste Hamas, ed esiste Fatah, ed esistono i dissidenti, ed esistono i pacifisti che non sparano, ma giustificano il terrorismo chiamandolo ‘lotta partigiana’, e via di seguito. Ci si fa paravento del linguaggio per i nostri sottili distinguo e si distoglie così lo sguardo e l’attenzione da ciò che muove tutta questa ‘follia’. Non si vuol vedere che dietro c’è una politica razionalissima e meditata. Meditata da tempo. Non bastano più le voci dei Grossman e degli Yehoshua e degli Oz a lanciare il grido d’allarme. E a cambiare direzione non basteranno, ormai, neppure la consapevolezza del Presidente Rivlin, evidentemente antisemita anche lui, spinto all’autodistruzione da odio di sé e del proprio paese. Qualcuno ha già detto che bisogna far fuori anche lui, come Rabin. Deve restare in vita solo qualche rara bestia assassina. Bisogna soprattutto uccidere il pensiero, e la coscienza. Ci è sempre stato fatto credere che il pericolo sia fuori. Ora ci accorgiamo che non sono più solo Hamas o Teheran a far paura. C’è un pericolo maggiore che ci sta consumando dentro, che sta erodendo la nostra coscienza. E rischieremo di sentirci colpevoli, ancora una volta, per un estremismo verso il quale siamo stati spinti. E ci diranno che i colpevoli siamo noi. Lo ricordate? Ci hanno costretto a fare gli usurai e poi, per secoli, ci hanno rimproverato di praticare l’usura.

Qualcuno è convinto, e l’ha affermato, che i nostri valori possono essere un prezioso contributo alla società in cui viviamo. Oggi questa convinzione mi sembra decisamente falsa, e di un’arroganza inaudita. E, se non lo è, è bene che lo si dimostri coi fatti.

E, tuttavia, dall’altra parte della barricata chi risponde?

Dario Calimani è professore ordinario di Letteratura inglese all'Università Ca' Foscari di Venezia. Ha scritto fra l'altro su Harold Pinter, T.S Eliot, sul teatro inglese moderno, sui Sonetti di Shakespeare. Hedito teatro e poesie di Yeats (Marsilio 2011 e 2015) e ha appena pubblicato un'importante edizione del Mercante di Venezia di Shakespeare (Marsilio 2016). Si occupa di temi e di cultura ebraica anche in una rubrica settimanale per Moked, l'organo online delle Comunità ebraiche italiane. 

È stato presidente della Comunità ebraica di Venezia e membro dell'UCEI, Unione delle Comunità Ebraiche Italiane.