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.

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.

Tales of the Orange Time of Day

Tales of the Orange Time of Day

“I think I might be an old-fashioned writer. People often comment that I'm a 19th-century writer. And I think maybe it's true. I think there are different ways to look at the world.”

–YIYUN LI

1

On the north coast of Indonesia, just east of Lovina, the Lambert's built their villa near an old monastery which housed blind orphans. The French–English family moved to Singaraja five years ago, and their decision to relocate remained somewhat of an enigma. Mrs. Lambert, often described as something of a floating spirit, had since she had taken it upon herself to educate her son Leo and daughter Celine.

“We are fortunate enough to be impractical” she'd often say jestingly, in an attempt to justify her digressions when teaching. It therefore came as no surprise that her first born Leo, sharp as he was, seemed to lack basic algebraic skills, though at the age of twenty-one he'd mastered the art of antique restoration and ceramics. He soon developed an unmatched passion for mythology, and I arrived to find him persuading his mother to invest in a library, arguing it would benefit the community.

“There's no need for persuasion Leo,” Celine calmly interrupted. “I'm sure mother wouldn't refuse to turn one of the rooms into a library. We have plenty of space, besides, I'm not sure you'd be too happy sharing your books with the community.” She stealthily entered the living room serving tea from a sharp edged timber tray. She never failed to enter or leave unnoticed, while ensuring her speech as well as her presence remained limited to its utility. I would soon discover that these were among the many qualities Leo admired in his little sister. She alone understood the fragility of his pride and in this way they maintained a harmony unusual between siblings.

“Oh Nina! You've arrived,” Mrs. Lambert said, smiling as she introduced me to her children. Even from behind Leo was hard to miss. He sat poised on the sofa beside Mrs. Lambert, his shoulders broad, skin fair and his hair unusually dark. But he soon turned towards me, greeting me with a well rehearsed smile and steady eyes. He spoke flirtatiously, fiddling with his words as if to test my wit or disarm me with his charm. And had I not had a need, a weakness for seeking others approval I might not have noticed Celine, pretty as she was in her white silk dress laced at the corners of her shoulders. She hardly greeted me before inquiring, “Mom, I didn't know we were expecting a visitor?”

“Yes, I wanted to surprise you! You two remember Nina, right? You were inseparable as children.”

“Of course!” Leo replied laughing. “I must say it's nice to see you in a dress for a change. Come...I'll show you to your room.” As he continued, assisting me with my luggage, I thought: perhaps over the years Leo had grown accustomed to compensating for his sister's obnoxiousness.

Celine still had that strange ability to sum up a person in a matter of seconds, deciding whether or not they were worth her efforts. This was enough to make anyone want to know her, but next to Leo she seemed only a shadow of his brightness, and she gladly let him shine.

The guest room, decorated with rare ornaments and hard covered books, overlooked the ocean which turned grey at sunset. In that moment I set about overstaying my welcome: “I hope I didn't do anything to offend your sister,” I said nervously, but Leo just chuckled. “Ignore her,” he said, “she's just a little concerned”

“Concerned? What about?"

“Well...” he winked.

“What! That's ridiculous, I'm sure she knows we are just friends.”

“Yeah? For exactly how long this time, Nina...?”

He spoke with such certainty. Unfazed by the effect he may or may not have had, he simply skimmed through the hard covered books lined up on the shelves, grabbing an old encyclopaedia before leaving. Ever since we were young, Leo never cared much for my manners. He thought it cowardice to be kind and preferred not to entertain my poorly masked intentions.

But once he'd left, I saw Celine, sitting in her room across the hall from mine and I thought I might try to win her over. She sat quite comfortably with a large black spider on her arm before I interrupted:

“Hi Celine, I–I hope we didn't get off to the wrong start, I'm not sure if you remember me, you were quite young then...I must say, you grew up to be more serious than I expected. Is that a tarantula I see on your arm?!”

“It's a Euryplema spinicrus,” she replied quietly. “He's among the larger groups of spiders but...relatively small next to us.”

Strange, I thought, what a strange and serious girl. “You look startled,” she noticed. “I'll put him away. I’d appreciate it if you knocked next time.” She stood up and placed the spider in a large transparent container. And I couldn't help but notice the light in her room which entered undisturbed by her minimalism. She had no objects on display, no books on the shelves or shelves at all for that matter. The room was clean, crisp, and plain; each item with its own function. Her exotic spider seemed terribly exposed, though she didn't seem to mind. Nor was she bothered by the sudden silence which got me chattering anxiously, “The light is good in your room. I imagine Leo's is dark and cluttered,” I chuckled. “Is he still obsesed with old books and dusty furniture?”

“Well, Leo has the luxury for such indulgences, his mind is as clear as my room. I have a bad habit of thinking more often than necessary. It's an extravagance of mine I prefer not to entertain. Leo can switch his thoughts on and off just as he does his conscience. He's best left to his literature.”

She started pacing the room as if in search of something, opening all her drawers with a look of defeat. “You wouldn't happen to have seen an orange pair of scissors?” she asked nervously.

“No, I haven't. Are you okay? If you like I could go ask Leo.”

Hearing this she paused almost frightened and told me not to worry, “It's not important really," and for a moment she so distinctly resembled her father, well known for his brilliance but passed on before she could remember. I thought I might ask about him, but the sun was dimming in its remarkable way compelling us to take a walk.

3

The sea with its peculiar scent graced the shoreline and our feet and for a brief moment Celine had a change of heart. She walked me to the ruins of the old monastery where Leo held pottery classes for the orphans without sight. Here the local men ate dark mushrooms as the woman sat isolated under a tree collecting black stones gathered from the coast. The sun was still good, and Celine, mellowed with nostalgia, calmed my nerves with a story:

“Leo looks forward to these classes,” she began. “Most of the ceramics in the guest room are his. But there is one which stands out in its distortions and unusual beauty. It's shaped like a vase but not at all practical, with several open spaces and a tip too slender for a stem. At times, I use it as a candle holder. It illuminates the walls with elegant patterns. When mother first saw it she was convinced my brother had outdone himself, but Leo didn't make it. There was a young boy at the orphanage who was among Leo's best students. His name Noman and for a long time he and Leo were inseparable. They both had a certain wisdom about them. Noman gave the odd vase to Leo as a gift (a token of his appreciation) and ever since Leo has never found the heart to give light to Noman's craftsmanship. See his pride is like porcelain, and since Noman was born without possessions or sight he simply delighted in moulding the clay without a longing for praise.

"I've never met a boy with such grace. I thought perhaps my brother had found his match. They

were not at all alike but stood apart as equals. You see, Leo has always been bright and charming, he stands out like the sun. But Noman was like soil or grass, earthbound and subtle. He was among the few quiet enough to feel me come and go. We sat most afternoons near the ruins of the monastery weaving small grass baskets which the villagers filled with garden flowers, and at times I'd scratch his back and he'd place his head on my lap, where each day, I thought, Noman grew more beautiful – His skin brown and warm, his hair dark and wavy with tanned lips and well-crafted hands...his eyes caught the light like crystals and danced like Phaeceans under the mild sun. And, though I'm not one for words, they seemed a fair exchange for such a sight. So when he asked that I tell him the color of sunset or the fickle hours of mild heat and temperate winds, I said it was the orange time of day. Then gently he found my hand clenched moist in nervousness and squeezed his finger through to my palm, his face filled with mirth...and before the sun set, he placed his lips on the corner of my head ‘with a measured restraint’, but it was enough to change the weight of my thoughts, at least for the time being.

"Only I soon saw Leo, steadily fixing his eyes on me as if to say I’d betrayed him. I think Leo has always been unusually possessive for someone so easy to love. He's never understood that to me Noman simply had all the subtleties of artist. But Leo, he is like art itself. A silly thing to compare, really.”

“We'd better start walking back now,” she said stiffly, as if harshly shaken from deep sleep. "At this time of year the sunset is usually followed by rain.”

4

I arrived at the Villa to find Mrs. Lambert in the kitchen trying to ground water in the cup of her hand. It was an exercise I’d seen her do quite often when Celine was a child. “She’ll never get it right!” the child observed. “She clasps her hands too tightly.” Then quickly, quietly, before I could reply, she’d gone back to her room, perhaps so her mother would not see her, for once Mrs. Lambert caught sight of me, she asked that I help her glaze Leo's pottery. The glaze already prepared left me with the small task of dipping each pot into the mixture. Leo would later apply metallic salts to make his pots look golden. “They are a tribute to Benvenuto Cellini,” Mrs. Lambert said boastfully.

“The Gold Smith?” I inquired.

“Yes! but it's no surprise, really. Leo has always had a strange fascination with the man. A curious choice of an Idol, wouldn't you agree? Even with all his genius, Cellini was quite cruel. Evil, some might go so far as to say. Perhaps you could call it yin and yang. The same man that formed that statue of Perseus with the head of Medusa, fled seven cities charged with rape, murder and other kinds of absurdities...Yet he lived a long and glorious life, favored by the nobles, charged but never severely punished. And the cardinals, kings, ands popes only ever granted further commissions. Because in the end, Nina, the people simply want to be amused.” Mrs. Lambert always spoke in code, in warning, it unsetlled me in a manor I couldnt explain. “Now his statue hangs in the center of Florence,” she continued, “in commemoration of his greatness! And my son has just crafted seven clay pots in his honour. You know sometimes I underestimate Leo's insight, he is much like his father. I recently discovered that the postman is quite passionate about photography. It began when Leo gave him an old camera sold reasonably at a vintage market. And not to mention, Leo holds pottery classes for the orphans at the monastery, and now he wishes to invest in a library which he claims will ‘benefit the community’. It's a kind gesture I suppose or a lesson well rehearsed...I think Leo understands the value of entertainment, and it'll make his life a lot easier.”

I don't know why, but once Mrs. Lambert had spoken I felt unusually tired with an odd desire to speak to Leo. I'd now seen him in every light except my own, and I was beginning to feel I had the ill fortune of being present at every moment that matters. As I glazed the last of Leo's pots, much to my own relief Ms. Lambert smiled considerately and insisted I get rest.

5

The trouble with being a guest is the pleasant aura one must maintain at every given moment. I've never been easy to like. I find that people can be quite exhausting, and lately listening seems just as strenuous as speaking. But Celine never demanded much of me, or anyone. She decided I was no one the moment I arrived. A surprising relief, which left me feeling weightless and gentle.

She took to my presence like a tree to the wind, as if certain I was only passing by. I walked into my dimly lit room, where Leo stood quiet in the twilight by the open window facing the sea and I had never been more pleased to see anyone. He looked poised in the half light with the acute beauty of a carnivorous flower, then turned toward me crying, with a broken vase in his hands and a pair of orange scissors covered in clay. “I don't know how he did it, Nina, I tried...I don't know how he did it,” he said weeping, falling to his knees, cutting his foot on the scattered pieces of a broken vase. I last saw him this way the day he heard his father died and I gave him the only comfort I thought sincere. Because if my body were a temple, it would be the kind where tired men rest or gathered their strength, and so we performed our basic art, our artless art, and once we lay exhausted from our exercise our eyes grew heavy with a sleep as deep as sorrow but as long and willing as content.

The next morning I woke up to find Leo sweeping the broken fragments from the floor, then placing the orange scissors in a drawer. I watched him for some time and thought I'd speak, but it was nice to watch men move uninhibited. It didn't take long before he realized I was awake. He offered me tea and served it dark in a handleless mug and we spoke like old friends.

Leo soon insisted I get dressed. He wanted to take me to the ceremony of the dead, where villagers sat chanting in the shade, lighting small candles and incense placed on grass weaved baskets.

“I think this is a rather gracious way to mourn of the dead,” I thought aloud.

“Sure,” he answered, “but death is still harsh.”

I suppose we do what we can to make it beautiful.

Leo spoke with a finality which pierced my nerves, but I was calmed by his sudden embrace. “There was a body found at shore today,” he whispered. “They suspect it's one of the orphans. This ceremony is for him. It should last most of the day, but it’s got me feeling unusually heavy... I get an odd feeling you might leave again. Early this morning I spoke to Celine and I asked why she recieved you so acrimoniously. She told me she was not concerned with your intentions, Nina, but rather that you had none. It got me thinking of the first time I really saw you, seated on that tall rock at Umhlanga when I’d finally found courage to touch you. You were darker than ever in the height of Durban's summer, with your hair braided down to your breast. You never told me why you were crying. You just sat pensively there in your red satin shirt towering the spirals of waves. And I thought you were perfect, even in your nervousness. Do you remember how the sun played at that time of day? You muttered–seli bantu bahle. It is the time of day, you explained, when our people are beautiful.”

“But I wasn’t nervous that day...” I interrupted.

“I know! Just a little unsettled, I guess. Remember when we lay unclothed on the sand, and you wondered when the sun lends its shine to the moon. I laughed! My father and I made jokes of all the number of ways you expressed your impatience. I could have lay there all day, I thanked the day for it’s delay. But when it got cold and you rose to find your clothes I noticed tattooed on your back: 

“In love with the Lake
the swan longs to stay longer
but the ice covers the lake
and the swan flies with no regret”

Tsangyang Gyat, Sixth Dalai Lama

In that moment I knew better than to call you mine, and since I'm not one to change the nature of things I simply loved you without cause, nothing more.”

And I stopped to wonder whether Leo loved causelessly or without hope. Whether I knew or ought to have known the etymology of cause. Why couldn’t I shake the image of Ms. Lambert’s gold and glaze? Was I the water in her palm...Does he cup me gently?

“Agh, Leo,” I said lightly. It felt important to speak lightly. “You overestimate me. You’re the one who’s loved by everyone you meet. You’re like a fair opponent to the sun, and no man can own the sun, nor does it give itself to anyone. I suppose I've never been one to change the nature of things either”. I felt a sense of equality once I'd spoken as we laughed quietly in the ceremony of the dead.

6

The time came for Leo to return to the monastery to hold his classes. He left a little more at ease, and as I strolled along the concrete streets, past local homes with tiny temples and the bright green fields of rice, I thought I could die here much to my own content. I arrived at the villa and lost my manners with the small meal Mrs. Lambert had prepared. I ate quickly, thanked her and then left. I was behaving more and more like Leo. I even attempted to read one the many tomes he had staked in the guest room. But I recalled the orange pair of scissors Celine had been looking for earlier, and I vaguely remembered where Leo had placed them.

It felt intrusive, scouting the bedroom in search the object Leo had tried to hide, but I still wanted Celine to like me, a terrible weakness of mine or unguarded intuition.

I found the scissors in the drawer, then walked across the hall to find Celine, laying on her bed with a blank expression on her face. Her skin seemed drained of colour, her lips almost white. “Is this what you were looking for?” I said with caution as I walked toward her, handing over the scissors. She rose slowly from her bed with a curious expression on her face, and as I placed the blades in her hand, her eyes watered.

“Where did you find it?" Celine inquired.

“They were hidden in one of the drawers in the guest room. Look, Celine, I don't mean to pry, but I last saw Leo in tears with these scissors in his hand. I didn't ask what was wrong, but I can't help but wonder if there is any reason Leo would hide these scissors from you .”

Celine, hesitant to speak, must have known that I’d betrayed Leo, though not merely to please her but because it has always been my belief that the nature of my curiousity is that which irresistably draws me to the truth. “I have no malice,” I confessed, but there was no need to persuade her. I had stolen Leo’s secret and given it to her.

“They are the closest thing to a photograph I have of Noman,” she said trembling. “ He had a unique way of shaping clay with scissors. These were his lucky pair and he made some of his most outstanding pieces with it, while Leo always insisted on doctrine. One must know the rules in order to break them, he'd often say with spite. Because although Leo can inspire an extraordinary work of art, he can't see past his own light. He doesn't create honestly, his head so cluttered with notions that he is almost incapable of sincere thought. I'm not saying my brother is a bad person or dim in any fashion, only that he's grown too accustomed to praise.

"The day Noman completed Leo's vase, his scissors went missing. An odd coincidence since Noman believed his gifts came from gods in a pair of orange scissors; scissors like the sun, he'd called them, and all the boys laughed at his small-mindedness. But he'd say: I do what I can to secure my modesty, words I thought wise because if ever there was a way to measure pride against creation, I'm convinced even a grain of salt could upset the balance of that scale. So for a while Noman refused to do pottery, and I've looked for those scissors ever since. I couldn't fool him with a new pair, he knew the weight and form of his own with all the hidden areas smeared with clay.

"Nevertheless, he would sit in the classroom an hour before lessons began and fiddle with clay. I would join him every now and then. He had somehow found a friend in me, and I soon suggested he make a pot using my hands. I'd be his pair of scissors, I said. He was taken by the idea and so during the many afternoons that followed he would place my hands on wet clay and move them as he pleased. At times I'd wish I were a woman capable of expressing my passion with less restraint, but we still laughed loud and abundantly.

"One afternoon, Leo arrived an hour early to find Noman and I covered in clay at the height of our amusement. At first he seemed pleasantly surprised, but he soon began setting up his apparatus with a seriousness which only added to our laughter. He began working quite intensely on a vase similar to Noman's, only with less distortion and better suited for practical use.

"I then saw him pull out an orange pair scissors to sharpen the rim of his vase. I didn't say anything, I figured I'd just take them back quietly once Leo was done with them. He continued his labor with impunity when Noman, disturbed by the cold silence which seemed to lack reason, walked toward Leo initiating a conversation. But startled by the sudden rush of orphans ushered in by the postman, he stumbled over a chair and broke his fall over Leo's half made vase.

"An accident which deformed its shape and enraged my poor brother. Leo pushed Noman with all the might his wrath could amass, and the blind boy flew back displaced from a thrust so brutal he snapped his neck on the hacked wooden table in the corner of the workshop.

"Without compunction, Leo fixed his eyes on his crooked vase. The postman panicked and guided the scared children out the classroom and, after a long deafining silence, I just stood there, petrified as they carried out his body and left it at sea.”

Celine wept endlessly as she closed her story, and I was simply mortified.

“Celine! Surely the kids, the postman, or you thought to report this? You loved him!” I said screaming thoughtlessly, insensitively, but she just turned away from me, wiping the last of her tears, then replied with no remorse, “Would you report it?”

“ I...no,” I thought. Realizing, “I couldn't.”

“Why?” she asked calmly, though she already knew.

“Because I ...” Still to this day couldn’t bring myself to say it.

“Well so does everybody else,” she deduced. “The kids can't lose their teacher, and I can't lose my brother. And then there is love, as you say, which has its own set of rules. My mother always said: 'The sun dried the desert, but who could hate the sun?’ Perhaps it would be the same with Leo.”

And soon the sun set, with our hearts heavy of feelings only suited to the night, and outside the old men chanted the ceremony of the dead. I left early the following morning, before the day could claim its throne. And I would never see Leo again, but I would love many more like him.

Lethokuhle Msimang is a South African poet and writer, born in Durban KwaZulu-Natal. Graduated with a B.A. in Literary Studies and Creative Arts at the American University of Paris, her poems have appeared in New Coin Poetry (Rhodes University, SA), Hanging Loose and The Paris/Atlantic. She is the founder of the South African Oral History Project, presently focused on the documentation of the Delville Wood Memorial and the role of South African Native Labour Corps. She is currently completing a book of linked short stories Tales of the Orange Time of Day.

Guarding the Heart

Guarding the Heart

Since our French Bulldog, Jean-Paul, passed away, I attend Pet-Loss Support meetings. My husband refuses to join me—that's alright. Some of them are entertaining, so I don’t mind going alone.

Last meeting, a man handed me a picture of his daughter's dead Madagascar Hissing Cockroach. He smiled at me in a secret kind of way.

"We called her ‘Fluff.’”

I almost smiled back. I could not imagine caring about a cockroach, even an exotic one. But human nature is strange, and one must guard the heart.

Lately, I find my eyes landing on the faces of a few male mourners, amazed by their nobility.

A woman with curly hair and an inexplicable yellow umbrella-hat stands up and sighs. She explains that her late rabbit was a confidante stronger than her father.

"Yes!" an attractive middle-aged man shouts.

I had a less-than-sympathetic father once. I wanted to shout “yes!” also.

Another symptom of emotional pain; removing my wedding ring before meetings, burying it in the pocket of my gym bag.

Jean-Paul died of old age, but looked so young. The day he died he could have passed for a puppy.

I tell my husband about how helpful the meetings are.

"Absolute bullshit!” he snips. This from a man who never swore before our dog died. Now he’s angered easily about so many things. Mourning a beloved pet can do this to regular people, quietly. They may lose a sense of scale—and sometimes, a sense of decency.

I’ll never bring home another pet. It would kill us.

First published in Miracle Monocle.

Meg Pokrass is the author of four collections and one award winning book of prose poetry. Her books include Damn Sure Right (Press 53, 2011) My Very End of the Universe— Five Mini-Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form (Rose Metal Press, 2014), Bird Envy (2014), Cellulose Pajamas (Blue Light Book Award winner,  2016)) and The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down (Etruscan Press, 2016).   Her stories and poems have appeared and are forthcoming in over 250 literary magazines including Five Points, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Gigantic, Great Jones Street, Matchbook, Newfound, New World Writing, Bayou, Rattle, 100-Word Story, Wigleaf, Green Mountains Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Talking Writing, Every Writer’s Resource, The Rumpus, Failbetter, storySouth, decomP,  Flash Magazine, and two Norton anthologies:  New Microfiction (W.W. Norton, 2018) and Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015). Showcased by Adweek and Galleycat/Media Bistro as “Digital Author to Watch”, sheis considered an innovator in the use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms for writers. Meg serves as an international writing competition judge, Fiction Curator for the innovative Great Jones Street App, and Festival Curator for the new The Bath Flash Fiction Festival.

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.

Ache

Ache

They made love in the dunes by the old Air Force base—gone the war games there, gone the men who played them. Miles of high dunes, as in old films where some sunburnt Brit garbed in white has come to set things straight.

For years the young man had passed them—she had, too—he in his gray car, she in her red. They met one night at a blues bar, had their first date on a weekday.

Was it hard to get the day off? he asked.

Don’t have it off. Had to switch shifts.

What’d you tell them?

She looked at him.

I told them I ached. That knocked him back, & for a long time he was mute as they walked those dunes, turned once in a while to see their tracks. They chose a smooth dune to spread their quilt on.

This sea’s too blue, she said, as they laid out their food, poured the red wine, leaned back.

This is an old bomb range, you know, he said. They’ve cleaned it up, but I bet if we looked hard we could find some shells.

So how would the headline read, she asked: “Two Felled by Sheathed Shells at the Seashore?” I’ll pass. But I guess if you make a pass at me…

Late that day he said You know, I could just stay, end my life right here, let gulls pick me clean, let sand blow past my bones for years, and I’d be gone—all of me, gone. I mean, don’t you just feel it? The thrill of it?

Oh, for Christ’s sake, she said. I’m late for work.

They picked up their things, found their tracks, walked back to the car.

 

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.

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).

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.

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.

Syrenka

Syrenka

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

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

 

 

I was at a job interview the other day & 

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

I would like to do & 

I told them be a mermaid &

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

whose stick is she trying to shake anyway

this is a job interview not 

a joke & 

that’s when I said, Really, I’m not 

kidding. It might not 

show that I have experience with that 

on my résumé, but some things don’t 

fit on the page. Huh, they laughed, 

she says she wants to be 

a sea cow, basically & drink 

from shells. Like she knows what 

she’s saying. 

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

think I didn’t want it to begin with but 

you don’t have to not listen  

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

ones I told about this & it makes you think 

maybe you think too much sometimes, & 

that whatever skills it takes to be 

a mermaid, I can learn them. You see, 

I told them, I can swim & dive &

decide later about drowning the sailors, 

sailors are useful & sometimes cute & not 

every mermaid has to do that killer sea singing &

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

your job because there’s nothing tempting 

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

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

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

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

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

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

job, I would promise to not 

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

wear revealing miniskirts, oh, the fins.    

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

choose from & we’re just saying, no 

discrimination in the workplace, but, sounds like you

would rather be a sea monster & 

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

police reports, because, hiring an aquatic creature these days 

can be tricky. It sounds like you’re talking 

about giving all this up, they said,

to be fusiform. It’s not practical to not

have feet. 

About some things they were right & for 

sure I would spend time at work messaging pirate friends & 

doing my own stuff, because some-

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

& sometimes that’s straight to the sea—

your arms steering waves & onward, to estuaries 

Syrenka, maid of the wave, 

sun on your back, 

this is immense, this is not somewhere else—

hey, I said, 

look out the window & up, repeat 

after me: rise, rise, rise. 

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

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

Etgar Keret On Lying: three examples

Etgar Keret On Lying: three examples

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Class-Consciousness, Violence, and Dystopia in George Saunders

Class-Consciousness, Violence, and Dystopia in George Saunders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pam: Sweetie, sweetie, what is it?

Eva: I don’t like it. It’s not nice.

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

Pam: Don’t say like

Thomas: They applied for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La huída del Mordor caribeño: el exilio y la diáspora dominicana en...

La huída del Mordor caribeño: el exilio y la diáspora dominicana en...

La huída del Mordor caribeño: el exilio y la diáspora dominicana en The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, de Junot Díaz1

Escape from Caribbean Mordor: Exile and the Dominican Diaspora in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Publicado por primera vez en Revista de Filología Románica 2011, Anejo VII, 265-277.

Resumen: Desde el comienzo de su historia como colonia británica, Estados Unidos ha recibido un gran número de exiliados que en numerosas ocasiones han empleado la literatura para narrar su experiencia de diáspora original y la posterior búsqueda de raíces de los descendientes de aquéllos que en su día iniciaron el proceso de migración. Analizaremos la obra The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), del escritor dominicano-americano Junot Díaz, como un terreno de tensión entre el país que fuerza el exilio (la República Dominicana) y el de acogida (Estados Unidos), algo reflejado también en el complejo equilibrio de la identidad de los protagonistas, escindidos entre dos culturas. Estudiaremos, asimismo, cómo el texto principal y las numerosas y larguísimas notas a pie de éste, algo no habitual en la novela como género, representan la tensión entre voz autorial y otras voces relegadas a los márgenes, reflejando la tensión entre dictador y disidentes exiliados o desaparecidos de la República Dominicana durante el Trujillato. 

Abstract: Since the beginning of their history as British colonies, the United States have taken in a large number of exiled, who have often used fiction to recount their diasporic experience and the subsequent search for roots by the descendants of those who migrated. We will analyze The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), by Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz, as a locus of tension between the country that forces into exile (the Dominican Republic) and the country who takes in (the United States), also reflected in the complex identity of the protagonists, split between two cultures. We will examine, as well, the connection between the main text and the abundant and long footnotes – something quite unusual in the novel as a genre –, and expound how this reflects the tension between the authorial voice and other voices which are banished into the margins, mirroring the tension between the dictator and exiled or disappeared dissidents in the Dominican Republic during the Trujillato. 

Palabras clave: Junot Díaz, exilio, literatura dominicano-americana, el Trujillato en la literatura
Keywords: Junot Díaz, exile, Dominican-American Literature, Trujillato in literature

[Trujillo] was our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up (Díaz 2007: 2).

Resulta complicado, a estas alturas, escribir nada sobre los Estados Unidos no sólo como país de inmigración, sino también como país de acogida a exiliados, sin caer en la obviedad o en análisis ya demasiado trillados. Igualmente evidente es que el exilio ha tendido a centrarse geográficamente en territorio norteamericano alrededor de tres grandes zonas que muestran, claramente, una identidad propia como resultado de dicho exilio: la costa Este, especialmente el territorio más cercano a la ciudad de Nueva York; la zona de Florida, más concretamente Miami; y California, demasiado amplia territorialmente para buscar un solo foco, pero con mayor protagonismo de las áreas urbanas de San Francisco y Los Angeles. Estados Unidos no sólo no es una excepción al flujo migratorio, tan característico de los siglos XX y XXI, sino que fundamenta su historia, primero como colonia inglesa, y posteriormente como nación, en la llegada de inmigrantes, de exiliados, de poblaciones desplazadas, y de grupos migratorios y diaspóricos. Resulta, por tanto, de sumo interés explorar cómo distintas comunidades o autores hayan podido enfocar “su” historia de exilio y diáspora expresándola a través de la literatura, una expresión que siempre aúna, necesariamente y por más que el autor se centre en su propia experiencia, lo grupal y lo individual. George O’Brien ha definido el exilio como “a movement of the mind, a cultural reaction, a metonym for the restlessness, disaffection, isolation and self-respect” (O’Brien 1988: 99). Es en este sentido metonímico como analizaremos la obra The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), del escritor dominicano-americano Junot Díaz, estudiando cómo en el texto se mezclan el exilio (real, geográfico, de Santo Domingo a New Jersey) de una generación con el exilio (cultural, de aislamiento, “a movement of the mind”, siguiendo a O’Brien) de otra. 

La costa este de los Estados Unidos, y específicamente la ciudad de Nueva York, ha asistido no sólo a la llegada masiva de inmigrantes dado su carácter mítico de puerta de entrada a los Estados Unidos (simbolizado por la Estatua de la Libertad y el centro de inmigración de Ellis Island), sino que también, quizá precisamente por su relevancia como centro económico y por el auténtico crisol que se configura en su espacio, ha resultado foco de interés para grupos que provenían del exilio ymovimientos diaspóricos. En las siguientes páginas, sin embargo, no nos referiremos al estado ni al ciudad de Nueva York (donde los dominicanos constituyen el segundo grupo más importante de latinos, por detrás sólo de portorriqueños), sino a la muy cercana New Jersey, un estado limítrofe donde se han ubicado gran parte de las comunidades inmigratorias o diaspóricas que han llegado a Estados Unidos tras pasar por el portal que es Nueva York, siguiendo la admonición del famoso soneto de Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”, publicado en 1883 e inscrito en el pedestal de la Estatua de la Libertad en 1903: "Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” 

Nada mejor para hablar de movimientos diaspóricos en New Jersey que esta novela de Junot Díaz publicada en 2007. Agotaría el espacio destinado a este artículo listar la gran cantidad de premios que ha obtenido una obra tan reciente, y sin embargo ya tan conocida: aparte del afamado premio Pulitzer, se podrían destacar también el National Book Critics Circle Award a la mejor novela de 2007, el Massachusetts Book Prize for Best Fiction de 2008, y la elección de la novela por parte de las prestigiosas revistas Time y New York Magazine como mejor novela de 2007. Desde un punto de vista académico, en la conferencia nacional de la MLA (la Modern Language Association, una de las asociaciones de literatura más importantes de EE.UU., y auténtico referente académico e investigador de este país) de 2008, en San Francisco, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao había recibido la suficiente atención crítica, al tan solo un año después de su publicación, como para merecer un panel exclusivo, situación no muy habitual en autores sin una larga trayectoria, algo que no es el caso de su autor. En Time, el crítico Lev Grossman definió la novela como

so astoundingly great that in a fall crowded with heavyweights –  Richard Russo, Philip Roth –  Díaz is a good bet to run away with the field. You could call . . . [it] the saga of an immigrant family, but that wouldn't really be fair. It's an immigrant-family saga for people who don't read immigrant-family sagas (Grossman 2007).

Las historias de la primera colección de cuentos de Díaz, Drown, publicada más de una década antes, en 1996, ficcionalizan la infancia y adolescencia del autor, también, como el protagonista de los relatos, pobre y abandonado por su padre, mientras trata de adaptarse a una nueva vida en New Jersey: resulta notable que todos los personajes de la obra vivan en el campo o en barrios marginales, tanto en la República Dominicana como en Nueva York, en espacios que podría definirse como abyectos, como una especie, en el caso de aquellos viviendo ya en EE.UU., de exilio dentro del exilio. El texto fue traducido al español como Los Boys (Barcelona: Mondadori), y mientras que sirvió para llamar la atención de numerosos lectores hacia el autor, recibió críticas de muy diversa índole. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, sin embargo, se ha convertido en un unánime fenómeno editorial y crítico, ha entrado en el currículum de las universidades en los cursos que estudian literatura contemporánea (sea o no escrita por minorías), y sigue resultando atractivo para el gran público, sobre todo el más joven, por sus juegos intertextuales (como luego veremos) que incluyen guiños a la cultura popular, con menciones constantes a obras de fantasía, cómics y ciencia ficción. Y todo esto en una novela que dedica, al menos, un tercio de su duración a hablar no de la vida breve pero llena de maravillas de Oscar Wao mientras crece en New Jersey, sino de la vida, llena de sufrimiento y represión, de su familia en Santo Domingo, y de sus problemas con las esferas de poder de la isla. Asistimos así a la historia del declive profesional y personal de Abelard, el abuelo de Oscar, que es arrestado (y, posteriormente, encarcelado y torturado hasta la muerte) por motivos políticos, por “the Bad Thing he said about Trujillo” (Díaz 2007: 212), es decir, por bromear en público acerca de la desaparición inexplicable de enemigos del régimen. Pero también el destino de Abelard se debe a motivos carnales (intentar evitar que el dictador disponga a su antojo de Jacqueline Cabral, su hija y hermana de Beli, de la que se ha encaprichado) que enfatizan el poder absolutosobre los cuerpos y las almas del dictador y su círculo en la isla. Completando este episodio de los antepasados de Oscar en la República Dominicana con la narración del posterior exilio de su madre a los Estados Unidos, Díaz relaciona dos mundos bien diferenciados, pero en el fondo íntimamente unidos: la tierra de origen, la República Dominicana, plagada de fantasmas, que se muestran una y otra vez en las pesadillas de los protagonistas que viven ya en el exilio; y la tierra de libertad, sueños y esperanza simbolizada por New Jersey, donde han acabado los personajes como parte de lo que se ha dado en llamar la gran Diáspora dominicana. 

La obra, así pues, refleja las vivencias de una familia de dominicano-americanos (el cuarto grupo hispano en número de residentes en Estados Unidos) en la ciudad de Paterson, en New Jersey, que hiciera conocida para las letras norteamericanas el poeta William Carlos Williams entre 1946 y 1958. Paterson es, de hecho, la octava ciudad de Estados Unidos con mayor porcentaje de dominicano-americanos: resulta lógico, por otro lado, desde un punto de vista geográfico, que todas las ciudades que integran esta particular clasificación estén ubicadas en la costa Este, bien en Nueva York (Sleepy Hollow, Haverstraw, el Bronx o Manhattan) o New Jersey (Perth Amboy, Union City, o el mismo Paterson), con la única excepción de la muy cercana Lawrence, en el cercano estado de Massachusetts (Shorter 2005).

La acción de la novela tiene lugar, de forma alterna, en el presente en el ya mencionado Paterson, y en Santo Domingo tanto en el presente como en el pasado, durante la época del dictador Trujillo (1930-1961), reflejando en los dos últimos escenarios caso la herencia de la represión, mediante torturas, amenazas y coacciones brutales, de éste en el actual gobierno y cultura de la isla, mediante una reflexión sobre la megalomanía de Trujillo. En la vida real, según se nos informa en la primera nota a pie de la novela, esta megalomanía se tradujo, entre otras cosas, en “renombrar” con su apellido o el de algunos de sus familiares numerosas zonas del país, como Santo Domingo, que pasó a llamarse temporalmente “Ciudad Trujillo”, o Pico Duarte, el pico más alto del Caribe, que fue renombrado como “Pico Trujillo”2. También dedica la novela un amplio espacio de reflexión acerca de los métodos de control de los disidentes que incluían, a menudo, la tortura y la casi imposible elección entre la muerte o el exilio.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao no es la única, ni seguramente todavía la más conocida representación literaria del llamado Trujillato, aunque como parte de una posible intención didáctica, Junot Díaz dirige gran parte de las notas a pie, parte integral de la narrativa, a aquellos “who missed our mandatory two seconds of Dominican history” (Díaz 2007: 2). Posiblemente, La fiesta del chivo (2000), del reciente premio Nobel Mario Vargas Llosa, quedara en primer lugar en una hipotética clasificación, o incluso sería más conocida la obra de otra dominicano-americana, Julia Álvarez, con su In the Time of Butterflies (1994), sobre el asesinato de las “mariposas”, las conocidas hermanas Mirabal. Álvarez y su familia huyeron a los Estados Unidos escapando del Trujillato, y su obra de 1994 supone la búsqueda de respuestas y una posible “reconciliación” con las personas oprimidas por el régimen, aunque al contrario que los Mirabal, la familia de Álvarez encontrara una solución en el exilio3. La dictadura de Rafael Leónidas Trujillo ha sido definida como “one of the most hermetically tyrannical states in the history of Latin America” (Lifshey 2008: 435), y es el tema fundamental de otras obras como El Masacre se pasa a pie (1973) de Freddy Prestol Castillo, el relato “La Mancha Indeleble” (1980) del también dominicano Juan Bosch (exiliado durante parte de la dictadura de Trujillo en Puerto Rico), The Farming of Bones (1998) de la haitiana-americana Edwige Danticat (sobre el genocidio de haitianos en la República Dominicana conocido como “el corte”), o incluso Galíndez (1991) del escritor español Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. Gran parte de estas obras se podrían englobar en el género, bien establecido en literatura hispanoamericana, de la “novela de dictador” (Lifshey 2008: 438), y es en parte dentro de esta tradición donde se engloba la novela de Díaz, que sin embargo también se inscribe como antes vimos dentro del género de la saga familiar, que goza de excelente salud en literatura hispanoamericana, con obras que se extienden desde Cien años de soledad (1967) de Gabriel García Márquez, hasta La Casa de los espíritus (1982) de Isabel Allende, por ejemplo. La historia del exilio dominicano se vincula en la obra de Díaz, por tanto, a través del uso de géneros bien establecidos en la literatura hispanoamericana como las novelas de dictador y las saga familiares, con la historia de los De León, protagonistas de la obra, en un resultado que también bebe del realismo mágico, y que es así mismo un bildungsroman; todo ello para crear un texto que refleja la imposibilidad por parte del exiliado renunciar a su “unextinguishible longing for elsewheres” (Díaz 2007: 77).

Tanto Junot Díaz como Julia Álvarez nacieron en Santo Domingo y fueron llevados a Estados Unidos durante su infancia. El escritor cubano-americano Gustavo Pérez-Firmat ha elegido para referirse a este tipo de exiliados la etiqueta “generación uno y medio”, término que destaca no sólo la dificultad de tener que negociar la transición de infancia a edad adulta, sino de hacerlo pasando de un entorno socio-cultural a otro (Pérez-Firmat 1994: 4). Para Pérez-Firmat, la negociación de culturas específica de esta generación “uno y medio” es lo que convierte a sus integrantes en miembros de una “cultura con guión” (Pérez Firmat 1994: 13): no son ni uno, ni otro, lo que paradójicamente facilita la “negociación” entre ambas culturas; para otros críticos, sin embargo, mientras que los adultos son capaces de traer el pasado con ellos al llegar a una nueva cultura,there is no diaspora of children. Their individual survival comes at the cost of their old identity . . . They receive the priceless gift of life . . . [and] a new future opens up where only bleakness or extinction may have threatened before, but only by means of a substitution they did not choose. . . They live on in the identity accepted . . . from a new culture, aware that something will always persist in them of a destiny broken off by fate, always irreparably lost though never completely overcome (Bullock, citado en Fehervary 2008: 15)

there is no diaspora of children. Their individual survival comes at the cost of their old identity . . . They receive the priceless gift of life . . . [and] a new future opens up where only bleakness or extinction may have threatened before, but only by means of a substitution they did not choose. . . They live on in the identity accepted . . . from a new culture, aware that something will always persist in them of a destiny broken off by fate, always irreparably lost though never completely overcome (Bullock, citado en Fehervary 2008: 15).

Quizá sea éste el motivo por el que escritores como Díaz o Álvarez se ven obligados a re-imaginar el pasado (directo de su familia, en el caso de Díaz; o histórico de su nación, en el caso de Álvarez) a través de sus obras. Habitualmente las obras escritas por esta generación enfatizan la dificultad, frente a la generación anterior (preocupada por integrarse en la sociedad del nuevo país), de habitar el espacio liminal en el que se ven forzados a existir, que no es ni el país de origen (en este caso, de exilio) de sus antepasados, ni los EE.UU., donde por ubicarse dentro de una comunidad de expatriados, siguen existiendo de alguna manera en los márgenes de la sociedad4. Al mismo tiempo, estos autores han de fundamentar su conocimiento y descripción del colectivo dominicano-americano desde posiciones de exilio, no de migración convencional (Ink 2004: 782). Estos escritores “regresan al pasado, no para confrontar la historia o lamentar la pérdida como lo habían hecho los escritores del grupo anterior, sino para encontrar una oportunidad de balancear [sic.] las dos culturas que viven simultáneamente en ellos” (Álvarez Borland 2003: 42). Así lo aplica Díaz a su propia experiencia:

I have a sense of the Dominican…it’s not much of a theory, more a collection of words, a dot dot dash code that I use to, in another way, decipher a larger code, which is the Dominican experience, the Dominican diasporic experience, and the American experience, all hooked together (Lewis 2002).

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao supuso un inesperado éxito editorial para Díaz, que se convirtió en el primer dominicano-americano en ganar el premio Pulitzer. En 2008, transformado ya en figura mediática, Díaz reflexiona sobre su éxito como escritor en términos no alejados del “sueño americano” al que se exponen comunidades inmigrantes y diaspóricas, definiéndose como inmigrante a los Estados Unidos en los siguientes términos:

I can safely say I've seen the US from the bottom up . . . I may be a success story as an individual. But if you adjust the knob and just take it back one setting to the family unit, I would say my family tells a much more complicated story. It tells the story of two kids in prison. It tells the story of enormous poverty, of tremendous difficulty (Ying 2010).

Junot Díaz no oculta, en su mismo título, las referencias temáticas a “The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, de Ernest Hemingway. En este relato, publicado por primera vez en 1936, el protagonista, el Francis Macomber del título, tan sólo encuentra el verdadero sentido de una vida enraizada en la cobardía cuando se enfrenta a la adversidad, por primera vez, desde una pose heroica que, in extremis, le costará la vida pero que al mismo tiempo dotará de un cierto significado trágico a su muerte. Algo similar sucede al protagonista, Oscar de León, que hallará el sentido de su vida en un último e inesperado acto heroico que, paradójicamente, replica experiencias de su familia en su isla de origen, y precisamente será tan solo en los momentos previos a su muerte cuando sea capaz de hablar perfectamente, sin acento y de forma articulada, el idioma de sus ancestros: “[t]he words coming out like they belonged to someone else, his Spanish good for once” (Díaz 2007: 321). “Wao”, el apodo del protagonista, Oscar De León, es, también, una deformación de “Wilde”, por el parecido que sus compañeros ven con otro Oscar, el conocido autor irlandés. Con estas referencias literarias, Díaz (profesor de literatura creativa en el MIT) mezcla, en la vena del espíritu postmoderno, lo que se ha dado en llamar “alta” literatura (como el extracto de “The Schooner Flight” (1980), poema del reconocido autor caribeño Derek Walcott que se encuentra al comienzo de la novela) con la denominada “literatura popular” (ya en la cita del cómic Los Cuatro Fantásticos con la que se inicia el libro: “Of what import are brief, nameless lives . . . to Galactus??”). Así, Díaz se ubica dentro de una tradición claramente angloamericana, canónica pero también anclada en lo popular, al tiempo que introduce elementos (y una gran parte de la trama) decididamente dominicanos, como el uso del castellano y de palabras y conceptos que parten del Caribe, y que acaban conformando una obra mixta, que habla de exilios, políticos, pero también lingüísticos o exilios interiores, como es el caso del joven protagonista. 

Tras una primera sección donde el narrador Yunior de las Casas (novio ocasional de la hermana de Oscar, Lola, y amigo y “protector” del propio Oscar) comienza a contar la breve historia del protagonista, asistimos en las páginas intermedias del libro a las vivencias, narradas en primera persona, de Lola durante una larga visita a Santo Domingo, donde vive con una prima de su abuelo, La Inca). De esta manera, el libro intercala vivencias actuales de la generación más joven de los De León, Oscar y Lola, y de su madre (Hypatia Belicia Cabral, “Beli”) en New Jersey con las circunstancias (narradas en pasado) que motivaron el exilio de la familia de Santo Domingo, con protagonismo absoluto en el segundo caso de los abusos del dictador Trujillo, que asesinó a la familia de Beli, forzándola a criarse con una serie de familias de acogida hasta ser rescatada por una prima de su padre (La Inca), y que posteriormente hace que, debido a la relación ilícita entre Beli y uno de los cuñados de Trujillo, ésta tenga que abandonar la isla. El libro comienza a cerrar el círculo en la tercera y última sección, con el regreso y última visita de Oscar a Santo Domingo: regreso que, por otra parte, terminará por costarle la vida en circunstancias muy parecidas a las que hicieron que su madre tuviera que exiliarse a New Jersey, precisamente en el mismo lugar donde aquélla recibió una brutal paliza, y donde Oscar ya había sido llevado en una ocasión sin que demostrara la valentía que muestra en los últimos momentos de su segunda visita. La repetición del contexto geográfico, de las motivaciones (amorosas) que provocan la suerte de ambos protagonistas, e incluso la aparición fantasmagórica, en la tradición del realismo mágico, de una mangosta en episodios similares, aporta una estructura circular de exilio y regreso, que por otra parte ya habían iniciado otros personajes de libro como Lola. El texto se cierra recurriendo a un capítulo de tintes tradicionales (que contrasta con la inclusión ya mencionada de elementos de la cultura popular, y que por virtud de dicha mezcla ubican el libro dentro de lo que se ha dado en llamar lo postmoderno), en el que se informa al lector del final de cada uno de los personajes, culminando, en su última frase, con otra referencia inescapable para cualquiera siquiera mínimamente versado en la tradición literaria angloamericana: “The beauty! The beauty!” (Díaz 2007: 335), un eco del final de Heart of Darkness (1902) de Joseph Conrad, una obra, también, sobre dictadores, exilios, y viajes de descubrimiento personal a través del encuentro con la oscuridad que subyace en el ser humano.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao utiliza de forma insistente, como ya hemos adelantado (y quizá en esto radique parte de su éxito) una plétora de referencias a la cultura popular, a los cómics de superhéroes, a la literatura fantástica, a la ciencia ficción, al manga, a los juegos de rol, a la literatura llamada “de género” o “de fórmula” (novela de horror, o novela romántica), a los juegos de mesa, y a películas de culto como The Matrix (1999). Muchos lectores, inicialmente atraídos por el éxito del libro, han reconocido sentirse superados por la cantidad de referencias5, por el número de géneros utilizados, la alternancia de narradores, el abusivo número de notas a pie, larguísimas y digresivas (si bien excepcionalmente divertidas e iluminadoras) y por la ausencia de una narrativa principal que “guíe” al lector por el relato6. A las objeciones acerca de esta falta de coherencia narrativa contesta Junot Díaz:

the idea of a master narrative scares the hell out of me. As a child of the dictatorship of course it’s going to scare the hell out of you. And so . . . [you have] the footnotes competing with the narrative of the master overtext; . . . [and] the book . . . [countering] its own authoritativeness by directing you to other books on the same theme, competing books (Christchurch City Libraries 2008).

Para Díaz, esta huída del narrador “dictatorial” es una de las lecciones “that we learned in this kind of post-dictatorship / dictatorship-traumatised country” (Christchurch City Libraries 2008). Díaz insiste en atacar esta noción de la historia en la que el texto “is sacrosanct and one. That was the national myth of the Dominican Republic as long as this story’s going on, this story is sacrosanct and the only one. Competing narratives were dismissed, marginalized – they were assassinated (Christchurch City Libraries 2008). 

Las referencias intertextuales no son, pues, intención por parte del autor solo de descubrir al lector el tipo de obras que forman parte de su educación cultural, sino que también aspiran a crear “metaphors and lenses through which to interpret the world” (Christchurch City Libraries 2008), y también surgen del deseo de cambiar la forma de leer: la digresión, las notas a pie, funcionan como una manera de “sacar” al lector de la voz dictatorial que impone un narrador único durante largas secciones de la novela. Dichas notas, a pie, metafóricamente, se convierten pues en un “exilio” de parte de la narración (al ser expresadas “fuera” del texto principal, dominado por la voz autorial que es, en cierto modo, “dictatorial”). Y es curioso cómo en la historia narrada, literalmente, a pie de página, se incide en ocasiones en figuras de resistencia al Trujillato: así, el escritor Juan Bosch, nombrado en la nota a pie número 30 (Díaz 2007: 250), Galíndez, en las notas a pie números 11 (Díaz 2007: 96) y 28 (Díaz 2007: 225), o las hermanas Mirabal, en la nota a pie número 7 (Díaz 2007: 83). Las notas a pie se convierten así, también por su contenido, en foco de resistencia al texto principal.

La intención de Díaz al utilizar, además, un largo número de referencias a la literatura de ciencia ficción, cómics, fantasía, etc. va más allá de una educación llamémosla “sentimental” como adolescente norteamericano: se trata, también, de la intención consciente de mostrar la experiencia de exilio, de alienación, a un amplio público lector no familiarizado con los modos narrativos de estos géneros populares, describiendo el horror, la locura, y lo incomprensible del regimen y sus consecuencias sobre los De León desde la perspectiva desfamiliarizadora de géneros como la ciencia ficción. “What’s more sci-fi than the Santo Domingo, what more fantasy than the Antilles?” (Díaz 2007: 6), se pregunta Oscar en la novela. El rechazo, al menos parcial, del canon, sirve para liberar a estos autores de la diáspora, como reflexiona Díaz:

if you’re a person writing about a Dominican diasporic experience, to hew too closely to canonical ideal of what literature is would limit you. The conventions of what is canonically known as literature can’t hope to encompass these radical experiences that you undergo when living in a diaspora like the Dominican one. And sometimes the only way to describe these lived moments – the surreality and ir-reality of some of the things that people like myself have experienced – is through lenses like science fiction” (Lewis 2002).

 Oscar es definido en el libro como alguien cuyo 

commitment to the Genres had become absolute . . . Could write in Elvish . . . knew more about the Marvel Universe tan Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic . . . Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber . . . Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to (Díaz 2007: 21).

El narrador, Yunior, intrigado por la obsesión del protagonista por la ciencia ficción, se pregunta si el amor de Oscar por este género no partirá, precisamente, de su experiencia diaspórica: 

[i]t might have been a consequence of being Antillean (who more sci-fi tan us?) or of living in the DR [=Dominican Republic] for the first couple of years of his life and then abruptly wrenchingly relocating to New Jersey – a single green card shifting not only worlds (from Third to First) but centuries (from almost no TV or electricity to plenty of both). After a transition like that I’m guessing only the most extreme scenarios could have satisfied (Díaz 2007: 21-22).

Los cómics, además, tal y como expresa el crítico Albert Jordy Raboteau reflexionando sobre el texto de Díaz, “fed my imagination with larger than life characters of good and evil, with dramatic and cosmic battles between light and darkness, life and death, and especially power used for good vs. power used for domination” (Raboteau 2008: 920-921), algo más que relacionado con los temas que se tratan en la novela. En la narración, se colocan casi al mismo nivel de realidad (o irrealidad) las historias de superhéroes y supervillanos y la lucha y represión histórica que supone el régimen de Trujillo: se desestabiliza, así, la pretensión de realidad del discurso histórico sobre los episodios de represión política, y se pone al descubierto la incapacidad por parte de disciplinas manipulables (como ya sabemos que es la Historia) de captar una verdad objetiva, quedando dicha disciplina al nivel de las historias, en ocasiones profundamente maniqueas, de los cómics de superhéroes. Una reflexión, por más que apresurada, sobre los temas fundamentales de la literatura fantástica y de los comics destacaría, precisamente, el exilio, relacionado con la búsqueda, como el tema fundamental de un gran número de obras de ambos géneros, y es imposible no leer la vida de Oscar Wao como una novela de búsqueda, casi en términos jungianos, en la que el exilio interior al que le relegan sus dificultades para relacionarse con el mundo “normal” reflejan el exilio (exterior, real) de su familia por la imposibilidad de seguir viviendo en Santo Domingo durante la época de la dictadura de Trujillo. Oscar es, durante su infancia, la promesa, para su entorno, de lo que ha de ser un joven dominicano, pero se “exilia” de ese contexto familiar y étnico al entrar en la adolescencia:

[i]n those blessed days of his youth, Oscar was something of a Casanova. One of those preschool loverboys who was always trying to kiss the girls, always coming up behind them during a merengue and giving them the pelvic pump, the first nigger to learn the perrito and the one who danced it any chance he got. Because in those days he was (still) a “normal” Dominican boy raised in a “typical” Dominican family, his nascent pimp-liness was encouraged by blood and friends alike. . . In the DR [=Dominican Republic] during summer visits to his family digs in Baní he was the worst, would stand in front of Nena Inca’s house and call out to passing women – Tú eres guapa! Tú eres guapa! . . . It truly was a Golden Age for Oscar . . . [but] [e]arly adolescence hit him especially hard . . . making him self-conscious, and his interest – in Genres! – which nobody had said boo about before, suddently became synonymous with being a loser with a capital L. Couldn’t make friends for the life of him, too dorky, too shy, and . . . too weird (had a habit of using big words he had memorized the day before) . . . He forgot the perrito, forgot the pride he felt when the women in the family had called him hombre (Díaz 2007: 11-17, passim).

La metáfora en torno a la que se articula la obra desde el primer momento es el concepto de “Fukú”, una maldición similar al mal de ojo que parece hundirse en el pasado animista de la isla, y que para el narrador ha perseguido al Caribe (y, específicamente, a los De León) desde la época de la colonización de La Española. El narrador habla de un “Fukú americanus”, que se ha extendido desde la isla a todo el continente:

the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world, and we’ve all been in the shit ever since. Santo Domingo might be fukú’s Kilometer Zero, its port of entry, but we are all of us its children, whether we know it or not (Díaz 2007: 1-2).

Existe a continuación en la obra una identificación explícita entre el fukú y la represión del régimen de Trujillo:

No one knows whether Trujillo was the Curse’s servant or its master, its agent or its principal, but it was clear he and it had an understanding, that them two was tight. It was believed, even in educated circles, that anyone who plotted against Trujillo would incur a fukú most powerful, down to the seventh generation and beyond. If you even thought a bad thing about Trujillo, fuá, a hurricane would sweep your family out to sea, fuá, a boulder would fall out of a clear sky and squash you, fuá, the shrimp you ate today was the cramp that killed you tomorrow (Díaz 2007: 3).

De forma específica, se conecta el fukú con la diáspora, convirtiendo el exilio en maldición y castigo: “My paternal abuelo believes that diáspora was Trujillo’s payback to the pueblo that betrayed him. Fukú” (Díaz 2007: 5). El exilio dominicano formulado por Díaz recoge, así, los ecos del exilio mítico original del Jardín del Edén, que para Rossbach convierte para siempre el exilio en un castigo “inflicted . . . as a consequence of their [=Adam and Eve’s] action” (Rossbach 2008: 76). Al identificar la expulsión del paraíso a la experiencia del exilio, podemos derivar que el exiliado, aun habiendo escogido el exilio como opción legítima (en el sentido de que, pese a que suponga una renuncia moral a sus ideales políticos, permite seguir vivo), arrastre a menudo sensación de culpa por no haber aceptado, cediendo y dejando a un lado sus ideales, algo que le hubiera permitido seguir viviendo en el país: esto explica la visión idealizada, paradisiaca e idílica, que en ocasiones tiene el exiliado del país abandonado. 

Raboteau habla del silencio que rodea las historias de exilio que se viven en la novela como “a legacy of silence required to survive under the constant threat of a brutal dictator – a Sauron ruling a nation as his own private Mordor” (Raboteau 2008: 921). Para Díaz, uno de los elementos que definen el libro es, precisamente, las cosas que faltan por decir, las que no se narran:

[t]he mother’s entire childhood is missing . . . The grandfather is disappeared by the government, imprisoned, tortured, a whole slice of his life disappeared . . . The protagonist, Oscar, is always filtered thought this other narrator, Yunior . . . how do you put a story together from fragments and how you put a story together from absences . . . The consequences of being in the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo Regime were unspeakable (Roberts 2007).

El narrador principal de la obra, Yunior, sugiere que la única solución al poderoso hechizo del Fukú es un contra-hechizo, el “Zafa”,

[the] only one way to prevent disaster from coiling around you, only one surefire counterspell that would keep you and your family safe. Not surprisingly, it was a word. A simple word (followed usually by a vigorous crossing of index fingers) (Díaz 2007: 7).

Yunior plantea desde el principio de su narración que quizá “now as I write these words I wonder if this book ain’t a zafa of sorts. My very own counterspell” (Díaz 2007: 7). Para Kalí Tal, gran parte de la literatura que hace referencia a traumas históricos (pero también familiares, o individuales) como el exilio politico está escrita “from the need to tell and retell the story of the traumatic experience, to make it ‘real’ both to the victim and to the community. Such writing serves both as validation and cathartic vehicle for the traumatized author” (Tal 1996: 21-22), al tiempo que identifica “displacement [as] . . . the goal of any story, in degree; all fiction aims to usurp the real world with a world that is imagined” (Tal 1996: 21-22). El desplazamiento, la desubicación (genérica, intertextual, individual, social) es, pues, el tema fundamental en esta novela de Díaz, una obra sobre exilios, exteriores e interiores, textuales e intertextuales, sobre el trauma y lo incontable, sobre maldiciones que producen diásporas y desplazamientos, y en última instancia sobre el posible poder curativo (o, siguiendo a Yunior, el “Zafa”) que pueden tener la palabra y la literatura.

Dr. Carmen Méndez García is Associate Professor of American Literature at the Department of English and American Literature, Complutense University, Madrid (Spain). Her doctoral dissertation, The Rhetorics of Schizophrenia in the Epigones of Modernism (2003) was based on her research as a visiting scholar at Harvard University, Massachusetts, in 2001 and 2002. She was also a participant in the 2010 Study of the United States Institute on Contemporary American Literature at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, funded by the Spanish Fulbright program and the US Department of State. Current research and teaching interests include 20th and 21st century US literature, postmodernism and contemporary fiction, the counterculture in the US, minority studies (especially Chicana studies), psychology and psychiatry as applied to literature, and trauma theory. She leads the research for the group “Space, Gender and Identity in US Literature and Visual Arts: A Transatlantic Approach” (Franklin Institute-UAH), and she is a participant in a research group dealing with Women's Studies in English and American literature at Complutense University. She is a member of the International Committee of the American Studies Association (ASA). She was an Associate Dean for Student Affairs (2010-2014) and the managing editor of Atlantis, Journal of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies (2009-2012). Current research and teaching interests include 20th and 21st century US literature, postmodernism and contemporary fiction, the counterculture in the US, minority studies (especially Chicana studies), psychology and psychiatry as applied to literature, and trauma theory. She leads the research for the group “Space, Gender and Identity in US Literature and Visual Arts: A Transatlantic Approach”, and she is a participant in a research group dealing with Women's Studies in English and American literature at Complutense University. She was a member of the International Committee of the American Studies Association (ASA), from 2012 to 2015. She is the coordinator of the Master in North American Studies (MANAS) at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

REFERENCIAS BIBLIOGRÁFICAS

Junot Díaz, the Devil and Me - Interview with Junot Díaz”. Christchurch City Libraries. Consultada 18 de diciembre de 2010.

ÁLVAREZ BORLAND, Isabel (2003): “Las raíces al desnudo: narradores cubanos en los Estados Unidos”, en Guayaba Sweet: Literatura cubana en los Estados Unidos, Laura P. Alonso Gallo y Fabio Murrieta (eds.), pp. 37-52. Valencia: Aduana Vieja.

DIAZ, Junot (2007): The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Nueva York: Riverhead Books. 

FEHERVARY, Helen (2008): “Tales of Migration from Central America and Central Europe”, en Aftermaths: Exile, Migration and Diaspora Reconsidered, Marcus Bullock y Peter Y. Paik (eds), pp. 15-32. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers.

GROSSMAN, Lev (2007): “What to Watch For: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”. Time Magazine. Consultada 18 de diciembre de 2010.

INK, Lynn Chun (2004): “Remaking Identity, Unmaking Nation: Historical Recovery and the Reconstruction of Community in In the Time of the Butterflies and The Farming of Bones”. Callaloo 27. 3: 788-807.

KAKUTANI, Michiko (2007): “Travails of an Outcast”. The New York Times. Consultada 10 de diciembre de 2010.

LEWIS, Marina (2002): “Interview with Junot Diaz”. Other Voices 36. [http://webdelsol.com/Other_Voices/]. Consultada 10 de enero de 2011.

LIFSHEY, Adam (2008): “Indeterminacy and the Subversive in Representations of the Trujillato”. Hispanic Review 76.4: 435-457.

O’BRIEN, George (1988): “The Muse of Exile: Estrangement and Renewal in Modern Irish Literature”, en Exile in Literature, María-Inés Lagos-Pope (ed.), pp. 82-101. Lewisburg: Brucknell University Press.

PÉREZ-FIRMAT, Gustavo (1994): Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban American Way. Austin: University of Texas Press. 

RABOTEAU, Albert Jordy (2008): “Conversation with Junot Díaz (To the Woman in the Mountain Cabin)”. Callaloo 31: 919-922. 

ROBERTS, Caroline (2007): “Bostonist Interview: Junot Díaz, Author”. Bostonist. Consultada 18 de diciembre de 2010.

ROSSBACH, Stefan (2008): “On the Metaphysics of Exile”, en Aftermaths: Exile, Migration and Diaspora Reconsidered, Marcus Bullock y Peter Y. Paik (eds), pp. 223-242. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers.

SHORTER, Daniel (2005): “Dominican Republic Ancestry Maps”. Epodunk, the Power of Place. Consultada 4 de enero de 2011.

SUAREZ, Lucia M. (2004): “Julia Alvarez and the Anxiety of Latina Representation”. Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 5.1: 117-145.

TAL, Kalí (1996). Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

YING, Hao (2010): “Writing Wrongs”. Global Times. Consultada 18 de diciembre de 2010.

1 Una primera versión de este artículo se presentó en forma de participación en una mesa redonda durante el congreso internacional “Espacios y escrituras del exilio”, celebrado en la Facultad de Filología de la Universidad Complutense de Madrid en el mes de mayo de 2010.

2“Famous for changing ALL THE NAMES of ALL THE LANDMARKS in the Dominican Republic to honor himself . . . for making ill monopolies out of every slice of the national patrimony . . . for expecting, no, insisting on absolute veneration from his pueblo” (Díaz 2007: 2).

3Julia Álvarez retoma la huída y exilio de otra familia dominicana, los García, en How the García Girls Lost their Accents (1991).

4Al hablar de Julia Álvarez, Suarez destaca también cómo parte del problema de los jóvenes dominicano-americanos puede ser que la experiencia de exilio se complica por el convencimiento de que la huída por motivos políticos es, en cierto modo, y una vez que se ha llegado a tierra salva, un tipo de inmigración “privilegiada”, frente al estigma que supone la inmigración por motivos meramente económicos (Suarez 2004: 126). Es además, más sencillo para los dominicanos que para los emigrantes de otros países de Hispanoamérica obtener la ciudadanía norteamericana sin tener que renunciar a su nacionalidad.

5Resulta imposible analizar completamente el complejo sistema de referencias e intertextualidad que encontramos en The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, hasta tal punto que se ha creado ya una versión anotada del texto, disponible en internet, que pese a estar en constante desarrollo no agota, sin embargo, todas las referencias de la obra: [http://www.annotated-oscar-wao.com/].

6Kakutani ha definido el libro como una novela donde “Mario Vargas Llosa meets Star Trek meets David Foster Wallace” (Kakutani 2007)

SORBONNE INTRODUCTION

SORBONNE INTRODUCTION

Selected introductions from The Sorbonne exhibition of The Creative Process:

Pour moi l’image, ou la métaphore, se traduisent en langue par le rythme. Un livre a sa propre musique, sa propre harmonie, ses propres sons. C’est une unité sonore qui fait émerger des images. Un cliché veut que la littérature anglo saxonne travaille d’abord avec les idées, quand la littérature européenne (ou française) travaille d’abord avec les mots. Evidemment on peut travailler avec les deux. Les anglophones seraient davantage des story tellers et les « autres » davantage des poètes, des travailleurs du mot. Il me semble surtout que le marché du livre favorise la story et, immensément, l’anglais, du coup les deux se combinent pour fabriquer des produits-livres, dénués d’images et de métaphores, perçus comme « ennuyeux », ou « une perte de temps ». C’est dommage. La seule phrase intéressante c’est celle qui résiste un peu, à vrai dire c’est celle qu’on doit relire. La langue n’est pas un matériau transparent, en revanche c’est le seul matériau artistique qui appartienne absolument à tout le monde. L’artiste écrivain doit fourbir son matériau, l’extraire du bien commun, le travailler.  Ecrire et lire prennent beaucoup de temps mais c’est un temps qui se dissout, qui s’oublie, qui devient la vie. Ce n’est pas une encoche dans la vie, c’est une sorte d’augmentation du flux de vie - de la réalité augmentée. 

- MARIE DARRIEUSSECQ

auteur de Truismes, White, Cleves, et Être ici est une splendeur - Vie de Paula M. Becker (Éditions P.O.L.)

Le problème est que notre culture a commencé par penser l’écriture et les Humanités comme étant périphériques et négociables – un simple et poussiéreux événement de second plan établi à côté du véritable projet, faire de l’argent. Mais le seul moyen qu’ont les gens d’aller dans le sens de la liberté est d’arriver à une certaine compréhension de ce qui les asservit, et cela, en substance est ce que sont les Humanités: un effort contrôlé, s’étendant sur plusieurs générations, afin de comprendre et vaincre ce qui nous asservit. Donc nous marginalisons ce processus à nos risques et périls. Ce processus est (et a toujours été) essentiel aux cultures .

–GEORGE SAUNDERS

author of Tenth of December / Dix Decembre (Éditions de l’Olivier)

 

Je pense que vous tombez sur un élément crucial. Les Humanités, la culture, concrètement, ont un moindre coût et en font beaucoup. La culture est ma passion. Aujourd’hui, le livre est menacé par l’écran. Une des choses qu’il nous faut vraiment faire est obtenir de nouveaux lecteurs. J’ai la ferme intuition que l’éducation est la chose la plus essentielle du monde. L’éducation sabote l’ignorance. La curiosité est une vertu sous-estimée alors qu’elle est tellement essentielle. Il vous faut être curieux. Il vous faut être intéressé. La curiosité est quelque chose d’essentiel dans la vie. Cela vous aide à rester jeune. 

I think you've struck upon something crucial. The humanities, culture, in real terms, cost very little and does so much. Culture is my passion. Today, the book is very much menaced by the screen. One of the things we really need to do is get new readers. I feel very strongly that education is the most crucial thing in the world. Education subverts ignorance. Education allows people to think in a more nuanced way. Fundamentally, literature has no frontiers. Curiosity is a very underrated virtue and it’s so crucial. You have to be curious. You have to be interested. Curiosity is an essential thing in life. It keeps you young.

–DOUGLAS KENNEDY

 

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS EXHIBITION

I have two passions: painting and writing. I have always been fascinated by a book’s reason for being. Why did this author decide to sit in a room for a long period of time, shutting out the outside world in order to write this book? Apart from having an original idea which they wanted to realise to its full potential, what events in their real or reading life brought them to the point where being alone putting words on a page became an essential part of their existence?

READING OPENS OUR EYES TO DIFFERENT WORLDS AND TEACHES WHAT IT IS TO BE HUMAN

Of course we all live in our heads and lead rich interior lives, but as we have less time to put these thoughts on paper, when paper itself, as Douglas Kennedy said to me, “is menaced by the screen”, the public service performed by the writer seems more important than ever. They give voice to our private thoughts and contradictions in forms which are artful and dramatic. Neil Gaiman has said “a book is a dream you hold in your hands.” And although I don’t like to ask the same questions of every writer, this is one of the questions which I sometimes ask––What are your dreams like? Hilary Mantel told me, “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.” The Israeli writer and film maker Etgar Keret shared a dream he used to have which involved him being drowned by an imaginary brother who was “King of the Lake” and had no fixed bodily form.

 

LITERATURE'S LINK TO OTHER MEDIUMS

Some of the writers interviewed here are accomplished visual artists themselves. Michel Faber kindly shared drawings for a graphic novel Ship of Fools, which he wrote in the 1980s but never published. Marie Darrieussecq discussed the role of metaphor in her writing and said that painting has given her “an enormous amount of knowledge about the world.” Joyce Carol Oates, who was the first writer to participate in The Creative Process, discussed the intersection between voice and image. “Characters begin as voices, then gain presence by being viewed in others’ eyes. Characters define one another in dramatic contexts. It is often very exciting, when characters meet—out of their encounters, unanticipated stories can spring.”

I am always surprised when I hear the unusual route some writers have taken to arrive at their vocation. I sense they were always writers (even if they did not yet realise it themselves), they just had to engage in these other practical activities before they found their way in: George Saunders was a technical writer and geophysical engineer and Etgar Keret studied the exact sciences. Yiyun Li studied immunology at the University of Iowa, and Hilary Mantel studied law. Marie Darrieussecq found success early in her career and became a psychoanalyst only after she was a published writer. Richard Ford was a sportswriter. Music has been a significant creative outlet for Sam Lipsyte, T.C. Boyle, George Saunders, Darcey Steinke and other writers interviewed here.

 

Perhaps the more common route for writers is to enter professions like journalism or teaching to earn themselves the time the write. Tobias Wolff, who has just received the National Medal of the Arts and is this year retiring from Stanford after many years teaching, spoke of his time working for The Washington Post during the Watergate scandal. Jay McInerney, who studied writing under Wolff and Raymond Carver at Syracuse University, discussed the attractions of teaching measured against journalism and engaging in the non-academic world. It was also a question broached by Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz, who teaches at MIT where many of his students are not aspiring writers. “I just know that it has only been my privilege and prejudice to be interested in writing for readers who are not writers. I think that it’s always been my bag. I've never felt any interest in writing for people who themselves want to be writers. And I do think that there is a difference.” This may read as harsh to creative writing students, but to my mind it’s just honest. For literature to remain relevant and a true reflection of society it should engage with other mediums and foster discussion outside of the classroom setting.

 

WE ALL CONNECT THROUGH STORIES

Writing combines music and image, psychology and character, is a sustained act of empathy and in the hands of masters, like these interviewed for The Creative Process, becomes the most nuanced vehicle for transmission and examination of consciousness I know.

 

The majority of writers interviewed in this preview are novelists and short-story writers. The 100 authors interviewed will include more storytellers in other mediums and more authors from outside the Anglophone world. The present selection does not include full-time poets, but most have written poetry and their work has a strong poetic impulse. Some have worked in film or have had their works adapted to stage, television, graphic novels, dance and even clay-mation. Most of them would admit they have an obsessive desire to communicate. Where this desire comes from is one of the questions The Creative Process seeks to answer.

 

–MIA FUNK

Artist and interviewer
Member of the National Advisory Council of the American Writers Museum

Review: Jesus, Aliens, Loving your Wife and Not Wanting to Write Anymore

Review: Jesus, Aliens, Loving your Wife and Not Wanting to Write Anymore

With every new novel, Michel Faber (The Hague, 1960) seems to want to test his own writing skills. As such, his novel Under the Skin (2000) is a fusion of science fiction and horror, while the very successful novel The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) has been described as Sex and the City in Victorian London. The starting point of The Book of Strange New Things (2015) is as improbable as it is alien, and once again it seems like Faber has set himself an impossible task.

Heading for Oasis
The Book of Strange New Things takes place in the (near) future, in an unspecified, cynical world where sincere human interaction has become a rarity: calling or writing each other is considered to be old-fashioned and impractical. A mysterious and almighty multinational, called USIC, sends pastor Peter Leigh to a newly colonised planet to preach the gospel. A comparison with apostle Peter is suggested. Far beyond page sixty (this novel contains almost six hundred of them) it is still unclear on what planet, which USIC has named Oasis, Peter will end up. His first meeting with an alien only takes place on page one hundred twenty. In this way, his experience runs in parallel with that of the reader. As it turns out, Oasis is a pretty liveable but nevertheless amazing planet with a real atmosphere and its own flora and fauna, where the days last for seventy-two hours.

'[...]Peter's heart pumped hard, and he breathed shallowly in his excitement. The rain! The rain wasn't falling in straight lines, it was ... dancing! Could one say that about rainfall? Water had no intelligence. And yet, this rainfall swept from side to side, hundreds of thousands of silvery lines all describing the same elegant arcs. It was nothing like when rain back home was flung around erratically by gusts of wind. No, the air here seemed calm, and the rain's motion was graceful, a leisurely sweeping from one side of the sky to the other [...]'

Faber's style appeals greatly to the imagination and it is therefore not surprising that many of his books have had film adaptations. In 2011, the BBC turned The Crimson Petal and the White into a television series and 2013 saw the premiere of Under the Skin (with Scarlett Johansson in the leading role). As early as October 2015, BBC Radio broadcast a ten-part radio play of The Book of Strange New Things.

Amazing Alien Grace
As it happens, a real evangelisation of the inhabitants of Oasis is not necessary anymore: the aliens form a very peaceful, Old-Testament-like society. What's more, another pastor has preceded Peter before breaking down and disappearing for reasons that remain unclear. The majority of the aliens are very religious and they have given themselves names from Jesus Lover One up to Jesus Lover Sixty-Three. 'The book of strange new things' is their name for the bible. The tribe has already mastered rudimentary English, albeit with one major defect: they cannot pronounce -s- or -t- sounds, which is quite a nuisance when trying to say 'Jesus' for example. Faber notes down their sounds by means of characters that remind one of Thai. The speech disorder adds to a very funny scene when the full congregation assembles in honour of Peter to sing a hardly comprehensible and rather demolished Amazing Grace.

Beatrice and Eva
Peter's contacts with and his thoughts of his wife Beatrice are the main storyline in the novel. His partner, who also works for the church, has fallen pregnant shortly before his departure. Never before a couple was separated from each other at such a distance and her name, that reminds one of Dante's divine beloved, might not have been chosen accidentally. Love stories are the core of the majority of Faber's oeuvre and here again the goodbye and correspondence between Peter and Beatrice express an endless tenderness.

Ever since his literary debut, interviews with Faber showed how deeply his authorship was connected with his wife Eva, who was his sounding board and inspiration. During recent years, their existence was overshadowed by Eva's terminal cancer. Too upset, Faber had wanted to abandon his latest novel after having written two hundred and fifty pages, but Eva encouraged him to keep writing. Eva Youren passed away shortly before Faber completed The Book of Strange New Things.

Faber's latest book is also his most emotional book, which is not surprising when one thinks of the circumstances under which it was written. This novel has an uncommonly poignant moral that is felt especially in Peter's contacts with an alien called Jesus Lover Five. Peter feels a special affection for her. When she gets hurt, it turns out that Oasans cannot recover and that the well-known 'God healeth all diseases' does not apply to them. Peter realises that it is a miracle that humans can be cured from diseases and that a wound can heal into a scar.

No spoiler alert
In the meantime, a lot remains unclear about the motivations of the USIC imperium, which aims to keep the colonists as ignorant as possible of what is happening on planet Earth. The only way of communicating with home is by means of 'The Shoot', a kind of e-mail system that is subject to strict censorship. Beatrice’s messages to Peter are getting more and more alarming: tsunamis, earthquakes, wars, dramatic bankruptcies; the earthly troubles do not seem to end. Is this really what is happening on Earth or are Beatrice’s texts being manipulated by USIC? In the end, it seems like Peter chooses to go back to his wife, but even here Faber leaves his readers in the dark.

An open ending is not unusual in Faber's work. The many readers of The Crimson Petal and The White were so curious to find out how the protagonist Sugar would fare that they kept nagging the writer for a sequel. Whereupon Faber wrote The Apple in 2006, a collection of stories that, although they indeed embroidered on The Crimson Petal, didn't not offer any relief for languishing readers.

This time, there will be no follow-up. To the consternation of his editor and his readers, Faber announced in an interview to stop writing: 'I think I have reached a limit.' No matter how much readers long for more Faber or more Peter and Beatrice: in God's name, let us leave a writer alone who lost the wife who was not only his major support but even the core of his authorship.

Marjolein Corjanus obtained a Master's degree in French Literature in The Netherlands. She works as a freelance translator, editor and critic. Next to this, she conducts independent research in the field of modern French and comparative literature. An overview of recent publications can be found through her profiles on LinkedIn and Academia.edu.

 

Recensie: Jezus, aliens, de liefde voor je vrouw en nooit meer willen schrijven

Michel Faber (1960) lijkt met ieder nieuw boek zijn eigen schrijverskunst op de proef te willen stellen. Zo is zijn roman Under the skin (2000) een mengeling van sciencefiction en horror terwijl het uiterst succesvolle The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) wel omschreven is als Sex and the City in victoriaans Londen. Het uitgangspunt van The Book of Strange New Things is al even onwaarschijnlijk en buitenaards en ook hier lijkt het aanvankelijk of Faber zichzelf een onmogelijke taak heeft gesteld.

Naar Oasis
The Book of Strange New Things speelt in de (nabije) toekomst, in een niet nader gedefinieerde cynische wereld waar oprecht menselijk contact een zeldzaamheid is geworden: elkaar schrijven of bellen wordt als ouderwets en onpraktisch beschouwd. Hoofdpersoon is predikant Peter Leigh die door een ondoorzichtige en almachtige multinational, USIC genaamd, naar een nieuw gekolonialiseerde planeet wordt gezonden om daar het geloof te verkondigen. Een vergelijking met apostel Petrus dringt zich op. Tot ver na pagina zestig is niet duidelijk op wat voor planeet, door USIC Oasis gedoopt, Peter terecht gaat komen. Zijn eerste ontmoeting met een alien vindt pas plaats op pagina honderdtwintig. Zo loopt zijn ervaring parallel met die van de lezer. Oasis blijkt een aardig leefbare maar niettemin wonderlijke planeet met een heuse atmosfeer en eigen flora en fauna, waar de dagen tweeënzeventig uur duren.

'Peter's heart pumped hard, and he breathed shallowly in his excitement. The rain! The rain wasn't falling in straight lines, it was ... dancing! Could one say that about rainfall? Water had no intelligence. And yet, this rainfall swept from side to side, hundreds of thousands of silvery lines all describing the same elegant arcs. It was nothing like when rain back home was flung around erratically by gusts of wind. No, the air here seemed calm, and the rain's motion was graceful, a leisurely sweeping from one side of the sky to the other [...]'

Fabers stijl spreekt zeer tot de verbeelding en het is dan ook niet verrassend dat veel van zijn titels verfilmd zijn. In 2011 maakte de BBC een televisieserie van The Crimson Petal and the White en in ging 2013 Under the skin in première (met Scarlett Johansson in de hoofdrol). Van The Book of Strange New Thingszond BBC Radio al in oktober van dit jaar een tiendelig hoorspel uit.

Amazing Alien Grace
Echte kerstening van de planeetbewoners is overigens niet meer nodig: de aliens vormen een zeer vreedzame, oudtestamentische samenleving. Bovendien is een andere predikant Peter al voorgegaan totdat deze om onduidelijke redenen doordraaide en verdween. De aliens zijn voor het merendeel al zeer gelovig en hebben zichzelf al namen aangemeten van Jesus Lover One tot en met Jesus Lover Sixty-Three. 'The book of strange new things' is hun benaming voor de bijbel. Inmiddels spreekt het volkje ook een rudimentair Engels, met wel één belangrijk manco: ze kunnen de -s- en de -t- niet uitspreken, wat best lastig is als ze bijvoorbeeld 'Jesus' willen zeggen. Faber noteert hun klanken middels tekens die nog het meest weghebben van Thais. Het spraakgebrek draagt bij aan een bijzonder grappige scène als de voltallig congregatie zich verzamelt om voor Peter een nauwelijks verstaanbaar en enigszins vernacheld Amazing Grace te zingen.

Beatrice en Eva
Als een rode draad loopt door het boek Peters contact met, en zijn gedachten aan, zijn vrouw Beatrice, die kort voor zijn vertrek zwanger blijkt te zijn geraakt. Nog nooit was een echtpaar zo ver van elkaar verwijderd en haar naam, die aan Dantes hemelse geliefde doet denken, zal niet toevallig gekozen zijn. Liefdesgeschiedenissen vormen de kern van het merendeel van Fabers oeuvre en ook hier getuigt het afscheid en de briefwisseling tussen Peter en Beatrice van een grenzeloze tederheid.

Sinds zijn debuut bleek steeds weer uit interviews met Faber hoezeer zijn schrijverschap verbonden was met zijn echtgenote Eva, die zijn klankbord en inspiratiebron was. De laatste jaren werd hun bestaan overschaduwd door de terminale kanker waaraan Eva leed. Te zeer aangeslagen wilde Faber zijn nieuwste boek na tweehonderdvijftig pagina's laten liggen maar zij moedigde hem aan om te blijven schrijven. Eva Youren overleed kort voordat Faber The Book of Strange New Things voltooide.

Fabers nieuwste is ook zijn meest emotionele boek, en gezien de ontstaansgeschiedenis ervan is dat niet verbazingwekkend. De roman heeft dan ook een zeldzaam indringende moraal die tot uiting komt in Peters contact met een alien, genaamd Jesus Lover Five. Voor haar vat hij een speciale genegenheid op. Als zij gewond raakt, blijkt dat Oasans niet kunnen genezen. 'God healeth all diseases' gaat voor hen niet op. Dat een mens van ziekte kan genezen of dat een wond kan dichtgroeien tot hooguit een litteken is een wonder, zo beseft Peter.

No spoiler alert
Ondertussen blijft er veel onduidelijk over de bedoelingen van het USIC-imperium dat er veel aan gelegen is de kolonisten onwetend van de aardse actualiteit te houden. De enige vorm van communicatie met het thuisfront is 'The Shoot', een soort e-mailsysteem dat aan strenge censuur onderworpen is. Ondertussen worden de berichten die Beatrice aan Peter stuurt steeds alarmerender: tsunami's, aardbevingen, oorlogen, dramatische faillissementen, de aardse ellende houdt niet op. Is dit werkelijk wat zich afspeelt op planeet Aarde of worden Beatrices teksten gemanipuleerd door USIC? Het lijkt erop dat Peter er uiteindelijk voor kiest terug te keren naar zijn vrouw, maar ook dat laat Faber in het ongewisse.

Een open einde is in Fabers werk niet ongebruikelijk. Lezers van The Crimson Petal and The White waren zo nieuwsgierig hoe het heldin Sugar zou vergaan, dat ze de schrijver de kop gek zeurden om een vervolg. Waarop Faber in 2006 The Apple schreef, een bundel verhalen die inderdaad voortborduurden op The Crimson... maar de hunkerende lezer niet echt soelaas boden.

Deze keer zal er geen vervolg meer komen. Tot consternatie van zijn uitgever en lezers liet Faber tijdens een recent interview weten geen romans meer te willen schrijven: 'I think I have reached a limit.' Hoe men als lezer ook kan verlangen naar nog meer Faber of nog meer Peter en Beatrice: laat men in godsnaam de schrijver met rust laten die zijn vrouw verloor die niet alleen zijn steun en toeverlaat was maar zelfs het hart van zijn schrijverschap vormde.

Deze recensie werd eerder gepubliceerd op de site van de Athenaeum Boekhandel in Nederland: https://www.athenaeum.nl/recensies/2015/jezus-aliens-de-liefde-voor-je-vrouw-en-nooit-meer-willen-schrijven/

Marjolein Corjanus studeerde Franse taal- en letterkunde aan de Radboud Universiteit te Nijmegen, Nederland. Zij is werkzaam als freelancevertaler, -redacteur en -recensent. Daarnaast voert zij zelfstandig onderzoek uit op het gebied van de Franse en vergelijkende literatuurwetenschap. Een overzicht van recente publicaties is te vinden op LinkedIn en Academia.edu.