The Dream of a New Way to Read Comics

The Dream of a New Way to Read Comics

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

The new reader of comics

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

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

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

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

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


Sub-creation, mythopoeia and possible worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1. El nuevo lector de cómics

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

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

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

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

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


2. Sub-creación, mitopoeia y mundos posibles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Calíope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Bibliografía citada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hilary Mantel and the historical novel

Hilary Mantel and the historical novel

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

(BUTB, 348)

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Others

The Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we here, in this pitiful garden...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

The Fever Is In Here
—Paris, France

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


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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

I remember driftwood

I remember driftwood

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


—for Georges Perec & Joe Brainard

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

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

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

looking on, standing on the train tracks 

I remember his high-waisted longish black shorts

I remember loving ceramics class in second or third grade 

Loving it because the teacher was cute, Mister Smith

I remember how ceramics class smelled like baked beans cooking

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

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

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

minutes to check & see if my hair was blonde yet 

I remember pouring more peroxide on because it needed to 

be blonde that minute 

I remember that minute being divine

I remember driftwood 

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

I remember seashells on shelves & mantles 

& that big piece of driftwood in the darkened sitting room

No one ever sat in there

I remember American History Class in eighth or ninth grade 

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

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

on the top of the box for cards 

My hand almost fit in there

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

I remember the Dorothy Hamill haircut 

I remember loving the idea of her bowlish beautiful hair 

I remember not loving the way it looked on my head 

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

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

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

around in a circle in the rink 

I remember being scared 

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

I remember being tested for Gifted Class 

I remember not testing high enough to get in

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

Represent the School in Important National Things 

I remember butane hair curlers 

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

I remember salt-water taffy

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

I remember dressing up in Old Western outfits for a funny 

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

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

The photo was going to be in sepia  

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

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

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

& I remember he 

did it again & again, kept shooting &

we weren’t dead & 

we weren’t afraid 

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

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

Invisible Writer, Invisible Readers

Invisible Writer, Invisible Readers

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

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

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

Brenda Daly
University Professor of English Emeritus, Iowa State University

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



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


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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

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

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