Tag Archives: literature

This: The Popular Culture Studies Journal!

PCSJ-Cover-791x1024

OK, Hourman needs to go on hiatus for a little while.

But in the meantime, I’d like to share something that I–in my secret identity as Jesse Kavadlo–wrote that took significantly longer than an hour.

In the brand-new, just launched Popular Culture Studies Journal, I have an essay titled “9/11 Did Not Take Place: Apocalypse and Amnesia in Film and The Road.”  I’m very happy with it, and the other articles in the journal are excellent and more accessible than the average academic journal.

So happy reading, and when Hourman returns, probably in about two months, look for an interesting new direction.  I’m thrilled to have broken 600 Followers and over 65,000 views, which I do not take lightly.  The readership and response to the blog has far exceeded my expectations, and I’m looking forward to getting back to it soon.  Thank you.

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The Rock & Roll Novel: Where Great Jones Street Meets Telegraph Avenue; Or, Hi, Fidelity!

Part II of ALL PLACES EXCEPT HERE ARE IMAGINARY: HEARING MICHAEL CHABON’S TELEGRAPH AVENUE, PART I  

From Esquire's review

Image from Esquire’s review

Last month, I concluded by saying that “no other novel showcases Chabon’s prose powers better than Telegraph Avenue.”  It turns out that the New York Times later agreed (who knew they read my blog?), placing TA on the 100 Notable Books of 2012 list with this summary:  “Chabon’s rich comic novel about fathers and sons in Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., juggles multiple plots and mounds of pop culture references in astonishing prose.”

It’s the “astonishing prose” part that I want to analyze.  Here is a sentence on the opening page, the first appearance of the one of the novel’s main characters:

Moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned, Archie Stallings manned the front counter of Brokeland Records, holding a random baby, wearing a tan corduroy suit over a pumpkin-bright turtleneck that reinforced his noted yet not disadvantageous resemblance to Gamera, the giant mutant tortoise of Japanese cinema.

In this sentence, we can already see both the novel’s preoccupations and style: the alliterative opening, the juxtaposition of images, the mild surprise of “random” before “baby”; the low culture reference to Gamera; the interests in vinyl, threads, and film. But we can also see begin to hear its music: the record store is more than a setting.  It establishes that Chabon’s prose will be musical to match.

Telegraph Avenue

Telegraph Avenue also distinguishes itself from the novels I immediately thought of from reading its description.  One is Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street—its title, like TA, uses a real-life street name as metaphor, with Chabon going for assonance and an overt communication message vs. DeLillo’s more subtle allusion to longing and drugs.  For all of its seeming preoccupation with music, though, GJS—an underrated early ‘70s novel about a rock star trying to escape the life—is not singing TA’s tune.  Contrast Chabon’s earlier first page (although not first paragraph) with DeLillo’s opening paragraph:

Fame requires every kind of excess.  I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings.  I mean long journeys across gray space.  I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic.  Understand the man who must inhabit these extreme regions, monstrous and vulval, damp with memories of violation.  Even if half-mad he is absorbed into the public’s total madness; even if fully rational, a bureaucrat in hell, a secret genius of survival, he is sure to be destroyed by the public’s contempt for survivors.  Fame, this special kind, feeds itself on outrage, on what the counselors of lesser men would consider bad publicity—hysteria in limousines, knife fights in the audience, bizarre litigation, treachery, pandemonium and drugs.  Perhaps the only natural law attaching to true fame is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide.

(Is it clear I was a hero of rock ’n’ roll?) (1)

great_jones_street_

It’s brilliant, but the rhythms and repetitions (“I mean”), to say nothing of DeLillo’s unique imagery (“chinless kings,” “vulval,” “bureaucrat in hell”), are nothing like Chabon’s gee-whiz sincerity.

The other obvious comparison is between TA and High Fidelity, another novel about another record store owner on the brink of economic and romantic collapse.  But again, the voice in Nick Hornby’s novel could not be more different from Chabon’s, or DeLillo’s. Here is Hornby’s opening:

My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:

  1. Alison Ashworth
  2. Penny Hardwick
  3. Jackie Allen
  4. Charlie Nichilson
  5. Sarah Kendrew.

Gone are Chabon’s—and DeLillo’s—meandering cadences. This is clipped prose that captures narrator Rob’s solipsistic and obsessive (a period at the end of a list?) yet engaging character.  Hornby’s use of hyphens, to say nothing of lists, makes Rob as different as possibly from laid-back, often dispassionate Archie and Sphinx-like, cipher-like Bucky in Great Jones Street.

High Fidelity

You can leaf through Telegraph Avenue and pick nearly any passage on nearly any of the book’s 465 pages and see the same superrealistic attention to detail, details that mostly do not accrue or foreshadow; they are like ornate, lovingly crafted background shots and costumes that the camera pans over closely to capture and create tone:

Page 176: The door to the office creaked open with its trademark creature-feature spookiness, a sound, impervious to old can and WD-40 alike, that had in turn haunted the practices of a Jungian analyst, a couples therapist, a specialist in neurolinguistic programming, a hypnotherapist, a shiatsu practitioner, and a life coach before settling on to lock the tenure of the Birth Partners in suite 202.

280: A last morning glad of summer, blue banded with gold and peach, unfurled slowly over the streets as the two wanderers, denizens of the hidden world know to rogues, gamblers, and swordsmen as “the Water Margin,” made their way along the Street of Blake toward the ancestral stronghold of the Jew-Tang Clan, its gables armored in cedar shakes faded to the color of dry August hills.

412: On the dilapidated sign of Steele’s Scuba, a ghostly diver confronted the lost submarine mysteries of Telegraph Avenue.

On each page, but especially in the longer sentences—and many of the sentences are very, very long, including a single-sentence tour de force chapter that runs over a dozen pages—we see the clauses balanced, sometimes Jenga-style, so that the reader is sure that the whole thing will fall apart or dissolve into run-on cacophony  (it never does), often phrased like a long jazz phrase, the reader almost hearing the horn player just make it to the end on a single breath.

Benjamin Percy in Esquire, however, doesn’t see it that way:

…Telegraph Avenue aligns itself more with [Chabon’s] earlier pre-Marvel novels — about real people in the real world, such as in the remarkable Wonder Boys — yet he’s stuck with his over-the-top hyperactive style of recent years. It’s the equivalent of Michael Bay directing a romantic comedy. It may be entertaining, and there may be a great story buried beneath the special effects and explosions, but it doesn’t track.

I think Percy is using the wrong metaphor.  Despite my earlier movie simile, I don’t see the sentences as “the equivalent of Michael Bay”—big, dumb, show-offy spectacle—at all.  Instead, I hear them, and, in keeping with the novel’s recurring use of real songs to provide a quasi-soundtrack to accompany the story, the sentences sound like Charlie Parker or early Miles Davis. (Percy compares them with Sergeant Pepper, which I can see, but that comparison contradicts what he also suggests about Chabon’s show-offy virtuosity.) Sometimes I hear Frank Zappa, when it gets far out.  And mostly Chabon sound like a hyperarticulate yet dreamy poet more than a realist novelist. Typed differently, the opening page passage (or again, really, any of them) begins to look and sound like Allen Ginsberg, except I suppose for the Gamera part, which I’ll excise:

Moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned,

Archie Stallings manned

The front counter of Brokeland Records,

 Holding a random baby,

 Wearing a tan corduroy suit over a pumpkin-bright turtleneck that reinforced his

Noted yet not

Disadvantageous resemblance …

Yet at the same time, despite the breathes, cadences, and musicality, the prose—or the neighborhood, or these characters—can exist only as words, as language.  Percy’s Bay analogy is doubly off base, and even my music is a metaphor.  It’s no surprise that William Grimes, also writing in the NY Times, declared the audiobook of TA a dud, despite what seems the obvious potential:

A prime example of a good book defeated by the format is TELEGRAPH AVENUE (Harper Audio, $44.99), Michael Chabon’s teeming novel about race, human relations and a lot of other stuff swirling around a vintage record store in Oakland, Calif. The language is dense, allusive, hip and sharp, which is to say, very difficult to perform. Clarke Peters, who played Detective Lester Freamon on the television series “The Wire” and Big Chief Lambreaux on “Treme,” picks his way carefully through this minefield, articulating painstakingly in the sonorous, low-pitched voice of a late-night D.J. on a progressive jazz station. It’s a swinging style, perfectly attuned to the novel’s setting and falls easily on the ear, but Chabon’s relentlessly brilliant prose style makes heavy demands on performer and listener alike. By the second disc in a marathon that goes on for more than 18 hours, the thought arises that some books simply need to be experienced in black type.

Despite seeming to be based on Oakland, despite the voluminous attention to real-life detail with occasional real-life people thrown in for good measure, Telegraph Avenue, is, in the end, a purely imaginary place, a fantasy that exists only on the pages of the book of the same name.  Chabon originally wanted TA to be a TV series, and plot- and character-wise, I can see it.  But no screen, or even spoken reading, can do what words alone on the page achieve.  Telegraph Avenue makes the case that the printed word can still do things that music, television, and even Michael Bay cannot.

Time: 90 minutes. Yes, this is a long entry even for going overtime, but I copied and pasted or retyped more than usual.  I still feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of this novel—what about race?—but I’m ready to move on.

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We Have Entered the Era of Un-

In culture, literature, and theory, the 1960s marked the beginning of postmodernism.  And quickly the prefix post- became the operative way of understanding the world: post-war, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, post-industrialism; then, post-human, post-Boomer, and post-punk; more recently, post-millennial and post-apocalyptic; and for a least a little while in 2008, post-partisan and post-racial.   (Many a postdoc has been devoted to developing post-anything.)  Post- became more than a prefix—it became a worldview, an epistemological category.

But what, students in my class on postmodern literature reasonably asked, can possibly come after postmodernism, or post- anything? More post. Post-postmodernism. [Shudder]. Post- is the prefix that devours itself, since it is always after, belated, still waiting, and deferred. Nothing can come after post-.

Nothing except, with apologies to Existentialism, a new kind of nothing.

Enter: Un-.

Un-, like post-, is not a word. Unlike other prefixes, however, like pre- or post-, or re- or un-’s near-relative, under-, un- does not describe, affix in time, suggest repetition, or, like mis- or mal-, even suggest that something is wrong.  Unlike with-, dis-, de-, counter-, anti-, or even the powerful non-, un- does not suggest opposition, working against.  Un- suggests more than reversal or opposite: it is negation, disappearance, taking out of existence.  And if post- described the world after about 1945, Un- describes the world from 2000, or maybe 2001, to the present. We are living in the era of Un-.

Now, I realize that lots of words began with Un- before 2000.  I used “unlike” twice in the last paragraph alone. But I used it as a preposition, “dissimilar from.”  On Facebook, unlike is a verb: if you click Like, and then decide that you don’t like that thing anymore, you can click Unlike and it will erase your Like. Since Facebook does not have a Dislike button, Unlike is as close as people can get.

But Unlike is as different from Dislike as unable to disable, unaffected to disaffected, unarranged to disarrange, unfortunate to disfortunate (which is sort of a word).  Which is to say, very different.  Both suggest opposition, but dis- implies an active opposition, expending energy to reverse.  Un- feels passive, a kind of vanishing—or worse, the suggestion that the thing never was in the first place.  When we Unfriend on Facebook, we do something we cannot do in real life or face to face, which is presumably why the word had to be recently invented. We don’t Unfriend corporeal people.  We just—what, exactly?  Stop being friends? Spend less time together? Drift apart? Or something stronger—not a drift but a rift.  A fight, a falling out.  We’re not on speaking terms anymore.  But not Unfriend.  We can only Unfollow online, on Facebook or Twitter.  We can’t Unfollow in person.  Unfriend and Unfollow seem etymologically and epistemologically close to Untouchable, with the implications of prohibition, exclusion, disappearance. Unclean.

Like many people who spend time at their keyboard, I have become reliant on Delete, on Backspace, on Undo.  When I knock down a glass and wish it would float back in a startling cinematic backwind, or misplace my book and want it to reappear, or say something that I want to take back, I can picture Ctrl Z clearly in my mind’s eye.  But it does not Undo.   Glasses do not unbreak; books are not unlost but rather must actively be found (without Ctrl F, either). Words that are unspoken were never spoken, not spoken and stricken.  We say, I take it back.  But the words cannot be unsaid.  Judges instruct juries to ignore testimony, but lawyers know that jurors cannot unhear. Judges cannot unstruct.  Traumatized viewers cannot unsee.

Do not try this in real life

And so Un- fails at complete erasure.  Like a palimpsest, Un- can’t help but leave traces of its former self behind.  The close reader can see what used to be there, the residue of virtual Friendship, the electronically unsettled path left behind after one has Followed, or been Followed.  And perhaps this failure is for the best.  The only thing more powerful than Un-’s fever dream of retroactive disappearance is that the wish cannot come true.  If anything, the electronic world that birthed the fantasy of Undo is the same one that never lets us scrub our online prints away.

Time: 55 minutes

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All Places Except Here Are Imaginary: Hearing Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Part I

I have a book called The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi.  Its Forward explains that the writers were inspired by what it might be like to take “a guided tour of Paul Feval’s vampire city, Selene,” and, “excited by the idea, it did not take long for us to compile a list of other place we felt we would like to visit: Shangri-La, Oz, and Ruritania readily sprang to mind.”  But, they write, “as the project developed, our list of entries kept going, threatening to become endless,” in what sounds less like a real book than an imaginary story about an imaginary book about imaginary places by, say, Jorge Louis Borges, who as far as I know is not imaginary.

So the writers imagined up some rules: no imaginary places that were “in effect, disguises, or pseudonyms, for existing locales.”  Not “Pooh’s turf or Watership Down” because “these exist… the characters, the actions, were imaginary—not the places.”  No imaginary worlds set in the future, for reasons I still don’t get.  And more.  Even then, the book runs 755 double columned pages.  And it raises some serious ontological problems: aside from the place where we are at any given moment, aren’t all places imaginary places?  This sounds like solipsism: if I close my eyes, the world disappears.  But it’s a little different, in that places in our minds, and certainly in every work of fiction, become imaginary places, even movies filmed in real (or “real”) locations.  Any world from our past, and even anywhere we are not, becomes a mental reconstruction, a psychological set as unreal as any façade Hollywood might construct.  And that’s still assuming we can trust of our senses, ignoring every philosopher from Descartes through Lacan.[i]

Michel Chabon is best known for constructing imaginary places, fanciful conceits, and high concepts.  It’s no wonder that he is one of the few award-winning Serious Novelists to have co-written big Hollywood screenplays, including Spider-Man II (yay!) and John Carter (um…) .  Can you imagine Jonathan Franzen putting time into Blade III, or Jane Smiley revising a few drafts of Fantastic Four II: Rise of the Silver Surfer?[ii]  In keeping,  Chabon invented a number of imaginary places in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—the world of his superhero The Escapist, who is imaginary even by the already imaginary standards of superheroes, in that he is not a “real” superhero, even acknowledging that there are no “real” superheroes.[iii]  But he also invents an alternative Prague for Josef Kavalier, one that includes magic and a real (no quotations) Golem, although unfortunately Chabon does not imagine it without Nazis.   And the world of late 1930s Brooklyn, with Sammy Clayman and Josef’s comic book collaboration and the rise and fall of the costumed superhero’s Golden Age, while not entirely imaginary, is entirely imagined.

The Sitka Alaska of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is even more imaginary, although Sitka itself is not.  It is a kind of alternative history, a What If? in the great Marvel comics tradition, imagining a Jewish state not placed contentiously in the Middle East but rather somewhere no one would want.  And even within this imagined world, we see the double imagined world of the Jewish hardboiled detective novel, Yiddish-speaking flatfoots and underworld goons, an invented genre that becomes palpable in the book’s pages.  This is to say nothing of Chabon’s foray into Harry Potter and Narnia-esque Young Adult Fiction in Summerland, or its opposite, the seemingly realistic by comparison Wonder Boys.  While the movie adaptation does a great job of dramatizing blocked writer Grady Tripp, the novel does a better job dramatizing the blocked novel itself, a universe that is imaginary even within the imaginary confines of the novel itself.

All of this is a way of getting to Chabon’s new novel, Telegraph Avenue, which, by the standards of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, contains no imaginary worlds at all. Its setting is the intersecting space around Oakland, California.  No one invents any superheroes, although there are plenty of allusions; no one speaks Yiddish, although there are prominent Jewish characters.   Here’s the blurb:

As the summer of 2004 draws to a close, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are still hanging in there—longtime friends, bandmates, and co-regents of Brokeland Records, a kingdom of used vinyl located in the borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, two semi-legendary midwives who have welcomed more than a thousand newly minted citizens into the dented utopia at whose heart—half tavern, half temple—stands Brokeland.

When ex–NFL quarterback Gibson Goode, the fifth-richest black man in America, announces plans to build his latest Dogpile megastore on a nearby stretch of Telegraph Avenue, Nat and Archy fear it means certain doom for their vulnerable little enterprise. Meanwhile, Aviva and Gwen also find themselves caught up in a battle for their professional existence, one that tests the limits of their friendship. Adding another layer of complication to the couples’ already tangled lives is the surprise appearance of Titus Joyner, the teenage son Archy has never acknowledged and the love of fifteen-year-old Julius Jaffe’s life.

And here’s the thing: all of this is a long way of setting up that the Chabonian emphasis on setting, on imaginary places, is, in fact, misplaced.  It’s only a part of the story.  The other part, the one that makes Chabon’s novels elaborate works of the imagination—along with, I’ll add, the works and worlds of JK Rowling, CS Lewis, HG Wells, JRR Tolkien, and so many others—are not the imaginary places, with apologies to Manguel and Guadalupi.  It is his language.  Language turns Oakland and Brokeland into worthy entries in the Dictionary of Imaginary Places.

Unlike his contemporaries like the aforementioned Franzen, Eggers, Smiley, or David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon is yet not recognized as a first rate prose stylist.  I think this is, in part, as I will argue, because his style varies from book to book.  That ability to transform, one of Chabon’s key themes, is part of what makes him so great.  And no other novel showcases Chabon’s prose powers better than Telegraph Avenue—which I will get to next week, since my hour is almost up.

Time: 55 minutes.  I ended where I intended to begin, hence the hastily added Part I to my title.


[i] My plan is in fact to ignore them.

[ii] Although I suppose Dave Eggers wrote Where the Wild Things Are.  Which is not the same thing.

[iii] I’m going to stop before I make anyone’s brain hurt. You know what I mean.

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Puns of Anarchy; or, Sons of Anarchy Also Rises; or, Sons of Innocence and Experience; or, Serial Narrative Killers

Back for Season 5

Like Weeds and Mad Men—like Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and the Godfather of the cable antiheroes, The Sopranos—Sons of Anarchy is another long running series about a morally dubious subculture, in this case, bikers, as opposed to noncable TV’s continued fixation on morally salubrious subcultures, like doctors, lawyers, and twenty-year-old white people living in NYC apartments they shouldn’t afford.[i]

Sons of Anarchy began five years ago as a Hamlet on wheels. The Prince is Jax, short for Jackson, since being a Son is a big literal and metaphorical deal on the show. Last name Teller.  And tell he does: his hopes and dreams, wishes and fears, loves and hates.  Played by devilishly handsome Brit Charlie Hunnam, he’s a perfect female fantasy—the sensitive tough guy who just needs the right girl.

~sigh~

The Right Girl is Dr. Tara Knowles, a bad girl gone good gone bad, who seems to knowle everything about the human heart, but not her own.  Her medical specialty is Anything That Anyone Needs a Doctor For.  HamJax’s Claudius is Clay Morrow, whose clay morals take the motorcycle club deeper and deeper into harder and harder crimes: running guns, running coke, murder, and sporting a soul patch.  Gertrude is Gemma; with mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage, Jax’s mother has jumped from mourning John Teller, Jax’s father, into marriage with Clay, John’s spiritual brother.  But Jax has unearthed a cache of his father’s journals, much to Clay and Jemma’s chagrin, and through the magic of reading and voiceovers, his father’s ghost speaks from the grave to warn Jax to rebel against Clay.

This all made for excellent TV.  We got to see Jax struggle, even falter, against his doubts, conscience, relationship with Tara, and American accent.  And over the seasons, the backup bikers in the Sons have gone from sidemen and comic relief, a gang of jackbooted Rosencrantzs and Gildensterns, to round characters in their own rights.  The flawed but honorable Bobby Elvis, the scarred and unintelligible Chibs, loose cannon with a good heart Tig, and especially perpetually incarcerated, self-sacrificing Otto (played by Sons creator Kurt Sutter): each developed backstories and pathos beneath their tattooed skins, lives and motivations beyond how well they serve or don’t serve the Melancholy Mane.

This journey is in keeping with contemporary notions of TV in the age of DVDs and On Demand.  Thomas Doherty writes this in “Storied TV: Cable Is the New Novel”:

Like the bulky tomes of Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton, the series are thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty. Episode per episode, in milieux that stretch from the ruthless geopolitics of a medieval off-world to the gender dynamics of a post-zombie apocalypse, the tide of action ebbs and flows in a meandering but forward direction, gaining momentum over the course of a season (now likely to be a mere 13 episodes), before congealing and erupting in a go-for-broke season finale.

In 2005, Stephen Johnson suggested much the same in his book Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, literally charting the way in which multiple plot threads have grown exponentially from 70s series Starsky and Hutch (one single, linear plot per episode) to Hill Street Blues (multiple threads in each episode) to the Sopranos.  This last series, for Johnson and many other critics the most effective complex show to date, works like Hill Street Blues, but more so:

Each thread is more substantial. The show doesn’t offer a clear distinction between dominant and minor plots; each storyline carries its weight in the mix…. A single scene from The Sopranos will often connect to three different threads at the same time, layering one plot on another.  And every single thread in this Sopranos episode builds on events from previous episodes, and continues on through the rest of the season and beyond. (69)

And yet, neither Doherty nor Johnson mentions that another TV genre has always used serial narrative, or employed multiple threads to “build on events from previous episodes, and continue on through the rest of the season and beyond,” or arc TV, to use Doherty’s phrase.

It’s the humble Soap Opera.

This tension, then, between creating a highbrow televisual novel—complexities! Nuances! Craft! Characterization!—and rehashing the lowbrow soap—with its cheap, tawdry thrills and ludicrous plot twists—is not mutually exclusive, but comes into sharp relief in Sons of Anarchy , especially in the ways in which the show has ratcheted up and escalated its requite quota of threats, sex, and violence each season.  In the beginning, the big menaces were a rival biker gang, the Mayans, with their nefarious mustaches, and perhaps a stealth enemy in Clay, himself no slouch in badguy facial hair.  But each season, the arc has gotten wider, and the dangers to our lovable bikers have dug in deeper.  Over the past five years, the Feds, a county takeover of the local police department, Irish gun runners, a drug cartel, secret after unearthed secret, Jax’s near death on almost every episode, and most recently the threat of Damon Pope, a huge, rich, connected Cali crimelord, who, paraphrasing Jax and Bobby (from memory, sorry) “isn’t anything like anyone we’ve ever dealt with before. He could kill us with a snap of his fingers.”

Similarly, with the stakes raised, the sex and body parts have rivaled what we see on HBO, the recipient of an imaginary Nudie Award; and similarly, the level of violence has reached a new level of graphic in its own depictions of bodies (dismembered, etc.), with [SPOILER] Tig’s daughter shrieking as she’s burned to death in front of her father, who later cradles the charred corpse in his arms.  Most importantly, we’ve bared witness to the brutal beating to death of a main character himself (revealed below), as the other Sons impotently look on.

Yes, other characters have died before. But at the risk of sounding callous, it wasn’t anyone we really cared about.  This escalation becomes the downside to the serial narrative.  SoA, each season, in true soap opera style, has to outdo the last, creating, as I suggested of Weeds a few weeks ago, a glut of both trauma and narrative from which the characters and the show itself cannot recover.    I fear this season marks the beginning of the end. Not in the Jump the Shark way, which is still a great phrase to mark the precise moment when a show passes its prime.  Maybe we can call it [SPOILER ALERT] “Killing Opie,” for the moment when a show becomes willing to sacrifice a major character on the alter of Higher Stakes (or higher ratings), as opposed to an essential narrative reason.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still enjoying SoA plenty.  But how long can this arms race of sex and violence continue for Sons of Anarchy? Hamlet may seem interminable to high school students, but it doesn’t take five years to tell its story.  The threats escalate, the thick plottens, [spoiler?] and it’s curtains, for the characters, of course, but also for the play itself, and for the audience.  Ideally, life goes on for decades. Ideally, stories do not.

Time: 60 minutes

Comments: what other shows have killed a major character just, it seemed, to up the ante?


[i] Actually, cable loves them, too.

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“Call Me Maybe”: The Deconstruction

Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” is the musical embodiment of what critical theorist Jacque Derrida refers to as “différance.”  Unlike “Call Me,” the previous hit song by Blondie of almost the same name, “Call Me Maybe” throws the initial utterance, the command to “call me,” into question, even forces it under erasure, through the retroactive emendation of final ambiguity, “maybe”; “call me” lies simultaneously with its very negation.  Yet the call itself has not been placed, and in fact exists only in the world of the Imaginary—that which, in Lacan’s parsing, by definition we cannot know. The call forever remains hypothetical, subjunctive, unrealized: deferred.  As Derrida explains, “the relationship to the present, the reference to a present reality, to a being—are always deferred.”

At the same time, the title’s syntactical construction posits its speaker, “me,” in the object position, the patriarchal relegation of the feminine, even while the speaker simultaneously issues the grammatical imperative, “[You] call,” (re)positioning her in symbolic authority.  Derrida suggests that “Différance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences … the simultaneously active and passive…”—just as the speaker of “Call Me Maybe” implies as well.   Further,  the lyric sheet reads “Call me, maybe,” with the comma to separate the command from the adverb, suggesting a heightened claim of ambiguity.  Yet the title, “Call Me Maybe,” with its elided comma and conventional titular capitalization, refigures its meaning entirely: the statement employs the dative declension, echoing literature’s most famous manifestation of this form, Herman Melville’s opening line to Moby-Dick, “Call me Ishmael.”  She is commanding the listener that she should herself be called Maybe, a name that is Not.

The speaker’s utterance, but also the speaker herself, has thus been rendered indefinite, unknowable, and differed ad infinitum.  The title must be read simultaneously as “Call me, maybe,” “Call Me Maybe,” “Call me, maybe,” if the call is never placed, or “Call me, maybe” if it is. We therefore find Carly Rae Jepson in the rhetorical situation of Derrida translator Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak.  In her Translator’s Preface to Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Spivak writes that her “predicament is [that of being] ‘under erasure.’  This is to write a word, cross it out, and then print both the word and deletion.  (Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out.  Since it is necessary, it remains legible.)”

While I have been using the gender specific pronoun “she” to refer to the speaker, since Carly Rae Jepson’s voice, clothing, and sex all code her as “heterosexual female,” the gender identity and sexual orientation of the speaker are in fact ambiguous as well. The opening line, “I threw a wish in the well/Don’t ask me, I’ll never tell” recall the famous “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law established under the Clinton presidency preventing gay and lesbian solders from revealing their sexual orientation, under the risk military discharge.  The ending, or “punch line,” of the “Call Me Maybe” music video introduces the possibility that what we had been viewing all along is not a heteronormative enactment of adolescent dating rituals but rather their subversion, playing upon the complacent viewer’s culturally rigid assumptions of masculinity.

Indeed, the song not only embodies différance; it embraces paradox.  The repeated last line to each verse, “And now you’re in my way,” as well as the reiterated “Where you think you’re goin’, baby?” imply the threat of male coercion despite the feminine vocal delivery.  And the final bridge section, repeating  “Before you came into my life/ I missed you so bad” like a mantra, becomes a Zen kōan, reflecting upon a sublime yet uncanny sense of temporal disconnect.  The notion that one can miss something that has not yet been experienced recalls haiku poet Matsuo Bashō, who writes of the ways in which one can long for an interior, emotionally subjective construction of life even at the expense of its own reality:

Even in Kyōto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyōto

The sense of différance set forward by the lyrics is further augmented by the music behind the chorus. The standard popular song follows a I-IV-V-I pattern: firmly establishing its chord progression with the I cord, developing tension through the IV and V chords, and then resolving the musical conflict by reestablishing the root or alternately moving to the root’s relative minor.  In “Call Me Maybe”’s key of G major, however, the chorus chords move back and forth between C (the IV) and D (the V) without ever returning to G (the I) or moving on to E minor, never resolving, a musical manifestation of différance itself, even throughout the end of the song, which, unlike the conventional fade-out, ends in a pitchshifitng downward spiral, deferring even the idea of a musical conclusion.

The final result of this radical indeterminacy is that “Call Me Maybe” is a musical Mona Lisa, rendering itself a cultural cipher, a tabula rasa upon which any reader may impose meaning; with over 222,500,000 views on YouTube, its video is a floating signifier capable of accommodating virtually any viewer.   As such, the Internet is inundated with “Call Me Maybe” memes, each imagining a different, resolved signified of the song that, taken together, negate each other, paradoxically denying any such certainty.

And so many more

Maybe.

Time: 75 minutes

Derrida quotations from “Interview with Julia Kristeva” in Positions (University of Chicago P, 1981)

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Avengers Resemble…

Seven strangers with nothing in common, except each other

The Avengers is not really a superhero movie.

You’d be forgiven for being confused. You must have been focused on the costumes, powers, special effects, and, um, I guess the superheroes.  And OK, a plot summary makes it sound a lot like a superhero movie: a godlike megalomaniac in a ridiculous helmet obtains a magical object with an awesome name (the Tesseract! Because the hexadecachoron must have been busy), teams up with illegal aliens from another dimension, and tries to Take Over the World, or at least trash Manhattan by means of enormous metallic fantail shrimp, which I think I made the mistake of ordering once. Only The Avengers can stop him!  But will they be able to set aside their differences in time?

Do you like my hat?
No, I do not like that hat. Goodbye.

This last question is the one that occupies most of the film’s nearly two and a half hour running time, before the final act devolves into the humdrum Epic Battle for the Fate of the World that has served as the resolution to every sci fi and fantasy movie for decades.  And it’s the one that makes The Avengers less of a superhero movie than a story of People from Diverse Categories Thrown into an Unlikely Situation who then Realize that they have A Lot in Common, or “PDCTUSRALC.”  You know what, let’s skip the acronym on this one.     

The genre has a great literary pedigree, going at least back to Boccaccio’s Decameron (if the Tesseract weren’t available, then Loki could have stolen The Decameron!) in the 14th century, before getting its English makeover in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a few decades later.  The Decameron featured ten assorted people stuck with each other after trying to escape the Black Death; Canterbury Tales involved a long pilgrimage to the shrine in Canterbury.  But Chaucer really invented the notion that circumstances could bring together a set of unlikely travel companions as characters—a knight and squire;  a merchant, miller, reeve, and cook; a prioress, friar, pardoner, and summoner; the uncategorizable Wife of Bath, and many others, including, it seems, a fictionalized version of Chaucer himself.  The brilliance comes from the schisms and frictions created when people from different social types are forced into confines and conversation with one another. 

The genre then takes off in different directions as we move to America in the 20th century.  Characters telling their own stories in their own styles gets lost, but pilgrimages or enclosed spaces making strange companions flourished.  On the one hand, you’ve got John Ford’s 1939 masterpiece Stagecoach, which finds the 1880s version of the pilgrimage in its title, throwing together a framed outlaw (John Wayne!), a prostitute (with a heart of gold, natch), an ambivalent sheriff, a drunk doctor, an uppercrust wife of an officer (with a secret!), a banker (with a secret!), a Confederate gambler (with a…  ah, you know), and a few others.  That they’re being menaced with massacre by Geronimo is less of a problem than their own internal conflicts within the coach.  On the other hand, you have The Lord of the Rings, another quest that brings together unlikely travel companions and proves that hobbits and men, and even elves and dwarves, could learn to get along.  Star Wars and the many other adventure stories pitting knights (Jedi or not), hotheads, princesses, mentors, and aliens against one another seem indebted equally to Chaucer, Ford, and Tolkien.

There’s of course Gilligan’s Island, with its assorted cast, although why the Howells are on the boat is one of the island’s many mysteries, considering that they could have bought and sold a fleet of Minnows.

And there’s that other island replete with mysteries, from Lost, where, in our modern version of the pilgrimage or the stagecoach, an airplane crash brings together the straight man, the hothead, the druggie, and the bad girl, along with novel additions: a pregnant woman, a prepubescent boy, a paraplegic (as we would discover), a couple that speaks no English (or so we thought), an older (interracial) couple, semi-incestuous step-siblings, an ex-Republican Guard Iraqi torturer, an obese bilingual schizophrenic (although supernatural explanations would supersede psychological ones), and many more. 

Yet even Lost seemed modeled on another updated version of the Canterbury Tales: reality television, with its cast-to-clash archetypes.  And even then, shows like The Real World—for me, the original reality premise from which all the others borrowed–seems less real than a copy of a movie that was supposed to be based on real life: The Breakfast Club. 

Avengers Assembly!

Here’s the poster’s tagline:

They were five total strangers, with nothing in common, meeting for the first time. A brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel and a recluse. Before the day was over, they broke the rules. Bared their souls. And touched each other in a way they never dreamed possible.

So think of Avengers as the Canterbury Tales, with awesome weapons.  Or Stagecoach, but on that awesome SHIELD flying aircraft carrier.  Or The Breakfast Superheroes:

 They were six strangers, with nothing in common.  A billionaire genius philanthropist.  A recluse with anger management problems.  A gorgeous spy with a secret.  An exchange student who excels at the hammer throw.  An ROTC supersoldier who still knows what it’s like to be picked on. And Samuel L Jackson with an eyepatch.[i]  Before it was over, they broke the rules. Bared their souls.

And saved the world.

Time: 65 minutes.

Also, for no reason, Baby Seal Avengers!


[i] Although I deeply regret that Jackson/Fury never gets to say, “Avengers assemble, motherfuckers!”

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Textbook Marriage

Belvedere Castle, in NYC's Central Park. So romantic!

I read fiction about suffering, madness, and death.  Not brave quests to overcome seemingly-impossible obstacles.  Not lovable talking animals learning valuable lessons.  Not We-Disliked-Each-Other-at-First-but-Now-We’re-Falling-in-Love stories, unless untranslated from the original Austen.  No happy endings.  Fittingly, I am also a college English professor, down to my daily uniform of corduroy pants and up to my suede elbow patches.  So the books in my American Literature class this semester represent Unhappiness’s Greatest Hits, especially marital misery.  For all of its green lights, ash heaps, and eyes in the sky, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a novel whose plot boils down to adultery, filled with lines like this: “Most of the remaining women were now having fights with men said to be their husbands.”  So far, no student has asked how I personally feel about the subject of marriage itself.  They do not ask, Are you married? Or, What do you think?  So thankfully, I don’t have to tell.  As long as they don’t want to know, I can keep my personal life out of it.  That’s good.  If they did ask, I would be afraid to answer.

Neither great nor Gatsby, he's really a legume

Instead, we stick to the stories.  And I find myself in the position of persuading skeptical students—women at least as often as men—to see how, in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” from 1899, Edna must have felt trapped in her marriage, even as she strives to exercise some semblance of control through her questionable decisions.  I need students to consider the possibility that, in the “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” the care given to the unnamed, seemingly unreliable wife by her husband could be the cause of her illness, not the cure.  And I want them to imagine that these stories’ turn-of-the century timeframe does not mean that their gender troubles have all been settled by our own enlightened turn of the millennium.  The conventions of first-comes-love, then-comes-marriage, then-comes-baby-in-the-baby-carriage are powerful traps—for women, certainly, but, in Ernest Hemingway’s and Nathanael West’s work, men as well.  Fortunately, students don’t wonder how I feel about marriage personally.  They think they know.

I know why the caged bird drowns herself

In New York, where I lived most of my life, maybe marital ambivalence is well understood—fewer and later marriages are the norm.  But where I now live in the Midwest, many of my students are engaged by their junior year.  Many more marry upon graduation.  When characters rightfully stand up to parents, my students say things like, “My parents and I are BEST FRIENDS!”  I roll my eyes and think snarky thoughts and generalize about the Midwest as though I don’t live here, too.

Yet there is something about me my students don’t know. Something that few, except for those closest to me, can fathom or would even suspect.  It’s a truth so clandestine, so potentially startling, that it casts a bright light over my dark, shiny veneer of authority and credibility as a writer, academic, and curmudgeon.

I have a happy marriage.  I am happy. 

Please.  Don’t judge me too harshly.  It’s difficult, not just in my line of work but in America in general, even in the Midwest once college ends and adult life begins, to admit to being happy.  Before I decided to write this essay, in fact, I needed to consult with my wife to make sure it was safe with her to come out. 

“It’s not something I can talk about with most people,” she agreed.  “When my friends start talking about their husbands, I just smile and keep quiet.”  For the record, she agrees that we’re happy.  And like me, she was happy before we met.  One person can’t make another person happy anyway.  Being happy is not a choice. While we’ve managed to meet other happy couples over the years, they also tend to keep their business to themselves.

Of course, no marriage is perfect.  My wife doesn’t like that I chew too loudly.  I don’t like that my wife doesn’t like that I chew too loudly.  As I keep having to explain, it’s temporomandibular joint disorder, and eating bagels is no picnic for me, either.

OK, our marriage is perfect.   But it’s not as though our lives are perfect.  We have struggled with money, with painful decisions, with bouts of dissatisfaction, with buying homes and raising three children, with health scares and the everyday array of American anxiety.  But through everything, it was and always is the two of us, together, against the world.  Never against each other.  

We knew we were going to marry each other on the night we met, when we left Webster Hall, a loud downtown club, at its 4 AM closing, to walk and talk together.  After stopping at an all-night diner for coffee, we went to Central Park to watch the sun rise as we sat in Belvedere Castle [top image].  Neither of us was looking to get married, so like an experienced screenwriter my wife threw in an obligatory Third Act conflict, declaring a few weeks after we met that she wanted to move to San Francisco, going as far as to fly there with an eye on an apartment in the Haight.  In my memory, our story unfolds like a movie.  What would be three quarters of the way through—or in real time, a month after we met and upon her return home—we were back together and soon engaged.  At the end, we married, in Brooklyn, eleven months from our first night in Central Park, wondering why it took so long.  

If our lives had really been that movie, I would not watch it.  Too Hollywood.  It would feature a long musical montage of us: walking up First Avenue with ice-cream cones, then ordering pasta dishes with different color sauces so we could mix them together at the table, to the cook’s dismay.  Flipping through bins of second-hand CDs, perusing stacks of used books, watching “Stomp” on Second Avenue, taking the L to Brooklyn, fumbling coins for our laundry, sitting on the floor and drinking a bottle of plum wine for so long that we missed our restaurant reservation and didn’t notice.  All while a Foo Fighters—no, worse, a Goo Goo Dolls—song played in the background of the scene.  Laughter, smiles.  An uplifting romantic comedy, when the only romantic comedy I like is “Annie Hall.”  But we really did do all that in our first months together, and the night we met was the first of thousands of beautiful, magical times we would spend together. 

Ugh.  You see the problem.  I wrote “beautiful, magical times.”  I know, I know: what people like us do behind closed doors, in private, is our own business.  We have no right to flaunt our happy lifestyle, to shove it in other people’s faces.    

Since then, every Valentine’s Day my wife cooks a heart-shaped meatloaf.  When our first son was born, I wrote Welcome Home to mother and child across the living room with dried rose petals.  For reasons I still can’t fathom, I was once singing the “Annie” song into a banana: “The sun will come out, banana, bet your bottom dollar that banana, they’ll be some.”  I looked up to realize I was not alone in my foolishness, only to hear my wife join in singing too: [together] “Banana! Banana! I love ya, banana.”  Giggles and hugs.  Our cars are matching colors.  And so on.  These and many more are the joyful, shameful secrets I must never reveal if I want to be respected, for they push the limits of tolerance, even in a free, Western, supposedly open-minded society such as ours. 

In addition to being an Expressionistic representation of modern alientation and angst, The Scream may also depict how you feel right now from reading this post. I'm so sorry.

Great thinkers, artists, and writers are supposed to struggle in their loves.   The best someone should hope for is the marriage of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, passionate at first but then tense and drifting later on.  It could be worse: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre’s drunken turbulence; or worse, Edgar Allen Poe’s creepy union with his thirteen-year old first cousin, Virginia Clemm; or worse, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s catastrophe.  Actually, I’m not sure which is worse.  But it’s not a contest; it’s like the opposite of a contest.  Of course, there are renowned literary romances.  Just not literary marriages.  The story of Darcy and Elizabeth ends once they marry, Catherine and Heathcliff marry others, and Romeo and Juliet, you know.  For every novel like Ian McEwen’s Saturday, including a happy marriage, there are hundreds, thousands, of unhappy fictional marriages.  From the impression I get from journalism, there are hundreds, thousands, of unhappy nonfictional marriages, too.

Yet even Tolstoy, who famously warned readers of happiness’s narrative monotony—“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” in Anna Karenina, another great and terrible novel of adultery and death—was, by most accounts, happily married.  Or at least, like Joyce, he was happily married for most of his life, before the marriage finally soured.  Thankfully, my wife and I have been married for only fifteen years, so there is still plenty of time for us to have the dramatic and tumultuous relationship we envy in others, the kind of traditional marriage that we can admit to in the open, without fear of intolerance or ridicule.    

For now, until the rest of the world is ready, I live in fear that one day, my literature students will find out who and what I really am: someone who makes them read only about misfortune in marriage, when my own is inappropriately happy.  And that I secretly hope my children will think we’re still best friends when they’re in college, too.

Jesse Kavadlo

 Time: OK, this requires some explanation. I originally wrote a 60 minute version for last Valentine’s Day, but when I was done I thought I might try to do something else with it. I spent a lot more time on it, in exactly the way I promised myself I wouldn’t for the blog, made it longer, edited it more carefully, and sent it to the New York Times Modern Love column.  Which, um, didn’t want it.  If you read “Modern Love” regularly, you’ll notice that they like stuff that’s far more depressing than this piece, missing the point that SO DO I. Oh, well.

It’s coming out in hard copy next week in Maryville’s literary journal, Magnolia, which is fine with me. Unless someone wants to buy it. Then email me.

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Bedtime Stories After the End of the World (Ages 12 and under)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Liposuction

The days of waiting for an owl on your eleventh birthday, revealing that you’re a wizard and inviting you to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, are over. Instead, children—young adults, or YA, in the publishing parlance, now fantasize about being entered into the Hunger Games’ tribute lottery at twelve.

Owl

Katniss, please don't shoot and eat me

The fall fascinates me.  Harry Potter’s wizarding world belongs to a genre I think of “Secret Worlds,” with predecessors JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, and CS Lewis’s Narnia, and successors in Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book and Lev Grossman’s Magicians.  There is our world as we know it—Muggles, or worse, Kansans—deadened by lack of magic real and metaphorical. But then the protagonist, who is somehow both special and ordinary at the same time, discovers, or is invited as part of an initiation or rite of passage into adulthood, into a closet kingdom, via some mundane threshold: a window, a hidden train, a magicked out car, fireplace, or, um, boot, or best yet, an actual  closet.  There, they discover that the world is full of possibilities, and that they are more special, more integral, to saving it then they had dared dream.  The books’ pages function as that wardrobe, opening and taking the young reader into its realm. While danger obviously must ensue, the books begin and remain inherently hopeful that the world will be saved, and that it is worth saving. The status quo is essentially an optimistic one—restoring order is a good thing, even if part of that restoration means sending the satisfied protagonist back home, to apply the valuable lessons of the adventure to what he or she comes to understand as real life.  Yes, Harry Potter complicates things, since you can argue that he belongs in the wizarding world and not in the Dursleys’ domestic nightmare. But by the end of the series [600 million books and the highest grossing film series of all time and I have to say spoiler?] Harry too has restored what we understand as the proper pillars of love, family, and society, The Voldemort Years an awful aberration rather than the way the world is or must be.    

In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, Patrick Ness’s Knife of Never Letting Go, Michael Grant’s Gone, and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, plus other books that I haven’t read yet but plan to—Ashes, Ashes; Bar Code Tattoo; Empty; Maze Runner; Feed, and more—the new YA lit genre is not Secret Worlds but World’s End.  Narnia, Harry Potter, Neverland, and Oz were always Utopian, if Utopias in peril.  Some of that threat even included a nicely, dramatically apocalyptic sensibility, especially Narnia, with its Christian inflected Last Battle, but also late series Harry Potter, with its sense of an impending End Times.  

Harry Potter and the Deathly Everybody's Dead

But the newer books are different.  They’re dystopian, not apocalyptic but post-apocalyptic, the filthy children of Orwell and Huxley and Bradbury, as these things always are, but also, for me, more indebted to the pessimism of 1970s and 1980s lit and film: Stephen King’s futuristic, non-supernatural run, Kurt Vonnegut, JG Ballard, Margaret Atwood, Planet of the Apes, Escape from New York, Omega Man,  Mad Max.  Who would have guessed that the most influential YA published in the 90s would not be Harry Potter but rather Lois Lowry’s The Giver?

But the previous dystopia authors and movies were not aiming for the mall, the ‘burbs, the multiplex, and the tweens.  (I apologize for the use of the word “tweens.”)  If all fantasy, as Freud suggested, operates on the contrasting yet simultaneous levels of wishes and fears—as I believe—Harry Potter is a lot of wish fulfillment (Magic! Friends! School is awesome! Flying! Etc!) tempered with fears (a powerful dark wizard wants to kill me!). The New Dystopia is awfully heavy on the fear: starving (Hunger Games; Gone’s sequel is called Hunger); loss of self, mind, and identity (Uglies, Knife); a seeming loss of freedom and the end of the current social order.  But where is the wish fulfillment? Other than the fact that the post-world world opens up the requisite narrative need for conflict, struggle, and adventure, what is the appeal?

I’m not going to wrap this up now, and the clock is ticking, but I think there are a few possibilities. First, I didn’t mention the one other book that these series remind me of: The Lord of the Flies.  It is, or was, a staple of highs school reading, in part because of its ratio of heavy-on-the-cautionary-tale with just enough wish fulfillment.  In it, high school students get to understand just what would happen if You Kids Stopped Listening to Us.  You want to do what you want?  You want freedom? You don’t like rules? OK, smart guys, take a look at this. It may seem as though it would be a blast to live in a world without adults, but it’s all fun and games until Simon loses an eye life.  

The nature of adults in the New Dystopia is very different. In Gone, the adults are just, um, gone.  And some Lord of the Flies-style mayhem ensues.  But mostly—in Hunger Games and Uglies as well—the reader gets to see how fragile, how flimsy, and how arbitrary the veneer of adult society really is.  There is the Lord of the Flies-style wish fulfillment of a world without grownups, but not the guilt, because in these worlds—taking place after the end of our world, rather than, like Harry Potter, Narnia and the others, parallel to it—the absence of supervision is generally the adults’ fault or poor decision.  No accident, no separation.  The adults either chose to do it or screwed it up.  And the kids are the only ones left to see the world for what it is, struggle to survive, and—maybe—clean it up. The true fear of the books goes beyond food or even death—it is that these dystopias represent some adult version of utopia.   It’s Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes, not as shock or twist, but simply as the way the world is:

Or Charlton Heston at the end of Soylent Green:

And even for happy, well-adjusted teens, adult utopia=teen dystopia gets enacted and exaggerated.  In the end, that’s what the books do: exaggerate and make literal the metaphorical struggles and hungers that teens—and, it seems, plenty of adults—immediately recognize.  Isn’t high school  a version of the Hunger Games, with each kid competing for limited resources, hoping yet fearing that they’ll be catapulted into the spotlight, going back and forth between fashion show and death match, pushed by a hyper-competitive culture of achievement and selectivity to view their peers as rivals?   Any resemblance to free-market capitalism is surely unintentional. Uglies represents the tension between wanting to be yourself and wanting to fit in, that adolescent contradiction that says “Look at me! Look at me!  Look at me! WHY ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME?” In the novel, all teens get full body plastic surgery at age 16 to eliminate every flaw, but in doing so, who they really are becomes corrected as well.  Again, it’s a sci-fi version of how they feel, with adults, for the most part, absent, behind the scenes of the operations, or adversarial upholders of the crooked status quo.  The stakes are, remarkably, even higher than in HP and Narnia, and the books are more radical for it—the teen heroes are not struggling against usurpers but rather against the legitimate machinations of commerce and government themselves, the libertarian flipside to the books’ seeming anti-capitalism.  

It’s conventional wisdom that the Harry Potter books began as jolly fun before the series grew up and got dark.  But it’s worth remembering the scary three headed dog and two faced evil wizard(s?) who populated Sorcerer’s Stone.  Maybe in terms of darkness, The Hunger Games picks up where Harry Potter leaves off.  After all, The New York Times, discussing the problems and promises of the Hunger Games movie franchise, suggests as much:  “One possibility might have been to follow the “Harry Potter” model, which succeeded as perhaps the first middle-grade novel to bring in adults to both the reading experience and the movie theater. As Harry and his Hogwarts friends made their way into the upper grades, the stories themselves became darker and more sophisticated — decidedly young adult” (see article here).  

 And this image, condensing every frame of the whole HP series, certainly grows darker and darker. 

 

Huh. They really do get darker.

But as dark as the New Dystopias seem, like the Secret Worlds novels, they suggest, again and again, as Shakespeare once sang, that the children are our future.  Adults, not so much.  They’re the problem.

There’s your wish fulfillment.  And your fear.

 

Time: 90 minutes! What the hell?

 

Jesse Kavadlo

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Hunger Games are from Venus, Hunger Artists are from Mars

Some assembly required. Batteries not included.

Just in time for the movie, if two years behind the teens, I read The Hunger Games.  But even though he’s been dead for almost ninety years, Franz Kafka beat me to it.  In 1922, just a few years before he died, Kafka published the short story A Hunger Artist, a weirdly candid but unsurprisingly depressing mediation on a man who starves himself for the entertainment of others.  Although the story was published ninety years ago, it is already nostalgic, looking back on the golden era of starvation artists, a real-life phenomenon where men would live in cages, their wasting public for gawking spectacle. As the story opens, “During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances under one’s own management, but today that is quite impossible.” 

As usual with Kafka, it’s nearly impossible to easily interpret, although at least no one wakes up as a cockroach.  Is the story autobiographical and symbolic, with emphasis on the word “artist”: starving artists as hunger artists, sacrificing themselves for their art?  Is the hunger artist a Christian martyr or Christ himself, sacrificing his body for the seeming benefit of others, even if those others don’t know it? Is the story sincere or ironic—does Kafka really think that slow starvation is a great performance?  Is the hunger artist a victim of a vicious society or the perpetuator of a con, making a living literally doing nothing?  Is he misunderstood, as he believes, or does he misunderstand himself?  Kafka seems to want to story to seem spiritual and existential, but in our contemporary culture of eating disorders and reality television, he now seems anorexic and narcissistic, equally food- and attention starved—psychiatrically disordered, rather than acetic, spiritual, or even alienated.    The hunger artist would have loved the present.   

So let’s cut to the present.  The Hunger Games, the first major post-Harry Potter young adult lit phenomenon, seems the titular heir to Kafka’s hungry hungry hero.  Yet I had some major qualms about the book—at least until I was more than halfway through it.  Like Hunger Artist, Hunger Games is also nostalgic, not because the days of starvation are behind them but because they are ahead. In this futuristic, totalitarian dystopia—like there’s any other kind?—America is now Panem, but not the friendly skies: a weird amalgam of technological advancement amidst an overall feudal, semi-agrarian society. 

Our futuristic dystopian overlords, apparently.

In order to keep the story’s twelve districts in line and circumvent rebellion, the government, such as it is, uses a lottery to select two contestants—Tributes, one boy and one girl—from each district, elevates them to celebrity status, has them model haute couture and eat haute cuisine, makes them appear on TMZ, then televises their gory fight to the death, with a single winner rewarded with food and other valuable prizes.    The good news is that this set up keeps ex-contestants from robbing convenience stores or starring in pornography once the show is over.  The bad news is that it doesn’t make much literal or political sense.  We like our ultimate fighting and our reality stars separate, not that I’d be surprised by Kickboxing with the Kardashians.  But time tested, old fashioned slaughter, secret prisons, pograms, public impalement, and killing fields are far more cost effective for the frugal, discerning despot.

The influences show everywhere: Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, obviously, Stephen King’s Running Man and The Long Walk, an episode of Justice League called War World, which itself borrowed from Spartacus, and every battle royale ever written, from Koushun Takami to Ralph Ellison. Plus, the writing seems equally prosaic. While it’s ostensibly the first person POV of Katniss Everdeen, our protagonist (and therefore, we quickly surmise, winner of the Games, a kind of built in spoiler), the language is often so clichéd and dry that it reads more like a book report about some other, better written novel that Katniss read and is telling us about secondhand.

Yet somehow, even with this ticker of criticism running through my head as I read, I found myself enjoying the book more and more, until by the end, none of the problems mattered, any more than the unlikelihood of talking bears or the existential crisis of wishes in a fairy tale. 

Even more than what turns out the be the novel’s narrative triumph—that is, somehow creating suspense even when the ending is predestined; somehow making interesting a violent snuff film of a bunch of kids killing each other—is what the novel does for gender.  It may seem, in our post-Aliens and Terminator world, that female heroes are at last the norm, but they’re not, not really.  Katniss is simply herself, and who she is is tough, but not particularly smart; self-preserving more than altruistic, even if, like Kafka’s hunger artist, she seems to sacrifice herself for her sister Prim and despite that she does rue Rue; skilled at traditionally masculine tasks like hunting; and lucky, but the kind of lucky that comes after the disaster of living in Panem and winding up in the hunger games.  In other words, she’s far more like Harry Potter than Hermione Granger, more Peter Pevensie than Susan, who does receive a bow and arrow from Father Christmas but is admonished to use it only “in great need…for I do not mean for you to fight in the battle.”  Girls are supposed to be the smart ones, the sisters, the girlfriends, the blank slates, the protected, the supporting characters. Katniss is not any of those things.  She’s better. Yet at the same time, the book never seems to have any gender agenda.

What’s more interesting, though, is her contrast with the male District 12 tribute, Peeta, whose name sounds feminine and reminiscent of bread (he’s the baker’s son), who protects himself in the hunger games by painting himself in camouflage and hiding, and whose sensitive romantic dumb love for Katniss could give Bella a run for her hanky.  This alone would be an interesting gender reversal. But the book does more.  After an improvised rule change forces Katniss and Peeta to team up, Peeta’s injuries make him more of a liability than an asset for Katniss. But not only does she have to protect him, she needs to protect his male ego, so that as she’s protecting him, she has to make him believe that he’s protecting her.  Edward, Jacob, and all those other guys just have to protect, without any self-consciousness and subterfuge.  And in the end, [yes, yes spoilers, although why you’re reading this if you haven’t read The Hunger Games is a mystery to me] when Peeta and Katniss both live, we discover that Peeta’s leg has been amputated.  He’s been saved by a girl like a hundred times, and then symbolically castrated.  And all he wants is looooove. 

I remember in my first year of college reading a super politically correct textbook called Racism and Sexism.  I no longer have it, so I can’t double check this (although I never sold books back so it must still be on my old bookshelf in my parents’ house).   But in it I remember a thought experiment for guys, imagining that every President, nearly every major world leader, nearly every famous scientist, nearly every writer until only a hundred years ago, etc etc etc, was a woman, and how women must feel about the real world.  I got it then, of course.  But I think I get it much better now, thanks to Katniss and The Hunger Games.  In the back of girls’ minds, there had to be a little nagging that the girl is always a Wendy but the boy gets to be the Peter Pan.  Yet when kids read Hunger Games today, they’re not going to think about Kafka, or Shirley Jackson, or the occasional clichéd language.  They’re not even going to notice that Katniss stands almost alone as a realized yet nonchalant female hero.  They’re just going to take the book as it is, and Katniss for herself. 

For a story in the dystopian future, it makes me very optimistic.  And the only Kafkaesque hunger the fans feel is for the next book. 

Time: a little over an hour

Jesse Kavadlo

Coming soon: from Wall-E to Hunger Games to Gone to Uglies: what’s with all the dystopia for kids?   

UPDATE: Here’s that post: http://jessekavadlo.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/bedtime-stories-after-the-end-of-the-world-ages-12-and-under/

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