Monthly Archives: November 2012

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

P.S. Please Like and Follow this blog.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: