How Snack Cakes and Thomas Kinkade Explain America

August 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: Pym, by Mat Johnson.

Pym is a wildly uneven book, its amazing premise (Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is a true story, as revealed by the existence of a narrative by Dirk Peters, the black sailor on the voyage) and brilliant, relentlessly inventive plot undermined by some uninspired language (the word “guy” is used excessively) and underwritten elements.  But any book that can move from a satire on academic tokenism to a post-apocalyptic scenario in Antarctica is worth a look.  It’s a worthy entry in the category of the American Weird; the book it reminds me of most is Victor LaValle’s Big Machine.

Johnson is really good at presenting the scope of America’s absurdity, and the overlooked pervasiveness of race and racism in its giant problems: he has a real gift for skirting close to allegory in his fantastic scenarios.  I especially loved the inclusion of two connected elements of satire in the comic character of the narrator’s friend Garth: his overwhelming loves for the paintings of Thomas Karvel and Little Debbie snack cakes.

Karvel is, of course, a thinly veiled reference to the self-proclaimed “Painter of Light,” Thomas Kinkade.  If you’re not American or have somehow, blessedly, missed seeing his work, just check out his website for an introduction.  You’ll see that, as Chris Jaynes  points out in Pym, the work “looks like the view up a Care Bear’s ass.”  Jaynes also points out that black people seem to have no place in the Karvel aesthetic: they are just not part of the “pretty picture.”

The cloying sweetness of Karvel’s landscapes is only matched by the HFCS-laden Little Debbies that Garth is addicted to, to the point of bring cases of them along to Antarctica.  Great fun is had with the Little Debbie name, logo, and long-lived slogan, “Little Debbie has a snack for you.”  The white American obsessions for centuries — racial purity, cleanliness, “wholesome family values,” the monetization, standardization, and mass production of just about everything — are mirrored in both Karvel’s factory-produced “masterpieces” and the omnipresent, addictive Little Debbie simulacra of homemade desserts.

Johnson’s greatest gift in this book seems to be for giving the abstractions of academic discourse — fear and attraction to the Other, sexual sublimation, the deep contextual underpinnings of American literature — lurid, provocative, narrative form.  To make them, in other words, interesting as entertainment.  The juxtaposition of Karvel and Little Debbie works beautifully on this level, bringing together many threads in American culture, politics, and aesthetics.  So do the brilliant plot twists in which Karvel and Little Debbies become the salvation of the black cohort of adventurers at the South Pole are a perfect example of this.  But to give too much away about that would spoil the fun.  The fantastical plot elements of the work do function, as I said, at an almost allegorical level for the predicament in which America finds itself: our gluttony and willful blindness to problems like inequality, racism, and global warming leading to a situation nearly as dire as that in which the black explorers find themselves in Antarctica.  Eventually the  hermetically sealed hothouse of Pollyannaish exceptionalism has to be exposed to the harsh elements.  The Little Debbies eventually must come home to roost.

Everyone and the Dream

July 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Only Revolutions.

Reading next: We Always Treat Women Too Well, by Raymond Queneau.

Here’s a fact smuggled into the copyright page of Only Revolutions: the book has a descriptive subtitle.  It is The Democracy of Two Set Out & Chronologically Arranged.

The Democracy of Two: and right away, we are invited to view the work as an American allegory, something like The Pilgrim’s Progress.  (Side note: as a kid, when I first heard of that work, I thought it was funny that its author was named Bunyan, like Paul Bunyan.)  Plus one of the characters is named Sam, as in Uncle Sam.  And Sam and Hailey refer to themselves as “US,” in caps, throughout.

Then there’s one of the more compelling motifs in the work: the phrase “Everyone [verb]s the Dream but I [verb] it.”  The first time it appears in each narrative, in the fifth line, it is “Everyone loves the Dream but I kill it.”  And so we’re led to believe that “the Dream” is the American Dream.

But what’s the American Dream?  The meaning and its application are as fluid as everything else in this book, but Sam and Hailey, these apparent stand-ins for America, are constantly framing themselves as in opposition to it or outside of it: they’re eternal teenagers, after all (“allways sixteen,” in the book’s phrasing), with teenagers’ typical reflexive insistence on “individuality,” on rebellion against whatever’s there to rebel against, with no real examination of whether the status quo is worth rebelling against, or whether their rebellion takes worthwhile forms.

Then again, America is supposed to be the place where you are free to pursue happiness whatever it may be: the status quo is there precisely to be challenged, to be shown that definitions of liberty, happiness, and reasonable conduct as codified in such things as laws, business practices, and the arts become ossified and need constant reevaluation.  One of the most expertly executed facets of this book is the interplay between the real-world events in the chronological sidebar and the lyrical word-collage of the narrative thread.  Danielewski gets just right the allegorical import of Sam and Hailey’s adventures and the amount of period detail in the main narrative — such that in the two narrations of Sam and Hailey’s attempts at marriage, the 1990s attempt is equated with a homosexual marriage, the 1950s attempt with an interracial marriage.  (That these two marriages, like all of the book’s events, take place in precisely the same place in their respective narratives, thereby reflecting upon each other, is one of the payoffs of the book’s circular structure and repetitive style.  Personally, I found the dual marriages one of the more heavy-handed uses of this pseudo-historical technique, not to mention quite confusing in terms of S&H’s character development, but it works really well as agitprop.)

Freedom is what the Dream often comes down too, and the trickiness of negotiating the limits of that freedom.  Another of the book’s strategic misspellings comes into play: the word fear is here feer, a rearrangement of free.  The progress of Sam and Hailey is fascinating in this light: they are supremely “free” at the book’s beginning, insisting on their abilities to do whatever they want, to destroy and create, to impose themselves on the World: “I’ll devastate the world,” says Sam (Hailey uses “destroy”), “I will sacrifice nothing./ For there are no countries./ Except me.  And there is only/ one boundary.  Me.”  But as they come to know and love each other, this rhetoric softens: there is more “feer,” more concern for the other, less braggadocio and posturing (although it’s interesting to consider whether it is posturing, at the book’s beginning: or are Sam and Hailey also two aspects of a destroyer/creator god: a SHiva, of sorts?)  Freedom is the freedom to fear.

The Lost Art of the Complex Narrative Metaphor

January 24, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Villette.

I’m reading this book at the behest of my wife, Jaime; we occasionally like to make each other read something we love that the other probably wouldn’t get around to.  She read it after a long string of 19th-century books featuring typically selfless heroine-martyr female characters and was blown away by the complexity of Lucy’s character and narration.  “You’ve got to watch yourself with Lucy Snowe,” she told me.  “She lies.”

Brontë really does do some strange, brilliant things with her narrator: things that remind me of Nabokov, and maybe even Laurence Sterne.  As those names suggest, the book can feel both archaic and modern, sometimes simultaneously.

For instance: the beginning of chapter four.  The first two paragraphs of this chapter employ a technique that’s more or less never used anymore: the use of an extended, complicated metaphor as a narrative device, pushing the plot along in a kind of encoded message just short of allegory.  You see this in Victorian literature frequently; I think it died out with modernism’s disdain for the flourishes and fillips of Victorian prose.

Lucy refuses to say much of anything about her family (or lack thereof?); it’s impossible to tell if her family has died, or is estranged, or abusive, or what, exactly.  Instead of telling us what happens in the eight years after the opening scenes, she assigns to us, the readers, a “conjecture” that she was happy to go home, and spins around this a metaphor of a “bark” floating along merrily in the sunshine.  “A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?”

So, okay, we’re already just playing along with Lucy, and already cannot say with any certainty what actually happened to her.  Then she says that, if that metaphor of the calmly floating boat was accurate, she “must somehow have fallen over-board, or that there must have been a wreck at last,” and talks of a “nightmare” along these lines of drowning; whether this is an actual nightmare or still a metaphoric nightmare of remembering something in those eight years is impossible to say.  Finally, “the ship was lost, the crew perished.”

Lucy moves us through eight years without actually telling us one thing that truly happened: instead, she employs a metaphor that she herself disputes the validity of.  It is impossible to say if the constituent parts of her metaphor (ship, steersman, storm, crew) function allegorically, standing for events and people in Lucy’s life, or are merely conveniences to capture the emotional landscape through which Lucy moves to the present of the novel.

This is brilliant.  We get a sense of what that time entailed, but more importantly, we get a strong sense of how powerfully Lucy wants to avoid confronting the details of that time; how deeply she feels it still and how distant she tries to keep it from her thoughts.  There is both expression and repression in the convolutions of metaphor.

She does it again in chapter 12, pages 124-25, provoked by a real storm this time.  (The Gothic and Romantic elements in the book are palpable here, and really quite ingenious, I think.)  This is another of my favorite passages in the book so far: Lucy looks at the moon on a calm night, and recalls how it looked “leaning back on azure, beside an old thorn at the top of an old field, in Old England,” during her childhood.  (What a brilliant turn of phrase — “leaning back on azure!”)  And it recalls her childhood to her.  Then we get what seems one of the key paragraphs in the book:

Oh, my childhood!  I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel.  About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future — such a future as mine — to be dead.  And in catalepsy and a dead trance, I studiously held the quick of my nature.

I mean… good Lord!  What are we to make of that?  What are we to feel towards this girl, and towards the older woman recalling that level of repressed despair and grief?  That level of repressed life? (Well, here’s what I felt: sympathy; horror; some level of queasy recognition.)

But Lucy goes on to recount a night of thunderstorms; she gets out on the roof and sits in the rain, wind, and lightning, feeling a kind of wild, Romantic kinship with nature.  She feels a “longing” for a release from her “present existence.”  In the midst of this scene of psychology projected onto nature, we get another, stunning, bruising extended metaphor:

This longing, and all of a similar kind, it was necessary to knock on the head; which I did, figuratively, after the manner of Jael to Sisera, driving a nail through their temples.  Unlike Sisera, they did not die: they were but transiently stunned, and at intervals would turn on the nail with a rebellious wrench; then did the temples bleed, and the brain thrill to its core.

She then returns to the calm night, watching the moon, but extends the metaphor of Jael and Sisera (from Judges 4): Jael, “the stern woman,” watches over her captive Sisera, captain of the Canaanites’ army, while waiting for her husband, Heber, but does not drive the nail through his temples; instead, “something like an angel — the Ideal!” soothes Sisera, just as Lucy feels hopeful in “the cool peace and dewy sweetness of the night.”

So there’s some serious sexual longing and repression going on here.  Lucy’s calm hopefulness is shattered by a love letter falling down to her secret resting place; and while she says (to herself and to us) that she “did not dream… for a moment” that it was for her, we feel for her; we know she let herself hope, at least for a moment.  We read between the lines of her complicated metaphor to the desperate loneliness and desire she feels.  It was no easy thing, being an unattached, “independent” woman (voluntarily or not); does Brontë invite us to feel sorry or elated for her, that she so often drove the nail into the temple of her desire?

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