Multiple Odysseys and Our Medieval Culture

August 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason.

Reading next: At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien.

There comes a moment, occasionally, when you’re reading along and suddenly, for no obvious reason, the rows of the Cosmic Slot Machine line up and some insight smashes into the front of your skull.  Oftentimes it turns out to be no great fundamental innovation, but the truth behind something that’s become a truism, or something you’ve always known but never understood.

That happened for me as I was reading the fifth story, “Agamemnon and the Word,” in Zachary Mason’s book, an assemblage of fictional “concise variations” on the “crystallized,” canonical version of the Odyssey, said variations supposedly recovered from manuscripts, urns, and other sources and duly translated.  Something about reading these fragments — and especially this fifth, about a knowledge-hungry Agamemnon asking Odysseus and his other “sages” to give him the world’s knowledge in a book, a sentence, a single word — written by a computer scientist, with their artifice of scholarly footnotes linking the variations to the canonical text, made me think that the book could be emblematic of — perhaps is consciously about — our culture’s shift back toward the varietal, the local, the fragmentary, away from the canonical, the universal, the definitive.

Much later, near the end, comes “Record of a Game,” a story begun with a footnote stating that “Though written in credible Homeric Greek, the contents of this chapter cannot be dated much before the early Middle Ages,” and telling us that much of the “papyrus” is damaged, leaving sections of the text up to “conjecture.”  It’s one of my favorites in the book, reading the Iliad and Odyssey as instructional texts for a game of military tactics similar to chess, wildly corrupted and elaborated through years of use and elaboration.

All of this reminded me of Jeanette Winterson saying that “we might be going into a cultural dark ages.”  (You can find the quote here, in an interview with Bill Moyers, though I think she’d said it before then, as well.)  And in my profession, we’re constantly worrying about the creation of a historical dark age through the loss of digital information, the difficulty of capturing and preserving that information (though we seem to finally be turning a corner on that issue, as a profession).  Winterson’s worried about people no longer interested in culture, no longer reading, and whether that absence of market will mean the end of literature and other high art forms.  Archivists are worried about the loss of the historical record.

When Mason writes in his brief preface that “the Homeric material was formless, fluid, its elements shuffled into new narratives like cards in a deck,” he is almost certainly closer to the truth than the idea that one can find a definitive text of a definitive Odyssey, by a definitive Homer.  There were surely many different versions of the Odyssey, as many different versions as there were storytellers, almost all of them lost now.  And yet we — civilization, in general, especially the kind that gets called “Western” — have been engaged, for 600 years or so now, in the systematic canonization of information: putting down authoritative versions of events between covers, over the airwaves, and into the public record of newspapers and legal documents.  This is what scholars, journalists, culture workers of all stripes, have been engaged to do.  But what Mason’s book reminds me of is connection of the pre-Homeric tales of the adventures of a trickster lost on his way back home from war — of that fabled “oral culture” — to the wired world’s increasing proliferation of versions of narratives, “memes,” apocrypha, images real and doctored, commentary, flame wars, propaganda, misinformation.  Crowdsourcing: the creation of large-scale narrative through local knowledge and aggregated data.  Is it possible to see the Internet, again, as some hoped it would be, as a colossal hearth across which storytellers toss the tales they’ve heard, and listeners choose the ones they like best to pass along in their own ways?  Are we in a medieval age of multiplicity, rather than scarcity, of knowledge?

This seems one of the many possible ways to understand Mason’s reasons for reworking one of Western civ’s most fundamental texts, at this late stage in its history, after myriad other reworkings.  The irony, of course, is that Mason wrote a book, and certainly no one can blame him for that: it’s what writers still tend to do, after all.  Not only did he write a book, he published it first with a small press, Starcherone Books, after which the book was picked up and repackaged by Farrar, Straus and Giroux: it’s worked its way up the chain of respectability and wide distribution.  Again, still the logical move to make.  But like a number of other things I’ve read lately, I can’t help but think that the work would be improved, structurally and thematically, by turning away from mainstream publication, and producing it as an online text: a work of electronic literature, not an “e-book” or print book in digital form.  A work inherently unstable, a hypertext in which the reader chooses the order in which to read the narratives, or the narratives are provided in random order.  But one does not get paid (or gets paid very little) for e-lit: there is no market.  Its practitioners, by and large, give content away.  Winterson’s dark age looming, again.

Various Nigerian Narratives, Part 1: Print Culture

February 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: GraceLand.

Sprinkled throughout this book are these fascinating little glimpses into Nigerian pop culture of the ’70s and ’80s.  Because of my work, I’m especially interested in the print culture in evidence here: the interesting uses and kinds of books that Elvis comes across in Lagos.  And I initially meant to write just about these, but so many fascinating little memes about movies, memories, and music kept popping up that I had to expand my vision of narrative to include these, and will address them in future posts.  But to begin with print culture:

References to Elvis’s reading pop up again and again throughout the book: it is in part a Bildungsroman, and a very interesting one, though I think it’s also more than that.  Elvis reads Rilke, the Koran, Gibran’s The Prophet, and many other books.  There are two book-focused episodes in particular that stand out.

The first is in chapter five, where we get a glimpse of Elvis’s library use.  We find that he has been using the United States Information Service Library on Victoria Island, which carries “the show-biz magazine Entertainment” among many other things.  Here’s what he has to say about the local library:

Apart from the endless old tomes on chemistry, physics, electronics and philosophy, the local library had an anthropology section that only had books with the word “Bantu” in their titles… Something about the word “Bantu” bothered him and made him think it was pejorative.  Maybe it had something to do with not ever hearing that word used outside of that section in the library.  The only other books there were treatises on Russian and Chinese culture and politics.  These came either printed in bold glossy colors or in badly bound volumes with the fading print slanted on the page as if set by a drunken printer or as though, tired of the lies, the words were trying to run off the page.

This is fascinating in a number of ways: Elvis’s preference for the US-sponsored library, his distrust of his own local library’s labeling and categorization of African people as “anthropological,” the shelves of “endless old tomes” and propaganda that are supposed to edify but have no interest for him.  The USIS library is a propaganda tool, too, but an attractive, useful, well-stocked one, with the products (however curated and propagandized) of a free press.  In a culture with an American pop-culture obsession, access to an American library for a kid like Elvis is a real treasure.  I think Abani is interrogating that America obsession throughout the novel, but more so with mass-media products like movies and magazines than with books.  I think he presents the USIS library as a good thing, however Elvis chooses to use it.  (The USIS was actually disbanded in 1999, another Cold-War casualty.)

The second is in chapter eleven, when Elvis visits the huge Tejuosho Market to buy some clothes.  It’s a very evocative scene, with Elvis threading his way through the open-air stalls viewing the fruits and vegetables for sale, hearing the cries of kids selling Cokes, the crowded bustle of people about their business.  And then he stops at a used bookseller’s cart: Abani’s descriptions of the Western-canonical paperbacks (Dickens) and West-African novels (Achebe, but also “thrillers like Kalu Okpi’s The Road“) give you the true feel for the cart and for the market.  It has the ring of truth, this mix of used books, at least to someone who’s never set foot in Africa.  Elvis buys two books, slyly symbolic of the crossroads he’s facing: “a torn copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and a near-pristine copy of James Baldwin’s Another Country.”  There it is, in a nutshell: will Elvis turn to the life of crime, corruption, and self-interest, of masculine posturing and violence, or will he follow his artistic dream, his desire to help and support his people and his country, and (perhaps) his homosexual inclinations?  But the books are not just symbols or signifiers of Elvis’s identity crisis; they’re possible pathways out of that crisis.  In other words, it’s not just important that we the readers get the significance; it’s also important that he get it — that he read the books.  That he’s buying them in the first place, when he’s dropped out of school and has very little access to books in general, adds important complexity to his personality.

Then Elvis hears another bookseller calling out from an adjacent stall, and we’re introduced to another fascinating aspect of Nigeria’s print culture: the Onitsha Market pamphlets.  As the bookseller sells them, they are “de books written by our people for de people.”  Here’s Abani’s description:

These pamphlets, written between 1910 and 1970, were produced on small presses in the eastern market town of Onitsha, hence their name.  They were the Nigerian equivalent of dime drugstore pulp fiction crossed with pulp pop self-help books.  They were morality tales with their subject matter and tone translated straight out of the oral culture…. The covers mirrored American pulp fiction with luscious, full-breasted Sophia Loren look-alike white women.  Elvis had read a lot of them, though he wouldn’t admit it publicly.

Elvis scans one that the bookseller suggests for an “educated man,” called Beware of Harlots and Many Friends. He turns it down, though, opting for the more narrative-driven Mabel the Sweet Honey That Poured Away. These are, apparently, real Onitsha pamphlets: Abani gives their full citations in his acknowledgments.  And if you’re really curious, you can see a bibliography of over 100 and 21 digitized examples from the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas here.  Elvis hides his pamphlet between the Dostoyevsky and the Baldwin, and this too signifies, I think, in some way: the indigenous culture Elvis is embarrassed of, but that Abani celebrates — giving us an excerpt from Mabel between this chapter and the next.

I’ll have more to say later about the use of Elvis’s mother’s journal and other excerpts from written works later on.  For now, I hope I’ve given a taste of the complex, intricate ways that Abani is using books and Nigeria’s print culture in the text.  It reminds me a little of Joyce, in Ulysses, with the various books and pamphlets and scraps of culture that Bloom and Stephen come across and mull over in their heads.  (Not a huge stretch.  This is a really, really good book.)

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