J.D. Salinger’s [The Catcher in the Rye]: A Brief Analysis

Front cover of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye

Front cover of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

Experience is the greatest enemy of meaning and significance. When I first read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye during my late teens, I was absolutely captivated by the novel’s passive anti-hero, Holden Caulfield. I felt his loneliness, his distaste towards all of the “phoniness” present in the world, and his constant state of utter helplessness in an uncaring world. It had been a couple of years since I’ve last read the text, and I must say that revisiting the text was a difficult and heart-breaking experience… not only because the content of the text is charged, but also because I realized that I was no longer able to connect with Holden in the exact way that I used to. As I re-read the first half of the novel, I was disturbed to see that I was perceiving Holden as an annoying, whiny, and repetitive character. I found myself rolling my eyes and at times even groaning as I encountered some of his thoughts and actions.

I thought the text had lost its magic. Many people are unable to see what’s magical about this text. The New York Times posted an interesting article titled Get a Life, Holden Caulfield, which discusses how contemporary teens are unable to connect to Holden’s character in the way that older generations of readers were able to. And while my dislike for Holden was intense during the initial half of my re-reading, this dislike began to mellow down as the novel reached its conclusion. I began to realize how much hurt Holden was facing. I began to look back and think about how I also was a whiny teenager, and how I believed that there wasn’t a single soul in the world that could understand me. I remember how I had attitude problems, how I went through phases of intense depression. I was Holden Caulfield, and now I’m a different person. This thought hit me hard, to the point that I was unable to write an analysis of the novel after reading it. I was stunned. I had to sit down, think carefully, and digest the novel before writing about it. And even though my gut reaction was to bash on the novel, after careful thought and consideration, I truly believe this novel is great for three reasons: 1) It manages to encapsulate teenage angst and anger in a way that stirs strong and polarizing emotions within its readers; 2) COUNTLESS (and great) contemporary novels have been inspired by Salinger’s novel (including but not limited to Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You); 3) It is one of the few novels that’s successfully able to tell the coming-of-age tale of a sensitive male protagonist.

Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is an interesting case within the literary world, for although it was written with an adult audience in mind, it became very popular among teenage and young adult readers. Since its publication, there have been numerous attempts to censor or ban the book from schools and libraries, and it is currently on the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged classics, due mostly to its use of “profanity” and sexuality. Some even go as far as to classify Catcher as a precursor to the young adult book market. I believe this has to do a lot with why it was so easy for me to connect with the novel as a teen, and why it was very challenging to achieve this connection as an adult. However, during my re-reading of the book, not only did I notice/understand many aspects of the novel that I was oblivious to as a teen, but I also noticed that the book has many interesting points of discussion that are worth exploring, especially when considering how influential this novel was to the genre of young adult fiction.

What interested me the most of my re-reading was Holden Caulfield’s sexuality. Now, let me make it clear: there is no clear indication on whether this character is gay. On the contrary, the character makes it very explicit that he is interested in women, as can be seen in the following passage:

She was around forty-five, I guess, but she was very good-looking. Women kill me. They really do. I don’t mean I’m oversexed or anything like that–although I am quite sexy. I just like them, I mean. (70) [The term sexy means “sexual” in this passage].

Holden does not engage in sexual behavior with any male character (or any character for that matter) during the development of the novel. The character does express some hesitation when “fooling around” with female characters, but I don’t believe that this is a clear indicator of gayness, but rather, of overall sexual frustration and anxiety fueled by depression and loneliness. Nevertheless, I do think that it is possible to conduct a queer reading of Holden not based on his actions, but on his thoughts and opinions regarding other men and “flits” (a slang word for gay men back in the 1950s). There are many instances in the novel in which Holden thinks about people or events in a way that facilitates a queer or gay reading:

  • Holden notices (and seems to appreciate) Stradlater’s physical appearance: “He went out of the room with his toilet kit and towel under his arm. No shirt on or anything. He always walked around in his bare torso because he thought he had a damn good build. He did, too. I have to admit it” (34). Holden also points out that Stradlater has “gorgeous locks” (42).
  • There is a prolonged mental dialogue in which Holden discusses “flits,” focusing on his friend Luce, who knew “who every flit and lesbian in the United States was” (186). Luce used to tell Holden how some men are married and don’t even know that they are flits, instilling a fear in Holden that he might one day “turn into a flit or something” (186).
  • There is the infamous scene in which Mr. Antolini caresses Holden’s hair while he is sleeping, causing Holden to have an anxiety attack induced by gay panic. Holden later debates whether or not Mr. Antolini “was making a flitty pass” (253) at him, but it doesn’t change the fact that he was unable to withstand the teacher’s demonstration of affection.

The Antolini episode in particular left me with a lot of questions, especially when focusing on Holden’s reaction towards the teacher’s caress. The following passage expresses the thoughts that were going through Holden’s mind as he was escaping Mr. Antolini’s apartment:

Boy, was I shaking like a madman. I was sweating, too. When something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it. (251)

This passage is really ambiguous to me. Is Holden referring to the fact that he’s received sexual advances from men in the past, or is he referring to the fact that he’s sexual advances from adults since he was a kid? It is possible that Holden is referring to past traumas that are affecting his current behavior as a teenager? I think an interpretation of this passage is difficult not only because of its ambiguity, but also because of its unstable use of language. What exactly does Holden mean by “perverty” or “that kind of stuff”? It is referring to gay behavior or sexually “deviant” behavior? Keep in mind that earlier in the novel, as he is looking out from his hotel window and watching a man dress in woman’s clothes, and a man and woman squirting water from their mouths at each other, he states that “the hotel was lousy with perverts” (81), which complicates a direct correlation of perversion with gayness.

What do you think about any of the ideas expressed above? What do you think about Holden being a queer-coded character, or at least as a character that can facilitate a queer interpretation? How do Holden’s views contest the notion of binary oppositions? Notice that we have an ostensibly straight character who is able to express some degree of attraction towards the same sex, while also demonstrating a fear of the possibility of being gay. This simultaneously complicates and perpetuates what it means to be a heterosexual teenage male, especially one who is sensitive, confused, and who is trying to comply with the demands and expectations of society.

In due course, re-reading this novel left me with many questions and doubts. And, although I was disliking the novel at first, towards the end, I rediscovered what made the novel great in the first place. It is an honest and unabashed depiction of a teenager’s pain. It is a depiction of a time in our lives when we all feel like the world is against us, and when we think we have all the answers. It is a time where everything and everyone seems “phony,” but we are unable to recognize our own inherent phoniness. It is a novel that posits questions that we are still unable to answer. It is a novel that continues to push us to ask questions… even if it is a question as simple as “why do I love or hate this novel?”. Thus, the text does not lack “magic” in any way… I’m just encountering a different type of magic when compared to the one I first encountered as a child. If we can move beyond the text’s apparent simplicity, repetition, and phoniness, we may find that it is truly a complex and thought-provoking read.

Work Cited

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951. Print. (Hardcover edition)

On Feelings, the Body, and Queer Grief: Sara Ahmed’s “The Cultural Politics of Emotion”

Front Cover of Sara Ahmed's The Cultural Politics of Emotion

Front Cover of Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion

I will begin by stating that Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion is a book that I was really looking forward to, mostly because it uses a multidisciplinary approach to comprehend how emotions are tied to notions such as culture and power. Even more so, the book explores how emotions, despite their apparent abstractness, are physically bound to the body and create a dichotomous split between the inside and outside world. What I thoroughly enjoyed about this read is that it really gave me a new way to think about emotions as physical manifestations that create or intensify boundaries (or the lack thereof). Ahmed truly has a gift for materializing abstract concepts in surprising ways, providing definitions for pain, hate, and love that are based purely on physical/concrete terms. The issue I had with this book, however, is that I felt that the discussion was at times scattered and too broad, ultimately making it difficult for me to establish strong connections and links across the chapters of the book. There were other times in which the discussion felt merely like a show and tell (here is an emotion, and here are some interesting things about this emotion). But all in all, this was a very thought-provoking read, and it is a book that I would like to revisit in order to better grasp its subtleties and nuances.

Ahmed’s book uses an approach that she calls ‘the sociology of emotion,’ a model that claims that emotions not only create boundaries between the inside and the outside, but that they also create a distinction between the individual and the social. Emotions tend to be categorized as very internal and individualistic processes, to the point in which what “I feel” is virtually impossible to accurately convey to others who surround me. Interestingly, Ahmed’s book is partially focused on the physical properties of emotions, including how they are tied to the body, how emotions develop and thrive thanks to their “stickiness” (their ability to unite bodies with particular signs), and the ties that exist between languages and emotions. By triangulating emotions, the body, and language, Ahmed tries to create a model that not only approaches emotions through a physical/bodily approach, but in tandem, she tries to explain how particular emotions (such as pain, shame, fear, love, and hate) affect larger phenomena such as culture, politics, and the self.

My favorite chapter within the book was the one titled “Queer Feelings,” which discusses why queer individuals are sometimes not recognized as subjects. This chapter also alludes to theories devised by Freud and Judith Butler in order to discussed what subjects can or can’t be mourned after death, and how melancholia can be converted into a powerful tool that helps ‘the queer’ to fulfill its mission to challenge the status quo. I want to briefly discuss this chapter, but before doing so, I want to share some quotes of Ahmed’s book that I found insightful and interesting. These quotes either provide insightful definitions that I would like to return to later on during my own research, or they discuss emotions in a way that hasn’t crossed my mind before.

  • “The intensity of feelings like pain recalls us to our body surfaces: pain seizes me back to my body” (26). “Pain involves the violation or transgression of the border between inside and outside, and it is through this transgression that I feel the border in the first place” (27).
  • “Hate may respond to the particular, but it tends to do so by aligning the particular with the general; ‘I hate you because you are this or that’, where the ‘this’ or ‘that’ evokes a group that the individual comes to stand for or stand in for. Hatred may also work as a form of investment; it endows a particular other with meaning or power by locating them as a member of a group, which is then imagined as a form of positive residence (that is, as residing positively in the body of the individual)” (49).
  • “The fact that the hate crime involves a perception of a group in the body of the individual does not make the violence any less real or ‘directed’; this perception has material effects insofar as it is enacted through violence. That is, hate crime works a a form of violence against groups through violence against the bodies of individuals. Violence against other may be one way in which the other’s identity is fixed or sealed; the other is forced to embody a particular identity by and for the perpetrator of the crime, and that force involves harm or injury” (55).
  • On the difference between fear and anxiety: “Anxiety becomes an approach to objects rather than, as with fear, being produced by an object’s approach. This slide between fear and anxiety is affected by the passing by of the object” (66).
  • On fear and space: “fear works to align the bodily and social space: it works to enable some bodies to inhabit and move in public space through restricting the mobility of other bodies to spaces that are enclosed or contained. Spaces extend the mobility of some bodies; their freedom to move shapes the surface of spaces, whilst spaces surface as spaces through the uneven distribution of fear which allows spaces to become territories, claimed as rights by some bodies and not others” (70).
  • On disgust: “disgust is shaped by the relation between objects. Objects come to matter within disgust reactions not simply insofar as they oppose ‘the I’, but through their contact with other objects. […] Disgust hence operates as a contact zone; it is about how things come into contact with other things” (87).
  • “Disgust, therefore, as an imperative not only to expel, but to make that very expulsion stick to some things and not others, does not always work simply to conserve that which is legitimated as a form of collective existence” (99).
  • “Shame in exposing that which has been covered demands us to re-cover, such a re-covering would be a recovery from shame. Shame consumes the subject and burns on the surface of bodies that are presented to others, a burning that exposes the exposure, and which may be visible in the form of a blush, depending on the skin of the subject, which might or might not show shame through this ‘colouring'” (104).
  • On the reciprocity of love: “love survives the absence of reciprocity in the sense that pain of not being loved in return–if the emotion ‘stays with’ the object to which it has been directed–confirms the negation that would follow from the loss of the object. Even though love is a demand for reciprocity, it is also an emotion that lives with the failure of that demand often through an intensification of its affect (so, if you do not love me back, I may love you more as the pain of that non-loving is a sign of what it means not to have this love)” (130).

Since I am interested in queer theory and LGBTQ literature, I think it comes as no surprise that my favorite chapter of this book was the one on “Queer Feelings,”  in which Ahmed focuses her discussion on a bodily approach to heteronormativity, queerness, and grief. She approaches all of these by centering them on the notions of comfort and discomfort. According to Ahmed, comfort can either be approached as the complete integration of the self with an external object, or the seamless integration of a body with an exterior space. Ahmed thus approaches heteronormativity as a public comfort because it allows certain (heterosexual) bodies to extend into a space that has already assumed their shape, thus, they do not feel discomfort or a lack of belonging:

one feels better by the warmth of being faced by a world one has already taken in. One does not notice this as a world when one has been shaped by that world, and even acquired its shape. […] Queer subjects, when faced by the ‘comforts’ of heterosexuality may feel uncomfortable (the body does not ‘sink into’ a space that has already taken its shape). (148)

In addition to a discussion of (dis)comfort, I particularly enjoyed Ahmed’s discussion of queer grief, which centers its attention on how loss, mourning, melancholia, and comfort are attached to queer subjects, who by nature, must be recognized as real subjects in order to be grieved. Ahmed provides clarification in terms of the nature of a queer loss. While she admits queer grief does not imply that queer lives are existences that cannot be grieved, she focuses her attention on the fact that these grievances cannot be admitted or confessed in any way: “one has to recognise oneself as losing something before one can recognise oneself as losing something” (156).

In their analysis of grief as pertaining to unreal humans/subjects (subjects who come from “inferior” cultures that are dehumanized), both Butler and Ahmed allude to the Freudian differentiation between mourning and melancholia in order to illuminate their views. According to Freud, mourning entails a healthy process of grieving in which the living subject is able to let go of the memory of the dead subject. Melancholia, on the other hand, entails a “irrational” process in which the subject in morning and the “object” being mourned become one—in other words, the subject is unable to let go of the memory of the deceased. Whereas Freud views melancholia as pathological, Ahmed views it as a positive and productive trait when applied to unreal lives. This is because melancholia, unlike mourning, forces the subject to integrate the memory, or better said, the impression of the deceased into their own consciousness—giving the unreal a real existence that lives on through the melancholic. Furthermore, whereas mourning and the eventual rejection of the memory of the deceased implies a discomfort, melancholia entails absolute comfort with the memory of the departed. Ahmed thus proceeds to view grief as productive when it expresses itself through melancholia:

to lose another is not to lose one’s impressions, not all which are even conscious. To preserve an attachment is not to make an external other internal, but to keep one’s impressions alive, as aspects of one’s self that are both oneself and more than oneself, as a sign of one’s debt to others. One can let go of another as an outsider, but maintain one’s attachments, by keeping alive one’s impressions of the lost other. […] To grieve for others is to keep their impressions alive in the midst of their death. (160)

By keeping these impressions alive, the non-transcendence of queerness is kept alive as well, along with its inherent resistances to normativity. In Ahmed’s point of view, the melancholic integration of an unreal person permits a transcendence of queerness “that allows queer to do its work” in the first place (165). Part about what I love about this chapter is that it provides a model that can help counteract the view of the queer being associated with a lack of futurity, particularly since Ahmed’s view of queer grief through the melancholic subject allows the perpetuation of the queer body and the queer memory through the stickiness of signs. It is through this integration or queer impressions that queerness is given a shot at futurity, although it should be reiterated that queerness is not always given a chance to be integrated if it is not recognized.

Have you read Ahmed’s book? What are you impressions towards her physical/bodily approach towards emotions? What do you think of her chapter on queer feelings, especially when concerning her use of Freudian psychoanalysis?

Work Cited

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Brotherhood, Race, and Gender in Martin Wilson’s “What They Always Tell Us”

Front cover of Martin Wilson's What They Always Tell Us

Front cover of Martin Wilson’s What They Always Tell Us

Young adult novels, generally speaking, tend to be emotionally draining reads. It is not uncommon for teens and young adults to feel angst, loneliness, and depression when trying to transcend into the realm of adulthood (as many of us know when we look back at our teen years, or as we currently experience them). I guess it’s unsurprising that many books within the YA genre tend to fully embrace these sentiments. One of my colleagues once told me that she reads books in the genre when she wants a good cry, and lately, during my immersion into many YA texts for my doctoral examinations, I can’t help but feel this immense sense of sadness and impending doom when first approaching a novel. I guess this is why Martin Wilson‘s book surprised me, for although it certainly begins on a somber note, it ends not only with a sense of optimism, but also with a sense that there are fleeting moments in life when all is good in the world.

I included What They Always Tell Us in my reading list mostly because people tend to classify this book as a gay YA novel, but in all honesty the narrative centers not so much on the topic of gayness, but rather, on brotherhood. The two main characters of this text are James and Alex, two brothers who look alike and who are similar in terms of physical and intellectual prowess. Despite these superficial similarities, the brothers are characterized by different social and emotional nuances. Alex tends to be the more emotional or “sensitive” brother while James embraces a stoic and slightly “jockish” persona. Although the brothers used to get along when they were younger, they have reached a point where they barely talk to each other, not only because of their diverging interests, but also because of their inability to understand the other’s thoughts and actions (due to a lack of communication). The occurrence that propelled this divergence between the two brothers is Alex’s recent suicide attempt triggered by feelings of loneliness and isolation. James, rather than feeling supportive of Alex, ultimately shuns him because he is unable to comprehend why Alex would try to selfishly get rid of his own life. The bulk of the novel is centered on the subtle actions and developments that lead the brothers to rekindle their fraternal relationship by understanding each other, and more importantly, by understanding themselves.

The time in which the narrative of this novel takes place is a little unclear to me, but what it is clear is that the plot takes place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I think this last bit is interesting because Alex’s story is focused on his emerging sexuality and his fixation on James’ friend Nathen Rao, a gay cross-country star who also happens to be half Indian and half white. Naturally, Alex’s and Nathen’s sexuality is very problematic within their current location, and as a romantic relationship develops between these two characters, they become aware of the difficulties of being gay in the southern region of the United States.

I was expecting race to be problematic during this point, either because the narrative takes place in the south, or because there would be issues of representation in terms of Nathen’s Indian background. Within YA fiction, it is not uncommon for authors to make their characters more exotic or interesting by given them particular physical traits or identities–what is commonly known as the token (insert identity marker here) character. These token characters’ thoughts, actions, and development are sometimes not affected in any way by markers of identity. What’s even more problematic is that the “marked” identity of these characters typically adds little or no narrative depth to the text. Perhaps the most well known case of this type of character would be Dean Thomas in the American edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, who is described as black, simply for the sake of making the novel seem more diverse and inclusive. At first, I was afraid that Nathen would be a character who was half-Indian in name only. Nathen’s cultural heritage is described by James as follows:

Nathen’s dad was born in Indian, but he grew up in England, where he met Nathen’s mother, who is white. They both have these great British accents, though Nathen–and his college-age sister, Sarita–sound as southern as everyone else. Sure, they stand out in Alabama, but Tuscaloosa is a college town with a lot of foreign students and teachers. Plus, Nathen and Sarita are good-looking and athletic and smart, and people in school have always are more about that than their heritage. (Wilson 40)

While on one hand this certainly alleviates the necessity to make race a central issue within the novel, it does feel like the issue is being brushed off completely–thus leading me to question how realistic this wholehearted acceptance of Nathen’s family truly is. Could Nathen ostensibly be a character of any other race without dramatically affecting the narrative? Nathen’s Indian heritage does come up several again in the book, especially when Alex visits his house during a weekend when Nathen’s parents are away. We find out that Nathen’s father almost tries to conceal the fact that he’s Indian, whereas his mother, who is white, tends to compensate for this concealment by decorating her house in Indian decor, and by constantly cooking Indian food. Unlike Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter series, Nathen’s heritage is explored with a little more detail– but I was expecting a little more exploration of issues of race. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that this novel is focused on James and Alex’s mental development. Nathen, after all, is a secondary character, and thus my expectations of racial exploration are a little too far-fetched and demanding when taking the aims of the novel into consideration.

Race aside, I thought the portrayal of Alex’s emerging interest in Nathen was a significant and well-developed aspect of the plot. I originally tried to approach Alex’s narrative as either a coming-out tale or a tale of self-discovery, but Alex’s development doesn’t really fit any of these narrative roles (especially when taking his sexuality into consideration). Alex does eventually come out to James, but this doesn’t seem to bother James in the least because he is more concerned about his brother’s happiness and well-being. I was also expecting to see some tension in terms of race due to the fact that there’s an interracial relationship taking place in the south, but as I mentioned above, race is presented as a non-issue within this novel. Gayness, however, is a significant tension in the plot, not only because it is implied that Alex lost his friends because they suspected he was gay, but also because it challenges James to question the extent to which his role as a loyal brother should trump his role as a friend to others. I think this was a clever choice made by Wilson as a writer, for he approaches sexual identity as a way of facilitating a discussion of family and brotherhood. It is through Nathen’s treatment of Alex that James comes to realize his flaws as a brother.

In due course, Wilson’s What They Always Tell Us is a worthwhile read because it manages to highlight the extraordinary embedded within the ordinary, while simultaneously combining seriousness with heart. Although we are not given perfect snapshots of what always goes on in the protagonists’ heads, we are given enough to debate and contemplate why they behave and think in particular ways. In other words, the novel provides entertainment, but it still provides the reader with a space for reflection, contemplation, and speculation. It is comforting to see a novel aimed at portraying both the good and the ugly present within the world, using the motif of brotherhood as a platform to discuss issues and events that bind us as humans and that simultaneously set us apart.

I guess in due course, the novel posits that what we are always told in life isn’t always true, but it certainly gives us something to hold onto, something to aspire to, and at times, something to deliberate.

Work Cited

Wilson, Martin. What They Always Tell Us. New York: Delacorte Press, 2008. (Hardcover edition)

You can purchase a copy of this novel here.

Harry Potter and the Pink Umbrella: A Gendered Analysis of Hagrid

Front Cover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Front Cover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Little can be said of the Harry Potter franchise that hasn’t already been said. Not only has Harry Potter become one of the most lucrative book series in history, but it has also won countless awards and cemented J.K. Rowling’s position as a tour de force of children’s literature. It has been adapted into a series of eight films that have introduced Harry and his friends to non-readers, and the lives of Rowling’s characters continue to thrive in the imaginations of readers through book discussions, fan fiction, and online interactive social networks such as J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore.

As a lover of children’s and young adult fiction, it should come as no surprise that I was (and continue to be) a huge Harry Potter fan. I attended Borders bookstores religiously during their midnight releases of the latter books. I always watched the films on the night they premiered. I even recall having my own mini cauldron and wand set as a kid. However, it has been almost eight years since I’ve read the first book of the series. I remember reading it countless times as a teen, but as always, life gets in the way when it comes to revisiting older books, especially when your life is devoted to reading and writing! Thus, I was really glad to have the chance to revisit Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone for my readers in Canada and the UK) as a reading for my doctoral examinations, and I was surprised to notice a lot of details that I had not noticed before.

Of course, this is primarily due to the fact that I’ve been “trained” how to close-read and how to analyze all types of literary texts, but it also has to do with my changed perceptions and ideologies as an adult. One of the biggest surprises during my reading was re-encountering the portrayal of Rubeus Hagrid in this book, especially since I am not more attuned to the nuances of gender and sexuality within contemporary literature. From the moment Harry firsts encounters Hagrid, we are offered an almost “paradoxical” character that seems to challenge conventions and norms of gender. This challenging is made quite apparent in the films, but I think the book offers an opportunity to slowly and carefully consider Hagrid’s position as a gendered subject (a portrayal that becomes even more interesting in later books as his character development focuses on the fact that he is a half-giant).

Hagrid with Pink Umbrella

Hagrid challenges essentialist views of gender through his performance, in which his gendered attitudes and behaviors have little or nothing to do with his biological sex or his physical appearance. Hagrid’s appearance seems to embrace every traditional aspect of masculinity that one could invoke: he is large, his appearance is shaggy and unkempt, he has a booming voice, his hands are bigger than a normal human’s face, and let’s not forget about that manly beard and the tangled hair. However, this physical appearance is contrasted by a warm and inviting personality, and a degree of sensitivity that is not really expected when one first sees him. Hagrid bawls when first abandoning Harry at the Dursley’s home. When he later reconvenes with Harry on his eleventh birthday, he greets with with a cake, and Harry makes note of the fact that Hagrid makes use of a “tattered pink umbrella” (56) to conjur simple magical spells. Pink is a color that has obvious connotations to femininity, so it may be surprising for some to see such a large man carrying an umbrella of this color (even in the film, the umbrella is pink, but I’ve never noticed this detail before).

Hagrid’s character continues to challenge gender stereotypes later on in the novel, after he hatches the dragon egg that was given to him by a mysterious person at a tavern (who turns out to be professor Quirrell). After the egg hatches and Norbert the dragon snaps at Hagrid’s fingers, the half-giant exclaims that “he knows his mommy!” (235), and he continues to reference himself as the dragon’s mother later on in the novel. On one hand, it seems that Rowling is tapping into the trope of the “gentle giant,” but one must come to wonder why such gendered connotations were used to highlight and emphasize Hagrid’s gentleness. Others may deem that Hagrid’s embrace of masculine and feminine qualities is simply present to invoke laughter within the reader, seeing as the character’s maternity, femininity, and sensitivity clash immensely with the masculine physical appearance of the character.

Though to some extent these aforementioned interpretations may be true, I would like to believe that Hagrid is yet another manifestation of the issues of hybridity that Rowling actively challenges in the series. Characters that are caught between two worlds or categorizations are of utmost importance in the world of Harry Potter, for they contest the notions of purification (and to some extent, eugenics) represented by evil characters such as Voldmort. This makes complete sense when we observe that Hagrid embraces hybridity in more than one sense of the word: he is half human and half giant, he is magical yet forbidden to practice magic (thus increasing his liminality), and he embraces prominent aspects of both femininity and masculinity. For these reasons, I believe that Hagrid’s ambiguous gendered nature is much more than a nod to comedy, but rather, that it is an essential character trait that adds depth and complexity to an already fascinating character.

In what other instance does gender and hybridity play a role in other Harry Potter characters? Are there any other characters in the franchise that challenge gendered norms and stereotypes? Feel free to discuss this below!

Work Cited

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997. Print (Harcover Edition).

Time and Cycles in Michael Cunningham’s [The Hours]

Front paperback cover of Cunningham's The Hours

Front paperback cover of Cunningham’s The Hours

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours barely needs an introduction. Not only was it the winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but it is also the source of the Oscar-winning 2002 movie of the same name. Fortunately, I had not seen the movie and I knew very little of the novel’s plot, so I was able to enjoy the narrative in its purest, with no spoilers or outlandish expectations (with the exception of the ideas discussed by Jim Collins in his discussion of the movie adaptation).

I have described many other books as haunting, but that adjective as applied to other books seems to pale in comparison to The Hours. I could praise this book in many ways, including its masterful use of the stream-of-consciousness technique, the depth of its descriptions, or the lavish beauty of its prose, but these merits have been highlighted by many other readers before me.  Similar to the narrative technique employed in Cunningham’s first novel, A Home at the End of the World, each chapter in The Hours focuses on an alternating cycle of major characters, and their perspectives weave together in order to provide cohesion to the text. This disruption of linearity not only adds to the challenge of reading the book, but it also adds an element of surprise and discovery that is more than welcome in the literary world.

In the case of The Hours, the chapters focus on subjects who are either directly or indirectly influenced by Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway during its creation and distribution after Woolf’s suicide. The main characters of the story are Virginia Woolf, the writer of Mrs. Dalloway and an eminent figure within British modernist fiction; Laura Brown, a pregnant housewife in the 50’s who is a self-proclaimed bookworm, and who is deeply unhappy with her ordinary life; and Clarissa Vaughn (also referred to as Mrs. Dalloway or Mrs. D), who is a contemporary interpretation of the main character in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, who resides in New York City with her wife Sally and her daughter Julia (you can read a concise summary of the novel along with reader comments here). The novel is told through an omniscient third-person perspective, so the reader is aware of the thoughts of major, secondary, and minor characters.

The gender politics of this novel are very interesting, in my opinion, precisely because they exemplify a wide range of sexual orientations, which include lesbian mothers who embrace traditional characteristics of femininity, lesbian queer theorists, gay men, and bisexual women. The sexuality of most characters within this novel is in no way static; at times there are characters who feel intense desire and passion towards both sexes even though they can typically be categorized as either straight or gay. Similar to A Home at the End of the World, AIDS plays a prominent role within The Hours, which seems appropriate given the novel’s aim of challenging and illuminating topics such as gender, death, life, and most of all: time/temporality.

Time, as suggested by the novel’s title, is indeed the central issue within the narrative, and it is a motif that not only inflects the content of the novel, but also its structure. The three main characters of the text all share a similar story and face similar struggles, however, the nature of this struggle changes according to the social conventions of the time in which they manifest. Woolf, who is trying to cope with mental illness, depression, and suicidal tendencies in the 1920’s, mirrors the character of Laura Brown, who feels trapped by the pressures and expectations of most 50’s housewives. Both characters express a desire to escape from their world, but are unable to do so because of the people who surround them. Cunningham’s depiction of Laura Brown was particularly captivating, mostly because he effectively illustrates her failure to achieve the perfection that others expect from her, and that she expects for herself. For instance, her inability to bake and decorate a flawless and pristine cake for her husband’s birthday clearly denotes her inability to comply with the unrealistic expectations that she sets for herself as a wife and a mother.

Time also plays a role in terms of how the characters cope with their sexual urges and romantic desires. Both Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown express some degree of desire for the same sex through a kiss: Woolf through a kiss she gave to her sister, and Laura through a kiss to her neighbor who ostensibly is showing signs of imminent illness. These kisses haunt the characters, mostly because they represent a desire that could not possibly be expressed without the expected social consequences. Whereas Woolf has writing as an outlet for this desire, Laura Brown has little to no way of expressing it, thus fueling her desire to escape from her current condition.

The third main character, Clarissa, has created a home with her partner, Sally, but she is shown to oscillate between happiness towards her current condition and the anguish caused by the certainties and uncertainties of life.  What makes Clarissa so appealing as a character is her paradoxical and indecisive nature. One moment, she seems to lament the follies of materiality, the fabricated nature of her home, the investment of money in superficial and useless items. Nonetheless, she invests a lot of time and money in a party to show how much she cares about her friend Richard, who is dying of AIDS. She embraces and rejects the comforts of materiality. She struggles with her need to please others while sacrificing her own pleasures and needs. She worries about the extent to which others enjoy the gifts she gives without thinking about her own appreciation to the gifts she is given. This sense of hesitation, which involves the struggle of the self with the demands of the outside world, is something that Clarissa shares with both Woolf and Laura. This, in due course, it what I liked most about the novel: it forced me to struggle in terms of interpreting the world through the lens of solipsism or interpreting it as a space where knowledge exists beyond the self. Do we define ourselves by the roles that other people assign to us? Are the people around us merely projections of our own thoughts and desires? What agency do we really have as individuals?

I’ve decided to end this post with the most haunting paragraph in this novel, which provides the comforting yet strangely bleak idea of enjoying the hours that provide us with comfort, happiness, and glory, simply because these hours are always followed by darker ones:

We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep. It’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out windows, or drown themselves, or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us are slowly devoured by some disease, or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) know these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more. Heaven only knows why we love it so. (Cunningham 225-226)

 I can’t help but question if this novel is ultimately presenting life as an endurance test. What I am certain of is that the novel approaches life as ever-shifting and ever-changing, and any intent to make the self stable through the passage of time is indeed a futile effort. Life is presented as a series of cycles and repetitions. The cyclic nature of time and history is best represented with the suicides that occur within the novel in that both Woolf and Richard depart the world by affirming virtually the exact same statement to their loved-ones before killing themselves:  “I dont’ think two people could have been happier than we’ve been” (Cunningham 200). Whether or not Richard was familiar with this exact statement made by Woolf in her suicide note is unclear, but the repetition of this phrase by two different people in two different time periods is indeed an eerie thought. I guess some people are better at coping with cycles. Others desperately try to change the direction of these cycles, or halt them altogether. Others willingly or unwillingly embrace them fully. And as Cunningham firmly put it, only heaven knows why.

Source:

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998. Print (Hardcover Edition).

Chapters 1-3 of My Young Adult Novel, “Deviant”

This summer, I’ve been spending a lot of time editing and finishing a draft for my YA novel titled Deviant, a project that I’ve been working on for over two years. Although I thought I was finished with the basic draft this winter, I decided to reconfigure some key aspects of the plot, especially when it came to fleshing out some technical aspects of the universe I developed. This new draft, when compared to the older draft I posted last semester, should give you a clearer indication of the themes present within the novel, which include dystopia, education, predestination, and love.

I would greatly appreciate any and all feedback for these chapters. If reception for these chapters is positive, I might consider publishing a few more chapters on my blog.

Deviant Cover Angel Matos

Chapter I

Amethyst

I rest behind the garbage bin as I try to catch catch my breath. I think they finally lost track of me. I don’t know what’s more unbearable at this moment: the deathly grip of the temperature, or running desperately in the middle of the night with nothing but a hospital gown on. I mean, after all, it’s not too difficult to spot a red-headed teenager running frantically through the city in a pink gown. So much for keeping a low profile.

A sharp pain invades my right foot. Splatters of cracked wine-colored scabs meandered through the shades of periwinkle that cover my fingers. Bruises peppered my legs like confetti. I can’t remember the last time I had sensation in my toes. I huddle my legs against my chest in an effort to retain the little body heat I have left. With all the time I’ve spent immersed in ice during the past few months, I thought I’d be used to the cold by now. But the thought of ice did nothing but crystalize my fear.

I know one thing is certain. Either I’ll die out here in the snow, or they’ll catch me. Either way, I don’t think I’m going to last much longer. I wonder whether it would be more painful to freeze here next to a garbage bin or whether it would be worse to endure the toxins that they’re bound to inject within my body. Neither option seems too appealing at the moment. I take a deep breath, look up, and exhale. A large cloud of steam escapes my mouth. The cloudy wisps tango into the air until they dissipate into atmosphere, leaving no trace behind. If only I were like the steam. If only I can disappear into thin air on sheer will. If only I were free of my body. I guess death will provide that sense of evanescence I crave. Ironic, isn’t it?

I gently turn around and bend on my knees. I wonder if they managed to keep up with me. I grab the corners of the garbage bin with my fingers and I slowly tilt my head to the side. The three figures stand ominously across the street. Damn. I was too desperate to cover my footprints in the snow. I led them right to me.

I blow some steam into my hands, hoping to give them even a few seconds of heat and consolation. It’s useless. My fingers are a nauseating shade of mauve. Although they are numb, they are still shaking violently in a last ditch effort to produce warmth. This effort is in vain. My fingers will freeze. I will die. I’ve always been afraid to die, but the idea seems comforting at this point and time. Perhaps it’s because I’m cold and unable to think straight. But, perhaps I know deep down that whatever awaits me after death, even if it’s nothingness that awaits, is better than the misery I’m suffering in life. I’m beginning to sound like those angst-ridden teenagers in those texts that I always complain about, but I think I’ve earned the right to complain at this point.

I see a darkened alley nearby. Maybe if I make a run for it, they won’t catch me. I grab a crushed food can near the bin. This is it. I launch the can towards the opposite direction of the alley. I hear the metallic clink a few meters away.

I run. Well, I stumble. I’m losing my ability to balance myself. My feet are warning me that they can’t handle much more pressure. I feel a beam of light hit the side of my face as I head towards the alley. So much for my distraction.

I head towards the alley and reach a fence. Seriously, a fence? I thought fences in dark alleys were only used to make escape sequences dramatic in action films. The movie’s hero is chased by the villains and he or she dramatically climbs the fence and jumps over it avoiding the gang of thugs/zombies/cult members running after them. That’s not happening here. Between my frozen feet and my frostbitten fingers, it would be a miracle if I could climb half a meter. I frantically look around. The windows of the adjacent buildings are also too high for me to climb.

I’m trapped. I sit on the ground, knees against my legs. I lean my back against the cold brick of the one of the buildings. Flurries continue to descend from the sky, covering everything in an opaque whiteness. Everything looks exactly the same covered in snow. I chuckle as I think of snow, the element that is slowly draining my life away, as a leveling agent: everything and everyone gets covered in the same fashion by its flakes. Doesn’t matter what shape or size. The snow is careless. It lacks judgment. It’s impartial, unlike the people slowly approaching me.

Bursts of bright light invade my pupils. I cover my eyes, shielding them from the gleam of the three flashlights. My back presses firmly against the grimy wall. The rough texture of the brick perforates my skin. Sweat pours down my soiled hair. My chest heaves back and forth. A continuous flow of steam escapes my mouth. My carnation pink hospital gown offers little protection from the wind and the snow. I always knew that they would find me, but I didn’t expect it to be so soon.

I d-don’t care w-what you d-do or say. I’m n-never going b-b-back there.”

I’m not afraid. I’m freezing. Too bad my stuttering makes me seem like a coward. I have to show them that I’m not afraid. I stand up. My fragile body shivers and quakes as I try to straighten up my body. I shake my head side to side, dusting off the snowflakes that have accumulated over the crown of my head. I take another deep breath. This time, I pronounce the worlds loudly and clearly without stuttering.

Did you hear me? I…am never…going back.” I grab a heap of snow with my stiff fingers and fling it towards the flashlights. A wall of white sprinkles in front of my face as the three beams of light head towards me. Two of the beams of light die off; the other points directly at my face. Two men in black suits and cerulean ties grab me by each arm. The remaining light is soon consumed by the darkness. Even without the flashlights on, I can see their faces quite clearly. It seems that even the moon has a luminous interest in this recent development of events. The moon shining. The snow falling. What a lovely night this would’ve been under different circumstances.

There she is, dissecting my every thought and move with her incandescent eyes—one glows with a yellowish hue, like the eyes of the panther. I can’t distinguish the color of the other eye, but it is much darker than the one on the left. Strange. Nobody’s guardians deliberately select two different eye colors for their progeny. As a matter of fact, I think the Regime explicitly prohibits garish physical traits such as these. They would interpret it as a deviance from the natural order of things. The different eye colors must have been a mutation… an unfortunate accident. Leave it up to a marked person to police marked individuals.

She loosens up her ponytail. Her strawberry blond hair flows freely. Her flawless alabaster skin reflects the moonlight, and her bright pink dress-suit, on the verge of a neon tone, could be spotted miles away in pure darkness. She reminds me of those brightly colored frogs that live in the Amazons, distinguished by their dazzling colors that serve as a warning to other creatures. Even animals know not to mess with beasts that don extravagant, bright-colored coats. Who knew that someone so beautiful could be so… menacing. Yet this beauty is nothing but a mask. All that resides is ugliness inside of that captivating shell. Yes. Nothing but a ragged mummy within a jewel-encrusted sarcophagus.

Well, Amethyst, it seems like you thought you could escape the Hub yet again. But as you very well know, nobody escapes. Deviants such as yourself can never leave, at least not until reparations are finalized. I must say, however, that your attempt to escape was quite a… noble effort. Ineffective, but very noble indeed.”

There’s s-s-still p-plenty of time for me to es-ca-ca-cape.” No. I started stuttering again. The woman chuckles. Seems like she’s amused.

Did you hear that, boys? Amethyst still thinks she has a shot at freedom. Little girls and their big dreams. Dreams are for weaklings, darling.”

At least I’m c-capable of dreaming. M-monsters like you never dream.” Even with the two guards grasping my arms, it’s still getting harder to stand by the minute. I can’t collapse on the floor. I can’t let them see any more signs of weakness.

She steps towards me. Her eyes scan me top to bottom, basking in the pathetic visage in front of her. My bloody face. My bruised knees. My shivering body. She must be enjoying this spectacle. She leans toward my face. Her mouth is about two inches away from my own. She softly closes her eyes and whispers, “True. But that’s because monsters inhabit the realm of nightmares. And guess what, my dear Amethyst? Nightmares are still dreams. Cooperate, or I’ll make sure that you’re living a nightmare for the rest of your meager, pathetic existence.” She says this with a demeanor that is both calm and serene. Now I’m beginning to feel afraid. I try to respond, but no words come out of my mouth. Only steam does.

Denise knows better than to try and escape. She knows that we can repair her” says the woman, still inches away from my face.

Denise. For a moment, I nearly forgot about her. I tried to let her know of my plan to escape. I wanted her to come with me. The Hub, however, is very cautious with its administration. It would be a shame to allow a relapse to occur within its premises.

My mind wanders off to my time in the Hub. I recall the cramped white room with nothing but a bunk bed, a sink, and a toilet. The nauseating smell of disinfectant and toilet-cleaner constantly invaded my nostrils. My cellmate was a seventeen year-old guy named Trevor. He was clearly ashamed about his recruitment to the Hub. It could be worse. Enrollment in the Hub was usually one of the lighter punishments for Deviants like us.

He would toss and turn while sleeping at night, whimpering the name of a person that I didn’t know. A person that he refused to talk to me about. When I first mentioned this name, he cupped one hand over my mouth and just stared straight into my eyes. With his other hand, he gently made a zipping motion across his lips. I perfectly understood who this person was.

Trevor and I had known each other since our first year in the Culture and Communication Center. I was seven when I first met him. Our assigned Center is the least popular of all the training centers, and we knew that. Understandably, we weren’t excited to be there, but it’s not like we have much of a choice in terms of what Center we are assigned to at that age. Although we briefly talked during the first couple of years, we soon grew apart. Who knew that we would one day be cell mates at the Hub?

The transgression that led to my imprisonment happened about four months ago. All it took was one moment. One moment to obliterate years of work and effort. One moment to destroy a lifetime of possibility. When it happened, Denise and I knew we were doomed. Hopeless. Lost. The Regime doesn’t take these matters lightly if you are caught—and although it’s been decades since all the cells in the Hub have been full, you occasionally see one or two new faces in the dining hall every month or so. Denise and I were the unlucky ones this time. You can never be too careful here… the Regime is always watching. Always listening.

The alpha of this demonic pack stands in front of me, breathing heavily on my face, with a hand placed firmly into her pocket. I know what comes next. We all do. We’ve been warned about the penalties for multiple transgressions. We all knew the protocol that Hub-Masters usually followed when pursuing an escapee. Knowing what comes next, I looked at her adamantly with a sense of valor.

Leave…Denise… out of this.” I’m losing my breath.

Oh Amethyst, just drop the act of courage and valor. You already look pathetic. Do you want to actually be pathetic as well? I don’t have to explain what happens next. Accept your fate, and rest assured knowing that our country will become a cleaner place with your departure.”

I can’t take it anymore. With all my might, I yank my arms away from the guards and I lunge at her, trying my best to knock her into the snow. With any luck, her head will bash into the pavement. I lock my arms around her, but she barely budges. I must be way weaker than I thought I was. Adrenaline failed to be my hero at this point. The Hub-Master grabs me by my hair and tosses me on the ground. I look up and see those eyes. They truly do look monstrous in the moonlight.

I black out momentarily. I open my eyes and notice one of the guard’s boots embedded within my abdomen. The other guard swings his foot. I black out once again. Yes, that’s blood dripping out of my mouth.

I spit out the life-bearing fluid and watch the crimson masterpiece that I created on the silver snow. I lay the side of my head on the red-tinged surface. I will raise my white flag. “I can’t be repaired. I refuse to be repaired” I whisper, loud enough for them to hear me.

The woman gives me a half smile and pulls out the roll of parchment that I was expecting to see. Parchment. How old-fashioned. How traditional. One of my history instructors back at the Center mentioned that all agencies belonging to the Regime use parchment for most of their official documents. It makes them feel as if they were in touch with history. The days when Deviants were nowhere to be found. The days when the entire population upheld the virtues of purity and dignity. Strangely, with my act of defiance, I feel like I have fully embraced both of those virtues.

She unrolls the parchment and reads the proclamation in a stern and cold voice. Even the snow seems termperate in comparison to that voice. I know the proclamation by heart—I saw it all the time in movies and television shows repeatedly, all telling the story of people who dare defy the fourth natural law. To add insult to injury, they even made the proclamation rhyme—a lullaby uttered right before our final sleep. It sounds just like I expect it to sound, but with my name and Borough mentioned in the first verse. Rhymes used to always calm me down as a kid. This rhyme manages to finish the snow’s job of freezing the blood running through my veins.

Amethyst Jacobson of the South-western Borough,

The Regime has been clear, its stipulations were thorough.

Your defiance of nature, and a will that won’t bend,

Leaves us no choice but to uphold and defend

The revered mandate of the fourth natural law:

your sacrifice will bring order and peace to us all.”

As she finished the proclamation, she kneels down on the floor and pulls out a syringe from her pocket. She pulls out a vial with a rose-colored liquid. I don’t even feel the needle piercing my flesh. I never thought I would die this way. I always thought I’d be old, surrounded by my loved ones, dying in the warmth of my bedroom. Or fighting bravely against my sworn enemies and foes. But here I am, weak and defenseless: a bloody rag doll laying helplessly as the snow carelessly embraces me.

I feel the heat draining away from my body. My chest tightens. No more steam escapes from my mouth. My eyes are open, but now, all I see is blackness. My spirit finally breaks as I realize that for me, there is no white light at the end tunnel.

Chapter II

WALTZ OF THE FLOWERS

Another lovely semester at the magnificent Culture and Communications Center. I wonder what academic joys await us this year” I say, staring at the colossal gates in front of me.

Oh please, you know a day here beats any day doing nothing at the apartment. At least here we can keep busy with our training rather than watching another pointless television show. If I see another stupid display of teenagers with unbelievable vocabulary ranges and raging libidos, I’m going to gouge my eyes out.” Alice is clearly upset that we spent so much of our summer lounging on the sofa. I, on the other hand, really appreciated that break from the bleakness and mundaneness of training at the Center. I’ve been here for way too long, and I still have about six more years to go. Yes, I’ve learned a lot, but I think I’ve reached a plateau in terms of my development. I mean, you can only hear and see the same thing so many times before it ceases to amuse you.

I guess to some extent, Alice is right to be bothered about the lack of excitement that characterized our break from the Center. To say that out summer was monotonous would be an understatement. I went out a couple of times, slept for countless hours, drank more alcohol than I should’ve, and basically did nothing else but glue myself to the sofa in order to watch reruns of my favorite shows. Now here I am standing in front of the same old extravagant ivory gate, with my roommate at my side, staring at the emerald-hued concrete building behind the bars. One man’s education is another man’s prison.

The building seems to be surrounded by even more glowing screens, maps, and advertisements than I last recalled. It’s only been three months since I last walked out of that gate. The same soft instrumental music emanates from the speakers that surround the gates. The music used to get on my nerves. It made the school feel artificial and staged, no different from those amusement parks that are found in some of the southern Boroughs. Now, I barely ever notice it.

The place looks a little different this time around” I say, looking at the screens near the main entrance of the Center.

Well, the place always looks different but it’s always the same. More display screens. More advertisements. If I see another jade statue of the number eight somewhere in the Center, I think I’m going to hurl.” Alice motions her index finger towards her throat as if she were pretending to puke. Sure enough, we approach one of the many statues portraying a V shape accompanied by three vertical lines, which prominently displays the history of our Center on the lavish holographic platform.

You know you love these statues deep down, Alice. How they represent the greatness of our Center, and how they illustrate how amazing our futures will be. I was thinking of getting you a small replica for your birthday. I think it will look marvelous on your night stand” I say with a smirk.

You get me a replica and I’ll shove the V down your throat and the I’s where the sun doesn’t shine. Don’t forget, your room is only about four meters away from mine. Don’t make me violent.” Alice doesn’t look at me once during the threat.

It’s a risk I’m willing to take. I’ll just make sure to sleep with one eye open and a heavy blunt object under my pillow. If worse comes to worse, I’ll either pull your hair or I’ll retaliate by lunging at you with my own little replica sitting on my desk.” I flash a charming smile, dazzling her with my immaculate teeth. She can’t help but laugh. Works every time.

Come on Levi, I know you wouldn’t lay a finger on me. You adore me too much.” She tilts her head and flashes a smile right back. I immediately give her a light shove with both hands. She sticks her tongue out at me.

The music playing from the speakers changes. A familiar arrangement of a harp and violins begins to increase in volume. Yes, they are playing Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers– yet again. You hear the song at least once every week. I look at Alice with the corner of my eye. Alice calls our music instrumental music. Where she comes from, instruments are usually accompanied with the voice of a human being, uttering words and phrases to the tune of the melody. The combination of music and the human voice is deemed unnatural in our country, so many of us have no idea of what that amalgamation sounds like. Well, I have an idea because of that one time Alice gave me a demonstration. The image of her moving her lips in unison with music was both unexpected and haunting, but I try my best to prevent myself from thinking about it too much. The last thing I need is to be caught breaking a natural law.

Do you hear what they’re playing again?”

Alice puts on a fake Northern accent, similar to the one we’ve seen on documentaries, and answers “Yes, my dear Levi. Why, it’s our song! Care to join me for a quick venture around the dance floor?”

Without missing a beat, I stretch out my hand and bow down. Alice does a simple curtsy and stretches out her hand towards mine. I bend down even further and touch my lips gently on the top of her fingers. “My lady, I would never miss an opportunity to dance with you.” I then grasp her hand firmly with one hand, wrap my other arm around her waist, and as I lift her off the ground, we begin twirling. We twirl until I feel dizzy. I place her on the floor, and we resume our habitual routine: prancing around each other, flapping our hands around like the wild geese that flock by the Center during the winter. I run towards Alice to lift her up for the grand finale.

Will you two cut it out already? You know it’s against regulations to cause a stir around the premises of the Center. Don’t make me report you to the Chancellor!”

It was one of the guards, dressed in the usual (and hideous) khaki green coats with way too many buttons and pockets. He towers over us by at least half a meter. His cheeks blush in a deep scarlet and he is sweating profusely. His lips are twisted in a snarl, and he holds his rifle firmly with both hands. So much for our grand finale.

We’re sorry, sir. We just got bitten by the music bug. We’ll be heading towards the Center now.”

Not so fast. Identification, please” says the guard as he pulled out the familiar black box from one of his pockets. We each took turns waving the back of our left hands in front of the scanner and watched as the small light glowed green twice.

You both may proceed, and no fooling around this time. Adults have no business moving around like that in Center grounds.”

Yes sir!” we say, giving the guard a salute with our right hand.

We both walk stiffly through the ivory gate, trying our best to hold back the laughter that is struggling to explode out of our chests. Waltz of the Flowers continues to play ever so lightly as we walk into the Center.

Almost everything looks exactly as it did last semester. A few new decorative plants surround the premises. The same tall emerald encrusted fountain still crowns the middle of the courtyard. The fountain is called the weeping willow, and it is made of a series of distorted male and female bodies entangled in a shape that resembles a tree trunk. Water shoots out of the top center part of the trunk in a mushroom shape, giving it the effect of willow leaves draping around the mainframe. The bodies in the middle are actually quite difficult to discern, because you have to look between the gaps in the flowing water in order to catch a glimpse.

The front courtyard of the Center is enormous, but it was only a small part of the massive Center system. Many think of Centers as small cities. Even though our Center is the lowest ranking one in the Republic, it is undoubtedly one of the largest. It houses over 1.2 million trainees, thousands of instructors, and it currently has over 152 buildings—and the number of buildings increases by four or five every year. Alice and I tried walking from one side of the Center to another. It took us nearly three hours to complete the journey, and that’s taking into account that we’re pretty brisk walkers. People usually take the underground platform system to travel from one building to another. This system is composed of fifty hover-platforms that float through a series of magnetic rails and tunnels underground. They travel so fast that you can reach the furthest building from the Center’s entrance in less than fifteen minutes.

It would actually be a lovely sight if it weren’t for all of the guards parading all over the Center, dressed in their unsightly green attire and their enigmatic mirrored helmets that cover half of their faces. Alice and I usually refer to the Center as Oz, an allusion to the Emerald City in L Frank Baum’s text TheWonderful Wizard of Oz, one of the few surviving texts of the twentieth century. I should add that this is an illegal text that people aren’t supposed to possess in any way or form. The designers of the Center mentioned something about the color green being calming or soothing, which is ironic because I rarely feel calm within these walls. Perhaps it has something to do with all of the guards and their rifles. The Oz reference is quite appropriate: even our daily uniforms are a pale mint color. The only difference between uniforms are the expected gender markers: males wear dark blue khakis while females wear long pink colored skirts that must cover their knees. Girls are typically referred to as watermelons due to the stark and jarring contrast of colors that they wear.

Despite the overwhelming presence of green, and the guards with rifles, Oz is not the most uncomfortable Center in the Republic. It surely beats TEC—the Technology and Engineering Center located in the Southern Borough of the Republic—in terms of style and comfort. Although Oz is certainly the least prestigious center of the eight located in the Republic, people here are known for being exceptionally nice and welcoming.

Although many consider it a burden to be assigned to Oz, they rarely focus on how easygoing things can be here. Although we still had to follow rigorous schedules, demanding instructors, and although we barely had free time during a semester, at least we didn’t live in the cold, mechanical world of the Southern Borough. In that division, everything from hobbies to leisurely activities are regulated by the Regime.

Levi. Levi! Helloooo! Is anyone home?” I snap out of my trance. How long was I just standing there, staring at the entrance to Oz? There is something about the first semester of the year that awakens a clash of emotions within me. Although I’m excited to meet my friends again and do something other than sit in front of my computer monitor, the repetitive nature of our training really gets to me at times. But I guess repetition is necessary if you are to become perfect. And if you can’t achieve perfection, you at least want to be good enough at something to get a job. Just a few more years in Oz, and I’m out of here.

Sorry Alice, just daydreaming again. It must be my nerves striking me.”

Because of the reception?”

Yeah. As much as I enjoy being surrounded by countless strangers, watching them dance like idiots and informing them about the glory and wonders that Oz has to offer, I’d much rather stay in my apartment reading a text or watching a film.”

Too bad the reception is mandatory. Who knows? You might make a new friend.” Alice gives me a gentle nudge and a mischievous smile. “You can certainly use a new friend in your life. Don’t get me wrong, I love you to pieces, but I’m not going to be around forever, you know?”

Sure. I’ve been at Oz for nearly seven years, and I can count all of my friends with the fingers on my left hand. I doubt this year’s transfers and recruits will be chock full of interesting subjects. Who knows, maybe I’ll meet some beautiful woman who will join me in my quest for cultural and intellectual pursuits.”

Oh yes, your brooding personality and sarcasm is perfect bait for all the young and cultured women out there. Watch out girls! Levi is back in town!”

Alice was right. I wasn’t very successful in courting women at all. I’m nineteen years old, and I’ve only had two girlfriends. Well, girlfriend is an overstatement, seeing as those relationships lasted about three months. They always complained. They always ranted about me not wanting enough. They also weren’t able to understand my so-called “constant fading away from reality.” But I couldn’t help it. Inside, I always feel like something is not right with me. For some reason, I tend to sabotage most of my relationships. Sometimes I think that I was just not built to be a boyfriend, if you get my drift. The more I think about it, the more I believe that some people are just not meant to embrace certain roles. Some people are not meant to be friends, or guardians, or instructors. However, we somehow fool ourselves into believing in the power of becoming… that we can learn to embrace and love things we are incapable of liking. Wow, I am a can full of sunshine, am I not?

The only person that I’ve always liked, well, loved, was Alice. With her, I could be myself. I could let go of my seriousness, embrace my inner goof, and dance faux ballet in front of the gates of Oz. When I say love, I don’t mean the marriage type of love, but rather a deeper kind of attachment. We truly respect and just get each other. We’re like family. Plus, she’s already in a relationship with Samuel. They’ve been together for seven years. I actually met the guy through video chat last May. He was very nice, and very funny. I can see why Alice would stick it out for someone like him. And in all honesty, I am happy for her. She’s my best friend, after all. Well, she’s virtually my only true friend. I am not feeling sorry for myself, I am merely stating the reality of my situation. There’s no need for anyone to feel sorry for me.

Alice transferred from the Northern Union to the Republic about three years ago. This, of course, is very rare. The Republic hardly ever accepts incomers from the Northern Union—so she must’ve been exceptionally brilliant—and she is. So she was issued a ten year Visa to live and train in the Republic, along with a full scholarship. Her guardians, or parents as they call them up North, were not enforced to pay the obligatory 30% of their yearly salaries to send their child to a training center. I still don’t fully get why she crossed the border to come here. The North is known for being liberal, to the point where virtually nothing is outlawed. It’s the antithesis to the Republic, a place known for regulating every possible choice and decision that you can make in your life.

I once asked her why she left the Northern Union to pursue studies here. She told me that entrance to a training institution, or universities as her country calls them, is not permitted until a person is at least eighteen-years old. Until then, they receive a general education that covers every imaginable area of study, from art, to culture, to math, to science, to language, to literature, and even physical education. Now, to me, that seems like a dream. You get to try a little of this and a little of that until you are absolutely certain of the path that you want to take in life. I guess freedom of choice is just as difficult as having no choice at all. At least if you’re life is a mess within the Republic, you can always blame everything on the Regime’s inflexibility and tendency to govern every aspect of your life. But when you’re in charge of every decision that must be made in your life, there is nobody else but yourself to blame when things go awry.

However, since Alice was young, she always was fond of history and cultural study, so she filled out a transfer application. After a lot of paper work, red tape, and bureaucratic nonsense, here she is: a place where all of her education is geared towards a single subject. I, on the other hand, would’ve given anything to leave the Republic for the Northern Union, but emigration is strictly forbidden for citizens of the Republic. We aren’t even allowed to vacation in other places other than the Boroughs. Alice has the choice to return back North at any time, where she is allowed to venture off to any place within the globe. However, I don’t know much about her life up North, mostly because she is restricted from sharing most details about her other life. Every time she shares a tidbit about her previous life, or even when she tells me what she did during her breaks in the Northern Union, she risks deportation, along with the obliteration of every single training credit she has received during the past three years. Did I mention that she also risks the possibility of public execution?

I’m not completely ignorant of the rest of the world, even though I will never get to see it with my own eyes. I’ve heard of Europe, the Caribbean islands, and even the lush jungles of South America, but my experience of these places is limited to video clips, photographs, and the occasional gossip that is heard about other countries. We are told that this prohibition had to do something with upholding the moral fiber of our country and preventing it from being stained by outside influences. Even the few people who immigrate to the Republic, such as Alice, have to take a series of behavioral tests in order to prove that their sense of morality fits within the social and cultural context of the Republic. Or, that they could at least pretend to uphold the same values.

Alice stands there with her arms folded and a bored look on her face. The sunlight greatly highlighted the sapphire hue of her eyes. Her snowy skin provided such a beautiful canvas for those blue eyes. And her hair, caught somewhere between dark-brown and black, delicately curled down from the crown of her head to her shoulders. But best of all was her simplicity. She never wore makeup, and unlike other girls in the Center, she didn’t get up two hours earlier to make herself beautiful. She always says that people should love her for who she is. And it works. Everybody adores Alice.

Too bad nobody looks good in their Center uniform. The stark contrast between the colors of her blouse and her skirt give her a garish look. “Well, I guess we better head off to the Nucleus and see what training assignments we will be given this semester. Let’s see what bores I have to sit through this time around.”

Alice nods her head. “We better hurry. The Distribution ceremony will take place in about twenty minutes” replies Alice unenthusiastically.

We walk to the closest glass dome near us. I arrive near the entrance of the dome and I wave my left head in front of the scanner perched on a platform. “Welcome to the CCC Underground Platform System. Your Network account will be charged two R-Credits for entryway into the terminal. Please state your destination” says the speaker located underneath the scanner. I bend slightly towards the speaker and loudly say “Nucleus.” I wait for about two seconds, and a small green light next to the speaker turns on. “Thank you, Mr. Solis. Your designated platform code will be sent to your Network armlet immediately. Enjoy your trip!” Such a polite machine. My Network armlet immediately lights up. I’m assigned platform N4.

Platforms depart every 10 minutes, so I wait for Alice to pay her entry into the dome. She’ll mostly likely be assigned the same platform anyway.

Did you get N4?” she asks as she walks in.

Yeah, it’s over there on the right” I say, pointing towards the direction of our platform.

Inside the Dome, we are surrounded by a series of eighty enormous round platforms. Each platform is marked with a letter and a number, and each one stops at three different destinations. They all can easily fit about two-hundred people. Every building of the Center is connected through a large underground web, and Domes are considered focal nexuses of this web because it is possible to reach any destination in the Center through a Dome. If taking a platform through a building, you’ll usually have to make a connection somewhere.

Alice and I walk to platform N4. The platform is nearly packed. We climb the chrome-colored stairs and wait above the transparent surface. Advertisements for new films and texts shine brightly across the floor. I look around and see new and familiar faces heading off to the Distribution ceremony. They make the ceremony sound extravagant and fancy, but the only exciting thing that happens is that we’re given the code that will allow us to access the training sessions that we were assigned for this semester. Every semester, the Center offers a very particular number of sessions for an exact number of students. We have no choice in terms of the training sessions that we take here at Oz. The administration makes those choices for us. We do fill out some forms with classes that we’re interested in, but rarely do they take those forms into account. I’ve been pretty lucky since my time here. I’ve enjoyed almost all of my training sessions, and even those worst one of them wasn’t that bad. Just boring and repetitive.

Please make sure your feet are located within the premises of the platform. We will depart in thirty seconds. Make sure to rest your back firmly against the panels once they rise” announces a speaker located in the center of the platform. A series of panels rises from the edges of the platform, allowing nobody to enter or nobody to leave. I walk towards one of the panels and press my back firmly against it, just as we were instructed to do. I hear the familiar buzzing noise and I watch as ropes of light girdle around our waists. This is to make sure that we stay balanced during the short trip, and to make sure that nobody is launched out of the platform during our journey. A few seconds later, I feel the platform dropping into the ground.

The thing I most look forward to in Distribution ceremonies is the ride on the platforms. Don’t get me wrong. I use the platform every day I spend in the Center, so I’m already used to it. However, there are many first years and transfer students who have never used an underground platform system before. Many first-timers are absolutely amused and amazed by the experience. The hilarious cases are those who are scared out of their mind—screaming at the top of their lungs during the entire trip. Alice once showed me a Network site dedicated to displaying pictures of people during their first trip in an underground platform. I find this amusing because I was with Alice during her first ride on a Center platform. I was minding my own business on the platform three years ago, but I was distracted by the fervent high-pitched screams that were unleashed ext to me. I turned my head to see a stranger (who turned out to be Alice), screaming aloud with her eyes shut. The noise coming out of her mouth was unnatural. It sounded like a cyborg howler monkey, if you get my drift. I laughed beyond belief, and once we arrived at the Nucleus, I helped a very dizzy Alice step out of the platform. Instant friendship.

Every underground tunnel has its own décor and flavor. Tunnels to the Nucleus are adorned with holographic projections of space and the Milky Way, accompanied by loud music and varying temperatures. It’s like venturing in a high speed rocket through the galaxy. We zoom past the sun and feel a rush of hot air against our faces. We ride alongside Hayley’s comet and watch as the entire tunnel becomes illuminated in a flash of white. The platform is traveling so fast that you can see women’s hair dancing in a chaotic frenzy. It’s hard to believe that we’re really in a large magnetic tube that connects from the Dome near Oz’s entrance to the Nucleus, and two other destinations afterwards.

Here comes my favorite part: the drop. I always know when it’s about to come because of the projection of the Orion constellation over our heads. As soon as we’re under Orion’s belt, the platform plummets into the darkness. I hear most of the first years screaming their hearts out, and I hear Alice laughing maniacally at their reactions. I was told that during the inauguration of the underground traveling system a couple of years ago, many elderly people died of heart attacks. It’s easy to see why that happened. I always thought that the intensity of this transportation was amazing yet impractical for so many reasons. On the other hand, I love the fact that I ride through a roller-coaster virtually every day of class. Besides, those who are too afraid to ride the platform can always use the much-slower trolleys around the Center.

This is, without a doubt, my favorite underground tunnel. We soon see a projection of planet Earth, which means we are close to our first destination. The platform stops moving. It begins to slowly ascend as we see the circle of light above us, leading to the Nucleus.

The red light under the speaker in the center of the platform illuminates. “Arriving at destination one – The Nucleus. Please remain inside the platform until your glow belts are deactivated” says the voice coming from the speaker. The platform rises all the way to the top. The halo of light encircling our waists fades away as the panels surrounding the platform lower beneath the surface. I see a larger dome around me made out of green-tinted glass. A first year next to me collapses on his knees as beads of sweat drop from his forehead. The platform is not designed for the faint of heart. Alice and I step out of the platform and head off to the Great Hall of the Nucleus.

Chapter III

Seat 212

I just love that each tunnel has a different theme. I’ve been using these platforms for three years and every single time I get excited. I can’t believe that our Center is lucky enough to get one” says Alice.

I can’t tell whether I love the one to the Nucleus or the underwater themed tunnel that leads to the Rolf’s Aquatic Center” I reply.

I just love the faces of all those first wretched little first years. Poor things have never experienced anything quite like underground travel” says Alice as we reach the Dome’s exit.

It wasn’t just the first years. Did you see the transfer students wailing as well? The thing travels so quickly. Didn’t you freak out a little your first time?” I say with a knowing smile. The image of a screaming Alice haunts my mind again.

Of course not! The underground tunnels were one of the neatest things I have seen in my life! It’s a shame that most of the other Centers don’t have them.” There she goes with her “tough-girl” act, but she’s fooling nobody.

Well, that’s because most of the other Centers are either smaller or have technologies that we haven’t even heard of. I’m sure TEC has a transportation system that exceeds our wildest expectations. I heard that they actually teleport from one building to another.”

Ugh, those annoying TEC people. They think they are high and mighty just because they go to the highest ranking Center. At least we learn about things that are important.”

Mmm, yeah, important, but you have to admit that what we do here isn’t exactly useful” I reply skeptically.

What? Of course what we do is useful! How dare you imply otherwise?” replies Alice adamantly.

Come on, Alice. You have to admit it. Other Centers create mind-blowing technology and save lives. They come up with new medications, new cost-effective ways to produce foods. They even managed to salvage the parts of the Republic that were drowning in water after the ice caps melted. And what do we do? We learn about the past and learn to judge and evaluate the beauty of things. Even then, we’re not really allowed to be creative, right? We just take notes and learn how to apply tired and old stories and theories. Any time we try a new approach, we are criticized and we fail our training courses.”

At least we’re doing something that we love to do.” Alice seems hurt by my words.

Hey, most people don’t even make the choice to come to this Center. You and I are the rare exceptions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that what we do has no importance. And when it comes down to it I love what I do. But, when it comes to pragmatics, we’re not really moving mountains or saving drowning cities.” I think about what I’m saying, and it sounds like I totally hate Oz and everything that it stands for. I don’t. I absolutely love what I do. I study the history of words, the beauty of language, and the role of culture in the formation of thought. But ever since I began my training here, I’ve been plagued with doubts and questions about the usefulness of my education. I believe what I do has meaning, but this meaning is so difficult to convey to people from other Boroughs. To be honest, I can’t really discern this meaning in the first place, so how could I possibly convey it to other people?

We are saving lives” states Leona, firmly. If it weren’t for people like us, people would lose what little humanity they have left. Some people are just too closed-minded to realize this. And come on, even the Republic realizes the importance of a cultural education. This Center wouldn’t be here if they didn’t.” Alice is right. I never really thought about this before. But why would the Republic have an Center devoted to such a liberal type of education (well, at least more liberal when compared to other Centers)?

The Nucleus is packed full of old and new faces. Every trainee dons the traditional Center uniform. I feel like we’re swimming in a sea of absinthe. The Nucleus is decorated the same way it always is during the Distribution ceremony. The baroque style columns and moldings that surround the building are glowing with white lights that twinkle like stars. Grape vines wrap around the walls and the tables in the reception area. White candles illuminate the entire entrance. The tables were stocked high with bread, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and wine.

I see a younger trainee trying to grab a small bottle of wine, but his hand is blocked by an invisible force. Poor thing. He doesn’t know that the alcohol is surrounded by a protective perimeter. The perimeter scans every subject’s biochip, so only those who are over the age of sixteen can stick their left hands in the perimeter to grab a drink. Rumor has it that the perimeter even limits the total amount of drinks that you can take. I wouldn’t know. I know better than to have too much to drink at Center events, especially with all the instructors and administrators lurking around.

Alice and I walk past the reception area to the tower of the Nucleus, there the Distribution ceremony will take place. The ceremony is always the same process every semester for students in Cultural and Communications training. We all gather around the Great Hall located on the second floor of the tower. All official and administrative business takes place in this sixteen story tower, and all of the center’s technology and officers are managed in the upper offices of this building. The Center’s Chancellor even has the entire upper floor all to himself—the penthouse, he calls it. Since the Chancellor lives there, we can only begin to imagine the luxury present within this floor. According to the Center’s official Network site, the chancellor’s floor has over 15 rooms, a ballroom, 12 bathrooms, and 5 offices. It’s massive, to say the least. Only the best and worst of students ever step foot within the penthouse, so I guess on the bright side, it’s a good thing that neither Alice nor I have had a reason to visit that floor.

We walk up the stairs to the second floor and we see the great hall. Lavish green tapestries with the Center’s insignia embroidered in golden thread—a series of dashes arranged in a circle with the Roman number VIII inscribed in the center—draped the smooth marble walls. Clouds and fog with a green hue swirled around the ceiling. Of course, these weren’t real clouds. They are projected using the same technology found in the underground platform system. Hundreds of thousands of chairs encircle a podium in the middle of the hall. Large monitor screens hover around the green swirls in the ceiling in order to give students sitting far away a closer look at the podium.

Waves of trainees are scattered around the room, trying to locate their assigned seats. Three guards stand near the entrance of the hall, two holding rifles and one sitting next to a box of folders, located near a list displayed on a rather large tablet computer. When I first arrived at Oz, I used to be terrified of the guards and their rifles. But after years of attending training here, it’s inevitable to get used to it. I’d be more surprised to see a guard without a gun, regardless of what building or Borough I’m in. I guess the Regime really underestimates our Center’s ability to cause a scene or to create a disruption given the serious lack of guards present in the area, especially when compared to other Centers within the Republic.

We stand in line to register for the Distribution ceremony. Alice stands in front of me, constantly looking back while rolling her eyes. Unlike me, Alice is totally impatient, and lines are most certainly not something she looks forward to. I on the other hand have the patience of an ox. Many people underestimate the beauty of lines. The organization. The opportunity to closely scrutinize those around you. Sometimes I stare at other people while waiting in lines, wondering what thoughts, worries, or concerns are drifting in their mind. Some people would rather be at another place. Some people have other things to do during the day. The usual impatient suspects in a long line are those with their arms crossed, an unmistakable frown on their facade, and a foot tapping desperately—as if that were going to make the line go any faster. I wonder what ants think as they line up behind each other with food in their mouths. What makes us any different from ants? The line steadily moves forward, and soon, it’s Alice’s turn. She walks towards the guard sitting next to the box of folders and pronounces her name and personal information clearly.

Alice Elizabeth Blake. Vocation: Cultural History. Origin: Blue District – Northern Union.”

As soon as she mentions the fact that she’s from the Northern Union, she gets the same dubious look that she always gets from residents of the Republic. People point and whisper. It’s not every day that you encounter a Northern native—they are an rarity in these parts. Sometimes people walk away from her when they discover that she comes from a more liberal and devious nation. Other people react in disgust. Once in a blue moon, you might even have the occasional person who is curious about the Northern Union, and they begin to assault Alice with a barrage of questions. But she always keeps her lips tight, being extra careful of not sharing any information of her home with any citizens of the Republic. Despite a few seconds of what seemed like hesitation and resentment, one of the guards standing near the entrance pulls out a dark green box from one of his pockets. He motions Alice to lift up her left hand, and he promptly scans it with the box. The tablet next to the sitting guard soon displays Alice’s picture and loudly enunciates all of her personal information, including her age, her Network code, her DNA structuring sequence, and even her blood type. The screen then displays the number 3274 on the screen in big red letters.

Alright Miss Blake, you’re assigned seat number 377,327. Please grab your customized information packet and proceed to your designated area” replies the guard in a disinterested fashion. It never ceases to amaze me how a human being can seem so void of life. I don’t even want to begin to imagine what training guards must go through before becoming active units. I never see them smile, laugh, and I’ve certainly never seen them express fear. Most of the time they don a stoic persona, and I think that anger and seriousness are the only emotions they are capable of showing. I used to think that most of them were robots or androids, but I once witnessed a guard getting shot about two years ago, while venturing through one of the poverty-stricken areas of our district.

Since Alice’s arrival to Oz, we’ve never once sat together during the Distribution ceremony. The chances that I’d be assigned anywhere near her seat were quite slim, so I was preparing myself to sit next to people that either annoyed me greatly, or that were significantly older or younger than me. Students are typically enrolled in a Center at the age of seven, after taking several aptitude tests administered by the Regime. The only exception to this were the very few students arriving from the Northern Union, or students who transfer from another Center in the Republic—a rare occurrence at Oz, seeing as it was typically viewed as the most useless and impractical Center of the eight. Trainees are required to remain in Oz until the age of twenty-five, when they are deemed absolute experts in their assigned area. Although you are required to stay in Oz dorms during your first couple of years at the center, all students are welcome to move to the adjunct apartments located one block away from the center after the age of sixteen. After commencement at the age of twenty-five, students are assigned a job at any one of the eight boroughs, according to their performance at the training Center and of course, to the good graces of the job assignment committee. Those who were brilliant and lucky were typically assigned a position as a Center instructor or administrator. Those who weren’t as brilliant or just plain unlucky were typically given the most undesirable jobs in the country—which implies years of training gone to waste.

I was next in line.

Levi Thomas Solis. Vocation: Cultural Studies. Origin: North-Eastern Borough – The Republic.”

After the guard scanned my left hand, my information was also announced by the screen, along the depiction of the number 211. Great. I knew that I wasn’t going to sit anywhere near Alice, but now I have a seat that is extremely close to the main podium. Now I can get an even closer look of Chancellor Crawford, who always looks as if he were about to collapse and wither away. I jokingly told Alice once that he must be over one-hundred and twenty years old, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that my statement may not be much of a joke, but rather, a factual statement. I reluctantly grab my information packet and head towards the front rows. I have no idea why I ended up so close to the podium. The first couple of groups are usually assigned to new and transfer students. I prepare myself mentally to sit next to a bunch of anxious seven year olds. Luckily, most of them are nervous out of their mind, so I don’t expect them to cause much commotion. I don’t even expect most of them to talk to me, which is a good thing.

I approach seat 211, and of course, there is a small blond-haired girl with intense cobalt eyes sitting on seat 210. Her legs are shifting erratically, and she has been peeling away on the skin found on the edges of her thumbs. All that left is purple-tinged blood stains and small stumps where her nails used to be. I instantly recalled that feeling of being unsafe. Of looking around me and feeling as if I were being judged by every subject around me. When I transferred to this Center, I was no different from the girl sitting next to me. Contrary to my usual behavior, I decided to help this stranger to calm down. At least it will help the time pass by swiftly.

Don’t be nervous,” I say. “They do the same thing every year. Chancellor Crawford stands in front of the audience, discusses the history of the Republic and the mission of the Center, and then you are free to access the training assignments that were distributed to you.”

She glances at me with those intense blue eyes and gently smiles. “Oh, I am not nervous about my assignments. I’m just not used to being away from home, away from my guardians and away from my home. I guess I’m not really thrilled to be here, that’s all. Plus, I’m bored out of my mind. I’ve been sitting here for over an hour. I always arrive to meetings and ceremonies early. I can’t even fathom the thought of arriving late to a scheduled event. Could you imagine that? My guardians would be so disappointed if I were ever tardy. Well, at least they would be upset if nothing bad prevented me from arriving on time. I sure in that case they would understand! This place looks amazing, does it not? I arrived to the Center yesterday, so I’m still trying to soak everything in.”

Her voice was as gentle as her smile, enthused with the animated spirit of a young child. But she talked way too much, especially for someone her age. Even her vocabulary seemed a little too developed for a newbie. Something tells me that I am going to completely regret reaching out to her. She stretches out her hand towards me. “The name’s Wendy. Wendy Conrad.” I visibly flinch when I hear the name. Wendy is a very rare name. As a matter of fact, I’ve only encountered the name once before, and that was in one of the illegal texts that I downloaded titled Peter and Wendy, written by J.M Barrie. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but it’s mostly about a boy with the gift of flight who never grows old. He lives in the distant island known as Neverland, and every once in a while, he flies to London to secretly listen to the bedtime stories of Wendy Darling—a young Londoner who lives with her brothers. One night, while listening to a story, Wendy spots Peter, and he somehow loses his shadow. I’m not making this up. After sewing the shadow back on Peter, he invites her to fly away with him to Neverland to be the mother of his gang of friends known as the Lost Boys. Adventure and mischief ensue! I know, this is probably the worst plot summary ever, and to be honest, the story sounds insane. But the tale is absolutely delightful. Too bad it’s on the Regime’s list of banned texts. After all, the idea of people flying away to unknown lands, and the thought of people never aging, seems too fanciful for a society based on reality.

Hey are you Okay?! I said my name’s Wendy Conrad. Do you have a name or are you just going to stay there, shaking my hand? Are you okay? Are you feeling ill? You look a little too old to be a first year. Surely you must’ve been here for a few years already. Unless you are a transfer student. Do they even allow people your age to transfer to another Center? And why would you choose this Center?”

The pace of Wendy’s questions was inducing a sense of nausea that I’ve never felt before. After processing the drill of questions during a few seconds of silence, I finally open my mouth. “Yeah, I’m a transfer student, but I transferred to this Center years ago. Sorry I spaced out, I just don’t think I’ve ever heard your name before. I’m Levi Solis.”

Pardon me?” replied Wendy with a confused face.

Levi. Well, I guess my name is as rare as yours is.”

What does that name even mean?” replied Wendy, honestly baffled.

My guardians told me that it means ‘joined in harmony,’ or something like that. I guess they had a lot of expectations of me when they chose me as their neonate. They told me that it comes from an ancient religion known as Hebrew, which no longer exists in this part of the world. My guardians tried to explain it to me once, telling me that I was meant to be the glue that keeps people together, but I was too young to fully get what they were saying. I guess nowadays I feel like anything but a person who brings people together.” I felt surprisingly talkative to this stranger I just met. She might have seemed annoying, but there was something about her youth that seemed generous and trustworthy. Here I am blabbing away just as much as she was. Since when did I become such a social butterfly?

Well, I like your name. I actually like it a lot. I’m actually glad my parents named me Wendy. I don’t think I’ve ever met another person with my name. Did you know that my parents made up the name? They wanted to assure that I was unique. I guess both of our parents had similar visions in mind! Your name is nice. It has a nice rhythm to it. Levi. Lee-Vie. LE-VI.” Wendy began to pronounce my name carefully over and over again. This was going to be a long morning. I couldn’t help but think that Wendy’s parents were lying to her when they said they came up with her name on their very own. They must’ve read Peter and Wendy before and were unwilling to admit it. Either that, or they truly did make up the name on their own, which comes to show that originality truly is dead this day and age.

After a few seconds of repeating my name, she looks at me. “So what Borough are you from?” she asks.

I’m from the North-Eastern Borough, near the coastal section. My guardians’ house was only about ten minutes away from the beach. How about you?” I ask.

I’m from the great Southern Borough!” Wendy was beaming with pride as she uttered her Borough of origin. People from this area were known for being very proud of their roots and origins, which is unsurprising seeing as their ancestors were known for initiating the the Second Civil War back in the day. I should’ve known that she was from the Borough based on her accent. My accent is somewhat similar to hers, but without a doubt, hers is heavily inflected and her vowels seem to stretch out a bit more.

Oh, how is it over there in the South?” I ask.

Things are amazing. Everything is so neat, pristine, and pure. I was rather upset when I was told I was being sent to this Center. After all, everyone knows that this is the most liberal Center in the Republic. My guardians once told me that they thought the Republic would be a better place if this Center were shut down. I used to agree with them, but just look at where I’m sitting right now. I always dreamed of making them proud. Now I’m going to be spending more than a decade here.”

Oh please, it’s not that liberal. There are plenty of rules, restrictions, and regulations here. You’ll definitely notice that once you’re here for a while.”

Yeah, but here you can get away with way more. We follow a very strict code of conduct in the South. We like order. We thrive on the values of leadership and dignity. We pride ourselves on being the most advanced society by looking forward, not by gluing ourselves to the past. The past is nothing but a dirty scourge that is better left untouched. It makes me ill to think that we will be forced to relive it constantly in this Center.” She was beginning to sound like one of the guards that haunt the premises. I think we have a future Regime administrator in the midst.

Don’t sound so disappointed. Things aren’t that bad here. I think you’ll grow to love this Center. Sure, some training sessions are boring and repetitive, but you’ll come to see that learning about the past is key to understanding the present. I feel like I’m part of a secret society who knows and understands why the world works the way it does. We get to know things that other people can’t even begin to fathom.” Wow, I’m beginning to sound like an Oz fan boy. I guess I have a greater attachment to this place than I’m willing to admit.

Wendy shrugs her shoulders. “I can’t believe I performed so miserably at the aptitude tests. My guardians enrolled me in a special pre-training course at the age of three to try and get me into one of the best Centers. I guess my nerves got the best of me. I only excelled in the color-matching exercises for some reason and the administrators assumed that I had a knack for art. Now here I am, enrolled in Artistic Studies. I’m sure I’ll make a grand living learning how to mold ceramic figurines and using finger paints. Master pottery today, rule the world tomorrow.” The resentment in her voice was shocking, especially when coming from the mouth and mind of a seven year old. I imagine that her guardians were beyond disappointment with her placement. Isn’t that the problem with most parents, though? How they are constantly trying to mold us into miniature versions of themselves? Maybe Wendy really does have a knack for art, but they’ve completely destroyed her ability to come to this realization.

You don’t really have to take a practical route when doing Artistic Studies. Plus, you’re free to change to any other vocation within this Center if you want. Don’t start limiting yourself during your first year. Even though you feel like you’re restricted by coming here, you still have options. The ability to make choices can be quite liberating if you think about it.” I do my best to encourage her.

She shrugs again. “Who cares, it’s not like we choose our profession at the end of our training anyway. I’ll probably end up fat and alone, working in some crummy administrative office. It’s not fair. We are raised to think that the world is our oyster, only to realize that the oyster is clamped shut, unable to open or budge. What’s the point of possessing a pearl if you’re unable to show it to the world?” Wendy crosses her arms and looks away. I wonder who put those ideas in her head? That wording does not sound like it was produced by someone her age. I don’t think I’ve ever met somebody so pessimistic—and what’s creepy is that she masks the pessimism with an air of cheeriness.

I want to come up with another encouraging reply, but I say nothing. I just sit there, awkwardly, imagining her overweight and alone, living with two cats and hating everything that Oz stands for. I know what it’s like to be unhappy with your assigned Center. At least I had the opportunity to change my life. Wendy, on the other hand, was assigned to the lowest ranking Center, so she has no chances of changing her career path. She is doomed to be stuck here. She is doomed to disappoint her parents and herself. That’s way more than any seven year old should have to deal with. What will these seeds of resent and disappointment do to Wendy once they are fully bloomed? Is it possible that she will learn to love this place, or will this disappointment prevent any change from happening?

About two minutes were left for the distribution ceremony to begin. I noticed that the seat next to me left, labeled 212, was still empty. Great! More room for me, and less chances of another annoying first year sitting on my side. All I need as another Wendy to sit on my left, incessantly complaining about the woes, trials, and tribulations of being assigned to train at Oz. I stretch my legs, place my information packet on the empty space. I zone out into nothingness, getting ready for Chancellor Crawford to give his usual speech. I cross my arms behind my neck, take a deep breath, and shut me eyes for a few seconds.

Excuse me, but I think your packet is on my seat.”

I open my eyes and look up. A guy, a few centimeters taller than me, stands above me, flashing a timid smile. I can immediately tell that he is not a first year. His short chestnut hair, with flecks of red and blonde, rests lightly on his head, styled in a carefully planned yet modest fashion. His rosy cheeks and chin are covered in light stubble. He seemed very familiar at first, and that’s when I noticed his eyes. You would think we were family based on our eye color, a color which seems to be as rare as my name. At first glance, they seem to be hazel colored—a light, honey color verging on yellow. But the closer you watch, the more you begin to notice flecks of gold, black, tan, and green embedded within the iris. When your head shifts, the color of the eyes begins to shift from gold, to coffee, to emerald, giving the illusion that his chameleonic eyes are indecisive when it comes to choosing a stable font. My eye color is exactly the same, but this is difficult to notice most of the time due to the almond shape my eyes have. But his eyes are wide, expressive, and intense to the point that they make me feel slightly uncomfortable.

Due to the prominence of genetic manipulation a few decades ago, life givers, the people in charge of cultivating human embryos in the Republic, decided to create children with green, blue, or even purple eyes. Nearly everyone at Oz has intense blue or purple eyes, and these colors are quite uniform. Darker shades of eye color—blacks, browns, grays—became a rarity, mostly because of their association with lower classes, and especially due to the fact that genetic manipulation is prohibited in the Northern Union, making dark eye colors way more common than they are here. In some cases, some children are intended to have light-colored eyes when created, but unexpected mutations take place and the child ends up having dark-colored eyes. Eyes with multiple colors, or eyes with multiple shades of coloring, are virtually unheard of.

My guardians chose me specifically because of my eye color. They said it made me “one-of-a-kind.” The more I think about it, the more I notice that my guardians were obsessed with the concept of uniqueness. My name, my eye color. I guess they were always expecting me to do something different in life, which is weird given the Republic’s crave for uniformity. I actually liked my eye color a lot. It made me feel special. Exceptional. Yet, I guess I was not as exceptional as I thought I was. Here is another person, with eyes identical to mine, staring right back at me. Besides our eye color, we are different in almost every other aspect. I’m a couple of centimeters shorter than he is, my skin is about a shade darker than his light skin, my hair is dark and wavy, and I’ve barely even begun to grow a beard.

First the girl with the uncommon name, and now the guy with the exceptional eye color. Today seems to be a day of infrequencies, something that is more than welcome in the wonderful land of Oz. I lift my packet off the seat. “Sorry about that. Thought that you weren’t going to show up.” He nods and quietly sits down.

Wendy immediately notices the new guy’s arrival. You can tell by the way she arches her eyebrows up that she is definitely interested in the arrival of this stranger. Wait, isn’t she only seven? Isn’t she a little young to be interested in men this way, especially a guy who can easily be almost three times her age? “Hi there, handsome! What’s your name? I’m Wendy Conrad! You look lost. Are you new around here? I’m a first-year student. Not too excited about being assigned here, but I guess I have no other choice. Why are you so quiet? By the way, why haven’t you told me your name yet?” She doesn’t even give the poor guy a chance to breathe.

He turns around, but keeps his eyes locked on me for a second. He opens his mouth to answer, but Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture began to blast through the speakers as the lights grew dim. You can tell that our chancellor has a penchant for Tchaikovsky, and his use of the 1812 Overture for his entrance into public affairs has been played out to the point of cliché. Oz has the only chancellor that demands an entrance with music, which makes sense because Oz is, after all, a training center devoted to culture and communication. His entrances do nothing to help our reputation, though.

Rising towards the podium is Chancellor Crawford. His body looks even frailer then when I last saw him. He wears his usual dark, double breasted navy suit with a powder blue rose lapelled delicately on the right side of his chest. Of course, he wears the avocado colored cape he always wears to Distribution ceremonies. We never expected the ruler of Oz to make a public appearance without something green on his body. For a man who dresses so extravagantly and who demands music for his entrance, he is quite serious and stern. He stares at us quietly with his eyes, whose color matches that of the rose on his chest. His skin looks leathery and tight. He’s gotten so many surgical procedures done that he barely looks human anymore. Alice once made a remark that he looks like ape genitals. I’ve never seen ape genitals before, but that didn’t stop me from unleashing a roaring laughter. The thought of that joke made me chuckle. The stranger on seat 212 immediately began staring at me as the chuckles became harder to contain. I cover my mouth and force myself to concentrate on the stage. Chancellor Crawford pulls out a small role of parchment from the inner part of his suit, and he begins to unravel it.

I get goosebumps. Not from the old and tired spectacle playing in front of me. But rather, because of that distinctive sensation you get one someone is staring at you. I slowly shift my eyes to the right. Wendy has her sight glued to Chancellor Crawford as he struggles to unravel the parchment in front of him. Why he hasn’t transitioned to the use of a tablet computer is beyond me. I turn my head to the left and I catch 212 quickly turning his glance from me to the chancellor. Why was he still staring at me, even when I was no longer chuckling? I guess it is strange to see an unfamiliar face laughing for no apparent reason. A better question at this point is why he was pretending not to stare at me. I look forward to the stage and I notice that Crawford has finally managed to unravel the parchment. He says the same tired speech that he says every semester, with a couple of modifications of course. His booming and raspy voice permeates the great hall.

Welcome trainees, old and new, to the winter semester of the 212nd year of liberation. Yes, it has been 212 years since the foundation of the Republic and the establishment of the Regime. 212 years since we established ourselves as a self-sufficient country founded upon the virtues of purity and dignity. A country based upon the natural laws that were bestowed upon us as human beings. Since our segregation from the former United States of America, now simply known as the Northern Union, we have prospered as a moral nation, a nation free of corruption, a nation free of decay, a nation free from disorder. We are here today because our ancestors, who envisioned our current state as a future possibility, bravely fought the oppressors in the Second Civil War. We are here today to become the people that they wanted us to be; no, the people that we need to be, in order to continue prospering. We are here…”

My Network armlet lightly vibrates and glows. It’s a message from Alice.

ALICE ELIZABETH BLAKE (6000259881): Gag. No wonder they hate me. My country deviates from the virtues of purity and dignity. Woe is me.

I chuckle lightly and respond, cautious not to draw too much attention.

LEVI THOMAS SOLIS (3768792110): I always knew you were a scoundrel. Get out of my country, now! The Republic will becomes pure once again!

ALICE ELIZABETH BLAKE (6000259881): Oh, please. You know they love having me here. There’s nothing more pleasing to the Republic than a convert from the Northern Union.

LEVI THOMAS SOLIS (3768792110): You are a prime example of the ideal convert. May we one day develop the intellect and the moral fiber to follow your example, princess Blake.

ALICE ELIZABETH BLAKE (6000259881): Quit bantering, you unworthy peasant, and pay attention to the ceremony. Your highness has not had her morning coffee and it’s taking every ounce of will to stay awake.

LEVI THOMAS SOLIS (3768792110): Looks like someone had a whopping bowl of bitchy-o’s in place of her coffee this morning. Never overestimate the power of substitutions!

As I click send, I look quickly to my left and I notice that 212 was snooping at my message because he was laughing at my exchange with Alice. I shoot a dirty look at him, but he is no longer paying attention to me or my Network armlet. I once again look at Chancellor Crawford, noticing that he is speaking of Oz rather than the foundation of our glorious nation.

“…which is why the Regime established eight training centers across the Republic, in order to ensure that all citizens in the workforce, despite differences of profession, continue to uphold these values. Most of you were chosen to train here, and a couple of you graciously decided to transfer here. The Culture and Communications Center, affectionately referred to as Triple C by the members of our community, houses the most creative, intuitive, and imaginative thinkers within the Republic. Pupils at this Center hone their critical thinking skills, their historical awareness, their ability to create and replicate, and their familiarity with great works of the human mind in order to better understand the world that we live in. You’ll not only learn about yourself in Triple C, but you will also learn about everything that makes a human mind great and inimitable.”

Chancellor Crawford coughs casually. He pauses to take a sip of water. After wiping his chin with a velvet handkerchief, he continues his spiel. “As most of you should know by now, Triple C is divided into three schools: History, which focuses on the analysis of past events in order to comprehend our current condition; Communications and Arts, which focuses on how diverse mediums facilitate the exchange of ideas; and Cultural Studies, which focuses on the historical study of creative objects crafted by the human mind, and what makes them outstanding or beautiful.”

The aims of Oz are so different from those of the other Centers. I should know, because at the age of twelve, I transferred from the SSC to Oz. The SSC is the Science and Society center located in my home Borough, the North-East. Transfers from one center to another are no easy feat, but I think my stubbornness played a major role in the administration’s decision. Actually, all of the Centers are ranked by the Regime according to usefulness and intellectual demand. The Technology and Engineering Center, unsurprisingly, has been ranked number one for the past three decades. Science and Society is currently ranked number two. The third most prestigious center is the Medicine and Pharmaceuticals Center. Admission into any one of these is one of the greatest honors that a citizen from the Republic can receive. When citizens of the Republic are six years old, we take an aptitude test with a theoretical and a practical component. Some exercises are the typical math problems you encounter in most aptitude texts. Other tests require you to arrange colored blocks in a particular order, or to identify fruits according to smell. There is even a small obstacle course that all of us have to complete.

Many subjects don’t really exceed at these tests, which is unsurprising because there is only so much intellectual and physical development that you can expect from a six-year old. When a subject excels in a particular area, they are sent to the center that best cultivates that ability. Subjects with aptitude in most areas are sent to high-ranking centers, while subjects that don’t excel in any areas are sent either to Oz or the Military Training Center. Many were shocked and displeased with my choice to transfer to Oz. You can transfer to a Center that is below the ranking of your assigned one at any given time. But nobody, under any circumstance, can ever transfer to a center with a higher ranking. Therefore, after transferring to Oz, there was no turning back. My guardians were so upset with my transfer that they stopped speaking to me. It’s been over six years since I’ve last spoken to them.

“…I bid you all farewell, and may you continue to uphold the values and virtues of our great and powerful Republic. Thank you.” The Chancellor rolls up the piece of parchment and places it in his breast pocket.

I stand up and join the rest of the crowd in applause. Many people begin to leave in order to avoid the stampede of trainees leaving the building. Wendy is standing on her chair, jumping up and down, squealing with excitement. So much for the nerves caused by being away from home for the first time and her displeasure with the Center. I have to admit, Chancellor Crawford is quite the master when it comes to rhetoric, so it’s no surprise that his words somehow managed to touch Wendy deeply, as seen by her enthusiastic applause. I look to my left and noticed that 212 was no longer there. His information packet was left behind on his seat. Did he forget his packet, or did he leave it there deliberately? I pick up the packet and look for the name on top spelled in bold letters: Nathaniel Patrick Husher – Cultural Studies. Apparently, Nathaniel and I not only have the same eye color, but we’re also in the exact same school and concentration. Why did he leave his packet behind? Isn’t he interested in knowing what training courses he was assigned this semester?

I tuck his packet into my bag, and I open my own packet to see what courses I was assigned. Inside, a small piece of light blue parchment was rolled, inscribed with the confirmation code I need to access my schedule through the Network. After accessing the CCC application in my Network armlet, I punch in the twelve digit code and a list of 3 courses is projected from my armlet:

  • ENGL00602 – Fictions of Growth and Development II – Monday, Tuesday (8:00-10:00) – Inst. Grey
  • CULT46601 – Gender and the Republic – Wednesday, Thursday (9:00-11:00) – Inst. Anderson
  • CULT45665 – Cultural Practicum: Culinary Arts – Friday (13:00-17:00) – Inst. Ryan

I groan when I see that I was assigned Fictions of Development II with Grey for my English language requirement. I took the first part about four semesters ago. He wasn’t really a terrible professor, but it was truly one of the most boring training sessions that I’ve ever taken in my life. We mostly read various nineteenth century texts that managed to survive the Scourge of Alexandria, which dealt mostly with how young men and women engaged in excruciatingly long journeys in order to identify their true moral and spiritual selves. Instructor Grey told us that nineteenth century texts are really valued by the Republic, mostly because they were deemed to be handbooks for modest and appropriate behavior, and also, because characters who deviate from societal expectations are usually punished towards the text’s conclusion. Most of the texts that we read were too long and bizarre. There was this one novel I read… I can’t quite remember the name… but it dealt with a young woman named Tess who gets raped. She gets pregnant, loses her child, but she is forever scorned for being an impure woman. She ends up marrying a man, only to run away later on with another man who she deems she will be happier with. What happens towards the end? She is punished, of course, for her infidelity, and the novel ends with her execution. Such a lovely ending, isn’t it?

On the other hand, I was genuinely excited with my cultural-historical requirement, Gender and the Republic, because although I’ve heard much about gender and sexual deviance from films and television, I haven’t had much of a chance to learn about it from an academic perspective. We all have to take a “practical” course every semester, and I guess learning how to cook decent meals would be a good skill to develop, especially since I rarely prepare my own meals and choose to eat at the dining hall instead. I double-tap on the screen to put my armlet into sleep mode, and I head out of the great hall to search for Alice.

Copyright © 2013 by Angel Daniel Matos

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