Developing a Course on Metafictional Young Adult Literature

During the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on developing various literature courses, including a course on the metafictional turn in contemporary young adult literature. As of now, I have entitled the course Book-Ception: The Metafictional Turn in Young Adult Literature. For those of you who are confused about the title, -Ception is a suffix (slang) popularized by the 2010 film Inception, and it is usually attached to a noun in order to indicate that this noun is multifaceted, multi-layered, or contains parallel objects embedded within it (i.e. a dream within a dream, a text within a text, a play within a play, and so on, and so on).

I’ve noticed how many young adult novels published during the last fifteen years have demonstrated an increased interest in exploring matters of form, readership, authorship, and literariness. Some YA novels published during the last five years in particular have rivaled some novels published during the peak of postmodernity in terms of their exploration of the nature and purpose of narrative, the relationship between fiction and reality, and the intimate connection between text and audience.

I thought it would be interesting to develop a course in which students explore how metafictional elements and metanarratives affect how we interpret, analyze, and understand the imagined lives of teenagers in contemporary fiction. This course, ideally, will attract students interested in young adult literature, students interested in the literary remnants of the postmodern movement in contemporary fiction, and students interested in exploring the role of narratology in the creation, distribution, and consumption of literature.

The description for this course is as follows:

What do young adult novels have to say about the status of literature and narrative in contemporary society? Can a book be self-aware of its existence as a literary object? Can young adult novels challenge or thwart the relationship between a reader and a text? Recently, novels written for adolescents have been interested in addressing these questions—thus leading to a boom in young adult metafiction: books that explore the nature and function of literature, that question the parallels between reality and fiction, and that overtly scrutinize the relationship between audience and text. In this course, we will investigate how contemporary young adult novels use metafictional techniques in order to deliberate the importance and value of literature, narrative, and language in the imagined lives of teenagers. Furthermore, we will assess the role of metanarrative and form in disrupting the divide between “low” and “high” literature. We will read novels written by authors such as Lemony Snicket, John Green, and Andrew Smith.

I wanted to select texts from different genres, including realism, fantasy, and speculative/science fiction. The novels that I selected for this course also make use of different metafictional and metanarrative techniques. Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, for instance, explores the possibility of bringing words to life through literary consumption, and the overall role of books in the development of one’s imagination. Others such as Andrew Smith’s Winger and Patrick Ness’ More Than This explore the role of narrative and storytelling in helping one cope with traumatic and unprecedented events. Novels such as John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars explore notions such as the ‘death of the author,’ narrative endings, and the imagined lives of literary characters.

Here is the current version of the syllabus that I’ve developed:

What do you think of this course? Do you have any comments or suggestions regarding the course’s content or design? Are there any other texts that you would recommend for this course? Any and all feedback will be great appreciated!

What is Postmodern Literature?

Defining the parameters of postmodern literature is a daunting task, due not only to disagreements about what texts can or can’t be approached as postmodern, but also to the paradoxical and elusive nature of the postmodern movement. Paradoxical seems to be an effective word to invoke when approaching postmodern literature–as Barry Lewis points out in his distillation of Linda Hutcheon’s views in his essay entitled “Postmodernism and Fiction,” postmodern works simultaneously create and destabilize meaning and conventions in their ironic or critical use of works from the past (171). Given that the postmodern movement embraces instability and skepticism as its main traits, how do we even begin to grasp what literature can or can’t be approached as postmodern? In this post, I will briefly trace out the major components of postmodernity and postmodern literature using the 2011 edition of The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (RCP)–and when appropriate, I will bring in original examples to illuminate some of the points made in the text.

Before addressing the issue of postmodern literature, it’s important to quickly overview elements, trends, and perspectives that can be approached as postmodern. In the introduction to the RCP, Stuart Sims points out that postmodernity is characterized by skepticism and rejection, particularly the rejection of cultural progress, and even more so, the implementation of universalizing theories or grand narratives (sometimes called metanarratives). I am reminded of a universalizing theory when recalling a conversation I once had with one of my literature professors, in which she claimed that all narratives are either about “sex or war.”  A postmodern stance against my professor’s claim would argue for the inability of sex and war to constitute the totality of a particular narrative. The issue with grand narratives is that in their effort to generalize, they fail to account for experiences and beliefs that do not fit within their parameters or confines. To claim, for instance, that literature is the study of the ideas of “dead white men” would imply a failure to recognize other literatures produced by non-male and non-white authors.

In the TED-ED video entitled "What Makes a Hero," Matthew Winkler discusses the elements and conventions that most stories on heroism embrace. Winkler identifies a blueprint that most epic tales share--thus developing a universalizing theory of the elements that shape heroism in fiction. While postmodernists do not deny the existence of universalizing theories, they are skeptical about them. Wherein lies the "danger" of approaching all epic tales through this metanarrative? Another question we can ask is: how do postmodern tales on heroism challenge or refute the hero's grand narrative?

Postmodernists not only reject grand narratives, but they also embody an “anti-authoritarian” position when approaching and analyzing the world and its cultural productions. In other words, postmodernists distrust any entity or agency that tries to control or regulate what people can or cannot do, and they also distrust any agent or element that tries to fixate the meaning that something possesses (or can ultimately possess). As Sims states in his introduction to postmodernism, “To move from the modern to the postmodern is to embrace scepticism about what our culture stands for and strives for” (vii). It might become clear at this point that the aims or stances of postmodernity and poststructuralist theories go hand-in-hand. As Sims puts it,

Poststructuralism has been an influential part of the cultural scene since the 1960s, but nowadays it can be seen to be part of a more general reaction to authoritarian ideologies and political systems that we define as postmodernism. (x)

Thus, it is unsurprising to observe that after the advent of postmodernity, ideas such as Barthe’s death of the author began to emerge in the study of literature and the arts; even theoretical fields such as queer theory arose after the advent of the postmodern movement. Both the death of the author and queer theory are anti-authoritarian in their outlook: the death of the author discredits the ability of an author to dictate what his/her work can or can’t mean to an interpreter, whereas queer theory is designed to assume a position against normativity to challenge binaristic thinking and the regulation of identities. Much more than being a genre or a typology, postmodernism can be approached as an attitude that is reactionary, especially towards the ideas and ideals perpetuated in the modernist movement (e.g. the divide between low and high culture, the view of humanity as an entity that is perpetually improving and progressing, among others). As Lloyd Spencer puts it in his discussion on “Postmodernism, Modernity and the Tradition of the Dissent,” postmodernity’s anti-authoritarian alignment is the element that continues to give this attitude strength and relevance, even in the face of its critics:

One way of drawing the line between postmodernism and its critics is to focus on postmodernism’s refusal of the utopian, dream-like elements which have accompanied the constant change of modernity. Modernisms, including Marxism, dreamt of a better world. Legislating for this world on the basis of this dream of a better one is seen as the cardinal sin of that modernism which postmodernism seeks to go beyond. (220)

Returning to Barry Lewis’ essay on “Postmodernism and Fiction,” he claims that postmodernism underwent an “epistemic break” during the 1990s, creating a distinction between what he calls first-wave postmodernism and second-wave postmodernism. During the first wave, postmodernism referred to “an overlapping set of characteristics that applied to a particular set of novelists, bound together by their simultaneous acceptance/rejection of earlier traditions of fiction” (169). First-wave postmodern texts not only challenged the divide between high-literature and low-literature that was fostered by modernists such as Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, but they were also known for being “self-reflexive, playful and exceedingly aware of the medium of language in an attempt to revivify the novel form” (169). A good example of how this self-reflexive and playful nature manifests in a literary text can be seen in John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.” In Barth’s short story, what at first seems to be a conventional coming-of-age story quickly metamorphoses into a critique on literary conventionality and ordinary structure. The text not only exposes how conventional plots work, but it actively highlights and questions its own structure, plot, and content.

When Lewis refers to the literary characteristics that postmodern authors embrace and reject, he is referring mostly to well-known literary conventions such as plot, setting, character, and theme. These conventions are challenged and shattered both in first-wave and second-wave postmodernism through features such as:

    1. Temporal Disorder – This refers not only to the disruption of the past, but also the disruption of the present. Anachronism in historical postmodern fiction is an effective example of temporal disorder because it flaunts “glaring inconsistencies of detail or setting” (173). For an example, take Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, which depicts and alters the biographical facts of the 16th president of the U.S. Other postmodern novels alter the present by deviating from ordinary time (chronos) and focusing on various instances of significant time (kairos), as exemplified by novels such as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow–which is known for its overwhelming plethora of events and characters.
    2. Pastiche – Alluding to the act of piecing things together, as in the case of a collage, pastiche is a postmodern aesthetic that “actively encourages creative artists to raid the past in order to set up a sense of dialogue between it and the present” (231). Pastiche came to prominence when artists realized that the contemporary moment presents little room for originality because everything has been said and done before–leading postmodern artists to “pluck existing styles higgledy-piggledy from the resevoir of literary history” (173). A good example of pastiche would be Art Spiegelman’s Mausa graphic memoir that depicts a son who tries to create a work based on his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew in the Holocaust.
    3. Fragmentation – Perhaps one of the most prominent elements of postmodern texts, fragmentation refers to the breakdown of plot, character, theme, and setting. Plot, for instance, is not presented in a realistic or chronological fashion, bur rather, as “slabs of event and circumstance” (173). Take for instance Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street (1984), which is told through a series of memories or vignettes rather than through the traditional narrative structure expected from a coming-of-age novel.
    4. Looseness of Association – The incorporation of chance into the reading of a narrative text (e.g. pages in a random and disorganized order, or a program that scrambles the order of the pages in a text).
    5. Paranoia – Paranoia refers to the distrust in a system or even a distrust in the self. Postmodern texts often reflect paranoia by depicting an antagonism towards immobility and stasis. A notable example of a literary text that invokes postmodern paranoia would be Tony Kushner’s 1993 play Angels in America
    6. Vicious Circles – These circles manifest when the boundaries between the real world and the world of the text are collapsed, either through the incorporation of the author into the narrative, or through the incorporation of a historical figure in a a fictional text.

If first-wave and second-wave postmodernism share these traits, what differentiates the two? According to Lewis, the differing element would be experimentation. Whereas the features mentioned above were employed in first-wave postmodernism as a way of challenging the authority and dominance of literary conventions such as plot, setting, character, and theme, they are employed in second-wave postmodernism simply because they have become integrated with the dominant literary culture. Thus, fiction produced during second-wave postmodernism is crafted during a time in which “postmodernist fiction itself became perceptible as a kind of ‘style’ and its characteristic techniques and themes came to be adopted without the same sense of breaking new ground” (170). Notable examples of second-wave are novels such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I hope that this post gives you a better idea of the notions that constitute postmodernism and postmodern literature. I highly recommend The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism if you want to learn more about this “attitude” and “genre” with more nuance, and if you want to better understand how postmodernism manifests in other areas besides the literary, such as genre, sexuality, music, and popular culture, among others.

You can purchase a copy of The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism by clicking here.

All essays cited in this discussion can be found in:

Sims, Stuart (ed.). The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. 3rd Edition. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.

The Role of Gender and Literature in Alison Bechdel’s [Fun Home]

Front cover of Alison's Bechdel's Fun Home (2007 paperback version)

Front cover of Alison’s Bechdel’s Fun Home (2007 paperback version)

Originally published in 2006, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a graphic memoir that led Alison Bechdel to commercial and critical success. Reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s MausFun Home explores the relationship between Alison and her closeted father, Bruce Bechdel, to shed light on themes such as gender, the coming-out process, and the complicated dynamics of family life. The exploration of these themes are facilitated through discussions of death, life, and literature–triggered by Alison’s efforts to illustrate an accurate portrait of her complicated connection with her father, particularly after he commits suicide.

Alison and her father share many traits: they are both queer (even though the father remains closeted and married to his wife throughout the entire duration of the memoir), they both have a love for reading and for art, and they both wish that they were born the opposite sex. Despite these similarities, they never seem to forge a strong and intense bond due to their reserved personalities and their divergence in terms of gendered affiliations. Whereas Bruce tends to express traits that can typically be approached as feminine, Alison admits that she has been “a connoisseur of masculinity” (95) since she was a child. Thus, even though their share many similarities, their divergence in terms of their gender alignment creates significant tension between the two characters.

Not only does Alison approach herself and her father as “inversions” of each other, but she also makes note of how she struggles to emphasize her masculinity while her father struggles to prevent her from expressing it. She approaches her father’s attempts to feminize her as an almost pathetic effort embody femininity (vicariously) through his daughter, which leads to what Alison calls “a war of cross purposes” that is “doomed to perpetual escalation” (98). Thus, differences of gender are not invoked to uphold the division between men and women, but rather, to illustrate the differences and tensions that exist between Alison and her father.

Figure 1. Page 95.

Figure 1. Page 95. Many of the images in Fun Home stress the dichotomous view of Bruce as a feminine presence and Alison as a masculine presence. In the image above, notice how Bruce engages in an activity that is stereotypically approached  as feminine. The wall unit splits this panel into two sections, thus highlighting Alison’s placement in front of the television showing a Western movie. Keep in mind that this memoir is not necessarily upholding gender binaries–a man with feminine characteristics and a girl with masculine characteristics, in due course, challenges the binary in the first place.

Bruce’s reserved and temperamental nature is attributed to the fact that he’s had to keep his sexuality a secret due to his upbringing in a society where homosexuality is considered a disgrace. It is suggested in the memoir that Bruce’s repressed nature, his wife’s request for a divorce, and the fact that Alison is able to live an open life as a lesbian (whereas he was not) are the events that prompt him to commit suicide by running in front of a truck. This suicide is the event that prompts Alison to explore her father’s life through memoir, while in turn coming to a more enlightened understanding of the influence that she and her father had on each other. This exploration, however, does not take place in a linear or organized fashion. Fun Home is as a pastiche or decoupage of many elements presented in a non-chronological fashion. The comic panels are supplemented by snippets of other literary texts, photographs, letters, and even newspaper clippings. Furthermore, the narrative itself is supplemented with Bechdel’s interpretations of the events that she lived, in addition to theoretical interventions from areas such as gender and psychoanalysis.

I am deeply interested in the role of literature and literary texts in Fun Home, not only because they add more depth and nuance to the memoir, but also because literature (particularly novels) is a crucial element that must be kept in mind when interpreting and understanding the central developments in the graphic memoir. For instance, literature is the catalyst that helps Alison to discover that she’s a lesbian–leading her to describe her lesbianism as “a revelation not of the flesh, but of the mind” (74). At the age of thirteen, she first encounters the word “lesbian” in a dictionary. She later reads a book focused on offering biographies of queer figures, which leads her on an obsessive mission to read and consume as many queer texts as she possibly can, such as E.M. Forster’s Maurice and Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. 

The very act of accessing and reading this literature is depicted as a deeply political and almost revolutionary act, for it entails developing the courage to buy these books in spite of their overtly queer titles, or to borrow them from public libraries, “heedless of the risks” (75). These books inspire her to attend a gay union meeting at her university, and to come out to her parents in a letter. Whereas her father seems quite accepting of her sexuality, claiming that “everyone should experiment” (77), her mother responds with mild disapproval, approaching her lesbianism as “a threat” (77) to her work and her family.

Figure 2.

Literature is associated with almost every single significant event that takes place in the novel. Alison’s first relationship blossoms when she meets a poet named Joan. Every time they are shown in bed together, they are surrounded by novels and other books. The images depict them reading even when being intimate with one another, and they critique and analyze books even when sprawled naked on their beds (see pages 80-81). The importance of books is her life is unsurprising when taking into account that her father was an English teacher at their local high school, and he spent a lot of time recommending and discussing books with Alison.

Even though Bruce engages in sexual acts with other men, and even boys, the memoir highlights novels and literature as the outlet of escapism that Bruce used to express his sexual frustrations, and even his subconscious sexual desires. His favorite books, such as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Joyce’s Ulysses, touch upon matters and themes that are central to Bruce’s characterization. The Great Gatsby, for instance, highlights the pains of yearning for someone or something we cannot possess, whereas Ulysses depicts how characters can cross each other’s paths without affecting one another in a significant way (reflecting Alison’s complex relationship with her father). Given how closely Bruce’s books are tied to his suppression, his secrecy, and his hidden desires, it is no wonder that his wife gets rid of most of his book collection after he dies.

It is literature that allows Bruce and Alison to achieve a degree of closeness that they’ve never felt before. It turns out that Alison ends up taking English with her father in twelfth grade, and she realizes that she really likes the books that her father wanted her to read, such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. She becomes deeply invested in discussing these books with her father within the classroom–and her interest leads her to develop “a sensation of intimacy” (199) that she has never felt before with her father. When Alison leaves to college, she grows even closer to Bruce, calling him every once in a while to discuss the books that she reads for her English class. Their connection reaches a peak when Bruce lends his daughter a copy of Earthly Paradise by Colette (an autobiography with lesbian themes) even though she has not revealed her lesbianism to him. The book sparks a conversation between the two, leading Bruce to open and honestly discuss his sexual orientation with Alison for the first time.

Figure 1. Alison and her father have their first frank discussion regarding his sexuality. Although their relationship is cold and distant, this marks one of the moments in which they begin to grow closer to each other.

Figure 3. Page 221. Alison and her father have their first frank discussion regarding his sexuality. Although their relationship is cold and distant, this marks one of the moments in which they begin to grow closer to each other.

Literature becomes the agent that allows Alison to forge a connection with her father. Although she admits that her intellectual connection and her intimacy with her father is seen as unusual to other people, she still seems to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate it. Alison does, however, lament that they “were close. But not close enough” (225). However, despite the fact that they were not as close or as intimate as she wanted them to be, she cherishes the fact that “he was there to catch [her] when [she] leapt” (232).

I can’t even begin to describe how much I enjoyed this memoir. It is complex, rich, funny, heartbreaking, and deeply insightful. I’m sure that this book is going to contribute significantly to my academic work, and I can’t wait to re-read this memoir in the near future.

You can purchase a copy of Bechdel’s memoir by clicking here.

Work Cited

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print (Paperback edition).

An Analysis of Pastiche in Art Spiegelman’s [Maus I: My Father Bleeds History]

Art Spiegelman’s Maus revolutionized the perception of comics not only in academia, but also in popular culture. Not only is it the first graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer prize, but its presence has been ubiquitous in academia–appealing to scholars interested in areas such as the image-text relationship, animal studies, postmodernism, history, memoir, Holocaust studies, and race, among others. Maus possesses two intertwining narratives.The core narrative focuses on depicting the experiences of Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Holocaust survivor, as he struggles to survive the horrors triggered by the rise of Hitler and the German Nazi Party. The other narrative focuses on the speaker’s attempts to interview his father to get the information needed to craft the core narrative–making Maus a work that attempts to recover history through a depiction of the actual recovery process. This secondary narrative frames the discussion of Vladek’s tale of survival while simultaneously giving the reader a glimpse into the relationship between a son and his father.

The following set of panels are depicted on page 90 of The Complete Maus. These panels highlight how events from the past and the present are combined within the same pages--which sometimes makes it difficult to keep track of the narrative strand that is taking place. At times, Vladek's retelling of his story is interrupted by his son, who often demands his father to tell a more coherent and chronological tale.

Figure 1. The following set of panels are depicted on page 90 of The Complete Maus. These panels highlight how events from the past and the present combine within the same pages–which sometimes makes it difficult to keep track of the narrative strand that is taking place. At times, Vladek’s retelling of his story is interrupted by his son, who often demands his father to tell a more coherent and chronological tale.

The interesting aspect about these intertwining narratives is that many times they clash or interrupt each other. Vladek often tells his story in a very fragmented fashion. Sometimes he will interrupt a story to talk of another event, other times he adds details that he forgot to recall, and he often leaves gaps in his stories–much to the chagrin of his son, who is trying to create a comic book using his father’s story. The speaker, sometimes rudely, interrupts his father to ask questions, and to ask him to cover events that he skipped or that he didn’t explain with enough nuance. Thus, what manifests in Maus is a tension between the father’s efforts to recall past events and the speaker’s efforts to distill his father’s story into the comics medium. This tension is reminiscent of Fredric Jameson’s views on the postmodern historical novel, which he discusses in his book, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. 

Given that postmodernity questions the ability to identify absolute truths, and given the awareness that the past is impossible to accurately represent, Jameson argues that the postmodern historical novel can only possibly represent one’s interpretations, notions, and preconceptions of the past (25). Postmodern historicism manifests in Maus in two ways: the father’s memories are often presented in a fragmented non-linear fashion that Art desperately tries to organize and make sense of–often leading him to reprimand his father for not presenting events in chronological order. Secondly, the graphic novel itself is a reflection of Art’s interpretations of his father’s story–which pushes readers to not only question the flawless authenticity of Vladek’s story, but also Art’s depiction of these events. The combination of different modes of temporality and narrative ultimately create what Jameson would call a pastiche, which is the amalgamation of many styles and discourses without specific norms or guidelines (17), which leads to the creation of an “ahistorical” product.

Despite this sense of ahistoricism and the overall distrust that exists towards exact history and truth, Spiegelman does an effective job of trying to persuade the reader into confiding in him by highlighting his unwillingness to censor his father’s story. This is seen in the instance in which Vladek is talking about his relationship with Lucia, the woman he dated before meeting Art’s mother. Even though Vladek makes Art promise not to include Lucia’s story within his work, Art not only includes the story, but also a depiction of the moment in which he promises not to share the story with others:

From page 25 of The Complete Maus. Here we see an instance in which Art depicts certain aspects of his father's tale, even when his father explicitly tells him not to include these details within his graphic works.

Figure 2. From page 25 of The Complete Maus. Here we see an instance in which Art depicts certain aspects of his father’s tale, even when his father explicitly tells him not to include these details within his graphic works.

When analyzing pastiche in Spiegelman’s work, it is important to closely look at the art techniques and the style that Spiegelman’s employs in the comics panels. I mentioned above that the past and the present blur within the panels due to Spiegelman’s amalgamation of the novel’s two narratives within the same pages and sections. One panel, for instance, could depict Vladek’s attempt to hide from the German forces, and the next panel suddenly jumps to the present, depicting an ill Vladek feeling chest pains as he strives to tell his tale (see pages 119-120 for this example). According to Jameson, since postmodernism is characterized by our loss of connection to history, what we know as the past is nothing but a style (or as he refers to it, a simulacrum) or a code that is commodified into our collective consciousness. Now, this is simply a fancy way of saying that we make used of clichéd and stereotypical signs in order to indicate that we are invoking history or a sense of a past (Jameson 19-20).

When watching a film or viewing an image, the past is invoked by signs like color (i.e. black and white imagery to convey a sense of antiquity, as seen in films such as Schindler’s List), certain styles of clothing, and even certain accents (people from older cultures, for instance, rarely ever speak in American accents in contemporary films). Something I noticed, however, is that Maus at times rejects using these codes and signs, thus making it a challenge to invoke a concrete sense of pastness. This blurring manifests not only through the combination of panels representing both of the novel’s narrative strands, but also through the application of the same artistic style for past and present events.

The fact that the entire graphic novel is colored in black and white, and the the images that invoke the present and the past are stylized in the same fasion,  it becomes even more challenging to distinguish between Vladek’s story and his son’s attempts to create a record of this story. Notice that Spiegelman could’ve stylized the past using different drawing techniques–as he did with the well-known comic book within the comic book–but he chose not to do so. If you take another look at figure 1, notice how the event taking place in the present and the event taking place in the past are colored and stylized in the same fashion. This blurring can either indicate Spiegelman’s attempt to highlight the relevance of his father’s events in today’s culture, or it can even be approached as a rhetorical device used to help readers connect the emotions embedded in both narrative strands. Could this be approached as an attempt to escape from the conventions of pastiche that are usually used in postmodern historicism?

The fact that Spiegelman represents characters as animals can also be interpreted as a symptom of pastiche. In order to grasp the complexities of the relationships that exist between Jews, non-Jewish Poles, and Germans, Spiegelman represents these socio-cultural demographics as animals–Jews are represented as mice, Germans are represented as cats, and non-Jewish Poles are represented as pigs. All of these animals are associated with strong signs and connotations, which Spiegelman appropriates to bracket a better historical understanding of the tensions that exist between these demographics. After all, the relationship between mice and cats is very well-known–and other well-known texts, such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, use animals as an allegory for highly charged political themes. The use of animals emphasizes, in this particular case, Jameson’s views of pastiche, which he also approaches as a parody or appropriation of particular aesthetic forms due to the inability to create new forms with new meaning. Due to our inability to relive Vladek’s experiences, Spiegelman must make use of pastiche in order to allow us to grasp the pathos and logos of his historical account.

While I do buy Jameson’s views on the process of pastiche, I am slightly hesitant to embrace his negative and bleak views of the consequences of this process. Jameson would argue that pastiche creates what he calls a “pop history,” which approaches as an empty or blank stereotype of a time that can no longer be accessed or understood. If this is the case, do we necessarily want to imply that Spegelman’s Maus is nothing but a product of pop history? Sure, I think today, it is clearly understood that it is impossible to reach absolute truth or that it is impossible to truly understand the past–which explains our current cynicism towards historical depictions and distillations. However, should this prevent us from attempting to access or recreate history through art? This view is too unproductive and stagnant–not to mention frustrating. Is Maus simply a manifestation of pop history? A better question would be: is Maus nothing but a pastiche?

As always, feel free to discuss these ideas below!

You can purchase a copy of Spiegelman’s work here.

Works Cited

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996. Print.

John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse”: A Postmodern Critique of the Developmental Narrative

“Lost in the Funhouse” is a short story in John Barth’s book of the same name, originally published in 1968.  The stories within this collection are typically approached as postmodern due to their self-reflexivity, their self-awareness, and their use of self-reference. The short story “Life in the Funhouse,” in particular, is known for its active destabilization of truth, linearity, and structure, and it is an ideal text to study when engaging in the frustrating exercise of defining postmodernity as it pertains to the study of literary texts.

Plot-wise, not much occurs within this narrative. In a nutshell, a teenage boy named Ambrose travels with his family to Ocean City, Maryland, where they spend most of their time sunbathing at the beach, going on amusement park rides, and entertaining themselves with games at the Ocean City boardwalk. Ambrose is nervous because he really likes this girl named Magda, and wants to develop the courage to confess his love for her. Although he eventually invites Magda to go into a funhouse with him, Magda eventually trails off with Ambrose’s brother, Peter, leaving him alone and isolated within the dark confines of the funhouse. The rest of the narrative traces Ambrose’s thoughts and dissatisfaction caused not only by his inability to express his feelings, but also  by his inability to escape from the funhouse.

This plot, however, constitutes a really small part of the narrative. “Lost in the Funhouse” is peppered with moments of self-reflexivity and meta-awareness, and the narrator often deviates from the plot in order to make claims regarding the intricacies of language, the difficulties of writing, and the impossibility of literary innovation. Within this narrative, we have a triangulation of three perspectives: the perspective of the protagonist, the perspective of the author, and the perspective of the speaker/narrator (who also shares most of the meta-fictional elements within the short story). Given the fact that this text is a meta-fiction, the elements within the story should be approached not only by how they develop the plot, but also by their commentary as pertaining to the acts of writing and reading fiction. This is particularly why close-reading and deconstruction are crucial in terms of determining what the text is trying to achieve. In an attempt to highlight the complexity and richness of this story, let me turn my attention to unpacking the following passage:

One reason for not writing a lost-in-the-funhouse story is that either everybody’s felt what Ambrose feels, in which case it goes without saying, or else no normal person feels such things, in which case Ambrose is a freak. “Is anything more tiresome, in fiction, than the problems of sensitive adolescents?” And it’s all too long and rambling, as if the author. For all a person knows the first time through, the end could be just around the corner; perhaps, not impossibly it’s been within the reach any number of times. On the other hand he may be scarcely past the start, with everything yet to get through, an intolerable idea. (88)

Although plot-wise there is an actual or concrete funhouse, the term is also being invoked as a symbol for narrative, fiction, or perhaps even the mind of the protagonist. “Lost in the Funhouse” is an exploratory narrative that delves into the woes that Ambrose faces when analyzing his own precociousness, and when confronting the confusing and contradictory issues that arise when one grows up–making the story, in essence, a coming-of-age narrative. In the passage above, the narrator uses quotation marks to bring up the tired and overwrought nature of the coming-of-age genre. Furthermore, the quote asks readers to reflect on how sensitive protagonists within this genre suffer from the woes of over-thinking, and how they often share thoughts that are deemed to be too advanced or “unrealisitic” given the protagonist’s age.

It becomes important to question why Barth shares this critique of the “lost-in-the-funhouse” narrative when the story itself incorporates every single element that is critiqued: the protagonist of the story is a sensitive character, who often offers long, rambling, and contradictory interpretations of himself and the people that surround him. The text explores the perceived incongruity of sensitive adolescents expressing ideas that surpass their faculties, at least within fiction: “Is it likely, does it violate the principle of verisimilitude, that a thirteen-year-old boy could make such a sophisticated observation?” (70). Despite this questioning, the protagonist still  engages with intense philosophical and existential ideas, leading the reader to come with their own answers to the aforementioned question. Not only can this be approached as an attempt to destabilize stereotypes in terms of what adolescents are or are not capable of deliberating, but it also pushes the reader to question the foundations that generate these so-called truisms and verisimilitudes.  Is it possible for a teen to conceive of sophisticated ideas? Is there a specific age that a person must reach before being able to formulate complex ideas?

It can be said that the narrator considers the coming-of-age genre to be important or useful given its universality, but at the same time, the text makes overt critiques on the use of conventions and patterns to portray universal themes. Growth, development, and linearity (both from a textual and non-textual perspective) are thus prominent themes that are scrutinized within the depths of the funhouse.

Narrative

Figure 1. This graphic is a replication of the diagram found in page 91 of “Lost in the Funhouse,” in which the narrator discusses the general pattern that most fictional narratives follow: exposition, conflict, complication, climax, and resolution.

The narrator of the story makes a critique of patterns by illustrating the conventions that narratives usually appropriate in order to assure that they are effective. The text painstakingly depicts the usual structures and conventions that narratives employ to deliver a story (see Figure 1). “Lost in the Funhouse” deviates immensely from the conventional and linear plot, and it is self aware of this deviation: “The beginning should recount the events between Ambrose’s first sight of the funhouse early in the afternoon and his entering it with Magda and Peter in the evening. The middle would narrate all relevant events from the time he loses his way; middles have the double and contradictory function of delaying the climax while at the same time preparing the reader for it” (74). Although the narrator stresses that this is how stories should be structured, “Lost in the Funhouse” deliberately refutes these conventions by delivering a narrative with a prolonged exposition that is contradictory and that does not follow typical patterns of resolution. Details of the plot’s so-called climax, introduction, and conclusion are also scrambled throughout the text, and are not found within the expected locations. Although the narrator admits that this deviation forsakes “the effects of drama” that are possible in the short story, he also makes it clear that this deviation of narrative conventions “can better effect” the dramatic possibilities of the story (91).

With this in mind, it can be argued that the narrator is not necessarily refuting the importance of fiction with sensitive adolescents, but rather, he is contesting the usefulness of a linear narrative to do justice to the multifaceted, complicated, and fragmentary nature of the issues that are faced during the coming-of-age process. I thought this notion was particularly apparent as Ambrose ventures through the maze of mirrors in the funhouse. As Ambrose sees multiple selves being reflected as he tunnels through those mirrored paths, he realizes the futility of trying to approach the self as a single, atomized unit:

Stepping from the treacherous passage at last into the mirror-maze, he saw once again, more clearly than ever, how readily he deceived himself into supposing he was a person. He even foresaw, wincing at his dreadful self-knowledge, that he would repeat the deception, at ever-rarer intervals, all his wretched life, so fearful were the alternatives. (90)

The passage above is one of the most overt critiques on linearity, development, and the conventions that are usually invoked when writing developmental narratives. It attacks the notion of teleology and fulfillment, going as far as to argue that development is not always achieved by following points A to D. Furthermore, this passage refutes the notion of self-fulfillment by highlighting the cyclic nature and the folly of trying to pin down a clear and clean definition of the self. The self is always more fragmented and unreachable than narratives of development usually convey, and the self is always found in a state of constant change and growth. Thus, “Lost in the Funhouse” offers an alternative way of thinking about and approaching the process of development. The narrative implies that it would be foolish to approach an individual’s development through how well he or she complies with conventions of growth, maturation, and development–just as it would be equally foolish to judge this text by how well it adheres to narrative conventions.

When it comes to truth, perhaps the narrator is right when asserting that “we will never get out of the funhouse” (74).

Work Cited

 Barth, John. Lost in the Funhouse. New York: Bantam Books, 1980. Print.

John Guare’s [Six Degrees of Separation] and the Postmodern Schizophrenic

Six Degrees of Separation Cover

Front cover of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (1990)

If we are unable to unify the past, present, and future of the sentence, then we are similarly unable to unify the past, present, and future of our own biographical experience of psychic life. With the breakdown of the signifying chain, therefore, the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time.

-Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or , The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (p. 27)

The loss of historicity, according to Jameson, has created a mode of existence that greatly resembles a state of schizophrenia. The postmodern condition has weakened the subject’s linkage to the past, thus obliging a firm grasp onto the present. This schizophrenic state, as Jameson points out, is induced when the relationships between signifiers are broken, thus leading said signifers to be scattered and disconnected–alluding to the postmodern benchmark in which pieces must be rearranged and put together to create a simulacrum of the whole.

The Jamesonian schizophrenic subject is an important notion to bring up when discussing John Guare’s 1990 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play entitled Six Degrees of Separation. The play is centered on a confidence man who goes by the name of Paul, who pretends to be the son of Sidney Poitier in order to gain the sympathies and support of Flan and Ouisa Kittredge, a wealthy family who lives in an upper-class estate near Central Park. Paul leads Flan and Ouisa to believe that he is a friend of their children, and he offers tidbits of information that lead the unsuspecting couple to believe that he’s telling the truth. After the couple give Paul some money and let him stay over their place, they soon catch Paul in bed with a male hustler–and he thrown out of their home, ashamed and embarrassed.

The figure of the con artist is very susceptible to postmodern analysis because their personas are typically deliberate and careful constructions. Not only must con artists be hyper-aware of the elements that construct this alter ego, but they must also avoid invoking any past information that might reveal their true identities. We are not given insight into the person who dons the alter ego known as Paul. What Six Degrees of Separation makes clear is that Paul is an amalgamation of texts, other people’s experiences, and fiction. For instance, Paul projects himself as a friend of the Kittredge’s children, he demonstrates to have a lot of knowledge of literature (especially J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye), he is familiar with Sidney Poitier’s background, and he also proves to be an excellent cook. All of these traits and sources of knowledge, however, are merely an intermixture that serves to create the character known as Paul. This is particularly highlighted in a phone call exchange between Paul and Ouisa towards the end of the play:

PAUL: You let me use all the parts of myself that night–

OUISA: It was magical. That Salinger stuff–

PAUL: Graduation speech at Groton two years ago.

OUISA: Your cooking–

PAUL: Other people’s recipes. Did you see Donald Barthelme’s obituary? He said collage was the art form of the twentieth century. (Guare 107)

Paul seems to be overt with the fact that he is collection of “parts” that work together to form a collage. He thus represents the collapse of the signifying chain. He is a character who is disconnected from the past, and he is a character who approaches himself as a gathering of multitudinous pieces rather than a whole. Paul can therefore be approached as a postmodern schizophrenic because his presence and his existence boils down to a collection of “material signifiers”–material expressions with no relation that congregate in a specific point in time.

The play initially leads us to believe that Paul focuses his cons on wealthy victims, as it is revealed that he pulled a nearly identical con with the Kittredge’s friends, Kitty and Larkin. Nevertheless, Paul is shown to pull off a con with another young couple of struggling actors–Rick and Elizabeth–who moved to New York from Utah and who work as waiters in the city. Using random and disconnected knowledge that he has obtained from other people, he dazzles Rick and Elizabeth with his intelligence and wit, leading them to invite Paul to stay in their very humble abode: “A railroad loft […] The tub’s in the kitchen but there’s light in the morning” (Guare 86). Paul grows closer to the couple, especially Rick. He then tells the couple that he needs $250 to meet his father–who is deviously claimed to be Flan Kittredge–who is going to present him for the first time to his grandparents. Although Elizabeth firmly claims that they can’t lend him the money, Rick secretly goes to the bank and gives Paul their entire savings. Paul uses the money to buy fancy tuxes for himself and for Rick, he takes Rick out dancing, and they ultimately have sex. Rick confesses his affair with Paul to Elizabeth, and he commits suicide soon after.

In all of the cons, Paul uses the money that he gains in order to achieve a fleeting moment of sexual connection to another man. When Ouisa and Flan catch him with a hustler in their home, Paul exclaims:

I got so lonely. I got so afraid. My dad coming. I had the money. I went out after we went to sleep and I brought [the hustler] back. I couldn’t be alone. You had so much. I couldn’t be alone. I was so afraid. (Guare 50)

Paul focuses his discourse on the fear of loneliness, and the importance of not being alone, but it would be reasonable to question why he chooses to establish connections with people that are temporary and that reject futurity in their entirety. This is not only seen when Paul uses the fifty dollars that the Kittredges give him to buy the company of a hustler, but also when he uses the $250 that Rick gives him in order to spend a romantic day with him. The other relationship that Paul engages with in the play is a three month tryst with an MIT student named Trent. This relationship is depicted as purely physical. Paul exchanges sexual favors for information on the wealthy subjects listed in Trent’s address book, and by the time Paul leaves, Trent confesses that he doesn’t “know anything” (Guare 80) about Paul.

With this in mind, the sexual relationships that Paul forges are very presentist in that they approach sexual and romantic connection in a fashion that disrupts, or better said, refutes, both the past and the future. In other words, these relationships are not based on prolonged efforts to know who the sexual partner is (the past), nor do they take place with the goal of creating a lasting form of kinship. Paul’s sexual relationship in the play thus heighten the present while refuting its connection to other ends of the temporal spectrum (thus obliterating the signifying chain of temporality). Jameson would argue that this intense focus on the present would, to the postmodern subject, be no different from the relief and the euphoria provided by opiate drugs:

the breakdown of temporality suddenly releases this present of time from all of the activities and intentionalities that might focus it and make it a space of practice; thereby isolated, that present suddenly engulfs the subject with undescribable vividness, a materiality of perception properly overwhelming, which effectively dramatizes the power of the material–or better still, the literal–signifier in isolation. The present of the world or material signifier comes before the subject with heightened intensity, bearing a mysterious charge of affect, here described in the negative terms of anxiety and loss of reality, but which one could just as well imagine in the positive terms of euphoria, a high, an intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity. (Jameson 27-28)

Interestingly, even though Paul’s fleeting relationships are focused on the present, and even though they seem to be disconnected from each other, they are all share a common meaning. Every one of Paul’s relationships can be approached as an attempt to stave off loneliness, and they also highlight Paul’s paradoxical fear of being alone while at the same time being resistant to stasis and permanency. None of these relationships, however, possess the element that Paul needs to transgress the clutches of the present. Paul’s relationships reflect the woe expressed in Ouisa’s most prominent speech, in which she expresses the torment and tension behind the theory of six degrees of separation:

Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The president of the United States. A gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names. I find that A] tremendously comforting that we’re so close and B’ like Chinese water torture that we’re so close. Because you have to find the right six people to make the connection. (Guare 81)

The play seems to disrupt any attempts at reifying the concatenation and the linearity that the “six degrees of separation” theory ultimately provides. Paul is the product of disconnection. The character we know as Paul is an incomplete amalgamation of texts, anecdotes, fictions, recipes, backgrounds and people. Any attempt to understand Paul is futile precisely because he resists signification.  His inability to feel beyond the present highlights the fact that Paul exists beyond the signifying chain of connection that Ouisa refers to. Thus, the Paul who we are familiar with is a schizophrenic simulacrum: an incomplete and unknowable representation that has replaced reality.

Works Cited

Guare, John. Six Degrees of Separation. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Print.

Knowledge, Postmodernity, and Bisexual Love Triangles: Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction

Front cover of Bret Easton Ellis' The Rules of Attraction (1987)

Front cover of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction (1987)

“No one will ever know anyone. We just have to deal with each other. You’re not ever gonna know me.”

“What in the hell does that mean?” I ask.

“It just means you’re not ever gonna know me,” he says. “Figure it out. Deal with it.”

– Bret Easton Ellis, The Rules of Attraction (p. 252)

What does it mean to know someone? Friendship, kinship, romance–all of these relationships are based not on blood lineage or genetics, but on the promise of knowledge. What I mean by this is that these relationships are typically forged through experience and through sharing: two or more people have decided to link their hopes, fears, emotions, time, bodies, and space in an effort to stave off solitude, emptiness, and/or ennui. But what happens to relationships if we were to focus on the fact that at the end of the day, it is impossible to truly know someone in their entirety? Through the exploration of the psyche of three characters living a life debauchery, hedonism, and at times, nihilism, Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction exemplifies the futility of trying to know someone. The novel highlights how people are prone to lying, creating an inauthentic image of the self, and misreading the actions of behaviors of those who surround them in an effort to create meaningful connections.

This novel oozes postmodernism. When first reading the book, I thought I had a misprint in my hand due to the fact that the novel begins in the following fashion: “and it’s a story that might bore you but you don’t have to listen, she told me, because she always knew it was going to be like that […]” (13). After doing some quick research online, I found out that the novel was deliberately written this way in en effort to wedge the reader right in the middle of the action. The novel also ends in an incomplete sentence, further eradicating any sense of finality in the novel. Another trait that characterizes the novel as postmodern is its historical rootlessness. Although we are given bits and pieces of the characters’ past through their interactions with friends and family members, we are not given a full back story for most of the characters. We don’t know who the characters were, we can’t tell who the characters are (due to the novel’s ambiguity and contradictory accounts), and by the end of the novel, we can’t even begin to estimate what will happen to these characters–further adding fuel to the novel’s theme of the elusive nature of knowledge.

Because of the reasons above, it is quite difficult for me to provide an accurate summary of the novel. The three main characters of The Rules of Attraction–a novel that is narrated from multiple first-person perspectives–are Sean Bateman (a young man from a wealthy family who heavily abuses drugs and alcohol, who is ostensibly bisexual, and who is prone to self-loathing and suicidal tendencies), Lauren Hynde (a depressed and overly emotional artist/poet who sleeps with many men in an effort to forget her ex-boyfriend), and Paul Denton (a smart, libidinous, self-centered, and overly self-aware bisexual man). They all go to a fictional liberal arts college in the East Coast known as Camden, and the novel heavily implies that they are involved in a love triangle. Paul used to date Lauren before the novel takes place, and it can be interpreted that Sean sustains an active sexual relationship with Paul and Lauren (even though he solely confesses his love for the latter).

The reason I say heavily implied is because although Paul openly shares details of his relationship with Sean, Sean never mentions his involvement with Paul. As a matter of fact, when Sean does refer to Paul in his stream-of-consciousness, he usually does so with apathy or contempt. Although this may suggest that Paul is fabricating the relationship, this can also be interpreted as Sean’s unwillingness to share certain details with the reader–and it becomes clear that the withholding of information and knowledge is key to this narrative. Let me turn my attention to the following passage, in which Sean is reflecting on his sexual relationship with Lauren:

She spoke rarely to me, and never mentioned anything about the sex–probably because she was so satisfied, and I didn’t say much back. So there were few drawbacks to our relationship, fewer disagreements. For instance, I didn’t have to tell her what I thought about her poetry, which sucked even though a couple of her poems had been chosen for publication in the school’s literary rag and for a poetry journal her teacher edited. […] But what was poetry, or anything else for that matter, when compared to those breasts, and that ass, that insatiable center between those long legs, wrapped around my hips, that beautiful face crying out with pleasure? (187)

The passage above illustrates many key features of the novel’s content. It first and foremost shows that there are certain things that people never talk about even though they think them. Interestingly, Sean comments on how Lauren never talks about their sexual relationship, which possibly mirrors his own inability to talk about the (possible) sexual relationship that he has with Paul. Furthermore, the passage depicts how Sean makes assumptions and interpretations of Lauren’s behavior, going as far as to deduce that the reason she doesn’t talk about their sexual relationship is because she is so deeply satisfied with it. However, we later on discover that Lauren doesn’t feel too enthusiastic about her sexual relationship with Sean, and she even fakes her orgasms most of the time.

Paul and Sean’s relationship was one of the most intriguing aspects of this novel, especially due to the dual interpretation that it invokes. On one hand, if we approach this relationship as a figment of Paul’s imagination, then it can be said that it reflects the theme of desire and dangers of living vicariously through the imagination. On the other hand, if we approach the sexual relationship as real, the focus then becomes Sean’s repression and inability to accept and know himself (thus making truly impossible to know anyone or anything). Trying to choose a side is difficult and impossible. At times, I find myself leaning with Paul due to the fact that Sean seems to be deliberately malicious and duplicitous, but on the other hand, I’m also aware that Paul has an ability to change his self-depiction to suit the tastes of those he tries to seduce. For instance, when he first meets Sean, he pretends to have failed a couple of classes in an effort to seem more accessible, especially since Sean is notoriously known for having no interest in academic affairs. Is it possible that Paul’s narrative perspective is deliberately crafted in a way that makes us as readers more sympathetic to him?

What makes this novel fun and great is precisely its ambiguity, and its attempt to replicate our approach to the people around us. We can make estimations of why people are the way they are, why they behave a certain way, why they engage in certain activities, but all in all, we can never be certain. Our knowledge of people is not truth. Our knowledge of people is limited to what they divulge to us, and even then these revelations can be twisted, fabricated, or misinterpreted. Attempting to know the characters in this novel makes us no different from Paul during the narrative’s conclusion, who chases after Sean’s motorcycle as it rides away in the horizon–aware of the fact that he would never catch it. Perhaps Ellis is parodying us as readers, who expect to understand the characters by the time we reach the final page. Yet, as a cruel and ironic joke, the final chapter is incomplete–leaving us exactly where we began. I guess Sean Bateman was right… we’re not ever gonna know anyone.

Work Cited

Easton Ellis, Bret. The Rules of Attraction. New York: Vintage Contemporary Editions, 1998. Print (Paperback).