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Escaping the Labyrinth: Suffering in YA Fiction and the Case of John Green’s [Looking for Alaska]

Front cover of John Green's Looking for Alaska (2005)

Front cover of John Green’s Looking for Alaska (2005)

 

How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering? –A.Y.

– John Green, Looking for Alaska (p. 158)

What is the role of suffering in young adult literature? I’ve been obsessed with answering this question since one of my dissertation committee members asked me it a couple of weeks ago. My desire to answer this question has further increased as I continue to teach a course on young adult fiction this semester. I am constantly thinking about what defines this genre of literature, especially when considering that the line between literature written for adults and young adults is so thin. Part of this has to do with the ambiguity of what a young adult is, but for the most part, the trouble in defining young adult literature is found in the plasticity of the genre itself.

Young adult literature has become an umbrella term for an ever-expanding collective of novels, dealing with everything from the real, the everyday, the fantastical, the impossible, the painful, and the imaginary. Since the scope of young adult literature is so embracing, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to establish parameters for what it can or cannot be. Does a YA novel simply require a teenage protagonist in order for it to be categorized as such? An adolescent protagonist is definitely a must–but is there a further narrative strand that binds this collective of novels together? Perhaps an exploration of suffering in these novels can provide some answers.

I’ll be the first to admit that suffering is perhaps a universal element of most, if not all novels. After all, most events that a protagonists face are in some way driven by dissatisfaction or displeasure. However, it seems that most young adult novels go at great lengths to highlight the role of suffering in aiding the development of a character over a particular span of time. In the course that I’m currently teaching, we’ve read novels such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Arguably, all of these novels center wholeheartedly on a protagonist’s suffering. Holden Caulfield is tormented by phoniness and hypocrisy–including his own. Jess copes with the death of his best friend, Leslie. Charlie is distressed by his obsession for observation and his struggle to become an active participant. This week, as we begin our discussion of John Green’s Looking for Alaska, the notion of suffering has become front and center due to the novel’s explicit and reiterative questioning of the nature of torment and dissatisfaction in the lives of contemporary teenagers.

In a nutshell, the novel centers on a year in the life of Miles Halter (a.k.a. “Pudge”), a resident of Florida who moves to a boarding school in Alabama during his junior year to seek a “Great Perhaps” (5). It is during this year that Pudge befriends colleagues such as the Colonel, a lower-class math genius with a stoic attitude and sarcastic personality, and Alaska Young, an intelligent, free-spirited, impulsive young woman (and the source of the novel’s title). Much attention is given to Pudge’s somewhat unrequited desire for Alaska, and his attempts to understand her despite her impulsiveness and her candidness.

The novel is structured into two parts: Before and After. The Before section of this novel can be approached as a countdown, in that every chapter tracks the days that are left until an unknown event occurs. With this in mind, the reader approaches this first section with an awareness that a major, plot-shifting event is about to occur–thus creating an anticipation for the event that will mark the beginning of the After section (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD). This event happens to be Alaska’s death, as she dies when drunkenly driving to her mother’s grave to leave flowers on the anniversary of her death. The novel, however, is unclear as to whether or not this death was intentional. Thus, the After section, which comprises about 1/3 of the novel, focuses mostly on Pudge’s and the Colonel’s attempt to cope with the grief and guilt instilled by Alaska’s passing. Although Alaska’s death certainly comes as a shock, the novel foreshadows this event various times, the most notable instances being:

  • When Pudge questions why Alaska smokes cigarettes so quickly, she responds by saying “Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die” (44). This claim gives the reader insight into the fast-paced fashion in which Alaska lives, and furthermore, it possibly indicates an affinity that Alaska has with the death drive.
  • Further exemplifying Alaska’s connection to the death drive and self-harm, when Pudge suggests that Alaska should stop drinking so much, she responds with the following: “Pudge, what you must understand about me is that I am a deeply unhappy person” (124).

What is interesting about this novel is that although Pudge is undoubtedly its protagonist, its narrative is driven primarily by Alaska’s suffering. Her unhappiness can be traced back to her early childhood, where she witnessed her mother dying of an aneurysm, yet was too shocked and confused to help her at the moment. According to Pudge, her impulsiveness and her desire to continue moving forward is her way of making up for her supposed lack of inaction as a child. Alaska’s dissatisfaction with life, and her connection with the notion of suffering, are narratively framed by intertextual references, the most notable being a reference taken from Gabriel García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth–a historical novel on Simón Bolívar. Alaska points out that Bolívar’s last words are “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” (19). From this moment on, Bolívar’s last words become a significant motif in the novel.

The motif of the labyrinth becomes quite significant in an instance in which Pudge and Alaska are discussing futurity. Alaska expresses her disdain for the future, for it lures people into the trap of focusing on the not-yet-here rather than the here. It is in this rejection of futurity (a foreshadowing of her death, perhaps?) that the image of the labyrinth becomes associated with Alaska’s ideas of suffering:

You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present. (54)

What is significant about this passage is that Alaska clearly believes that there is no way of escaping the labyrinth that we are stuck in. The passage is imbued with a crushing pessimism–to the point where Alaska is unable to envision any reality besides the one she lives. Alaska views suffering as a static presence in her life. Suffering is so crippling for her, that she is ultimately unable to envision a way of being that is different to the reality she is currently living–which leads her to reformulate the question originally penned by García Márquez: “How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?” (158). In due course, Alaska’s reformulation of this question becomes the question that haunts the novel’s characters. How do they escape the labyrinth of suffering erected by Alaska’s death?

While the novel eerily suggests that death is the only way of escaping this labyrinth, I find it interesting how the novel ultimately emphasizes the importance of the labyrinth in our everyday existence. As Pudge reflects on Alaska’s reconfiguration of the big question, he recognizes a shift in his way of thinking. Originally, Pudge thinks that the only way to cope with the labyrinth of suffering was by pretending “that it did not exist, to build a small, self-sufficient world in a back corner of the endless maze and to pretend that I was not lost, but home” (219). Pudge’s moment of growth occurs when he realizes that the labyrinth is ultimately an inseparable part of life. To live is to suffer. Life is more than the maze, but the maze is still an integral component of life. Pudge realizes that by trying to escape the maze, or by ignoring it, he is setting aside the very experience of navigating the maze, and he is focusing on the end rather than on the events that led him to the end. This exemplifies a moment of growth for Pudge, for it is here that he begins to distance himself from teleological notions: the process of navigating the maze is just as important as the process of escaping it.

The novel thus concludes with a glorification of adolescence, precisely because it is a middle ground between the beginning and the end. It is a time in which uncertainty reigns supreme–where possibilities are endless. It denotes the moment in which we navigate the maze, not when we enter it or escape it. As Pudge states in his teenage manifesto:

When adults say, “Teenagers think they are invincible” with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old.  (220)

John Green’s Looking for Alaska has given me serious food for thought, not only when it comes to the role of suffering in YA literature, but also in when it comes to considering how suffering is connected to the sense of invincibility and infinity associated with the concept of adolescence. Through the act of looking for Alaska, we find not only ourselves, but we also find more interesting ways of navigating labyrinths. When it comes to the labyrinth of young adult literature, perhaps it is time to stop finding a way out of it, and focus our energies in co-existing with it. Perhaps it is time to relish the interconnectedness of YA fiction–its ability to be all-encompassing, ever-expanding, and invincible.

Work Cited

Green, John. Looking for Alaska. New York: Dutton Books, 2005. Print (Hardcover Edition).

You can purchase a copy of Green’s novel by clicking here.

Candle cover image by coloneljohnbritt.

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On Closets and Straight Gazes – Bill Konigsberg’s [Openly Straight]

Front cover of Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight

Front cover of Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (2013)

I was thinking about how snakes shed their skin every year, and how awesome it would be if people did that too. In a lot of ways, that’s what I was trying to do.

As of tomorrow, I was going to have new skin, and that skin could look like anything, would feel different than anything I knew yet. And that made me feel a little bit like I was about to be born. Again.

But hopefully not Born Again.

-Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (p. 4)

Bill Konigsberg’s delightful and heartwarming novel, Openly Straight, pushes readers to question the possibilities that “shedding one’s skin” offers, and the consequences that arise when reinvention threatens our sense of self. The novel is narrated by Seamus Rafael Goldberg (who usually goes by Rafe), a high school student from Colorado who transfers to Natick–an elite, all-boys school in the New England area. Although Rafe is openly gay, he decides to conceal his homosexuality while attending Natick to live a life free of labels, and to explore the possibilities of living a life unhindered by the so-called burdens of queerness.

Rafe, at first, claims that “The closet is when you say you’re not gay” (132). Problematically, he views the closet as a singular and individualistic space created by self-denial–and he fails to recognize that the act of being “out” relies on the obliteration of the many closets that appear and re-appear in our everyday lives. As pointed out by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet

every encounter with a new classfull of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not. (68)

Rafe’s initial failure stems from his inability to understand that stepping out of the closet is not a one-step process, for it comprises an act of revelation and disclosure each time a new closet is erected in one’s life. I was impressed with how Konigsberg manages to invoke Sedgwick’s ideas of closetedness, especially as they are experienced by contemporary youths. Given that the novel takes place in a time where homosexuality is becoming more and more acceptable by mainstream society, I was delighted that Openly Straight explores the nuances and effects of closetedness in our brave new world. As evidenced by the novel’s protagonist, closetedness can still haunt even those who are out, open, and accepted.

Rafe is born into a family that readily and openly embraces his gay identity. However, Rafe is unable to appreciate his privilege because he deems that his homosexuality eclipses the other identities that he can embody–to the point where all he is able to see when looking in the mirror is the gay subject he is expected to perform, rather than the self:

Where had Rafe gone? Where was I? The image I saw was so two-dimensional that I couldn’t recognize myself in it. I was invisible in the mirror as I was in the headline the Boulder Daily Camera had run a month earlier: Gay High School Student Speaks Out. (3)

Rafe realizes that decision to hide his homosexuality and to pass as straight do come with certain perks. He is quickly accepted by the jocks at his new school, he is able to shower with his soccer team without worrying about the repercussions of the “straight gaze,” and traits other than his queerness are recognized. His ability to keep his self-imposed secret, however, is thwarted as he grows closer to Ben, a fellow jock and philosophy enthusiast who studies at Natick. As Ben begins to show signs of fluid sexuality, and as the two boys grow closer, Rafe reflects on how the perks of his reinvention come with the cost of being able to love truly and openly.

My favorite aspect of the novel is the complex relationship between Rafe and Ben. This relationship makes you feel all the warmth that you expect in young adult novels, yet this warmth is accompanied by realistic depictions of frustration and heartache. This is unsurprising, since Rafe and Ben’s relationship is based on experimentation and sexual confusion, even though one of the two characters definitely isn’t confused. This complex relationship ultimately leads Ben and Rafe to reflect on the nature of love–how it is possible to love people in different ways, and how it is possible for different types of love to overlap. This reflection leads to my favorite passage in the novel, in which Ben contemplates his non-normative affinities with Rafe:

I guess I’d like to think of what we have as agapeA higher love. Something that transcends. Something not about sex or brotherhood but about two people truly connecting. (225)

One another note, Openly Straight, in its essence, is about gazes, and how they control how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Rafe’s decision to go back into the closet is driven by the fact he is tired of being viewed as a queer object by his friends, family, and peers. Rafe’s views are not entirely unfounded–he is constantly asked by friends and teachers to give his input as a queer subject. His attitudes, beliefs, and actions are constantly being traced back to his homosexuality by other characters. Rafe, understandably, feels the weight of queerness on his shoulders–and this weight is unshakable.

Rafe, nevertheless, complains about the gaze that others fixate on him, without coming to grips with the ways he gazes at others. In one of the later chapters of the novel, Rafe finds himself scrutinizing one of his queer peers at a Gay/Straight Alliance meeting–remarking on everything from his peer’s clothes to his haircut. As Rafe’s eyes remain fixated on his peer, he remarks how this other boy could pass for a woman if he wanted to. When Rafe’s peer notices that he is staring, Rafe becomes self-conscious about his gazing. It is at this moment that Rafe realizes that he is guilty of performing the very act of “straight gazing” that drove him back into the closet in the first place:

I was staring at this effeminate kid, and judging my own masculinity, or lack thereof. And was I so different from everyone else? Who was to say that Mr. Meyers in Boulder was thinking about when he looked at me? How come I was assuming that his staring at me had anything to do with me? (306)

Gazing, according to Rafe, is not a fixation based on rejection, pity, or disgust, but rather, it is a discursive relationship between the self and an other. Thus, the gazer reflects on his or her own selfhood as contrasted to another person–which leads Rafe to deduce that he could “spend a little less time worrying about what people thought about [him], since they probably weren’t thinking about him at all” (307). In other words, Rafe realizes that the fault and blame lies in the eyes of the gazer and not on the person being gazed.

I love this novel. I have been reading queer YA fiction for years, and I must say that Openly Straight astounds me on many levels. It is a testament to how much queer YA literature has evolved over time, and it makes me feel very optimistic about the present and future of the genre. I foresee that young readers will be particularly drawn to the humor and cleverness of this work. I also admire the fact that this novel offers readers the opportunity to explore a compelling, funny, and heartfelt narrative that doesn’t shy away from the complexities of contemporary queerness.

Works Cited

Konigsberg, Bill. Openly Straight. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Print.

You can purchase a copy of Konigsberg’s novel by clicking here.

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When a Horny Queer Boy and Giant Praying Mantises Collide – Andrew Smith’s [Grasshopper Jungle]

Front cover of Andrew Smith's [Grasshopper Jungle]

Front cover of Andrew Smith’s [Grasshopper Jungle] (2014)

This is a bizarre novel–but it’s bizarre in the best possible way. Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle: A History is an end-of-the-world narrative about love. And sexual confusion. And growth. And God. And Polish ancestry. And paranoia. And Satan. And Saints. And two-headed babies. And bisexual love triangles. And bullying. And giant praying mantises. And pill-popping mothers. And genetically modified corn. And cannibalism. And pizza. And testicle-naming. And sex. And history. And mad scientists. And bison. As Austin–the novel’s protagonist–states when contemplating the nature of histories, “Good books are about everything” (217). If you enjoy deep, strange, complex, hilarious, nonsensical, non-linear, zany, over-the-top narratives, this is definitely the young adult novel you’re looking for.

On the surface level, Grasshopper Jungle consists of two core narratives. The first core narrative, focused on depicting the end-of-the-world, is triggered when Austin Szerba and his gay best friend, Robby Brees, witness a group of bullies who accidentally unleash a deadly virus known as the MI Plague Strain 412E in the fictional town of Ealing, Iowa. In a nutshell, when this plague comes into contact with human blood, it transforms infected humans into giant praying mantises that only do two things: “They eat and they fuck” (135). Austin and Robby attempt to explore the nature of the plague while also trying a way to prevent an emerging  population of ravenous, sexually-charged mantids from becoming the world’s foremost apex predators. The second, and more interesting core narrative centers on matters of queerness–Austin is in love with both his girlfriend, Shann, and his best friend, Robby. As Austin confesses when coping with the guilt of loving two people at the same time:

…I sat there and thought about how I was ripping my own heart in half, ghettoizing it like Warsaw during the Second World War–this area for Shann; the other area for queer kids only–and wondering how it was possible to be sexually attracted and in love with my best friend, a boy, and my other best friend, a girl–two completely different people, at the same time. (162)

These two core narratives twist and turn in convoluted ways, ultimately creating an effect of chaos, confusion, and instability that makes this reading rich and challenging. The thematic and narrative complexity of this novel is further charged via the implementation of stream-of-consciousness narration. Because of this, as Austin attempts to discuss the novel’s two core narratives, he often digresses into discussions of his living and dead family members, political figures, biology, and the act of documenting events. He also speculates about multiple events simultaneously, reflecting on what other characters are going through as he faces his own dangers and crises. Reading this novel thus feels akin to watching five television screens depicting five different (yet loosely interrelated) events at the same time. This multifaceted narrative structure, however, works brilliantly in Smith’s novel because:

  1. It invokes the sense of panic and turmoil that an apocalyptic event would trigger within the mind of a teenage protagonist, who’s usually dealing with the pains of transitioning from childhood and adulthood.
  2. It mobilizes the theme of paranoia that haunts the novel. Since Austin feels helpless in a world that is undergoing a state of unraveling and undoing, his only alternative to cope with this emerging world is to establish as many connections as he possibly can between people and events–even when said connections are forced or entirely fabricated. As Austin points out when documenting a series of events occurring simultaneously: “History is my compulsion. I see the connections” (71). His mission is to make a whole out of the fragments that he gathers.

Austin’s compulsion to document and curate history is another element that adds narrative depth to Grasshopper Jungle, for this compulsion is what frames the text. When we read the novel, we are delving into Austin’s mind as he attempts to recall, write down, abridge, and edit his own history, and the history of the world before it ended. As the narrative unfolds, we develop an awareness of the events that Austin jots down on paper, and we also witness the events that he hesitates to share with other people. It also becomes clear that he completely fabricates events when writing his history to reify certain connections that he visualizes. This notion becomes concrete when Austin describes the secret love affair that his great-grandfather, Andrzej Szczerba, had with a Jewish atheist named Herman Weinbach. According to Austin, Andrzej and Herman were in a clandestine gay relationship for over a year, until Herman died of Pneumonia in 1934. While coping with his grief, Andrzej “forces himself sexually onto” a young woman named Phoebe Hildebrant (220), and nine months after, Austin’s grandfather, Felek Szczerba is born. Realistically speaking, there is no way that Austin could know this information, for it is revealed that Andrzej dies without disclosing the details of his relationship with Herman.

Why does Austin spend a significant amount of time in effort in creating this fictional queer biography for his dead great-grandfather? Austin later discloses, while discussing a different event, that “historians need to fill in the blanks on their own. It is part of our job” (261). With this in mind, the history that Austin creates is not written to “prevent us from doing stupid things in the future” (8), but rather, it is his attempt to narratively repair his own life and own story–a life that was convoluted and fragmented even before the appearance of the monstrous insects. Austin’s fictional narrative of his great-grandfather’s homosexuality arguably be approached as his attempt to frame himself in a narrative that has unfortunately persisted throughout decades and arguably centuries. Austin needs to feel as if he’s not alone in his struggle to understand his sexual and romantic compulsions, especially since the world he previously knew no longer exists. This effort to frame himself in a prolonged narrative of sexual struggle also explains why Austin is so drawn to the figure of Saint Kazimierz in the novel, for he is characterized as a young man who also dealt with the pressures and tortures of sexuality at an early age.

If you dislike spoilers or if you haven’t read the novel, you should stop reading here.

I’m deeply impressed with how the novel handles its representation of queer sexuality. Throughout most of novel, we are left wondering whether Austin will end up having to choose between the two loves of his life, and whether he will find a way to end his sexual confusion. However, in the novel’s epilogue, Austin affirms that he continues to love both Robby and Shann, and he ultimately refuses to comply with heteronormative models of kinship in a new, post-apocalyptic world. As he discloses about five years after the world has ended:

I continue to be torn between my love for Shann Collins and Robby Brees. But I no longer care to ask the question, What am I going to do?

Sometimes it is perfectly acceptable to decide not to decide, to remain confused and wide-eyed about the next thing that will pop up in the road you build. Shann does not like it. Robby Brees asks me to live with him. I stay in my own room, which I share with my strong Polish son, Arek, and we are very happy. (383)

Austin thus inhabits a new world with new rules–a world with new possibilities of being and existing. I find it interesting that Grasshopper Jungle presents the idea that it is only possible to embrace confusion and refute stable categorizations of identity once our current world ceases to exist. Although Austin laments everything left behind with the advent of a new history, he looks forward to the possibilities of being a New Human. It is often said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine a change in our current mode of existence. Smith’s novel boldly and brilliantly pushes us to envision a new mode of existence by obliterating the world that many of us know and (problematically) cherish. Grasshopper Jungle is a work that all young adult novels should aspire to be. Andrew Smith is now on my radar, and I’m really looking forward to his future works.

As always, your thoughts, comments, and opinions are more than welcome!

Work Cited

Smith, Andrew. Grasshopper Jungle: A History. New York: Dutton Books, 2014. Print.

You can purchase a copy of Smith’s novel by clicking here.

Praying mantis cover image by Bill & Mark Bell.

bannerya

Course Syllabus for “The Young Adult Novel” – University of Notre Dame

Here is the syllabus for a course that I designed on the Young Adult Novel. I will teach this course during the fall 2014 semester at the University of Notre Dame. I’m very excited about this course for various reasons–mostly because I finally get to teach the texts that I work with and that I love. This course is offered as an English 20XXX requirement, which is an English course for non-majors. I also managed to get the course cross-listed with the gender studies department–especially since class discussions will focus heavily on notions of sexuality and the body that are looming in YA fiction. As of now, 18 of my 19 students are seniors, and they all come from different concentrations such as marketing, biology, English, gender studies, American studies, and education

The most difficult thing about designing this course was the choice of novels to be discussed in class. I wanted to strive for a balance between male and female authors, and I also wanted students to familiarize themselves with books that either they haven’t encountered before, or books that blur the line between young adult literature and literature marketed to adults. Because of this, I feel that there is a lack of novels focused on issues of race and class, but I will certainly make sure to cover these issues during the semester.

As always, all comments and suggestions are more than welcome. You are welcome to draw inspiration from this syllabus, but please make sure to give me credit if you do so–and be sure to share your syllabus with me so I can see what you did similarly or differently! I hope you enjoy the course I’ve designed, and I will keep you posted with how everything is going as the semester unfolds.

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Queer Time in Edmund White’s [A Boy’s Own Story]

Front cover of Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story (1982)

Front cover of Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story (1982)

Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story is a coming-of-age novel centered on the sexual awakening of a queer teenage boy in the Midwest during the 1950s. The novel discusses topics such as the corruption of innocence, the pressures of masculinity in the lives of young boys, the emergence of childhood sexuality, and the exploration of humanity through the lens of homosexuality. The unnamed narrator of the novel quickly addresses the issues that he has in terms of his body and his sense of masculinity. He feels as if his “feminine” qualities–such as his voice, his mannerisms, and his overall attitudes– not only prevent him from bonding with other people, but that they also prevent him from obtaining any of the power that promised to those who embody the masculine myth. The narrator notices that everything from the way he sits to the way he acts marks his body as Other, and he even goes as far as to point out that he often fails small and meaningless quizzes used to assess his masculinity:

A popular quiz for masculinity in those days asked three questions, all of which I flunked: (1) Look at your nails (a girl extends her fingers, a boy cups his in his upturned palm); (2) Look up (a girl lifts her eyes, a boy throws back his whole head); (3) Light a match (a girl strikes away from her body, a boy toward–or perhaps the reverse, I can’t recall). (9)

The structure of this novel can seem slightly confusing, especially since it deviates from the traditional linear narrative that we have come to expect when reading coming-of-age novels. The first chapter, for instance, begins when the narrator is fifteen years-old. In this chapter, he painstakingly describes a relationship that he has with Kevin, the twelve year-old son of a guest that visits his summer home. In this chapter, the narrator describes how he paradoxically wants to be considered heterosexual while still being loved by a man. His relationship with Kevin slowly but surely starts to teach him how sex is not only a physical act, but how it is also a discursive act–leading him to realize that sex is also “a social rite that registered, even brought about shifts in the balance of power, but something that was discussed more than performed” (198). Because of this realization, he notices how performance and discourse shapes and forms his relationships with other men. For instance, he approaches Kevin as the “older” and more “dominant” person in the relationship because he is the more confident person of the two, and because he controls what happens during sexual intercourse:

I was chagrined by [his] clowning because I’d already imagined Kevin as a sort of husband. No matter that he was younger; his cockiness had turned him into the Older One (23).

The first chapter concludes by depicting how the narrator and Kevin part ways, and the second chapter goes back an entire year, allowing the narrator to discuss events that shaped who he is in his present day. Subsequent chapters go back in time even further, depicting events that the narrator encounters when he was twelve and seven years-old. The jumping back and forth between the past and the present not only disrupts the linearity of the coming-of-age narrative, but it also presents, as Elizabeth Freeman would put it, a manifestation of queer time. 

In Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Elizabeth Freeman describes queer time as a “hiccup in sequential time” that “has the capacity to connect a group of people beyond monogamous, enduring couplehood” (3). Furthermore, queer time allows queer subjects to envision alternative structures and forms of belonging, precisely because it deviates from the linearity and “productivity” of chrononormativity–in which human bodies arrange their time and bodies towards maximum productivity. In A Boy’s Own Story, queer time manifests through this combination of the past and the present, precisely because the narration deviates from the productive and generative elements that are closely associated with narratives of personal development. White, rather than depicting growth and development as sequential events, the narrator approaches them as fractured and disjointed processes. Rather than offering readers an equation, in which event 1, event 2, and event 3 equal the narrator, White disrupts temporality by beginning with event 3, going back to event 1, and covering the decimal points (small or micro events) that occur between these numbers. I think that this novel embraces queerness through it’s denial of both chronos (sequential time) and kairos (significant time), in favor of small non-sequential and non-significant time. This is particularly clear in the fourth chapter of the novel, in which the narrator breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader:

in writing one draws in the rest, the forgotten parts. One even composes one’s improvisations into a quite new face never glimpsed before, the likeness of an invention. Busoni once said he prizes the most those empty passages composers make up to get from one “good part” to another. He said such womanlike but minor transitions reveal more about a composer–the actual vernacular of his imagination–than the deliberately bravura moments. I say all this by way of hoping that the lies I’ve made up to get from one poor truth to another may mean something–may even mean something most particular to you, my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader, willing to make so much of so little, more patient and more respectful of life, or a life, than the author you’re allowing for a moment to exist again. (84)

I believe that this passage is quite significant, because it highlights the role that queer time plays in the novel’s political agenda. By disrupting linearity and by painstakingly focusing on minor events, the reader must develop patience and spend more time concentrating on the narrator’s words rather than on major events. The narrator affirms that by reading his words, the reader becomes not only more respectful of the narrator’s life, but the reader also brings the narrator back into existence. Therefore, through the act of reading, one gives the narrator a sense of legitimacy that was denied to him during his childhood. This interpretation gains even more validity when taking into account that most of the novel is focused on the narrator’s struggle to survive in his society, and even more so, his struggle to be approached and categorized as a legitimate human being. The narrator, for instance, acknowledged that he has little time to focus on “theory” or “philosophy” because he is too busy focusing on pragmatic aspects of his life such as survival. This notion is evidenced when the narrator compares himself to his jockish friend, Tom, who spends most of his time daydreaming and philosophizing:

Ironic, then, that [Tom] was the one who did all the thinking, who had the taste for philosophy–ironic but predictable, since his sovereignty gave him the ease to wonder about what it all meant, whereas I had to concentrate on means, not meaning. The meaning seemed quite clear: to survive and then to become popular. (113)

Although popularity may at first be approached as a self-centered and selfish goal, it is important to keep in mind that the narrator believes that popularity will give him the recognition and the legitimacy that he has been denied in his life, not only because he is queer, but also because he is unable to situate himself within the frame of traditional masculinity that his father upholds. Popularity would give the narrator the means to become a legitimate person rather than an unreal subject:

Being popular was equivalent to becoming a character, perhaps even a person, since if to be is to be perceived, then to be perceived by many eyes and with envy, interest, respect, or affection is to exist more densely, more articulately, ever last detail minutely observed and thereby richly rendered. (127)

All in all, A Boy’s Own Story is a rich and provocative novel that definitely raises interesting insights in terms of the role that temporality plays within the issues of livability that haunt all queer lives. The narrative is at times convoluted and difficult to follow, but getting lost is definitely an essential component towards grasping the novel’s central themes and agenda.

You can purchase a copy of White’s novel by clicking here.

 

Works Cited

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

White, Edmund. A Boy’s Own Story. New York: Plume, 1982. Print.

 

 

lineofbeautycover

Fact Versus Fiction: Alan Hollinghurst’s [The Line of Beauty]

Front cover of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty (2004)

Front cover of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (2004)

I find it so easy to get lost in the elegance and artistry of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. I originally planned to read this book in a day or two, but it took me a while longer simply because I was so enthralled and moved by the novel’s baroque descriptions and its aesthetic focus on issues pertaining to gayness and queerness during the 1980s. Blurring the lines between gay historical fiction, the Bildungsroman, and the novel of mannersThe Line of Beauty explores the lines that divide British upper-class and middle-class society, and the relationship between homosexual identity and class during the conservative boom in the United Kingdom under the rule of  Margaret Thatcher. Even more so, Hollinghurst’s novel offers readers an opportunity to examine the heartbreaking effects of AIDS during the rise of the disease.

The novel centers on the life and experiences of Nick Guest in his early twenties, as he graduates from Oxford University and begins a postgraduate degree in English at another university–where he specializes on the issue of style in the works of Henry James. Nick becomes close friends with Toby and Catherine, who are the children of Gerald Fedden, a wealthy Member of the British Parliament. Although Toby and Nick are best friends, Nick becomes very close and intimate with Catherine, a manic-depressive. Because of Nick’s ability to understand and help Catherine, Gerald invites Nick to stay in his mansion so that he can keep a watchful eye over his daughter. Nick stays at the Fedden residence for four years; here, he not only learns about the radical differences that exist between the lavish lifestyle of the Feddens and his own middle-class upbringing, but he also begins to explore his gay identity by dating  an older and much more experienced black council worker named Leo. Although Nick is out to the Fedden family, the issue of homosexuality instills a sense of discomfort in Gerald and his wife, Rachel. The family’s attitude towards homosexuality is made apparent early in the novel, when the family discusses the case of Hector Maltby, a junior minister of the Foreign Office who was caught having sex with a rent boy in his Jaguar:

The story had been all over the papers last week, and it was silly of Nick to feel as self-conscious as he suddenly did, blushing as if he’d been caught in a Jaguar himself. It was often like this when the homosexual subject came up, and even in the Fedden’s tolerant kitchen he stiffened in apprehension about what might carelessly be said–some indirect insult to swallow, a joke to be weakly smiled at. (22)

The residents of the Fedden estate are characterized not only by their social hypocrisy, but also by their silences: by refusing to talk of certain issues, they strive to act as if said issues are minor, non-consequential, and non-existent. As a matter of fact, Nick is characterized by his penchant for concealing or hiding information to assure that certain perceptions or attitudes are upheld in the Fedden residence. For instance, at the beginning of the novel, Nick discovers that Catherine, who has already attempted to harm herself, has been storing sharp tools within her bedroom. Rather than discussing this detail with Catherine’s parents, he decides to keep this information concealed to avoid upsetting Gerald and Rachel when they return from their trip. Nick not only conceals truths that he believes will upset the Fedden family, but he also has issues when it comes to separating fact from fiction–which leads to the manifestation of the vicious cycles that are so characteristic of postmodern texts:

In the course of their long conversations about men he had let one or two of his fantasies assume the status of fact, had lied a little, and had left some of Catherine’s assumptions about him unchallenged. His confessed but entirely imaginary seductions took on–partly through the special effort required to invent them and repeat them consistently–the quality of real memories. (24)

Sometimes his memory of books he pretended to have read became almost as vivid as books he had read and half-forgotten, by some fertile process of auto-suggestion. (48)

As evidenced above, Nick not only strives to conceal truth to uphold his social image, but he also fabricates stories to uphold a socially appealing facade. He frets when it comes to revealing his lack of knowledge or his lack of sexual experience–to the point where his fabrications become entirely real to him, or even worse, to the point where he deliberately forgets or represses truths about himself. This is perhaps most apparent when the novel, which is comprised of three parts, transitions from part one to part two. Part one, which takes place in 1983, concludes with Nick and Leo sleeping together in the Fedden’s house. The second part of the book takes place three years later, and it begins with a description of Nick’s affair with Wani Ouradi, a multi-millionaire of Lebanese descent who is engaged to a woman. This temporal leap leaves a gap in the narrative of the story. As readers, we have no clue what happened between Leo and Nick during this three-year span–all we are sure of is that they are no longer together, and that Nick’s relationship with Wani is masochistic and unhealthy. Not only is Wani into promiscuous and unsafe sex with strangers, but he is also addicted to porn and cocaine, and he is also deeply closeted. Nick, however, remains by Wani’s side not because the relationship is practical, but rather, because Wani is beautiful. This connects to one of the novel’s main themes, in which appearances trump pragmatics and livability. This desire for beauty and for appearance ultimately affects Nick’s ability to face his own truths, as is seen in the instance in which he encounters Wani seducing a stranger:

He went across the room and put the car keys down on the side table, and when he looked back Ricky and Wani were snogging, nothing had been said, there were sighs of consent, a moment’s glitter of saliva before a shockingly tender second kiss. Nick gave a breathy laugh, and looked away, in the grip of a misery unfelt since childhood, and too fierce and shaming to be allowed to last. (173)

Later on in the novel, Nick finds out that Leo has died due to AIDS-related complications. As Leo’s sister tells Nick the news, he at first wants to lie to her by stating that Leo dumped him, but he recognizes that this lie would seem petty, especially when considering the fact that Leo is no longer alive. Although Nick convinces himself that Leo was seeing someone else, we realize that he develops this “memory” to conceal the fact that he broke up with Leo soon after finding out that he was sick– “to screen a glimpse he’d had of a much worse story, that Leo was ill” (350). It becomes clear at this point that the three-year gap in the novel represents Nick’s unwillingness to deal with or recall the truths behind his relationship with Leo. Leo’s illness, in Nick’s eyes, would corrupt his beauty and make him imperfect, which is why he pursues a relationship with the physically flawless and beautiful Wani. However, towards the conclusion of the novel, it is revealed that Wani is also dying of AIDS-related complications–thus forcing Nick to meet truth face-to-face, while simultaneously forcing him to confront the realities of his own life.

I find it interesting that Catherine, the manic-depressive sisterly figure of the novel, is represented as the only person capable of dealing with truth and looking beyond the lies fabricated by her peers. For instance, when one of her friends, Pat, dies of AIDS, her family desperately tries to conceal that he died of this illness to prevent themselves being associated with a so-called “gay-related” disease. Catherine, however, forces the family to face the truth about Pat’s death, even though this confrontation leads to public shame and embarrassment. She later tries to convince Nick that “People are lovely because we love them, not the other way round” (304), to make him realize how toxic his relationship with Wani truly is, and to prove to him that the value that we bestow to people and objects should be based on more than just aesthetics. Catherine ultimately induces both the downfall of Nick and of her father, by revealing truths to the press: she not only reveals the fact that her father is having an affair with another woman, but she also reveals how Nick and Wani’s affair is taking place within the Fedden household–thus collapsing the differences between the gay and the straight world upheld by the Fedden family. The novel isn’t explicit of whether Catherine’s thirst for truth is triggered by her depression, or whether her depression was caused by her desire for truth in a mendacious environment–but it is interesting to observe how a character with a non-normative state of mind is able to look beyond the social masks and constructs that haunt the lives of these characters.

I love this novel. It is dense, thematically rich, and it is full of gaps and plot holes. It is not an easy novel to read or follow, but it excels at portraying the triumphs and failures of characters who are enticed and enslaved by the pursuit of beauty, even at the cost of truth, pragmatism, and reality. I also appreciate how this novel uses pastiche in order to invoke historical conceptions of AIDS in a contemporary platform–especially since discussions of AIDS have unfortunately diminished since the normativization of the disease due to the advent of anti-viral medications.

What are your thoughts or impressions of this novel? Feel free to add to this conversation!

You can purchase a copy of Hollinghurst’s novel by clicking here.

Work Cited

Hollinghurst, Alan. The Line of Beauty. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004. Print (hardcover edition).

waovfcover

The Lying Game: Edward Albee’s [Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?]

Originally performed in 1962, Edward Albee’s dark comedy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, centers on the collapsing marriage of George, a middle-aged history professor who works at a university in New England, and Martha, the daughter of the university’s president who is six years older than George. The play opens with George and Martha arriving home at 2:00 a.m. from a faculty party–where they wait for the arrival of Nick, a newly hired biology professor, and his wife, Honey. The first act of the play focuses significantly on the violent and volatile relationship between George and Martha. Their conversations are almost always antagonistic in nature, and most of their discourse is characterized by being spiteful, bitter, and fraudulent. Even more so, their banter is explicitly approached as a “game” designed to toy around with the emotions of other people. Nick and Honey’s seemingly normal and flawless marriage, at first, seems to provide a contrast to the unstable relationship between George and Martha. However, the games that George and Martha play ultimately bring out the ugly truths and moral blemishes that both couples desperately try to conceal.

The word game is a very appropriate term to invoke when approaching the interactions between these characters. First and foremost, dialogue manifests in the play as a competition between the characters. Not only do George and Martha compete to see who can do more damage with stories and words, but all the characters bicker (constantly, I might add) about what words are the most appropriate to use in conversation. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, it seems that the goal of this competition is to see who is or isn’t able to uphold an image of perfection. Since upholding such an image is nearly impossible, the stage becomes an arena where all characters strive to tarnish the image and perception of the other characters. For instance, Martha constantly brings up George’s failures in life and in academia as points of conversation–she alludes to George’s inability to follow her father’s footsteps, his failure to obtain an administrative role in the university, and she even points out how George was unable to publish his novel (due to its violent nature) because it would tarnish the university’s reputation. On the other hand, George constantly brings up Martha’s infidelity, and he exposes other disastrous truths, such as the fact that Nick married Honey only because he thought she was pregnant, and the fact that Honey is an alcoholic who has no interest in bearing any children.

As a character, George serves as the agent who constantly up the ante in terms of the precarious nature of the games that he plays. At one point of the play, after being embarrassed and ridiculed by Martha when she discusses how she knocked George down during a boxing match, he grabs a  short-barreled shotgun and points it at Martha’s head. In a moment of black humor, it turns out that the shotgun is a gag pistol that only shoots out a flag. Although we feel relief that the gun isn’t real, this revelation does not dissipate the tension invoked during this scene. We suspect that George really possesses the potential to hurt or kill Martha–a suspicion that turns out to be true in the scene in which George strangles Martha after she discusses his inability to publish the novel he has written (p. 138). It is in this moment that the violent nature of their discourse reifies as actual violence–leading readers/spectators to question the “playful” nature of the game that is taking place.

Mendacity reigns supreme as the play’s plot unfolds. George and Martha, for instance, constantly refer to their imaginary child–although we are led to believe that their son actually exists, it is revealed towards the end of the play that they “couldn’t have” (239) any children. This fabrication increases the voltage of the tension that exists in their marriage. George and Martha view this imaginary child as a force that keeps their marriage intact; referring to the child becomes a game in and of itself. The rule of this game, however, is that they can never refer to the child to anyone other than themselves–a rule that Martha breaks at the beginning of the play: “You broke our rule, baby. You mentioned him . . . you mentioned him to someone else” (237). The reason that this rule is imposed is because it is a lie that would be difficult to defend and uphold since it is not hinged on reality in any way. As soon as Martha mentions the existence of a child to Nick and Honey, the couple argues about their child’s basic facts and traits, especially in terms of his physical appearance:

MARTHA (To George)

Our son does not have blue hair . . . or blue eyes, for that matter. He has green eyes . . . like me.

GEORGE

He has blue eyes, Martha.

MARTHA (Determined)

Green.

GEORGE

Blue, Martha.

MARTHA (Ugly)

GREEN! (To HONEY and NICK) He has the loveliest green eyes . . . they aren’t flaked with brown and gray, you know . . . hazel . . . they’re real green . . . deep, pure green eyes . . . like mine.

NICK (Peers)

Your eyes are . . . brown, aren’t they? (p. 75)

In this instance, the child’s existence as a game becomes even more obvious. The child induces discussions of a schizophrenic nature: Martha and George approach the child as a reflection of their ideal selves, and even more so, they approach the child as a scapegoat figure meant to absorb the tensions that exist between them. Rather than dealing with their problems in an explicit and honest fashion, they express their problems through the medium of the imaginary child. The child is simultaneously a son who reaches out to the father instead of the mother because he is looking for “advice, for information, for love that wasn’t mixed with sickness” while also being a son “so ashamed of his father he asked [Martha] once if it–possibly–wasn’t true, as he had heard, from some cruel boys, maybe, that he was not [their] child” (226). In due course, it becomes clear that they weren’t supposed to talk about the child with other people for it would force themselves and others to confront how truth is twisted and fabricated by the couple. This avoidance is impossible because it is based on trying to create a sense of organization within an environment that thrives on chaos, as George makes quite clear in the play:

You take the trouble to construct a civilization . . . to . . . to build a society, based on the principles of . . . of principle . . . you endeavor to make communicable sense out of natural order, morality out of the unnatural disorder of man’s mind . . . you make government and art, and realize that they are, must be, both the same . . . you bring things to the saddest of all points . . . to the point where there is something to lose . . .then all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes the Dies Irae. (117)

Towards the conclusion of the play, all of the characters are not only forced to confront the information that they have deliberately concealed, but they also come face-to-face with the inability of constructions to fully support the weight of their realities. Despite the image that they try to convey to the world, they cannot escape the grip of veracity. Even more so, both couples realize that they cannot comply with the stipulations and expectations of grand narratives such as marriage and family: both marriages in the play are unable to uphold an image or harmony and perfection, both unions are sterile in that they won’t produce offspring (thus challenging associations of family and futurity), and furthermore, love is not the element that brought these people together. The play shows the lengths that people go through to comply with grand narratives while simultaneously overthrowing the validity of these narratives in the first place. Their games, their lives, are based on constructed ideas and ideals that do not necessarily reflect the reality or the truth of their situations.

The play strikingly concludes with Martha confessing that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf. Her fear is completely grounded and rational because Virginia Woolf knows. After all, Woolf’s works are known for their use of uncensored stream of consciousness, in which readers gain an all-access look into the thoughts that are running through a character’s head. Unlike the world of George and Martha, Virginia Woolf’s world holds little room for secrets, and even less room for contortions of truth or reality. The figure, or better said, the idea of Virginia Woolf would be able to look beyond the game that these characters desperately try to play.

You can purchase a copy of Albee’s play by clicking here.

Work Cited

Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? New York: Scribner Classics, 2003. Print (hardcover edition).

Relativity

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.

Truth and Mendacity in Tennessee Williams’ [Cat on a Hot Tin Roof]

Front cover of Tennessee Williams' [Cat on a Hot Tin Roof] (1955)

Front cover of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)

What do you know about this mendacity thing? Hell! I could write a book on it! Don’t you know that? I could write a book on it and still not cover the subject? Well, I could, I could write a goddam book on it and still not cover the subject anywhere near enough!!–Think of all the lies I got to put up with!–Pretenses! Ain’t that mendacity? Having to pretend stuff you don’t think or feel or have  any idea of? (80)

Mendacity. Lies. Deceit. Untruthfulness. Regardless of how you name this concept, it is one that silently governs over all of our lives and our actions. Mendacity is the core theme of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play entitled Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The play brilliantly illustrates the extent to which humans twist, shape, destroy, or downright ignore truth to comply with socio-cultural demands and expectations. The passage above highlights one of the character’s (Big Daddy) views on the concept of mendacity, going as far as to approach untruthfulness as an ordinary and part of human nature. Mendacity is not presented as a choice or even as a viable option by this character–it is presented as a phenomenon that we have “to put up with.”

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof takes place in Big Daddy’s plantation in the Mississippi Delta. Big Daddy is the owner of a cotton business, and he also owns thousands of acres of fertile land in this area. Most of Big Daddy’s family is reunited at the estate to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday, and right from the opening of the play, the reader is immersed into a web of lies that tangles and distorts truth, objectivity, and even compassion. In the first act, it is revealed that Big Daddy is dying from a case of terminal cancer–however, Big Daddy’s children decide to conceal his condition by informing him that his lab results came back clean.

This crisis overlaps with the play’s central tension, which focuses on the unhappy relationship between Big Daddy’s son, Brick, and his wife, Maggie. After the suicide of his best friend, Skipper, Brick becomes an alcoholic, he loses all sexual interest in his wife, and he shows no interest in work or in hobbies other than drinking. Brick is at odds with his brother, Gooper, because the latter is interested in inheriting the father’s estate and fortune–claiming that it would be irresponsible to bestow all that land to an alcoholic who has no children. The play concludes with Maggie announcing that she’s pregnant (yet another lie) to assure that she and her husband obtain part of Big Daddy’s estate after he dies.

I found it interesting that this play tethers the notions of truth and queerness quite effectively. In the section entitled “Notes for the Designer,” Williams strenuously tries to convey not only how the set should look, but also the atmosphere that the set should convey. Williams describes how the room that Brick and Maggie share used to belong to a gay couple, and how the energy of their relationship continues to “haunt” and affect the dynamics of the room in strange ways. As the opening of the play states, the room

hasn’t changed much since it was occupied by the original owners of the place, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, a pair of old bachelors who shared this room all their lives together. In other words, the room must evoke some ghosts; it is gently and poetically haunted by a relationship that must have involved a tenderness which was uncommon. (xiii)

Even though the relationship between Straw and Ochello wasn’t openly discussed, Williams approaches their partnership as a force that continues to constitute part of the play’s space and atmosphere. Similar to truth, even when queerness is suppressed or contained by the play’s characters, it still finds a way to show or express itself. The queerness that haunts the room manifests in Brick’s character, mostly because every other character assumes that Skipper’s suicide has affected Brick so immensely because they were romantically interested (or perhaps, involved) with each other. Not only does Big Daddy inquire whether Brick and Skipper were lovers, but Brick’s wife, Maggie, goes as far as to posit that the lack of tolerance for queer relationships in their society is the factor that ultimately drove Skipper to kill himself. Skipper tries to sleep with Maggie to prove his heterosexuality, but fails to do so. This failure pushes Maggie to force Skipper to confront the truth about his feelings towards Brick:

I destroyed [Skipper], by telling him the truth that he and his world which he was born and raised in, yours and his world, had told him could not be told? (45)

Brick desperately tries to deny that he and Skipper were romantically involved, and at first, he confesses to his father that he and Skipper had a falling-out due to the fact that Brick was unwilling to reciprocate Skipper’s romantic and sexual feelings towards him. Big Daddy has an honest chat with Brick, telling him how he is the person who carries the most guilt because of mendacity–especially since Big Daddy believes that Brick has been lying to himself about his true feelings towards Skipper:

we’ve tracked down the lie with which you’re disgusted and which you are drinking to kill your disgust with, Brick. You been passing the buck. This disgust with mendacity is disgust with yourself.

You!–dug the grave of your friend and kicked him in it!–before you’d face truth with him! (92)

I find this conversation between father and son very interesting. Not only is the father trying to find out the reasons why Brick drinks, but he is also trying to help Brick identify the root of his pain and torment. By stating that Brick’s mendacity led to Skipper’s demise and death, the father places attention not on his son’s potential homosexuality, but rather, on his son’s dishonesty. Brick continues to deny the truths that his father openly discusses, claiming that the truth under question is Skipper’s truth, not his own. Big Daddy, however, argues that even if Skipper’s truth was the factor that led to his demise, it doesn’t change the fact that Brick refused to “face [Skipper’s truth] with him” (92). This accusation leads Brick to tell Big Daddy the truth about his cancer, and how his family has been lying to him to protect his feelings. After both Brick and his father are forced to face the realities of their lives, Brick proceeds to make one of the most intriguing confessions of the play:

Maybe it’s being alive that makes them lie, and being almost not alive makes me sort of accidentally truthful–I don’t know but–anyway–we’ve been friends . . .

–And being friends is telling each other the truth . . .

[There is a pause.]

You told me! I told you! (94-95)

Brick’s passionate confession points out two very important points. First, reiterating Big Daddy’s ideas of the nature of mendacity (pointed out in the first block quote of this blog post), Brick also seems to believe that lying is an part of living, and that the two phenomena cannot exist without each other–lying is living, living is lying. Secondly, this passage highlights the possibility that truth is only accessible to those who reside beyond the parameters of the living. Brick barely has a life because he is an alcoholic, and Big Daddy’s life has a definite expiration date due to his cancer. Thus, both of these characters are situated in liminal positions, where they inhabit the space between living and dying. I find it interesting that a queering of the divide between life and death is approached, in the play, as the only way of accessing truth–especially when taking into consideration that Brick and Big Daddy are the only characters who confront and embrace veracity.

I would consider this play very postmodern in terms of its exploration of the impossibility of truth and constructions of selfhood based on untruthfulness. These characters have the opportunity to embrace truth, but they deny doing so to comply with socio-cultural demands and expectations. What I find particularly interesting, though, is that this play presents an instance in which non-normative, liminal characters are presented as the only individuals capable of invoking truth and honesty in other people, even though they are incapable of dealing with their own truths and realities. Is queerness (non-normativity, anti-binaristic thinking) thus the solution to mendacity? This is definitely an idea that is worth exploring.

You can purchase a copy of Williams’ play by clicking here.

Work Cited

Williams, Tennessee. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Chicago: Signet Books, 1955. Print.

coverblackwater

What is Gay Literature? The Case of Colm Tóibín’s [The Blackwater Lightship]

Jeanette Winterson, author of the celebrated novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruittakes a rather defensive stance when asked if she considers Oranges to be a lesbian novel. She explicitly addresses this question in her personal website by answering it in the negative:

No. [Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is] for anyone interested in what happens at the frontiers of common-sense. Do you stay safe or do you follow your heart? I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers. That said, I’m really glad the book has made a difference to so many young women.

Winterson’s answer strikes into the heart of a question that has perplexed me for some time: what is, and more importantly, what is not gay literature? Part of the difficulties of answering this question stem from the fact that the term gay literature can either allude to a work’s readership (as Winterson implies in her answer), its themes, its characters, or perhaps a combination of these elements. Whereas some works tend to unanimously be approached as prime examples of LGBTQ literature–as in the case of novels such as Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle and E.M. Forster’s Maurice–other works complicate the ease of categorizing a text as such.

Good examples of this complication are most of the works of David Sedaris–particularly his collections of autobiographical essays such as Me Talk Pretty One Day and NakedThese essay collections usually discuss gay themes quite prominently: Sedaris depicts the hardships of growing up gay, he talks about his partner constantly, and he openly discusses how he is perceived as effeminate by his teachers and friends. Despite the presence of these themes and characters, Sedaris’ works are typically not approached as gay literature. Sedaris’ works are also read by a massive mainstream audience–people will literary pay to attend a Sedaris reading. Does the genre define the audience, or does the audience define the genre?  Is LGBTQ literature completely audience-based, or is there more at stake when approaching a group of literary texts under the guise of this category?

The questions that surface when approaching this genre do not stop here. Does the presence of a queer character in a literary work automatically make it a gay literature? If a work is approached as a gay one, does this pose any restrictions on the novel’s readership or audience? While I completely understand the cultural and marketing reasons why Winterson denies approaching Oranges as a lesbian novel–this novel is almost always alluded to when speaking of well-known LGBTQ fiction. Trying to pin down parameters used to classify a work as gay literature is no easy task–we are dealing with a very queer genre here.

The difficulties of pinning down the genre of LGBTQ fiction and of creating a queer canon can also be attributed to two other factors: the relative novelty of gay fiction within the entire scope of literary history, and furthermore, the queerness of the genre itself. In terms of its novelty, literature with explicitly queer themes or characters was not produced in Western culture until the twentieth century, with the advent of works written by Forster, James Baldwin, and Christopher Isherwood, among others. Keep in mind that queerness and queer sexualities were definitely encoded in texts before the gay literary boom, however, it was not until the mid-twentieth century that we began to see the emergence of a group of texts that could be explicitly categorized as LGBTQ literary works.

This questioning of the factors that shape the genre of LGBTQ literature was recently sparked after I finished reading Colm Tóibín’s 1999 novel entitled The Blackwater Lightship–mostly because I’ve had difficulties assessing whether it is a gay novel. The novel has a central queer character, which at first seems to be a good enough reason to approach it as a gay novel. However, the main themes and tensions present in this work are triggered through the queer character’s presence, but they are not exactly centered on this queer character per se. 

Front cover of Colm Tóibín's The Blackwater Nightship (2004 edition)

Front cover of Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Nightship (2004 edition)

This novel focuses mostly on the strenuous relationship between Helen and her mother Lily, and their efforts to repair their relationship after Helen’s brother, Declan, reveals that he is dying of AIDS. Declan’s impending death serves at the catalyst that forces Helen to reunite with her mother after a nearly ten-year hiatus–and it also forces Declan’s family to come into contact with his rather private queer life. After his revelation, Declan’s family and his close gay friends spend a week living together in the house that belongs to Helen’s grandmother. During this time, the characters come face-to-face with Declan’s declining health, Helen and Lily struggle to repair their relationship, and Lily tries to comprehend why Declan shares an intense connection with his friends and not with his family.

The novel, although told in the third person, is distilled through Helen’s thoughts and perspectives. The novel opens in Helen’s home, where she interacts with her husband and her two children; the novel concludes in this same location, albeit centered on Helen’s first interaction with her mother in her house. Not only has Lily never visited Helen’s home, but she has also not met Helen’s husband or her own grandchildren due to the estranged relationship that she and her daughter share. The novel weaves a narrative focused on the past and the present–Helen’s interactions with her mother and her dying brother force her to think about and retell the reasons why their family is so estranged to begin with.

Among the past events that Helen recalls, significant attention is placed on the death of her father. While her father was being treated for cancer, Helen and Declan lived with their grandmother. Lily stays with her husband at the hospital, never bothering to visit her children or to abandon her husband’s side. The distance between Helen and her mother widens after her father dies–pushing a teenage Helen to interpret her mother’s absence as abandonment. In their efforts to cope with Declan’s declining health, Helen and Lily reach a degree of closeness that they haven’t experienced in years. The novel culminates with the mother and daughter expressing a desire to spend more time with each other.

Even though the events mentioned above comprise the core narrative of the novel, The Blackwater Lightship also places significant attention on queer themes, issues and characters, particularly in its depiction alternative, non-normative forms of kindship, and in its depiction of queer subversion. Declan’s declining health due to AIDS puts him in a position in which he is forced to come out to his mother and his grandmother. Declan’s deteriorating health is described with much detail, which verges on the point of discomfort. Interestingly, Declan’s gay friends, Paul and Larry, are shown to be better caregivers than his actual family due to the fact that they were present in his life during the advent of the syndrome. Paul and Larry also seem to know more about Declan’s life than his own mother and sister. At one point, Paul and Lily have a heated argument that manifests when Paul interferes in Lily’s attempts to comfort her son–which prompts Lily to kick Paul out of her mother’s home. Paul confronts Lily by stating the following:

I’m here as long as Declan is here and you can take that written in stone, and I’m here because he asked me to be here, and when he asked me to be here he used words and phrases and sentences about you which were not edifying and which I will not repeat. He is also concerned about you and loves you and wants your approval. He is also very sick. So stop feeling sorry for yourself, Mrs. Breen. Declan stays here, I stay here, Larry stays here. One of us goes, we all go, and if you don’t believe me, ask Declan. (223)

As seen above, Declan, Paul, and Larry can be approached as a family–even though none of them are romantically involved, these three men understand each other, and unlike Declan’s family, they stick together and they do not abandon each other even when things get rough. The novel explores the importance of this alternate form of kinship in the lives of queer subjects–a theme that is present in many texts categorized as LGBTQ literature. This is not the only instance in which the notion of family is queered. A moment  that particularly caught my attention was the instance in which Paul tells Helen how a Catholic priest performed a secret marriage ceremony for him and his partner, François:

He changed into his vestments and said Mass and gave us Communion and then he married us. He used the word “spouse” instead of husband and wife. He had it all prepared. He was very solemn and serious. And we felt the light of the Holy Spirit on us, even though Declan thought this was the maddest thing he’d ever heard… (173)

The novel presents not only alternative forms of kinship, but it even goes as far as to present a queer subversion of normative institutions such as religion and marriage. What we see in the case of The Blackwater Lightship is an instance in which gay themes and characters are implemented within a narrative not only to serve as a foil to other characters in the novel, but to ultimately queer heternomative manifestations like the nuclear family. One cannot help but compare the relationship that Declan has with his friends with the central relationship of the novel between Helen and her mother. The message of the novel is clear: blood is definitely not thicker than water.

Given all the above, can we, and more importantly, should we approach The Blackwater Lightship as an example of gay literature? Although the answer to this question is still somewhat fuzzy, I think it’s important to bear in mind that when we categorize a work as such, we have to look beyond matters of audience, and we also have to take more than just the characters, the plot, or the work’s themes into consideration. When it comes to approaching a literary work as gay (or as any other category within the LGBTQ spectrum), we must keep in mind not only the work’s elements, but even more importantly, the work’s aims, purposes, and its alignment towards non-normativity and queer livability.

What are your thoughts on LGBTQ literature? What makes a literary work gay? What criteria must we keep in mind when categorizing a novel as LGBTQ fiction? Please share your thoughts and opinions below!

Work Cited

Tóibín, Colm. The Blackwater Lightship. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print (Paperback edition).