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Trading Spaces: Gay Markers of Urbanity and NBC’s Will & Grace

In her discussion on “Queer in the Great City,” Julie Abraham exemplifies the ontological associations that exist between homosexuality and urbanity. Abraham argues that queer people are culturally approached as signifiers that represent the differences between urban and rural spaces, and more specifically, she claims that their very presence “marks a place as properly urban” (290). Abraham attests that the transition of “gays from urban saviors to urban signs” (293) is due not only to the aforementioned ontological association, but also to the reinvention of the city “as a site of noneconomic values” (293) and the increasing linkage between gayness and consumption. Abraham points out that flânerie, sex, institutions and domestic life are ways (at least in fiction) in which it is possible to frustrate homosexuality as an urban place marker—though she does not elaborate on how this is accomplished.

Novelists still write about gay and lesbian lives in those cities, as do University of Chicago sociologists. Offering elaborate portraits of queer urbanity, these works resist the reduction of homosexuals to urban place markers, whether their subjects are flânerie, as in Samuel Delany’s Time Square Red, Times Square Blue or Edmund White’s The Flâneur (2001); sex, as in Edward O. Laumann and his colleagues’ Chicago study The Sexual Organization of the City (2004); politics and institutions, as in Davina Cooper’s Sexing the City (1994), on London and Manchester, and Moira Rachel Kenney’s Mapping Gay L.A. (2001); or marriage and domestic life, as in Armistead Maupin’s return to his tales of San Francisco with Michael Tolliver Lives (2007). (Abraham 297-298)

Furthermore, she does not explore how self-awareness of one’s status as a queer marker or urbanity allows gays to recover their standing as political actors.  Through this discussion, I hope to add richness to Abraham’s phenomenal discussion on gay cities by exploring further alternatives for refusing homosexuality as a signifier of urbanity, particularly as depicted in an episode of Will & Grace.

In the Will & Grace episode entitled “Sour Balls,” Jack and Will (two of the show’s main gay characters) consider purchasing a house in Middleborough, New York, which Jack describes as the city’s “next big hot gay getaway.” While visiting the house, they soon realize that Jack confused Middleborough, NY with Middleborough, New Hampshire, and they decide to leave without buying it. As they attempt to leave the house, they soon become surrounded by neighbors—a group of oddball characters that celebrate the possibility of gay men moving into the area because “When the gays come, the property values shoot up. And they fill the place with cute restaurants and adorable shops.”

The citizens of Middleborough, NY, attempt to stop the markers of urbanity (Jack and Will) from leaving their neighborhood.

Jack and Will, two gay men who come from the urban metropolis of Manhattan, are viewed by the townsfolk as what Abraham would call “icons of an authentic urbanity” (289). The townsfolk believe that the presence of gay men would stimulate “the revival of, an authentic (that is, modern) urbanism” (Abraham 290) in a town desperately in need of economic and social development. After Jack and Will mention that they have no plans of purchasing the house, the neighbors respond by stating that “some people might not take kindly to gays moving out of the neighborhood.”

The neighborhood tries to prevent Will and Jack from escaping the house. The house is surrounded by people throwing “gay” foods such as quiche, banana bread, and jam through the house’s window. The house is also surrounded by a high school marching band playing a perpetual loop of “We Are Family,” and an angry mob of townsfolk holding scented candles in lieu of torches. This scene is illuminating when approached through the lens of Abraham’s discussion, for there is an entire community of people who attempt to trap two gay men in a house through the use of material signifiers of urban homosexuality. The neighborhood’s desire for what Abraham calls the “romance” of the gay community is so strong that those who desire the queer signifiers become the signifiers themselves.

As Jack and Will become increasingly horrified at the coercion of the townsfolk, Will decides to intervene by stating that the neighbors “can fix up this town and make it fabulous all on [their] own!” Will embodies a “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” persona and lures the neighbors blocking the front door into the bathroom, in order to show them how he “upgraded [it] in half an hour.” Once the neighborly “guards” enter the bathroom, Will and Jack lock the door and make their escape. Thus, Will and Jack avoid their positionality as markers of urbanity and modernity by usurping the very characteristics that attempted to define them as such.

“Sour Balls” depicts an instance in which gay men recognize how they are being viewed as markers of gay urbanity, and how they thwart this signification by performing the very acts that are expected from them. It is interesting to observe how popular culture represents and challenges the issue of gays as desirable amenities—and how these representations offer concrete, albeit exaggerated, solutions for breaking this queer and urban chain of signification.

Works Cited

Abraham, Julie. “Queer in the Great City.” Metropolitan Lovers: The Homosexuality of Cities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print.

“Sour Balls.” Will  Grace: Season Seven. Writ. Laura Kightlinger. Dir. James Burrows. NBC, 2007. DVD.

Cover Image

Cleveland Rainbow Terminal Tower by Koji Kawano.

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Unrealistic Expectations: (Meta)Narrative in Andrew Smith’s [Winger]

Front cover of Andrew Smith's Winger (2013)

Front cover of Andrew Smith’s Winger (2013)

Warning: The following post contains major spoilers for Andrew Smith’s Winger. 

After reading Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, I immediately knew that I had to read other works written by this author–and Winger seemed like the obvious choice. I finished reading Winger a couple of weeks ago. Typically, I write analyses and reviews of books soon after I read them, but for this novel, I needed time to process many things, including the novel’s “unexpected” twist and its narrative framing. I guess it’s also important to mention that I reacted quite viscerally to the novel’s ending. At first, I approached the death of Ryan Dean’s gay best friend, Joey, as narratively pointless. I was frustrated that so little attention was given to this event in the novel’s conclusion, and I was upset that the death seemed like a dramatic and rushed way of ending the narrative. I read other reviews of this novel, and many other readers approached the ending in a similar fashion. Although I had a stark reaction to the novel’s ending, I felt as if there was a major element that I was missing when approaching Smith’s work.

I ultimately messaged the author, and asked why the novel had such a dark twist. Andrew Smith kindly responded to my question, and he pointed out how careful attention should be given to the novel’s use of metanarratives–which in the case of Winger, refers to the moments in which the narrator discusses the purpose or function of reading, writing, and literature itself. Although Winger can be approached as a coming-of-age novel, it is also a work that self-consciously explores the nature of narrative, and its relationship to truth and to the formation and understanding of the self. With this in mind, I decided to revisit the novel, paying close attention to the ways in which metanarrative aids the reader in better understanding the novel’s conclusion and its narrative framing.

When approaching Winger, it’s important to keep in mind that the novel is structured into many sections. The novel opens with a small section that depicts the protagonist, Ryan Dean, being bullied by two classmates. Afterwards, the novel can roughly be divided into four major parts: Part One (the overlap of everyone), Part Two (the sawmill), Part Three (the consequence), and Part Four (words). Each one of these parts has a main thematic focus and structure, but I will focus my attention on parts One and Four in this discussion. Part One opens with a prologue–which can be considered an introduction to the literary text that is not necessarily connected to the work’s main narrative arc. This prologue helps frame the rest of the narrative, in that it shares key points that allow the reader to grasp the novel’s core themes. Even more so, the prologue, to some extent, foreshadows the novel’s seemingly dark twist towards the end:

Joey told me nothing ever goes back exactly the way it was, that things expand and contract–like breathing, but you can never fill your lungs up with the same air twice. He said some of the smartest things I ever heard, and he’s the only one of my friends who really tried to keep me on track too. And I’ll be honest. I know exactly how hard that was. (Smith 7)

When closely reading this prologue, there a couple of things that we can infer:

  1. Joey’s thoughts and views of the world are used to open the prologue. This demonstrates that Joey is a person who significantly influences how Ryan Dean thinks, and also influences how he writes. Joey’s discussion of expansion and contraction can be connected to the novel’s major focus on the theme of change, and more precisely, the inevitability and irreversibility  of these changes.
  2. Note the verbs that Ryan Dean uses when referring to Joey: “Joey told me […] He said […] really tried to keep me on track too.” Through the use of these past-tense verbs, we are indirectly informed that Joey is no longer present in Ryan Dean’s life. We are initially given no clues to understand why he is absent. Thus, the prologue, through its use of language, foreshadows Joey’s death.
  3. Although Ryan states that Joey tried to keep him on track, the text implies that Joey’s efforts have failed. Furthermore, Ryan understands how difficult it was for Joey to watch over and guide him.

With these factors in mind, it becomes clear that the crafting of Winger‘s narrative is approached as a way for Ryan to revisit, relive, and understand the past through the process of writing. However, Ryan recognizes the futility of this endeavor to fully help him understand himself or the events that he faced. Just as he is unable to breathe the same air twice, he is unable to relive events in exactly the same fashion. The novel thus commences with the protagonist’s recognition and awareness of his own failures, and how these failures will determine what he shares and how he decides to share it. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the prologue epitomizes the central role that Joey plays in this developmental narrative, even though he is a secondary character.

The role of metanarrative in the creation of Winger becomes overt later in Part One, where Ryan Dean discusses his penchant for drawing, and the relationship between knowing a story and expressing it aesthetically. As can be seen in the following drawing found on page 21 of the novel, Ryan Dean stresses the difference between knowing a story, and representing it: img_00002_2_crop Ryan Dean’s discussion of drawing, narrative, and representation makes it clear that the novel should be approached as a carefully constructed and meditative text. The text is not presented as a work that’s produced as Ryan copes with particular events (as seen in novels such as Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower), but rather, it presents itself as an artistic impulse to represent a story that has already been lived and experienced. The fact that Ryan mentions that he knows “the ending of the story” implies that as an artist, Ryan is struggling to identify the ways to represent the events that led to the outcome that he knows.

With this in mind, the combination of words and images in Winger can signify not only the futility of art to replicate a particular memory or event, but it can also be approached as a concretization of Ryan’s struggle to convey ideas that even he doesn’t completely understand. When Ryan attempts to depict Joey’s death in Part Four of the novel, we notice how the novel undergoes an effect of narrative dissolution or entropy. Part Four begins with a handwritten letter, in which Ryan discusses how life never follows the course that one plans, and how life’s unpredictability is capable of destabilizing the linearity that we perceive in life. Here is the letter that Ryan shares with his reader, found on page 411: img_00003_2_crop (1) It is in this letter that Ryan recognizes the futility of narrative in creating an accurate and realistic portrait of life: “I tried to make everything happen the same way it did when I was seeing it and feeling it.” Furthermore, the letter is a comment about the nature of narrative itself. When reading works in a certain genre, we have expectations about what should happen to the characters, how the novel should end, and the overall lessons that should be learned. In this letter, Ryan (through the writing prowess of Andrew Smith) brilliantly critiques the linearity and predictability that we’ve come to expect of the novels we read, particularly novels in the young adult genre. We expect narratives to be linear, we expect characters to have happy endings–but through a compliance of these expectations, the aesthetic text merely becomes an object of conformity.

Through the use of metanarrative, Winger strives to convey a greater sense of realism through an embrace of the chaos and unpredictability found in life itself.  Thus, while it may be easy to approach Joey’s death as haphazard, rushed, or as some readers have uncritically argued, homophobic, approaching his death as so would be an injustice to the novel’s overall literary, aesthetic, and narrative aims. Indeed, Joey is one of the most likable characters in the novel–but likability does not and should not make a character or person immune to the instability and dangers of the (real) world.

Thus, the possible anger and frustration that we feel towards the novel’s ending stems not from the text itself, but rather, the unrealistic expectations that we impose on the texts we read. In terms of the novel’s ending seeming contrived or unexpected, it is important to keep in mind that Ryan writes his story as a way of trying to understand the ramifications of Joey’s death.

The novel as a whole forces us to question our reliability on words and grand narratives. While Winger “fails” to live up to the expectations that we have of linear and conventional young adult narratives (and narratives in general), it is through this failure that the text is able to push us to question many things we take for granted. Part Four of the novel, in particular, refutes many of the narrative conventions that we have come to expect in the novel itself. Images are no longer used. The chapters in Part Four are no longer numbered as they are in other parts. Pages are occupied by an increasing amount of blank space. Ryan Dean, who was able to portray events with an excruciating amount of detail, can’t find a way to express his thoughts: “I need to vent. But I can’t. The words won’t come” (430). His prose becomes increasingly fragmented. This sense of fragmentation, dissolution, and chaos is able to represent pain and torment in ways that couldn’t possibly be conveyed by traditional, linear prose.

The more I think about Winger, the more I’m able to appreciate just how smart, insightful, and riveting this novel is. It’s a novel that has haunted me since I’ve read it, and it will continue to haunt me as I think about the role of (meta)narrative in young adult fiction. Andrew Smith is continuing to shape, deconstruct, and reinvent young adult fiction not only through the inclusion of fresh content, but also through the implementation of experimental narrative form. You can purchase a copy of Winger by clicking here.

Work Cited

Smith, Andrew. Winger. New York: Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2013.  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.

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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.

funhouse

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.

hardlovecover

On Asexuality and Kinship: Ellen Wittlinger’s [Hard Love]

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger's Hard Love

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love

Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love is at its core a novel about love, but it is quite different from other young adult novels on the subject that were written in the late 1990s. The narrative is centered on John Galardi (known by some as Gio), a junior in a high school who is still haunted by the ghosts of his parents’ divorce. On one hand, his father abandoned John and his mother because they did not comply with his self-image as an elitist literary publisher and playboy; on the other hand, because of John’s resemblance to his father, his mother has avoided physical contact with her son for over six years (no hugs, no physical proximity, nada). Because of this, John not only has difficulties expressing his emotions, but he also prevents other people from reaching out to him in order to avoid being hurt. He he poingnantly expresses this notion in a letter to his mother:

So I took all of the sadness of the divorce, and all the love I’d once had for both of you [his parents], and all the fear I had of being alone, and turned it into a stone wall to hide behind. To protect myself. I’m so protected now, dear mother, sometimes I feel like I’m barely alive. I am immune to emotion. And I hate you for it. (139)

John’s thoughts and feelings are shared with others anonymously through a zine he writes and publishes titled Bananafishwhich he writes after being inspired by a series of zines he read at a record store. He is particularly drawn to a zine titled Escape Velocitywritten by someone named Marisol, who is a self-proclaimed “Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee Cambridge, Massachusetts, rich spoiled lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin looking for love” (9). Drawn to the rawness and honesty of Escape Velocity, John devises a way to meet Marisol at the record store the day she delivers her publication for distribution. Tethered by their emptiness, confusion, and lack of experience, John and Marisol become quick friends–and seeing as Marisol is the first person that John was able to connect to, he falls in love with her. The main tension within this novel arises through this love–John truly believes that their connection transcends labels of sexuality and sexual orientation, whereas Marisol is certain that she’s a lesbian and she can never envision herself dating a man. The narrative then explores whether their friendship can survive the incongruity that exists in terms of their love for each other.

Excerpt from page 93 of Ellen Wittlinger's Hard Love. The novel is mostly told through the protagonist's perspective, and this perspective is enhanced with the novel's zine-like structure. Text is written in different fonts, images and text are combined in unique ways, and the pages sometimes give the impression that they are collages of letters, newspaper clips, and clip art.

Excerpt from page 93 of Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love, illustrating one of the many zines that John reads throughout the narrative. The novel is mostly told through the protagonist’s perspective, and this perspective is enhanced with the novel’s zine-like structure. Text is written in different fonts, images and text are juxtaposed in unique ways, and the pages sometimes give the impression that they are collages of letters, newspaper clips, and clip art.

As can be seen in the image above, Hard Love is structurally interesting because it is presented as a collage-like collection of letters, narrative, images, newspaper clippings, poems, autobiographical pieces, and general musings that attempt to replicate the feel of an actual zine. All of these mediums work together to give us a snapshot of John’s mind. The fragmented feel of the novel does an exemplary job of concretely depicting John’s anger, confusion, and truth while at the same time leaving enough room for the protagonist to be ambiguous and difficult to understand.  John’s characterization was very intriguing to me, not only because of the novel’s structure, but also because of his gender identity and sexuality. For instance, early on in the novel, John expresses his inability to find women attractive, and he often expresses his disdain towards his friend Brian because of the latter’s overly enthusiastic attraction to women that he has never spoken with. As a matter of fact, for a while I was convinced that John was asexual, which would’ve been amazing given that as of yet,  I’ve not encountered an explicitly asexual character in a young adult novel. I got this sense in passages such as the following:

I can’t stand it anymore, the constant talk about girls and sex. I just don’t feel like thinking about that stuff. Waybe it’s weird, but I’m not interested in it. I mean, it worries me a little sometimes, because I guess guys my age are supposed to be like Brian, lusting after pouty lips and big boobs. But to me, the mystery of female body parts is one I’d just as soon not solve. Not that I’m interested in boys either–I’m just not interested in the whole idea of locked lips or proclamations of love. (19)

John’s sexual ambiguity and his inability to discern his sexual inclinations becomes a prominent issue in the early chapters of Hard Love, and there are instances in which John is unable to deduce whether he can potentially be attracted to any sex at all. At one point, John admits to Marisol that he possible could be gay, but he hasn’t taken a moment to contemplate this possibility. My initial reading of John as potentially asexual was further evidenced by Marisol’s attempt to fix up John with her gay friend, Birdie. This fix up fails, however, because Birdie thinks John is heterosexual based on his behavior and attitudes. Let me turn my attention to the following exchange between Birdie and John after the latter is accused of not being gay:

“What do you mean? I’m not  even sure myself if I’m gay or not. I mean, I’ve been thinking maybe I am.”

You have? Are you attracted to men?” Birdie asked.

“Well, no. But I’m not attracted to women either.”

“Oh, well, that’s just dysfunctional, not gay,” Birdie announced confidently. I was lost for a comeback. (52-53)

Marisol then asks whether John was disappointed to find out that he is not gay, to which he responds “It’s just Birdie’s opinion” (53). Now, there are obvious issues of asexual representation in the exchange between Birdie and John, because asexuaity is viewed as a dysfunction rather than an alternative way of being. It is possible to perceive a tension between John’s attempt to define his sexuality while at the same time having it defined by others. John’s non-normative sexual behavior and attitudes certainly make him queer to some extent, but this queerness is somewhat subdued when John “discovers” his heterosexuality through his attraction to Marisol. Although he confesses his love to Marisol, she does not reciprocate his feelings. She admits she loves him, but only “as much as [she] can” (223). Although he is attracted to Marisol, who is a woman, John suggests that his love is not a matter of genitalia and sex, but rather, who is capable of seeing one for who they truly are:

To tell the truth it couldn’t matter less

who wears the pants or the dress, but only

who becomes visible to whom.

You saw me truly, and I saw all you let me;

I’m not lying now, and I hope I never will. (205)

What makes this novel unique is that it is a love story that focuses on a protagonist who views love as a matter of connection rather than of sex or sexual orientation–although this in turn is problematic, mostly because at times it seems like John hopes that his love for Marisol could provoke her to overcome her lesbianism. This does not happen, and thus, this novel is anything but a young adult version of Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy. The novel also attempts to reconfigure the reader’s perceptions of friendship and family, ultimately presenting alternative ways of kinship that are not necessarily sexual or heteronormative in nature. Although it seems that John is in due course heterosexual and not asexual, there is an ambiguity and openness about him that is both refreshing, intriguing, and queer. Now, my question is: when will we have a great young adult novel with an asexual protagonist? Does anyone know about one?

You can purchase a copy of Hard Love here.

Work Cited

Wittlinger, Ellen. Hard Love. Simon Pulse, 2001. Print. (Paperback edition)

Front Cover of John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back

John Corey Whaley’s “Where Things Come Back” – A Haunting and Truly Thought-Provoking Read

Front Cover of John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back

Front Cover of John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back

It is difficult to find quality young adult novels with a sensitive male teenager as the protagonist. While this has to do with the stereotypes generally tied to readers of the genre, the rarity of this character also has a lot to do with issues and perceptions of gender in contemporary society. There is something about the male teenager (who openly expresses his emotions) that tends to irk some people; in tandem, this lack says a lot about the social expectations of masculinity, in which it is deemed that men should be stoic drones incapable of feeling. Nonetheless, some of the greatest young adult classics are written through this rare perspective, including but not limited to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. 

John Corey Whaley‘s Where Things Come Back (you can read a summary of the novel’s plot here) can genealogically be traced to these aforementioned novels, not only because it delves deeply into the psyche of a male teenager, but also because it is beautifully written, honest, and challenging. By challenging, I am not referring to the complexity of the prose, but rather the complexity of the ideas that are philosophized in the narrative. Rather than complying with the linearity and predictability found in most coming-of-age plots, Whaley offers the reader a challenging puzzle without giving the reader all of the necessary pieces to form a complete picture. This is truly where the novel shines: rather than providing the reader with all of the answers, it is deliberately ambiguous, thus forcing readers to come up with their own meanings. As one of the characters of the novel posits towards its conclusion, “life has no one meaning, it only has whatever meaning each of us puts on our own life” (227).

Structurally speaking, the novel is one of the most experimental that I have encountered within the young adult genre. First and foremost, it offers what at first seems to be two entirely different stories, yet these bifurcated narrative paths begin to merge in unexpected (and heartbreaking) ways. Secondly, the protagonist of the novel, Cullen Witter, tells the narrative mostly from a first-person perspective, except in instances where he is (day)dreaming, reflecting, or analyzing his own thoughts. During these latter moments, the perspective shifts into a self-referential third-person point-of-view, as can be seen in the following passage:

When one’s parents storm out of the house followed by a psychic who is still holding his missing brother’s T-shirt and book, he stands up, looks into his mother’s eyes, and wonders where they are headed. (108)

This not only creates the illusion of the character trying to create a split between the real and the imaginary, but it also illustrates the protagonist’s attempt to actively live life while simultaneously trying to escape from it. The narrative shifts entirely to a third-person perspective when focusing on the plots of other characters.

It is very difficult for me to categorize this novel thematically due to the presence of many issues and tensions within the plot (something characteristic of most coming-of-age novels), which includes religion, violence, love, sex, death, and uncertainty. To further add to the novel’s sense of ambiguity, it is at times difficult to determine whether these issues are approached cynically or optimistically, especially when it comes to the ending. The novel embraces postmodernity (intentionally or unintentionally) by constantly destabilizing meanings and offering multiple perspectives to complex issues. The most intriguing of these destabilizations, in my opinion, was the novel’s treatment of religion, especially as distilled from the perspective of a Christian missionary, a delusional religious fanatic, and the everyday practitioner of religion. The novel also deliberates the issue of fate, pushing one to question the extent to which events are connected and to which our actions and thoughts are predetermined.

The main character of the novel is certainly memorable, but the most intriguing character for me was the Christian missionary, Benton Sage, who at first is the focus of the novel’s secondary narrative (warning: major spoilers ahead!). Benton Sage is a Christian (I assume he’s Mormon, even though this is never explicitly mentioned in the novel) who disrupts his evangelical mission in Africa because he feels that he is not doing much to provide salvation to the country’s residents; his appointed tasks are focused more on charity rather than on preaching. This character is fully immersed in his religion, to the point where he admits that he has few other interests in life, such as music or the arts, because these are not creations of God: “Well, I’ve always sort of thought that if the Lord didn’t make it, then it doesn’t need to be made. So I kind of just stick to the scriptures” (42).

Benton is not only shunned by his family because of his inability to carry on with his mission in Africa, but his future college roommate even goes as far as to speculate that Benton is gay… an interesting claim, seeing as Benton’s roommate is described in a very suggestive and provocative fashion: “Before him stood a tall, lean, and muscular boy around his age with neatly combed brown hair, piercing eyes, and a serious look about him” (78). Alas, the reader is unable to delve too deeply into Benton’s psyche because he eventually commits suicide relatively early on in the narrative–and an explanation for this suicide is implied, although never explicitly stated. Benton’s insecurities, obsessions, and religious fixations transfer to his roommate, Cabot Searcy, who will later be the source of most of the tensions found in the novel.

Where Things Come Back, as the title of this post suggests, has been one of the most haunting reads that I’ve encountered in a long time, and it will definitely be a text that will linger in my mind as I continue to explore issues of personal development, gender, and growth in young adult fiction. It exudes quiet passion and heartbreak, invoking the desperation and the helplessness that is felt when trying to make sense of the ups and downs of life. The book is greatly reminiscent of the other great works of young adult fiction, such as The Catcher in the Rye, Flowers for Algernon, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but it also adds an original twist to the implications of growing-up and facing the harsh realities of life. I recommend this read if you are looking for something that is simultaneously puzzling, meaningful, and beautiful. I am definitely looking forward to reading Whaley’s future work.

Primary Source:

Whaley, John Corey. Where Things Come Back. New York: Atheneum (Simon & Schuster), 2011. Print.