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.

Six Degrees Separation

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

Six Degrees of Separation Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OUISA: It was magical. That Salinger stuff–

PAUL: Graduation speech at Groton two years ago.

OUISA: Your cooking–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

Angels in America

On Stasis, Mobility, and Postmodernism: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America

Front cover of Tony Kushner's Angels in America (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika)

Front cover of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika)

Well I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word “free” to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me. (Kushner 228)

The quote above depicts the moment in which Belize, one of the central characters of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, challenges the optimistic view of American freedom, and he ultimately challenges idealism and “Big Ideas.” Belize, a black, gay, ex-drag queen and nurse, is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of queerdom in the play in terms of his anti-normative positionality in a mid-1980s America. This liminal position not only allows Belize to notice and question the limits and destructiveness of idealism, but it also allows him to reject it all together: “I live in America, Louis, that’s hard enough, I don’t have to love it. You do that” (Kushner 228). Belize complies with the overall aim and objective of the play, which is the importance of questioning everything in light of the inevitable unsustainability and paradoxical nature of (American) life. In a world full of hate, sickness, global warming, religious and spiritual incongruity, corruption, greed, and inequality, how is it even possible to find stability and meaning? What does it mean to be sexual, spiritual, healthy, or successful in a world where these concepts are approached discordantly by different people?

Kushner’s Angels in America, a Pulitzer Prize-wining play which takes place within the peak of the AIDS crisis, attempts to address all of the questions above through the lives of characters who are in one way or another affected by the syndrome. It is through the play’s exploration of AIDS that the goal of postmodernism, which is to question everythingis put into practice. Naturally, the juxtaposition of AIDS and postmodernism is absolutely feasible given their similarities of structure and meaning. In Spaces of Belonging, for instance, Elizabeth H. Jones alludes to Lee Edelman’s views to argue that AIDS and postmodernism are similar in their “disrespect for the laws of orderly representation and hierarchy” (263) and their linkage to contemporary issues such as the “decline of faith in rational, transparent representation” (263). Thus, Belize’s confrontation with Louis, as illustrated above, mocks the view of America as a stable entity, and more importantly, it ridicules Louis’s belief in his knowledge–despite Louis’s assertions, he understands little about his Mormon/closeted/Republican boyfriend Joe, he knows nothing about America, and he is oblivious about how the society he idealizes is crumbling beneath his feet.

A similar obliviousness can be seen through the character of Roy Cohn, the cartoonishly evil lawyer and powerbroker that we can’t help but pity (to some extent) towards the end of the play. When he is diagnosed with AIDS, Roy takes it as a personal offence because he deems that his doctor is labeling him as a homosexual. The doctor tries to state the facts of Roy’s condition and its causes, ultimately affirming that Roy has “had sex with men, many many times” (Kushner 51). Roy proceeds to make the claim that who he sleeps with does not define who he is:

Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. This is what a label refers to. (Kushner 51)

Here, we observe Elizabeth H. Jones’ views on AIDS and postmodernity manifesting within the play. Roy not only argues that labels place one within a social hierarchy, but he also points out that they serve to represent and restrict an individual to certain forms of being. He then proceeds to establish that labels  ultimately indicate how much power (“clout”) an individual possesses. Given that Roy views the label of homosexuality as a label for individuals with no power, and seeing as he repeatedly affirms “I have clout. A lot” (Kushner 51), he challenges the extent to which homosexuality is able to transparently represent him. Though his rejection of homosexuality may seem to be an attempt to disrupt stable representation, he does so by embracing another hierarchical binary: the powerful versus the powerless. It is here that AIDS works as a postmodern agent in the play. Despite the fact that Roy declares himself to be on the top of the food chain, and despite the fact that he declares himself as a man with a lot of clout, AIDS renders him powerless, while simultaneously putting him on the same level as everyone else who dies with AIDS. Despite the fact that he views his power as stable, AIDS destabilizes it. Now, we run the risk of viewing AIDS as a karmic agent in the play, out to feed on the evil and the power-hungry, but this changes when we realize that AIDS is not controlled by power or hierarchy, and there are relatively good and sympathetic characters (such as Prior) who are affected by the syndrome as well.

Stability is also challenged through the character of Prior Walter, who can in many ways be approached as the protagonist of the play. In the climax of Angels in America, Prior is approached (in a dream) by an Angel (also known as the Continental Principality of America). The Angel declares that Prior is a prophet who must disperse the ideas present within the sacred implements, which turn out to be “The Tome of Immobility, of respite, of cessation” (Kushner 265). This Tome is meant to aid Prior in bringing a halt to the instability caused by humanity’s upward mobility: “As the human race began to progress, travel, intermingle, everything started to come unglued” (Kushner 176). Thus, stasis, finality, and ultimately, death are seen as a solution to the world’s postmodern state–a way of bringing order to chaos. Prior ultimately rejects his role as a prophet, simply because he views life as dynamic rather than stable. He finds stasis to be a paradoxical mode of being, because to achieve stillness in an active environment requires exertion and yearning:

It just. . . . It just. . . . We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks–progress, migration, motion is . . . modernity. It’s animateit’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s desire for. Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait. (Kushner 264)

In this case, progress is not viewed as linear, but it is viewed as motion. Progress involves desire, a denial of stasis, and a refusal of order and permanence. Rather than embracing death, Prior desires to embrace life and the ability to keep on moving: “I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do” (266). Immobility, stability, and transparency are impossible in a postmodern world. But as Belize would say, just because we live in it, it doesn’t mean we have to love it. Being, according to Kushner’s play, is not a teleological movement, but rather, a movement with no fixed endpoint.

– – –

Acknowledgments: I’d like to thank Leanne MacDonald, Evan Scott Bryson, and Lindsay Haney for their insightful comments on this play. They really helped me to sort out my own thoughts in this analysis.

Works Cited

Jones, Elizabeth H. Spaces of Belonging. New York: Rodopi, 2007. Web.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2003. Print.

Thehoursmainframe

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

Front paperback cover of Cunningham's The Hours

Front paperback cover of Cunningham’s The Hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source:

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

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My Ultimate Reading Challenge – The Reading List for My PhD Candidacy Examinations

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Part of the requirements for the doctoral degree in English at the University of Notre Dame are written and oral exams (which I will take in March of 2014). The exams are a requirement that demonstrate that all doctoral students have in-depth knowledge of a major field, a secondary field, and a literary theory/methodology, in order to assure that we are thoroughly prepared for teaching and dissertation writing. For these exams, we are all required to construct a reading list for three areas of specialization. The list for our major field should contain approximately 75 works, whereas the reading lists for our secondary field and the literary theory/methodology should contain about 50 works each–for a grand total of about 175 works. This means that we have about ten months to read and familiarize ourselves with these works. Yikes!

After a lot of thought and research, I have decided that my major field will be Contemporary American Literature (1945-Present). My secondary field will be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Literature, and my literary theory/methodology will be Queer Materiality (which fuses readings within the areas of Queer Theory, Queer Cultural Studies, and the Materiality/Sociology of Texts). Professors Susan Cannon Harris (chair), Kinohi Nishikawa, Matt Wilkens, and Barry McCrea have graciously agreed to be part of my examination committee. I am very thankful fo their support and their interest in my project. The lists below were constructed thanks to my committee’s  advice and input, and thanks to extended periods of online and library research. What I have below is a description of each area, along with the reading list that I developed for this list.

Now, in terms of making this a challenge, for every single work that I read, I plan to write a blog post with my thoughts, opinions, and concerns about the work–think of these posts as mini book reviews. If all goes as planned, I should have a total of 176 posts related to my candidacy exams. Each time I write one of these reviews, I will update this post and provide links to the review next to the works’ title. Not only will this help me keep track of what I have read, but it will allow me to share my thoughts an opinions of these texts with the world. Wish me luck!

EXAM AREA I – CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN LITERATURE (1945-PRESENT)

(Historical Field)

These works are typically approached as Post-World War and postmodern, and the list has a heavy emphasis on works published between the 40s and the 60s. Although my primary interest is in the area of gay fiction, I have decided to make contemporary American literature my primary field seeing as it is a more marketable area within the field of English and literary studies. I would claim that my main area of expertise within this area is the coming-of-age narrative, particularly focusing on issues of gender and sexuality in the coming-of-age process. Seeing as texts that are typically dubbed coming-of-age narratives are usually concerned with readers’ self-identification with characters in the text, many items in this list are works that would be considered “middlebrow.” The items included in all of my sub-lists are works that reflect the aforementioned themes within an American and postmodern context.

I am interested in determining whether gendered or queer issues manifest in coming-of-age texts that are not typically approached as queer—thus, I deliberately avoided the inclusion of queer texts within the novels section of this list, as they are included within my second list on LGBTQ fiction. In addition to the notion of “coming-of-age” and gender, I am also invested in the marketing and sociology of texts within a “globalized” postmodern American context. Thus, in conjunction with coming-of-age texts, I have also included novels that have helped to shape the globalized American literary landscape that we live in today—which is why my young adult fiction section also includes important global novels that have had a major impact on the young adult market.

I.A – Novels

  1. Alice Walker. The Color Purple (1982)
  2. Ana Castillo. So Far From God (1993)
  3. Art Spiegelman. Maus I: My Father Bleeds History (1986)
  4. Bret Easton Ellis. American Psycho (1991)
  5. Cristina Carcia. Dreaming in Cuban (1992)
  6. David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest (1996)
  7. Don Delillo. White Noise (1985)
  8. James Baldwin. Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)
  9. Jack Kerouac. On the Road (1957)
  10. Jonathan Safran Foer. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)
  11. Joseph Heller. Catch-22 (1961)
  12. Junot Díaz. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)
  13. Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  14. Matthew Quick. Silver Linings Playbook (2010)
  15. Philip K. Dick. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
  16. Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man (1952)
  17. Sandra Cisneros. The House on Mango Street (1984)
  18. Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar (1963)
  19. Thomas Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
  20. Toni Morrison. Beloved (1987)
  21. Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita (1955)

I.B – Short Stories

  1. Abraham Rodriguez. “Boy Without A Flag” (1992)
  2. Anne Proulx. “Brokeback Mountain” (1997)
  3. James Baldwin. “Sonny’s Blues” (1957)
  4. John Barth. “Lost in the Funhouse” (1968)
  5. John Updike. Pigeon Feathers (1962)
  6. Norman Mailer. “The Man Who Studied Yoga” (1959)
  7. Raymond Carver. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981)
  8. Sandra Cisneros. Woman Hollering Creek: The Collection (1991)

I.C – Drama

  1. Amiri Baraka. Dutchman (1964)
  2. Arthur Miller. Death of a Salesman (1949)
  3. Arthur Miller. A View from the Bridge (1955)
  4. August Wilson. The Piano Lesson (1990)
  5. David Henry Hwang. M. Butterfly (1986)
  6. Edward Albee. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962)
  7. Eugene O’Neill. Bound East for Cardiff (1914). Click here for my discussion of this O’Neill play.
  8. Eugene O’Neill. The Hairy Ape (1922)
  9. Eugene O’Neill. Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956)
  10. John Guare. Six Degrees of Separation (1990)
  11. Lorraine Hansberry. A Raisin in the Sun (1959)
  12. Tennessee Williams. Camino Real (1953)
  13. Tennessee Williams. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)
  14. Tony Kushner. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1993)
  15. William Friedkin. The Boys in the Band (1970)

I.D – Poetry

  1. Adrienne Rich. An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991)
  2. Allen Ginsberg. Howl and Other Poems (1956)
  3. Elizabeth Bishop. The Complete Poems (1984)
  4. Frank O’Hara. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (1995)
  5. John Ashberry. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1976)
  6. Sylvia Plath. Ariel (1965)

I.E-1 – Young Adult Novels (Supplementary List)

  1. Daniel Keyes. Flowers for Algernon (1958). Click here for my discussion of Keyes’ novel.
  2. Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
  3. J.D. Salinger. The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  4. John Corey Whaley. Where Things Come Back (2011). Click here for my discussion of Whaley’s novel.
  5. John Green. Looking for Alaska (2005)
  6. Judy Blume. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970)
  7. Judy Blume. Then Again, Maybe I Won’t (1971)
  8. Lois Lowry. The Giver (1993)
  9. Madeleine L’Engle. A Wrinkle in Time (1962)
  10. Orson Scott Card. Ender’s Game (1985)
  11. Robert Cormier. The Chocolate War (1974)
  12. Scott Westerfield. Uglies (2005)
  13. S.E. Hinton. The Outsiders (1967)
  14. Sherman Alexie. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007)
  15. Stephanie Meyer. Twilight (2005)
  16. Stephen Chbosky. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999). Click here for my discussion of Chbosky’s novel.
  17. Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games (2008)

I.E-2 – Global Young Adult Novels

  1. Diana Wynne Jones. Howl’s Moving Castle (1986)
  2. Douglas Adams. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
  3. J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997). Click here for my discussion of Rowling’s novel.
  4. Mark Haddon. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2004)
  5. Philip Pullman. The Golden Compass (1995)
  6. T.H. White. The Once and Future King (1958)

I.F – Criticism

  1. Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1990)
  2. Joan L. Knickerbocker, Martha A. Bruggeman, James A. Rycik. Literature for Young Adults: Books (and More) for Contemporary Readers (2012)
  3. Mark McGurl. The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2011)
  4. Michael Cart. From Romance to Realism: Fifty Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature (2010)
  5. Stuart Sim. The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (2011)
  6. Richard Gray. A History of American Literature (2011)

EXAM AREA II – LGBTQ FICTION

(Special Topic Field)

As of now, I envision my dissertation project as an analysis of the intersection between the areas of fiction, queer theory, and middlebrow culture. Part of my focus will be the concept of coming out and concealment, not only in terms of a novel’s content, but also in terms of its marketing and design. Thus, my project will ultimately have a dual focus in that I will pay close attention to matters of queerness and the closet as applied to the coming-of-age narrative and the materiality of the books themselves, delving later on into a discussion of how the digital age has expanded (or perhaps even shattered) the limits of this, as Sedgwick would put it, queer space. In due course, I want to present myself as a scholar who is well versed in the realm of novels that deal directly with LGBTQ concerns, issues, and representations. My hope is that in addition to working with contemporary American novels, I will ultimately be able to teach classes focused exclusively on LGBTQ fiction. With this in mind, although this list will focus heavily on contemporary fiction published after the “gay boom” in the late 90s up to the present day, I also want to develop a historical awareness of the novels and works that paved the way towards a possible market of LGBTQ fiction—especially novels that were published prior to the 1969 Stonewall Riots.

Although in my past work I have focused heavily on issues and concerns pertaining to the male tradition of gay literature, I am seeking to expand my current scope of queer texts by including a healthy sample of texts within lesbian, transgender, bisexual, transsexual, and intersex traditions (even though the gay male tradition is far more prevalent). Keeping in line with my interest in coming-of-age fiction and issues of materiality, a large portion of these LGBTQ texts are classified within the young adult genre—especially when considering that in today’s literary market, young adult fiction is the genre in which queer issues have been able to flourish, due primarily to its middlebrow and so-called didactic nature. Seeing as LGBTQ fiction can, to some extent, be considered a niche market, I have decided to approach this genre from a global Anglophone rather than a purely American perspective in order to determine how queer and coming-out narratives, in addition to the books’ marketing, are influenced by their specific geographical locations.

II. A – LGBTQ Novels and Prose

  1. Achy Obejas. Memory Mambo (1996)
  2. Alan Hollinghusrt. The Line of Beauty (2004)
  3. Alison Bechdel. Fun Home (2006)
  4. Armistead Maupin. Tales of the City (1978)
  5. Barry McCrea. The First Verse (2005)
  6. Bret Easton Ellis. The Rules of Attraction (1987)
  7. Christopher Isherwood. A Single Man (1964)
  8. Colm Tóibín. The Blackwater Lightship (1999)
  9. Djuna Barnes. Nightwood (1936)
  10. Dorothy Allison. Bastard Out of Carolina (1992)
  11. E.M. Forster. Maurice (1971)
  12. Edmund White. A Boy’s Own Story (1982)
  13. Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited (1945)
  14. James Baldwin. Giovanni’s Room (1956)
  15. Jamie O’Neill. At Swim, Two Boys (2001)
  16. Jeanette Winterson. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985)
  17. Jeanette Winterson. Written on the Body (1994)
  18. Jeffrey Eugenides. Middlesex (2002)
  19. Leslie Feinberg. Stone Butch Blues (2003)
  20. Melvin Dixon. Vanishing Rooms (1991)
  21. Michael Chabon. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay (2000)
  22. Michael Cunningham. A Home at the End of the World (1990)
  23. Michael Cunningham. The Hours (1998). Click here for my discussion of Cunningham’s novel.
  24. Patrick McCabe. Breakfast on Pluto (1998)
  25. Radclyffe Hall. The Well of Loneliness (1928)
  26. Rita Mae Brown. Rubyfruit Jungle (1973)
  27. Sarah Waters. Tipping the Velvet (1998)
  28. Scott Heim. Mysterious Skin (2005)

II.B – LGBTQ Young Adult Fiction

  1. Alex Sanchez. Rainbow Boys (2001)
  2. Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012)
  3. Brent Hartinger. Geography Club (2003)
  4. Brian Katcher. Almost Perfect (2009)
  5. David Levithan. Boy Meets Boy (2003)
  6. Eddie De Oliveira. Lucky (2004). Click here for my discussion of De Oliveira’s novel.
  7. Ellen Wittlinger. Hard Love (2001)
  8. Ellen Wittlinger. Parrotfish (2011)
  9. J.C. Lillis. How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012)
  10. J.M. Colail. Wes and Toren (2009)
  11. John Donovan. I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (1969) – Click here for my review of Donovan’s novel. 
  12. John Green and David Levithan. Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010)
  13. Julie Anne Peters. Luna (2006)
  14. Justin Torres. We the Animals (2011). Click here for my discussion of Torres’ novel. 
  15. Martin Wilson. What They Always Tell Us (2009). Click here for my discussion of Wilson’s novel.
  16. Nancy Garden. Annie on My Mind (1982)
  17. Nick Burd. The Vast Fields of Ordinary (2009)
  18. Perry Moore. Hero (2007)

II.C – LGBTQ History and Criticism

  1. Christopher Bram. Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (2012)
  2. Claude J. Summers. Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage (2002)
  3. Kenneth B. Kidd and Michelle Ann Abate. Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature (2011)
  4. Michael Cart and Christine Jenkins. The Heart Has its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-2004. (2006)

EXAM AREA III – QUEER MATERIALITY

(Theoretical/Methodological Field) 

Seeing as my dissertation project will focus on issues such as coming out, concealment, confession, circulation, and distribution, immersion in the realms of queer theory and the sociology/materiality of texts will be crucial to my study. The fusion between queer theory and the materiality/sociology of texts is one that has been vastly underexplored within studies of gay fiction, and in my estimation, this is due primarily to the fact that the aims of these studies, at first, seem radically different. Queer theory problematizes the male/female binaries while in turn addressing other dichotomies within the domains of sexuality and pluralistic identities. Queer theory approaches identity, as Jonathan Kemp points out in “Queer Past, Queer Present, Queer Future,” as a porous, unfixed, and intersectional entity that takes into consideration multiple cultural facets, including but not limited to race, gender, religion, and nationality, among others. Crucial within this approach are goals such as the disruption of binary approaches, the notions of reproductive futurism, and ideas concerning affect and the body. Furthermore, a strand of queer studies also has an obvious activist and emancipatory mission.

I think these issues would mesh in an interesting and productive fashion with the materiality and sociology of texts, which focuses mostly on how the textual, paratextual, political, and cultural elements of literary productions work in conjunction to circulate texts within the social sphere—particularly when it comes to the role of the closet and “concealment.” I think queer theory, particularly when it comes to notions such as the closet, futurity, and affect, will provide a rich and innovate spin on the materiality/sociology of texts, a spin that will ultimately prove to be quite fruitful when it comes to the analysis of the socio-cultural dimensions of LGBTQ texts, which in and of themselves actively align themselves against the status quo.

III.A – Queer Theory

  1. David Ross Fryer. Thinking Queerly: Race, Sex, Gender, and the Ethics of Identity (2011)
  2. E.L. McCallum. Queer Times, Queer Becomings (2011)
  3. Elizabeth Freeman. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010)
  4. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Epistemology of the Closet (1990). Click here for my discussion of Sedgwick’s book.
  5. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003)
  6. Ian Barnard. Queer Race: Cultural Interventions into the Racial Politics of Queer Theory (2004)
  7. John D’Emilio. “Capitalism and Gay Identity” (1983)
  8. Jose Esteban Muñoz. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009)
  9. Judith Butler. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)
  10. Judith Butler. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004)
  11. Judith Butler. Undoing Gender (2004)
  12. Judith Halberstam. Female Masculinity (1998) and The Queer Art of Failure (2011)
  13. Lee Edelman. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004)
  14. Leo Bersani. Is the Rectum a Grave?: and Other Essays (2009)
  15. Lynne Huffer. Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory (2009)
  16. Michael Warner. The Trouble with Normal (1999)
  17. Michel Foucault, trans. Robert Hurley. The History of Sexuality – Volume I (1976)
  18. Michel Foucault, trans. Robert Hurley. The History of Sexuality – Volume II (1984)
  19. Michel Foucault, trans. Robert Hurley. The History of Sexuality – Volume III (1984)
  20. Roderick Ferguson. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (2004)
  21. Sarah Ahmed. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006) and The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004). Click here for my discussion of Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion.

III.B – Queer Materiality and Queer Cultural Studies

  1. David Savran. A Queer Sort of Materialism (2003)
  2. Elisa Glick. Materializing Queer Desire: Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol (2009)
  3. Guy Davidson. Queer Commodities (2012)
  4. Heather K. Love. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (2007)
  5. Jaime Harker. Middlebrow Queer: Christopher Isherwood in America (2013)
  6. Kathryn Bond Stockton. The Queer Child, or, Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (2009)
  7. Kevin Floyd. The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism (2009)
  8. Michael Moon. A Small Boy and Others: Imitation and Initiation in American Culture from Henry James to Andy Warhol (1998)
  9. Michael Trask. Cruising Modernism: Class and Sexuality in American Literature and Social Thought (2003)
  10. Michael Warner. Publics and Counterpublics (2005)
  11. Samuel R. Delany. Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts & the Politics of the Paraliterary (2000)
  12. Scott Herring. Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (2010)
  13. Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley, eds. Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children (2004)
  14. Susan Stryker. Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback (2001)

III.C – Materiality and the Sociology of Texts

  1. Andrew Piper. Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (2012)
  2. Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities (1983)
  3. D.F. McKenzie. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (1999)
  4. Gérard Genette. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (2001)
  5. Janice A. Radway. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984)
  6. Jim Collins. Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture (2010). Click here for my discussion of Collins’ book.
  7. Jürgen Habermas. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1991)
  8. Kathryn Sutherland and Marilyn Deegan. Text Editing, Print and the Digital World (2008)
  9. Nicole Matthews and Nickianne Moody. Judging a Book by its Cover (2007)
  10. Pierre Bourdieu. The Field of Cultural Production (1993)
  11. Raymond Williams. The Long Revolution (1961) and The Sociology of Culture (1982)
  12. Ted Striphas. The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control (2011)

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