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Developing a Course on Metafictional Young Adult Literature

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

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

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

The description for this course is as follows:

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

The Rules of Attraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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

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.

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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.