queer-young-adult-literature

Course Syllabus: Queer Young Adult Literature

Hello readers! So, I’m finally teaching one of my dream courses, and it’s one that I’ve been anxious to teach for quite some time! Click here to access the syllabus that I’ve designed for an intermediate seminar that I’m currently teaching at Bowdoin College. The seminar is entitled Queer Young Adult Literature, and it is currently offered under Bowdoin’s English Department and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program.  The course description is as follows:

How do literary texts communicate ideas that are supposed to be unspeakable, especially to a younger audience? In this course, we will explore contemporary young adult literature that represents the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer adolescents. We will not only scrutinize the complex relationship that exists between narrative, sexuality, gender, and audience, but we will also determine how certain genres and narrative modes enable or limit representations of queerness. Drawing from temporal and affective approaches to queer studies, we will examine the genre’s attempt to encapsulate an enduring change in terms of how queer adolescence is (or can be) represented, perceived, and experienced.

This course is my opportunity to teach and discuss ideas that I’ve developed while writing my dissertation, especially when it comes to the analysis of youth literature with queer content using the critical lenses of queer, affect, and narrative theories. Although this course has various goals and objectives, there are three main things that I want students to explore throughout the course:

  1. The way in which young adult novels make use of non-conventional narrative forms and structures in their explorations of queer content, and the formalistic/structural strategies implemented by queer youth narratives.
  2. The ways in which queer young adult literature complicates or reaffirms ideas regarding queer childhood and queer adolescence.
  3. The affective and political potential of the young adult genre, and the ways in which youth literature uses emotion to help its readership develop historical awareness and resilience towards violence and queerphobia.

In all honesty, this was one of the most difficult courses that I’ve ever designed, particularly since I had to limit the amount of novels that students and I would read and discuss throughout the semester. There were various criteria that I considered when making the final text selection. First and foremost, I wanted the course novels to reflect the spectrum of sexual and gender identities (i.e. lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, etc.). Secondly, I wanted to include novels that represent the intersection between gender, sexuality and race, and that are written by authors of color–an issue, especially since youth literature with queer content is notorious for sidelining the experiences of queer characters of color (this has been changing, but ever so slowly). Last but not least, I wanted to include novels that implemented innovations of structure, form, and narrative mode, which wasn’t difficult to find given the propensity for queer narratives to implement nonlinear narratives and postmodern aesthetic techniques.

When you look at the course schedule that is located in the final two pages of the syllabus, you’ll notice that each of the course novels is paired with an important piece of theory or criticism focused on affective, temporal, and age studies approaches to queer theory. It is my hope that these difficult, theoretical texts will provide students with the means to conduct both reparative and paranoid readings of the young adult novels that I’ve selected. Furthermore, I hope that these difficult texts will help illuminate the intricacies and complexities of the young adult genre–a genre that is oftentimes viewed as simplistic and not worthy of critical attention.

As always, I appreciate any and all feedback! If you were to design a course on queer young adult literature, what novels would you include? What readings would you pair with your selected novels? What issues or topics would you focus on? If you have designed or taught a course on queer young adult literature, I would love for you to share your syllabus in the comments section below.

Just in case you missed the link above, you can access my syllabus by clicking here. I really hope you enjoy it!

frontbannerabos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Works Cited

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

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

 

 

asinglemancover

Connection Failed: An Analysis of Christopher Isherwood’s [A Single Man]

Front cover of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man (1964)

Front cover of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964)

Failure is found at the heart of many great works of fiction. It is a common motif used to spark an emotional connection, sympathy, and at times, anger. Failure is not only the heart of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man–is also the blood, the flesh, and the soul of this novel. Centered on a single day in the life of George Falconer–a gay professor from England who teaches literature at a University in Los Angeles–A Single Man traces the protagonist’s psyche as he tries to cope with the stagnant nature of living, and his inability to feel a sense of belonging or connection with those who surround him. Suffering from a chronic depression triggered by the death of his lover (Jim), George desperately struggles to find solace through unsuccessful attempts at forging meaningful interactions and relationships with other people.

The opening event of the novel focuses on George as he wakes up in the morning. Here, we are offered a very detailed and biological account of the processes that take place as a sleeping body is galvanized into a state of alertness. This opening scene creates a split between George’s body and George’s being–a motif that becomes quite prominent within the novel. Throughout the day the novel takes place, George undergoes experiences that separate his thoughts from the actions that his body partakes in–almost as if his body were engaging in auto-pilot mode, leaving the pilot of his consciousness free to do and think whatever he pleases. This auto-pilot mode is activated in many occasions:

  • When George drives to his university, his thoughts wander away as his body automatically drives to its destination: “And George, like a master who has entrusted the driving of a car to a servant, is now free to direct his attention elsewhere” (36).
  • When he teaches, he enters a mode where he begins to spew theory, facts, and jargon without being completely cognizant of what he is saying to his students.
  • When he drinks, he engages in reckless behavior, such as swimming in a rough sea during the night, even though his mind is aware of the dangers of doing so.

The novel’s tendency of splitting George’s mind away from his body fosters an effect in which the reader perceives him as a composition of many selves and not as a single individual–thus emphasizing the novel’s central characteristic of approach life, time, and space as fragmented phenomena. This fragmentation, while very postmodern in effect, serves to illustrate the sense of disconnection and the lack of wholeness that George feels towards his surroundings. Even when looking himself in the mirror, George is unable to see himself as an individualized unit:

Staring and staring into the mirror, it sees many faces within its face–the face of a child, the boy, the young man, the not-so-young man–all present still, preserved like fossils on superimposed layers, and, like fossils, dead. Their message to this live dying creature is: Look at us–we have died–what is there to be afraid of? (11)

While staring at his reflection, George sees the phantoms of his past lives–lives that he considers present but dead; relics of a life that he used to have but that is no longer present. George recognizes this fragmentation, and he struggles to defy it so that others perceive him as ‘the whole George they demand and are prepared to recognize” (11). George is characterized by being overly concerned about what other people think about him. When other characters are talking to him, George’s mind engages in a frantic interpretive mode in which he tries to determine what is going through the other speaker’s mind. However, the inability to know exactly what others are thinking of him leads George to think obsessively about the failure of language to convey ideas in an accurate or precise fashion. Language, therefore, is a contributing factor that adds to George’s notions on fragmentation and the lack of wholeness in his life.

George’s nationality and his sexuality are other elements that fuel his sense of self-fragmentation and his inability to fully connect with others. He constantly claims how his British identity converts him into an Other within academic and non-academic contexts. His sexuality pushes him to feel a desire that is nearly impossible to quench–thus forcing George to live vicariously through small interactions, touches, and brief exchanges that he has with other men. One of these moments takes place when he accompanies one of his students, Kenny, to a book store. Kenny offers to buy George a pencil sharpener, which causes George to blush “as if he has been offered a rose” (81). What is clear here is that George is a man who is starving for connection. He craves to feel part of whole, even if this connection with the whole is momentary. He makes it overtly clear that his nationality, his way of thinking, his sexuality, and even his age puts him in a position in which he is minority. This sense of dissatisfaction with not belonging to a majority leads him to deliver a “sermon” in class, in which he attacks people’s conceptions of minority communities:

A minority has its own kind of aggression. It absolutely dares the majority to attack it. It hates the majority–not without a cause, I grant you. It even hates the other minorities, because all minorities are in competition: each one proclaims that its sufferings are the worst and its wrongs are the blackest. And the more they all hate, the more they’re all persecuted, the nastier they become! Do you think it makes people nasty to be loved? You know it doesn’t! They why should it make them nice to be loathed? (72)

His passionate tirade against minority cultures is longer than the fragment I’ve included above, but I hope this passage emphasizes the degree of self-loathing and confusion that George feels towards himself for being unable to become part of a greater collective. He always has been and always will be a minority. His efforts to be part of something greater than the self always fail–even the connection that he had with Jim is severed with the latter dies in a tragic car accident. George even admits that he is living makes him part of a minority, while those who have joined the rank of the dead are part of a majority:

George is very far, right now, from sneering at any of these fellow creatures. They may be crude and mercenary and dull and low, but he is proud, is glad, is almost indecently gleeful to be able to stand up and be counted in their ranks–the ranks of that marvelous minority, The Living. They don’t know their luck, these people on the sidewalk, but George knows his–for a little while at least–because he is freshly returned from the icy presence of The Majority, which [his dying friend] is about to join. (103-4)

This passage is an eerie foreshadowing to the events that culminate the novel. As George is drunkenly walking towards his usual bar after leaving his friend’s house, he encounters Kenny alone at said bar. The two get really drunk, and they end up swimming together naked in the salty rough waves of the sea in the middle of the night. It is here that George feels a brief connection with Kenny that “transcends” the symbolic. Kenny returns home with George, leading into a scene that seems like an obvious exchange of flirtation between the two. However, despite the fact that George desires to sleep with Kenny, he ends up passing out, awakening alone in his bed–where he decides to masturbate as a way of compensating for his failure to connect with Kenny, sexually speaking.

As the novel comes to a close, George ends up in his bed once again. In a circuitous fashion, the novel ends with George’s mind disconnecting from his body, returning once again to the description of the biological processes that his body is going through as it begins to fall asleep. Unexpectedly, George dies of a heart attack during his sleep. George’s life is characterized not only by a failure to connect with others, but also by a failure to be part of a whole during his life. It’s thus heart-wrenching to realize that the only instance in which he becomes part of a majority is through his death.

This novel is simply beautiful, rich, and complex. There is much more than can be said about this novel, especially in terms of its approaches to time and temporality, especially when contrasting the importance of the past, the present, and the future. This is definitely a novel that I want to revisit once again after I’ve had time to process it a little more.

Comments? Questions? Suggestions? As always, please feel free to add to the conversation!

Work Cited

Isherwood, Christopher. A Single Man. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964. Print (Hardcover edition).

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.

Can Dori's short-term memory loss be approached as a forgetting that facilitates a reconfiguration of kinship and being?

An Overview of Judith Halberstam’s [The Queer Art of Failure]

Front cover of Judith Halberstam's The Queer Art of Failure

Front cover of Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure

I usually steer away from aesthetic judgments when writing about theory books, but in this case, let me start by saying that Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure was an absolute joy to read. What else can one expect from a theory book that opens up with a quote from the Nickelodeon cartoon series, SpongeBob SquarePants? Not only is her book witty and deeply intelligent, but it constantly made me smile, and at times, laugh out loud. Given the fact that this book is centered on failure (and other elements discussed within the anti-social movement in queer theory), I find its use of humor and its use of clear prose absolutely refreshing and delightful.

Moving on to a discussion of the actual text, The Queer Art of Failure centers its attention on products of “low” theory and popular culture (particularly CGI animation movies) in order to devise alternatives from binary formulations and heteronormative traps such as futurity and linearity. Halberstam uses artifacts of popular and low culture to aid her discussion because she deems that they are “far more likely to reveal key terms and conditions of the dominant than an earnest and ‘knowing’ text” (60). Halberstam’s main premise is that success is a heternormative enterprise and invention, and that in capitalist societies, success “equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation” (2).

Failure (and other events/practices related to failure, such as forgetfulness and stupidity), rather than being approached as the inability to comply with a social norm or standard, is viewed by Halberstam as a way of unveiling creative and more cooperative ways of existing in the world. Her queer critique of success as a capitalistic venture stems from the fact that people who live in capitalist systems can only achieve success through the failure of others. To make matters more complex, many tend to view failure as the product of one’s own doing rather than a result of the system itself–and they are expected to remain optimistic despite of the inability to comply with an expected norm. Thus, the book explores alternative ontological and epistemological routes in life that are pessimistic, but this pessimism doesn’t necessarily entail an existential aporia: “It is a book about failing well, failing often, and learning, in the words of Samuel Beckett, how to fail better” (24).

Halberstam shifts her focus to a discussion of animation, particularly CGI animation movies, in order to illustrate how they exemplify topics (such as revolution and transformation) and structures that deviate from linearity. She argues that these films, either deliberately or unintentionally “recognize that alternative forms of embodiment and desire are central to the struggle against corporate domination” (29) by envisioning the queer as a collective rather than a singularity. One of the films she makes reference to is Chicken Run (2000), in which the queer community of female chickens escape their impending doom (becoming the meaty product of chicken-pot pies) by collectively joining forces to build and power a plane to escape the farm. Rather than complying with domesticity, rather than subduing to the demands of the male rooster, and rather then accepting their culinary fate, they transcend their “natural” flightless fate by working as a group to escape (embracing their failure to comply with the norms of the farm). Halberstam mentions other movies, such as Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and Over the Hedge, that promote collectivity over individuality as an alternative mode of existing in the world or as a way of achieving utopia.

Screen capture from Chicken Run (2000). The "queer" chickens work together to build this flying machine.

Screen capture from Chicken Run (2000). The “queer” chickens work together to build this flying machine.

Halberstam makes an interesting claim: she posits that revolutionary movies are aware of the fact that children are not invested in adult enterprises (in other words, children are queer in that they deviate from heteronormative expectations): “children are not coupled, they are not romantic, they do not have religious morality, they are not afraid of death or failure, they are collective creatures, they are in a constant state of rebellion against their parents, and they are not masters of their own domain” (47). Thus, cartoons become conventional and fail to be revolutionary when there is an overemphasis on the nuclear family or a “normative investment in coupled romance” (47). Thus, revolutionary CGI animation movies (which she refers to as Pixarvolt films) depict a world where the “little guys” are able to overcome obstacles, and where they are able to revolt against the “business world of the father and the domestic sphere of the mother” (47).

Halberstam shifts her attention to a discussion of forgetfulness and stupidity, arguing that similar to failure, they “work hand in hand to open up new and different ways of being in relation to time, truth, being, living, and dying” (55). After all,  forgetfulness can be approached as a failure to remember, and stupidity can be approached as a failure to be wise. In her efforts to forge the relationship between stupidity, forgetting, and other forms of being, she alludes to films such as Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000) and Finding Nemo (2003) as examples of narratives that approach forgetting as an act that “arrests the developmental and progressive narratives of heteronormativity” (60). In Dude, Where’s My Car, for instance, the main characters are known for their relaxed approach that allows them to be receptive to others while at the same time being permeable and manipulable. This relaxed approach can especially be seen in the scene where the characters engage in a queer encounter in an effort to “compete” with Fabio (the infamous male model), The characters’ nonchalance (which might be perceived as stupidity) after the kiss, is deemed to be emancipatory because it is in essence a kiss between to straight men, yet it does not cause them to flinch in disgust or react negatively in any way. The kiss is a non-issue, and although it can be approached as an inauthentic representation,  it can also be approached as a way of resisting “the earnestness of so many gay and lesbian texts” (67).

Kiss between Chester and Jesse in Dude, Where's My Car (2000). Can this kiss be approached as emancipatory?

Kiss between Chester and Jesse in Dude, Where’s My Car (2000). Can this kiss be approached as emancipatory?

One of the more interesting discussions in Halberstam’s book centered around a discussion of forgetting, stupidity, and family within the Pixar film Finding Nemo. Halberstam mentions how the intent to break away the power of generation from the process of history is a queer project, precisely because “queer loves seek to uncouple change from the supposedly organic and immutable forms of family and inheritance” (70). Breaking away from family and forgetting family lineage becomes away of starting fresh even though it entails a failure from engaging in the heteronormative enterprise of the nuclear family. It is here that Halberstam begins to approach linearity and normative temporality, which favor longevity over the temporary, thus prioritizing family over other possible relationships that can be forged.

Can Dori's short-term memory loss be approached as a forgetting that facilitates a reconfiguration of kinship and being?

Can Dori’s short-term memory loss be approached as a forgetting that facilitates a reconfiguration of kinship and being?

Her examination of Finding Nemo thusly attempts to demonstrate what happens to queer characters when they forget their families and find alternative ways of relating and bonding with others. This is mostly exemplified by the character of Dori, who suffers from short-term memory loss. Since she can’t recall her relationship or her family due to the fact that she is constantly forgetting, she is forced to (happily) bond with other creatures in a fashion that avoids normative temporality. This, in addition to the fact that she can’t forge a romantic relationship with Marlin (Nemo’s father) due to her condition makes her a very queer character. Halberstam also notes that within Finding Nemo, the mother figure is absent from the narrative, leading to an erasure of the past that facilitates the visualization of new possibilities of being. Thus, forgetting provides a new way to remember, a way to move on from the failure of recollection, and even more so, a way of disconnecting the self from the linear and normative expectations of time, culture, and family.

You can purchase a copy of Halberstam’s book here.

Work Cited

Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. 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).