lineofbeautycover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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

waovfcover

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

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

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

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

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

MARTHA (To George)

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

GEORGE

He has blue eyes, Martha.

MARTHA (Determined)

Green.

GEORGE

Blue, Martha.

MARTHA (Ugly)

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

NICK (Peers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[There is a pause.]

You told me! I told you! (94-95)

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

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

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

Work Cited

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

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.

Parrotfish_Animal

Ellen Wittlinger’s [Parrotfish]: A Transgender Coming-Out Novel

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger's Parrotfish

Front cover of the paperback version of Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish

What made a person male or female, anyway? The way they looked? The way they acted? The way they thought? Their hormones? Their genitals? What if some of those attributes pointed in one direction and some in the other?

– Ellen Wittlinger, Parrotfish (p. 131)

Although Julie Anne Peters’ Luna was the first young adult text to tackle the issue of transgenderism, Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish offers us a very direct and personal perspective of what it means to born in the wrong body. Unlike Luna (read my analysis of this novel by clicking here), Wittlinger’s novel is  told from the first-person perspective of the character undergoing a transition from one gender to another, and it is also centered on a female-to-male (FTM) rather than a male-to-female transition. Although the novel lacks a certain degree of credibility due to its almost cartoonish and one-dimensional portrayal of certain secondary characters, it is ultimately a text full of heart, and it complies with its goal of giving the reader insight into what it means for trans youth to come-out within contemporary society. Although the coming-out genre may be deemed tiring and overwrought by some readers, Wittlinger’s novel demonstrates how the genre needs to explore alternate coming-out narratives that are not focused solely on white gay/lesbian upper/middle class characters. I loved Luna‘s initial attempt to do this, but ability to establish a strong rapport with the trans character was limited, due to the fact that the trans character’s story was distilled through her sister’s perspective.

Parrotfish begins at the moment when Angela Katz-McNair–the novel’s protagonist–decides to become Grady. Grady chooses this name not only because of its gender neutrality, but also because it contains the word gray within it: “you know, not black, not white. Somewhere in the middle” (6). He initially comes out as a lesbian because he deemed it to be a closer and easier step toward revealing his queer self within his community. He decides to unleash Grady soon after by declaring himself a boy to his family and friends, and by performing masculinity rather than suppressing it: he cuts his own hair very short, he begins to bind his breasts with a bandage, and he begins to wear traditional male attire. The main tension with the novel is Grady’s fear of losing touch with his past self. By assuming his true gender identity, he fears that he would have to sever his relationship with his past entirely. This is an interesting contrast to Peters’ Luna, for running away from the past is not presented as an option for Grady. He wants to embody his true gender, but in doing so, he does not want to lose a connection to everything that has shaped him.

In my opinion, the most interesting parts of this novel were those that explored not only the emotional difficulties of transitioning from a female to a male gender, but also the physical difficulties of said transition. Peter’s Luna, for instance, focuses more on the emotional torment that its transgender character faces. Luna does express physical torment, especially during the scene in which the trans character, as a child, tries to cut off his penis (as shown through the protagonist’s flashback); these physical accounts, however, are rare. Given that Wittlinger’s novel is told through the perspective of the FTM transgender protagonist, I was expecting a more nuanced understanding of the physical pains of transitioning–and the novel delivers in this aspect. For instance, Grady constantly remarks on how painful it is to breathe and to engage in physical activity when his breasts are bound with tight bandages (even though he is fortunate enough to have small breasts). Grady also expresses the difficulty of determining what bathroom to use in his high school, ultimately avoiding the decision because his understanding gym teacher allows him to use her private bathroom and shower. A particularly insightful scene in the novel in terms of the physical pains of transitioning takes place when Grady explains how he feels towards menstruation while experiencing it:

now I was a boy who had just started his period and was probably bleeding all over his jockey shorts. Yeah, that was normal. Even my own body betrayed me on a regular basis. What was I supposed to do now? Crap. I could feel the cramps advancing. The gym and Ms. Unger’s bathroom were half a mile away from my locker. By the time I ran down there I’d be a mess. (59-60)

Menstruation highlights the tension that exists between Grady’s mind and his body. It also becomes an experience of active struggle for Grady, for although he is trying to be a boy, menstruation coerces his masculinity to clash vis-a-vis the femininity he is trying to suppress. For instance, when Grady is suffering from menstrual cramps, he refuses to acknowledge to them to his mother because it “seemed like an argument against what I’d been trying to prove to her” (61). Thus, even when embodying his true gender, Grady realizes that performativity is still necessary when it comes to expressing truth.

Going back to the fact that this novel is a bit unrealistic, I want to focus on Grady’s fear of not losing his entire past by embodying a different gender (prepare for major spoilers). Towards the end of the novel, most of the tensions that Grady had with other characters vanish entirely. He mends his relationship with his best friend, Eve, after she helps him avoid a cruel prank that other students were planning against him. His family, most of which showed apprehension towards his transition, rapidly become entirely accepting of him. Even the novel’s bully, the nefarious queen bee Danya, faces suspension from Grady’s high school and is ultimately humiliated by other students at the winter dance. The message is clear: to thine own self be true, and not only will everyone accept you, but your bullies will face karmic consequences for their insidious actions.

Not only does Grady’s past relationships stay intact, but his life improves in almost every aspect imaginable. This outcome may be approached my some as misguided, because it undermines the difficulties and the non-teleological struggles of being transgender. Unlike the LGB side of the spectrum, trans youths not only have to come out, but their coming-out entails performative and physical changes that inevitably invoke a contrast between the before and the after. Although I absolutely adore the positive and optimistic message that the novel presents, I can’t help but wonder if the novel is too optimistic and naive when it comes to the issues that transgender teens face. Not all transgender teens are going to be lucky enough to be accepted by every single member of their immediate family. Not all transgender teens will find love and support as easily as Grady does. Peters’ Luna, on the other hand, shows both sides of the spectrum in terms of the consequences of coming out as transgender to one’s family: some quietly accept, some have no issue with it whatsoever, and others react with outrage and at times violence.

I reiterate that I completely understand Wittlinger’s utopian depiction of a transgender future–but I question whether the novel should’ve been more realistic when considering the outcomes of this distinctive coming-out process. I’m especially anxious to know how transgender readers feel about the general approach and conclusions that this novel presents. Regardless of its shortcomings, Parrotfish is well worth a read, and it provides some excellent food for thought. I particularly recommend the novel to readers who are not really aware of the nuances of gender, especially when it comes to matters such as performativity and gender construction. Those who are aware of these nuances might find the novel a bit too obvious and didactic, despite its warm, humorous, and fast-paced nature.

You can purchase a copy of Wittlinger’s novel here.

Work Cited

Wittlinger, Ellen. Parrotfish. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. Print (Hardcover edition).

Fear

On Uncertainty and Fear

When I took a survey of early English literature as an undergrad, I inevitably had to tackle a text that virtually every English major is bound to encounter during their studies: Beowulf. During our discussion of the text, my professor and friend, Dr. Nickolas Haydock, asked us why the text’s infamous creature (Grendel) instilled so much fear to other characters within the text, and presumably, to the reader. After much debate and speculation, Dr. Haydock looked at us with a stern face and said: “Grendel instills fear because so little is known about him.”

Prior to that moment, I never really approached fear as a lack of knowledge. However, something within that idea resonated within me, perhaps because it alludes to a simple and indisputable truth: we all fear the unknown, and when we are forced to confront it, inner chaos and turmoil ensue. When something can be explained or understood, it loses its capacity to frighten and to stir negative emotions.

I think horror movies are a good example of this notion. For instance, John Carpenter’s 1978 movie Halloween scared millions of viewers, not only because it included the obvious thrills and scares, but also because the movie’s villain–the one and only Michael Myers– remains a mystery. Why was he troubled? What was his motive to kill? We are never offered answers to these questions. Michael Myers could ostensibly be anyone. Fast-forward to 2007, a year in which Rob Zombie re-imagined the film and gave Michael Myers a back-story and the motive. The sense of enigma that electrified the fear in the original movie became nothing but an undetectable spark in the remake.

I invoked the notion of fear for a reason. Sure, Halloween is just around the corner and mischief is in the air, but I encountered fear distilled through an unexpected source: Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Sure, we encounter fear that is portrayed in a typical fashion–we are unaware of what is going on throughout the development of the plot, we are unable to explain the strange occurrences happening within the San Dominick, and we encounter a strange, seemingly symbiotic relationship between a white Spanish captain and a “meek” African slave. But the novella as a whole invoked another sense of fear: the fear of uncertainty.

This text was extremely slow, especially when considering that it is in essence a maritime narrative. However, towards the end, I expected a payoff for my efforts–I expected all the pieces to fit together. And  things definitely made more sense with the “grand reveal,” or should I say, with the “removal of the canvas.” But even though the pieces are put together, I am still left in the dark, and I am unable to envision the entire picture. Benito Cereno continues to be bizarre and nonsensical. It refuses to fit itself in a mold, and it refuses to provide direct and concrete answers.

What makes Benito Cereno so fearful is its ambiguity–its refusal to be explained, especially when approaching the issue of race. The more I think I come closer to determining the meaning and the root of the racial tensions in the novella, the less I become certain with my convictions. Race in American 19th Century literature is indeed a provoking ambiguity, especially when focusing on race as an empancipatory dialectic. I think this definitely became clear as I paid attention to a course discussion on Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Do we want to claim that the elimination of the interracial couple from the novel’s equation was an affirmation of Cooper’s racism, or do we want to view it as an emancipatory affirmation? Consider how this notion becomes polemical when we realize that Cooper puts so much effort into infusing exorbitant amounts of pathos into these two doomed characters.

I think a similar issue manifests within Benito Cereno, but the voltage of this issue is increased tenfold. We see a reversal of the white owner – black slave binary, and Melville depicts a “world” in which the white slave succumbs to the wishes of the black master. And indeed, I think it is easy for some readers to find the actions of the slaves questionable, manipulative and revolting. After all, they successfully managed to overthrow the Spanish colonists and turn the remaining survivors into puppets. I can only begin to imagine how one of Melville’s contemporary readers would’ve approached the topic: they either would’ve been shocked or completely disgusted. But is something worthwhile achieved by shocking the audience? Will it lead them to realize that the actions of these slaves are no different to the actions committed by white slave masters?

I think it’s easier for today’s readers to feel much more sympathy for the enslaved Africans (I certainly did). After all, they were taken against their will from their homeland in order to attend to the needs of someone from a different racial and cultural background. Talk about abuses of power! Modern readers would probably view the slaves’ actions as completely justifiable and Karmic.

But, to justify their actions is to justify murder, is it not? Perhaps both the white Spaniards and the slaves should be scrutinized critically, but then again, wasn’t it the Spaniards who ripped out the African natives from their homeland in the first place? What we are observing here is a struggle between power and blame, and it’s interesting to see how power circulates through the members of the San Dominick in an almost Foulcaudian fashion. I know that we now live in the time where the notion of the “death of the author” predominates, and that a once a text is circulated, it no longer belongs to its writer. However, I can’t help but speculate what Melville’s views towards race were, and what conceptions of race he was trying to project in the narrative. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to pin this down.

I think that this difficulty is due mostly to the metamorphosing depiction of both races throughout the progression of the novella. At first, Melville seems to depict both whites and blacks in a very egalitarian fashion:

While left alone with them, he was not long in observing some things tending to heighten his first impressions; but surprise was lost in pity, both for the Spaniards and blacks, alike evidently reduced from scarcity of water and provisions; while long-continued suffering seemed to have brought out the less good-natured qualities of the negroes, besides, at the same time, impairing the Spaniard’s authority over them. But under the circumstances, precisely this condition of things was to have been anticipated. In armies, navies, cities, or families, in nature herself, nothing more relaxes good order than misery. (170)

Notice that the lack of provisions and of material necessities such as food as put both blacks and whites on the same level: misery and suffering provides a bind that makes them equal. On that boat, they are all beings capable of suffering. Misery in this ship leads blacks to increase power while causing whites to lose it. But notice as well that Melville clearly depicts this leveling between the slaves and the Spaniards as a natural disorder–a parody of how things should “naturally” be. Is Melville trying to be satirical? Is he trying to be emancipatory? Is he critical? Or is he simply embracing the attitudes predominant during the time? It’s nearly impossible to tell… it seems to be deliberately ambiguous. This sense of uncertainty is simply frightening.

The ambiguity of race attitudes is manifested in other parts of the novella as well, particularly in the instance in which Captain Delano witnesses one of the oakum-pickers striking a Spanish boy with a knife simply because he did not like a word that this boy used. Once again, the act can indeed be interpreted as transgressive, but is this any different from the way slaves were typically treated by whites? Captain Delano is obviously appalled with this occurrence: “Had such a thing happened on board the Bachelor’s Delight, instant punishment would have followed” (180). However, we see that Benito Cereno approaches the event with a degree of nonchalance, stating that the action “was merely the sport of the lad” (180). Indeed, I thought at first that Melville was once again peppering the narrative with hints of egalitarianism: whites deserve to be treated equally to how the slaves are treated. But this sense of equality ultimately becomes moot when we figure out that Cereno was making no big deal of the situation because the slaves threatened him. What I first thought was liberation was actually the exertion of power disguised as goodwill.

I fear that there is no solution to how Melville approached the creation of Benito Cereno, and the purpose behind its crafting will forever be unknowable. That is the fallacy of speculation: it’s simply difficult to reach a solid conclusion. Not knowing is indeed uncomfortable… but it is precisely this invocation of fear that leads to critical thinking. What answers or insights are provided by the act of NOT knowing? Even more importantly, are knowing and not knowing binary constructs, or is there something in between these two concepts that we are unable to see? Isn’t that an ultimate manifestation of the fear of the unknown… that the knowledge we use to interpret the world prevents us from finding or even being able to perceive gray areas?

Perhaps Melville didn’t have an exact purpose when it came to race. Perhaps he simply wanted to confuse us. Perhaps he wanted us to struggle in a way that he struggled in his own life. I think it is safe to say that the unknown definitely frightened Melville, and in due course, it made him miserable. With that in mind, it is no wonder that this story relaxes “good order.”

References:

Billy Budd, Sailor and Selected Tales by Herman Melville

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net