Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Stranger's Child


In 1913, George Sawle brings the young poet Cecil Valance to his home, called Two Acres. There, he meets Daphne Sawle, Beorge's younger sister. After a week, Cecil leaves, but not before writing Daphne a poem about Two Acres. Cecil joins the Army and promptly dies in action, and with his death, his poem takes on mythical proportions. The Stranger's Child tracks the history of this family, the history of the poem, and the social history of English from 1913 to 2008.

It's unfortunate for Julian Barnes that I read The Stranger's Child so quickly after A Sense of an Ending. Not only does Hollinghurst's novel have a larger canvas, with room for nuance and depth, but Hollinghurst benefits from a particularly refined style of prose, one without obvious signposts directing the reader's attention to important themes. Both novels are similar in terms of the macrocosm: both have a revelation in the final pages, both are about the intersection of memory and history, and both follow an aging cast through the years. A Sense of an Ending, however, uses the pretense of an older man looking backwards. The Stranger's Child, with its focus on the shifting perspective of the past, takes a provisional look at history. What is lost in memory is lost in history, Hollinghurst seems to say.

If it seems like a discredit to either to compare one grand social novel to a smaller shorter novel about one man, then it is simply in service of showing how out of step this year's Booker judges were. In purposefully selecting a "readable" novel (in this case, substitute "readable" for "brief"), the judges have left out of the short list a great novel. The Stranger's Child is irrefutably a fantastic novel, filled with gorgeous, nimble and deft prose, sharpyl drawn characters that change and grow with time, and huge lofty ambitions. This is a novel about the temporal aspect of art, the changing social landscape, and what Jacques Rancière calls the distribution of the sensible. Only through the vale of time can something build meaning, which is an overly reductionist reading of his theory. None of these things are explicitly referenced in Hollinghurst's novel. Instead, he allows the story and semiotics to do the work, to allow the reader to understand what is being said about art and time. On top of this intellectual pursuit of art and knowledge, Hollinghurst engages in a social history of gays in England through the 20th century, building on what he did previously in The Line of Beauty.

The Stranger's Child is not merely an exercise in symbolism or social history, but also a deeply affecting portrait of socially unacceptable love throughout time. George and Cecil's dalliances in the woods at Two Acres are heartbreaking in that both of them will be required to marry of the opposite sex, and cannot engage in their affair openly. Hollinghurst returns to this pain in a tacit manner, allowing the heartbreak to filter through the mists of time thanks to the work of subsequent protagonists further into the novel. Hollinghurst employs similar tactics in this novel as in The Line of Beauty to naturalize the love affair as normalized. This is a fancy way of saying that The Stranger's Child remains a love story, despite its interest in grand themes of time and art.

Some famous author once said that there is a tendency to overpraise longer novels because of the sense of accomplishment accompanying the completion of the novel. A corollary of this is that there is an anxiety that "easy" means "less valuable". Using both of these axioms, one could argue that A Sense of An Ending is qualitatively superior to The Stranger's Child because it is succinct and a much more palatable read. I would completely disagree. The Stranger's Child is a monumental work of English fiction in part because of its wide canvas, its incorporation of a history of art and a social history, and because of its tricky structure. The Stranger's Child does more than Barnes' slight work because there is simply more room to work with, and has much more to say about the intersection of memory and history. Ultimately, Hollinghurst's novel says something complicated about the transformation of art through the ages whereas Barnes says something slight about the mysts of memory and the starkness of history. It helps that Hollinghurst's novel can be mapped into Hayden White's The Burden of History and Barnes' ideas can be dismissed as overly reductionist.

I cannot help but compare the two thanks to a similarity of theme and because they fit into the matrix of social novels that English writers seem to excel at. Suffice it to say, that even without Barnes' novel scuttling underneath the looming shadow of The Stranger's Child, I would have still loved Hollinghurst's novel. Of the Booker nominees I have read, this is surely the best and most deserving of the award. However, its exclusion from even the shortlist simply speaks the Booker's inability to remain relevant.

Friday, November 25, 2011

English 3000 - Ireland and History - Irish Fiction from 1985 onwards

The culture of Ireland is often seen as being rooted in the past, either nostalgic for a simpler way of life, or a compulsion to revisit traumatic events in political history. This course will look at a small sampling of Irish fiction that is concerned with the past, stretching from the First World War to the Easter Uprising to the 80's. Throughout this course, the spectre of war, the IRA, and the Troubles looms over the works we will be studying. The literature studied in this course will range from drama to detective fiction, all with the works dealing with historical fiction. As with other courses with such factual basis, there will be a heavy reliance on history, resulting in the necessity of select historical articles, on reserve at the library and online.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness
At Swim Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill
Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel
The Sea by John Banville
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
Amongst Women by John McGahern
Borderlands by Brian McGilloway

Select films will also be screened. Attendance is mandatory.
Michael Collins. Dir Neil Jordan. 1996.
In The Name of the Father. Dir Jim Sheridan. 1993.

Assignments:
Close Reading 1 (750 words) - 10%
Term Essay 1 (1500-2000 words) - 15%
Close Reading 2 (750 words) - 10%
Term Essay 2 (2000-2500 words) - 25%
Participation and attendance - 10%
Final Exam - 30%

Students will notice that At Swim Two Boys is a rather large novel, and it is strongly recommended that they attempt a head start on the novel as soon as possible. As well, students will notice that the books are organized in a rough chronological order based on subject matter rather than publication date.

[This is the third in a series of hypothetical syllabuses that I have created for when I eventually teach.]

The Slap: E05-E08


In the previous post, I talked about how excellent the show is, due mostly to the acting and the complicated layers of characters being displayed. I also mentioned how strong the structure of the series is, using each of the novel's eight narrators as a focal character for one episode apiece. In the first four episodes, the series examined Hector, Anouk, Harry and Connie. In the second half, the focal characters are Rosie, Manoulis, Aisha and finally Richie.

While the first half set up the titular slap, and most of the character work, the second half appears to be about the fallout, the repercussions. The fifth episode, Rosie's chance in the spotlight, has the cast reunite for the first time, but in the context of the court case. It's not difficult to imagine the structure of the series being mirrored, made up of two halves, as per my review, although the decision to do so was arbitrary and unrelated. Episodes five through eight, while observing different characters, espouse a darker view of its cast than previously, and this is especially true in the fifth episode.

Opening on Rosie in the bath, Hugo's cries have caused her breasts to lactate, clearly a symbol of her strong maternal instinct. Rosie's breast-feeding of Hugo has been an implicit taboo subject among the cast; none of them want to tell Rosie that it's not healthy, but they cannot. Finally, it takes an outsider, a manipulative barrister, to point out that Rosie is still breast-feeding Hugo, who is four years old, old enough for solid foods. It's this scene in particular, coming at the halfway point of the episode, in fact, that perfectly captures the tone and nuance used by the entire series. With Rosie on the witness stand, Harry's attorney takes the strategy of discrediting the complainant by exposing her husband's alcoholism, Rosie's imbibing despite breast-feeding, and in general, her own incompetency as a mother.

Previously, the series has positioned Rosie as not quite all there, overly emotional and above all else, in the wrong in regards to Hugo's slap. She should have been disciplining her child or Harry was simply defending his own child from Hugo's cricket bat swing. The fifth episode challenges that position by forcing the viewer to sympathize with her. It does so by having the barrister attack her, badger her, and force her to admit that at a barbecue, there was a tacit agreement among the adults to simply supervise the children without getting hung up on specifics, which led to a lack of discipline on the part of particular parents.

The other way that the series generates sympathy in the viewer is using the Muslim family as counterpoint. Unlike Gary, Bilal is a strong family man, a strong father, who doesn't drink, who is intense and in shape, essentially, Gary's opposite. After the court debacle, Gary goes to the pub, and Rosie, drunk and high, shows up at Bilal's house, demanding help in retrieving her husband. He quietly and intensely drives her to the pub, enters and quietly tells Gary that it's time for him to go home. Gary refuses and yells at Rosie, so the would-be saviors of Gary return to the car and sit for a few moments. All of this is done without music, without dramatic flair. It's simply the actors doing their best.

When Bilal brings Rosie and Hugo home, there's this moment where Rosie looks up at the tall handsome Muslim man, and he stops her before anything can happen. He tells her to go the kitchen where he proceeds to tell her that she has bad blood, that she and her family should have nothing to do with his family. She reminds him of a life that he has put behind him, thanks to God and family, and he never wants to see her again. It's a devastating scene if only because what Rosie needs most right now is a strong role model, a person to whom she can look up. It's what she needs, and it's cruelly denied her on the dint of bad behavior. It's particularly hard to watch if only because these characters don't know how to fix what's wrong.

Episodes 6 and 7 are increasingly uncomfortable for the viewer. Each time the particular fcal character transgresses the commonly held social boundaries, the viewer squirms, completely at unease. At the gathering after a funeral, Manolis gets into a pushing match with a former friend, falls and ends up screaming at Koula, wishing she would die but she never will. In the middle of a coffee shop, Aishe reveals to Rosie something that could have helped the case, and Rosie screams at her, belittling her, and reminding her of the middle class perfection she has, despite the fact that Aishe's marriage is falling apart. Each of these scenes are painful, not only for the characters but the viewer. The problem is that there is no catharsis. There is no relief. And it's all internal. These characters, if they could just speak to each other, if they make the other understand what they are going through, then these situations could be avoided, but everybody represses, everybody internalizes and there's no outlet save for transgressive behaviour.

Aishe's episode is devastating. Hector reveals to her that he fooled around with a girl, but refuses to name her while at the same time, Aishe flirts with the idea of flirting with a handsome and worldly vet interested in global solutions. His exotic manner and talk of far away places contrasts with Hector's white, Greek and decidedly middle class position. This new vet, Art, even manages to remind Aishe that she is the only person of colour in the extended family. Later, when Hector reveals the affair, Aishe wants to know if the girl is white. The racial tension that has existed, the immigrant's perspective, then Aishe's episode brings that to light, exposing that even in a community of "others", Aishe herself is an "other".

Near the end of the episode, the true victims of the slap come to light, but in a peripheral way, which appears to be the series' true interest. During a quiet dinner, Aishe and Hector discuss going to Harry's for his son's birthday party, but Aishe doesn't want to talk about it. Her son tells her to chill and she leaves in a huff, with her son wondering what the hell caused this. In the sly manner that the series traffics in, the victim has slipped past the viewer. The literal victim of the slap, Rosie's son Hugo, is not just a victim of Harry's slap, but of Rosie's selfish negligent parenting. Aishe and Hector's son is a victim of his parents' narcissistic parenting. The children aren't innocent; they're products of a family that's too screwed up and too concerned with the pleasures of the self. It seems that the only character who is morally good is Anouk. She's the only one that doesn't choose to procreate, therefore she cannot taint a child with her poisonous life.

The Slap's interest seems to be in the marginalia of this world. While ostensibly starting the show with the lead character, Hector, each episode follows a path down a line of importance. Aishe is peripheral to the slap, Manolis is peripheral to the slap, and Richie, the eighth episode's focal character, is less important than anybody. If The Slap's main concept derives from the marginal people in Australia, then its true target is the people on the margin of the margin. Going further down this road takes us to the symbols on the edges, such as Anouk's novel about the wild past of the three girls, or Connie's necklace, or the car that Harry gives to Hector that breaks down at the most inopportune moment (figuratively and literally). These are more important symbols than the slap itself.

The peripheral elements come to a head with the final episode, on Richie. This is a powerful and disturbing episode. His growing obsession with Connie's assertion that Hector raped her has caused irreparable damage in his friendship with Connie. Plus, Richie has developed a unhealthy complex relating to his attraction to Hector. Is he obsessed with Hector because of Connie or because the inability to ever attain Hector has been concretized through the revelation of the rape? Richie hates himself and does not understand his attraction to Hector. He tells himself he is a pervert, after he has failed to masturbate to the hetero porn laying about his ne'er-do-well father's apartment, but he succeeds in masturbating to the illicitly gained picture of Hector.

It climaxes in an believably tense scene in which Richie finally spills the beans to the worst people to spill the beans to: Gary and Rosie. They march him down to the vet's office, where in front of his mother, Richie is forced to reveal the truth to Aishe. At that moment, Connie comes in the scene, and exposes the allegation as a lie, causing the focus of attention to shift on Richie, with claims of "freak" and "pervert" being thrown about. Richie runs home after being told by his mother that she is ashamed of him. He takes a bottle of pills. His mother comes home and saves his life, all conveyed in the most heartwrenching and effective style. If I thought that episode 5 and 7 were hard to watch, those were nothing.

Luckily, The Slap doesn't hate the viewer, and rewards them for making it through the series. We see Aishe rightfully leave Hector (only to return, but in an ambiguous way), Gary and Rosie leaving for a fresh start, Harry and his wife watching the ultrasound of their new addition, Richie apologizing to Hector, and more importantly, Richie and Connie reconciling. She takes him to a music festival, where Richie ends up enjoying his first kiss with a cute boy that's interested in him. It's a textbook example of catharsis.

It ends in a beautiful way, climaxing with the character least connected to the slap itself, but the main story has ended, multiple times. Rosie and Aishe have separated in a previous episode, Anouk has come to terms with her life, Harry might have realized the error of his ways, Manoulis comes to understand his wife and his life, etc etc etc. Structurally speaking, each episode ends in a climax and a resolution, but there is a larger story to be told. This is a drama about the suburb, about the immigrant experience in Australia, about heteronormative relationships, about secrets and lie, about social situations gone horribly wrong, and mostly, it's about the way we treat our family, the damage we cause, and the fact that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.

The Slap is a masterpiece. This is not going to be the last time I write about this. Each episode grabbed me and I held on. It's an exhausting show, but it feels emotionally real. I never felt manipulated or condescended to. Even the overly emotional sections, such as Richie's suicide attempt or Connie's attempt to seduce Hector, these never felt artificial, they felt organic, growing from the characters themselves. Each character was so fully realized by the actors. A special mention must go to Sophie Okonedo as Aishe, who absolutely fucking kills in her role. Her face is so unbelievably expressive. With just a slight change to her mouth, Okonedo is able to convey so much pain and so much misery. It's stunning. But all of the actors were great, even Connie, playing the lightest of all the characters.

I loved this show. If you haven't already guessed. Enough to contemplate reading the novel, despite my problems with the prose. I think I'm going to give it a try....

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Obasan


Naomi is a sheltered and quiet five year old Japanese Canadian, whose life is irrevocably changed when Canada institutes the War Measures Act in response to the Pearl Harbor attack. Now seen as enemy aliens, her family, among hundreds of other families, is taken to internment camps where they are separated from the rest of Canada in a misguided and frankly racist act. She is protected by the silence of her aunt, her Obasan, even years later, when Naomi revisits the trauma.

On the back of my Penguin edition paperback, Kerri Sakamoto claims that Obasan is "an internationally acclaimed, widely studied novel firmly entrenched in the Canadian literary canon." Notice that this cover blurb, and it is a blurb while unconventional, makes no mention of the novel's literary merits beyond its "entrenchment" in the canon. While this quote is out of context, and in her introduction Sakamoto remarks on the literary qualities, this shows that Obasan is heralded because it is studied. This is a novel that is more prized for being important than for being a good novel.

It is certainly a very important work of social awareness. The internment of Japanese-Canadians was not taught in my high school history classes, and I took quite a few, across a broad spectrum. In my history class that explicitly focused on the World War Two era, there was absolutely no mention of the forced segregation of Japanese-Canadians. I might remind my readers that I live in and went to school in Canada, the nation that cannot let go of its past, as manifested in its literature.

Why then is this ugly aspect of our shared history rarely mentioned? Perhaps it is shame. Perhaps it is something white Canadians would like to sweep under the carpet. This shame is preventing students from learning about this extremely important facet of our national history. To borrow from my professor, awareness of this history shatters our national mythology. To be told the truth is discomforting. Perhaps that is another reason why Obasan was not taught in my high school, in that it raises some serious questions about the cultural identity that we share and experience, questions that are inherently accusative and interrogative of the government. Because of this, Obasan should be taught in high school.

Of course, the danger in teaching a novel is that the reader will resent the text, as it is forced unwillingly on the reader. Everybody has examples from school, examples of texts they despised, if only by dint of mandatory reading. Many people have admitted to hating, say, The Grapes of Wrath, and then later re-reading it for pleasure and discovering a love for the novel. Perhaps, it is more important for readers to appreciate the historical background of Obasan than it is to enjoy it on an aesthetic level.

In four paragraphs, I have yet to mention whether or not I liked reading Obasan. By using history and social significance, I am purposefully delaying, or even, deflecting the reveal of my own opinion. Sometimes, the opinion of the individual is irrelevant. In the case of Obasan, it couldn't matter less. Obasan is an important work of art because it points the reader to a time and place of great shame. Obasan is the hand that pushes the dog's face into the mess it left behind. Obasan's strengths as an aesthetic experience are far less important than its didactic motives.

Literary importance can sometimes be synonymous with "critic-proof". Nobody in their right mind proclaims Hamlet or The Great Gatsby as a failure. Any lack of success in reading "great" or "important" texts is a failure of the reader, and not of the text. There are some texts that be universally accepted as "great" or "the best".

This is utterly false. No text is "critic-proof". Nothing can be universally accepted as "great" or "the best". Any time a text is proclaimed to be one of the best ever, there is often a measure of cultural relativism. This text might be superior in this culture but its portrayal of an experience might be so culturally specific as to be alien to another reader from a different culture. As The Great Gatsby, we move further away from its position as a great text about the Twenties. There will come a moment when the lives of Jay and Daisy seem as alien as the cast of Twelfth Night. (Of course, the counterargument to this is that certain stories or archetypes are indeed universal, and that certain experiences, techniques and modes of communication (non-verbal, musical, etc) can be appreciated by all people.)

My rejection of texts being "critic-proof" leads me to the conclusion that despite Obasan's position as important text, I must, in all good conscious, not abstain from articulating that which I did and did not like about the novel.

Firstly, there is Kogawa's background as a poet. Generally speaking, when poets turn to composing novels, there is an expectation that the prose will be "sumptuous" or "beautiful". Critics expect the poet to produce a higher quality of prose, on a sentence-by-sentence level, than the "regular" novelists. Of course, this translates to a pretension of artful language. Here is an example of Kogawa's use of the poetic language in Obasan:
Silent Mother, you do not speak or write. You do not reach through the night to enter morning, but remain in the voicelessness. From the extremity of much dying, the only sound that reaches me now is the sigh of your remembered breath, a wordless word.
My response to this is, of course, a strenuous rolling of the eyes. What in the world is a sigh of remembered breath? How is a sigh a word? There is another instance earlier in the novel where Kogawa mentions the mountain shrouded in the "weatherless mist". Obviously this is a bizarre contradiction for the sake of a nice turn of phrase. It is irritating and distracting.

Obasan is a novel of two halves that do not coalesce (despite the themes of cohesion within the greater community of Canada). There is the lavish poetic sections of dreams and overly stylized phrasing, and then the stark expository or descriptive prose. The regular prose does the heavy lifting in regards to historical context or whatnot. It is especially jarring when these two modes are close together in a chapter. Many flowery sentences would have been quickly struck through with red marker if this manuscript had been presented anonymously to a modern creative writing course. Perhaps it is unfair to judge Obasan, a thirty year old novel, by the standards of 2011. Or perhaps, as a reader, I am simply impatient with ambitions for poetry. I love a beautiful turn of phrase as much as the next critic, but I prefer, no I demand internal consistency. If there is going to be two modes of communication, they should mesh. If there is going to be poetic language, it should be internally consistent and not partake of contradictions for the sake of a nice phrase.

Despite Kogawa's pretensions to lofty prose, I am utterly enamored of the semiotics of the novel. The themes of the novel, silence and stillness, are represented in a multitude of cooperative elements and symbols. Both water and stones are repeated but all in a context of "repetition with a difference". The very first page and the last page mirror each other in structure and in symbol, but again, with a difference. At the beginning of the novel, Naomi sees a new moon. At the end, she sees a full moon. This represents her newly acquired knowledge of what actually happened to her mother when she disappeared from the internment camp. The moon has been repeated previously in the middle sections, but compared to a white stone; the novel's epigraph makes use of a Biblical passage referring to a stone. The complex tapestry of symbolism is there for the reader to provisionally disentangle, rather than empirically decipher (to borrow heavily from Barthes and Derrida). This can be regarded as Obasan's greatest aesthetic strength.

Obasan is a good novel, in spite of the burden of history being foisted upon it. Obasan, it seems, has been laden with the responsibility of being a didactic text, instead of a text that be artistically appreciated, especially if it is being taught to a group of narcissistic teenagers who no doubt would loathe to admit to enjoying such a text. Of course, this sympathy I express for Obasan is moderated by the fact that Kogawa volunteered to take on this responsibility. This is irrelevant to the dual nature of Obasan: a historiographic metafiction and a work of art to be enjoyed and appreciated.

I might take a moment to say here that "enjoy" is used in the sense of "appreciation" and "evaluation" rather than "pleasure" or "fun". Do not be mistaken, Obasan is a dour novel, full of ugly events that cannot but depress the reader. While this might impact a read "for pleasure" (how can one ever hope to have fun with Obasan?), it cannot be considered a criticism against its importance or its success as a work of art. Obasan is something you should read, rather than something you might want to read.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Sense of an Ending


On the back of the hardcover, just above in the ISBN barcode, in the tiniest font, the book helpfully tells you that this is "Literary Fiction". Not just "fiction" but "Literary". This separates The Sense of an Ending from the rest of the unwashed masses of fiction, the novels without ambition to be about things. Certainly, Julian Barnes' Booker Prize-winning novel is about things. The first paragraph announces these great big themes of time and memory, alerting the reader that this is a Great Work of Fiction about Great Themes.

While this sounds facetious or dismissive, The Sense of an Ending is a readable novel. It helps that its length is easily manageable in one or two sittings. The best compliment I can pay this novel is that at 150 pages, it certainly doesn't overstay its welcome. Its brief length should not distract from the novel's lofty ambitions of theme.

Every novel should aspire to be something other than a ripping good yarn. This is particularly a factor in what differentiates a novel from a story: it does something new. The Sense of an Ending has great aspirations for telling a story about memory, ageing, and history wrapped up in a man's self-centered and average life. Tony Webster, the protagonist, pontificates endlessly about his own history, repeating the compulsion to pick over memories ad infinitum. Memories come to light after being forgotten for forty years, and then eventually, new history comes to light, changing how he perceives everything.

One can see that The Sense of an Ending wants to be a big novel packaged into a shorter more accessible work. It is the novel's compulsion to be literary that makes this story seem less. If there was ever a novel that felt like pure artifice, here it is. The reader can feel Barnes hovering over every sentence, filling it to the brim with meaning and symbolism, until the rather short novel topples over from the author's ambitions to be taken seriously. There is just so much material in this novel that pertains to the classical goals of high art that the story positively suffocates.

Anytime the story threatens to get interesting, Tony/Barnes derails it with long paragraphs about the fickleness of memory, or aphoristic language about old age. This is a novel where each sentence is designed to be the epigraph in another novel. This is not a compliment.

It might appear that I disliked, or even hated, the novel. Far from it. I enjoyed it for what it was, which was a rather simple and cleverly structured novel about history and memory and where the two should meet (again, another theme announced constantly with aphorisms). What prevented me from thoroughly appreciating the novel was the author's unsteady and forced hand, a presence wholly unwelcome. The story, characters, and theme should have done all the work, rather than the author or his arsenal of aphorisms.

Friday, November 18, 2011

English 4000 - Britain on India

In this honours seminar, we will be examining the British perception of India, what they called the jewel of the crown. When India became a colony, Britain had extremely high hopes that they could colonize, govern, civilize and industrialize what they found to be a rather "backwards" country. However, India, just like all nations, is fractious, complex, and has deep history. The colonization of India had an immense effect on the culture of Britain, from fashion to art to literature. In this course, we shall examine works of literature written by the British on the subject of India. The course will be split into two halves: the first term will focus on novels written during colonization, with one written after, but set chronologically first, and the second half will look exclusively at Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, a large and complex work about the end of the British Raj that rewrites Forster's A Passage to India.

First term
Confessions of a Thug by Philip Meadows Taylor
"The Man Who Would Be King" by Rudyard Kipling
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
A Passage to India by E M Forster
The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell

Second term
The Jewel of the Crown
The Day of the Scorpion
The Towers of Silence
A Division of the Spoils
Staying On (time permitting)

In the first term, select films will be screened. Student attendance is mandatory for screenings.
Gandhi. Dir Richard Attenborough. 1982.
The Deceivers. Dir Nicholas Meyers. 1988.

Certain articles will be on e-reserve and in hard copy at the library. Students are responsible for their own copies of the articles.

Assignments:
Close Reading 1 (750 words) - 10%
Term Essay 1 (1500-2000 words) - 15%
Close Reading 2 (750 words) - 10%
Term Essay 2 (2000-2500 words) - 25%
Participation and attendance - 10%
Final Exam - 30%

[This is the second in a series of hypothetical syllabuses that I have created for when I eventually teach.]

Downton Abbey Series 2


There's going to be a special place in my heart for Downton Abbey for a long time. On the day that my long time girlfriend broke up with me, I had to work a night shift. Usually, on these particular evenings, I chose to read, play computer chess, and waste time on the Internet. This night, I was in the middle of Alias Grace, but I just couldn't read. I couldn't concentrate. So I started watching Downton Abbey. I watched the entire first series that night. The theme music now makes me think of that night, and how a simple costume drama, a soap opera, could distract me enough for a night, instead of facing a reality of being dumped (only hours before having to go to work - that doesn't seem fair, does it?).

Now a year later, the second series has aired, and in typical fashion, I waited until the series had completely aired, and then watched eight hours of indulgent period drama over the course of two nights, staying up until four a.m. the first night. There's something complimentary to said about Downton Abbey's addictive properties, the viewer's utter compulsion to return to the country estate and home to some of the most distasteful plot contrivances ever put to screen.

While I neurotically watched the entire thing, drooling over Lady Mary's exquisite beauty and Carson's booming voice, after the show had ended in its predictably cliffhanger way, I kept returning to how irritated I was with the path the plot took.

Really, there are only two interesting things that happened in Downton Abbey: Sybil decides to bash off to Dublin with the chauffeur, and the First World War gingerly touches the house. The Great War only takes away one character for good, and when it threatens to put Cousin Matthew in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, the show mercifully and conveniently returns the use of his legs. After all, he's meant to continue a "will they or won't they" relationship with Mary apparently until the end of the stupid show. Any time the plot moved for these two characters, it was simply a bait and switch - they get closer to admitting their feelings - no wait, let's take his legs.

It's this stick and carrot approach that grows increasingly irritating with the other plots running through the show. Specifically Bates and Anna. Did anyone care about their plot line? If the artifice of the show was apparent with Matthew and Mary, Bates and Anna are the ship's foghorn in the viewer's face. Anna tells Bates that she'll stick by him through anything - immediately cue the twist that Bates' wife is going to come between them.

The lesson in Downton Abbey is to keep your mouth shut and to simply do your work. Anytime you deviate from the norm, such as speak aloud your feelings, the plot rewards you with hardship and heartbreak. No character remains unscathed in the show if only because none of them mind their own goddamn business. Constantly, a character will be pining away or looking sad, and another character will demand they inform them of the matter. "What's the matter" is the most repeated phrase of the entire series, followed closely by the house's name, which is repeated incessantly, perhaps reminding the American viewers of the show that doesn't seem to star anybody famous.

If the primary moral is to maintain silence, then the second one is to remember your place. Downton Abbey's politics seems to codify and rationalize a dead way of life. Only in times of great recession would a television network have the audacity to air an opulent series about a grand traditional aristocratic family doted upon by an army of servants who are constantly being reminded of their station. Even Carson, my beloved booming voice, tells the audience that he hoped the die in Downton Abbey. Truly, his greatest ambition is to serve all his days. Downton Abbey is at pains to remind the staff that their proper place is under service of great benevolent and altruistic people such as the Crawleys. No matter how poorly they behave, Lord Grantham sagely pats them on the head and forgives them. No matter what Bates might have done, Grantham treats him as an equal. There could be no more benevolent families out there, and the show is at pains to convey the dying way of life. The characters mention incessantly that the war is changing everything, and Downton Abbey must remain relevant in this new world, thereby giving justification for the continuing nonessential existence of the aristocratic family. Lady Grantham attempts to justify her decadent lifestyle by arguing that her house produces employment, the hoary canard of the bourgeoisie, if I've ever heard it.

The politics are distasteful, but so is the breakneck pace. It's understandable that the series wants to move through time quickly, but there's something to be said for letting the scenes breathe. For every plot twist, the scene changes rapidly, robbing the viewer of the emotional consequences of the scene itself. When Bates' wife turns out to be dead, there's not a single moment where Bates reflects on the death of his wife, save for Lord Grantham making a cold and callous observation - no doubt intended to mirror Bates' own thoughts. But if Downton Abbey has the aristocratic rich people tell the audience of the servants' emotions, then they are robbing those servants of their voice, thereby asserting superiority over them in all fashion. Like I say, distasteful.

I plan to give the Christmas Special a try, but if the quality dips further than the second series, that will be the last time I watch it, save for reruns of the excellent first series. It's a shame the show became a parody of itself so quickly, but that's how TV shows go from now on, it seems.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Dark Gods - Part Two of Two


"Black Man With Horn"

There comes a time when a pastiche or a parody meets plagiarism, when the new item borrows so heavily from the old that it cannot be said to be original. This story is so obviously Lovecraftian, that it uses quotes from the famed author's journals, and is somewhat directed to Howard himself.

The narrator, an aging author of fantastic tales in the spirit of Lovecraft (which is commented upon, naturally), finds himself drawn into a languorous Lovecraftian story of ancient tribes of foreign people who got up to nasty business and had some sort of privileged position in conversation with matters beyond human reckoning. He meets a former missionary on a plane, who tells him of a long lost tribe, stumbled upon, who made his team disappear, all with ominous tones. The missionary claims to be on the run from the tribe, who wish to silence him lest he announce their existence to the world. Of course, the named tribe is fictitious, and is even cherry-picked from a Lovecraft tale.

Just like in previous stories in this collection, as well as in the Lovecraft tradition, things do not end like one expects. There is no confrontation with the beast. There is no showdown or climax to speak of. Rather, the horror comes from the narrator finally understanding the vast and unfathomable horror at the heart of the story, the horror that the reader is already prepared for.

"Black Man With Horn" fails because of the metafiction. The reader is familiar with Lovecraft; therefore the end cannot be a surprise. All of the "beats" that the story hits are ones previously used by Lovecraft himself. This is where the aforementioned criticism of plagiarism comes into play. There is nothing new in "Black Man With Horn" except for one clever part where the narrator sees a John Coltrane album cover featuring the man and his horn, and the narrator immediately makes the very racist comparison between the eponymous man and the jazz legend.

If the racial politics of the other two stories were superficial and excusable, this story left me uncomfortable. A leering grinning black youth mischievously shadows a nice white family of tourists. A silent black man works as a porter. A couple of "half-naked" youths loiter on the steps near the narrator's apartment. The narrator is told explicitly that due to the increase in black people, his neighbourhood is inherently unsafe. This story makes it increasingly hard to forgive the racism as a knowing and ironic reference to Lovecraft, a notorious bigot.

Other than the structural faults and xenophobic tones, the story is boring. Nothing substantial happens until the very end, at which time the narrator explicitly reminds us that in real life, there are no neat endings or even endings at all. Then the last few paragraphs hit the reader with the horror, hoping to shock them. It only sort of works. I suppose that any success the story might have with me is because of my enthusiasm for Lovecraftian horror and for the goodwill generated by the two previous stories. This is easily the weakest of the three that I've read so far.


"Nadelman's God"

On a whim, Nadelman and his future wife go to the open house party at an S&M club in New York. This is what they encounter when they arrive.
...nearly all the customers were men. Most of them appeared to be out-of-town businessmen in search of pickups or simply someone to talk to, or perhaps just a good story to bring back to St. Paul. In the dim light they looked lost and faintly embarrassed. There were only a half a dozen women in the room, including a homely girl with a flat, pock-marked face who strolled among the drinkers in nothing but black panties, a somewhat dazed smile, and a pair of heavy chains fastened in an X across her sad, sagging little breasts.
This is absolutely gorgeous description, conveying the sadness and the feeling of things being forced.

This story is more of a character piece than simply a horror story. It's also the longest story in the collection, taking its sweet time in explaining the personal history of the main character. With the tone of authors such as Richard Ford, Klein sketches out the meek small life of Nadelman: his advertising job, his too-nice wife, his blank slate of a son, his cliched affair on the other side of the city. He used to have ambition; he published a long poem in his college's newspaper, detailing the existence of a god, rival to Yahweh. This new god is one of mischief and injustice, taking pleasure in torturing humanity.

If the other stories in this collection present a worldview of fatalism, then this story attempts to explicate how this ideology could be born within a normal man. As a child then teen, Nadelman was confronted with the injustice and lack of logic in the world. Why did bad things happen to good people? Using twisted logic, Nadelman justifies the meaningless deaths in the world as the victims deserving their fate for whatever slight he can imagine. Reaching his late teens, early twenties, he re-positions the blame on the inherent lack of God in the world, rather than the insanity of God. The poem he eventually writes, made up of scribblings from his childhood and fragments of dreams, coalesces and refines the idea of a rival god, one who is playing a cosmic joke.

The thrust of the story is that some rock band finds the poem, uses it as lyrics to a turgid adolescent attempt at occultism, and some looney in Long Island thinks it's a recipe for conjuring up a god. The story details all sorts of creepy coincidences and spooky happenings, all with cold detached lyricism. Eventually, the story ends just as the others do: with the implication rather than the reveal.

"Nadelman's God" might be the most obfuscating and obtuse of all four stories. The "god" is kept at arm's length - no, kept in another borough of a gigantic city, and is never ever detailed in any satisfactory way. It's not even clear whether the god is a product of Nadelman or that Nadelman simply had some sort of epiphany at a young age, a moment where he discerned the truth. Both of these options are handled equally. Nadelman is positioned as a skeptic, thinking that people who claim to know the real truth often know less than the supposedly ignorant people, which is ironic if Nadelman did indeed have insight in the vast workings of the cosmos. However, there is a parallel made between Yahweh creating this rival god and Nadelman as an author. The concept of Nadelman as a creator, and "author" as "god" is implied as well. Each possibility for the rival god is touched on with equal weight, making an ultimate theory seemingly impossible. This is, of course, to the story's credit.

While I liked this story, and can probably appreciate its Lovecraftian elements as the superior pastiche out of all of them, I felt it to be a rather cold and sparse story. When so much narrative time is spent on developing the (in)humanity of the main character, then the horror elements are left somewhat unformed or malnourished, to borrow a metaphor from the book. I still rather enjoyed the story, but it's certainly not the most engaging. It's too cerebral and theological to be effective or scary. It does exemplify the author's style perfectly, encapsulating all of the themes and tricks, as if the previous three stories were warm-ups for this grand finale.

All this book has done has stoked the fires of anticipation for Klein's sole novel, The Ceremonies. Although, overall I still really liked this collection. After all, I ended up writing over 2,000 words on a 260 page short story collection.

[This is the second of two posts reviewing T. E. D. Klein's collection of long stories called Dark Gods]

Friday, November 11, 2011

Dark Gods - Part One of Two


"Children of the Kingdom"

I suppose that it is rather fitting, considering the author's academic background in Lovecraft, that the overall tone of this longer story is of racial paranoia. Set in New York City in 1977, the first person narrator, presumably T. E. D. Klein himself as he is referred to as Mr Klein, details helping his infirm but jovial grandfather into a resting home in Brooklyn, in a neighbourhood that's not quite gentrified and not quite a jungle. "Children of the Kingdom" while superficially a horror story, is more of a social document of a singular place in a singular time. The elderly white occupants of the resting home express fear and distrust of the blacks that seem to have them surrounded. The narrator offers many bits and pieces from newspapers and from senior citizens of the racial violence and creeping atmosphere.

It's inevitable that this simmering violence comes to a boil when the power goes out, during the famous blackout of 1977. People engage in looting, rioting, and fighting all the while the narrator and his wife are separated, which ends in a way not expected.

As a long story, Klein takes the time to develop the cast, the narrator, his grandfather, and his new friend, a Costa Rican priest who harbours some bizarre theories on the origin of man. In scenes delicately written without the onslaught of exposition, the priest explains to the narrator that he believes that man came from Costa Rica and that they eventually migrated due to the violence of another group of people. "Another tribe?" the narrator asks. The priest explains that they are God's mistake, the original children who didn't quite look like God. They attacked the prehistoric men, but were cursed by God, unable to procreate amongst themselves, so the cursed men rape the prehistoric women.

One can already feel Lovecraft's influence on this story: an ancient alternate history, the fear of miscegenation, and the slow building of details. However, Klein is not writing an homage or a pastiche. Using a mixture of character development and a subtle integration of background material, the reader is able to put together the horror at the heart of the story.

It doesn't climax with gore or with an epic showdown. No, it climaxes in a heartbreaking and rather transgressive manner, frustrating no doubt many readers who prefer their endings nice and neat. It's a slow burn of a story, but it works thanks to Klein's synthesis of Lovecraftian horror and a very careful social eye. There's an obvious parallel being made between differing neighbourhoods of New York, being made between white people and black people, and even being made between the old and the young. The structure of the story allows such interpretation. However, the racial politics in this story are quite distasteful for a modern reader. The implication that the blacks of the city are primitive and prehistoric and uncivilized is souring, but not fatally so. Other than this questionable view of race (which might simply be a knowing and ironic reference to Lovecraft), "Children of the Kingdom" is a successful and unnerving horror story, worthy of the master himself.

"Petey"

Some of the most effective stories in horror fiction use implication rather than description. The details in the margins accumulate, allowing the reader to put together an image of horror that scares better in their imagination than if the author had simply announced it and dumped it on the page. "Petey" works only because of the margins.

Using the narrative device of a cocktail party celebrating the homeowners' recent purchase of a stately rural mansion, Klein colours the edges of the house and of the story with odd little scraps that eventually build up in suspense and in terror.

This isn't entirely successful however. Klein has thirty named characters in a story of just over 50 pages. The benefit of this is that there is no shortage of people talking, non-stop talking, but the downside is that at least two thirds of these named character are entirely superfluous. "Petey" is reminiscent of William Gaddis' approach to dialogue; Klein piles on the speech and conversation, using little descriptive language until characters are isolated.

The other part that just doesn't quite work is the story's interest in the Tarot, specifically in the second half of the story. As a device, it works to stall and provide suspense. Details emerge, and the horror begins to take shape, but Klein slows the reveal by having the party people play with Tarot cards, all with heavy symbolic undertones, of course. While the suspense works, the use of the Tarot cards are clumsy and kind of childish. They've become a bit of a cliche, and it doesn't help that the omniscient narrator of the story mentions that Tarot decks are the product of charlatans, no doubt attempting a parallel with Klein himself.

These two missteps do not ruin the story, especially the extremely effective ending. One is reminded of Stephen King's ending to Pet Semetary, in which the most horrific and shocking moment comes in the last paragraph of the novel, leaving the reader desperate to know what happens next, but terrified at the implications of what may have occurred. The same happens here. Using 50 odd pages to build up the threat, Klein simply lets it happen in the final paragraph, leaving so many questions and so many implications that the reader is forced to imagine their own ending, which as aforementioned, is far scarier than anything the author could dump onto the page.

If the success of horror is through the accumulation of marginal details, then surely "Petey" is utterly accomplished. Instead of throwing the kitchen sink at you (Clive Barker), Klein invests in one situation, one horror and lets it creep up on you, rather than forcing it down your throat.

[This is the first of two posts reviewing T. E. D. Klein's collection of longer stories Dark Gods]

Edeisa Global Nutrition Solutions

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Plumpy'nut® is revolutionary because it does not need to be refrigerated or mixed with water – two things not readily available in the developing world. It allows for malnutrition to be treated at home by the caregiver instead of in a costly hospital stay and saves lives as if it were an essential medicine. In 4-6 weeks, a child can be transformed from near death to certain survival. With its 2-year shelf life, this simple solution can reach even the most remote areas. In times of great natural and human disasters, ready-to-use foods can effectively and efficiently fulfill caloric and micronutrient needs to the most vulnerable. In recent times, they have helped fill emergency needs in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, drought-stricken Niger and flood-affected Pakistan.

Edesia helps distribute this food all over third world countries where millions of people have little access to clean water or basic food. Famine is a huge problem in the world. This morning, I donated 20 USD to Edesia. 20 bucks is nothing, really. Instead of going to Subway or buying some candy, I thought I could provide people with some food. Somebody other than myself. In North America, obesity is a huge problem, often combined with malnutrition, in the fact that the food we eat is of low quality. At least we are able to eat. While I weighed 240 pounds in January, a little boy was 7 pounds and became the face of global starvation. Thanks to Edesia, that child now weighs 18 pounds and is relatively healthy. But millions upon millions still starve everyday.

Feel free to donate what you can. Whatever you can.

Edesia Global Nutrition Solutions

Thursday, November 10, 2011

English 3000 - British Literature and Class

In this (hypothetical) course, we are going to explore how and why class is important to British literature. The history of British literature might be summed up as an attempt to negotiate the blurring of class divisions through fictional means. Using some key British texts including film and photographs, we will explore how class divisions were irrevocably changed from the beginning of the twentieth century into the turbulent "Angry Young Men" era of the Sixties and we will attempt to tease out the myriad causes and effects from this change. As William Golding once wrote, "class is the language of the English". Particular attention will paid to social changes in society, so there will be a measure of historical context required for each text.

Texts:
The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
Lady Chatterly's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Saville by David Storey
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe

In addition to the above texts, we will be screening select British films:
Kes. Dir Ken Loach. 1968
The Servant. Dir Joseph Losey. 1963.

Certain articles will be on e-reserve and in hard copy at the library. Students are responsible for their own copies of the articles.

Assignments:
Close Reading 1 (750 words) - 10%
Term Essay 1 (1500-2000 words) - 15%
Close Reading 2 (750 words) - 10%
Term Essay 2 (2000-2500 words) - 25%
Participation and attendance - 10%
Final Exam - 30%

A couple of these novels are rather long, starting with Bennett's massive masterpiece. Students are recommended to stay ahead of the readings, but the course is structure to give some sort of relief with shorter novels coming after Bennett. During the second term, students will be required to read Saville, the other long novel, but in the weeks leading up to it, the films will be screened in order to provide students with ample time.

[This is the first in a series of the courses I plan to teach one day]

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tapping the Source


As I have previously mentioned on this blog, there is, in my mind, a list of novels to read that are woefully out of print or hard to find. Some of those novels I end up stumbling across in a used bookstore, or they miraculously find their way into major bookstores. A good portion of the time, I become frustrated and I simply purchase the novel from eBay, settling on a copy in only okay condition in order to just simply read the goddamn thing. Because of this process, there's a worry of transference, which is to say that I tend to expect more from the books I spend more time searching for, or that when they disappoint, it's on a grander scale than if I had simply picked up the book at the library. Without using statistics, or rather, misusing them, I can say that it seems 75% of the time it's totally worth the battle. Maybe this says something about my taste in literature. Maybe this says something about confirmation bias. Either way, we now come to a novel that I have been wanting to read for years. Or at least one year. Kem Nunn's 1984 novel, Tapping the Source.

Ike Turner is an eighteen year old who has never left his uncle's desert home in California while his sister was quick to quit town when she had the chance, and she's never looked back. But when some kid shows up and tells Ike that Ellen has gone missing, Ike leaves the desert for the coast, Huntington Beach, in search of his sister and three surfers who might have had something to do with her disappearance. In order to get close to these men, Ike takes up surfing and becomes reborn in the ocean, all the while searching for a sister who might have been involved with biker gangs, drug dealers and murderers.

First, let's do a quick checklist of this novel's elements: surfing, noir, California, the Eighties, and SPOILER WARNING (for a thirty year old novel) ritualistic murders. Okay, so there is a very large chance that I am going to love this novel based on content alone, regardless of style or theme or even the author's competency in handling all of the above. Any longtime readers of this blog will know of my love for California, Don Winslow, James Ellroy, Bret Easton Ellis and other famous writers. I fucking love California. The novel I'm writing is a elegiac coming of age tale about two girls in SoCal. And then I find out there's a novel that is an elegiac coming of age tale about a young man who learns to surf while trying to solve a murder? Three words: Sign me up.

The novel is fantastic. Let's just get that out there. Even if you took out the noir, and all you were left with was a Bildungsroman of surfing, I would have loved it. Actually, the best parts of the novel are Ike's growing awareness of the largeness of the world in relation to the vastness and opacity of the ocean. It helps that Nunn's descriptions of surfing are almost mystical, which is surely intentional considering the title of the novel is Tapping the Source. Nunn portrays surfing as primeval, beyond words, somewhere in Lacan's configuration of the Real. It's terrifying and exhilarating to be in the ocean, trying to ride the waves of actuality. There's a lot of symbolic heavy lifting done by other writers when it comes to the ocean but Nunn doesn't need or want their help. In fact, he sets out with his own semiotics of the ocean as if nobody had ever written of surfing before. This ambition and attention to detail totally immerses the reader as if he were submerged in the ocean along with Ike, if I might use a hoary canard of simile. Where I might choose to trot out a creaky simile to describe this, Nunn refuses to, in the spirit of the newly created aforementioned semiotics.

The novel is filled with gorgeous and engrossing ways of conveying the sparkling beauty and treachery of the sea, of the water, of the beach, of the environment. In fact, the spectacle of nature is absolutely noticeable in the lack of description of anything man-made. Only a mansion at the end of the book is given any particular depth as a structure in this novel. Again, this is clearly intentional and because of this, it works. Just as the noir elements manage to do.

Many critics and reviewers forced Tapping the Source into a subgenre that they unimaginatively dubbed "surf noir", no doubt because of the two primary ingredients of surfing and of obfuscated murder and mystery. To reduce Tapping the Source as simply an amalgamation of surfing and noir, or even to say that this novel is a twist on the noir genre, is doing it a great disservice. Tapping the Source is equally about noir as it is about surfing or even as a Bildungsroman, a tale of the development of a quiet stoic boy into a strong passionate masculine figure. The only love Ike has at the beginning of the novel is for the idealization of his sister. By the end of the novel, Ike has learned to love so many other things, such as the girl across the hall who helps him get mixed up with the drug dealers, or his new biker friend Preston, or even the woman taking care of Preston. Mostly though, the desert rat learns to appreciate the great and terrible power of the Pacific Ocean. In typical California fiction style, his development comes at great personal cost, including the sacrifice of his innocence.

It's something many artists and critics have discussed before, but the concept of California is intimately tangled up with the ideology of the loss of innocence, of the Fall. It seems difficult to tell a story set in Hollywood or on the beaches without touching on the inherent sea change that occurs within the individual. Some fiction even take this a step further and claim that even to be born in Cali is a loss of innocence (cf. Less Than Zero). Tapping the Source represents this perfectly, elevating beyond a marriage of Californian noir (Chandler) and surfing (Gidget, Beach Blanket Bingo) into a meditation on the three elements, a synthesis of corruption versus cleansing.

While this review's tone may seem oddly ethereal or beatific, it's only because Nunn completely succeeds. Ike starts out as a blank slate and becomes a man by the end of the book. The noir elements are complicated enough to propel the plot but stay simple enough as not to overpower Ike as a character. The act of surfing becomes something more than simply a sport to portray, or a backdrop on which to hang Ike or even noir. Tapping the Source is more than a genre exercise. It's a fantastic novel of character and place, a perfect balance of form and style.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Lest liberty perish from the face of the earth - buy bonds

is the name of this watercolour by Joseph Pennell housed at the Library of Congress. Here is a large jpeg of this stunning drawing. In the words of Professor Mark Sample, "the painting’s stark portrayal of a besieged America was intended to spur demand for WWI war bonds — even though American soil was never threatened during the war." The image is of a beheaded Statue of Liberty, an American icon, used in an allegorical sense here. I'm posting this because of its stunning, breathtaking simplicity, its starkness and vividness, not because of political reasons, although feel free to interpret as you wish. For more information on this piece, click here for the Library of Congress' page.