Articles by Joanne Mosuela

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“An end can also be a beginning”

So it’s true. Disaster themes pop up everywhere. While discussing a disaster-related poetry chapbook that I hope to be finished with in January, a friend of mine sent me the following link:

The Center for the Study of the End of Things Inaugural Symposium.
Charlottesville, VA. February 5, 2010.

Highlights (excerpts from the “Call for Submissions”):

*The location is a vacant 10,000 ft2 furniture store in Charlottesville, VA. Immediately after the Symposium, the building will be demolished.

*Our curatorial goal is to assemble a coherent body of work that revolves around themes of obsolescence, weathering, and decay, as well as meditations on growth, rebirth, and the utility of discarded materials.

*Drawings, paintings, architectural models, maps, diagrams, written work, found objects, obsolete technological artifacts, photographs, audio or video recordings, sculptures, or other work that relates to the theme will be considered for inclusion. We are also seeking musicians and sound artists to hold appropriate live performances during the Symposium.

*Our view of The End of Things is intentionally broad. It could refer to a cultural, political, material, theological, geographic, technological, or environmental end. The end can be global or microscopic, nihilistic or optimistic. And keep in mind that an end can also be a beginning.

*Project Realism: This post is indebted to Sara who introduced the idea that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a work of psychological realism. I was inspired by her re-naming.

Is the peculiarity of the novel a matter of language? I propose that it can be understood as a work of poetic realism. In addition to using musical elements (which don’t appear in EL&IC) to heighten and clarify emotional experience, poets have been traditionally inclined to compare and to exaggerate. To take control (momentarily) of their personal losses and traumatized cities, and to describe the indescribable, Oskar and family expand their senses. Familiar forms of expression are often paired with a poetic truth built of comparisons and exaggerations. While I am interested in Grandma’s poetics (dredged-up memories secret even to herself) and Thomas Schell senior’s (enacted in an unbelievable flesh inking of identity) since their accounts are presented as written text, Oskar’s connection to poetry is more complicated.

Foer makes an effort at training us to read layered language. When Oskar tells Gerald the limousine driver a joke, writes letters or plays the tambourine, his boots are lighter. Foer does not say that Oskar’s grief lessens “as if” or “like” boots made lighter. The comparison is assumed. And like poetry, we are not confused by the two, overlapping languages. We know when something sounds incredible, when Oskar is speaking to us from the edge of reality. If the truth of what “heavy boots” means is felt by us, then does this descriptive “lie” become the truth? Naming Oskar’s feeling as the general word “grief” or the trite phrase “heavy heart” would be grossly inaccurate, not to mention make it easy for us to doubt its truth and pass it over.

Oskar is unusually empowered by knowledge for a boy his age and constantly in the heat of inspiration (or rather, invention). Foer gives his protagonist a poetic temperament. However, I do not think that Oskar’s search for the right Black and the right lock is because of some inherent, wacky switch in his brain that separates him from everyone else. Like a surrealist poet, Oskar invents a game in order to unhinge his unconscious and to order his chaos of feeling. I do not think that it is a coincidence that the Black search’s origins are in an art store following Oskar’s excitement over the multi-sensory. I read the early interaction between Oskar and an art supply store manager as a message from Foer about how his protagonist, despite his gifts, is altogether normal. Oskar is taught about color synesthesia and afterwards “tries to catch up with [his] brain.” Oskar is not some kind of synesthete, able to compare and exaggerate naturally without purpose or exertion.

Because of the art store scene, every time Oskar makes an incredible leap of imagination, I share in his exaltation but also his exhaustion. He sees his father’s name everywhere “in marker and oil sticks and colored pencils and chalk and pens and watercolors.” Like a poet, Oskar’s thoughts reach great heights. He has the ability to bring what is known and what is unknown closer together. But unlike a poet and unlike Grandma or Thomas Schell senior whose traumatic afterthoughts exist primarily on paper, Oskar projects his poetic truth onto a world of present objects and present people, his day-to-day. For me, this is the novel’s greatest tension.

Ely

On pg. 161, the boy embraces a stranger “distant on the road,” “a traveler not one for looking back.” By the time this old man sets out on his own again, the boy is similarly described as not “looking back at all.” This parallel detail bookends Ely’s time with the The Road duo and (excluding the boy’s father who we know will not survive by the end of The Road) suggests a likeness between the two characters. Reading “The Black Hole of Trauma” provided a vocabulary with which to name the adaptive behaviors of the old man, the man and the boy. In the impromptu decision to take in Ely, the following “Black Hole” summarizing sentence plays out: “When people come to concentrate selectively on reminders of their past, life tends to become colorless and contemporary experience ceases to be a teacher.”

The boy was born shortly after The Great Unknown Disaster. Living in its aftermath, forward is his primary direction. A survivor on the road where there are few, a part of a missing generation in the novel, a witness to the Disaster, a spiritual soundboard for the man and (to bring in a recent class discussion) a man with a name, Ely is a relic. However, he would be the last man to use the term. In response to being asked when he ate last, his first piece of dialogue is “I dont know.” “Black Hole” says that “PTSD victims remain embedded in the trauma as a contemporary experience, instead of being able to accept it as something belonging to the past.” Anti-PTSD and extreme in his commitment to divorcing the past from the present, Ely says “I ate just now,” to clarify when he ate last. In a study of WWII veterans mentioned in “Black Hole,” those without PTSD 45 years later “had considerably altered their original accounts; the most intense horror of the events had been diluted.” Ely’s distortion of reality has resulted in a complete washing out. Anonymous and practically non-existent because of his insistence on keeping a false name, evasion of questions and limited disclosure, Ely does not keep track of time, or, to be specific, does not keep track of past time.

The man displays the clearest signs of PTSD. By the time of Ely’s appearance, we know that the man “tends to experience sleep problems because [he] is unable to quiet [himself] in order to avoid having traumatic nightmares” and that, in a state of post-apocalyptic fear, “the world becomes an unsafe place.” Threat is generalized. There is a “continuing threat of annihilation.” An injured old man is characterized as a minor threat – the boy treats him like a stray puppy – and the man overracts, calls the old man a possible “decoy,” expects an ambush. Reminiscent of the boy’s repeated question, “Are we going to die?” (asked when neither living nor dying sounds appealing), the man expresses the paradox, “Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave.” I’m most interested in the interaction between the man and the old man. For a brief time, the man becomes the boy. What’s to be gained from this role reversal? Is Ely’s dismissal of the past ideal?

Scene: Boy Spots Boy

(adapted fr. The Road, pgs. 84-85)

EXT: HOUSE PORCH (NIGHT)

VERY WIDE SHOT. A single-family house with a wraparound porch, ordinary-looking in the darkness except for the unmistakable absence of vertical banister rods, an eerie lack of pattern. Rails intact, there is a sense that the rods are mere decoration and have nothing to do with keeping a rail up. A sound like a thin twig snapped in half is heard, nothing more. A small fire burns to the right of the entryway. Vivid against black, orange flames quiver in meager intensity, their  height hardly meeting the window frame’s bottom sill. It is these low flames alone that makes two figures visible in the darkness. Hooded, THE BOY leans into the left-most corner of the doorframe, presumably a cozy position against the force of random evening wind gusts. Drowning in an oversized red sweatshirt, THE BOY stands with his arms crossed, holding his middle. THE BOY hovers over THE MAN. In a half-squat, his legs unsteady as he kindles the fire, THE MAN is viewed in profile.

THE BOY’S POV: THE MAN’s flame-lit eyes wander over the flames, preoccupied with more than the task at hand: turning over cornmeal cakes the size of half-dollars, imperfect shapes like hand-broken chunks of a crumbly cookie. Again, silent except for an occasional wet sniffle from someone’s runny nose.

MEDIUM SHOT. Both figures seen from behind THE MAN. There is a considerable distance from the doorframe to the fire.

OVER-THE-SHOULDER SHOT. As if surprised to see him, THE MAN turns his head towards THE BOY and puts his prodding spoon down into a pile of looted silverware. He rises, uncrumpling from his squat position. We notice for the first time the irony of his outfit. He’s wearing what we understand to be a rummage find – a crisp button-down shirt, grime-free except for black smears near the cuff area. It is only the top layer of clothing. THE MAN is bloated with layers.

THE MAN
(flatly)
Stay put, okay? Don’t eat yet.

MEDIUM SHOT. THE BOY, thin, is not compelled to move as THE MAN walks through the narrow doorframe space. We see THE MAN’s back disappear into the house. Through a light drizzle, THE BOY’s eyes squint curiously forward at a point invisible to us.

VERY WIDE SHOT. THE BOY’S POV: The house across the street, larger than the one THE BOY occupies and with no porch. Tall trees loom above the roof and continue indefinitely backward into dense woods.

A beat.

A flash of white – the body of THE OTHER BOY swaddled in what looks like bedsheets – suddenly turns from facing the house belonging to THE BOY and THE MAN. THE OTHER BOY, reacting to his discovery by THE BOY, runs into the woods behind the house.

CLOSE UP OF FACE.

THE BOY
(shouting)
Hey!

VERY WIDE SHOT. THE BOY is at full sprint towards us. Excess fabric from the sweatshirt sleeves whips back, resembling wings as THE BOY hurtles forward, passing the corner of the frame.

THE BOY
(repeating, only louder this time)
Hey!

THE BOY’S POV: The driveway of the opposite house is wet like the road. Footprints are impossible to detect in the dark. The cream-colored house glows. Light drizzle has transformed into a steady rain.

FRANTIC CAMERA PAN OF THE WOODS AHEAD. Standing in the driveway, THE BOY walks a few uncertain steps in no direction. It is unclear if this is a  sign of numbing paralysis or of the return of his senses.

WIDE SHOT FROM ABOVE, AS IF FROM THE WINDOWS OF THE OPPOSITE HOUSE.

THE BOY
(face wet with tears, mouth in a deep pout, calling out)
Come back. I won’t hurt you.

Sound of rubber sneakers hitting wet pavement.

THE MAN
(gruff and barely audible through the rain)
What are you doing? I told you to stay put.

A sudden emergence, THE MAN scoops THE BOY up in his arms. Both figures exit the frame. An empty driveway remains. Sound of steady rain.

THE BOY
(through tears)
There’s a little boy, Papa. There’s a little boy.

VERY WIDE SHOT. THE MAN rushes THE BOY to the lighted house. Paranoid, he looks far ahead to the left and behind while crossing the road.

THE BOY
I just wanted to see him, Papa. I want to see him.

VERY WIDE SHOT. The opposite house is blank and undisturbed. There is the possibility that THE  OTHER BOY does not exist.

MEDIUM CLOSE UP. THE BOY and THE MAN rush up the house steps. THE BOY’s arms are rigid above his head as if in shock, his fingers oddly contorted. His eyes, filled with tears, stare at the opposite house. There is no attempt to grip his father’s neck.

THE MAN
(gently putting THE BOY down onto a scrap of tarp near the fire)
There’s no one to see. There’s no one, okay? We’ve got to go.

CLOSE UP OF FACE. THE MAN, his face shadowed, busies himself with collecting the leftover cornmeal cakes.

THE MAN
(suddenly angry although choked up himself)
Do you want to die? Is that what you want?

THE BOY
(between sobs)
I don’t care. I don’t care.

MEDIUM SHOT FROM BELOW. THE MAN wipes grit from his eyebrow, blinks too long, finally opens his eyes, stops the movement of his hands and turns into the light of the fire.

MEDIUM SHOT. THE MAN sits down next to THE BOY, lifts his weightless body and cradles his head. THE BOY burrows into THE MAN’S shoulder. THE BOY’s arms are limp at his sides.

THE MAN
I’m sorry. Don’t say that. You musn’t say that.

WIDE SHOT. We see the back of THE MAN from the distant end of the porch. Sound of rain breaking on an aluminum gutter and THE BOY’s muffled sobs. Through the black void in the banister, faint is the road to the overpass.

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Embrace diversity / Or be destroyed

It’s no secret that our current society aspires to have racially diverse neighborhoods, schools and workplaces. In Butler’s cautionary tale, does Lauren continue to hope for this? If so, how does racial diversity play into the Earthseed verse, “Embrace diversity. / Unite– / Or be divided, / robbed, / ruled, / killed / By those who see you as prey. / Embrace diversity / Or be destroyed.” Perhaps not at all. The word “diversity” is interchangeable with Lauren’s favorite word, “change.” Embrace change, roll with the punches in order to survive – this isn’t the first time we’ve heard this and it isn’t particular to the subject of race. In the 2020′s, society moves backwards in response to the deterioration of the government and environment. Distrust, poverty and fear leads to a populace increasingly desperate and intolerant. “It’s a world gone to hell,” says Lauren. “Being black can be dangerous these days,” is said matter-of-factly and generally about how “people are expected to fear and hate everyone but their own kind.” Racial antagonism is one of many possible human insecurities to be agitated in this dystopian future.

With that said: when Lauren isn’t writing about the feuds and violence that racial tension ignites, she writes about interracial couples with a personal and hopeful curiosity. She’s fascinated by the “heterogeneous mass…black and white, Asian and Latin” she observes while walking the freeway, makes note of Emery and Tori’s mixed origins, and most notably, risks her group’s safety when she comes between a mixed family (later referred to as allies) and thugs at a commercial water station. Zahra is quick to presume that Lauren’s cue was the baby’s innocence. Lauren corrects her. “The family, really,” she says. “All of them together.” Are these feelings a result of the failed community she left behind, one in which murder is a plausible reaction to a white Craig Dunn caught making love with a black Siti Moss? “Crazy,” says Lauren. Is the Interracial Couple another tenet or symbol for Earthseed, a religion in constant revision? After all, an Earthseed verse reads, “Accept the images / that God has provided… / The universe / is God’s self-portrait.” The way Lauren talks about the marginalized family, Travis, Natividad and Dominic pictured as Earthseed’s holy family isn’t far-fetched: “Tall, stocky, velvet-skinned, deep-black man carrying a huge pack; short, pretty, stocky, light-brown woman with baby and pack; medium brown baby a few months old–huge-eyed baby with curly black hair.”

Suffering: of God, of Lauren

Is it Lauren’s hyperempathy that inspires the renaming of her father’s god? Without saying it outright, is she asking: Does my father’s god share the joys and suffer the pains of human beings like I do? And if this god is filled with the same debilitating fear and misery that I feel – infinityfold – and human fear and misery is not alleviated or worse, increases, doesn’t this mean that this god is powerless? Unable to help us from his perch in “heaven, wherever,” (as Lauren calls, dismissively, Keith’s resting place)?

What’s a hyperempathic girl to do? Retreat to an inward space like a journal. Chronicle the community’s suffering. Name a new god. The leap sounds extreme but aren’t the stakes (or walls, if you will) high enough to warrant such a move? We write about our obsessions; Lauren’s primary obsession is human suffering, beginning with her own community’s. Is Earthseed born because she believes that their suffering is too great for their god to be the almighty god? In any case, I think that Lauren’s frustration with her father’s god overlaps with her doubts about his leadership. A parallel structure speaking to her community’s practical needs: their suffering is too great for their leader to be the almighty leader and thus…what? At one point Lauren says “I believe in something that I think my dying, denying, backward-looking people need.” What is this belief? Is it indirectly driven by her power to share grief? Some kind of anything-you-can-feel-I-can-feel-more-of elitism?

When she calls for change in her confrontation with Joanne, first she appeals to the facts of their community: “Amy [Dunn] was the first of us to be killed like that. She won’t be the last.” Global facts come next: “There’s cholera…there’s too many poor people…You know that drug that makes people want to set fires?…Tornadoes are smashing the hell out of…there’s a blizzard freezing the…Measles!” The outward empathy that she’s able to feel for strangers near and abroad without her unique, physical experience is powerful alone. Eventually, however, the conversation with Joanne moves to talk of a generational conflict. Lauren pinpoints delusion as the problem. Donner is “a symbol of the past for us to hold on to as we’re pushed into a future…having him there make people feel that the country will get through these bad times and back to normal.” She accuses her community’s adults of sharing this same delusion. Her father “is the best person [she knows] but even he has his blind spots.” The paradox here is that we know that Lauren has a self-proclaimed “crazy, deep-rooted delusion.” Isn’t there something fishy about pinning the heart of her own syndrome to the reason why her community is a wreck? Is Lauren’s suffering driving her frantic need for change? Survivors’ guilt? She has been to hell and back, felt an animal’s “life flare go out and [she] was still alive.”

In the first few pages of White Noise, Jack and Murray head to the country. The men don’t linger in the romantic landscape of meadows, apple orchards, white fences and rolling fields. Conventional intentions of a pilgrimage – the wish for understanding and peace – is upset right away by the crowd of photographers and their heavy-duty equipment. Advertised as four walls of awe and inspiration, the barn itself is obscured, corrupted by a new sensibility of what it is “to see.” This is not to say that Jack and Murray are offended and overcome with earnest feeling; the trip is taken without pretense of romance or leisure. They arrive as skeptics and take the scene in as scholars. Murray records notes and interrupts silences. The idea of a long, literary silence is subverted. As a reaction to the ineffable, silences don’t trail off into mystic, infinite, universal reverie. Satiric silences “fall” and then “extend” and then there’s “another silence” and then Murray “doesn’t speak for a while.” The first thing to come out of Murray’s mouth is “No one sees the barn,” a clear play on the common rhetorical saying “No one sees God” – something I’ve only heard in discussions of spiritual frustration. Jack and Murray head for the hills and don’t experience ascension but rather, depression. In this opening scene, I read a subversion of literary convention and the beginnings of a critique on the sublime brought to full fruition with the later appearance of the “postmodern sunset.”

Whoops, midnight. Thoughts following deadline:

Doomster Heinrich keeps his distance from the new sunset; Jack explains that his son detects something “ominous” about the brilliant change in a natural phenomenon. I get it; there’s not much for Heinrich to protest. The “unbearably beautiful” sunset isn’t an anomaly like the “black, billowing clouds” later given the name Airborne Toxic Event. No outright conspiracy, no dark hand of man here. If anything, in its wake, the passing disaster has left a path of visible beauty. Science provides no answers to the question of whether Nyodene Derivative is responsible for the shift. How many degrees of brilliance has been added to an everyday sunset is unclear. It fluctuates, according to Jack. Traveling to the overpass is an unlikely yet popular pilgrimage. Ambiguity, mystery, veneration: the Airborne Toxic Event has increased a sunset’s inherent sublime qualities. I think it’s safe to say that the overpass was never The Place to Be. When human ambition interferes with something as natural as the come-and-go of a sunset (or the growth of produce or the way we talk to each other), is it so terrible to take advantage of the discovery, to stretch limits, to head towards the unknown, risks and all? Visions of bright, genetically modified apples as Jack walks into his corner supermarket and sounds of friendly, conversational television on an otherwise quiet evening at home come to mind. Offering a spin on the sunset’s origin story, Winnie Richards says, “[It's not] residue from the cloud that causes the sunsets. It’s residue from the microorganisms that ate the cloud.” Because the essential sublime quality of a sunset is kept intact and even enhanced despite disaster in White Noise, I’m beginning to shed my bleak outlook on white noise as negative interference. How about white noise as positive intervention?

With Jack’s “don’t know” refrains and the appearance of meaningful silences, the highway overpass is holy in a way the biblically-charged barn was not:

This waiting is introverted, uneven, almost backward and shy, tending toward silence. What else do we feel? Certainly there is awe, it is all awe, it transcends previous categories of awe, but we don’t know whether we are watching in wonder or dread, we don’t know what we are watching or what it means, we don’t know whether it is permanent, a level of experience to which we will gradually adjust, into which our uncertainty will eventually be absorbed, or just some atmospheric weirdness, soon to pass…What is there to say? The sunsets linger and so do we.

Metro Opens Doors

It’s designed to be a gradual descent underground. With grace, the walls slope downward, the escalator slowly progresses. Most opt for the left-hand side option and follow the line of people in a hurry: run down the escalator! No handrails for the hurried! I’m tempted to steady them, invade their personal space, pat the quick, smartly-dressed commuters on the head, tell them that the overhead screen said they’ve got a minute to spare. Through the turnstile, they don’t even look down. Since the introduction of SmarTrip, entry is automated – a don’t-think-twice swipe.  The volume of their footwear speaks to their nerves. No running in the station.While waiting, they refuse to acknowledge the empty bench seating built for their convenience. They wait standing up with faces that read “I can’t believe this” as if they expected to jump from the escalator and straight into a train car. Disruption cleared. The signs are printed in a ubiquitous typeface with enough spaces between the lettering to be able to see Vienna, Metro Center, Dupont Circle, Bethesda, the names of my destinations from a great distance. There are five lines, any number of directions, each labeled with a basic color from an amateur artist’s color wheel. Maryland has proposed a purple line connecting New Carrollton and Bethesda. I’m okay with waiting. This might have something to do with my own ambition this morning: hardly none. Just saying hi to a friend in a coffeeshop on her birthday. No briefcase. Not even a backpack. Just a SmarTrip card and an umbrella in case it rains. On a bad day, I would resent the amount of packages in my neighbors’ arms, the white wires I trace from their fingers to their brain. In jeans and a t-shirt, I’m going places too! Trains are sharing the same track between… due to scheduled track maintenance. Expect delays on both… Warning lights flash near our feet. I glance quickly to my side to check for unattended children. I always do this. We are startled forward once we hear the train car’s honk, its arrival a refreshing Whoosh! in the face. It blows my hair back. I’ll correct the damage inside. Metro Opens Doors, haven’t you heard? When the train brakes and the doors open, we take a large step over the gap between the train door and the platform. Step back to allow customers to exit. When boarding, please move to the center of the car. The elderly have priority. For an evil second, I wonder: Where do they think they’re going? But it’s about where they’ve gone. We slide into the warm seats of the departed. The train car brightly lit and accelerating, our previous location is black through the windows. I want to take my shoes off but it’s against the rules. Step back. Doors closing.

White Noise & Catalogs

Fed up with the interjections by that unaccountable narrative voice passing judgment on characters in Lucifer’s Hammer and yet a huge fan of subjectivity, I was glad to read the first-person P.O.V., “I” on the first page of White Noise.

Almost immediately we read Jack Gladney’s penchant for a Whitman-esque catalog technique to describe his life in Blacksmith. His lists introduce an intellectual’s quick satiric wit as well as bring to our attention, the “sorrowful weight” of the possessions that surround him as a professor, family man and citizen in the modern world. I’m convinced there’s something shameful about noticing slight changes in a product package design such as when Gladney spots “a white package of bacon without a plastic window for viewing a representative slice” in Siskind’s grocery basket. However, consumerism as an intellectual concept and not a practice is a separate, more complicated matter. In this same domestic scene, it seemed to Gladney that he and Babette, “in the mass and variety of [their] purposes, in the sheer plenitude those crowded bags suggested…in the sense of replenishment [they] felt…it seemed [they] had achieved a fullness of being.”

Is this said entirely tongue-in-cheek? I’m not so sure. Experiencing a shopping high during Christmastime, Gladney thinks: “I was bigger than these sums. These sums poured off my skin like so much rain. These sums in fact came back to me in the form of existential credit. I felt expansive.” Green, the source of revelation? Should I be worried?

Gladney’s choices of catalog subjects aren’t always material and even when they are, the objects imbue ideas. Upon arriving to school, his students remove “controlled substances, birth control pills and devices…Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints” from their cars that later serve as evidence of the “criminal pleasures” of a youth in summertime. We’re shown that the professor is a man of imagination. Meditating on the academic robes of department heads, Gladney characteristically says, “I like the idea,” and spins himself a fantasy. He often fantasizes to the point of hilarious hyperbole. Gladney’s imagination seems to fill in the holes between the materials of an “objective world.” But lists become increasingly disturbing, even volatile such as the following about his kids’ school being evacuated: “No one knew what was wrong. Investigators said it could be the ventilating system, the paint or varnish, the foam insulation, the electrical insulation, the cafeteria food” and on and on.

Suddenly, Gladney’s wit is troubling and cowardly. This list in particular is distant from his own imagination. He can’t see directly into his students’ suitcases and offers his best guesses; the evacuation report is no invention of his. The material world threatens to harm those dear to him. Is he a helpless owner of information?

The catalog structure resembles a physical accumulation of things, not necessarily a haphazard piling. Struck by the rich, dynamic language of White Noise, I prefer to think of it as an overflow of (desired and undesired) relevant knowledge. But is it all useful?

static, a. and n.

Google Books: 14 results.

*Atmospherics; radio noise.
*Fixed or held in place, on the ground, etc., freq. in contrast to something that can move; stationary, not mobile.
*Pertaining to forces in equilibrium, or to bodies at rest: opposed to dynamic.

(OED Online)

The word “static” is defined in Lucifer’s Hammer as interference during radio communication. Static in the story begins as an alarm. A disruption. The sound of – wait for it – IMPENDING DOOM! Speakers “scream” when the comet hits. “The Hammer has fallen,” says Dan Forrester on the page where the word makes its first appearance. What was once just speculation and fear is now tangible … er, audible … through static. Eileen’s portable radio is described as “undamaged,” an ironic detail that speaks to the idea that traditional means of communication have drowned with the tidal waves.

For its listeners, the sound confirms (and confuses) the comet’s arrival, adding to the atmosphere of chaos, the tension of an uncertain future. Having retreated into the valley, Senator Jellison with all his functioning devices, asks through the static: “Was the damned thing going to hit or not?” My favorite appearance of the word occurs when Eileen isn’t certain if she hears “Hammerfall!” through her radio’s static or if it’s all in her head – a nod to the word’s use in describing the movement and ambition of the mind. I enjoy the idea of “static in the head” introduced early on in the disaster. Who lets the noise overwhelm them? Who fights the noise off?

“No matter. There was no useful information. Or rather, there was, in that fact itself,” says the narrator. Static a fact in itself? Static is a dull, repetitive sound but this neutrality (non-noise?) is in itself valuable. A message has been sent. When we hear static in the story, it’s a brief sound; the radio device is shut off right away, heard long enough to remind its listener OK, I’m alone. I answer to myself. Now what? As its listeners adapt to Life After Hammerfall, static becomes a buzz, a quick update from a handheld radio. Static: a fact of new life.

When the noise you hear is limited to the people standing in front of you, the world shrinks. Static, while featured in grim and frustrating situations, is a lead-in to characters taking action in response to certain isolation. Rejecting static’s other definition, bodies following Hammerfall are seldom stationary or at rest. I predict that the sound fades as the characters adapt and rebuild. According to Google Books, its last appearance is on pg. 550: “Tim whispered rapidly: the radio gave mostly static, but it worked.”

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Placing the production of a documentary – run by a well-connected news director and observant filmmaker, no less – at the center of an end-of-the-world novel is a smart move. The plotlines surrounding Harvey Randall’s documentary are intimately connected with the approach of the comet (I know, no kidding! Bear with me!). Follow Harvey, follow the comet. Momentum builds around the spectacle of production (the “myriad [TV] paraphernalia” and Randall’s relentless gathering of interviews and comet status reports), not unlike the mass clamor for shovels and freeze-dried food. Because of Randall’s profession, I am effortlessly connected to the lives of political powerhouses (Jellison and friends) and given an ear to sources of scientific knowledge (Sharps and friends). And if you’re Eileen, Fred or another out of a handful of people outside Randall’s immediate network, Lucifer’s Hammer folds you into the story through the consumption of media. OK, so we don’t see you screening Randall’s documentary with your family like Hamner? We presume you’re listening to the radio or the nightly news above the barkeep. Sometimes this information is given to us directly; we see Fred pick up a copy of Astronomy in addition to the chance street interview between him and Randall. Decidedly diverse lives (compare Alim Nassor to Senator Jellison or Fred Lauren to everyone else) are bound together in Lucifer’s Hammer. News of the comet is the connective narrative tissue between them.

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As we work our way through the Disaster syllabus, how do the authors’ choices of protagonist effect the story? How expansive can their projects be if their character is less empowered, less visible than, say, Harvey Randall?  In Lucifer’s Hammer, there is an attempt to encapsulate all of American society and to observe how every cross-section goes down (or not) with the comet. I’d argue that Randall’s connection to media has a lot to do with how successful the novel’s transitions between characters has been so far. The simple idea of Randall watching the world and the world watching his documentary is enough to convince me that a narrative jump from Fred to Gordie to Maureen to John to Barry to Henry isn’t completely off the wall. Is there a subconscious “media knows all” idea at work here? If Niven and Pournelle placed the spotlight on Eileen, what would result? I imagine less of an opportunity to build the same, believable bridges.

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According to bitter researcher Sharps, in pre-Hammer time (P.H.) the influence of a mass media man like Randall is significant. “Your network tells NASA you want to do a documentary on space, and NASA sends up red rockets,” he says. Early in the novel, an epigraph credited to an alternative newsmagazine reads “Be the First in Your Block to Help Blow Out the Electric Power Network of the Northeast.” I viewed this grassroots call for action laughable when compared with the power and influence of a major broadcast network or newspaper. In no way is it capable of causing chaos. Randall’s documentary, on the other hand? High stakes. Objectivity is Randall’s job. It’s a big deal and he finds the work meaningful. We get the impression that he’d much rather die chasing after the comet than squatting with Loretta in his basement.

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But when the Hammer hits, the media will black out (I don’t know the ins-and-outs … electricity will fail? broadcast stations will be abandoned?). What does this mean for Randall? When media is obsolete, are there other ways for Randall to bear witness? Is his drive to observe and record history inescapable? An early description reads: “They stuck in his mind, these bits and pieces of story. For Harvey Randall it was an occupational hazard of the TV documentary business; he couldn’t help listening. He didn’t want to, really. People fascinated him. He would have liked to follow up some of these glimpses into other minds.” As Lucifer’s Hammer progresses, Randall seems to be shedding his learned behaviors for more natural, primitive (or “savage” as we’ve said in class) impulses. The most climactic evidence of this is his tryst with Maureen. Can we say that the pastoral landscape got under his skin? Randall’s (or the narrator’s) set-off statement, “There is no harmless subject” is public, interview rhetoric reworked for a highly private moment. In addition to his sudden membership to Hammer Fever, this evening, however reckless, is an instance of Randall as participant rather than observer. Afterwards during street interviews Randall thinks, “There were times when he wanted to take his reportorial objectivity, roll it tightly and stuff it in an anatomically uncomfortable place about the person of a pompous professor of journalism.” He lets her have it and “behind him [he] could hear Mabe Bishop spluttering. It gave [him] great satisfaction.”

Whistling in the dark…

In preparation for this class (about a genre I have no experience in), I read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Categorized as “young adult fiction,” my reasoning behind this read was “Oh hey, this’ll be science-fiction-lite!” Little did I know that The Man with Red Eyes and The Black Thing is terrifying and provocative stuff. If I was 10 years younger (the last time I remember having vivid dreams), I’d fear nightmares in my sleep.

Anyway.

There’s talk in L’Engle’s book about “whistling in the dark” or “laughing in the dark.” What to do in the face of disaster? “The only way to cope with something deadly serious is to try to treat it a little lightly,” says Mrs. Which. I’m interested to see how our Disaster Fiction novels treat this balance. So far,  I’ve only observed how poetry and music approach dark subjects with a light hand. Something to do with the pleasure of sound and rhythym? Taken out of context, Sontag’s phrase “the aesthetic enjoyment of suffering” comes to mind.

At the risk of sounding like a name-dropping hipster (hah!) and revealing how little I’ve read of Lucifer’s Hammer, I offer the following two lyrical texts as commentary on the thoughts above (their refrains of particular interest…)—

Andrew Bird’s “Fiery Crash”

Refrain: “To save all our lives/you’ve got to envision/The fiery crash”

YouTube: Andrew Bird\’s \”Fiery Crash\”

&

Yeasayer’s “2080″

Refrain: “In 2080/I’ll surely be dead/So don’t look ahead, ever look ahead”

YouTube: Yeasayer\’s \”2080\”