Form and Message in Graphic Novels

I thought I would start out by conveying some of my coworkers’ thoughts on graphic novels.  One of my coworkers said that they are usually “too busy,” and that it’s hard to get through a graphic novel in a timely fashion.  When another coworker agreed with her, she added that our high school students cannot possibly get through graphic books quickly enough because, while we would focus on the text and concentrate on the story, they would make the mistake of concentrating too much on the images.  In the course of that conversation, when I realized I didn’t quite agree with those two coworkers, I also realized just how much these two graphic novels would appeal to a number of my students…. and then I remembered that I could never quite get away with teaching books this racy in public school.

That said, I love both of these books.  The Shooting War read like a movie to me, if that makes any sense.  It reminded me of a visit I made to a friend who worked at Disney Pixar Studios.  I happened to visit just after the release of The Incredibles, and I got a chance to see those graphics displayed on boards along the hallways of the building.  It was enchanting to see computerized graphics identifying the characters and the scenes, just displayed as wall decoration. 

In any case, the animated form of such a traumatic tale really renders a different kind of tone to this book.  I realize that graphic novels must take an incredible amount of collaboration and a broad range of skills in order to be successful and powerful.  I think these two books succeed– and though others may find characters or plotlines to be trite or contrived, I thoroughly enjoyed the juxtaposition of the serious topics with the representation which we have often called “comic.”  I understand the correct terminology is graphic, but there are certain comical elements in each book– well, obviosuly in In the Shadow of No Towers— so I wonder what it means to draw out a story.  Is comedy an essential element, something we expect from “cartoons”?  It is always so striking to read about melancholy topics when the stories are animated– like Art Spiegelman’s other famous graphic novel, Maus, based on his father’s struggle to survive the Holocaust.

So what does it mean to create a trauma tale using pictures?  In film, it means that you are able to have images speak for themsleves; take for instance the scene in Atonement (which is actually just one five-minute tracking shot that took tens of thousands of extras to film) which pans the shore of Dunkirk as something like 300,000 British troops await evacuation during World War II.  In The Shooting War and in In the Shadow of No Towers, trauma is almost made comical, perhaps as a coping mechanism, but definitely as part of a larger political message. 

Both books clearly present liberal messages, which follows with the tradition of many of our visual industries– particularly Hollywood and the American media (or so the conservative party cried during a somewhat biased coverage of Barack Obama during the election).  I wonder whether video games, another venue for graphic representation, could be categorized as much less liberal.  I wonder whether the politically charged themes in these books contrast with the shoot-’em-up style of so many popular video games.  I am not sure where I am going with that, but I guess I am noticing a connection between a lot of graphic images we “read” today– and a liberal spin on the messages implicit (or explicit) in those images.

That also brings to mind another question that occurred to me as I read these two books: Does Postmodernism lean left?  Or does literature do that more generally?  As for these books, clearly Lappe and Goldman had concerns over McCain becoming president.  Alanna expressed the opinion I share, that The Shooting War has not necessarily become outdated or “unprophetic,” but rather it has presented an alternative universe.  I have to wonder whether Lappe and Goldman wanted to at all influence the impending presidential election with this book.  Likewise with In the Shadow of No Towers on page 10, the inscription under the mice being clobbered by cowboy boots reads, “And September ’04?  Cowboy boots drop on Ground Zero as New York is transferred into a stage set for the Republican Presidential Convention, and Tragedy is transformed into Travesty.”  Though he does try to balance out criticism of Democrats and Republicans, the anti-Bush sentiment throughout the text and the overwhelming discussion of the rip-off in the 2000 election clearly come from a liberal point-of-view.  If that kind of conversation’s not politically charged, I don’t know what is.

Overall, in spite of my convoluted and rather jumbled train of thought in this entry, I really enjoyed reading these two graphic novels.  I know that they are both rather controversial, too, which should make for fun class discussion, and more so, make for an interesting consideration of what makes these texts postmodern.  And in response to my coworkers, I do want to say that though these texts are too controversial to teach at the high school level, I am going to see what I can do to get my hands on some other graphic novels because I believe that younger generations (myself included) really benefit from and enjoy the combination of animation and text when reading a story.

Cultural Betrayal in The People of Paper

As I was reading The People of Paper, I found myself paying considerable attention to the indictment for Mexican females who choose to be with white American males in a sort of treason against their Mexican heritage.  It is easy to consider all of the suffering and pain in this book, but I found myself aware that the empathy in this book is directed towards the “good” Mexican characters who stay true to their culture (and therefore, do not go outside the culture to look for love): Federico de la Fe, Froggy, Sandra, Julieta, among others.  On the other hand, much criticism is directed towards Mexican characters who betray their Mexican heritage: obviously Rita Hayworth, Merced (Federico’s wife), and Liz– who we might assume has committed the ultimate betrayal which led to the writing of this book (and the creating of this world at all).

This brought to mind a recent news story about Obama’s brief exchange with Hugo Chavez at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad this past weekend.  According to reports, Chavez took the opportunity to hand Obama a copy of a 1970 Eduardo Galeano book called The Open Veins of Latin America, which has apparently shot to the top of book sales list as a result of the exchange.  The New York Times article reads, “Whatever one thinks of its message (it denounces both U.S. imperialism and the ruling élites of Latin America from a Marxist-Leninst perspective), the book has a fascinating history. Galeano, who is Uruguayan, wrote it in the last three months of 1970, and was eventually forced into exile as the book grew in popularity. It has sold steadily ever since, in Latin America and around the world, with more than fifty Spanish editions, and translations into more than a dozen languages.”

I see this news story as particularly relevant because, as much of the Latin American world struggles to find its new place in a postmodern world, books like this one by Mexican writer Salvador Plascencia remind readers that there is a strong sense of indignation directed towards Americans, but also at Latinos who “betray” their heritage by either assimilating too much or creating too much of a bridge between their own culture and American culture.

In Tropic of Orange, the “bad guy” is the body parts smuggler who betrays his own people to make a buck; in The People of Paper, it’s the women (several of them) who have left their Mexican lovers/husbands for American ones.  “Saturn” is the angry Salvador Plascencia who creates this world of like-minded, betrayed Mexican victims who suffer so much emotional and physical pain that Plascencia even suggests that readers will do the same.  Though we might say that there is some kind of healing by the end of this story, I find it to be a very, very angry story, one that some of us might write in the heat of a devastating breakup and then, some years later, be embarassed that we even considered to be literature.  Plascencia’s saving grace is that his book is about more than just a breakup; it’s about paper, people, people made of paper, betrayal, multicultural relations and relationships, and of course its format makes it stand out as postmodern, with its metanarrative, self-reflexivity, careful use of columns and black squares, and other creative choices.  But essentially, at its very core, this seems to be like a breakup story– and at the heart of the anger over this breakup is that these women (Liz, Rita Hayworth, and Merced) left their Mexican men for American men.

This anger is most clear in the heated conversation between “Saturn” and someone we may assume to be Liz in Chapter 10, in which Saturn says, “You are awful.  Worse than Rita Hayworth.  Too good to fuck us lettuce pickers.” And Liz responds, “That is not what it’s about.”  Saturn says, “You sell-out.  Vendida.  You are worse than the Malinche, worse than Pocahontas.  Fucking white boys and making asbestos fall from the attic.”  Then Liz points out that “Saturn” has had his own white lover which he brushes off with, “She was after you.  When you would not answer the phone or my letters” (118-119). 

Though there is much else going on in The People of Paper, it has gotten me wondering whether one of the connections between many of these postmodern stories is the multicultural perspective which shows the victims and sufferers of American (and European) domination.  This is not just a breakup story; it is also the story of a writer whose world, even the world he has created, is colored by anti-American sentiment, betrayal, and resentment.  We could also have a field day considering some of the misogynist lines in this book, but I find more use in considering the complicated choice to emigrate to a place like Los Angeles to reap the benefits of American consumerism, education, and opportunity in general, and then the resentment many of these characters feel for the place and the people because they have to go there and be among these people to do just that. 

Globalization & Transnational Studies in Tropic of Orange

In reading Adams’ explanation of the distinction between postmodern and contemporary literature, I felt the following quotation best aided my understanding of her argument:  “Although Tropic of Orange is similarly complicated in terms of plot and narrative construction [as The Crying of Lot 49], its formal difficulties seem designed less to entrap both character and reader in a postmodern labyrinth than to evoke the dense networking of people and goods in an age of global interconnection. As Yamashita represents it, California is a nodal point where globalization threatens to erupt into environmental and human catastrophe, but also where people find themselves creating unlikely coalitions that might work to remedy these problems.”

If I understand this correctly, Adams suggests that while both books depict an interconnectedness (among people, events, things, and places) that is both complex and ambiguous, Pynchon depicts this interconnectedness as a conspiracy which ensnares both Oedipa and the reader, whereas Yamashita’s book uses interconnectedness to display humanity’s potential to work together to achieve solutions. 

I agree with Sarah that Adams has helped me to understand postmodernism better, but I must also say that it brings to mind a conversation we have been having in my other class this semester, ENG 551: Literary Criticism.  We have discussed a smorgasbord of critical views of literature, and more recently, we have discussed the section in our textbook entitled “Colonialism, Postcolonialism, and Transnational Studies.”  I researched the distinctions and connections between these terms for a recent presentation on a Jamaica Kincaid piece called A Small Place (in which Kincaid suggests that the tourism industry in postcolonial tourist destinations like the island of Antigua exists as a sort of secondary colonialism in which the binary between tourist/native creates a tension not unlike that between colonizer/colonized).  Interestingly, Adams references the following statement by Michael Denning:

a central task of a transnational cultural studies is to narrate an account of globalization that speaks not just of an abstract market with buyers and sellers, or even of an abstract commodification with producers and consumers, but of actors: transnational corporations, social movements of students, market women, tenants, radicalized and ethnicized migrants, labor unions, and so on.

Of course, my “ears”/eyes perked up when I read the term “transnational,” and I found myself considering the economic reading of Tropic of Orange as largely important to understanding (anything about) the text.  In my used book, I have notes in the margins from a previous owner that are, by and large, not useful to me except one which reads: “Traded goods, but not people–people do not get in” (scrawled on p. 230 beside the following underlined pasasage in the text: “Cuz is staring at her new Nikes.  Made in China.  Nikes get in.  But not the bro.”)  What hypocrisy!  We will exploit the developing worlds for its goods and its services, but we gawk at the idea of transnational experiences which will allow people in the developing world the same liberties we have in the United States.  Of course, immigration is a very complicated and heated issue, but why isn’t commerce and consumerism more of an issue?

Transnational studies, I have come to understand, considers the effets of the spread of English throughout the colonies of the British empire, as well as what Adams considers the “globalization of American literature.”  We cannot deny that the United States has been equally successful in creating some kind of empire that has spread the culture and language we speak across many parts of the world.  That said, our job as contemporary critics, I am coming to understand, is to not only incorporate varying cultural perspectives, but to purposefully consider the ramifications of a postcolonial world and a world affected by the United States’ hegemonic status.

Yamashita’s contemporary novel Tropic of Orange brings together multiple cultural identities, with particular attention to the minority groups often left out of American literature before postmodernism.  I feel strongly that her choice to incorporate the perspectives of seven main characters over a period of seven days relates directly to the cohesive quality of the number seven: not only are there seven days in the week, but there are also seven continents in the world.  As Adams points out, despite a very organized chart entitled “HyperContexts” at the beginning of the book and “although this map locates the central characters in time and space, [this chart] also provides a deceptive sense of order to a narrative that ultimately refuses to come together in any coherent manner. ”  That, I gather, is part of Yamashita’s message here: there is no coherent, cohesive, or perfect way to mesh together a variety of people and cultures, but it is certainly necessary and reasonable (and even unavoidable) to do so.

Terror, Global Connectedness, and Brainwashing in Mao II

Although I am much less familiar with DeLillo than a number of students in our class, I am quickly becoming a fan.  I read Mao II in less than a day (which is unusual for me these days), and I found myself really intrigued by the notion that art and terror may be intimately connected. 

The first thing which struck me as horrifying and yet somehow remarkable was DeLillo’s connection between the World Trade Center towers and terrorism.  How was he to know that the United States would come to understand terror because of the World Trade Center exactly ten years after this novel was published? 

In Chapter 3 when Brita is photographing Bill, they are discussing how she feels about New York City and she complains about it “all being flattened and hauled away so that they can build their towers” (39), which leads to their specific discussion of the World Trade Center towers.  She explains that her “big complaint is only partly size” when it comes to those two towers, and that “the size is deadly.  But having two of them is like a comment, it’s like a dialogue, only I don’t know what they’re saying” (40).  On the next page, Bill explains one of the major themes of the novel, the connection and transition from art to terror, saying, “There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists… Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture.  Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory.  They make raids on human consciousness.  What writers used to do before we were all incorporated” (41). 

Somehow, these few pages seem so ominous and yet entirely innocent.  All we knew of terrorism before 2001 was international terrorism really, not terror on our own soil, well except for  incidents like the the Oklahoma City bombing and the unabomber.  But for the most part, we were ignorant of terror incidents.  DeLillo takes us into various worlds where people are brainwashed into submission and/or acts of terror, but to do so, he uses international figures  and groups like Mao Zedong, Ayatolla Rhuholla Khomeini, el Sendero Iluminoso (the Shining Path), the Unification Church and Sun Myung Moon (and his “Moonies”), among others.  And yet, only ten years later, he would have been able to cite a relevant situation here on our own American soil to add to Bill Gray’s notion that terrorists are taking over the part of artists in shaping culture.

I began also to consider how this book adds to my understanding of Postmodernism.  Again, we see the complex and multi-layered use of art in Mao II: Brita uses photography to record writers’ faces, and then towards the end, to document what is going on in the outside world: “barely watched wars, children running in the dust” (227), while Gray writes novel, well actually not anymore, but has written novels, and of course, we are reading DeLillo’s novel.  The metafictive and self-reflexive nature of the novel suggest, once again, that Postmodernists love to self-reflect, and they love to reflect on art and what it all “means.”

As for reshaping my understanding of Postmodernism, so far I have decided that DeLillo’s book suggests that international awareness as well as a brainwashing motif run through this contemporary literary period.  I suppose it is obvious that international connectedness is pertinent to our contemporary literature simply because technology has made our world infinitely “smaller,” or at least better connected.  Karen constantly watches the world on television; she sees Khomeini’s funeral chaos and crowds of Mao’s China (always crowds).  Bill travels to New York City (from his hideaway home), then to London, then Cyprus, and then tries to get to Beirut, all to save a Swiss writer who has been abducted.  The international connectedness appears throughout the story; even when Karen meets people in the park from all over the world, she seems to be stationary and confined to the United States, but she is really very much tied to the foreign experience through both her conversations at the park and the world news she watches on television.

I also see brainwashing as an element closely connected to postmodernism; Karen is portrayed as a brainwashed Moonist who can never quite shed her Unification beliefs.  When Brita travels to Beirut at the end of the novel, she meets Abu Rashid and his brainwashed youth followers.  She thinks to herself, “Eloquent macho bullshit” (254), a favorite line of mine from the book, after Rashid explains, “Mao believed in the process of thought reform.  It is possible to make history by changing the basic nature of a people” (233).  That lines seems a rather fitting way to end this post: Mao’s “thought reform” or “brainwashing” has moved from using art to using terror, if we are to follow DeLillo’s suggestions in this book.  Terror has, unfortunately, become beautiful, meaningful, and vital to some cultures (albeit mostly radical and marginalized groups, many DeLillo seems to anticipate here), and the art that once had the power to shape culture may, indeed, have been replaced by violence.

Beloved- Morrison’s Definition of “Freedom” as Postmodern

I’d like to start off by saying that I find Beloved entirely mesmerizing, and this week when I was listening to NPR on the way to work, I was reminded that Patrick Henry gave his speech to the Virginia Convention two hundred and thirty-four years ago this week (March 23, 1775)– I just realized I originally posted this with a miscalculation. If you’ll recall, the last few lines of his speech seem awfully ironic, considering the practice of slavery by the colonists themselves:

Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

That said, one of the most moving motifs for me as I read Beloved was the characters’ discussion of what freedom meant for them. Toward the beginning of the story, Baby Suggs discusses how she gives up loving her children because “men and woman were moved around like checkers” (27). The narrator explains, “What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers because the pieces included her children,” and then goes on, saying that after her third child was taken from her, “That child she could not love and the rest she would not. ‘God take what He would,’ she said. And He did, and He did, and He did and then gave her Halle who gave her freedom when it didn’t mean a thing” (28).

Then when Seth and Paul D are talking about what Sethe did to her children, she tells him, “Look like I loved em more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon– there wasn’t nobody int he world I couldn’t love if I wanted to” (190-1). Paul D doesn’t respond aloud, but the narrator explains that he understands what Sethe means: “So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to ownl lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. Grass blades, salmanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn’t do. A woman, a child, a brother–a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia. He knew exactly what [Sethe] meant: to get to a place where you could love anything you choose–not to need permission for desire– well now, that was freedom” (191).”

The reason I felt so moved by these particular passages is because Morrison very successfully recovers a part of history that all of the American literary movements before postmodernism just gloss over:

What is freedom, not just for certain privileged Americans, but for those who have actually been enslaved and silenced?

Freedom, according to these excerpts from Beloved, means not having to ask anyone if it is okay to love one’s own children. The most natural and uncontrollable love, the love of a parent for his/her child, had to be controlled in order for people in our American history to survive.

Now, before I start to sound like I am on an Oprah show, I want to say that I think this conversation is relevant to whether Morrison’s novel ought to be considered Postmodern or not. I have to agree with Alana that there seems to be something inherently wrong with suggesting that Morrison is a postmodern writer, even when she claims she is not; it seems to be adding salt to the wound that she is writing about in her books. Then again, her book does challenge history. Davis points out the metaphor of the newspapers (which have been considered to contain evidence of “what really happened” in history) in the woodshed where Sethe killed her child and where Paul D sleeps with Beloved, and Davis suggests, “This metaphor allows Morrison simultaneously to point out the gap between representation and reality and to suggest that we can only know the past through discourse. She seems to concur with the poststructuralist view that reality is a function of discourse, yet does not let this point pacify her into accepting the representations that already exist-the voyeuristic news accounts and the constrained slave narratives” (248).

In effect, Morrison’s message about freedom, as Baby Suggs, Sethe, and Paul D all explain, meaning being allowed to love your own children–that is a postmodern element in this text. I suppose that’s as far as I would like to go–I feel uncomfortable classifying Morrison into a category she does not embrace herself–but I will say that there are various postmodern themes and motifs in Beloved, particularly that of the ultimate freedom to love. Unfortunately, it is that very freedom to love which leads to the terrible haunting that occurs in this story, particularly for Sethe– because Sethe finally allows herself to love her children, she tries to kill them and succeeds in killing the one who is quite overtly named Beloved.

As for Patrick Henry, I think perhaps he would understand Sethe’s choice given the last line of his rather ironic speech, only I am fairly certain that he and most of his fellow colonists were unable to see past their own feelings of “slavery” to see the reality of the slavery which they themselves perpetuated and deemed acceptable.

Photographic Technology’s Twist on Reality and Credibility

I am going to take a break from my reading to post on what I have read so far, and then get right back into it.  I just finished one of the sections where there are very few words on each page, and I must say that I was turning those pages so quickly that my dogs got startled.  Really, I was reminded of those little flip-books with pictures that if you flip through quickly enough produce a cartoon.  That page-turning effect especially kicked in for me when reading pages 182 to 245, when Navidson’s group meets with Jed and Wax.  I even found myself getting outright angry at Truant for having the audacity to interrupt the story.

Speaking of Truant, please don’t give anything away but it seems to me he will have “disappeared” by the end of the book, according to Ashley’s letter on p. 151 (in my black-and-white book).  She writes, “I’m sorry to hear he disappeared.  Do you know what happened to him?” and I, the reader, am thinking, “No, you jerk.  I didn’t even know he was missing!”  But now she’s got me wondering: will Truant disappear into this empty, ever-changing space?  Does the space represent our consciousness and sanity, and will he “disappear” like his mother did?  I am determind to find out.  (Perhaps I will know by tomorrow.)

On to another point.  Many of us, at some point or another, have considered the credibility of this text.  (Somehow, the term “text” seems so much more complex when applied to House of Leaves than when applied to any other book.)  I was struck by the following 1990 Andy Grundberg quotation, and I began to consider the implications of film being at the heart of this text:  “In the future, readers of newspapers and magazines will probably view news pictures more as illustrations than as reportage, since they will be well aware that they can no longer distinguish between a genuine image and one that has been manipulated” (141).  I began wondering whether this was a “real” statement or a Danielewski original, and when I did some research, I found the following 1990 New York Times article:

Grundberg’s article is fascinating, and though Danielewski does not include the following excerpt from the article, I think it is particularly relevant in the conversation of credibility and reality which is essential when considering this text.  “In the future, it seems almost certain, photographs will appear less like facts and more like factoids – as a kind of unsettled and unsettling hybrid imagery based not so much on observable reality and actual events as on the imagination. This shift, which to a large extent has already occurred within the rarefied precincts of the art world, will fundamentally alter not only conventional ideas about the nature of photography but also many cherished conceptions about reality itself” (Grundberg).  Yes, reality must be questioned, and the presentation of reality, thus the credibility, of this text is just so complex. 

I think it is very important that in this particular story the focus most basely comes down to a FILM, or photographed images strung together.  Grundberg discusses the “video” specifically in the last section of his article:

“If photographs can no longer be perceived as unalloyed facts peeled from the surface of the real world, what will replace them? The temptation is to say video images, since electronic image making increasingly bears the primary responsibility for supplying society with pictures. But the prospect that video will inherit photography’s former truth-bearing function is limited by its even greater susceptibility to computer manipulation.

Some have speculated that an enterprising computer wizard could, for instance, create a visual data bank of all of former President Ronald Reagan’s speeches and then, using a montage of the recorded images and sounds at his disposal, make the President’s video image speak entirely new sentences – literally put words in his mouth. At a time when governments can deny the reality of unmanipulated television pictures, as China has done in the case of last year’s Tiananmen Square uprising, the notion of a fabricated video reality seems especially frightening” (Grundberg).

Nineteen years ago, “fabricated video reality” was a far-off, almost imaginary concept; today it is “our reality.”  Essentially, reality adjusts based on what technology produces for us at any given time in our human history, and therein (forgive me for sounding like Ray Bradbury, but I am a big fan) lies the “rub.”  Obviously, this novel is not real, nor are the characters, the stories, and especially this “film.”  But then again, there can be no definite reality, as Grundberg predicted, rightfully so, in 1990.  What he calls “computer manipulation” can “literally put words in [people’s] mouth[s]”, and yet, how is that so different from the various methods used to communicate one hundred or two hundred years ago? 

Maybe the difference is that we still, unwittingly, believe in technology’s reality.  We believe what we see and read online is real, especially when we have pictures to “prove it.”  Even the websites which discriminate between urban legends and reality, like, could be (and probably do sometimes) distort reality.

If, therefore, one of the messages we can take away from House of Leaves is that nothing is “real” and no one is “credible,” then I would argue that, in one sense, PostModernism is a continuation of Modernism.  The Modernists were a disillusioned bunch, and my thoughts here point to that same disillusionment, at least at this point in my reading, in Danielewski’s text.

Layering Signifiers, Space, and “Reality” in House of Leaves

Before I get into my fragmented points about signifiers, space, and “reality” (vs. simulation) in House of Leaves, I wanted to add to Sara’s point about absence in the book.  I noticed that the “narrator,” if we can call him that, is named “Truant” which can be used (in the noun form) to mean “one who is absent without permission” or “one who shirks off responsibility” (  Obviously, both definitions incite conversation (given Truant’s sometimes less-than-responsible behavior), but in terms of a conversation on absence, Truant serves as both the signifier and the signified: he conveys the message, and he himself is the message.  Truant tells Zampano’s story (which has Zampano telling Navidson’s story), so he serves as one signifer for another signifier.  Then, his name reflects the absence in the story he is telling; the message of absence is, ironically, present in the narrator’s name.

Along with several other posts, I was fascinated by the layering of this story; not only is the narrator telling Zampano’s story who’s telling Navidson’s story, but also, the story is a fragmented novel about a fragmented story about a fragmented film.  The layering of media, or signifiers, really strikes me as Postmodern.  Foucault explains in “Of Other Spaces” that a train “is something through which one goes,.. something by means of which one can go from one point to another, and then it is also something that goes by” (24).  In the same sense, House of Leaves presents, what Foucault calls “the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect” (24).  The multi-layered signifiers demonstrate the relationship between each story, but interweave to create a fragmentary and, at the same time, mirrored experience.  Truant becomes so engrossed in Zampano’s story (at least by p. 79, we know something of this) that he, too, becomes somewhat agoraphobic and paranoid; Zampano’s reality becomes Truant’s reality.  (We can speak of “reality” next, in relation to Baudrillard’s article.)  Even before the transference between the living Truant and the dead Zampano, we have reason to believe that Zampano has experienced some of the same obsession with space and reality that Navidson had.  As far as I am in the book, I feel ill-equipped to go further with the analysis of transference and multi-layered signifiers, but let me try to assess Baudrillard’s argument on “simulation” and “reality.”

Baudrillard writes, “Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible” and this: “Simulation is infinitely more dangerous [than transgression and violence] since it always suggests, over and above its object, that law and order themselves might really be nothing than a simulation” (177).  When I read that, I immediately considered what we know of the suddenly-appearing hallway in Navidson’s film.  (I say “film” because I think we must always consider that “reality” is mediated by a signifier, and thus may not be reality at all.)  I wondered whether, at page 79, whether we are right to question the reality of the story.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve already been terrified a few times by Danielewski’s story (let’s do give him a little credit since, really, it is his story, and not Navidson’s or Zampano’s or Truant’s), but it could be that we are really reading a “simulation” of reality.  This is, after all, someone’s film; dare we remember the “true” story that was The Blair Witch Project.  In any case, I think Baudrillard is relevant in reminding us, at this early stage of our reading, that there is no clear demarcation between what is real and what is imagined; in fact, there may be nothing that is “real” anymore.  Law and order have been lost in 1/4 of an inch, or whatever the measurement turns out to be.

And yet, the imagined space is terrifying.  We do not believe the “always” as little Daisy calls them could possibly open up and envelop Navidson as they do, and the “growl,” what is that?  A monster?  Come on now, Danielewski.  And yet, and yet, I am shakin’ in my boots.  The imagined has taken the place of the real, it has effectively inhabited multiple spaces through multiple signifiers, and it has done so in a positively disturbing way.

The Signifier and Signified in The Lathe of Heaven

Let me start off by saying that I genuinely enjoyed The Lathe of Heaven.  I was trying to verbalize to a friend just what it was that attracted me about this particular book, and I found myself describing my fascination with Le Guin’s complex layering of new worlds, especially since these worlds are both purposefully and accidentally created.  This calls to mind the following excerpt in Harvey’s article:  “Whereas modernists had presupposed that there was a tight and identifiable relation between what was being said (the signified or ‘message’) and how it was being said (the signifier or ‘medium’), poststructuralist thinking sees these as ‘continually breaking apart and re-attaching in new combinations” (49).  Just as Haber attempts to control George Orr’s dreams and manipulate the present, he constantly fails (despite his confidence that he has succeeded) in creating a better world.  In “reality” (which sounds so out of place when a describing a book like this), Haber is attempting to exert power through his own message (or “signified”) which he mediates through Orr’s dreams (which act as the “signifier”), and yet, the outcome is never what Haber intends.  Postmodernism focuses on the continual “breaking apart” of what is intended and what is understood, and so does Le Guin’s story.  Haber believes he can make the world a better place, but it is his medium, Orr’s dreams, which no one can control. 

Orr himself realizes his own role in this complex re-working of past, present, and future.  After killing off billions of people in an attempt to rid the world of “overpopulation” (60) and stopping the war on Earth only to start another between humans and aliens, Orr says, “Out of the frying pan into the fire… Don’t you see, Dr. Haber, that’s all you’ll get from me?  Look, it’s not that I want to block you, to frustrate your plans… Your own ideas are sane and rational, but this is my unconscious you’re trying to use, not my rational mind.  Maybe rationally I could conceive of the human species not trying to kill each other off by nations, in fact rationally it’s easier to conceive of than the motives of war.  But you’re handling something outside of reason.  You’re trying to reach progressive, humanitarian goals with a tool that isn’t suited to the job” (86). 

The disconnect between the signified and the signifier is not the only important factor in this story; the fact is that the “new combinations” of what is meant to change about the world (the “problem”) and what actually changes (the “cure”) just creates another problem in its place.  Orr understands that his dreams serve as the medium for Haber’s ideas, and he is able to see that the repercussions are far too vast to continue on this downward slope.  In the end, Orr is able to settle happily into a much-adjusted world.  Heather Lalache says, “I thought you could change the world.  Is this the best that you could do—this mess?” (175), and though she is fairly unaware of how much worse it had been and how much worse it could get, the reader should sense that this is the best he could do.  Neither he nor Haber really could control the medium, as it is an irrational unconscious which has created these multiple worlds, and so this end to the nonsense, the aftermath of all the horror Haber has done, is actually a gift.  When postmodernism began to recognize a creator’s inability to control the received message, they also invited a whole slew of science fiction that toys with the more metaphorical meaning of a creator, its creation, and its reception in the world.  This is especially true in The Lathe of Heaven.

As a sidenote, I wanted to point out that after reading Harvey’s section on technology, in particular the “the proliferation of television use”(61) after having also read about postmodern art, I could not stop thinking about a piece I saw last year at the Smithsonian American Art Museum which combines television and art in a way I have never seen otherwise.  Nam June Paik’s “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii” depicts each of the fifty state proportionally with various sized televisions which continuously roll representative footage of each state.  For example, “The Wizard of Oz” plays on the televisions that constitute Kansas and “Oklahoma” plays, obviously, on the Oklahoma screens.  This piece really forced me to question how television can serve as an art medium in a more abstract and meaningful way than just as the way we watch “Lost” or “American Idol.”  Check it out, either with this link or in person if you get the chance!

For a more interactive site & information on the exhibit itself, look here:

For digital images, look here



Oedipa “More”- A Postmodern Protagonist

I would like to address Pynchon’s choice of Oedipa Maas. Interestingly, Pynchon chose to center his story on the experiences and investigations of a housewife before the Feminist movement. Indicative of the time in which the story was written, Oedipa is a housewife; however, Oedipa does much more than the average housewife usually would. Yes, the story begins with her return home from a Tupperware party, but her role as protagonist serves as that of a detective, even an amateur scholar. Then again, she is the product of her experiences, in some ways, and so are others in the story, particularly women.

For example, Oedipa does not ask nor does she expect to be the executor of Pierce’s estate, nor does she choose many of her experiences in the book. Even the Remedios Varo painting in Mexico which makes Oedipa cry under “her dark green bubble shades” depicts “a number of girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void” (21). The women in the painting are stuck, prisoners, trying to “fill the void” that, one could argue, is their lives. This calls to mind the Jameson article and his assessment of Postmodern art, particularly Munch’s The Scream which Jameson says “deconstructs its own aesthetic of expression, all the while remaining imprisoned within it “(62). The same mediation occurs with the art within art in the Varo painting and in Oedipa’s interpretation of their hopeless attempt to “fill the void.” Both Oedipa and the women in the painting are, in part if not completely, helpless and powerless, but at the same time, they are working to fill some void or in Oedipa’s case, to deduce a potentially arbitrary and nonexistent mystery.

Todd Kelly and Professor Sample both commented on Oedipa’s name, and Professor Sample suggested we consider the implications of the last name “Maas” in terms of the Spanish term for “more” (“mas”). As Oedipa tries to make sense of the postal service, the stamps, and the horns, among other things, she is demonstrating her almost insatiable curiosity about life. As opposed to the passivity I discussed above, in most of the book, Oedipa exercises control and power over herself (and sometimes her surroundings) as she resourcefully attempts to make sense of the seeming senseless “mystery.” She is going out into the world, away from her husband in particular (and after her own mystery, her own role as the executor of the estate) and discovering a complicated set of connections that to others have often overlooked.

On the other hand, Oedipa’s encounters are often mediated by other associations, often seemingly random associations, a fact which indicates some passivity in her experiences. Furthermore, both we, the readers, and Oedipa are left waiting for the anonymous bidder of Lot 49. The story ends with Oedipa waiting, which can be interpreted as both passive and active, but also leaves a void, a mystery unsolved, for the reader which makes the experience itself almost seem fruitless.

I do not, despite what I have written, find the novel or Oedipa’s role in the novel to be depressing or desperate. On the contrary, I see Oedipa as revolutionary as a character; her curiosity and deftness in uncovering the traces of a mystery (though not the entire mystery) reveal a new kind of Postmodern female. I would argue that Postmodernism, as Jameson explains, has more to do with fragmentation than the alienation so important to Modernism, and thus, it is not Oedipa’s alienation as a character (though she is depicted as very lonely at times) or her inability to solve this mystery which holds her back, but rather, the fragmented story she is trying to piece together.  It is almost necessary to Postmodernism that the story remain fragmented rather than whole or complete or even solved; thus, Oedipa is left perpetually waiting for “more” or “Maas”, and her story is never quite finished.

I have much more I want to discuss concerning Oedipa, in particular, but I will save some of that for class.

The Experience of Postmodernism

Many of the previous posts have discussed this feeling that it is unsettling and seemingly impossible to try to deduce Postmodernism, and I wanted to say that while I feel the same way, I also think it is comforting to consider that the experience itself may be the point.  I get the impression that these writings intend to unsettle us and that unsettling feeling can also apply to understanding the point of the pieces themselves and the point of the movement in general.

I, too, felt the inclination to look at the stories as an aggregate group.  I concur with Alana that the first thing I noticed was “the element of something unsettling or something that doesn’t ‘fit’-that forces you to stop and think or retrace your step as it jars you out of the rhythm of reading.”  I, too, was more than uncomfortable with the content in DeLillo’s story, and though we had no warning of the content, I think that is, again, part of the experience.  While I had to tell myself multiple times to look past my own offense at the content, I can admit that the story effectively shocks, disturbs, and unsettles. 

In fact, the dehumanization Sara discussed in her post as applied to Foer’s piece also pertains to DeLillo’s story; both the characters in the story and the readers themselves may be viewed as dehumanized.  I went back, after reading “The Uniforms,” to find how many times gratuitous sexual violence occurs in the tale, and I found at least eleven examples.  I am curious, having never read DeLillo before, whether he usually includes this kind of sexual violence and why.  As I said, I think feeling unsettled is important in Postmodernism, or at least a little confused, but when I read this story in particular, the excessive mentions of rape and castration distract and offend so much that I feel more disgust than appreciation.  Then again, I feel as if that may be the point.

Another common element in some of this week’s reading is the questioning.  I have already mentioned the reader’s experience of confusion, but perhaps the same is true for many of the characters in the stories, as well as in Cage’s piece.  For example, in “Super Goat Man,” after the superhero fails to save one of the frat boys from his six-story fall, the narrator asks, “Had the hero failed the crisis?  Caused it, by some innate provocation?  Or was the bogus crisis unworthy, and the outcome its own reward?” (73).  The narrator questions, and probes those questions in the (confused) reader, what it all means when the bizarre hero does save the drunk college student.  Likewise, in Foer’s piece, the misunderstandings which are carefully delineated for the reader almost all result from questions that the narrator’s family members pose to him, to which he cannot or does not verbally respond.  For example, the narrator’s mother asks, “Are you dating at all?… But you’re seeing people, I’m sure. Right?… Are you ashamed of the girl?  Are you ashamed of me?” (82).  In this case, the mother cannot understand the son, but he tries, perhaps successfully, to understand them both.

And in Cage’s piece, almost every statement incites questions, though few are actually phrased in the form of questions.  The questions that do appear tend to ask the reader to think through society’s logic, like this one: “Why is it that children, taught the names of the months and the fact that there are twelve of them, don’t ask why the ninth is called the seventh (September), the tenth called the eighth (October),  the twelfth called the tenth (December)?”( 204).  This question reveals a logical fallacy and effectively pokes fun at what society would call “logic” at all.

The questioning in these pieces does not necessarily lead to answers, as is the case in much of Postmodernism, but it sure does make you think.  What I am wondering, and I am guessing we will address much of this in class, is what it was in our American society which affected our literature so much?  I can name a few triggers on my own, but I am very interested in the historical events and trends which triggered, in particular, the tendency to disturb and to question which is evident in this literary era.