CFP: Don DeLillo and Play

Here’s a CFP for conference panel on Don DeLillo and Play that I’m organizing:

CFP: Don DeLillo and Play
Sponsored by the Don DeLillo Society
2009 American Literature Association Conference
Boston, Massachusetts, May 21-24, 2009

The groundbreaking work of Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois suggests that play and games are a fundamental part of life, yet set apart from the ordinary and the everyday, occupying a special preserve with unique boundaries and rules. How does the work of Don DeLillo reaffirm or challenge these classic notions of play? From the obvious football and baseball themes of End Zone and Underworld to the understated language games of The Names and performative play in Players and Running Dog, Don DeLillo has repeatedly focused on games and play in a way that has attracted little attention from scholars. The Don DeLillo Society seeks to redress this gap and welcomes papers that explore the role of sports, games, and play in DeLillo’s novels and stories.

Please send 300-500 word abstracts and a 1-page C.V. to Mark Sample at msample1 at gmu dot edu by January 9, 2009.

Kunzru’s Transmission and Gaiman’s Coraline

I’m not sure why I started reading for pleasure two separate novels on the eve of the new semester, but I did. Maybe I’m trying to squeeze a few more drops of summer out of the first week of classes, before my reading for work grows too heavy.

First up is Hari Kunzru’s Transmission. The book reminds me of early Neal Stephenson, with the way Kunzru adopts different styles of language to convey points of view. Here’s one of the first scenes with Guy Swift, whose vapidity becomes increasingly obvious as the novel progresses:

In a glittering career Guy had raised awareness, communicated vision, evoked tangible product experiences and taken managers on inspirational vision journeys. He had reinforced leading positions and project-managed the generation of innovative retail presences. His repositioning strategies reflected the breadth and prestige of large portfolios. His communication facilitiation stood out from the crowd. Engaging and impactful, for some years he had also been consistently cohesive, integreted and effective over a spread spectrum.

It’s clear that Kunzru is making fun of Guy, but what is so great about the passage is that Kunzru uses Guy’s own specialized language to do it. It’s what Bakhtin calls “double-voiced discourse”: using someone’s own mode of speaking — their word choice, structure, and tone — against them. The passage is an assemblage of buzz phrases from the management world and seen here, piled onto one another in a collision of corporatespeak, it is all revealed for the silliness that it is.

The second novel I picked up and tore halfway through at midnight last night, when I should have been sleeping, or at least prepping for class, is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Amazon says the book is for 9-12 year olds, but I don’t know. It is creepy. Extremely creepy. Verging, at the halfway point, on downright scary. Dave McKean’s eerie illustrations aren’t helping.

I’ll have to dig around in the databases to make sure, but I can’t believe that nobody has looked at Coraline in the context of other children’s gothic novels. It’s a haunted house novel, and I don’t recommend reading it at night, when you’re all alone in your own house. Or, as I was, alone in a house that isn’t yours.

Graphic Novels Saved Me a Dime

Finally, my disjointed knowledge of graphic novels and science fiction paid off. Or at least saved me a dime.

Summit Coffee, my local coffee shop, has a daily trivia question, which gets you a ten cent discount if you get it right. If it’s local trivia or sports trivia, I’m a lost cause. But every once in a while the question is right up my alley.

Today’s question: What is the only graphic novel to have won a Hugo Award?

Immediately I’m thinking it’s either Frank Miller or Alan Moore. Art Spiegelman is probably the most mainstream prize-winningest graphic novelist, with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, but I knew he never got a Hugo, one of the two leading science fiction awards (the other is the Nebula).

Most of Miller’s work isn’t science fiction, really — I would call it more superhero realism. So that left Moore, but which work? I had to go with his most acclaimed work: Watchmen.

Nailed it. And I was actually the first person today to get it right.

Torrents and Explosions We Now Take for Granted

Looking for something the wonderful German critic Walter Benjamin says in Illuminations about the cheapening of experience in a mass mediated world, I came across this haunting reflection that describes the world as my great-grandparents must have seen it, in the years after the horrific brutality of the Great War:

A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.

So Many Universes in My Head

I’ve been wondering, how many universes can I hold in my head at once?

I’m talking about fictional universes, of course. And by universe, I mean a world set apart by its own physics and cosmology. So, realist narratives all occupy the same universe (Sherlock Holmes and Tony Soprano exist in the same universe). But Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a different universe from the Marvel Universe, which is a universe separate from the Whedonverse.

Right now, circulating near the surface waters of my short-term recall are a multitude of universes, elements of which I’ve encountered in the past few days: the Marvel Universe, the Gotham City-Batman Universe (which seems closer to our universe than the Marvel Universe), the Harry Potter Universe, the George Lucas Star Wars Universe, George R.R. Martin’s Ice and Fire Universe, Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood Universe (thanks to my four-year-old), the Shadow of the Colossus Kyozo Universe, Nintendo’s Mario Universe, Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper Universe, Gaius Baltar and his pantheistic Cylon universe, and Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Walls Universe (again, thanks to my son).

Shouldn’t I get confused? Each universe has its own beastiary, its own laws of physics, its own mythology. How do I keep track of them all?

Maybe because what the universes have in common is actually more fundamental than what separates them. As vast as the gulf is between a Jedi Knight and Heffalump, these two universes — and all of the ones above — share the same moral code.

Just look at this painstakingly detailed illustration:

The Moral Universe and Its Subsets

The characters that populate each of the worlds above, no matter how realistic or how fantastic, all operate within the same moral universe. There is right and there is wrong. There is good and there is evil. The more interesting characters are a blend of right and wrong, but nonetheless right and wrong still anchor the two extremes of what is imaginable.

I wonder, then, what exists outside this framing universe? Can someone help me name some fictional universes which operate in an amoral universe, where there is no sense of right or wrong, no judgment of good or bad deeds? What would such a fictional universe look like? Where the hero is neither a hero nor an anti-hero, but something altogether…new?

Fantastic writing in reviews of milk on amazon

Via Dennis Jerz via Boing Boing, word of hundreds of fake reviews for a real product on Amazon, a gallon of Tuscan whole milk.

Jerz imagines quite rightly that the novelty of ordering milk from an online bookstore is the impetus for these entertaining reviews, which range in style from poetic to surreal. Many of the reviews are laugh-out-loud funny. The astonishing thing is that not only are the reviews extremely clever, but that they are extraordinarily well-written. Most of them choose an approach to the review (say, a reworking of a William Carlos Williams poem, a snooty review for wine, or the persona of an RPG gamer) and stay true to that approach throughout the review. They do not tip their hand or let on that it is a fake review. In this way, the reviews are superbly confident.

This confidence, this sense of purpose is the opposite of what I find in most undergraduate writing. I wonder, then, is there some sort of writing exercise lurking here?

Instinct tells me that writing a fake review is low stakes and the reviewers probably feel less inhibited than they do when writing a real review. The writers allow themselves to be bolder, more daring, and more creative. And I imagine some of the fake reviews were written by people who would never have written a real review.

So, what if I have my students write fake reviews? Professors are so intent on having students write “formal” and “serious” papers because we believe that is how serious literary interpretation comes about. This format obviously stifles creativity, but I’m now realizing that it also hampers a student’s confidence. So, instead of a formal essay with a tidy thesis and satisfying conclusion and five to ten paragraphs in between (which, by the way, never happens), assign students a series of parody reviews, each one to be written in a different “voice” or persona.

For example, one review on Amazon treats the Tuscan whole milk as if it were a translation of an early Italian literary masterpiece. Why not reverse the equation, and have our students write about a book as if it were something else, maybe an iPod or a decoration? Here another review imagines that the milk is a piece of furniture:

Shipping was fine, and the product was not damaged in any way, but my husband and I (both of us have college degrees, mind you, his in Engineering) could not figure out how to assemble this. No instructions, no diagrams, not even a lousy cheap allen wrench. So basically, weeks after purchase, we’re using it as a one gallon paper weight. I haven’t gotten any response from Tuscan. It earns two stars simply because it is heavy and does do a fair job of holding down the stack of newspapers awaiting recycling.

Many of the reviewers demonstrate an acute awareness of how reviews typically work, and they incorporate these formal features into their reviews. Here is one that makes excellent use of the “Spoiler alert” warning often given in book and movie reviews:

Overall, the quality and freshness of this milk was outstanding. The only thing that I found unpleasant was the seemingly acidic nature of it when it came out of my nose.
This milk tends to spoil when left open in a warm place for too long.

As I say, in these and dozens of others of fake reviews, the writers are confident, attune to their context, and in a perverse way, showing a kind of mastery over the subject of their review. You couldn’t ask for more from a piece of writing.

Making Wikipedia a Class Assignment

Slashdot has a post today about a professor who requires students to edit Wikipedia for a class assignment.

Come on, Slashdot, this is old, old news! My colleague Mills Kelly has had many Wikipedia assignment in the past several years, while over a year ago I had my 21st Century Literature Class do extensive edits on the House of Leaves Wikipedia entry. (And my assignment actually caused a bit of an old-fashioned flame war between my students and some of the self-appointed Wikipedia moderators.)

The Futility of Rowing

I’ve never seen a more fitting description of a rowing machine than in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man:

There was no fitness center in his hotel. He found a gym not far away and worked out when there was time. No one used the rowing machine. He half hated the thing, it made him angry, but he felt the intensity of the workout, the need to pull and strain, set his body against a sleek dumb punishing piece of steel and cable.

DeLillo captures the essence of the rowing machine: more than any other piece of exercise equipment, the rowing machine is a punishment, a throwback to the ancient days of galley slaves. But here the Barbary overlords with their whips and chains are internalized. Beset only by his own thoughts, the exerciser rows for dear life, chased by nothing and chasing nothing.

The rowing machine is a self-imposed disciplinary sentence. With every stroke, one’s very life seems at stake. It’s like trying to outrow death itself. A strenuous workout on a rowing machine is as close to drowning on dry land one can come.

It is also a pointless endeavor, and for DeLillo’s character, who has become a professional gambler in the wake of 9/11, its pointlessness is its very point. In true gambler fashion, he “half hates” the thing yet continues to submit to it. The anger it provokes is all that matters.

Art and Terror in the Arctic

It’s a good thing that August had record temperatures—seemingly endless days over 100 degrees—because I spent a better part of the month reading Dan Simmons’ leviathan of a novel The Terror, a semi-historical account of a failed bid in the 1840s to chart the legendary “northwest passage” through the frozen arctic.

Simmons accomplishes much in his 800 pages—supernatural beings stalking the ice, arrogant British explorers ignoring nature and common sense, a landscape both barren and hostile, sailors succumbing to scurvy and cannibalism—but what stands out is the cold.

A hundred degrees below zero cold.

The painting on the cover of the hardback edition of novel (shown above) goes a long way toward capturing this alien, frozen wasteland and the suffering and wonder it provoked. The painting is Magdalena Bay, by the 19th century French artist Auguste François Biard (larger image). The painting, which is now in the Louvre, shows the aurora borealis from a bay on the Arctic island of Spitzbergen. In the foreground are five figures, presumably explorers, who are either dying or dead:

Biard painted this fantastic, morbid scene after he participated in a scientific expedition to the Arctic in the 1830s (in which nobody died), and he seems to foreshadow, in an oddly Romantic style, the ill-fated journey of the HMS Erebus and Terror in the 1840s (in which everybody died). It is quite easy to imagine that the men in Biard’s painting are the same men who Simmons has dying by the dozens…from exposure, from botulism, from pneumonia, from tuberculosis, from scurvy, and from murder.

In line with the humanistic outlook of the time, the French expedition team aboard the corvette La Recherche, included both scientists and artists. The hope was that the artists would create works that documented the expedition as well as inspired the citizens back home about the value of exploration and discovery. The artists had an implicit pedagogical mission: to teach people that scientific progress is worthwhile, that extending the limits of human knowledge is brave, vital, and beautiful. Of course, Biard’s painting would seem to suggest that it’s also dangerous, and that for prideful men, the drive to chart the uncharted can be pure folly.

There is a contemporary project reminiscent of the Recherche expedition’s melding of art and science: David Buckland’s Cape Farewell Project, which takes photographers, writers, sculptors and other artists on voyages in the arctic. A report on NPR described the origins of Buckland’s project:

Buckland had been talking with scientists about global warming–and he was convinced they needed help to communicate what they knew about the way the world’s climate was changing. Now, after three voyages to the Arctic for his Cape Farewell project, Buckland believes the artists have lived up to his expectations.

While I am a strong advocate of l’art pour l’art, I also believe in art with a mission, and I think Buckland and his fellow artists (which includes notables like Ian McEwan and Gretel Ehrlich) are following a noble purpose. I can only wish there were more collaborative efforts between contemporary artists and scientists. Instead of a teacher aboard the space shuttle, send a sculptor. Forget the reality TV camera crews on Sir Richard Branson’s latest exploit; send a sound artist. Don’t be satisfied with mapping an underground world, design one of your own.

Oprah on The Road / The Road on Oprah

I’m a voracious reader and my personal and professional lives both revolve around books: I’m always either reading a book, teaching a book, or writing about a book. Sometimes all at the same time for three different books.

In short order this spring I’ve read a string of novels, nonstop, usually starting the newest one only hours after I have just finished the previous one. Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons, The Keep by Jennifer Egan, The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, The Confusion by Neal Stephenson, The Known World by Edward P. Jones.

And then, a few weeks ago I read The Road by the elusive Cormac McCarthy. This was before Oprah chose McCarthy’s novel as her latest “Oprah’s Book.” (A most unusual selection for her, and I’m sure a shocking read to Oprah’s followers, who are more accustomed to books about painful family relationships than the post-apocalyptic horrors of cannibalism and barbary found in The Road.) This was also before McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for The Road.

So what happened when I read McCarthy’s novel?

Quite simply, I haven’t been able to read another book since. So dark and disturbing, yet literarily brilliant is the novel, that I’m shaken to the core, unable to pick up anything else to read until something–I don’t know what–in me subsides.

Falling Down in Mother Goose

A baby in a cradle hanging from a treetopAfter another week of reading Mother Goose to my son, it’s become obvious that he has a clear preference for a certain kind of nursery rhyme. Namely, one in which people (or in one case, an egg) fall down.

And there’s a lot of falling down in Mother Goose.

We all know about Jack and Jill, and the hush-a-bye baby whose cradle fell down, and of course there’s Humpty Dumpty. But what about Blue Bell Boy (“in coal scuttle fell he / up to his little chin”)? And the poor two gray kittens (“the bridge broke down / they all fell in”)? And the Man with bandy legs (“I met a man with bandy legs / bandy legs and crooked toes / I tripped up on his heels and he fell on his nose”)?

And then there’s the metaphorical falls. Jenny Wren fell sick. Molly, my sister and I fell out. Little Bo-Peep fell fast asleep.

So what’s with all this falling down in Mother Goose? There’s the audience of course, little children, who love the fact that gravity works, and works well.

I think there’s also the hint of the peril in the everyday, the 18th century equivalent of danger in the suburbs: downed power lines, fatal swing sets, strangers with candy.

Consider “Three Children on the Ice”:

Three children sliding on the ice
Upon a summer’s day,
As it fell out, they all fell in,
The rest they ran away.

Oh, had these children been at school,
Or sliding on dry ground,
Ten thousand pounds to one penny
They had not then been drowned.

Ye parents who have children dear,
And ye, too, who have none,
If you would keep them safe abroad
Pray keep them safe at home.

This tragic nursery rhyme offers a stern warning to parents: keep your children “safe at home.”

I can imagine a modern PSA with essentially the same message, just replace “ice” with “local gravel pit.” Or even better for my small town, “infill construction lot.”

Death in Mother Goose

Baa-Baa Black Sheep IllustrationFor Christmas, I gave my son a new edition of the classic The Real Mother Goose, with illustrations by Blanche Fisher Wright. First published in 1916, the book has been a perennial childhood favorite for almost a century. It certainly was one of mine. And so it was with nostalgia that I began reading “Little Bo-Peep” on the first page. An hour later, I had read maybe a hundred more nursery rhymes to my son, who couldn’t get enough.

For a long time I had heard that many popular nursery rhymes were rooted in historical events or based on historical figures. The best known example is “Ring around the Rosey”–supposedly about the plague, although there is little evidence to support such an interpretation. “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” is another nursery rhyme that seems to point to a real person, although whether it refers to Mary Queen of Scots or Queen “Bloody Mary” of England is debated.

Regardless of whether nursery rhymes have specific historical antecedents, I have to say, with my nostalgia tinged by a critical eye, that they certainly are about more than just sing-songy rhythms and rhymes.

It’s surprising exactly how many deal with death. There’s “Solomon Grundy,” an old favorite of mine:

Solomon Grundy,
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday.
This is the end
Of Solomon Grundy.

Here death is front and center, or at least as equal a part of life as, well, life. Grundy has three days to live healthy, happy, and wise (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday), and his downhill spiral, beginning with a mysterious illness on Thursday, takes three days as well (Thursday, Friday, and the death rattle on Saturday). Sunday (born) bookends Monday (died), and the final pair of lines summarizes the story so far: the end is final and inevitable.

But maybe it’s not surprising that death is so central to these nursery rhymes. Death was more a part of daily life in the formative years of Mother Goose (in the 17th century) than now, when we shuffle off our sick and our dying to hospitals and hospices and strive to eliminate the specter of death from modern life. I’m reminded of a remark by Walter Benjamin, who suggests that one of industrialized society’s subconscious goals has been “to make it possible for people to avoid the sight of the dying.” Benjamin continues:

Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one; think of the medieval pictures in which the deathbed has turned into a throne toward which the people press through the wide-open doors of the death house. In the course of modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living. There used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not once died. (Illuminations 93-94)

Solomon Grundy is a holdover from those days, when everybody died and everybody knew it and everybody saw it.

To be sure, we have death today, but it’s nearly always either spectacular death (an execution caught on a mobile phone, a CGI explosion in a Hollywood blockbuster) or mass death (tsunami victims piled high, mass graves outside a desert village). But ordinary deaths, the Solomon Grundy’s of the world dying dignified at home, surrounded by friends and family. Does anybody experience this any more? “Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death,” Benjamin writes. He calls these people, these living who do not see dying as part of life, “dry dwellers of eternity.”

Benjamin seems to be saying that death quenches the dry desert of eternity. To be touched by death is to be touched by life. To be touched by death is to be full of life.

The Last Jihad

Okay, so today I venture halfheartedly to Starbucks, because it’s the only coffee shop within walking distance (though there must be 8 billion within driving distance in Northern Virginia), and at the table across from me, there is some guy going on and on about how there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and what a bad baddie Saddam Hussein was and how great we took him out. Through some not so difficult eavesdropping (made fairly easy by the booming, energetic voice) I determined that this man was a novelist of some renown and that he had in fact some of his books right there on the table with him.

Through some inspired cloak and dagger misdirection involving a wink, a stubbed toe, and a penguin, I was able to see, upon leaving Starbucks, exactly what novel was on the table, thus determining what novelist was at the table.

I felt I needed to do this, because I am a professor of contemporary American literature, and I had no idea who this guy was talking so animatedly about Hussein’s secret plans to blow up the west with his nuclear arsenal. Here was a contemporary American novelist, and it was my professional duty to find out which one.

Turns out it was okay I hadn’t heard of him.

Because I don’t usually read evangelical Christian conspiracy thrillers.

The man was Joel C. Rosenberg, most famous for his NY Times bestseller, The Last Jihad. As the Publishers Weekly review of The Last Jihad on Amazon says:

In the wake of September 11, popular American president James MacPherson has spearheaded an international effort to destroy terrorist training camps in the Middle East and North Africa. Osama bin Laden has been killed, but Saddam Hussein continues to plot against the West.


I’ve since discovered that Rosenberg’s follow-up novel, The Ezekiel Option, is, despite its Ludlumesque title, essentially a kind of Left Behind novel about the Last Days. You know, the rise of Babylon, the Antichrist, and a lot of shit blowing apart

A real neo-con ex-Orthodox Jew Christian evangelical hawkish apocalyptic novelist, right here, in my very own Starbucks!!

I should buy him a double skinny no fun triple latte frappo mocha.

Fall 2006 Courses

For a lack of anything else intelligent to say at this hour, I’m posting descriptions for two of the undergrad courses that I’m teaching next fall:

21st Century American Fiction
(ENGL 429:001)

What innovative directions is American fiction taking in the new millennium? How have novelists and other writers reacted to the dominant events of the past few years: the dot-com bust and ensuing recession; the 9/11 terrorist attacksand the War on Terror; the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its impact at home and abroad; and the ascendancy of the virtual world? In this advanced literature course we will examine the trends, assumptions, and anxieties reflected in an assortment of recent fiction, published by both rising stars and well established writers.


Apocalyptic Thought in American Fiction
(ENGL 202:004)

There is a long history of apocalyptic thought in American fiction, and in this class we will examine the relationship between visions of the end and the social and historical contexts that give rise to those visions. We will consider the literary renderings of both religious apocalyptic scenarios (Doomsday, the Rapture, the Second Coming) and secular apocalyptic scenarios (environmental, biological, nuclear). The final portion of the class will consider the Journey into the Wilderness–a long-standing tradition in apocalyptic literature. We will treat the fiction we read as exactly that: fiction. In other words, we are not studying the apocalypse, but rather, representations of the apocalypse. As such, these representations reveal more about our anxieties and concerns with the present world than about any deeply held belief we hold about the end of the universe.