Corporations and Flat Characters

Some of you have commented on the parts of Shooting War that seemed flat (the characters) or gimmicky (the ending).  I agree with those comments, but I also think that the book gives us a very real sense of the fine line between our current way of life and a full blown dystopia.  As Don DeLillo points out in “The Guardian,” corporations have become a fatally important part of our society, deemphasizing the power of our own government.  Our current market is run according to the idea of exponential growth.  Corporations go uncontrolled, wreaking havoc on the environment and the economy. 

One of the first things we hear about in Shooting War is “eminent domain.”  In the dystopic America that Burns lives in, the government has the ability take private property and redistribute it to the corporations who can promise the most revenue.  Although we don’t see this idea fully fleshed out, it is easy to imagine the horrors that would accompany this law. 

In this scenerio, the government doesn’t work for the people anymore, but for the big corporations.  Lappe shows how the government is not only ineffective, but actually harmful.  All the government actions we see, such as the masacre of citizens, culminates to the final action in the book.  The last thing we hear about the government is that McCain will not run for another term, a sign that our government has failed.

Getting back to the idea that the characters were flat, what did people think of Abu?  Like most of the characters, I felt like he wasn’t very developed.  The psychological underpinnings of a terrorist just weren’t there.  I was hoping for more complexity from that character, but instead I got things like “of course I may die, but this isn’t about me.”  His dialougue often seemed cheesy and oversimplified. 

But to be fair, Burns and Crash are not very complex characters either, so perhaps its just a flaw of the medium. I have to admit, I’m not an avid comic reader, so I’m not sure how the medium may stifle some the psychological development of characters.  Unlike the terrorists in Shooting War, DeLillo gives an eery look at terrorism: “He builds a plot around his anger and our indifference. He lives a certain kind of apartness, hard and tight. This is not the self-watcher, the soft white dangling boy who shoots someone to keep from disappearing into himself. The terrorist shares a secret and a self. At a certain point he and his brothers may begin to feel less motivated by politics and personal hatred than by brotherhood itself. They share the codes and protocols of their mission here and something deeper, a vision of judgment and devastation.”

I think this passage does a better job getting at the psyche of the terrorist.  DeLillo shows the terrorists’ intense sense of separation from the rest of the world.  In one passage he discusses the lifestyle of the terrorist, their vision, their motiviation, and their sense of self, which is more than we see out of Abu.

I’m Pro- Strong Women, really! Just not that into Ms. Russ

Look, i love strong women, digital or …analogue? well real. But The Female Man wasn’t my cup of tea.

I suppose the difficulties I had with The Female Man, aside from the obvious shifts and ambiguities in narrative (the vague first persons really dug into my skull, and the story, at that point wasn’t interesting enough for me to pay super-close attention to who the I’s in fact, were) was the fact that for the bulk of the text, there is very little, if any, plot.  I kind of have the feeling that if Russ were to bring this manuscript into a typical workshop, putting the pronoun issues aside, she would get a lot of comments about needing to use the character and situations to drive the plot….it seems that a pretty hefty portion of the novel is spent merely getting the characters to a point at which they can interact. Janet goes from here to there…a few amusing scenes illustrate that shes a fish out of water…Jeannine/Joanna goes here, goes there..etc, all the while declaring their views/positions in this continuum of feminism rather straightforwardly, until finally all or at least 3 of them are together in a world not our own.

Simply as a reader who enjoys sci-fi for its imagination, I was really having a tough time getting into any of these narratives. I know I know…in 1971 there were probably a TON of males which would have been quite accurately depicted by Russ, but the male characters were so over the top to me, a modern day reader, that it was hard for Russ’ points to not feel a little cheapened by those depictions, and (Please, im not a misogynist, or even that chauvinistic I swear!) some of her “asides” or declarations were just a little too overt, as to be cliché ..”My brassiere hurts.” AND YES I KNOW, its TOTALLY unfair for me to read this and apply my modernist views to a book from 3, going on 4 decades past (especially one which WAS seen as controversial, radical, even avant-garde  ) but I do believe a text should be able to stand up somewhere close to as well now as it did when it was published. Sure some details of Gertrude Stein (more recent) or Milton’s (pretty damn old) novels are antiquated, but those themes/ideas which bear the heft of the author’s point are timeless. Too much of The Female Man read, for me, as out of date. This is of course, not to say that feminism is or should be dead, nor is it to imply that women are treated equally anywhere, let alone everywhere, but her methods to illustrate such points just didn’t work for me.  I’m sorry… don’t call me any names.

Questions I had: is there a purpose, and if so, what is it?, to the initial lack of plot and intense focus on character? Im asking this sincerely, not snarkily!

Why did this have to be a sci-fi novel? Would it have been just as effective (or perhaps more effective) in a different genre? Western? Horror? Elvish Fantasy? Again…sincere, not snark.

Postmodern Horror?

One of the things the first strikes me about this novel is its connections to the horror genre (I vaguely recall hearing or reading about this novel a number of years ago and thinking that it was a work of horror).  The title House of Leaves is reminiscent of the titles and settings of other great works of horror fiction: The Haunting of Hill House, House of Frankenstein, the house on the hill in “Salem’s Lot, the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.  The creepy, old house that some unsuspecting family moves into is an undeniable cliche of the genre.  The novel certainly plays up the ominousness and foreboding from the very beginning.  Much like the voice-over/introduction to The Texas Chain-saw Massacre, the story of how Truant acquired Zampano’s writings blurs the line between fact and fiction, grounded reality and infinite dreams and nightmares.  All horror relies upon creating a space in the audience’s mind where anything can happen.

While Truant’s introduction and his footnotes contribute to the tone and tension of the work, as a horror novel, the narrative lacks immediacy.  Scary stories usually depend upon the reader being drawn into a situation of terror with one of the characters.  Danielewski undermines the immediacy though by switching between the Davidson plot and the Truant plot.  He also noticeably softens the horror by ending chapter four with Karen screaming and then beginning chapter five with a long, tiresome explanation about the mythology and science of echoes.  It is as though the author wants the story to walk a line between being horror and being something else.

And if this is a horror novel of a sort, what is the horror, the boogeyman?  I suspect that it has something to do with house, not because it is haunted, but because the house is a symbol for the American Dream as is the family that inhabits the house.  There is something wrong with the ideal life of a couple living in a perfect home with two kids and a dog (and a cat in this novel).  There is something terribly romanticized in the way that Davidson describes his new home, life, and project.  

“Maybe because of my past they’re expecting something different, but I just thought it would be nice to see how people move into a place and start to inhabit it.  Settle in, maybe put down some roots, interact, hopefully understand each other a little better.  Personally, I just want to create a cozy outpost for me and my family.  A place to drink lemonade on the porch and watch the sun set” (9).

The whole situation seems too optimistic to me.  For a guy who won a Pulitzer for a photograph of a dying girl in Sudan, he seems oddly oblivious to the possibilities of obstacles to be met and imperfect conclusions.  

The blending of reality and fiction within the novel and the preoccupation with the family is reminiscent of the sado-masochistic games that the older couple plays in Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.  Neither of the families in these works are complete; there is always a space that needs to be filled whether it be with an absent child (Albee’s play), an absence of communication between husband and wife (Davidson and Karen seem to communicate a lot through cameras), or actual rooms that appear out of impossibility.  I think it is interesting to note that both Truant and Zampano are single, without family, and in the eyes of the American Dream, incomplete.

I suspect that in this horror story the boogeyman is not a fantastic monster, but the reality that the American Dream is tainted, uncontainable, or unattainable.

Layers and Reliability

I believe I mentioned in class that one of my students had the most bizarre reaction when I mentioned that I was going to be reading The House of Leaves. One day, when I told her I was going to start reading the book that night, she cried, “Oh no! Don’t read it at night! Read it during the day when you’re sure of yourself and the world around you!” Her reaction made me laugh, but when I did go to start reading the book later that evening I must admit that I was a bit hesitant. J Maybe it was the warnings of my student that got me, but I did find the style to be rather ominous. I kept waiting for the horror I might discover on the next page. Although I still feel that Danielewski has successfully created an eerie, foreboding mood, I’ve overcome that initial hesitation and I am very much intrigued by the style of the book!

 

Several people have commented on the many layers of the book. I find this layering just fascinating! We’re reading a book told from the point of view of a narrator (a “frame narrator”?) who is piecing together a book from scraps of writings about a film which, as others have mentioned, is also fragmented. Then there is the layer of false support and commentary found in the footnotes. Additionally, Truant’s compilation also offers him a chance to reflect in journal-like writings. Just like the house in the novel, these layers seem never-ending.

 

In addition to the layers of the novel, I’m also interested in the names Danielewski chose. Susanna discussed the significance of Truant’s name. I’m also intrigued by Truant’s friend, Lude. Lude is rather lewd, but, then again, so is Truant. However, by going through Zampano’s writing, Truant begins to think on a deeper level, to some level going beyond the lewd lifestyle of smoking pot, getting drunk, and having sex with multiple (and random) partners. However, Lude (or the lewd lifestyle) keeps interrupting his thoughts (50).

 

As others have mentioned, Truant’s lifestyle has other implications…he can be seen as an unreliable narrator. Sara mentioned that Truant’s errors make him unreliable. I had a very different view, though. I actually see Truant has a rather reliable narrator because he is presented as very “real”. Truant’s voice is very conversational. He apologizes for how he is expressing his thoughts, he uses clichés (which we’re all guilty of), and he does make mistakes. Also, Truant demonstrates an understanding that time distorts memory. Within the first few pages of his introduction he admits that a particular memory “isn’t entirely accurate” but states that he is trying to be (xvi). Sure, we might not be getting an accurate account of this fictional tale, but I believe that Truant is presented as a rather real, believable character trying to make sense of what he has stumbled upon.

 

Speaking of real…I was relieved to learn that I was not the only one who struggled with Baudrillard’s essay on the real and the simulated. (I honestly struggled a bit with Foucault’s, too.) I think there have been some interesting comments about the connection between Baudrillard’s piece and The House of Leaves. I particularly liked Susanna’s observation that “Zampano’s reality becomes Truant’s reality”. From what I could gather, Baudrillard seems to make the argument that, due to representation and simulation, the real and the imagined become intertwined, and the imagined (or, in our case, the seemingly impossible) becomes another sort of reality. This thought really came back to me when I was reading Truant’s introduction and he states, “Zampano knew from the get go that what’s real or isn’t doesn’t matter here. The consequences are the same” (xx). I feel this statement really connects to the idea of constructed realities. At this point in the novel we’re also seeing Truant dealing with consequences from what is not truly real but has become real to him through his connection to Zampano and his work. (Did that make sense? J)

 

I look forward to discussing the novel and the articles in class tomorrow!

~Jennifer Kathryn Fulton

On Harvey

“The Condition of Postmodernity” was not the easiest read, but there were several elements of postmodernism that harvey addressed in his article. Since Harvey writes about art, architecture, literature, etc. it is hard to make any one statement about the condition of postmodernism. However, after reading this article I can’t help but feel that at least as far as fiction goes, one underlying element to almost everything is the element of distrust. Harvey writes that “characters no longer contemplate how they can unravel or unmask a central mystery, but are forced to ask, ‘Which world is this? What is to be done it it? Which of myselves is to do it?’ instead” (48).

An element of Marxism, which Harvey evokes often in his article, is the need to ask a continuous string of questions to find what is hidden underneath. One question is asked, and the opposite question must be tackled before you can move on to the next question. This is what shows us the hidden elements that define culture like religion, politics, laws, etc. There is also the concept of alienation, brought up as well by Harvey. This also cuts to the heart of distrust. Rather than continue asking questions until they reach definitive answers, it seems postmodern writers ask questions and very early on become distracted when they ask “why am I asking so many questions?” This sense of distrust for the past, and for dominant social norms permiates much of the fiction we’ve read so far.

In The Crying of Lot 49, there are numerous examples. One example that comes to my mind is  when Fallopian is describing the Peter Pinguid society. In the description of the society, it becomes clear that there is little in the way of an underlying message or truth. First Fallopian get lost in the details of the very naval battle that the Peter Pinguid society is based upon, only to say “Who cares…we don’t try to make scripture out of it” (36). This, to me, signifies a deep mistrust of religion. Especially its reliance upon translated scripture as a moral guiding post. The Peter Pinguid’s foundation myth is incomplete. The Peter Pinguid society also shows a distrust for economic systems when Fallopian later says, “good guys and bad guys. You never get to any of the underlying truth. Sure he was against industrial capitalism. So are we. Didn’t it lead, inevitably, to Marxism? Underneath, both are part of the same creeping horror” (37). While modernists tended to take sides in this debate, we see a very postmodern stance in Fallopian’s approach: who cares, they’re both effed anyway. Rather than investigate the deeper implications of each system, Fallopian stays on the surface and takes the stance that both are corrupt. He offers no new, better method, but leaves it at that. I believe this to be a clear sign of distrust: nothing can be fixed, so why bother. It’s more fun to observe how messed up things are after all, it seems Fallopian is saying.

In The Lathe of Heaven a more subtle distrust takes place in the character of Orr. His distrust lies in a fear that he will literally change the past. In the Harvey article, he describes the postmodern relationship with the past as one “eschewing the idea of progress, postmodernism abandons all sense of historical continuity and memory, while simaltaneously developing an incredible ability to plunder history and absorb whatever he finds there as some aspect of the present” (54). This is exactly what Orr does. Not only does he created a fractured version of the present, because to him, two versions of the past exist each time he alters it, but he literally abandons any hope for historical continuity. His dreams change the past–continuity is not possible.

While Harvey never mentions distrust, I believe that many of his points lead to this feeling. Youth in the 60s rebelling against forced consumerism as a result of tv, ideas of “the self without God,” and alienation all point to a generation–or generations– of writers whose distrust causes them to focus on the surface and avoid making any statements of grand meaning–after all, if they can’t trust, can they be trusted themselves?

Not to step on my own toes, as I present next week, but when I think back on House of Leaves, I see a novel littered with distrust. The setting can’t be trusted, as it has a tendency to mess with the occupants. The first historical record, Navidson’s, is also untrustworthy. At times, so is Johnny Truant’s account. In this way, the novel questions its own trustworthiness and at times hints at the fact that it could all be a fabrication. It does all of this in many different forms, but one is the oft-footnoted style of academic writing–a medium which may feature opinions we aren’t inclined to agree with, but that many of us probably trust as legitimate.

These are just some final thoughts on how this ties into our future reading, but at this point, I don’t know who to belive–and I’m inclined to just stop trying, because what good is truth without trust, anyhow?

-Jared C.

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: http://americanart.si.edu/collections/interact/zoom/paik.cfm

For digital images, look herehttp://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM4438

 

 

Rejection of modernism

One of the possible ways of defining or categorizing postmodernism is by its rejection of modernism ideals.  The Lathe of Heaven does this in several ways.

One is by its rejection of Freudian and Jungian ideas.  Freud’s ideas of psychoanalysis and Jung’s archetypes figured heavily into modernist ways of thinking.  Both obviously were also interested in dreaming and what it said about the human psyche.

Haber’s therapy sessions seem to reject basic Freudian ideas and techniques.  At one point he says the only holdover modern psychology still has is the couch, but he uses it for patients to sleep on, which Freud very much opposed.  For Haber, modern psychology is all about technology, not about the analysis that Freud and Jung practiced.

Haber also rejects the ideas of Freud and Jung that the unconscious was a dark and scary place:

Your unconscious mind is not a sink of horror and depravity.  That’s a Victorian notion, and a terrifically destructive one.  It crippled most of the best minds of the nineteenth century, and hamstrung psychology all through the first half of the twentieth.  Don’t be afraid of your unconscious mind! It’s not a black pit of nightmares.  Nothing of the kind!  It is the wellspring of health, imagination, creativity….. there is nothing to fear. -88.

For Freud and Jung and their patients, there was very much something to fear.  They told us that our subconscious was full of dirty thoughts and secret motives and monsters that we were not even aware we had.  The idea that there was a whole other layer of the brain that we could not tap into, yet was controlling our behavior to some point was a scary notion indeed.

Haber also is rejecting the Jungian ideas of archetypes, which was found throughout modernist literature.  When he is trying to make George feel better, he rejects the idea that the aliens are some universal archetype that represent the fear of the unknown, and says that they were probably just influenced by sci-fi movies from the 70’s.  George wants to stop before he brings out more monsters from his unconcscious, but Haber tells him he is being silly and that they must proceed.

Another way that this postmodernism rejects modernism is the “incredulity towards meta-narratives” that we discussed in class and that Harvey discusses in his article.  The Lathe of Heaven definitely rejects meta-narratives in the fact that there is no consistent reality.  How can there be one meta-narrative when reality is fundamentally altered every time that George Orr has an effective dream?  A world with 7 billion people can not have the same narrative as a world with 1 billion.  A world with racism can not have the same narrative as a world with no race.  A world with aliens living among us can not have the same narrative as one that doesn’t.  By rejecting the idea that the world has any singular, continuing reality the idea of any narrative to go along with reality is rejected as well.

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Live the life you’ve always imagined. -Henry David Thoreau

I randomly grabbed a bookmark from my desk for The Lathe of Heaven, and this Thoreau quote was on it, it made me laugh.

Response to first week’s reading

Foer’s narrative is probably the only one of the short stories that seemed relatively clear from the beginning.  It draws attention to the importance of listening to what is unspoken and untold and cleverly frames the story through the narrator’s instructions on the uses of the “silence marks”:: with each explanation, we are given a piece of information about him that ultimately narrates his story.  I’ve come across some writings in psychoanalytic criticism, such as Cathy Caruth’s “Unclaimed Experience,” that emphasizes the significance of reading into the silences that is particularly to be exercised with narratives that deal with trauma.  I wouldn’t know how to approach this story in terms of psychoanalysis, at least not for now, but I get the sense that we are left with an opportunity of exploring the narrator’s silences more deeply and examining not only what he doesn’t say in his conversations but what he doesn’t tell his audience. 

Don DeLillo’s  “The Uniform” reminds me a lot of Joseph Heller’s novels in terms of its use of elements of absurdity and irony.  It appears to me that this story follows the style of black comedy and I see the “cartoonishness” that Dr. Sample points to in the portrayals of the killing and raping that paradoxically makes the scenes all the more disturbing.  This narrative style serves the purpose of depicting a grotesque image without the descriptiveness expected and with simplicity and flatness that makes it more comical in a way.  But to understand the purpose of this use, I’m reminded of something Heller had said about Catch-22, that he had wanted his readers to laugh and then look back in horror at what the they were laughing at.  There’s also the recurrent attempt to articulate a traumatic experience (Harlow and her history of sexual abuse) and not being taken seriously and not being capable of comprehending it that we also see in Catch-22.  Is the excessive use of absurdity and hilarity a retreat from the futile attempts of expressing the horrific and the grotesque?  Does that suggest the inadequacy of language in these cases?

Link’s “Some Zombie Contingency Plan” I liked the most, despite its difficulty and ambiguity.  By taking the setting and the several references to horror films into consideration, the story seems like a mimicry of horror films of the 80’s and early 90’s that typically start with a group of unsuspecting teenagers gathering at a party where there’s music and beer, midway through the villain crashes and the slaughter begins.  But in this story the zombies never show up.  I’d hate to take this story back to psychoanalysis, too, but does that mean that the whole idea of zombies is just in the protagonist’s head? And why does he continuously slip into different identities as the narrator uses different names for him?

As to Hassan’s “POSTmodernISM” I was initially put off by its difficulty as I had trouble understanding what he was talking about, but reading more into it, I kind of get him.  I think his article is interesting and useful.  I especially appreciate the attempt he makes to compare Modernism and Postmodernism and show how they are different. It’s quite an interesting and ambitious attempt, and I mean ambitious in a good way, considering the time his article was published.