People of Paper

Sorry if this is a little late.

The People of Paper tackles the age-old book themes of sorrow and loss.  Unlike most derivative writing that deals with these ideas, Plascencia presents them in a fresh, innovative, and often comical way.  After reading some of the posts, I found that most people were surprised with the subject material in People of Paper, and their expectations where changed when reading it.  I feel the same.  Sorrow and loss are certainly not new themes in novels, yet they are far from becoming passé; there is always something to say about sorrow.  To discover this postmodern novel focusing on such recurrent topics, while employing new strategies in its presentation, made for a very interesting read, and I would agree that People of Paper is one of the most interesting novels we’ve read this semester.   I would like to focus on these themes and how they are handled in the novel. 

Frederico’s bed wetting problem served as a hilarious catalyst for Mercde leaving him.  Though it is under a ridiculous circumstance, I know of no woman who would stay with a lover in spite of such a problem, thus the bed-wetting is funny yet true.   Frederico’s self-mutilation is handled in such a way that makes the violent act seem absurd and, coincidently, heartbreaking.  Frederico’s maiming of himself may seem far-fetched, but I think it is pulled off well with the magical realism that Plascencia creates in the novel.   But the most absurd comes when Froggy adopts an Oaxacan Songbird and chooses to listen to its loud calls to deal with the pain of Sandra leaving him.  The curandero gives Froggy the bird as an escape to his distress and loneliness. 

The idea of escapism is interesting and has been touched on in the posts.  Just how Frederico, Froggy, and others escape their loss through pain, Saturn, who turns out to be a character named Salvador Plascencia, escapes his loss by creating these self-mutilating characters.  This part of the book I found strange and startling but also very interesting.  I like the idea of the writer putting himself so freely and to the forefront of the text that deals with loss.  I’ve read many novels that tackle this subject matter (there seems to be at least a tinge of this idea in at least all of them) and I’ve always felt that there is some sort of cathartic process going on, like the writer is putting his characters through loss and pain in order to deal with his own.  I think that Plascencia recognizes this and thus puts himself right in the text, like he is saying that he is dealing with it just like his characters, as if he is beating us to the punch.  

Postmodernism and Place

Sarah briefly mentioned place in her blog post and that got me thinkin’. Since many folks out there have already weighed in on the Adams article, I decided I would go elsewhere with this post and try to make sense of place in some of the novels we have read.

The notion of place seems to be pretty flexible in postmodern texts. In gothic literature, for example, place is often easily described as antiquated. In genres like fantasy and sci-fi, place also fluctuates but tends to follow some basic rules (outer space, past feudal realms). Many people have posted about how difficult it is to place postmodernism within any strict walls or interpretive confines. I agree that this is tricky and as I’ve read books from The Crying of Lot 49 to House of Leaves to Tropic of Orange, I’ve noticed that there don’t seem to be any conventions that strictly define place in postmodernist writing.

As I looked closer I found that there is little overlap in location: Beloved occupies a small space in the rural South; The Crying of Lot 49 takes place in bustling, crowded cities across California. The size of the places also changes: there are the small confines of a house that can also grow to enormous proportions in House of Leaves; the small (but ever-changing) office where much of Lathe of Heaven occurs; Tropic of Orange sprawls all over LA and in Mexico too, across landscapes both vast (the urban ghetto, the highway systems) and localized (the house near Mazatlan). Places can occupy just about any form in postmodern texts, from rural to urban, small to large.

It’s how place feels to the reader and how it is handled by the characters in the stories that I think give many of the places we’ve read about a common characteristic: they are unreliable, sometimes to the point of becoming untrustworthy. Why do I see some of the places in this semesters novels as unreliable? How does this relate to postmodernism?

I don’t think anyone will disagree that the space in House of Leaves is unreliable. The house shifts, it changes, at times it attempts to trap people inside. However, the novel also takes place in the world of Johnny Truant. Johnny begins the novel with some forays into the city, but by the end, he is as shut-in as Zampano, with drapes over the windows and cardboard blocking the vents. Not only does he not trust his own space, he doesn’t trust the space outside.

In Crying of Lot 49, everything seems to be untrustworthy. Oedipa travels around to different cities, and as she does this, I never feel a strong sense of the location. Each city seems the same. What makes them important is that they conceal the hidden clues she so desperately seeks. Each place sends her to a new location, all another stopping point on a journey that leads pretty much nowhere. Those are some unreliable locales.

In Tropic of Orange place seems to be more reliable than these other two, but is it? Crabs in Mazatlan, located hours’ walk from the sea, signify that something isn’t right. Gun shots on the east side may be an every day part of life, but for Buzzworm, it can all be avoided, the space can be reclaimed–from the beuracrats, from the gangsters who do their best to claim it, from the vicious cycles that occupy that space and keep revolving and threatining to never let anyone out. Gabriel’s unreliable space takes the form of a two-headed monster: the quiet Mexico or the bustling LA where he can continue working as a journalist. These spaces all bring with them a strong sense of unreliability. This is not the house you grew up in or the bustling city that represents opportunity. No, these spaces, even when they’re at their best, are ever-changing, sometimes alien landscapes.

Manzanar seems to be one character who finds the space he occupies–highway corridors–to be reliable. However, upon closer expection, we see that they are only reliable as far as his music goes, but not reliable as a whole. Crashes occupy this wide-lane space and Manzanar also summons images of maps. Maps can be reliable, but for anyone who has used one knows they are subject to change. Unexpected, sudden change that leaves you at the end of a dead-end road, just miles from your ultimate destination in the middle of the night, wondering, “what do I do now?” The maps in this book also have layers–“for Manzanar they began with the very geology of the land…” (57). These multi-layered maps become so thick in their complexity and construction as to render them too numerous and too specific to serve much use at all. In chapter 13 Buzzworm thinks about maps and how little they really do to help. He sums this up with the early line, “if someone could put down all the layers of the real map, maybe he could get the real picture” (81). Only if all the layers are assembled can the maps provide a clear picture–and as the tone suggests, this will never happen. So even maps become unreliable in Tropic of Orange.

Some of the other novels we’ve covered also deal with unreliable places, but I felt that these were some of the shining examples. Places change, but their unreliability in postmodern texts seems to be relatively constant.

In postmodernism many aspects of life (language, morals, truth, etc.) are shown as constructs of society that we all end up buying into. In a postmodern novel, the author may investigate these constructs, and in so doing, help shed some light on their existence (the constructs’), which is usually enough to get people thinking. I can’t help but want to channel Saussure when thinking of place, who wrote about the signifier and signified in linguistics. I believe that while he mainly focuses on words, the same can be said for place. The signifier “home” or “city” will mean many different things to any number of different people (the signified). New York is the symbol of American freedom, LA of opportunity and fame, DC of power. However, to the people who visit and occupy these spaces year round, the cities become many different things. This may be part of the reason spaces seem so hard to trust in the works we’ve read. After all, when a space means something different to everyone occupying it, and seems ever-changing, there isn’t a lot to rely on. Just below the surface the labels we apply to certain locales (the peaceful setting of the South, the emblematic American cities) suddenly vanish. Each person takes something different away from their place. Each one views their place differently as well. I believe this root of unreliability is essentially postmodern becauyse it’s not only the observed that’s important, but who’s doing the observing, how they observe, and what that says about the unique spaces we all occupy and how they shape our unique perspectives.

A Lesson in Postmodern Disorder

In “The Ends of America, the Ends of Postmodernism” Rachel Adams writes this of her students’ responses to The Crying of Lot 49 and Tropic of Orange:

Their responses caused me to realize that in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Pynchon’s novel [The Crying of Lot 49] has ceased to read as a work of contemporary fiction, even though many critics continue to use postmodern and contemporary as synonymous term.  While my students find Tropic of Orange no less challenging, they are willing to grapple with its difficulties because they recognize its form, which evokes the internet’s polyvocality and time-space compression, and its theme–the human and environmental consequences of transformations taking place at America’s borders-as belonging to their own contemporary moment. (2)

Looking at these texts from an undergraduate pedagogical perspective, this seems to be a fairly onerous lesson.  Even if pairing these two texts together produces a distinction within literary postmodernism, it seems more of a salvage mission than one of intellectual curiosity.  If The Crying of Lot 49 (or any text for that matter) only “works” for those experientially familiar with Cold War paranoia, “nuclear apocalypse, and newfound distrust of a government enmeshes in secrecy and conspiratorial activity” (2) then does it really offer a spring board for scholarly discussion (outside of: This text will inform the other texts we will be reading)?  Is it only possible for students to value the text after they have read a “relatable” contemporary text like Tropic of Orange?  Taking it a step further, are we merely teaching The Crying of Lot 49 for contextual/historical reasons?  Is it possible to make it more relevant to students?

Though I do not disagree with Adams pairing of the two texts, I am curious to whether she believes them to be short-term “cultural capital” or appreciating assets on the road to canonization.  Though either point could be argued, for the purposes of this discussion (as well as arguing for its inclusion in this course), I am more interested in the latter.  Though Adam’s experience with her students initially points to the texts as holding short-term “cultural capital,” this need not be the case.  First and foremost, a reader, even a reader as potentially resistant as a student, must have some sort of connection with a text.  Even if it manages to “generate a more precise understanding of literary postmodernism” (10) that lesson will be lost if it is not more than a simple history lesson.  Therefore, to make The Crying of Lot 49 relevant to an undergrad population, one must have an appropriate framework for discussion.  Adams seems to draw a connection between using The Crying of Lot 49 as a point of entry to discussing Tropic of Orange.  “These novels are an ideal pair because each translates the cultural and political dilemmas of its time into the aesthetic and thematic innovations of narrative fiction.  Any attempt to define what makes Yamashita’s moment distinctive will require different forms of literary, historical knowledge, and attention to emergent sensibilities that break from earlier understanding of ‘the contemporary'” (10).  I think she falls short in using the more remote text to inform the more “relatable” one.  Drawing from Robert Scholes, I would stay she demonstrates “the tendency to follow a line of ‘masterpieces’ until the end, [which] no longer serve their purpose.  It is not simply that the line is too narrow, though it is, but that this material does not reach student effectively because they do not know why they know why they need it. . . To put it simply, we much begin where we are, at the end, and start asking how we got here” (115).  Perhaps, it would be wiser to read the “relatable” Tropic of Orange first. Only then is it possible to spark the intellectual curiosity necessary to take The Crying of Lot 49 to task.

Works Cited

Scholes, Robert.  “A Fortunate Fall.”  Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. Ed. David H. Richter.  Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1994.  111-119.

Writers and Dictators

Several years ago Don DeLillo archived all of his notes, drafts, manuscripts, correspondence and various other written material (up to 2003) at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, located at the University of Texas at Austin.

I’ll talk more about this archive in class, but I wanted to send you the link to a New York Times Book Review article that DeLillo had cut out and included in his research materials for Mao II: “Writers and Dictators” by Michael Levitas, then the editor of the book review. Presumably, then, the article had inspired some of DeLillo’s thinking about his novel. In particular, DeLillo had highlighted the closing paragraph:

A bleak prognosis, but perhaps no worse than that of a younger Argentine writer, Martin Caparros, who is 31: ”There’s a difference between the 60’s people and us,” he said. ”They thought the novel would change the world. We don’t know what will change the world, but it won’t be the novel.”

This pessimism — that the novel can no longer change the world — is something we’ll have to address in class.