Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction

Sorry this is late.

For the most part I liked the Flores article we read for class this week. It did a great job of saying what magical realism is and how that fit into the context of Spanish American Fiction. I found the article informative because I’ve known the term “magical realism” but never really knew its exact definition. Some parts of the article were frustrating however. I didn’t recognize a lot of the authors she mentioned which made it hard to relate the evidence she used in the essay to her actual argument, and some of the quoted Spanish passages were beyond my reading comprehension of Spanish. Also, this article was written in 1955–predating postmodernism–so I started thinking about how it relates to the broader scope of our postmodern theory lessons, which it doesn’t touch on for obvios reasons.

First, there’s the obvios linear path: Flores’ essay helps us understand elements in The People of Paper, the book we read this week for class. The People of Paper features postmodern elements like multiple narratives and so “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction” relates in that way.

However, there is one point Flores makes in her essay that I believe includes some of the elements in postmodern fiction. Flores writes that a crucual element to magical realism is the magical element “was accepted by the other chracters as an almost normal event” (191). I believe this is one way that magical realism can fall into postmodernism. Many postmodern writers attempt to reveal the narratives that societies follow without realizing they follow them. Magical realism is a technique that allows some of these narrative threads to be revealed. By changing society’s norms to the point where something like people made of paper is accepted by the characters in the novel and also the reader of the novel, we can get a better glimpse at the norms that define society in genereal. One example in the People of Paper is that the multiple narratives present the differing view points of what is really happening in “reality” while accepting the magical parts as true. In this way, we are given differing perspectives of the real and forced to ask questions not about whether people made of paper are real but how reality is manifest to each individual observer.

Paper Cut.

Paradoxically, I quite liked and enjoyed this book while at the same time having a lot of issues with it. Susanna and Sarah kind of beat me to the punch with their excellent posts, but I agree with Susanna’s highlighting of the misogynistic elements of the story, particularly the treatment of Mexican women who choose to form relationships with European men. I have often felt that postmodernist works have gotten a free pass on misogyny in their text (and I’m not implying that the authors are by extension misogynist, I’m just looking at textual evidence) because of the concept that misogyny is somehow dated or irrelevant to postmodernist writing-that is has somehow moved “past” misogyny. 

I also have some issues with the term “magical realism” but I think that might be more the clumsy handling of the term that I heard in other classes. I also feel like there’s been a sort of limiting categorization of Latin American literature-given that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is still probably the best known and selling Latin American author in English-as inextricably linked with magical realism. Of course, part of this is due to the limited availability of translated works. I take exception to Flores’ claim at the end of his article that “Latin America is no longer in search of its expression, to use Henriquez Urena’s felicitious phrase-we may now claim  that Latin America now possesses an authentic expression, one that is uniquely civilized, exciting, and…perennial” (Flores 192). I’m automatically skeptical about any claim of an “authentic voice.” Earlier, Flores claims that magical realists “do not cater to a popular taste…logically conceived [plots],” and makes a number of other assertions about magical realist writers that I think are open to debate. Of course, I think that part of this may be due to when Flores article was written-before the advent of discourse about postcolonialism, postmodernism, marginalized voices, etc. and I think this is reflected in the language of his article. 

I do think that postcolonial theory (which is starting to finally incorporate elements of postmodernism, rather than taking an oppositional position) applies to several aspects of the book, most notably the relationships mentioned above and by Susannah earlier. There are other, more oblique references to colonialism-Cameroon and, well, Cameroon being one of the most obvious examples-but also in the relationship between Mexico and America and the flower pickers/flower corporation-perhaps not strictly colonialism but capitalistic colonialism (for example, the flower corporation’s appropriation of El Monte’s water supply is a really interesting passage). 

I looked up some mythology about the planet, hoping that I would find something revealing about Plascencia’s choice of Saturn, but only found Greek, Roman, and some Hebrew myths. I’m interested if anyone has insight into Latin American planetary mythology and whether that might have something to do with his choice.


We discussed self reflexivity of a text as one of the characteristics of postmodernism on the first day of class.  This is, in my opinion, the most self reflexive of any of the texts that we have read so far this semester (although House of Leaves would be a very close second).  I give The People of Paper a slight edge because the actual author Salvador Plascencia shows up in the novel, as where Danielewski stayed hidden.

When it become clear that Plascencia is Saturn and a character in the book, the first thing that came to my mind was the movie Adaptation.  In the movie, Nic Cage plays Charlie Kaufman, who is the screenwriter of the movie.  We watch as he struggles with a script for a movie based on The Orchid Thief, eventually writing himself trying to write the script into the script he is writing, which is the movie we are watching.    Kaufman’s personal life effects what is happening in the script and the script is effecting what is happening in his life until the two become inseparable.  The book, the script about the movie, and Kaufman’s life are involved in this intertexual relationship that is the movie (the movie itself become part of the layering of the intertextuality as well).  For anyone who has seen a Charlie Kaufman movie, this paragraph makes sense, if you have not, it probably does not.  Kaufman’s latest movie Synechdoce, New York also deals with a lot of postmodern ideas, but I did not want to discuss it here because I am pretty sure I need to watch it again before I can make any sense of it.

Like Jennifer, I am sometimes annoyed by the authorial intrusions in some postmodern works (John Barth comes to mind for me as well).  However, I did not mind Saturn/Plascencia in this novel.  Instead of just popping in to remind us that we are reading a fictional work like some metafiction, Saturn’s role shows us how Plascencia is actively shaping the story.  The writing of the story and the resistance the author recieves from both inside and outside the fictional world he creates is the novel.  Just like in House of Leaves, once we learn something about Truant (namely Pelafina’s letters) it casts a new light on everything else that we have already read.  Merced leaving Federico de la Fe, Rita Hayworth snubbing lettuce pickers, the seeming cold-heartedness of Merced Del Papel all seem to take on a new meaning when we consider what happened with Salvadore and Liz.

Anthony wrote about it in his post, but I was wondering what other people thought of the treatment of women in this novel.  Is it misogynistic? Is there really a Liz? does it matter?

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.


I’d first like to just say that I think Yamashita’s use of music in her novel is beautiful. The book is written sort of like a song – with different characters working their way in and out of the text like instruments. I know it sounds really cheesy, but that’s the first thing that struck me. Small themes brought up in the beginning of the novel lead to great catastrophes or large events later on. Then, of course, there is the conductor who directs traffic. This, in and of itself, is a lovely image that lends itself to the text’s lyricism.

The movement of traffic is one thing that I think Adams explained nicely in her article. I like how she compared the freeway vein and impossible circuit of Pynchon’s California to Yamashita’s more musical and, in strange ways, hopeful freeway. I also like how she emphasized that Yamashita’s novel suggests the freeway is less crucial to the vital functions of a city. One infrastructure stalling doesn’t guarantee apocalypse. In the same way, the characters that survive are historically connected rather than flailing, and if they fail, that failure won’t necessarily destroy them. Adams makes some great points comparing the texts. I don’t think she’s disparaging Pynchon either – she’s more just calling attention to thematic and stylistic differences. In some ways I think the differences are just that (thematic and stylistic), and not necessarily bookends for an entire literary period. I feel like there’s a point where constantly arguing back and forth about whether something is postmodern just bogs it down and detracts from what we can get from the writing.

One thing I find strange was the emphasis placed on California, as if it’s this entirely different world and the center of everything. Maybe it is. At one point Yamashita mentions Joan Didion, and I kept thinking of her California freeway essay (and other CA essays) as I read the Adams article – how she made a game of the freeway, how she studied the freeway system, and felt completely connected to it. If California is this big a deal in the grand scheme of whatever postmodernism is, I sort of feel less connected to it than to Pynchon’s random red herrings and Cold War references.

There were a few other things I was wondering about. One was dialect – how did this strike other people? Adams mentions it in her article. At first I was wary of it because there are so many different conversational things happening, and for some reason I kept getting pulled from the story and thinking about screenplay dialogue. I’m not really sure why. But I see Adams’ point – that the use of dialect emphasizes a convergence of “underrepresented” people – I just wonder how accurate a representation it is.

The magical realism is also pretty stunning. In a weird way, it reminds me of Beloved – I guess just because it’s there, in this otherwise realistic piece. Perhaps the unreal elements sweeping into daily life emphasize the unreality or strangeness of real daily life.

Adams Article

I do not agree with Rachel Adam’s assertions that postmodernism is somehow over, or that Tropic of Orange represents some sort of seismic shift in American literature that we will all inevitably follow.

First, a little defense of The Crying of Lot 49.  Yes, I can understand that students respond to the text as if it is some sort of cruel hoax.  That is because the novel is cruel in a way; it cannot be neatly wrapped up in a bow, it does not have a conclusive ending.  The problem does not lie in the novel, it lies in the students, and also in the education system in the era of N.C.L.B. (I’ve been trying to get everyone to call it “Nickelby”, but it does not seem to be catching on).  I do not want to go on an extended rant about education, but basically, the emphasis on standardized texting has led to a generation of students who are only interested in issues that are clearly black/white.  Students today cannot stand ambiguity, it makes them nervous.  To me, that is even more of a reason to continue teaching Pynchon, to take students out of their comfort zones.  If I decided that every novel that my students did not like was no longer relevant, then I would be stuck teaching Twilight and that book by the  Jon & Kate Plus Eight parents.

Also, if her students are unable to identify “the sharp polarization of the globe, fears of looming nuclear apocalypse, and … a government enmeshed in secrecy and conspiratorial activity,” then they are just not paying attention.  What have we been doing for the last 8 years if not polarizing the globe? We are so entrenched in an “us vs. them” narrative that we felt the need to change the name of our fried potato treats.  As the number of states that have nuclear weapons grows we should worry about a nuclear accident now more than ever.  Pakistan, North Korea, and soon Iran are all unstable states that have nuclear capabilities (I just found out that South Africa is one of the 10 nuclear armed states, seemed pretty random).  We went into Iraq under the assumption that Hussein was attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction.  Also, it is not just nuclear annihilation we need to worry about, there are plenty of other ways that humanity can kill itself off (See: environment).  The Bush Administration was incredibly “enmeshed in secrecy.”  Look at all the shady stuff that is coming out: the US attorney firings, torture memos, secret prisons, roving death squads, illegal wiretapping, chupacabras, detaining prisoners illegally, not to mention the sweet, sweet bribes.  The Bush Administration was a paranoid person’s dream (or nightmare, not sure which).  I think it is hard to say that the main ideas behind postmodernism are no longer relevant.

I agree that “globalization” literature is an interesting field, and one that is very relevant to our current society.  However, as Susana pointed out, I feel that it points in a new direction for postcolonial or transnational literature.  And why does it have to be one or the other?  Why does Adams feel that the rise of one type of literature automatically leads to the demise of another? Why can’t we all just get along?

I just want to add that I enjoyed Tropic of Orange very much, my beef is with the article, not the novel.

Cold War and the Net, and 9/11 too.

This is the third of fourth time I’ve read through the Adams article and I’m still really hung up on the open vs. closed system idea. At first, I think I pretty much bought her argument, although cautiously. I was thinking particularly about the flow of information and how in Pynchon’s world it is overwhelming and intrusive – this leads to paranoia and chaos; yet in Yamashita’s world it is “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.”

The more I considered this idea, the more I began to agree with Adams’ assessment. The concept of, let’s say, the Internet, would have seemed incredibly threatening to someone like Pynchon in the 60s, through the end of the Cold War. Consider the earlier reception of Sputnik – an informational satellite perceived as everything from spy to death-ray – instant and global information-sharing must have been a terrifying prospect to those alive during the Cold War. Flash forward to the 90s, after the Cold War, and in the heyday of the early Internet and society had a completely different attitude towards information-sharing networks. The paranoia was gone and people, for the most part, saw the approaching global interconnectedness as a positive, rather than something to be feared. People sought out information, and instead of information being chaotic and cryptic (Oedipa), it made lives easier (Wikipedia!!!).

My main issue with/question for Adams, originally was concerning the effects of 9/11 on the ‘new’ era of literary postmodernism. I originally figured that it would have been a Cold War redux situation…in that it would have increased paranoia and a fear of global information sharing. However, while paranoia was on the rise immediately following 9/11, I think people actually embraced technology and information sharing EVEN MORE. Sure there was some techno-fear (and considering the amount of fear-mongering…I think we all did pretty well..), mostly of the shoe-bomb/exploding shampoo bottle variety, but consider the boom of the 24hr news networks, the talking heads(not the band), the marketing. And here

We, instead of developing a legitimate fear of spies or technological home-invasion (at least not from the enemy…possibly our wire-tapping govt though), sought out every piece of “news” that we could get our hands and ears on. Information (the open system) was our friend, it was comforting, even when it was scary, to know that we knew as much as we could know. And the Internet was the biggest, most instant-gratificacious (not a word) tool at our disposal. We were not, as Adams says “entrap[ed” in any kind of “labyrinth,” but rather we reveled in our interconnection. So, indeed, it seems that the end of the Cold War WAS a major turning point, not just in literary postmodernism, but in societal understanding/comfort with information-sharing and global networking in general. Not even a trauma like 9/11 could make us turn our back on technology/information.

Sure, even Yamashita illustrates that “California (or the Net for our purposes) is a nodal point where globalization threatens to erupt into environmental and human catastrophe…..But she also hints that, as Adams says “[It can] also [be] where people find themselves creating unlikely coalitions that might work to remedy these problems.”


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.

Tropic of Orange and Cognitive Mapping

Tropic of Orange was a very accessible read for me, so right away I knew something was wrong. The use of magical realism was charming, but that didn’t seem to jibe with what I thought I knew about postmodernist style. Adams’ article was very helpful to me in defining postmodernism by defining what it is not. She made a good point that the label of postmodernist loses any meaning it had when it is applied so liberally. Part of the reason I think we all feel so confused sometimes about what constitutes postmodern (aside from the fact that no critics can really agree either) is that the adjective is applied to such different-seeming texts. One thing I liked about Adams’ article was that she framed both postmodern fiction and contemporary fiction in more positive terms. Not only did she define postmodernism by what it’s not, she defined it by what it is. The “post” terms for schools of thought are somewhat troubling to me because they seem to define the wave only as a reaction to what came before, not as something in its own right. Of course all trends in intellectual thought are reactions to what came before, so it seems as if postmodernism should be able to come up with a descriptive definition for itself the way that other waves have done, instead of a temporal placeholder of a name. Adams terms postmodern fiction as Cold War literature, and contemporary fiction as the literature of globalization, which seem useful definitions to me.

Although she says it would be premature to label aesthetic and thematic trends in the literature of globalization (Is that a cop-out?), she does identify multivocalism as one stylistic trend in Tropic of Orange. I found myself reminded of House of Leaves’ multivocalism, but when I stopped to think about House of Leaves in terms of her definition of a postmodern text, it did seem to have the requisite “preoccupation with paranoia and conspiracy, radical skepticism about foundational truth and authority of all kinds, deft mixing of genres, distrust of received historical knowledge, and confrontations with the sublime and apocalyptic” (Adams 3). Tropic of Orange does mistrust the government, the army, the police, the newsmedia, but at least there does seem to be room for change. In a world where such acts of magical realism are possible, attitudes and ingrained cultural processes can surely also be extraordinarily transformed. What’s more, I did believe that the characters in Tropic of Orange themselves believed in the possibility of change.

It would be interesting to view Tropic of Orange, The Crying of Lot 49, and Adams’ article in terms of Jameson’s cognitive mapping. He decribed the alienated city as “a space in which people are unable to map (in their minds) either their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves” wherein cognitive mapping should work to “enable a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole.” It was the beginning map of the character’s voices throughout the novel that reminded me of cognitive mapping, in addition to Adams’ focus on the geographical spaces in the novel. But in Tropic of Orange, at least some of the characters seem to have both psychological and metaphysical maps working and intact. Excluding perhaps Emi and Gabriel, Buzzword, Archangel, and even Bobby (with his barrio surfing) seem to be sure of their literal and figurative place in the world. Buzzword in particular seems to be an activist on behalf of cognitive mapping, wanting people to get outside and walk to connect themselves more intimately to the places they live in. Archangel as well was establishing a place for his people. Manzanar perhaps is with his symphony establishing cognitive maps for those who can hear, integrating the different voices of the city into a coherent living, functioning whole.

Family Life in Postmodern Literature

I think it’s interesting how the chapters in Tropic of Orange correspond with the characters. I’m not really sure what to make of it. It’s clearly another expression of fragmentation, but it’s odd that she outlines it for us in the beginning. It almost seems like a key, in the way that some of the information in House of Leaves seemed like a key. Yamashita is, in a way, telling us how to read the book. She organizes the information, it seems, to help us make sense of the novel. Doesn’t this sentiment seem slightly anti-postmodern? However, I’ve never seen it done in another text, so it is an innovative technique. I wonder if anyone read the chapters out of order. I’d like to go back and reread this in a year, but instead of reading straight through, I’d read the chapters the way they appear in the outline. I wonder how that would change the meaning of the text.

I liked this book, in particular, because it gave me some ways to continue thinking about my research topic. Most of the books we’ve read don’t deal closely with family life. In fact, their seems to be a lack of families, or a tearing apart of families, in most of the books we’ve read. Pynchon doesn’t depict a family and gives very little weight to the one marriage in the text. In House of Leaves, the Navidson family is figuratively (and literally in the case of Tom) torn apart.  There is one marriage in the Lathe of Heaven, but it is also made to be a background issue. 

We do see marriage and family life in The Female Man, but it is completely different from the traditional idea of the nuclear family. In Belovedthere are families, but they are often separated by death and slavery. In this text, family members never seem to work as a cohesive unit, but instead stay isolated from one another. In Mao II, Bill, Scott, and Karen make up a sort of untraditional family unit.  However, this family is also torn apart by the end of the novel. In The Tropic of Orange, Rafaela, Sol, and Bobby are at the center of the story. Although family members, such as Rafaela and Sol, seem to operate in normal ways, their are various abnormalities surrounding them. In this case, the family life is altered, not internally, but externally as the geography around them twists and turns from its natural state.

 Sometimes the aspects that interest me most in a book are not what it says, but what it doesn’t say. There is an obvious absence of family life in the books we’ve read.  This lead me to wonder – where do families (especially nuclear families), marriage, and love fit into postmodernism?


I found Adams’ article, “The Ends of America,” really helpful in my (still feeble) attempts to form a working definition of postmodernism. She seems very confident in her definition of what we’ve admitted is a slippery category: postmodernism as the “dominant form of avant-garde literary experimentalism during the Cold War, a period marked by the ascendance of transnational corporations, the upheavals of decolonization, fears of nuclear holocaust, and the partitioning of the globe into ideological spheres” (Adams 2). Here, Adams is referring to the sixties through the late eighties (I would say it coincides with the formation and then fall of the USSR). However, stuff like the “upheavals of decolonization, fear of nuclear holocaust, and the portioning of the globe into ideological spheres” is sounding an awful lot like what’s going on today (I asked someone who lived through the Cuban missile crisis why they thought we don’t seem particularly concerned about the prospect of countries like North Korea or Pakistan getting nuclear weapons, and they said they think it’s because our generation has never had that much faith that the world wasn’t going to end, so there didn’t seem a point to panicking. I think they’re right.).


So anyway. If Adams is arguing that postmodernism was a reaction to the “containment culture of Cold War America,” (Adams 1) it would seem that the postmodern “moment” is over, as the particular historical moment that postmodern was a reaction to is more or less over as well. If so, I’d have to say that postmodernism seems to me to be the quickest-passing literary “moment” I’ve ever studied. (Is it possible that literary eras are speeding up? Why do I have to use so many parentheses?) Anyway, Adams argues that books like Tropic of Orange (and I would say also The Magical Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death-there I go again with the goddamn parentheses) are not postmodern per se but post-postmodern, or, in her terms, a reaction to the globalization of American literature. But do we agree that postmodernism has passed as its historical moment has passed?


But moving on, I thought I’d write a bit about my final paper and the issues I’ve been having and hopefully elicit some opinions and comments from other people. I wanted to take the discussion about Beloved and sort of run with it-I’d have to say it felt like the one book on the list that had the most to quibble about whether or not it was postmodern. But now I’m starting to feel like Oedipa, because it seems that each article or book I read just sends me ping-ponging from one position to the other. I’d like to make the argument that Beloved is a uniquely postmodern book. Here, Adams gives her list of what makes a postmodern work postmodern: “dark humor, themes of paranoia, skepticism, and conspiracy, preoccupation with close reading and textuality, and complex formal experimentation…[postmodern works] can be historicized as a response to and reaction against…the containment culture of Cold War America” (Adams 1). Given that Beloved has nary a nuclear reactor or conspiracy theory in sight, and it takes place in a history as yet untouched by the Cold War, is it still a postmodern novel?


Well, Adams goes on to write of Pynchon as the definitive postmodern author, citing his “preoccupation with paranoia and conspiracy, radical skepticism about foundational truth and authority of all kinds, deft mixing of genres, distrust of received historical knowledge, and confrontations with the sublime and apocalyptic” (Adams 3). Leaving out the paranoia and conspiracy part, I think a case could be made that Morrison’s work exhibits the same characteristics

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.

Reconfiguring the Past

Well, it is very late, and I am wondering why it has taken me so long to come up with something to write about concerning Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  Perhaps, it has something to do with not actually liking the novel that much.  Don’t get me wrong, it is a fine literary achievement, but for some reason it doesn’t “strike a chord” with me (but I will leave my personal taste out of this discussion).

More importantly, I am struggling with the postmodern-ness of the novel (and of Toni Morrison in general).  So it is a relief to see that as a class, we seem to be struggling together.  I keep trying to find a postmodern entry into this novel but have found little success, and so my last resort is to attempt to situate Beloved with the other postmodern texts we have read up to this point.  Obviously, this is no walk in the park either…but I did find one thing that could prove useful, but could also prove worthless.

In Kimberly Chabot Davis’ essay “Postmodern Blackness,” she discusses the interaction between past and present in Morrison’s Beloved:

One way to free oneself from the horrors of the past is to reenact and reconfigure the past in the present, as Sethe does with an icepick at the end of the novel, attacking not her own children this time but the white man Bodwin, whom she perceives as a reincarnation of her slave master Schoolteacher. (251)

Could we not consider this idea (reconfiguring the past in the present) in terms of Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven?  I believe a comparison with Le Guin’s novel depends on how one reads the ending of Beloved.  As Davis explains, some critics see the ending as a positive resolution; however, Davis “find[s] that the last chapter denies such a simplistic closure.  Morrison ends the novel with the word “Beloved,” suggesting that the past is a lasting presence, waiting to be resurrected. […] Although the ending suggests partial healing, the spectre of the past reamins, waiting to resurface” (251).

To reinforce her claims, Davis turns to Hutcheon who I think can be used also to consider The Lathe of Heaven:

the past is not something to be escaped, avoided, or controlled. . . the past is something with which we must come to terms and such a confrontation involves an acknowledgment of limitation as well as power. (251)

So to try to pull this shaky argument together: Sethe’s icepick maneuver is comparable to the chaotic ending of Dr. Haber’s effective dream in The Lathe of Heaven.  These resolutions are not perfect.  Instead, the endings demonstrate an “acknowledgment of limitation”: Sethe cannot erase the past by stabbing someone with an icepick, and Dr. Haber cannot alter the wrongs of the past by changing the world’s present condition (Note: his attempt to do so results in chaos.  Had it not been for George reaching the “off” switch, the world would have been staring into the eye of an apocalyptic disaster.)

Alternatively, both novels demonstrate the failing attempts to reconfigure the past through the present: Beloved in terms of a personal, familial past and The Lathe Heaven in terms of a broader world history.

Well what exactly does all of this tell me?  By placing Beloved alongside a postmodern text, can a claim of postmodernism be made for Morrison’s novel?  I’m not sure.  As was stated in Davis’s essay, Beloved‘s ending can be read several different ways.  If we read the ending as a positive resolution, then I can see the case being made against a postmodernist reading.  Either way, a comparison between the two novels certainly raises questions about the reconfiguration of the past through the present, and whether or not this can be achieved.

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.

Ghosts and Postmodernism

With this book, I feel like I have more questions than answers.  But, who knows, maybe I can still offer some insight through my line of questioning.  I agree with the previous post that Morrison’s “Beloved” seems out of character compared to the other  “postmodern” novels we’ve read.  I think the fact that the book gives us an altered, unexpected view on a certain historical period is the main reason for labeling it postmodern.  However, there is a connection I made with this text and another postmodern text.  Like the character Beloved in Morrison’s text, Don DeLillo also uses a ghostly figure to focus his novella “The Body Artist.”  When I first read DeLillo’s book I was puzzled by the ghost.  I didn’t see how it fit with the postmodern agenda, or why he found the ghost to be a productive tool to convey his message.  With Morrison, the ghost makes more sense.  Ghosts are often linked with history because they can exist outside of time.  Also, the concept of “haunting” works well as a link for the guilty conscience.  Okay, so maybe it works for Morrison, but I still don’t quite understand the link between ghosts and postmodernism.

On the first day of class, someone said “All I know about postmodernism is that it doesn’t work with religion.”  It seems like most of the postmodern books we’ve read are working against any kind of ontology.  So why use ghosts?  Don’t ghosts represent a higher power, someone in control of things we don’t understand?  Can we separate ghosts from the idea of religion?  Morrison does not attempt to separate ghosts from religion, but DeLillo does.  DeLillo’s seperation struck me as somewhat jarring, where Morrison’s connection seems more natural. Morrison calls attention to the link between religion and ghostsby deliberately making Baby Suggs a preacher.  When Sethe visits the holy ground where Suggs used to preach, she finds herself choked by Beloved’s ghost.

What I wonder about is the way this all plays out.  Baby Suggs status as a gifted preacher seems to make the other town folk jealous.  Somewhere in the text (I could not find the exact page) a character posits the idea that the town folk fail to warn Sethe about the police because of their jealousy of Baby Suggs ability to talk to god.  After that, Baby Suggs stops preaching and appears to stop believing in a god.  By the end of the story, both god and Beloved’s ghost have disappeared as if they were never really there.  The way these events play out makes me think that Morrison wants ontological views to be seen as a negative force within the text.  Religion and the idea of the afterlife only cause problems in the book, never solutions.