Friday, May 29, 2009

Alexie's Literary Tunneling

Sherman Alexie's Flight presents the journey of an orphaned teenager, Zits, as he inhabits the mind of various individuals throughout history. When I say inhabit, he literally enters the consciousness of various people, each representing an element in Zits's complex history. The narrative tunnels into the thoughts of various people over time, individual stories that history has overlooked. It gives voice to people and highlights the ethical dilemmas that defined them, while shedding light on the complexity of American history. The novel foregrounds the way stories can bring recognition and return voice, a self-awareness of the way literature functions in the world.

However, this self-awareness does not take the shape of historiographic metafiction like other postmodern texts. The narrator does not reflect upon the construct of the text, nor does he present an awareness of the act of writing. Flight enacts the process of reading through the narrator, Zits, who supernaturally experiences the actions and is privy to the thoughts of other individuals, while remaining conscious of his own thoughts as well. As Zits puts it, "I can fall so far inside a person, inside his memories, that I can play them like a movie." Or, as I am arguing, read them like a book.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Past Haunting the Future

Toni Morrison's Paradise disrupts and dislocates the totalizing views of race, class, and gender that an insular community constructs for itself. It does so by relocating the present inside of the knowledge of past traumas, demonstrating the inability to escape what has come before. In "From Deconstructive to Constructive Haunting in Toni Morrison's Paradise," Tammy Clewell finds constructive possibilities in this "haunting" in the way it "prevents the closure of any totalizing construction of subjectivity or homogeneous social organizations." The past virtually reopens the political and ethical discussion of identity in an essentialist community. Clewell adds, "Morrison's writing, in other words, does not tell ghost stories, at least not primarily, as a means of critiquing illusory notions of self-wholeness and social unity; the novel engages multiple figures of haunting as a work of rebuilding interior and exterior dwelling places worthy of human habitation." These worthy places are contingent upon the past and other racial, class, and gendered identities, responding to the present and historical others instead of fleeing from them. The novel, thus, raises crucial questions about the dependence of one identity upon another and the inability to maintain a community in isolation in today's world.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Foreclosure on the Wall

Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s The Writing on the Wall confronts the media blitz that occurred in the days directly following the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Characters routinely find themselves “in front of the TV. Watching the thing happen over and over.” The media is portrayed as ubiquitous, repetitive, and impossible to escape as the infotainment genre takes hold of its audience. Even “in a coffee shop on the boardwalk the TV was on, no escape even at the edge of the sea.” The seductive images become more and more real in their repetition and people confuse reality with the media representation. Renata, the novel’s protagonist, falls prey to the media “fantasies, she didn’t see [9/11] happen, although she’s seen it so many times since that it feels like she saw it.” The footage substitutes for her experience in that it shapes reality and ultimately becomes her perception of reality. She too is drawn in by the bright colors and music in which the news is packaged and by the horrific carnage of the footage. As a New Yorker, it is her environment that forms the backdrop for the media attention that effectively forecloses any and all reaction other than a return to the routine of everyday domestic life and blind acquiescence to authority. Schwartz focuses on the powers that define 9/11 by confronting the media aesthetic that confuses and distracts, allowing meaning to be foreclosed by a simplistic rhetoric of good and evil, vengeance and national pride. A linguistic dichotomy is formed between the simplistic explanations that basic terms offer and words that contain greater nuance and allow for a more meaningful engagement.

In The Writing on the Wall, Schwartz questions the media foreclosure and approaches the mediated trauma in a different way, by acknowledging how it takes away the voice of the victim. She allows meaning to come to the event through understanding over time instead of through a media spectacle that fills in the silence with endless voices, each a parody of the other. The ubiquitous media continues to flood the background throughout her novel to demonstrate how it shapes the American consciousness after 9/11 and influences all aspects of society. The media exists as a constant reminder of how literature needs to crack the all consuming nature of the spectacle and interrupt its influence in order to allow ethical response.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Mao Too

Andy Warhol's reproductions of the Chinese leader Mao Zedong comment upon the consolidation of power the original portraits represent. The above picture hangs in The Art Institute of Chicago and clearly shows how Warhol took the iconic image posted around China and added elements. The eye shadow, rouge, and lipstick in this version, as well as various color alterations throughout the series, subvert the intentions of the original portrait to be an ubiquitous and unchanged representation of communist rule. Mao, and in particular the iconic image of the Chinese leader, became the unquestioned symbol of communism, and still are. The repetition of the original in its exact form unifies the image of power, and subsequently the political discourse, by creating a spectacle of the communist leader. Warhol's reproductions parody the original by making a spectacle of his own, shifting elements that point out the construction of the original spectacle while maintaining the essence of the original, the portrait of Mao. The subtle shift posits a new idea about communism functioning as a spectacle in the same way capitalism does. It connects a totalitarian idea to an image, one that needs to be confronted and questioned.

Don DeLillo builds upon this idea in his novel, Mao II. The image of Mao returns again and again alongside those of crowds and followers, people under the sway of the spectacle. I suggest that DeLillo's questioning of the spectacle amounts to another Mao in Warhol's line ... Mao too. Thus, the book attempts in a way to become just another in a line of reproductions that each question the original and add another turn on the totalitarianism of the image in the contemporary world.

9/11 and the Graphic Novel

The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation turns the 9/11 Commission report, the findings of the bipartisan committee appointed by the President, into a graphic novel. It takes the events, the testimonies, and the time lines of the terrorist events and puts them into a comic book format. The graphic novel amounts to a pastiche of the elements included in the report and images deriving from both the artist's imagination and ones mediated by broadcast and print media coverage from both the day of the attacks and political figures of the time. I want to think through what the effect is of putting the report into this aesthetic realm. Turning it into a comic should open the discussion of 9/11 to new audiences, but does it have the effect of reopening the tragedy to new interpretations?

If viewed as a reopening of the discussion, the novel can be seen as an ethical endeavor to further understandings
of the tragedy. Consequently, readers may have a new engagement with the event that offers the opportunity for new responses to be formulated from a position of heightened knowledge and the awareness of diverse perspectives. However, by channeling such familiar images, mostly from media coverage, does it simply reinforce existing sentiments? The project mimics the goal of the 9/11 Commission Report, a book that attempted to report rather than engage with the event. But as a work of art, is not the burden one step further, to engage the event, rethink it, ask new questions? I don't know that the graphic novel has this impact.