early spring book reports — don delillo, sci-fi stories, “metahistorical romance”

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This blog got neglected this month. My last semester hasn’t been demanding but I still let it take over most of my bandwidth. Another thing is that I’ve been reading a lot of stuff from normative folx, and their writing inhabits a white, heternormative and male-focused space, so I’m less keen to write my responses to them. Don’t get me wrong: Albert Camus and Don Delillo are great, and I won’t say you shouldn’t read them or their ilk.

I’ve been lousy with taking good notes or copying down important quotations with my reading, so instead I’ll just sketch out my impressions from memory.

Sublime Desire by Amy Elias is a fascinating and insightful look at postmodern narrative literature in the so-called First World. The book has actually had a big impact on my own pet notions about the artistic treatment of the past, along with Sequel to History by Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, but Elias’s work is a bit more accessible (one theory-savvy friend declared Sequel to be written in an alien language).

She argues that postmodern fiction in the US and Europe take on a serious treatment of the past. These works posit that there is an “historical sublime,” a kind of primordial space beyond the boundary of language, unspoken and unspeakable. Novels that regard the historical sublime articulate a kind of yearning for a relationship to the past grounded in certainty. Such certainty eludes us in our lives because of how Modernity cuts us off from our origins and holds out a promise for a better future, and because the violence of the 20th century has rendered the master narratives of the Enlightenment incoherent.

Postmodern “metahistorical romances” use avant-garde writing to explore our desire for a foundation despite knowing better. When we approach the border to the sublime, “uncanny” stuff goes down: perhaps something anachronistic like Black slaves escaping in a Boeing plane like in Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada. Other romances include The Sot-Weed FactorSexing the Cherry, Cold Mountain, and all of Pynchon.

Elias presents alternative ways to represent history beyond the linear time, which can only articulate one “point,” that of the King, the Master, the enfranchised race/gender/class. By the end of the monograph we are skeptical of postmodernism in-toto, viewing it as another dialectical product of enlightenment thinking. Postcolonialism is where the action is, in terms of a serious theoretical pushback against the historical and ongoing violence of the Western imagination.

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Two novels by Don DelilloI’ve been going through Mao II and Libra on my bus rides to class, and I enjoy them a great deal. In Mao II, Bill Gray is a white male novelist hiding out in New York state with an assistant and his partner who was deprogrammed from a cult that arranges mass weddings. Gray hasn’t been seen in a couple of decades, he has been writing all this time but he does not want his work to be published. He decides to break this silence by having his portrait taken by a woman photographer. In this 90s context of mass public action, corporatized media events, and political terror, Bill Gray getting his picture taken will turn out to be a bad move. Delilo writes vivid descriptions of the Ayatollah’s funeral and the crowd crush at Tompkins Square Park, captured and packaged by TV news cameras.

LIbra is a fictionalized biography of Lee H. Oswald cross-cut with scenes showing CIA operatives and other co-conspirators organizing a hit on JFK. Both novels are very fun reads. Delillo’s dialog is almost abstract and distancing. Characters are often talking to each other but not really engaging with each other’s words. They spit out lines that are alienated, often sarcastic, sometimes philosophical. In a less adroit writer it might have been grating, but Delillo pulls it off. If conventional action/psychology-driven novels put a movie in your head, this is more like a 50s television play written by Brecht. It’s stuff white people with college educations would say after a traumatic life event.

They articulate our desire to make sense of the past (Libra is in Elias’s bibliography of metahistorical romances) while frustrating those desires and rendering history as incoherent. There is an honest depiction of the anti-Blackness of American culture, especially in Libra. Delillo’s white characters are damaged and often damaging (Oswald batters his wife Marina, Bill Gray displays abusive behavior to his assistant and creepy behavior to women).

Anyway, I’m looking forward to finishing off Libra and maybe taking on Underworld. I hear a lot of complaints that it has no plot, which is great news to my ears.

I’ve been wanting to read The Girl-Thing who Went Out for Sushi by Pat Cadigan ever since a friend told me about it last summer. And then I found it in the 30th Year’s Best anthology so I grabbed it from the library. Fry is a ciswoman with extreme accomplishments in the scientific and beauty contest fields. In the narrator’s language she’s a “featherless biped.” We find her working in a construction crew orbiting Jupiter. But her workmates have disavowed the human species and have modified their bodies to become octopuses or crustaceans and other marine life to better live and work in space.

It was my kind of sci-fi short: with allegory, politics, a minimal plot (mainly a string of situations in the workplace) all nicely worked into the texture of a really well-realized future world with hip slang that isn’t over-labored (I love the dialog in Adventure Time for the same reason). Fry ends up transitioning, or “going out for sushi,” herself after an injury on the job (she has some other long term desires which she hides from the rest of the characters til the very end).

“Sushis” also abandon dualistic thinking, according to the narrator. I wonder if these modified megafauna feel more “complete” than a human subject, fragmented thanks to the cartesian split between mind and body. These ideas inform the “slur” of featherless biped to describe a human. (“Slur” is in scare quotes here because it is only a slur in the same way some white people think “mayo” is a slur). The term is playfully or ironically using binarist thinking, defining human as not a bird.

So I was tempted to think about the story in an allegorical way regarding trans experiences. I dont recommend taking it all the way, because unlike the bleeding-edge procedures that turn a human into an octopus, trans women have always been around. Nor do trans women necessarily need hormones or surgery unless they want to (such dictums only come from a cissexist society that demands that trans women “pass” and yet there is also a double standard that trans women must disclose their “true nature” at their own personal risk lest they be “deceptive” and ugh this is such an ugly transmisogynist world).

What does resonate is the obvious political hierarchy that keeps “sushis” as an underclass in the space station, as well as the general ignorance and hatred bipeds direct towards them. In the real world, you don’t need to have eight tentacles or a nautilus shell to be pegged down as inhuman and incomprehensible in the social gaze.

I read the story (to tie it in with Elias) as being about borders and border objects — how being on the fence between certain positions subjects you to pressures, ties, and rejection from either “side.” In this story world Jupiter is a border object between the inner and outer worlds. The local government can’t pledge allegiance to either side without raising suspicion of trying to take over and launch some kind of Jovian hegemony (the phobia against the working class Sushi population is a large part of this). The narrator:

the Big J is really neither outie nor innie. The way I see it, there’s inner, there’s outer, and there’s us. Which doesn’t fit the way two-steppers do things because it’s not binary.

My babbling and most likely egregious reaching aside, I loved this story and its hard-boiled, jargon-ridden narration. Really skillful world-building. And the editor is really good at making me want to read all the other stories in the collection with his micro-summaries.

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