“UFO In Her Eyes”, by Xiaolu Guo

UFO In Her Eyes, by Xiaolu Guo.

Around a month ago, I read a book called A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by a Chinese author who I`d not heard of before, Xiaolu Guo. Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese novelist, essayist and filmmaker who, born in 1973, belongs to a wave of Chinese writers and artists known as the ‘Chinese Post 70’s Generation’. It is a term to denote artists who were born in the 1970’s, and who grew up in China after Chairman Mao’s death in 1976.  It is also known as the ‘Post Cultural Revolution Generation’, or ‘Post Maoism Generation’.

One of the trademarks of this movement is, compared to the previous generations, they were allowed to immerse themselves in a more liberal way of writing, not limiting themselves to the desires of the Communist party.

What I especially liked about Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, was her ability to capture a meeting between two entirely different cultures and languages. She shows how one (seemingly) universal, yet (undeniably) hard to define concept as love is able to connect people. Another aspect I immediately became interested in, is how in the book, Guo illustrates how important language is to our understanding and interaction with the world, culture and emotions around us. (I wrote a post on this book, so if you want to read a somewhat more elaborate explanation of this, I recommend you read it!)

After finishing A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, I wanted to check out more of Guo’s authorship. After some research, I find out that she has written eight novels, where the two first publications are written in Chinese, while (as I can understand) the remaining five are written in English. UFO In Her Eyes was published in 2009, and one of the novels written in English – i.e not gone through an English translation from the original.

In UFO In Her Eyes, The National Security and Intelligence Bureau are investigating an event in which Kwok Yun, a 37 year old illiterate peasant, has been reported to witness something peculiar in the sky; a spinning metal plate. Agents from the bureau interview the inhabitants of Silver Hill Village, the place where the sighting happened, individually. They encounter different personalities, who all have their own role in the pre-Industrialized village; butcher Ling Zhu, stall holder Kwok Zidong, tea farmer Fu Qiang and rice farmer Wong Jing, to name a few. They all have different opinions on the village’s political status quo, the social situation in China in general, of the circumstances surrounding Yun’s strange UFO sightings, and whether there might be any connection between the three.

Kwok Yun is also under investigation for having assisted an unknown Western traveler she sees immediately following the UFO sighting. The middle-aged white man is laying on the side of the road, clearly in need of help. It turns out he is bitten by a snake, and Yun takes him with her to her home in order to tend to his wounds. They are unable to communicate verbally to each other, and they know nothing about one other – except she is wearing a T-shirt with Western writing on it that the man is able to understand.

A few months later, the village receives a letter from this man, sent from his homeland of America. In the letter, he explains who he is and why he was in Silver Hill Village in the first place. He also shows his gratitude of being helped by the stranger Yun, by including a check of 2000$USD, a considerable amount of money for the villagers.

This sparks a debate between the inhabitants; how should they spend their newly acquired money?

UFO In Her Eyes is a light, humorous and most of all satirical take on China’s problematic social history, focusing especially on Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. While the novel takes the paranoia, and real-world effects, of surveillance by Big Brother seriously, it is also able to depict the inhabitants of the village as down-to-earth people with a self-reflection over their situations. While being isolated from the benefits of living in a big city – such as education and health care – they do not come across as naïve or unaware of their own social misfortunes. But implying that the village inhabitants have reasons to be socially misfortunate would be incorrect and even condescending of me. What I`m trying to point out is that, even though the agents from The National Security and Intelligence Bureau give off an aura that demands respect and formality, the villagers are able to meet them, talk to them, and recognize them as one of their own, and they are not afraid of speaking harshly or humorously to them. The villagers do not try to glorify their situation, either. They speak their minds and share their opinions and experiences without being afraid of saying negative things about Big Brother.

It is the interaction between the villagers and the agents that makes UFO In Her Eyes delightfully satirical. Knowing far too little about the subject, I have nevertheless made a tentative conclusion as to what might be the reason for Guo to be able to write a story like this. I believe the answer is because she belongs to the before mentioned ‘China Post 70’s Generation’. The writers belonging to this generation did not feel the direct effects of Mao`s restrictive China, politically, socially or culturally. Maybe Guo, and the other writers, was able to be more liberal and non-restrictive with her writing, and her filmmaking, than what the generation of artist prior to her would have been.

And so I end this review in much the same manner as my last one of Guo`s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, namely by expressing my desire to read more of the author. In order to approach an answer to my musings, I would like to read her latest novel Once Upon a Time In The East, a chronicle of memoirs, or her 2004 autobiographical novel Village of Stone. Both these books discuss her childhood, what is was like growing up in China, and eventually moving to the West, and all the changes this might imply for her.

UFO In Her Eyes has also been made into a film, released in 2011 and directed by Guo herself.

(Actually, before I leave you alone, I encourage you to read this (very short) interview of Guo from 2004 in connection to the publication of Village of Stone, that I found on her website: http://www.guoxiaolu.com/REV_WR_VS__secret_life_coral.htm. It tackles a little of what I`ve pondered in this text.)

Ok, bye.

~ milk

“A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers”, by Xiaolu Guo

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo.

If one wishes to learn a new language, one does not only get insight into a new way of speaking through cramming glossary, rules of grammar or correct spelling. One also learns a new way of seeing and perceiving reality. This is one theme Xiaolu Guo discusses in her book A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.

Xiaolu Guo is a writer and moviemaker, born in a fishing village in China. Her literary and cinematic project takes it’s basis on her own experiences and travels from growing up in a small Chinese village, to becoming an established writer in a foreign language. She explores alienation – how young people go forward in unknown territories and situations, and how they go about acquiring new knowledge.

The book A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is originally written in English. (Keep a look-out on this blog for my forthcoming post about her book UFO In Her Eyes for closer information on how Guo has written her other books.) I read this book in a Norwegian translation.

We follow protagonist Zuang Xiao Qiao moving from the village she comes from in China, to London, where she is going to learn English. We start as Zhuang: as beginners. We are beginners in the West, and understand the things around us, the culture and society as Zhuang immediately does. This is expressed, among other ways, through language. At the beginning of the book, the language is simple, the sentences short. However, as she learns the language better, the text’s language also becomes more advanced.  Every chapter deals with a new word, or a term – as if the book was a dictionary – and this word is the theme for that chapter. We learn how Zhuang is used to using the term in China, and how this is different from in London.

Not so long after she moves to London, Zhuang meets a man – twice her age, ex-punker, vegetarian – who she falls in love with. The meeting between the two, and their interactions together throughout the book, is Guo’s main tool in her project to highlight the biggest cultural differences between the East and the West’s perception of the world. One way in which Guo mirrors these, is how Zhuang consistently introduces herself to this nameless man and his friend, as simply ‘Z’. ‘Z’, and only ‘Z’, allegedly because she believes her real, full name would be too complicated for naïve English speakers to pronounce, or even to remember.

The book is also very much about differences, and the acceptance of differences, on an individual level. One example of this, is Z’s reaction to the man’s vegetarianism. She is unable to understand how he is capable of obtaining proper nutrients without eating meat. She is served self-grown greens and vegetables, while she misses the chicken and pork from home.

One of the first things that hit me in the reading of this book, was the author’s way of depicting how cultural differences – as well as individual perceptions of reality – is expressed through language. One country’s language is immensely important, not only when communicating with another person, but also when it comes to understanding the very way of thinking, and the philosophy of existence, belonging to another culture. Should we connect this to something abstract and difficult to define as the idea of love, then we have a foundation for a very interesting conversation – and Xiaolu Guo handles it masterfully. The book is above all an educational one: we get the opportunity to put ourselves in a completely different culture on an individual level. It is one thing to learn about a different culture in a huge and comprehensive lexicon – and quite a different thing to be placed in a simple, innocent destiny (as with Z’s).

My opinion is that in the work to achieve a bigger acceptance of a growing universal, social diversity, it’s important to try to widen one’s cultural horizon, put ourselves in foreign shoes, and question the most obvious of things. This book offers a step in the right direction. I look forward to reading more from Xiaolu Guo!

~milk

øØø

1.

*|*|*|*|*|*|*|*|*|*|*

Himmel|Himmel|Himmel

Sky|Sky|Sky|Sky|Sky|Sky

Tak|Tak|Tak|Tak|Tak|Tak

Isolasjon|Isolasjon|Isolasjon

|      |    ||       |       | |     |

Vegg|Rom|Vegg|Rom|Vegg

Golv|Golv|Golv|Golv|Golv

Isolasjon|Isolasjon|Isolasjon

Fundament|Fundament

Jord|Jord|Jord|Jord|Jord

*|*|*|*|*|*|*|*|*|*|*|*

 

2.

På dødsleie vil eg føle

At livet var kapsla i

Rav

I rav spør du

I rav svarar eg

Men rav spela ingen rolle i livet ditt seier du

Ingen tenker eigentleg på rav

Jurassic Park tenkte på rav

Jurassic park populariserte rav

Så du kan ikkje bruke rav i dikt

Det blir for useriøst

Daud og Jurassic park skal ikkje diktas om

 

3.

Kvelden du bruka på å gråte og lime på plass bitar av glassuveniren du hadde fått av farmora di då ho hadde vore på ferie, og måten du kikka opp på meg då eg lista meg inn døra i smug fordi eg hadde vore ute for lenge og eg veit at du ikkje sett pris på at eg har lause avtaler som tek lenger tid enn det dei plar, og berre fordi eg ikkje klarar å gå lydlaust inn i vår felles gang skal eg stå til retts og trøyste deg med at den suveniren sikkert var ganske billig og blotta for affeksjon på den eine sida, og at du legg for mykje tanke inn i den, og at bestemora di kjøpte sikkert mange av den og gav til alle barnebarna sine fordi kreativitet og suvenirhandling ofte ikkje går hand i hand og fordi suvenirar kjøpt i suvenirbutikkar ofte er blotta for originalitet men kanskje også fordi dei som produsera dei vil at det skal matche andre liknande suvenirar, som tvingar deg til å samle på dei, enten i forskjellige fargekombinasjonar eller med forskjellige stadnamn slik som hard rock café t-skjorta eg har på meg no som eg har mange liknande av, med den vesensforskjell at det er forskjellige land den har vore innom før dei samla seg heime i min og din felles kommode. Trass dette skapar eg empati.

 

~Peanøtt

‘Merkelig vær i Tokyo’, av Hiromi Kawakami

merkelig vær

Merkelig vær i Tokyo ble opprinnelig publisert i Japan i 2001, og ble utgitt i Norge i 2015. Den er oversatt til norsk av Magne Tørring.

Vi følger hovedpersonen Tsukiko. Hun er en karrieredreven kvinne på 37 år fra Tokyo. Mesteparten av dagen tilbringer hun på kontoret, og ettermiddagen på bar, hvor hun drikker øl eller sake og ser på TV-sendt sport. Hun er enslig, og har ikke vært gift. En dag møter hun på sin gamle skolelærer, Sensei Harutsuna Matsumoto, som hun gjennom boken kaller simpelthen Sensei. De møtes på samme bar og begynner å prate og reflektere over gamle dager. Etter hvert begynner de å tilbringe mer og mer tid sammen – i begynnelsen via tilfeldige møter – men gradvis blir de bedre kjent med hverandre, følelsene deres for hverandre øker, og før de (bokstavelig talt) vet ordet av det finner de seg i et gjensidig forhold.

Tsukiko besitter en sosial likegyldig over seg, men har allikevel en jordnær personlighet og hun er ikke redd for å gå sine egne veier i livet. Koblet opp mot Senseis romantiske og filosoferende kveruleringer er møtene og samhandlingen mellom disse to en underholdende, morsom og frisk litterær begivenhet. Dialogene kan ta for seg både store, tunge temaer (som for eksempel gammel Japansk diktning) og ting som er mer hverdagslig og håndfast (som måter å lage suppe av sopp på), men forholder seg hele tiden lett og interessant.

Boken er både hverdagslig og rørende. Den viser hvordan intimitet og følelser kan oppstå uplanlagt og fra de minst ventende situasjoner. Det er et tillegg til, et fersk innblikk i, den japanske samtidslitteraturen, og et tilgjengelig alternativ til den populære forfatteren Haruki Murakami. En umiddelbar sammenligning, som jeg ble gjort oppmerksom på takket være bokens omslag, er med filmen Lost in Translation, som også omhandler et kjærlighetsforhold mellom to personer i ulik livsfase satt i Tokyo. Boken er humørfylt, rørende og er en gjenkjennelig, hverdagslig historie om kjærlighet og ensomhet. Det tilføyer et forsøk på å definere kjærlighet; å kunne være alene sammen.

~melk

`Fremmedordbok for kjærester´av Xiaolu Guo

Fremmedordbok for kjærester av Xiaolu Guo

Ønsker man å lære seg et nytt språk, får man ikke bare innsikt i en ny måte å snakke på gjennom pugging av gloser, grammatikkregler og rettskriving. Man lærer seg dessuten etter hvert en ny måte å se og oppfatte virkeligheten på. Dette er et tema forfatteren Xiaolu Guo tar opp i boken Fremmedordbok for kjærester.

Xiaolu Guo er forfatter og filmskaper som kommer fra en fiskelandsby i Kina. Hennes litterære og filmatiske prosjekt tar utgangspunkt i hennes egne erfaringer og reiser fra å vokse opp i en liten kinesisk landsby, til å bli en etablert forfatter på et fremmedspråk. Hun utforsker hvordan unge mennesker går frem i ukjente områder og situasjoner, hvordan de tillærer seg nye kunnskaper i en ny hverdag.

Boken Fremmedordbok for kjærester er originalt skrevet på engelsk, med tittelen A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Jeg leste en norsk oversatt utgave.

Vi følger hovedpersonen Zhuang Xiao Qiao, som flytter fra landsbyen hun kommer fra i Kina, til London hvor hun skal lære seg engelsk. Vi starter som Zhuang; som nybegynnere. Vi er nybegynnere i den Vestlige verdenen og forstår tingene rundt oss, kulturen og samfunnet som Zhuang, i hennes møte, umiddelbart forstår dem. Dette kommer til uttrykk blant annet i språket. I begynnelsen av boken er språket enkelt, setningene korte. Men etter hvert som hun lærer seg språket bedre, blir også tekstens språk mer avansert. Hvert kapittel tar for seg et fremmedord, som om boken var en ordbok, og dette ordet blir tematisert gjennom kapittelet. Vi får lese om hvordan Zhuang er vant med å bruke begrepet fra Kina, og hvordan dette er forskjellig fra i London.

Ikke så lenge etter at hun flyttet til London, møter Zhuang en mann – dobbelt så gammel som henne, eks-pønker, vegetarianer – som hun forelsker seg i. Møtet mellom disse to, og samhandlingen deres gjennom boken, er Guos hovedverktøy i sitt ærend å sette lys på de største kulturforskjellene mellom Østens og Vestens virkelighetsoppfatning. En måte Guo speiler disse forskjellene på, er hvordan Zhuang introduserer seg selv som ‘Z’ til denne navnløse mannen, og hans venner. Kun ‘Z’, og ikke noe mer, angivelig for hun tror hennes fulle navn vil være for komplisert for naive engelsktalende mennesker å huske eller uttale.

Boken handler om forskjeller på individplan. Et eksempel er Zs reaksjon på mannens vegetarianisme. Hun kan ikke forstå hvordan han skal kunne få i seg ordentlig næring uten å spise kjøtt. Hun blir servert selvgrodde grønnsaker, mens hun lengter hjem til sitt kylling, – og svinekjøtt.

Noe av det første som slo meg i lesningen av denne boken, var forfatterens måte å skildre hvordan kulturforskjeller – så vel som individers virkelighetsforståelse – kommer til uttrykk gjennom språket. Et lands, en kulturs språk er uvurderlig viktig ikke bare når det kommer til å kunne kommunisere hverdagslig med en annen person; språket er dessuten viktig om en ønsker å forstå selve tenkemåten og tilværelsesfilosofien til en annen kultur. Kobler man dette opp mot noe så abstrakt og vanskelig definerbart som kjærlighet, har man et interessant utgangspunkt for enhver diskusjon, noe Guo med denne boken utfører på mesterlig vis. Boken er dessuten en lærerik en – vi får muligheten å sette oss inn i en totalt annerledes kultur på et individ, og – hverdagsplan. En ting er å lese om det i en stor, omfattende faktabok, en annen å forsøke å sette oss inn i en enkel, uskyldig, skjebne.

Jeg mener at i arbeidet med å oppnå en større aksept av et voksende universelt mangfold, må man forsøke å utvide den kulturelle horisonten vår, sette oss inn i andre måter å forstå hverdagen på enn den vi er vant med, og sette spørsmålstegn det vi ser på som de mest åpenbare tingene. Denne boken tilbyr et skritt i riktig retning. Jeg gleder meg til å få muligheten til å lese mer av Xiaolu Guo!

~milk

Tabula Rasa – or an Instantaneous ‘Forgettance’ of a Dying Relation.

The morbid part, the one that I thought was OK, but clearly wasn’t, was that my name was surprisingly soon forgotten. We both thought we’d made an impact on the community. We were not famous or special in any way, but still, the idea of us getting forgotten about three years after our death is harsh. Someone once said that you die twice. The first being your death, obviously. The second being the moment your name is said for the last time.

I remember that morning so well. We were in a motel talking. I remember the rubbish breakfast she bought from a 7-Eleven. There were two medium sized bagels with ham, two small bottles of O.J. and two medium cups of coffee.

“Did you get a chance to look at the headlines?” I asked.

“I brushed them over with my eyes.”

“Anything?”

“Avocado is bad for you. You’ll die from eating them now apparently.”

“How so?”

“Something about trans fats – Makes you obese.”

The way she spoke of the mass hysteria about the lifestyle our contemporaries live made me smile. She was two sided. It was a mockery of it but also a sincere lack of interest. This lack was one of the things I truly enjoyed in her. She had not once made a quizzical look or an attempt of showing me her interests. She sometimes did the crossword puzzles from my old porn magazines. She did not care if I had dirty magazines. I think she in fact found them interesting, but I was mistaken. I wonder if she read the interviews in it. The ones printed next to the naked ladies. Age? 18. Favourite sex position? Double penetration. What are you looking for in a man? A huge cock, humour, good with kids.

“Would you like some bourbon?”

“I want to be sober.”

“Well I won’t”.

I don’t really remember who said what anymore.

“Do you want to do this with music in the background?”

“Sure, why not.”

I put on a vinyl onto the player. It was a Chopin. I believe it was his Prèlude 24. A huge cliché, I’m aware, but I felt that clichés was fitting none the less. The crackling sound of the needle running in the vinyl’s tracks, like a warm fire slowly dying, and the cinder that’s left is collapsing in on itself. The piano tunes hurries away, for the tune is rapid and to the point. A fitting way to begin the end. I heard she opened the brown paper bag she had in her coat pocket. She took out a smaller envelope from this. On the front it was fittingly labelled “exit”.

“Are you ready?” She said with a stoic, bored and indifferent voice. Almost like she was thinking about not saying it at all because that would mean I had to reply thus making her precious time longer.

“I guess this is as good a time as any. Have you finished the crossword?”

“I have. The picture caption was; “Gee I have never had that many cocks in me before.””

We both removed the covers from the bed and refurbished it with a new white one, tucking it in thoroughly so that any aspiring crease was gone, only to be replaced by nothingness. A tabula rasa, only instead of a slate there was a white cotton sheet with an enormous thread count.

The needle rose from the black circular music disc, and signalled that I had to change to “Side B” by being completely still. I could of course put the needle back onto the same side, but that would mean that we’d to listen to the same prelude again, which we weren’t very keen on. I don’t really remember the songs on the other side, but I do remember changing sides.  Funny how you so clearly remember details of something insignificant, like the formation of the molten candlewax around a candle, or the smell of a certain shampoo and how you forget more important things like what you saw at a museum or what happened during your daily drive to work in the city. We might not remember our names or the names of people passed before, but something about remembrance is so creepy. Sometimes you remember things by a trigger. Like the smell of old people’s houses or familiar colour associations.

“We have forgotten the water”

“Shit. Do you think it’s ok to drink from the tap?”

“I don’t know, is it?”

We both began to laugh when we thought it through. Of course it did not matter. I think I was the one to fetch the water. We reused the paper cups the coffee had previously been in. I rinsed it out and smelled for any residual coffee. Some had latched on to the paper itself, in the folded crease where the cup is glued onto itself. It was nothing to do about that, besides, who gave a shit? She put two small pills in my palm and folded my fingers over, turning my hand into a fist, and then she moved my hand so the fist was in front of my heart. I watched as she did the same to herself. We both held hands and lied down on the bed.

“Should we do this naked?”

“No I prefer to do this fully clothed.”

“It’s unnatural though.” I think I said this. But I’m still not sure.

“So be it.”

With a last glimpse of her face, her honey coloured hair and her pale lips we took the pills to our mouths and took a mouthful of water down with them. There was no going back now. A new experience waited.

“Did you water the greens?”

“I fed the cat, you had the watering, right?”

“Oh well.”

“Oh well.”

I just remember this, nothing before, nothing after. Only this “slice of life” as someone used to say. Perhaps this was all there ever was. Who ever said it was more? I’m not even sure if I know these people. I certainly haven’t seen them before. All I know is that I see, and I see it always. It goes on a continuous loop; it goes backwards and in every different way possible, all at the same time. An everlasting presentation of this.

The morbid part, the one that I thought was OK, but clearly wasn’t, was that my name was surprisingly soon forgotten. We both thought we’d made an impact on the community. We were not famous or special in any way, but still, the idea of us getting forgotten about three years after our death is harsh. Someone once said that you die twice. The first being your death, obviously. The second being the moment your name is said for the last time.

~Peanut

“The Accursed”, by Joyce Carol Oates

 

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates        

the-accursed

In one of the review-excerpts of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel The Accursed (2013) featured in the first pages of my edition, Stephen King wrote: “Joyce Carol Oates has written what may be the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel”. This intrigued me greatly, as I am very much interested in both the Gothic and the postmodern – so, offered a novel with both these elements, I set out to read it with a tentative question posed in my mind; What makes this novel postmodern and Gothic?

Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed include many of the tropes one finds in Gothic literature: specters and ghosts, murderers and ‘cannibal sandwiches’, overworked scholars and professors, mysterious and inexplicable events and landscapes, and a frame narrative to pack it all in. The frame narrative is important, as, while it is not a wholly original turn of the Gothic, it gives the reader a sense of reading a document ‘lost and found’, and of h**self being a part of a professorial research team devoted to investigate an age old enigma yet to be solved, something that is, I dare say, inherently Gothic. (We find this in other Gothic and horror writers as well, best showcased in Lovecraft, for example.)

The enigma to be solved in The Accursed occurs at a wedding between ‘part-retired Presbyterian minister’ Dr. Winslow Slade’s granddaughter Annabel Slade and Lieutenant Dabney Bayard in Princeton, New Jersey – June 4th, 1905. A few weeks before the wedding, Princeton has been visited by ‘a lawyer from Carnahan, Virginia, with an association with the Presbyterian Church’, a man rather malicious named Axson Mayte. There is, however, something odd about Axson, something that everyone who meets him prior to the wedding picks up on, but are not entirely able to accurately pinpoint. Through the investigating narrative of scholar M.W. van Dyck II we get to read different academics and historians perspective of Mayte, but the most consensual understanding is that Mayte is the first public manifestation of the Curse. Broadly explained, Mayte shows up at the church door during the wedding and, variously perceived by the invited guests as re-told by van Dyck II, inexplicably draws Slade to him before they disappear like ghosts, “as if into thin air”.

During my master’s course The Gothic Imagination, I wrote an essay about how the existence of two different, yet parallel spaces in Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967)  – the real, physical space of Rosemary’s reality, and the abstract, metaphysical space of her dreams – combine in order to create a new kind of space; a transcendental reality, if you will. Impossible consequences manifest themselves in her real life – impossible because they are consequences only of something she claims to have dreamed, and not of something from her physical reality. (As I look back and browse the earlier blogposts on this site, I become aware that, for some reason, this is something that greatly amuses and interests me.) Joyce Carol Oates achieves some of the same effects in this novel, too. Through hard work, the scholar who narrates the tale (again, his name is M.W. van Dyck II) has been able to get a hold of Annabel Slade’s own journal where she has written about the time spent with Axson Mayte, after disappearing from her own wedding. Without spoiling too much, I would like to simply point out that the technique used in Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby here discussed, is also used by Oates in this segment of the novel. Mayte takes her to a place that does not necessarily exist in ‘real life’ – somewhere called ‘the Bog Kingdom’. What happens in this Kingdom is incomprehensible for both Slade and van Dyck II as they’re happening – but once we return to the ‘real world’ we see that the consequences from these events nevertheless manifest themselves in the ‘real world’ – so they must have happened, whether in this world, or the next.

(There is, additionally, another, even more striking example of this, one that shows Oates’s borrowing of this technique in a much clearer light. But telling you that would be a spoiler of significant magnitude, so much so that I will refrain from writing it here.) (You’ll have to read the book and see if you can spot it. (It’s towards the end of the book.))

Another turn of the Gothic in The Accursed is the fact that the supernatural (the ghost), or in this specific case, the Curse, is never always the same person – or ‘thing’. As in all good and solid Gothic fiction, the supernatural evil is capable of taking on different shapes – the Curse is essentially a shapeshifter. That is to say Axson Mayte is not the ‘only’ manifestation of the Curse. But is he the ‘pure’ Curse – the Master –  or just a deviant of it – a servant? Or maybe there does not exist such a hierarchy of evil, and Mayte is just one of several ways in which the Curse can be allowed to stay in Princeton. Whatever the answers to this, the result is more or less the same; We can never be sure who (or where) the primary source of the Curse is. We, the readers, become paranoid. Even the characters we think we know well may be part of it. We never know where – or to whom – the Curse might strike next.

What is fresh and something I haven’t encountered before, in Oates’s Gothic novel, is the inclusion of a (rather) in-depth discussion and study of American socialist history. The readers get to follow Upton Sinclair’s revolutionary ambition about equality founded on Nietzschean philosophy, his life situation during the writing of his The Jungle, and his appreciation of fellow American socialist Jack London. On one side, I think this socialist, revolutionary aspect of the novel, while particularly interesting and engaging to me in and of itself, is ill fitted in the overall Gothic, ghost/’vampire’ atmosphere of The Accursed. I do appreciate, however, the parallel it draws up at the end of the tale, and the resulting effect of it is a trope very much belonging to the Gothic; Using Sinclair’s hard-working discipline, his vigorous vegetarianism and his admiration of London, and by raising the expectations, hopes and dreams of Sinclair (as well as the reader), of the just cause (for then only to shatter them again toward the end), Oates is able to intriguingly question the validity and power of personal ambitions, dreams and passions. So, by looking at it (‘it’, i.e, the inclusion of ‘a (rather) in-depth discussion and study of American socialist history’) like this, it is more understandably relevant in The Accursed, as the resulting effect does fit rather well in a Gothic setting.

Although the novel is rather long (my edition is 667 pages), with some passages in it that made me personally question the relevancy of this particular topic to the whole of the novel, I would certainly recommend experiencing it. The passages in questions might not strikingly or obviously fit the rest of the Gothic atmosphere of the novel, but after having finished them all and been able to put them together in the bigger picture, I realize what Oates is doing is rather innovative, creative and, ultimately, transgressive (which, keep in mind, is what the Gothic ultimately is all about.)

Stephen King was right when writing of The Accursed that it: “may be the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel.”

~ milk

 

 

 

 

 

“Seveneves”, by Neal Stephenson

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

seveneves

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson’s newest science fiction novel published in 2015, clocks in at about 860 pages and presents interesting and hopeful ways in which humanity might preserve itself after an apocalyptic event. It is a roller coaster of a science fiction novel – a firework – and there are several reasons for that. The topics it deals with – ranging from possibilities in scientific engineering, political conflict, as well as ethics in genetics (genethics?) – is one. Stephenson looks at the various ways in which humanity might deal with an astrophysical event that most likely will not happen in real life, but is still not completely impossible.

The narrative atmosphere kicks in at the very beginning – as does the plot; in the novel’s first sentence, the moon inexplicably blows up. People on Earth – scientists, politicians, doctors, cab drivers, royal families, Buddhists monks alike – as well as on the International Space Station – engineers working on projects not associated with the moon’s blowing up – all either accidentally witness the event in real life, or understand what has happened after seeing the remains of the moon swirling in space. They all give their own personal, immediate opinion on the matter. At first it seems like a beautiful thing to look at but after a little investigation it turns out the consequences are far more dire than what the everyman might have imagined.

The reader gets to follow a group of highly regarded smart people as they investigate and try to understand the reasons for the moon blowing up. One of these personalities is astronomer Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris, Ph.D., who works from Earth to make calculations on what might be expected to happen in the coming years, and how the people on Earth should prepare. On the International Space Station, the readers meet Ivy Xiao and Dinah MacQuarie, who both get discharged from their projects they were busy with before the event in order to focus all their energy on teaming up with astronomers and other scientists down on Earth with finding answers.

But these three aren’t the only ones. By far. They might have the most important roles at the beginning of the book, but as events unfold, more and more characters are introduced. Don’t get me wrong; by no means does Stephenson utilize too many, or at any point use irrelevant characters in the narrative. What I was personally surprised to find out, was that the people I thought was the protagonists, not necessarily was. And this worked the other way as well; characters introduced at the end of one chapter might have a bigger importance than what I originally thought. By the end of the book it was almost like reading a completely different novel. (But only almost.)

The use of literary characters in Seveneves is another element that makes it a firework of a science fiction novel.

Science fiction, to me, is the ultimate transgression. No other literary genre walks the fine line between what is real and what is imaginary. Only in science fiction is an author able to play with the unlikely-but-not-impossible. It is in science fiction people can create what today seems laughable but might be true tomorrow. Stephenson is no exception. He manages this incredibly well, sketching out possibilities not only associated with scientific engineering, but with the dilemmas accompanying taking control of the use of human genetics as well. The moon blows up in the first sentence; but other problems and consequences arise that I will not explain as it would be a spoiler (read the book!), but what I need to say in order to make my next praise is that humans need to find a new way of living if they are to persevere. It’s an “ultimately uplifting” (Financial Times, on the back of the book) story, I agree. But the meat of it does not strike me as uplifting. Nor is it directly pessimistic. There is a narrative distance in the way the narrator conveys the events, and the characters in the novel all seem to be very realistic and not very Romantic (with a capital R), nor nostalgic about what they all eventually know what will happen. They have problems, complications and troubles they need to deal with, and that’s what they do.

Stephenson has no problems relating these troubles and complications. It is almost like reading an architectural blue print of a planned building. Not that I ever have read one of those. But the point is, as I was reading the various structures Stephenson imagines, I was lost in my thoughts, trying to envision them as I read. Which is something any author of any fiction should strive to make the reader do.

However, this presents a potential problem in the narrative. The finely written descriptions of the various structures sometimes come in the way of plot advancement. This is not only evident in parts where structures are being described, but does also become true when explaining the history of the plot, or of the various new characters that come into play. To me, this could at times be distracting. When I was focused on the plot, and wanted it to proceed forward, Stephenson was busy accounting for, and explaining, the nature of something periphery to the immediate narrative action. That being said, I was never bored while reading Seveneves. In fact, on the contrary; Stephenson’s narrative power never dulls, and he keeps it interesting even in places where the plot might have been put on pause in order for other elements to be conveyed. The power in his storytelling is so consistent, that – as I mentioned earlier – it keeps true to itself from the very first sentence to the last part of the book. (The part that I felt like belonged to a different book completely. Because of the narrative power – among other reasons, of course -, I knew I was still reading the same book, even if it felt like a different one.)

A sidenote: As I was writing this post, it came to my attention that Skydance Media has hired William Broyles Jr., Ron Howard and Brian Grazer to adapt the novel into a feature length film. Very cool news, I will most definitely be looking out for more news on this!

 

~ milk

 

 

 

Propositions for a new religion in five steps. A manifest of sorts.

So you want to build a system of belief? Don’t know where to begin? Have the existential dread finally gotten a hold on you for good? Fret not lost one – here is the solution to how you can put the power in your own hands. It’s also super fashionable to be a part of a cult right now. This season’s colour is sacrifical red and wicca beige.

  1. Find a cool symbol to be your “cross” or “Star of David”.

This is really hard, because you want your design to be timeless, but also effortless in a way. Your followers must be able to understand the depiction, or at least be able to simplify it, so that the least artistic person in your religion can draw it, if not good, then understandable. Internet is full to the brim of talented artist. They’ll cook you up a design in a jiffy (or should I say gif.phy).

2. The holy scripture.

A book? A scroll? Personally I’m really into carved stone tablets. What about Lapis Lazuli? HAVE YOU CONSIDERED ALL CAPS? If you want your religion to be more “technologic”, why not try a memory stick or a microchip? This might however backfire and look pretty dated in just a few years. I knew this cultist once who had all of his mystic lore on a floppy disk. It looks kind of dumb now. Especially since his religion was all about technology and innovation. The easiest medium for people to grasp is per now still a book. You can do an e-book though, as a compromise. It’s all up to you anyway! I know a lady who reads “Infinite Jest” right now, and she tells me it’s a post-modern masterwork. Why not just make a post-modern masterwork with religious motifs?

3. Clothing.

Let’s be honest, a cool looking robe is one of the best things about a religion/cult/cabal/group (RCCG for short). If you worship the sun (the star, not the newspaper (in this example (I’d refrain from worshiping commercial products as that often warrants lawsuits and/or questions from the taxman about sponsorship and how much you earn contra how much you don’ pay taxes since you’re a religion and not a charity/business)) I’d go for a bright yellow robe with circular designs). I’m partial to a dark red or a medium brown attire. I’m pretty classic there. Religion is all about being or not being classy. You can have a religion revolving red wine and discussions about post-modern masterworks like “Infinite Jest”, or you can have raunchy sex cults with knife cutting and scarring. The fun is in the making! A pro tip is to go for a baggy outfit as you will probably get followers in all sizes and shapes. Unless you have a religion specifically catered to a certain type – which I think is wrong and quite frankly discriminating.

4. Location or place of religious activities.

Gentrify an old community center or an abandoned computer store.  Blockbusters are also all the rage right now. If you need profit you can always just flip some properties and expand your branch. The nice thing about not paying tax is exactly that. As long as you are spending money for the greater good of the religion you have in mind. Churches seldom makes for the most vital houses for a gentrified part of town, unless you could call apple-stores and coffeehouses churches. And yes, a lazy person would draw similarities between mac users and religion, but that is a picture we’re done with, right?

5. Community Outreach.

Will you be out in the streets preaching your dogma, or meet in secret? Will you actively go out of your way to recruit new members or will you have insane initiation requirements? In my experience, the more elite it seems, the more people are inclined to join. Especially if the name of the movement has a “V” instead of an “U” in it. Like INVITVS, or TRANSMVTALISTS. It looks classy and ancient. I’d refrain from using it if it clashes with the word itself. Examples includes these failed religions, ANAL LVBISTS, or MVST LOVE DOGS (this one was a critical analysis circle who exclusively watched the 2005 classic movie starring among others, John Cusack, Christopher Plummer, Stockard Channing, and who can forget Kirk Trutner as Deli Boy (must not be mistaken for Kirk Trvtner, as he doesn’t exist). Community outreach is by far the most visible your deity will be for the uninitiated.

And there you have it. The five steps of brick to build a cathedral (figurative or literal). The mortar is YOU, and the fellows who join you in this revolutionary new branch of enlightenment. As a final tip I’d recommend to stay hydrated, eat in moderation, exercise regularly etc. But hey, don’t let me tell you what to do – I’d rather you tell me.

enlightnemntRemember that reflection is the roller-blades of enlightenment. [Illustration photo: literally the first photo when googling ‘enlightenment stock photo’].

~Peanut

Thinking about Gothic spaces and where it leaves us.

(1.)

One thing you might ask yourself whilst reading a scary novel, is: ‘what’s (or who’s) behind the door?’ It’s part of the suspense, part of the fun. It’s part of the point. It’s the reason why you decide to read the book in the first place. You want your pulse to rise, you want to sit on the edge of the seat, and barely be able to continue reading the passage. How far can you go? Where is your limit? And as you keep going, you keep pushing the boundaries of what’s normal, the boundaries get further and further apart, you discover new land, you set a new standard of what is normal. That is, in a nutshell, part of what the Gothic literature is about.

The Gothic has been around us for a long time, in different mediums and genres. But since Horace Walpole wrote what is considered to be the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, all the way back at the end of 1764, the Gothic literary tradition has been met with a range of criticism[1]. One of the more stable of these, one the tradition has met throughout the years with various force, is the notion that Gothic literature is low-brow literature, ‘trash’, not deemed worthy of highly intellectual individuals and the academic establishment. (Even though this criticism is present to a certain degree also today, there is interestingly enough an abundance of Gothic courses being taught at university level thoroughout the Western world.)

Part of the reason the novels written in the Gothic style was subject of much of this type of criticism might date back to the fact that many of the most popular authors of early Gothic fiction were women, and thus wrote about and represented what was morally important to the ‘second sex’. (Again ironic, as without the contribution of these authors, the Gothic might’ve looked very different today than what is does. They were, after all, the ones who persisted through the criticism.) Gothic tropes such as melancholia, failed romantic relations, narratives over-emphazised on emotions etc. These are all examples of tropes that were important in the early ‘female’ Gothic.

Despite being criticised, the Gothic tradition no doubt has been growing since its beginning. I mentioned the growth of Gothic literary courses throughout universities in the Western world. But we do not only see remains of the Gothic tradition in literature, it also scopes over various other forms of media such as film, TV and even music. (The easiest accessible, most popular and mainstreamed part of the Gothic in today’s culture, is in my opinion ‘horror’.) Where would what we know today as zombies and vampires be, if not for the artistic and eerie imagination of the Gothic masters of decades ago?[2]

Through the criticism, the Gothic has prevailed, and one thing still stands true as an important and invaluable trope; You’re afraid of what you don’t know. You’re afraid of the dark. Afraid of what’s (who’s?) on the other side of the door. (Or, classically, under the bed/in the closet).

(2.)

Connected to this is the use of fictional spaces. How an author uses spaces determine the level of the reader’s suspense (and, by extension, fear). Especially is this important in what I regarded as the ‘most popular part of the modern Gothic’, the subgenre horror. Because ‘horror’ is supposed to be scary, and in order to set this up and make the reader ask this question in the first place, the author needs to use fictional spaces. This might be physical as well as abstract. Physical: You might imagine, in your head as you’re reading this, a well-lit corridor. The walls are painted a light red and the lights on the walls are symmetrically alligned, a soft and welcomed light flowing from the lamps. You are walking straight forward in it. Are you scared? Is the corridor scary? Probably not, because we can see everything there. And we are not afraid of the light. But you might still be scared of something. The physical space, in this example, is not scary. Therefore, the abstract space might be.

The use of physical fictional spaces is easily recognisable as a reader, and also, maybe, the easiest way for an author to construct fear and unpleasantness in the reader. The abstract way of using space to construct fear and unpleasantness, however, might be a little more difficult to recognise; but all the more valuable and strong in force. The novel Rosemary’s Baby, already mentioned in a blogpost on this site, is, to me, one of the better ways in which abstract space is used to make the reader uncomfortable and surrounded by uncanny-ness (uncanniness?). Here, truth and fiction, reality and falseness, interact in order to make both the real reader and the fictional participants ask themselves questions such as did that just happen? or wait, but wasn’t that just a dream? (you’re welcome to read the post about Rosemary’s Baby further down if you’re interested in specific details.) Who can I trust? and who’s telling the truth? Indeed, questions such as these are arguably normal in the Gothic as a whole. An example at the top of my head from The Castle of Otranto is a scene where one of the characters sees a person in a portait move within the frames of the painting. Here, as in Rosemary’s Baby, the physical spaces interact with the abstract ones to construct a feeling of unpleasantness, uncanniness, and, most importantly,insecurity concerning what is real and what is not[3]. Did that person actually just move? Or is it my imagination? Or is it somewhere between, perhaps? (but how would that work? did my imagination make it move in reality? do I have telekinetic powers? did my abstract imagination control the real painting?) Asking questions like this also opens up for a discussion surrounding what, or who, is sane, and insane – and what does it mean to be insane? It adds a new dimension, a new trope frequently used in Gothic means. Take the movie Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010), as an example.

The author utilizes and combines both physical and abstract spaces in order to scare us. When this is done, something else might protrude to the theory; metanarrative.[4] What I would like to cast light upon, is the ways in which the author uses the reader to make the reader afraid. This makes for a superb and intense reading experience. A marvellous book that exemplifies this perfectly, is Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park. If you haven’t already, I recommend you read it. Ellis starts off with swearing to the reader that what follows in the next pages is not fiction, and that it’s all true. The fictional protagonist’s name is Bret Eastion Ellis,which contributes in making it more trustworthy.[5] It then goes on to describe a series of encounters between the protagonist and a person he doesn’t know, and is always unable to see clearly. The problem is, noone except from the protagonist is able to see this person[6]. Again, questions surrounding whether or not the events the protagonist is witness to, is real, or just a result from his imagination. The new point I want to make in brining this particular novel up, however, is this is a way of making the reader scared of himself. The author Bret Easton Ellis is fictionalising himself, thus distancing himself from himself. He is de-subjectifying himself from himself, and attempting to exist as a fictional individual. As he is doing so, he is trying to breach into the lines and sentences on the page. The fictional Bret Easton Ellis, on the other hand, is doing the opposite; He is trying to break out of the convensions set up by the real Bret Easton Ellis. He wants to know how its like to be a real person. And as the reader is reading the passages in this book, he or she might start feeling the same. A novel is supposed to make the reader feel empathy with the characters and protagonists, but it is questionable whether or not Ellis manages this by breaching the boundaries between fiction and realities; It is be more difficult for the reader to know what is real and not, and as a result, spends more time trying to figure this out instead of trying to visualise him/herself in the shoes of the protagonist.

And so we are back at where we started. We covered one of the main tropes in the Gothic, and one of the main criticism the Gothic tradition has received since the very start of its existence. We looked at some example of how this might look in practice, and asked ourselves rhetorical questions concerning the legibility and effect of these examples. As and end note, I would like to reassure the reader that this post, no matter the signs of the opposite, is, has been and always will be, real.

~ milk

————————————————————————–

[1] One example in the text. Others might include: morally unfit for children/immature audience, misrepresentation of gender/ gender stereotypes, unnecessary depiction of physical/body horror (especially the transgressive fictions of Chuck Palahniuk)

[2] I.E the contributors to the early ‘female’ Gothic

[3] As I’m writing this, I come to think of yet another example from a book I recently read, It, by Stephen King. Here, a group of pre-adolescent children hears voices and sees blood coming from the sink drain in one of the kids’s bathrooms. But only they can hear/see it, not the grown-ups. Just another example.

[4] Or rather, calling what I am about to illustrate metanarrative might be misleading. Metanarrative, in itself, is something else than what I want to shine light on now. But metanarrative is being used in the example to a certain degree.

[5] Also, one way in which the novel is a metanarrative. The fictional B.E.E cannot be the real one, for obvious reasons. Another example of what makes this book meta; one of the students at the college the fictional B.E.E teaches at, is writing her thesis on him. But is she writing her thesis on the fictional, or the real Bret Easton Ellis? What are the conventions in which the novel wants us to answer this question?

[6] As the narrative goes on, the person changes shape and turns into something similar to a dog-like creature.