What Is Revolutionary Narrative Art?

Last week I published an essay about Moonlight that is a bit tricky, or so people tell me. It’s an exploration of the movie through the lens of posthumanism, which I argue might be released from its bounds as an ethics of non-human animal relations, or as an exploration of cyborg hybridity, by returning to its roots in antihumanist theory. Check it out, but definitely watch Moonlight first; it hit Amazon Prime last month, and it might be the only movie in Academy Award history that both won the Best Picture prize and deserved to do so. It’s a rich film and I hope we’ll all be writing about it for a while.

I’ve written pieces of contemporary filmic criticism before but never anything quite so theory-driven. In hindsight, there are a couple reasons why I must have felt compelled to do so. First, I had been working on an analysis of films of the 1950s through the category of liberal humanism, which was brought to my attention by Mark Greif’s excellent book, The Age of the Crisis of Man. And I’ll have more writings on 1950s liberal humanism in popular culture soon enough. Last week’s essay was actually cut for length, and at one point it had a lengthy section on the racial liberalism of cinema in the late forties and fifties. I suggest that we might think of this approach as “racial liberal humanism,” for these old films tended to pose racism as a psychic problem, one to be defeated by strong individual wills, rather than social or state institutions, and they neglected the role of social experience in shaping identities and material realities. I even cut out a whole bit about Hidden Figures, which though I greatly enjoyed and admired the film, was clearly rooted in a model that I argue owes much to a liberal humanist episteme. Continue reading “What Is Revolutionary Narrative Art?”

A Review: Everything I Never Told You

I remember the distinct moment I had become aware that I had taken the cultural turn. I was a teaching assistant in an Asian-American studies class in which the students were required to read a particular immigrant narrative. The monograph worked in a kind of social history mode, illuminating the corners of society left out of the traditional archive. But at the same time, it was an exceptional narrative that grated my budding post-structural sensibilities. Several times in that semester, I stewed in my juices as students encountered tales from below, ones that humanized the “forever foreign” while reifying certain narratives of progress, success, and agency.[ref]The professor was fantastic and I don’t mean to suggest her pedagogical approach was illegitimate. I just realized at that time that I had very different questions to ask.[/ref]

Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, on the other hand, is my favorite kind of immigrant narrative. It succeeds in balancing the voices of its characters with demonstrations of all the ways in which they can’t speak.

It’s a simple story that begins in 1970s Ohio, where a family discovers that its teenage daughter, Lydia, is missing. You quickly learn that Lydia is dead, and that she appears to have been deceiving her parents about the extent to which her life was “normal.” Her parents, a Chinese-American father and white mother, had no idea how their expectations, and in particular Lydia’s mothers unfulfilled dreams, had weighed on Lydia’s shoulders. The novel progresses to answer the question of how Lydia died. But it also explores the weights that bear down on all of the characters, in particular: Lydia, the mother whose aspirations didn’t fit with fifties America’s expectations of women, and James, her husband, a successful professor who nevertheless feels the sting of racism and his own dreams deferred.

It may spoil the book to say that there are no outright villains, only the cruelty of circumstances beyond one’s control. “You never got what you wanted; you just learned to get by without it,” thinks James as he struggles to deal with his daughter’s death (196). James, we learn, studies the culture of American cowboys. But he’s a long way from today’s American Studies scholars; he appears to be wholly seduced by the narrative. He longs for the escape and the mobility that, as we know, is all but a myth.

All this makes Celeste Ng’s novel sound pretty grim, and it sort of is. But if it offers a lesson beyond James aforementioned one, it lies in the title; the problems of the characters are as much the result of breakdowns in communication as they are the result of the oppressiveness of being ones that don’t belong. The Lee family might have stuck together, and formed a kind of collective against their hostile surroundings, but instead they each retreat into shells, the parents making clear to their children their expectations while keeping their empathy opaque.

Next month’s Indie Bookstore Paperback Read:

I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic literary fiction — think Zone One by Colson Whitehead, or Margaret Atwood’s Madaddam trilogy — so when I saw this was out in paperback, it was a no-brainer. It’s Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, and it’s received some very good reviews. In the meantime, I’m reading an early book by one of my favorite authors: The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat. So far it’s great, and I highly recommend her latest, Claire of the Sea Light.


A Review: I Pity the Poor Immigrant by Zachary Lazar

I’ll start by getting one thing out of the way: I enjoyed this book, but I found it a little too detached for my literary tastes. Lazar is an excellent writer, and the sophistication of his prose functions well in smoothing out what might have been thorny-sharp points in his themes. The characters are likeable enough, but we don’t really get to explore them all that much. The whole text has a kind of cubist feel which I appreciated and admired but didn’t adore.

I Pity the Poor Immigrant works best when Lazar gives in to old-fashioned narrative and let the reader follow the main character on her adventures. In one breathtaking segment of the novel, the protagonist, Hannah Groff, a journalist, travels to Israel to pursue a story about a murdered poet, a Jewish Israeli critic of Zionism. Hannah’s descriptions at once capture the details of the landscapes, of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the odor of violence and colonialism in the air, and her own anxiety about traveling to a world so alien to hers and yet  tied up with her ethno-religious heritage and, she learns, her family history.

I suppose I’ll get one another out of the way: I, like Hannah, descend from a people — however much a construction such a thing is — of which 2/3rds of its European population in Europe was eradicated less than four generations ago. And yet, like Hannah at the start of her travels, I have no compulsion to visit Israel, as is my “birthright,” and probably moreso than she, have even less patience for the nationalism and colonialism that infects and corrupts the state of Israel, and quite arguably, has done so since the state was but an idea. As Hannah travels the small country, she frequently encounters locals that wonder out loud how someone named “Hannah” could have possibly waited so long to visit Israel. Such exclamations have a history, of course, like that of David Ben Gurion blaming the Jews of Europe for going like “sheep to the slaughter” to the gas chamber when they could have been jingoists instead.

For the locals that Hannah encounters, to be in the Holy Land elevates one to a kind of righteousness. Lazar wants to probe such an idea, and he does so by making his characters conflicted about their pasts, if occasionally wholly compromised by them.  Much of the novel tells the story of Meyer Lansky, the American gangster, and it recounts the story of his failed attempt to seek asylum in Israel in the early 70s as the American law was finally catching up to him. Hannah plays with the Hebrew words yored (descended) and ole (ascended) to ponder her place, the place of Lansky, and the place of Lansky’s love interest, Holocaust survivor Gila, in the moral universe. And by doing so, she suggests that if Israel represented a promise of ascension for Jews after World War II, the promise has yet to have been met.

Lazar lays his metaphoric language bare. In addition to giving us yored and ole, he also tells us, through the pen of the murdered poet, the story of King David, whose early underdog victory (you know, against Goliath) paved the way for a monarchy rife with abuses of power. Lazar’s themes are fun to work with intellectually, but metaphor and allegory, I think I will argue, don’t make for as effective literary fiction as a good story.

It just might be that writing about Israel, when you’re an American Jew, is  damn hard. And Lazar’s effort is noble. I find myself pondering why there isn’t more fiction about American Jews and Israel in the world, and what might be if this weren’t the case. Off the top of my head, I can only think of two relatively recent great works of story-telling — Steven Spielberg’s Munich and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, both terribly underrated — to effectively dramatize and critique the dilemma of zionism. Here’s hoping more writers, artists, and filmmakers pick up the task as Lazar did.

My Book Pick for June

Since it’s June already, I’m going to cut to the chase and pick my indie-bookstore-paperback for this month. So I’ll be reading Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. And in the meantime, I’m going to geek out on the graphic novel Saga; if you’re a sci-fi fan at all, it’s worth checking out.

A review: Fourth of July Creek

The first few pages of Fourth of July Creek, a novel by Smith Henderson, quickly set up a kind of high concept premise: a young man with long hair — a social worker, a bleeding heart — squares off against a police officer, eager to mete out justice, as the two debate the future of a poor family in trouble.

The rest of the novel’s pages set about complicating and muddying that premise.

Set in Montana during a time when it was “morning in America,” Fourth of July Creek follows Pete Snow, the social worker who appears at first to be a proxy for the Fordist liberalism that Reagan was just starting to dismantle at the time. That role actually belongs to a minor character though, a court judge, who literally sobs into his drink when he hears the news that the Gipper has been elected to the presidency.

But Snow has more immediate and more complicated problems. His is a Sisyphean task, trying to help a motley crew of characters who come from broken homes and traumatic pasts, but also navigating the inadequacies of the system that he, and us, wish so hard would work better. At the same time, he encounters the novel’s big baddie: an anti-government extremist named Jeremiah Pearl. Pearl is modeled after right wing paranoiacs like Ted Kaczynski and Randy Weaver, spiritual ancestors to today’s Cliven Bundy and, well, let’s face it, most of the Tea Party.

Others have compared Smith Henderson’s writing to Cormac McCarthy, and the comparison is apt because Henderson’s world is gritty, full of drugs, and violence. This is serious fiction, albeit a seriously explicit and grimy variety. Still, like the best literary fiction, Henderson wants to complicate the line between good and evil. He seeks to understand his characters, no matter how misled, depraved, violent, or selfish. Henderson’s nihilism veers closely towards exploitation but is ultimately redeemed by his empathy.

All of which is to say, maybe Pearl isn’t the bad guy. And maybe, on the other hand, Snow isn’t so great. Besides trying to figure out how to get Pearl’s son out of his militia-man father’s care and into better custody, Snow has his own problems: he’s a drunk, his wife has left him, and his daughter has run away. If the men and women in charge of social welfare are just as fallible as you and me, Henderson seems to be asking at times, are they worth keeping in our collective employ? And if not, is Pearl right? Is the contract that creates society, government, and “fiat currency” (Pearl’s particular bane) a hood that’s been pulled over our eyes?

No, I’ve not gone all anarchist, and let me reassure you, Henderson is no Ayn Rand. But his story is effective at getting us to consider alternate points of view. A moment I found most poignant came about halfway through the novel. Snow has been spending time with Pearl, in an attempt to get into the man’s good graces so that he can learn more about him and attempt to save his family. Pearl is a religious fundamentalist. He believes in the end of days, and he speaks about the assassination attempt on Reagan as if it were a signal of the coming of the antichrist. Later, Snow is searching for his missing daughter, and when he and his separated wife Beth have a moment of mutual frustration, they commiserate over the states of their lives. “I’m an alcoholic. […] You’re an alcoholic,” Snow says. “I take kids away from people like us.” Usually combative, Beth meets Snow in  exasperation. She acknowledges feeling a “hole inside” and mentions having walked by a church and feeling something, believing that their teenage daughter running away was, just maybe, a sign from God. “Will you go to church with me?” she asks. The question hangs with no affirmation, no derision, and no resolution.

Fourth of July Creek reminds me of an interview Slavoj Zizek did recently with the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Fundamentalism is a reaction,” said Zizek, “against a real flaw of liberalism. […T]hose who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.”  Zizek sees in the rise of right wing groups in Europe a genuine concern about and response to the world in the era of globalization and neoliberalism. Wrong-headed, and misguided, yes, but by no means irrational.

But Fourth of July Creek also makes me think of the recent song by Hurray for the Riff Raff, “The Body Electric.” The singer asks, “Tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand gonna do for a world that’s so gone mad?”

Phil Klay’s Redeployment

This is the first in what might become a thing if I don’t get lazy: my attempt to stage a monthly one man book of the month club.

There was a moment, maybe 50 pages in, where I got worried about Phil Klay’s Redeployment. I didn’t know if I would be able to finish it. To be sure, Redeployment is beautifully written. And his characters, a diverse lot, are all rendered in full 3D. They do brave and noble things, they have doubts and worries, and they are frequently idiots too. They are both causal agents and victims of a wildly misguided post-9/11 American foreign policy.

But I had a nagging sense that I had been here before, and that I didn’t want to go back. Redeployment is a collection of short stories about the Iraq War. And it’s difficult for me to engage with such art without thinking about the meta-discourse around such stories. I thought about the conversations that inevitably accompany the release of films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. I thought about my tangled twitter feed from the period when American Sniper came out. Stories about war inevitably become a popular culture proxy for the politics of war, and within this discourse, “supporting the troops” almost aways becomes an ideographic justification for equating bellicosity with righteousness. I didn’t like The Hurt Locker. And although I empathize with the troops, I refuse to support them. As the historian and retired military officer Andrew Bacevich argues, nothing good comes from such rhetoric.

But about a third of the way in, Klay’s Redeployment opens up. He begins by winking at the reader with a clever story that plays with the many acronyms of the military. (It reads like something out of a Jonathan Lethem story.) Next, he offers a satire about the role of capitalism in the rebuilding of Iraq. By the time Klay gets around to allusions of Althusser, Gramsci, and Fanon, he’s literally (literarily?) moved the reader; moved in the sense that the dozens of perspectives portrayed in this work put the reader in other people’s heads and other people’s shoes; and moved in the sense that he’s started somewhere familiar — the (dare I say cliched) narrative of the soldier who survived an IED explosion and is feeling guilty or whatever — and has transported the reader to new territory. As Klay takes you through the ways that soldiers lie to one another and to themselves, or the ways that they employ “psy ops” to mess with their enemies’ heads, he constructs distance in a Brechtian sense, moving the reader back and forth from empathy to alienation.

As Redeployment progresses, it becomes increasingly self aware. Aware of language and rhetoric, and the way that it gets shoehorned into genre, twisted into propaganda, as well as sanitized by acronyms. It appears in the smallest of ways, for example, when the narrator of one tale notes that “Marines often speak to officers in platitudes” (248). And then Klay begins to play with narrative itself, not in a Dave Eggers kind of way, but subtler. One story begins with the line, “I’m tired of telling war stories” (213). Another has a character deconstructing the heroic official story of a fallen soldier whose comrades are seeking to get him the Medal of Honor.

In the final few stories of Redeployment, Klay circles continuously around questions of media and reality. One story examines the Baudrillardian phenomenon of helmet cam YouTube videos, through which others can relive firefights in an experience akin to playing a video game. Elsewhere, Klay’s characters debate the power of film war stories to conjure jingoistic zeal and send Americans to fight. One character argues that there are no such things as anti-war films, that even movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket glorify the discipline and combat of the military experience. I don’t know if this character is right or not, and I’d be curious to hear Klay’s take on Fury (which I appreciated) or American Sniper (which I have not seen). I also wonder what would happen if Redeployment itself were turned into a movie. What would happen to all of its searching questions, its complexity, its sympathetic heroes and its naive fools, its denial of any easy answers, its careful devotion to the power of words?