28 January 2009

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: UC Press, 1990.*

Of central importance to this now-canonical text in the field of queer theory is Sedgwick's recapitulation of the essentialist/constructivist argument (viz.: are gay people only and always gay people, from birth, like; or are they socially constructed given any number of social, cultural, psychological, and, yes, biological factors, and is therefore sexuality a fluid, unpinpointable thing in us all?) as one between two similar but different contradictory views of "homo/heterosexual definition." Namely, the minoritizing view, which sees such a divide as of chief importance to a "small, distinct, relatively fixed homosexual minority" (1) and the universalizing view, which sees the divide as important for everyone, regardless of his or her position along said divide.

I, if you care to know, probably take a universalist view of things. The closet, I've known since right around the time I left it, is damaging to straight people as much as it is gay people. I think Sedgwick is with me on this one, considering that she positions this book as taking as a given that the entirety of Western culture cannot be fully understood without interrogating the contexts and structures behind this homo/heterosexual divide. In other words: that gay people have become different from straight people to the point that it becomes the foundation of some people's identity has all sorts of things to say about how texts central to the Western canon have been constructed.

Can you just like feel how steeped in theory jargon this book is, and how even after spending just 90 minutes reading the introduction my little blog post is, too, as a result? I'm trying, really, please, trust me on this.

She begins her text by laying out seven notions she takes to be axiomatic. One of these (Axiom 4) is that the nature v. nurture debate on sexual origins is faulty owing to "a very unstable background of tacit assumptions and fantasies about both nurture and nature" (40). Also that any sort of solution or consensus in such a debate would have negative effects on gay people. Sedgwick sees the whole thing an unwinnable game. If we somehow prove it's nature (there's a gay gene, say), we deny a divorced man, for instance, the choice of gay self-indentification that can sometimes come very late in life. At least, we deny this without, what, DNA evidence? If, then, we can prove it's nurture, that people become gay, or more specifically establish themselves in a sociocultural position of sexual difference that makes them impelled to identify as gay, then this seems to suggest that people can become straight given enough work or time or, like, prayer. And outside of young women at any of the Seven Sisters, evidence seems to show this is very rare.

"The scope of institutions whose programmatic undertaking is to prevent the development of gay people is unimaginably large," Sedgwick asserts. The state. The military. The law. The church. Mass culture. All work to encourage heterosexual coupling and proliferation, some more overtly than others. "So for gay and gay-loving people," she writes, kind of cutely (I sort of love gay-loving people, who of course love us like I imagine they love certain pets, celebrities, and forgone childhood toys), "every step of this constructivist nature/culture argument holds danger" (42).

(Don't worry, it's "also becoming increasingly problematical to assume that grounding an identity in biology of 'essential nature' is a stable way of insulating it from insulating it from societal interference" [43]. Hence Sedgwick's recapitulation. Convince all people that the voluntary or otherwise othering of gay people is an important subject of inquiry for everyone, gay and straight, and heteronormatizing/antihomophobic actions will seek to have their desired effect. I think.)

Sedgwick is married to man, did I mention?

And did you know Billy Budd and The Picture of Dorian Gray were published in the same year? You didn't? I didn't either. Turns out they weren't, even though Sedgwick claims them to be in Axiom 6. Wilde first published his book in 1891, which was the year Melville died. Yes, he was working on Billy Budd, among other things, up to his death, but the thing was left a little unfinished and wasn't published until 1924. Still, we'll allow her her little game of contemporaneity, because yoking the two together as she does is really neat. As she writes:
It tells the story of a young Englishman famous for an extreme beauty of face and figure that seems to betray his aristocratic origin [. . .]. If the gorgeous youth gives his name to the book and stamps his bodily image on it, the narrative is nonetheless more properly the story of a male triangle: a second, older man is tortured by a desire for the youth for which he can find no direct mode of expression, and a third man, emblem of suavity and the world, presides over the dispensation of discursive authority as the beautiful youth murders the tortured lover and is himself, in turn, by the novel's end ritually killed. (48)
There's a lot this suggests about canon formation, directly, and also about what must have been in the ether at the end of the nineteenth century. It's too simplistic, I think, to say Well Wilde and Melville were both big flaming 'mos and so of course they wrote about that shit. I think (and what I'm sure Sedgwick argues in her second chapter) there's more going on about the growing stickiness of male-male relations in the decades after homosexual (and, later, let's not forget, heterosexual) gets named, defined, and demarcated.

26 January 2009

Malebranche, Jack. Androphilia: A Manifesto: Rejecting the Gay Identity: Reclaiming Masculinity. Baltimore: Scapegoat Publishing, 2006.

Here's a curious thing. I Finished! this weeks ago, and haven't known how to begin talking about it, so I'll keep things quick (maybe). Jack Malebranche* (of, like, the Sparta Malebranches?) loves men and hates gays, or more specifically hates the gay identity. This is because he sees a direct correspondence between gayness and effeminacy. In short: he's a homo who doesn't like musicals. I mean, join the club.

There's so much to make fun of in this book, but the weird thing (and what's made me hold off on writing about it) is that there's a lot I agreed with and was glad to read. And its audience is no one who's read even the tiniest amount of gender theory; Malebranche's fans all tend to be gay men who grew up in strong, good-old-boy environments and who, one imagines, were hot for daddy without ever wanting to dish with sis.

Let me just skim over some places where this book is interesting and stupid.

We can start with Malebranche's preferred term: androphilia, meaning a love for men. So fussy, right? One imagines him out in a bar and getting hit on by some other guy (one surely larger and gruffer than he), and being asked "Are you gay?" and him saying "No, I'm an androphile." I mean it's such a pain in the ass. And the insinuation—that being gay is about loving a kind of faux femininity innate in us gays more than it is plain loving men—is not so much offensive as it is short-sighted. How's this book any less bigoted toward self-identified gay men than something published by, say, Focus on the Family?

One very smart assertion in the book is that "the Gay Rights Movement has turned to nitpicking" (33). Malebranche admits that in the middle part of the 20th century such a movement was vital to give homosexual people a sense of self and pride, and more importantly to bring about an end of public shame and often physical abuse. His argument that it's been a complete success is a bit specious—I don't think I'll get to a point in Lincoln, Neb., where I'm comfortable holding my boyfriend's hand on the street in broad daylight, which is less a factor of my wussiness and more a factor of past acts of assault I've read about in the paper—but he also adds that the Gay Rights Movement is far more interested in manufacturing homegrown terrors than looking at and calling attention to terrors wreaked on gay people abroad. I've been asked to fight the ban on gay marriage more times that I can count, but the only time I've been asked to think about the plight of people in countries more militant and scary than this one is probably through moveon.org or something. Never a specifically gay organization.

One chapter is titled: "'Man' – The Natural Religion of Men" and here might be a good place to point out that Malebranche is, reportedly, "an ordained Priest in the Church of Satan," which means he actually believes in the devil. The devil!

In many places in the book, Malebranche calls for little more than good old fashioned respect for others. He likes the idea that men have a universally agreed upon code of honor, that we're all deserving of other men's respect simply because we're all men, and we're, I guess, in this rough, female-dominated world together? It's silly, but the advice behind it all—aim for self-reliance, be respectful of others, strive toward some kind of public achievement—is hard to argue with.

And then lots and lots and lots of boneheaded advice. Adopt a Masculine Ideal. Surround Yourself with Men. Abandon Affected Gay Behaviors. Why can't everyone just be how they want to be? Under Alter Your Everyday Influences and Explore Male Culture, Malebranche claims that
[m]any gay men's music collections consist primarily of female vocalists, and I believe that over time this has a profound effect on their psychology. They literally have women's voices in their heads (italics in original).
Malebranche suggests the androphile-in-training "Balance out his collection by acquiring some male-oriented music" and "awaken [him]self to the voices of other men." Also: "Take up a male-oriented hobby."

Ha! I was going to do the work of coming up with some great zingers to try to answer what "male-oriented" music and hobbies might be, but I'm rushed and busy right now. A. Peterson, I'm looking in your direction.


*Probably goes without saying that this is a nom de plume.

19 January 2009

Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: FSG, 2008.

Let me try in text to set the tone of my voice for you, or to place myself in a hypothetical setting in which what I'm about to say will come to you with the appropriate affect. Let this blog be for a second a church basement somewhere and this entry specifically can then serve as a nightly AA meeting I'm attending for the first time, on my own, because while I don't know whether I should be here I also don't know whether I shouldn't. The moderator or leader or captain or whatever asks if anyone is at the blog entry for the first time, and I raise my hand and am invited to stand and speak, and so I do:

I write realist fiction.

Lots of times I'm able to hold onto this as a source of pride, in that I "believe in" realism and what it can accomplish—what it has accomplished for me as a lifelong reader. But lots of other times I understand it as a limitation. I do the best I can, and I can't write anything other that realism. Not with much confidence. When I step up to the plate, so to speak, it's a swing and miss. Given the chance, I'd have a young man wake up one morning and find he'd metamorphosed into a shoebox, or envision a future where Quebecois separatists wheel around on unicycles.

James Wood's book, then, was very good for me to read. Not that he has anything disparaging to say about nonrealist fiction—to the contrary, any fiction that does the work of creating life, in all its known and unknown manifestations, is what he's trying to uncover here—but he's very good at showing how difficult and how rewarding is the attempt of building a character and getting a reader to feel herself inside that character's consciousness.

Wood is smart to bury his chapters on language and dialogue in the middle of his book, because such are the things it's the easiest to get right. I've probably written about this before, but the easiest thing to do in a fiction workshop is go to work on what's been written with a toolbox of techniques. Writing prettily takes only a good ear, which might be the first writer-body-part that develops in full (consider Orwell's stages of self-development as a writer; after sheer ego, wanting to craft perfected prose was his most rudimentary desire).

But what do you do when all the techniques are in place in a story and the prose is crafted and the story is simply boring, or the characters pose and perform more than they live and breathe? Such stories seem to evince a lack of psychology, or maybe philosophy. There's a often palpable sense in great novels that their writers know not just characters but people, humans, so well that throughout our reading we're forced constantly to go "Ah" and "Oh" like we do when fireworks explode.

The best chapters in this regard might be "A Brief History of Consciousness", where Wood traces the Bible's complete refusal of its readers' engagement in characters' minds, through Shakespeare's clunky soliloquies, to the novel (Flaubert, mostly) where we get full accounts of the way people think; and "Sympathy and Complexity", where he tries to uncover the ways authors get us to extend our sympathies to people who don't even exist, and how this practice enables us to do the same to those who do. And then this final paragraph, which I'll quote in full:
Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry. And it cannot be a genre; instead, it makes other forms of fiction seem like genres. For realism of this kind—lifeness—is the origin. It teaches everyone else; it schools its own truants: it is what allows magical realism, hysterical realism, fantasy, science fiction, even thrillers, to exist. It is nothing like as naive as its opponents charge; almost all the great twentieth-century realist novels also reflect on their own making, and are full of artifice. All the greatest realists, from Austen to Alice Munro, are at the same time great formalists. But this will be unceasingly difficult: for the writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn in mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable aging. The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional. (italics mine)
We've all read realist fiction that is dead on every page, and then we extend this deadness to the genre as a whole. The hard part, Wood says, is to accomplish all that realism can in a way that seems fresh and new, and it's such a hard task that it's very tempting to toss realism out altogether, and allow surrealism or lyricism to stand in for novels' pursuit of novelty.

Or maybe everyone just writes what he can. If anything, read this book for the great skewering he gives Updike. This plus James Wolcott's recent skewering in Vanity Fair gives me high hopes for Updike's complete absence from the canon by the time I'm his age.

16 January 2009

Proust, Marcel. Sodom and Gomorrah (1922). Trans. John Sturrock. New York: Viking, 2004.*

I'd really like to read Proust one day. Like, more than the introductions/synopses to his books.

Proust signals right in the title that this, its fourth volume, is where the theme of homosexuality will come to the fore of his epic In Search of Lost Time. The book opens with Proust's stand-in, Marcel, spying on the sexual tryst between the haughty Baron de Charlus and Jupien, the waistcoat maker. Noteworthy is the impassioned remove that Marcel maintains throughout the scene. If he's shocked, it's more in the line of a curious discovery. Indeed, he reads the encounter as thoroughly and studiously as he would a dinner party.

Keeping with his two-tiered approach to capturing life in Combray—taking both the Guermantes Way, signifying the aristocracy, as well as the more pedestrian (mind the pun) Swann's Way—Proust seems to set his homosexual relationship right up alongside class/power dynamics. Jupien is far below the Baron de Charlus in status and such is the bulk of what attracts him to the former.

Sodom and Gomorrah is also notable in that it signals the introduction of Albertine, who will become Marcel's central love interest. It's well understood that Albertine is a female stand-in for Proust's real-life lover, Alfred Agostinelli. Alfred served as Proust's chauffer—which gives us some understanding of Proust's reading homosexual relationships in terms of class struggle.

14 January 2009

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Plume, 1988.

Spoiler alert, I guess.

How did Sethe's baby die? As soon as the novel opens we know she and her daughter Denver are haunted by a ghost and that this ghost is the disturbed though not unkind spirit of Sethe's first daughter, who died when she was still a baby. Morrison uses a wandering third-person narrator—not quite omniscient, but freely moving among her characters—throughout the novel and yet it takes about halfway for this central mystery to get solved. And when it does, Morrison gives it an elusive treatment. We are placed in the point of view of the four horsemen (points to her for not lingering too heavily on this mordant, prophetic symbol, in a scene that is maybe the novel's second most apocalyptic) that have come to round Sethe and her children up to return them to the plantation they've escaped.

We don't know any of these men, and so we cannot feel relaxed in their viewpoints. We're learning them at the moment we read the scene, while they themselves are trying to figure out what it is they're seeing. They don't know the characters' names like we do, they have no idea who these people are, and so all the action and detail—Sethe shut up in a shed slitting one daughter's throat and trying to crack another's skull open on a wall—seems displaced. That is, because of this withdrawn POV Morrison dips into for one chapter, we have to work so hard to piece together what is going on, which in turns makes us both removed from the scene and also weirdly voyeuristic with it.

It's such incredible control over such incredible violence. A lesser writer would have kept us in Sethe's POV, or gone as omniscient as the constructs of the narrative would allow. Morrison's choice is right on. We're complicit, somehow, in both the violence of the scene and the self-interests of the slaveowners.

05 January 2009

Erdrich, Louise. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. New York: HarperCollins Perennial, 2001.*

Set chiefly just before the First World War on a Native American reservation in North Dakota, Erdrich's National-Book-Award-Nominated novel is remarkable in the somewhat twinned nature of her protagonist, Agnes Dewitt, who leaves a convent as a young woman and flees to to north, where she meets Father Damien Modeste, who has been assigned to the reservation. After the Father dies, Agnes cuts her hair and binds her breasts and takes his clothes and heads to the reservation to do the work that he was meant to do. Erdrich handles this transformation by keeping both "characters" on the page. That is, Father Damien Modeste is the public persona that the people of the reservation know and speak to and care about, and Agnes Dewitt remains the private person who is stuck with her own memories and thoughts.

This duplicity Agnes calls "the most sincere lie she could tell" (61), and the line between truth and lies is at the center of this novel, especially once Father Jude arrives, sent by the Vatican to confirm the possible sainthood of Sister Leopolda. A sainthood that only Father Damien, still alive after 100 years, can validate.

You can see by the asterisk above that I didn't really Finish! this one. I got pretty far into it. Page 200 of 360. But there are so many books to read, and I'm really anxious to get these books on my comps list (and, as I've been thinking about it, this blog) over with. It's a good book. I mean, it was nominated for the National Book Award and all. I think my problem with it is that (a) it's an historical novel, which probably isn't actually a problem in its own right (I'm reading Beloved right now and having no trouble with it), but it's an historical novel set in the West, and for whatever reasons I can't engage in stories that take place west of the Mississippi before, oh, 1950 (I don't for instance have much interest in reading The Grapes of Wrath despite everything I've heard about how good it is); and (b) it has too many characters.

I know I just wrote about how Munro is better when she throws a lot of characters together, but from what I've read online to put together the above it seems that Erdrich is carrying over a lot of characters from previous works of fiction, and this makes a lot of sense now. I guess my first warning that the drama in this book would be generational was the two-page family tree printed just after the title page. The only other time I can remember seeing a family tree in a book was when I devoured Madeline L'Engle.

If I were 12 again, if I had nothing but time to submit myself to the entirety of a big novel's big created world....

02 January 2009

Munro, Alice. "Some Women". The New Yorker. 22 & 29 Dec 2008. 69-77.

I like everything Alice Munro writes, pretty much. I know what this reveals about me. I mean, I'm "one of those" writers. Like, in the AWP Chronicle there was this article titled "How to Write a Story Like Alice Munro" or some such, and, while on every level I found the idea behind such an article odious and disgusting and so terribly depressing it still makes me want to slit my wrists all over the millions of photocopied workshop-story pages written by all us faceless creative-writing graduate students around the country hoping one day our dull stories about nothing will be as sought after by the New Yorker as Munro's great ones about nothing are, I devoured the article happily, even if I didn't necessarily learn anything by it.

But the last one in the New Yorker? or maybe Harper's? the one about the woman who sits alone in her kitchen and then some maniac stops by to try to kill her? the Flannery O'Connor one? I didn't like that one. I think the reason is that Alice Munro + two characters = a waste of her talents. She's always so good at four or even five characters. "Some Women" is about this time in the life of the narrator when she had a job taking care of a man dying of leukemia, back in the first half of the 20th century. Taking away the mother of the narrator (who only butts in to counter certain attitudes and desires of her daughter's), there are five characters in this story, and right when you think you have the antagonist pinned down (the invalid's mother) Munro introduces another character to take her place (the invalid's wife) and yet once you think now you've got a grip on the story there's a new character, the invalid's stepmother's masseuse of all people, who enters the story and maybe works as an antagonist, but more correctly just complicates things to the point where no one's an antagonist, or everyone is.

Every step, as always, she takes is a surprise. And that's why I like Alice Munro. Her stories are so happily inscrutable. But you know who hates Alice Munro? Like, not the kind woman living in Canada but the writer showing up in magazine pages far more often than he does? Ben Marcus. And I like Ben Marcus. Or, at least, I like what I've read of his (chiefly Notable American Women, which was incredible), but when it comes to criticizing Alice Munro's disinterest in pushing the boundaries of language, and how depressing it is that readers flock to her and her stories and not to Marcus's or, like, Gary Lutz's or somebody, Marcus can suck on it.

Because Munro's paying as close attention to language as he is. To gloss over the following sentences and not recognize a love for and mastery over language as compelling and valid as Marcus's is to be as poor and limited a reader as our departing president:

"None of us mattered to her—not me, or her critics, or her defenders. We were no more than bugs on a lampshade" (70).

Don't be all, "Dude, Marcus is looking for more than an apt simile," because I read his Harper's article, too. Here are sentences jut as full as the kind of word-rubbing going on in the sentences Lutz argues for in that Believer reprint everyone's blogging about this week. Maybe Munro doesn't have to crowbar a noun into some verb's syntactic spot (though undoubtedly she can and has), but her sentences demand our writerly, nerdly attentions and earn them.

I wonder why she doesn't write novels.