Fanpire: Respecting Fans

Cover of Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It

Cover of Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It

Title: Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It

Author: Tanya Erzen

Year of Publication: 2012

LC Call Number: PS3613.E979

Okay! I’m soooo far behind. Let’s continue my writing about books I read in November!

I haven’t read the Twilight Saga and I don’t especially intend to read it; in fact, every time I learn more about it, it sounds less appealing.  Stories about eternal romance aren’t really my thing, and from what I understand it’s essentially wish-fulfillment about being an ordinary girl and being swept off one’s feet by a love that is somehow extraordinary in nature.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but the wishes it’s fulfilling ain’t mine!  Then there are the cringeworthy details that I keep learning about, like the catatonic suicidal stuff and the “imprinting” business with love fated from birth, and, well, like I say, not too appealing to me.  But this isn’t a book about Twilight, it’s a book about Twilight fans, and as such it’s actually of great interest to me.  Twilight fans are, as a group, very different from any group to which I’ve ever belonged, even peripherally, so they’re intriguing partly because of that.  And then again, I’m aware of the general contempt toward them for caring about something that is perceived by many to have no literary value—a contempt that one sometimes suspects is somehow related to their gender. Part of Erzen’s mission, in fact, is to challenge the sexism with which Twilight fans are so often met.

In this book, Erzen reports on her interactions and interviews with Twilight fans in various contexts, including various fan events.  Throughout the book, she works very hard to show the diversity among fan responses to the series; this is facilitated by her ability to portray Twilight fans as human beings and not as  mass of vapid young women as they are so often assumed to be.  In fact, most  of them are women or girls, and their love of this bizarre vampire story is for many of them bound up with their own desires.  Erzen acknowledges and complicates these facts.  She spends some time on the role of male fans of Twilight and what drives them to participate in a mostly feminine subculture, but she also looks at how both the femininity and the fantasy parts of this play out.

For instance.  Many of the Twilight fans with whom Erzen interacts do not see themselves as “geeky” and don’t aspire to geekhood. They speak about their engagement with this text as a remarkable but socially acceptable pleasure in ways that make me wonder whether they have always harbored a latent desire for that type of deep engagement which allows one to become obsessed with something, to come to know it well, and to participate in a community based around the same thing, with others who feel the same way and can have the kind of conversation that one wants to have. Erzen writes in the introduction that many fans had never finished reading a book before they encountered Twilight, which they went on to read obsessively, over and over again. There is a part of me that wants to be a stupid jerky snob about it and say, well, if they tried reading other things, maybe they’d find something better?  But I kind of hate that part of me, and in fact I am moved by their passion for a secondary world and their need to form a community around it, and it occurs to me that there are gendered expectations in play in both their choice of Twilight and their failure to find other outlets for the need for obsession. And of course, not all of them are like that; some are bookish and tend to prefer internet interactions to face-to-face. Over the course of the book, we see many of the relationships that people have formed around Twilight. We meet a group of friends with a  Twilight-themed band, a mother and daughter who have bonded over their Twilight-related travels, men who give each other relationship advice based on the books, and many others.  Erzen attends several fan gatherings, and notices that the officially sanctioned event is the least interesting; the fans organizing their own communities bring in more people, have better events, and spark better conversations.

The most striking thing about this book, though, was Erzen’s explanation of the complicated relationship that fans have with Twilight.  Twilight fans, just like other fan communities that have been observed in any detail, do not receive their fan object with an attitude of passive acceptance. As this is one of the major tenets of fan studies, this should not be a surprising discovery when it comes to Twilight fans, but somehow it is—that is, not to Erzen, who is writing a whole book about her respect for fans, but in the wider world.  The romance that is the center of Twilight has been roundly criticized, and based on Erzen’s plot summaries, it sounds incredibly creepy and unhealthy as well as kind of silly.   Fans have different reactions to it. Some are very invested; they find Edward (the vampire hero who stalks the main character and eventually marries her) very glamorous and romantic, and they are attracted to what he represents: immortality and eternal love. But others are more critical.  Erzen quotes one fan who calls him a “creeper” and many others who find him attractive but nevertheless recognize that his behavior is inappropriate and similar relationships in real life are not healthy. A mother finds Bella (the ordinary heroine of the story) a terrible role model because she gives up on life after Edward breaks up with her.  It turns out that Twilight fans (and again, this shouldn’t be surprising) understand that they are indulging in a fantasy and that it is different from what they really want in their lives. . Erzen looks at the fanfiction as well, pointing out that it resists the pro-abstinence ideology of the book.

Toward the end of the book, Erzen attends the official Twilight convention, and finds it disappointing in comparison with the unofficial, fan-run events. It is “corporate, tame, regulated and scripted.” This was intriguing to me because it encapsulates so perfectly the tension between fans and the people who create objects of fandom. She asks one of the organizers about the unofficial convention that she had attended earlier, and is told that fans are not interested in the creative, or sometimes even academic, work that happens at such events—panels, self-defense courses, music, and more. The organizer of this convention believes that what fans want is what they offer: autographs, vendors, and a show which involves no audience participation. Meanwhile, the studio that makes the Twilight movies is sending cease-and-desist letters to people who make and sell interesting and creative products that could never be official.  Their desire to control their product isn’t unusual; a similar tension exists in many other communities, but the assertion of What Fans Want was interesting to me.

In any case, I’m trying to convince my students that an analysis of the fan community surrounding something that they do not personally know/like/consume can be interesting and enlightening to read. To me, this book is an excellent example.

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Passing: Jealousy and Envy

Cover of an omnibus edition of Quicksand and PassingTitle: Passing

Author: Nella Larsen

Year of Publication: 1928

LC Call Number: PS 3523 .A7225 .A6

Passing is the book I’d planned to read when I picked up this volume; I’d heard about it and was intrigued. It’s about the relationship between two light-skinned black women whose lives take two different paths; Irene marries a black man who is also an activist, while Clare marries a white man and moves into the upper echelons of society, passing as white the whole time.

The relationship between Irene and Clare is a strange one; they knew each other in high school, but at the narrative’s present, they are not close friends by any means.  Since the entire story is told from Irene’s point of view, the reader has little insight into Clare’s real attitude, but on Irene’s side there is a lot of irritation and resentment.  She remarks often on what she calls “Clare’s ‘having’ nature,” by which she means Clare’s apparently naive tendency to accept all gifts and invite herself into people’s lives. Clare does not show a great deal of self-awareness and takes all invitations at face value.  Failing to bow out gracefully, she writes to Irene without noticing Irene’s intention to cut off contact.  Then, too, Irene has a tendency to feel put upon in general; she has work to attend to and two children and a closer relationship with her husband than Clare has with hers.  Irene is working very hard to maintain herself as a respectable person and to feel as if she is in charge of her life, so she sees Clare as spoiled and childish; as she spends more time with Clare, her irritation increases.

For Clare’s part, it seems that she is lonely and longs for the company of other black women. Her husband is terrifying and openly, loudly racist; she passes not only in white society generally but also within her marriage.  When he was introduced, I feared for Clare.  Later in the novel, Irene speculates about the potential for divorce if Clare’s husband learned of her race, but she overlooks the possibility of violence, which did not to me appear out of the question.  Clare has one child, and tells Irene that she has not had any more because, throughout her pregnancy, she worried that the child would come out dark.  Her marriage is not seen in detail, but it sounds awful.  Is it worth it for Clare?  It doesn’t appear that she’s consciously evaluated this, actually. Tearfully, she tells Irene:

It’s just that I haven’t any proper morals or sense of duty, as you have, that makes me act as I do. … Can’t you realize I’m not like you a bit? Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, ‘Rene, I’m not safe.”

Notably, this moment comes when Irene is encouraging Clare not to shirk her parental duties—that is, to go back to her own life and leave Irene alone.  So the question here is of whether it is worth it for her to take the risks of temporarily escaping from her “passing” life to spend time in Irene’s social circle.  This is a very relevant question in terms of the plot—the danger that Clare will be exposed is ever-present—but I think that it also explains her thought process in making the decisions that led to her marrying Bellew.

Irene is quite willing to shake her head at these decisions of Clare’s, with a feeling of superiority at her own life choices, which to her appear manifestly better. But the thing about Irene is that she is a hypocrite.  Although she doesn’t approve of Irene passing, the novel opens with Irene sitting in a presumably segregated rooftop restaurant because she, Irene, is herself able to pass, and she hopes not to be exposed because she is enjoying this restaurant and does not want to be kicked out and humiliated.  Later, she explains that she’s only ever used “passing” for petty things, not for anything important.

Furthermore, Clare disapproves of passing at least partly because she is invested in what she calls “the ties of the race,” which Clare has evaded and yet still  uses.  Irene, however, employs a maid named Zulena, who is constantly present throughout the novel but to whom Irene barely speaks.  Next to Zulena, though, Irene’s privilege stands out clearly.  Unlike Zulena, Irene’s name does not mark her as a black woman and she enjoys middle-class status. I cannot remember whether the shade of Zulena’s skin is mentioned, her presence points up the ways in which Irene is closer to attaining the status which Clare covets. There is little sign that Irene feels any such “ties” to Zulena.  Clare, on the other hand, sits and talks with Zulena—and Irene is irritated by this, finding it inappropriate, precisely because she feels that Clare would have been less friendly with white servants.

Thus, Larsen avoids setting up a contrast between duplicitous Clare and upright Irene; Irene isn’t so truthful as all that, especially not with herself, and Clare seems, in many ways, guileless.  Irene, however, does think of it this way and eventually becomes convinced that Clare is having an affair with Irene’s husband.   Interestingly, the narrative does not confirm or deny this.  Any evidence one way or the other is filtered through Irene’s perception, which makes it already suspect because this is what she wants to believe, in order to justify her frustration with both parties.  The introduction to this volume (by one Deborah McDowell) argues that this suspicion is Irene’s way of covering up her own attraction to Clare in her mind, and this is persuasive so far as Irene seems to have very strong feelings about Clare. She responds to Clare’s letters even when she does not intend to, thinks about her more than she would like, and often observes Clare’s beauty.  (Brian, Irene’s husband, on the other hand, declares Clare too light for his tastes.)  Casting Clare in the role of homewrecker allows Irene to project her own feelings onto her husband, to clarify her relationship to Clare, and to justify thinking about her constantly.  Still, I have another interpretation of Irene’s obsession; I wonder if what Irene feels toward her is not just sexual jealousy but also simple envy.  Clare’s carelessness, the ease with which she inserts herself into any situation, and her ability to inspire love and admiration in nearly everyone who sees her are all qualities which Irene does not want to envy. She’s invested in her idea of herself as a serious person who works hard and thinks of others instead of herself.  However, her constant exasperation with Clare’s determination to have pleasure in her life and her desire for Clare to be punished (in fact, she considers outing her to her husband) do suggest an envy to which she will not admit.  Reinterpreting it into jealousy allows Irene to feel more reasonable, even if it undermines her feelings of superiority about her own marriage versus Clare’s.

I think this explains a lot about the ending, too, but it was shocking enough that I don’t want to write about it here…

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Quicksand: Running out of Options

Cover of an omnibus edition of Quicksand and PassingTitle: Quicksand

Author: Nella Larsen

Year of Publication: 1928

LC Call Number: PS 3523 .A7225 .A6

(Well, not all my posts are about Fullmetal Alchemist!)

This book includes both Quicksand and Passing, both by Nella Larsen, but they’re two separate books, so I’m going to post about each individually.

Quicksand is in some ways a character study of Helga Crane. Helga is the daughter of a Danish mother and an black American father; her father, however, is gone and her mother is dead.  She has a tendency to be dissatisfied and spends the book wandering from one place to another, in search of a place she can really live.  She lives in the South and works as a teacher at Naxos, a school dedicated to “racial uplift,” and then she lives in Harlem and participates in activism for racial justice, and then she lives in Denmark and  is paraded around as an exotic oddity. Ultimately, she ends up in living in a shack in the South as a preacher’s wife and losing herself in the birth of many children.  Although Helga is never satisfied with her life as it is, she is always optimistic about her life as it might be.  Every time she moves to a new stage of her life, she feels that this time, this will experience the fulfillment that was lacking from her prior life.  This time, she will be happy.

This becomes frustrating for the reader; after the first couple moves, it becomes clear that Helga’s problems will not be solved as she believes they will.  This frustration stopped her from being an especially sympathetic character for me, even if I understand, to some extent, the need to believe that changing one’s life will bring happiness.  At the end of the book, she seems to understand this:

 She couldn’t endure it.  Her suffocation and shrinking loathing were too great. Not to be borne. Again. For she had to admit that it wasn’t new, this feeling of dissatisfaction, of asphyxiation.  Something like it she had experienced before. In Naxos. In New York. In Copenhagen. This differed only in degree. And it was of the present and therefore seemingly more reasonable. The other revulsions were of the past, and now less explainable.

Although Helga seems to end up in the place which is least suitable for her, it doesn’t ultimately seem to matter; her discontentment is not a result of whatever life she is living but a facet of her character.  The feeling of suffocation is inevitable. And then again, she abandons whatever relationships she has acquired and whatever responsibilities she has taken on every time she leaves—students, roommates, fiances.

But this wandering shows us some of the possibilities for an educated, mixed-race black woman in the early twentieth century United States, and Larsen explodes each one. In each case, while the reader may not believe that any of this will help Helga, we can see that the problems she identifies are real.

There is the thing that I believe is analogous to what is today called respectability politics. Helga can teach at Naxos, but it is a petty and hierarchical world whose hypocrisy she cannot stand.  Larsen takes aim here at the notion of “racial uplift.”  The notes of the book suggest that the  name “Naxos” is chosen partly because, reversed, it is “Saxon” because the school worships whiteness. I don’t have enough knowledge to comment competently on that, but there is certainly an emphasis on coming from the “best” families and adhering to certain ideas of high-class behavior and avoiding vulgarity. Helga is told that dark-skinned people should not wear bright colors, but she loves beauty and color and good taste and resists the drab and joyless life that she is encouraged to lead. This need for for dullness and respectable virtue is maintained at Naxos by a steady undercurrent of gossip and jealousy.  There is a notion that it is the responsibility of the Naxos teachers to sacrifice to set an example for their students, or for “the race.”  When Helga tells her principal she is leaving, he attempts to persuade her to stay by telling her that she is needed to provide a “a sense of values” to Naxos.  Helga recognizes no such responsibility.

She attempts to seek help from her uncle, but he rejects her, hoping she will understand why he cannot offer her any aid.  She seeks other work, but her education fits her only for teaching; she hopes to work in a library, but is not qualified, and when she seeks other work from an employment agency, she is told that no work suitable for her in available.

She is happiest in Harlem, but she finds herself guilty of a different kind of hypocrisy. Harlem is in some ways the opposite of Naxos; the social scene in Harlem is about protest and what Larsen at one point terms “racial ardor.”  Helga’s roommate Anne, along with others in her social circle, are much concerned with issues of racism and the promotion of black culture.  Helga doesn’t believe that racism has much affect on Anne’s life, because she lives in Harlem and avoids all contact with white people, and she also considers Anne a hypocrite because she doesn’t, in fact, have a strong investment in black culture; her preferences are more canonically valued by the wider world. As Helga observes, Anne, “like the despised people of the white race…preferred Pavlova to Florence Mills, John McCormack to Taylor Gordon, Walter Hampden to Paul Robeson.”  From my perspective, Helga is a little unfair to Anne; one could argue that these preferences themselves are not wholly independent of exposure to racial prejudice (after all, how is the canon formed, and how is culture proliferated?), and in any case she does not know Anne well enough to make this evaluation.  There is, however, more to Helga’s discomfort than this; she finds herself a hypocrite as well because she is engaged with activism in which she does not truly believe.  It’s hard not to imagine that part of this has to do with her own mixed heritage, since she is advised to avoid telling anyone that some of her family is white.   In any case, this relationship to “the race question” (as it’s occasionally called in the text) doesn’t work for her.

So, she tries living in Copenhagen, where she has some relatives.  If, as I wrote above, she is testing every possible option for a woman in her position, Denmark doesn’t quite fit it because it is only due to her own family circumstances that she is able to move there—but we can make sense of it as a journey into an exclusively white space where she already has an in. She wants to be among “approving and admiring people, where she would be appreciated, and understood.” And, in Denmark, she does get attention. However, the attention she receives is really objectifying.  Her aunt dresses her up like a doll and shows her off to all her friends. She  “felt like nothing so much as some new and strange species of pet dog being proudly exhibited.”  A painter wants to paint her portrait.  People stop her in the street and question her about her race.  This is a way for her aunt and uncle to gain social status.  Helga doesn’t belong here either; what she really wants is agency. So she leaves Denmark.

Back in Harlem, she wanders into a church as she is having a breakdown, and it hits her at exactly her most vulnerable moment. She has a strange experience and is drawn into what appears to be some sort of religious fugue state; after this she forms a relationship with the reverend, marries him, and moves back to the South to play the role of his wife an a small, poor, black community.  This is striking because it is so obviously the opposite of everything that Helga has ever wanted, with her education and her love of beauty and ease and her quick wit and her impatience for everyone who does not appreciate her perspective.  Here she suffers poverty, as well as pain and illness that are a result of her quick succession of pregnancies. How does she end up in a place like this, the worst of all the options she has been shown? It almost feels as if, unsatisfied with each of them, she kept trying until she completely ran out of options. In any case, it’s discouraging.

So Helga drifts from one of the limited possibilities available to her to another.  One interesting facet of this drifting is that she always seems to be running away from a man. The introduction to the book insists that both this book and Passing are not about race but rather about the protagonists’ unacceptable desires.  I think race plays an important role in the book, as I’ve shown above, but it is true that Helga has a very difficult time managing her relationships with men.  James Vayle, to whom she is engaged in Naxos, and Axel Olsen, who attempts to marry her in Copenhagen, are really mere features of their localities, and not at all attractive to Helga (she notes that she does not love James Vayle but had expected to love him after they were married).  She wishes to escape from relationships with them; Olsen in particular seems too eager to own her. She is attracted to the principal of Naxos, but she also wishes to escape her attraction to him.  His appearance in Harlem is one of the things that drives her to leave, and fuels her resentment of Anne.  After he marries Anne, he kisses Helga; she is actually excited about this, but it is his subsequent apology for having behaved inappropriately that drives her to the church, where she apparently loses her power to make these decisions on her own.

And in fact, maybe we can combine these two factors; the problem all along is that Helga feels constrained, because specific standards of appropriate behavior are placed upon her without her consent.  She resists, but the more she resists, the more she is drawn in, until eventually she is left in a situation with stricter standards than any of the others.  This is, I am sure, the meaning of the title, Quicksand.  The more you struggle, the more quickly you sink.

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Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 4-6: Learning from Experience

Title: Fullmetal Alchemist, Volumes 4-6
Author: Hiromu Arakawa
Year of Publication: 2003

Writing about Izumi. This is going to happen.

It’s very strange to think about Izumi as part of the Elrics’ support network, because it’s a characterization to which she might well object. She is their alchemy teacher, and their quest for the philosopher’s stone makes her very angry (and you always know where you stand with Izumi).  The kind of support she offers him is in the form of a good ass-kicking; she is perfectly willing to yell at him and tell him that he’s violated everything she ever taught him.  If Paninya undercuts Ed’s self-aggrandizement through her mischief and her existence, Izumi simply refuses to recognize it.  Instead, she sees right through him. She knows the things that he knows that he believes cut him off from normal people (they have both seen what they call “that thing”) and she responds not with awe or pity but with anger.  After all, as she says, “if they’re trying to take the wrong path, isn’t it my job as their ‘teacher’ to put them on the right one?”

But she doesn’t do that, and a lot of her anger comes from her anger at herself for making mistakes similar to theirs, and for allowing them to duplicate these mistakes.  Her connection to Ed is immediately obvious from a visible point of view, because she has a tattoo on her chest which is the same symbol he wears on his coat.  Izumi is where it all starts, and of course the narrative takes the opportunity of her appearance to drop in some exposition in the course of a flashback. But this is framed in the understanding that his experience is Izumi’s experience as well.

So Izumi is clearly a skilled alchemist, and she taught Ed and Al what they know, both the skill and the philosophy. Still, it seems that the philosophy hasn’t quite stuck. In many ways, she is the opposite of Ed. She believes that alchemy should be used as infrequently as possible, and is shown fixing toys and explaining to a little girl why she won’t attempt to resurrect her dead cat.  “You shouldn’t depend on alchemy for everything. Try to fix whatever you can with your own hands” she tells the children.  She believes in accepting death:  “In the same way, our souls become nourishment for the people around us, and live on through the memories of those we loved.  Everything in this world has a flow. Even human lives.  I’ve come to accept this long ago… but it’s hard to explain to a child.” Lines like this are why I’ve referred to Izumi as a hippie in a prior post. This acceptance, of course, is exactly what Ed lacks; he suffered the loss of his limbs, and Al suffered the loss of his body, in their attempt to bring their mother back from the dead.  Ed explained this to Rosé way back in Volume One, and showed her the hopelessness of this cause; he’s abandoned the idea of trying to revive his mother. However, he’s still not willing to accept the price that he and Al paid—especially Al—and he is still attempting to recover their bodies.

But Izumi’s philosophy doesn’t come from abstract moral reasoning.  She’s committed this sin herself; she is more like Ed than she’d like to admit.  Finally, ruefully, she remarks, “So the student makes the same mistake as the teacher.”  Her husband clarifies that Izumi once lost a pregnancy, and her mistake was attempting to bring back that child. She has paid a similar price, “some of my insides,” as she puts it.  So the most important lesson she attempted to teach Ed and Al was one that she had not herself learned until she experienced it.  The lectures about not using alchemy to reverse death are an attempt to prevent them from repeating her mistake.  Still, I’d argue that Izumi doing a little better learning from that mistake than they are. She is constantly ill (she does that implausible fictional thing where she’ll perform magnificently in a fight and then cough up blood) and she’s unable to bear children, but she has accepted this price.  She makes the most of her life by helping the children of her village, rather than seeking to regain the life she had before she made her great mistake.  She’s careful with alchemy and resists the pressure to use it to make life easy.  In fact, she refuses to consider herself an alchemist and instead describes herself as a housewife, even as she performs amazing feats of alchemy.  Izumi’s response to her trauma is a strong skepticism of the value of alchemy; when I write it that way, it sounds like an overreaction, but the truth is that alchemy is dangerous. She has nothing but contempt for the state alchemists, “dogs of the military,” who trade the use of their talents to the state for power, and allow themselves to be used as weapons of war.  To Izumi, this is a great wrong, and you know, she has a point.  We’ve already glimpsed Kimblee, who is destructive and mentally unbalanced and kind of makes the point for her.

But Ed and Al are the same as Izumi: they cannot accept the impossibility of human transmutation until they’ve tried it and things have gone as wrong as they can.  And as readers, we think we’re smarter than that, but we probably aren’t.

The thing is, Izumi realizes this. She knows that Ed and Al cannot accept these philosophical ideas without experiencing them; this is why her pedagogy involves dropping them off on an island and letting them figure out a riddle while trying to survive on their own.  And she knows that they have an illicit goal in mind when they come to her and ask to learn alchemy.  So teaching them at all is a risk.  She believes she can stop them from attempting human transmutation; this is the unspoken goal of much of her teaching. She takes on Ed and Al as apprentices because they’re the close to the age that her child would have been; there’s a symmetry between their loss of their mother and her loss of her child that helps to bring them together.  But this also raises the stakes for Izumi; she needs to stop them from their goal not only because they are trying to do something wrong but because she doesn’t want them to destroy their lives.  And she fails.

But, now that Ed and Al made so many mistakes, she releases them as her apprentices and actually comes closer to treating them as peers.  She and Ed have both seen “that thing” or “the truth;” the being that lives beyond the gate and provides glimpses of comprehensive metaphysical knowledge in exchange for body parts.  Al’s seen it too, but he got too close and lost his memory.  There is an interesting discussion between them about whether they should attempt to recover the memories he lost, in which they weigh the risks and, despite her doubts, Izumi accedes to Al’s wishes and agrees to look into a way to do this.

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that these three volumes are all about the Elrics’ support network—the people who help them and how they do it.  Hughes is first, then Winry, and finally Izumi.  Izumi is a good place to end this, though.  Hughes manages things silently in the background and makes sacrifices, and Winry provides emotional support as well as prosthetic repair. But Izumi is the person who will give you the wake-up call and tell you when you’re wrong.  Arakawa allows all these characters to undercut Ed’s self-absorption, but Izumi does it the most directly.

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Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 4-6: Not the Center of the World

Title: Fullmetal Alchemist, Volumes 4-6
Author: Hiromu Arakawa
Year of Publication: 2003

I wrote before that Volume 5 is really about Winry and Volume 6 is about Izumi, but as I look over it now, the shift isn’t so clean. Izumi comes in about halfway through Volume 5, whereas Winry is also fairly important in Volume 4. Still, there’s a Winry story here.

Volume 5 covers the trip to Rush Valley, the “auto-mail engineer’s mecca,” where a thief named Paninya steals Ed’s official state alchemist watch. This leads to Ed, Al and Winry meeting a master auto-mail mechanic and also delivering a baby. Of course, it makes sense for this to be a fairly Winry-centric story, since she is the one who wanted to go to Rush Valley in the first place, and after all, she is the one who actually cares about auto-mail prosthetics (she makes them, Ed just wears them).

Much like Volume 4, Volume 5 makes the point that the world does not, in fact, revolve around Ed, but it makes this point in a very different way. It opens with the theft of Ed’s watch and his and Al’s inability catch the thief, Paninya, who is a young woman with auto-mail legs. It is Winry who finally stops her, but her agenda is different from theirs; she doesn’t care about the watch and only wants to get a good look at Paninya’s auto-mail. Her interference stem not from a desire to help Ed but a fascination with the very sophisticated, high-quality auto-mail Paninya uses. The manga explicitly points out that the negotiation between Winry and Paninya over the watch does not involve Ed or Al. Rather, they sit in the background complaining about their exclusion from the conversation. This is an interesting contrast from Winry’s earlier complaints that Ed and Al never tell her anything. She’s in control here and Ed doesn’t handle it well. Throughout the volume, there are a lot of these auto-mail conversations. Paninya stays with a family of auto-mail engineers: Dominic, who made her legs, Dominic’s son-in-law Ridel and his daughter Satera. As a result, there are many opportunities for Winry to talk shop, and her desire to improve her craft leads her to ask Dominic to take her as his apprentice. A good deal of the volume is concerned with her reasons for wanting to be so good at auto-mail.

Some of it is just the way her character is composed. At the very beginning of the volume, her awestruck cooing at some tools in a shop is compared with a woman lusting after a piece of fancy jewelry; on some level she just likes this stuff because she likes it. Ed draws a comparison between her work and his, saying that Winry “used to look through medical books as if they were picture books, just like Al and I did with alchemy books.” (There is certainly a medical element to auto-mail.) And some of it does indeed have to do with Ed. When she is apologizing to him for prying open his watch and seeing the date he’s etched inside to remind himself of his own motivation, she tells him: “You burned down your own home and then you wrote that in your watch, so you’d never forget and never turn back. If you can do that, I should be just as serious about the things I believe in. I want to be able to help you, so your road’s not so hard.” So yes, supporting Ed is part of it. But this conversation happens at the end of the story. Instead of seeing her pursue something for Ed’s sake, we see her very concerned with it for her own reasons and only later does it become linked to Ed. She praises Dominic’s design as “nothing less than art” and is interested in the story of Paninya’s legs. She’s interested in the business aspects of it as well, admonishing Paninya to stop stealing to pay for her legs. Ed is the auto-mail user who is most important to Winry, but even though she’s from Resembool, which appears to have a population of about six, she’s aware that auto-mail isn’t just Ed.

Paninya’s story helps to reinforce that. Ed’s story is fairly unusual, of course. Most of the people who wear auto-mail didn’t lose their limbs in forbidden alchemical experiments, but in the war or as a result of accidents. It’s explained that the boom in auto-mail demand is related to the Ishbalan war, which has already been established as brutal and, well, kind of genocidal actually. Paninya isn’t part of this larger political context either, but it is invoked as a backdrop and will certainly be addressed again later. Paninya, however, lost her legs in a train accident, in which her parents were also killed, and she lived for some time as a legless beggar child before being picked up (literally) by Dominic. Her story is less dramatic than Ed’s, but it’s no less sad. This brings me back to some of the things I said about the anime and how deftly this story deals with disability. I’ve called Ed a Byronic hero; he broods a lot, suffers from a tragic backstory, has the abilities of a genius, and struggles against the world. Arakawa often undercuts this by making fun of his ego a little, and here she does undercuts it a little more subtly by showing that tragedy is mundane. Paninya lost her legs and her family, and although her life is better now, she’s still living as a pickpocket, but she is cheerful about it and she doesn’t sulk like Ed. There’s a whole town of auto-mail engineers here; there is therefore a sufficient population of amputees of one sort or another to keep an entire town in business. Ed’s not special. He’s a character who happens to have a disability but has a lot of other things going on; disability isn’t a tragedy that defines his character (or Paninya’s). Of course, something could be said about Dominic’s unilateral decision to kidnap Paninya and perform surgery on her without her consent–well, this isn’t perfect.

In any case, Winry is interested in this story, and in fact she settles into this family just as easily as she did into the Hughes family. She scolds Paninya and encourages her to adopt an honest trade and give up her pickpocketing business. She interacts with the grumpy, unfriendly Dominic and asks him to take her on as his apprentice (he refuses, twice, but he is pleased by her appreciation for his work, and in the end, he agrees to find her another master). And of course, she delivers Satera’s baby.

I’m hoping that the story picks up her apprenticeship again and we see how she is progressing later on. In the anime, her story isn’t carried through as much as I would have liked it to be, but there’s more setup here, and more time spent on her, so I’m hopeful we’ll see the continuation. It also appears that Dominic is Pinako’s ex, which is hilarious and I want to see more about that for sure. In any case, delivering the baby is set up as something of a test for Winry, a stressful situation she hasn’t seen before in which she needs to perform well. She does, and she and Ed part as equals who respect each other. This works a little better for me than the relationship they have in the anime, in which she sometimes seems to be under the impression that she owns his arm and he constantly rolls his eyes at her. Here–well, Ed certainly quarrels with her interference and general motherliness in volume 4, but their relationship seems to mature over the course of these two volumes.

(Yes, this is a little disorganized, Let’s see if I do better writing about Izumi!)

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Fullmetal Alchemist Vols. 4-6: Trust and Ambiguity


Title: Fullmetal Alchemist, Volumes 4, 5, 6
Author:Hiromu Arakawa
Publication Date:2003

Hmm, looks like I’ve written one for each volume, or I will. Oops. This is mostly about Volume 4.

It’s interesting to think that these 3-in-1 volumes are actually three separate volumes stuck together and don’t need to have any particular theme to them, because with volumes 4, 5 and 6, there was certainly a commonality that I felt as I was reading them. These three volumes do a lot to advance the story, but they aren’t really about the Elric brothers; they center on the Elrics’ support system. Volume 4 is about Hughes and the political subplot (with a good deal of Winry thrown in), Volume 5 is about Winry, and Volume 6 is about Izumi, whom I love and never write about.

Fair warning: I can’t go much farther without writing tons of fairly significant spoilers, so I’m going to.

Anyway, there’s been an unfortunate time lapse between my reading of this volume and writing this post, so perhaps I’ll just look at each of these.

Volume 4 covers the end of the Laboratory 5 incident, in which Ed is injured and Al’s confidence is shattered, Winry’s visit, the death of Hughes, and the reappearance of Scar. Hughes, always a little smarter than the story, actually points out the need for support in his conversation with Mustang: “You’ll make a lot of enemies if you join military command at your age. … Make sure you have as many people around you as possible that understand and support you.” Of course, because this is Hughes, that only takes a second or two to turn into nagging about how Mustang should get married. It’s always ambiguous what Hughes really means by anything, but my take is that he is sincere on both fronts; he actually is obsessed with his family and wants Roy to enjoy a family life similar to his, but he’s also bringing it up to mask the warning in his first bit of advice. Although Mustang is a very shrewd character who understands the political machinations well, he will not survive without a support network. Hughes is himself the most important member of that network, but in fact Mustang is very good at this and has built up his own little group of soldiers that he takes to Central with him. Hawkeye is the most important of these; the rest of them are comic relief characters and weren’t especially useful in the anime, so we’ll see if they do more here. But then, there’s also Armstrong, who is on the periphery of this group, but who is almost definitely on board with the plan.

But Hughes’s advice about support doesn’t only apply to Mustang; it’s in large part what he’s trying to do for Ed (and, to a lesser extent, Al). Ed does not have the same political acumen that Mustang does (an extreme use of understatement). He doesn’t really trust or get along with Mustang, doesn’t properly value Armstrong, has tried to escape from his bodyguards Ross and Block, and has no other friends in the military, Early on in this volume, he is even fighting with Al. These people all care about him at least a little and want to support him, but Ed is a difficult person and is certainly not building the kinds of understanding that Mustang has with his little group. He does call Winry, though, so that she can come repair his arm, which fell off during a fight with the homunculi. She repairs the relationship between Ed and Al through the sheer power of her rage.

The rift between Ed and Al probably deserves at least a cursory look here; it stems from Al’s conversation with Barry the Chopper, another animated suit of armor, whom he met at Lab 5. Barry, aside from having an obvious agenda, is both repugnant (he’s a serial killer) and kind of stupid, but his mockery of Al’s devotion to Ed is apparently pretty effective. He plants in Al’s mind the seed of a doubt that Ed is his brother or that his memories are even real. I’ve written before that I find this a bit of a stretch. The bond between Ed and Al is very strong and is a focal point of the series,so it’s not entirely plausible that this guy Al has just met and who is also trying to kill him should be regarded as a more reliable source than Ed is. It’s difficult to see why Al would ever take seriously anything that Barry says, let alone his insinuations that Ed is manipulating him. Somehow, though, Al is just insecure enough for this to work. In terms of the theme about trying to form and keep this bond, I suppose it’s useful to show that they are so fragile, improbably fragile even, and then again I can also read it as telling us something about Al. Maybe it’s that, although he’s the patient and levelheaded one, he can be goaded in his weak point, which apparently has to do with his fear of abandonment and perhaps that tiny point of what insecurity that doesn’t quite believe that egocentric and tempestuous Ed really cares about him. Or, maybe it’s just that living in the armor feels so strange and so distant from his previous life that this explanation makes sense to him, that maybe he’d been considering some theory of the kind already and Barry just brought it to light. On the other hand, I could just be rationalizing a part of the plot that’s never made much sense to me. I did find that it bothered me less in the manga than it did in the anime, probably because the context is slightly different and it is juxtaposed with a lot of material about the difficulty and importance of building and keeping these connections with people.

This is a little off track, but I’m also amused that setting out to write about Hughes results in writing about everyone else instead. This is totally appropriate to his character.

In any case, although Hughes somehow forgets to tell Mustang about Ed’s hospitalization, he shows up and takes Winry under his wing, inviting her to his daughter Elicia’s birthday party and squeezing in a little talk with her about the Elrics. And here is the talent that Hughes has: just after meeting Winry, he initiates a chat with her, invites her to this party, acts goofy and kind and suddenly they are friends and she trust him enough to tell him all about her relationship with Ed and Al and how worried and shut out she feels. And as a reader, I found this easy to believe, because that is who Hughes is. And he comes through, reassuring her that Ed and Al will come to her when they are ready to talk about things. The explanation he gives her is weirdly patriarchal as he talks about men expressing themselves through action, but he goes on to say, “The would rather shoulder their burden themselves than cause their loved ones to worry. That’s why they won’t say anything about it. When they decide to tell you their troubles, that’s when they’ll need you to be there for them. Isn’t that enough?”

Now, knowing how this turns out, it’s hard not to read that as being about Hughes himself, and even not knowing that, one might still notice that he is saying this from the little oasis that he’s built for himself which is separate from his dangerous work life. He is constantly talking about his family at work, but it seems (at least, from the implications here) that he does not talk about work at home. (Then again, of course he doesn’t, because he is a military intelligence specialist? But I’m also reading this through the scenes in the anime in which he stops by to tuck Elicia in before pursuing the investigation which he apparently expects will get him killed, and carefully makes sure that everything is settled and he’s properly said goodbye, but without dropping any hints that this is the case. You wonder if he’s done this before. That scene doesn’t exist in the manga, but … it clarifies who he is, and I think it’s a true reading of what we see here.) So he’s looking at Ed through his own lens and the comfort that he offers Winry, while it doesn’t really change anything, at least reinforces that they care about her, revealing the networks that already exist. It’s also the impetus for her to go repair the connection between Ed and Al, although she does it in a way that contradicts this advice, if it is advice.

And actually, that’s the other thing that’s interesting about this interaction–Hughes is helping and certainly shown as admirable, but he’s also shown to be a little bit wrong. When he says that Ed and Al don’t want Winry to worry, there’s not too much evidence of that either way, but it’s certainly ineffective because she is worrying, and if we turn the lens back around on him, we have to think that if he believes that Gracia does not worry, then his normally perceptive nature has probably failed him. (I also find myself wondering exactly how much Gracia knows–is she aware of his support for Mustang’s political ambitions, for instance? She’ll never tell, they have that much in common.) And then, as results turn out, the fight between Ed and Al is resolved only by Winry ordering Al to talk to Ed, and Hughes acknowledges this himself.

Anyway, Winry is a woman of action. She’s not to Ed what Gracia is to Hughes. But what we do see here is that Hughes is doing work; he’s making sure that the relationships among the three of them–Winry, Ed and Al–are maintained in a way that supports Ed’s mental health and continued existence. We also get a chance to see more explicitly how Hughes has influenced Mustang’s connections with others, even after Hughes himself has died. We see Mustang and Armstrong carefully exchange information while avoiding talking about it explicitly, and we also see Hawkeye’s loyalty and concern.

It’s perhaps interesting that this is also the volume in which Bradley shows up and tells everybody to trust no one. There’s less unstated antagonism here between him and Hughes than there is the anime, although he’s still creepy and weird, and he does call off the search for the philosopher’s stone, which is suspicious.

In the anime, there is a sense that although Hughes has died and this is terrible, he’s managed to manipulate events such that he prevented much greater harms from occurring, and that he’d carefully set his affairs in order before this happened. In the manga, he’s much more surprised by his death, so you don’t have him putting the Elrics on a train, firing Sheska, etc. So it feels less like Hughes accomplished what he needed by making a deliberate sacrifice, and more like the homunculi are readying their plan and can attack anyone. I’m not sure I like that as much, but then again, perhaps it will make more sense in the plot later on.

It is interesting that in the anime, Hughes’s death is nevertheless fairly destructive because it causes Mustang to spend the rest of the series on revenge. In the manga, maybe something different?

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Kindred: Terrifying and Awkward Families

Cover of KindredTitle: Kindred

Author: Octavia Butler

Publication Date: 1979

LC Call Number: PS3552.U827

Kindred is a book I would have liked to spend more time mulling over, thinking about it carefully and teasing out the implications and writing a really thoughtful and interesting post, maybe a couple posts. It’s a great book.  But  it has a short loan period and, basically, circumstances prevent.  Let’s see what I can do here.

It’s a science fiction novel (Butler calls it “dark fantasy” but all the critics talk about it in terms of science fiction, so….) about involuntary time travel.  As she is moving into a new house with her husband in 1976, Dana is transported to another place where she must save a boy from drowning. That done, she returns, but she keeps being pulled back. Eventually, she realizes that he lives in the early nineteenth century, in Maryland, and is an ancestor of hers. This is terrifying, because she is a black woman.  Her task in being pulled back is always to save Rufus, the aforementioned white boy, which means that she returns to him at various points in his life, and we see how he’s shaped by his culture.  Dana, too, is changed by her contact with an earlier time, and is aware of herself becoming used to it in a way that disturbs her.

It’s certainly possible to read this as a way of using time travel to comment on the genre of the slave narrative, or the role of  history in making people who they are, but to me it seemed immediately to be about the conceit of time travel itself.  It’s an idea that has often been used for various purposes in science fiction; sometimes it’s enforced visits and sometimes merely time tourism, but the time traveler usually enjoys a certain sense of immunity which one doesn’t notice until reading something like this. Butler doesn’t mention that Dana is black until the point at which it becomes relevant, which makes it even more clear that time travel, like other kinds of travel, is often publicly imagined as facilitated by privilege, like other kinds of travel, I suppose.  Dana and her husband Kevin, a white man, discuss this obliquely.  Brought back with her to the nineteenth century, he laments:

“There are so many really fascinating times we could have gone back to visit.”
I laughed, without humor. “I can’t think of any time I’d like to go back to. But of all of them, this must be one of the most dangerous—for me anyway.”

In general, Kevin is more interested in history than Dana is, but it’s obviously more than that. This is a very understated acknowledgment that there isn’t, particularly, a golden age for black women, or even a time in which she would feel safe. I’ve seldom seen stories about time travel address the issue of travelers who visit a time of (greater than current) oppression for them personally, and so suddenly you are thinking about science fiction and fantasy and their assumptions about who can do what and go where.  Most stories avoid thinking about this sort of thing entirely by making their protagonists conveniently privileged.  Butler does not dodge in this way.

This isn’t good for Dana, of course.  She is brought face to face with the realities of slavery, first as a bystander, later as a more interested party, and eventually as a slave with ambiguous status.  She comes in as a person of modern sensibilities. Early in the book, she sees a man being whipped and is sickened and terrified, realizing that this is very different from the depictions she’s seen in movies. She’s shocked that people call her—well, what you’d think they’d call her—and it takes her a long time to realize that people are upset and confused about the fact that she wears pants.  Her education and the way that she speaks set her apart, but are no protection, and often a liability.  She addresses Rufus in a straightforward, direct way, and often gets away with it, because he understands (sort of) who she is, but she is quickly taught other ways, both by the slaves and the white people—to keep her eyes down and to speak respectfully.  Fitting in to the social milieu is a problem for her, and a problem with potentially violent consequences, but the social invalidation of her personhood is also a problem. One stems from the other, and while she can’t easily perform the social status expected of her, she also cannot reject it, because none of the things that make her different—her knowledge of medicine, her literacy, her strange appearances and disappearances, her link to Rufus—can permanently override her race.  Ultimately, she is disturbed to find out how easily she falls into this unfree life, and a little disgusted with herself and her own compliance with the slaveholders in many things, small and large.

To the other slaves, she is a stranger.  The knowledge I have just mentioned, which fails to save her from being assigned subhuman status, nevertheless separates her from all the other slaves, many of whom regard her with suspicion and resentment. They see her as too white, too complicit.  In her mind, Dana objects to this, noticing that they are all complicit, that there are many ways in which they avoid resistance in order to make their own lives easier.  However, she cannot truly have this conversation with them.  She understands their resentment and their rage, realizing that although she, like them, finds herself in bondage, she is still privileged relative to them, because she was not born here, and because she knows that she can go back. The social dynamics among the slaves are complicated and are complexly realized. Nigel, Sarah, Carrie, and Alice are all deep characters who have, at different times, different allegiances and attitudes, and their own ways of dealing with pain. They don’t always get along, even if they are united in their anger against the Weylins.  We can understand why each of them behaves the way they do, and even without extensive exposure to the life of the field hands, we can see the differences between the house life and the field life as well, and the divisions thus created.

Still, the differences between them and Dana are possibly smaller than one might expect. As Dana feels dismay at how much she has changed due to being treated like a slave, she does not become less angry or less certain of her own right to freedom. The difference isn’t in how she feels about herself but in the degree to which she has come to fear punishment.  And this is something worth looking at explicitly: all the slaves feel that way.  The condition of slavery as depicted in this novel is certainly not one of resignation or acceptance of that condition, but rather simmering resentment held in check only by the need for self-preservation (and not always even that).  Alice asks Dana whether she would submit to being raped by Rufus, as Alice has been forced to do, and when Dana says that she does not believe that she would, Alice asks, “Even though he’s just like your husband?”  Alice, formerly a free black woman, has been captured, made a slave, and seen her own husband sold away, and her rage at being forced to accept Rufus instead does not stop at Rufus.  She understands that everything Rufus does to her is enabled by his whiteness and, under the circumstances, it is difficult to condemn her assessment, even though we know Kevin to be a kind person who, while trapped in the nineteenth century, does what he can to help the slaves.  After all, we’ve seen Rufus grow up and change from a boy who is friends with both Alice and Nigel to a man like his father, who does not feel much compunction about keeping slaves in check.

We also get a good look at slavery as a domestic circumstance.  In a way, it is the ultimate awkward social situation; this is especially clear with Dana because she is able to have some conversations on a level with Rufus, but he can suddenly turn around and reassert his power over all of them. He and the other Weylins will converse with the slaves one minute and treat them as furniture the next.  Over the course of the novel, it begins to seem that without the well-rehearsed social expectations of dehumanization, this situation simply could not exist.  And then again, there are also very clear parallels drawn between slavery and domestic abuse.  Rufus is a frightening person precisely because he doles out punishment, then begs forgiveness, then expects submission, and then comes back around to punishment again.  He flips between charming and terrifying in classic abuser fashion, and while I don’t think anyone would deny that slavery is in fact abusive, this specific abuser behavior really points that up.

So Dana moves back and forth between a past in which she is regarded as chattel and a present in which she is a writer working on a novel, but that doesn’t mean that Butler lets 1976 off the hook, either.  Instead, she’s careful to point out the conflict in South Africa (“Tom Weylin would feel right at home,” Dana reflects), not to mention the rejection of their marriage by Kevin’s sister and the reluctant acceptance of Dana’s parents.  It’s still a struggle.  Butler is obviously cognizant that the social situation of 1976 is far preferable, but explicitly refutes the notion that the mores of the nineteenth century have vanished.

Kindred is a difficult book to read, at times.  Knowing that doesn’t make it any easier, any more than the revelation at the beginning of the book about what will happen to Dana prevents the reader from horrified cringing when it does happen.  But it is brilliant.

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Outliers: Missing Pieces

Cover of OutliersTitle: Outliers

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Publication Date: 2008

LC Classification: BF637.S8G533

Okay, so I’m leaving tomorrow and have another book to write about that I actually care about, so I just want to pound out something quickly about Outliers. This will be short. It’s a book meant to popularize certain ideas about statistics and success. Specifically, Gladwell is interested in how unpredictable circumstances make success possible for certain people. He uses examples including the Beatles and Bill Gates.

I know that there are lots of people who actually know about statistics and sociology and so forth who have lots of problems with this book.  The math that it takes to really understand such things is not really my strong point; every time I try to do any statistics, I always have to look things up and practice for a while before doing it for real. So I haven’t really internalized those things well enough to critique the book on those grounds, although I did notice that in many places throughout the book he doesn’t do a real statistical analysis, but rather compiles a list of people he finds significant and shows some similarities among them.  How they compare to less-successful people in similar fields isn’t really covered, so I don’t put much stock in most of the mathematical parts of this book. So when Gladwell claims that the Beatles were successful because they got lots of practice playing in Hamburg, I don’t question the usefulness of this experience for the Beatles, but I wonder about all the other bands who played in Hamburg.  Surely they didn’t all become the Beatles?

There is an exception to this: his observation about athletes born at particular times of the year having greater success, which I was able to confirm with my resident collector of baseball statistics.

Mathematical foibles aside, there are some things in the book that I found enjoyable, persuasive, or at least interesting.  I enjoyed the first chapter, which points out that even small structural decisions, like the date that begins the school year, arbitrarily privilege some people over others.  Gladwell claims that it takes ten thousand hours of practice for someone to achieve expertise, and while I’m not sure that he proves this is the case, I’m always up for someone pointing out that people who are good at things tend to be people who have practiced a lot (and that whether this happens depends both on dedication and on the luck that brings opportunities about).   I found the analysis of high-IQ individuals interesting, although it operated from a lot of assumptions that I didn’t think were necessarily warranted. Gladwell assumes that the reader respects IQ as a valid measurement, and introduces the idea that some people with high IQ’s don’t enjoy great financial success as if the reader is supposed to be shocked by this.  (The reader is not shocked.)  There’s a comment in this section which  implies that the best colleges are the ones chosen by students with high IQ’s, which is certainly not a measure that it would have occurred to me to use.  And then there’s the part where he laments that the math professors whose interactions with Chris Langan went poorly would have reacted to him more positively if they had known he was good at math—maybe they would have, but that’s…kinda bad, if true?  Anyway, the point of this section is that academic success depends on social skills, the acquisition of which is linked to socioeconomic class. I knew that, but it’s a nice takeaway for the popular audience of this book, although in the context I don’t know how seriously people will take it.

The bit about the bankers had similar strengths and weaknesses.  Gladwell writes about Jewish lawyers in New York in the twentieth century, and how their exclusion from the most prestigious fields of law ended up in their favor when the types of law that were considered valuable in society changed.  Gladwell has a lot to say about this, but what was interesting about it is that, in a book about how success depends on circumstances which are often out of our control, this is the only place that he explicitly discusses discrimination and marginalization.  (There’s a little bit about class privilege when he discusses Chris Langan, but he isn’t explicit about how this is systematic, so it’s just about Langan and does he deserve success for his mental gifts even though he is kind of a jerk.)  But in this one place in which marginalization is discussed, it’s so that Gladwell can show that there exists a situation in which it can be an advantage.  And that’s compelling and enjoyable, of course, because he turns it into a triumphant underdog story, but it forecloses the possibility of his discussing how opportunities are made available to people on the basis of privileged characteristics.  Almost all his examples of extraordinary success are white men, and that’s definitely not a coincidence.

This exists in the same book in which Gladwell explains feuding towns not only by means of their culture but by recourse to the culture of their ancestors in Scotland and sheep herding or something; there was an opportunity for him to discuss how culturally-sanctioned violence perpetuates itself, but he has to find some economic cause even if it is a bit of a reach, because he is an economist.  So it’s not surprising that he’s reluctant to take on systematic social biases, but it’s a pretty major piece missing from his analysis.

So yeah, there are certainly criticism to be made here.  I do, however, admire Gladwell’s ability to make this stuff accessible and engaging.

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The Locked Room: Meaning It This Time

New York TrilogyTitle: The Locked Room (Book Three of the New York Trilogy)

Author: Paul Auster

Year of Publication: 1984

LC Call Number: PS 3551 .U77 N49

Okay, so I’ve fallen way behind here, but I think it would be a good idea to finish up with the New York Trilogy so I can move on with my life, yes? I have plenty of other books waiting for their posts.

So. The third book in the trilogy is The Locked Room.  I’m still not sure of the reason for the title.  The plot shouldn’t surprise anybody who has read the first two books in the trilogy, but it manifests itself a little differently here.  A nameless, first-persoon narrator is asked to act as the literary executive of Fanshawe, who is his vanished childhood friend, and whom he hadn’t spoken to in many years.  Fanshawe’s wife presents him with this decision and ultimately, for some reason, falls in love with him.  So this sounds like a very different setup from the weird surveillance/detective stuff of the other two books, but it really isn’t.  The narrator is the bewildered detective, tailing Fanshawe and using his writing and everything he’s left to try to come to a better understanding of him. Fanshawe, like Black/White in Ghosts is actually watching the narrator and has set up this weird constructed situation in which the narrator is forced to live.  The real difference between this book and the other two is that it’s more detailed and more—maybe not more realistic but more twentieth-century novel realistic.  If you know what I mean.  The characters in this book are people with pasts rather than ciphers representing the idea of a character and the position that character is in.  They still don’t have futures, really, but, you know, one thing at a time.

Despite having a slightly better-defined personality, the narrator of The Locked Room  is just like the protagonists in the other two books in that he comes to identify with Fanshawe, to be overshadowed by his presence, and to resent both that overshadowing and the way that Fanshawe’s existence seems to determine his, the narrator’s, possible actions.  Just like the other two protagonists, he insists on a final confrontation, which results in destruction.

So this book is where the things that seem mysterious in the other books are somewhat explained.  It almost feels as if the first two books were written by the narrator of this one, as drafts for this book in which he was not yet able to articulate the entire story.  Finally, in this book, he is somewhat more explicit.  That is not to say that this is the book in which characters (or readers) break free of their existence as text-bound beings. When the narrator picks up Fanshawe’s manuscripts to examine them for potential publication, he has the strange impression that he is, in fact, carrying Fanshawe’s corpse: “I hauled the two suitcases slowly down the stairs and onto the street.  Together, they were as heavy as a man.”   He is to evaluate whether the work is worth publishing, and to destroy it if it is not.  Because he identifies Fanshaw with his work, he is uneasy about the latter possibility:

There was no difference in my mind between giving the order to destroy Fanshawe’s work and killing him with my own hands. I had been given the power to obliterate, to steal a body from its grave and tear it to pieces.

If they narrator, who knew Fanshawe before he had begun writing anything, cannot draw this distinction between author and work, then the public, who is also the fictive audience for this work, is certainly not able to do so. Because Fanshawe’s work only comes to light when his body has vanished, he cannot be known other than as the author of these works.  The narrator is careful to push us into this position, alluding repeatedly to our supposed familiarity with Fanshawe’s imaginary oeuvre.  (“Everyone knows what Fanshawe’s work is like.”)  Even Fanshawe’s wife/supposed widow, Sophie, who was never allowed to read the work prior to his disappearance, realizes that the pile of papers in the closet represents him and feels that it is interfering with her relationship with the narrator.

If Fanshawe is explicitly text, so is the narrator; the book we are reading is presumably the book that he writes about throughout, the biography of Fanshawe. So he’s not just a text, he’s a derivative text.  And of course, there’s the same identification with his target that we saw in the two other books of this trilogy.  Ultimately, the narrator publishes Fanshawe’s books, marries Fanshawe’s wife, parents Fanshawe’s child, lives on Fanshawe’s money, and is known for his relationship with Fanshawe.  And, just as in the other books, he develops a resentment toward his doppelganger that can only be resolved in seemingly arbitrary violence.  There is physical violence carried out against someone who is not actually Fanshawe but, you know, good enough, and there’s the violence of the destruction of a text, the very text which appears to hold the answers.

But there are differences between this and the other two works.

First, there’s Sophie. She’s not actually unprecedented, but there are differences.  The closest character is Virginia in City of Glass, who is married to the younger Peter Stillman but does not have sex with him. She does, however, kiss Quinn.  If we consider Peter as one of Quinn’s many doubles, then there’s a similar dynamic—becoming the romantic rival of someone that one almost is.  In this book, of course, it goes further.  The narrator immediately falls into a relationship with Sophie and marries her, at about the same time that he assumes all other parts of Fanshawe’s life.  The book strongly implies that this is intentional on Fanshawe’s part—that, in essence, he has made the narrator a gift of her.  There is an anecdote early on in this book in which Fanshawe, the narrator, and Dennis, a boy from a poor family attend a birthday party. Dennis has not been able to bring a present, so Fanshawe gives Dennis his present to give to the birthday boy.  In the end, of course, this result is the same.  This is presented as the key to Fanshawe’s personality.  There’s an uncomfortable—no, an outright creepy—resonance between that moment and the way that Sophie is handed off.  She’s not the only sexual connection between them—there’s also a scene in which they take turns with the same woman in a brothel, and a throwaway moment in which, as children, they want to spend so much time together that they ask if it is possible for them to be married when they grow up (is this the transitive property of Sophie?).  The thing is, Sophie is a character with at least a little personality of her own, less flat than most in this series, but she’s still a pawn in the larger game.  This bothered me, and it’s my least favorite part of this series.

Then, there’s the appearance of characters with the same name as the characters in the prior works. Sophie’s grandfather is Paul—is that Paul Auster, or just a coincidence?The detective hired to track Fanshawe is Quinn, and he suffers a similar fate as the Quinn of City of Glass, disappearing.  Later, when the narrator is in search of Fanshawe, he ends up tracking a man named Peter Stillman, having decided that Stillman is in fact Fanshawe.  When he catches up with Stillman, he  tells him that he, Stillman, is actually Fanshawe and that names don’t matter, and proceeds to attack him (the narrator loses this fight).  So Stillman has a similar bundle of functions to those seen in City of Glass; he represents a blurring of identities among people outside the narrator’s consciousness, and the arbitrariness of language to separate these identities, but he nonetheless continues to insist that he is not Fanshawe.  That these characters turn up again is significant mostly insofar as it helps to create the feeling I referenced above, that The Locked Room can be read as the narrator’s final draft of the story told in the other two books, the one in which he is finally able to bring himself to tell this story in a less abstract way.  So the odd role that Stillman played in the earlier novel, for instance, can be attributed to his experience with the narrator here, and many of the other things and people that continue to appear can be understood in that way.

And then there’s the ending.  In City of Glass and in Ghosts, the protagonist seeks a truth which, in true postmodern fashion, he is not able to reach.  In The Locked Room, the answer to his questions is in a notebook (a red notebook, of course) which is is given at the end of the book. Perhaps, then, in this more realistic setting, the answer can be found and revealed! It’s here before him! But no. He destroys it.  So the reader is of course denied the answer as usual, but for a different reason. Here, it’s not because the answer doesn’t exist but because the narrator does not want the reader to know.  So we end, not with the sense that we are lost in an unresolvable world of words, but with this rather violent reminder that the narrator (or the author?) is all-powerful and decides exactly what we see.

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Ghosts: Try It Again, with Less Reality

New York TrilogyTitle: Ghosts (Book Two of the New York Trilogy)

Author: Paul Auster

Year of Publication: 1982

LC Call Number: PS 3551 .U77 N49

Ghosts is the second book of the New York Trilogy, and at around seventy pages, it’s the shortest of the three.  In many ways, it resembles City of Glass.  Each book has as its protagonist a detective/writer who is assigned to follow another man, whom he does not understand.  In each case, those who assign the case are shadowy and impossible to contact, and in each case, this task of watching someone else ends up being the protagonist’s undoing.

Ghosts has a somewhat different denouement, but the most obvious difference between the two works is really stylistic.  City of Glass featured a set of characters whose names change hands  over the course of the novel and don’t clearly belong to anyone. The characters in Ghosts get to keep their names (with a few exceptions), but the names they are given are somewhat interchangeable.  The detective protagonist, Blue, is observing a man named Black on the orders of the mysterious White.  Blue was trained by Brown, who is now retired, and has come to this point in his career after capturing the embezzler Redman, and solving a case involving the amnesiac Gray, who after losing his memory took on the name of Green and remarried his original wife, who also changed her name from Mrs. Gray to Mrs. Green. Blue would like to be more like Gold, who has pursued the case of a mysterious dead child for years, even after his own retirement, but is instead stuck tailing Black on this meaningless mission he has been given.

What is this, I said to myself, a game of Clue?

Well… not exactly, because after all a game has an unambiguous ending with clear winners and losers, and yet it does almost feel like a game.  Auster does make more of colors than simply using them in the names, pointing them out at odd moments that made me wonder whether it was specific to this work or whether colors are always mentioned in this way but I am simply more sensitive to them because the naming scheme is so odd.  But, maybe because I spend, ahem, a non-trivial amount of time playing and thinking about board games, it was difficult for me to stop thinking of it in this way once I had begun. It’s fairly common when discussing sessions of games to refer to players by their player color, especially when one does not know them well or is not interested in them as people so much as a series of moves on a board.  As far as this goes, it is a somewhat reasonable way of considering the relationship between the reader and the characters in this book.  Of course, if you think about it carefully, all fictional characters consist of a series of actions performed in a space with clear boundaries, but the naming conventions of Ghosts underlines this reality. We have insight into only one position, Blue’s; that is the one which we are, figuratively, “playing.” We get to know Blue fairly well, because we live in his head, but our main concern for him isn’t exactly his fragile psyche so much as  what he should do next.  All around him are characters who take certain actions which he needs to predict so that he can react properly, but he’s rather bad at that.  To be fair, of course, some of them behave in ways that are also surprising to the reader. There are no clear victory conditions that we can understand, so of course their actions remain obscure to us. What is clear, however, is that Blue does not win.

Of course, there are some limitations to this reading. The characters are not competing for the same goals but all seem to have distinct victory conditions.  Some are allotted more moves than others, and some seem already to have left the game.  Blue appeals to Brown for assistance, but is refused because Brown will  no longer participate.  Gold has decided on his own that he only cares for this one case.  And by the end of the game, we learn that there is collusion between two of the players, or rather, that one player is controlling two “pieces.”

Still, if that doesn’t quite work, it does point out the reader’s distance from the story. City of Glass gave us a protagonist whose psychology we could consider, even if we didn’t fully understand it. It felt like something that, strange as it was, was happening to people in the world.  Ghosts takes almost the same story, with some trivial differences (Blue is a detective turned writer rather than a writer turned detective, the ending is different and more detective-y, etc.), but removes some of the plot complexity, turns the characters into ciphers, and generally flattens it out into an  example of the genre. Meanwhile, the story adds things like Blue’s reflection on the meanings of colors.  So, although the earlier story was already fairly unsettling, this one makes it even more so by stepping back. The relationship to other texts is still there, but now it’s all about Walden.  Blue’s character arc is at least partially about learning to read Thoreau.  I haven’t read Walden, so it’s difficult for me to comment on the work it’s doing in this text, but… certainly it can be said to simplify?

In any case, there’s a refusal to get under the surface of the characters.  As Blue doggedly tries to plumb the depths of Black’s character, he spends most of his time watching Black reading, and reflects that this is essentially the same as doing nothing, until eventually he begins reading himself.  In a way, watching someone read is the ultimate experience of alterity; the person that you are observing is having an experience of which you absolutely can know nothing. Strangely, and much like Quinn in City of Glass, Blue is for some reason unable to simply give up and go home.  There is no obvious reason he should stay; he’s getting paid, but he could just as easily get paid for doing the type of work he prefers. There’s no coercion, either. Instead, he stays at his post, long after he’s realized that he is the victim here.  He comes to identify with Black, because he is trying so hard to get inside his mind, by doing the same reading and by watching him, and finally, by breaking in and reading the notebook in which Black has been writing with a red pen (there must always be a red notebook of one type or another). In the end, all he really learns is that Black and White are the same. He’ll never understand either one of them, and his only recourse is to violence. Even reading the notebook doesn’t help—he recognizes that he already knows what it contains.

At the end, the story dissolves, and the narrator simply shrugs: “I like to think of Blue booking passage on some ship and sailing to China. Let it be China, then, and we’ll leave it at that.”

To like or dislike such a book really seems beside the point; the most I can really say about it is that it adds something to the possible readings of City of Glass.  How separate are the three books of this trilogy?


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