Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Shards (2011)

Title: Shards
Author: Ismet Prcic
Publisher: Black Cat
Price: Full Price and Well Worth It
LCC: LD 791.8 .E5 2008 P73 (Dissertation Version)

The dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was a total disaster. It resulted in the bloodiest conflict Europe has seen since World War II. While all sides violated the Geneva Conflict and committed war crimes, by far the worst offenses were perpetrated by the Serbian army against Bosnian Muslims. Under the leadership of Slobodan Milošević, the Serb forces attempted Europe's second internal genocide in a process they hideously euphemized as "ethnic cleansing."

Genocide can be the fate of the people, but it can only be experienced by the individual victims and perpetrators. Since 1945, we have learned plenty about the horrors of the Jewish holocaust from Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, Elie Wiesel's Night, and Ruth Kluger's overlooked memoir, Stay Alive. Europe's second attempted genocide has also produced a literature of equal quality and candor. Even in the midst of the conflict, novelists in the former Yugoslavia were capturing the experience of living in a country under siege by its own people. Among this growing body of literature were Semezdin Mehmedinovic's Sarajevo Blues, Aleksander Hemon's Nowhere Man, Miljenko Jergovic's Sarajevo Marlboro, Sasa Stanisic's How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone.

The most recent addition to what we might call Yugoslavian Civil War Literature (syllabi makers, take note) is Shards by Ismet "Izzy" Prcic. Prcic's novel is an account of the war and its aftermath told in a Bosnian-inflected punk rock idiom. In postmodern fashion, Shards blends together the memoir and the novel. The text juxtaposes "shards" of prose narrative and pretends to be a manuscript that combines Prcic's therapist-mandated memoir of the war, a diary that details his life as a refugee in Southern California, and material that details the presumably fictitious adventures of Mustafa Nalic, a Bosnian man who rather than flee his homeland, fought in the Bosnian army as a special unit commando. Prcic's first novel strikes me as reminiscent of Philip Roth's Israeli fictions, Counterlife and Operation Shylock. Just as Mustafa offers Izzy a view of what his life had been if he stayed and fought for Bosnia, Counterlife documents two different accounts of Nathan Zuckerman's life, one where he leaves the United States to live in Israel and one where he dies. In Operation Shylock, Philip Roth writes about a fictitious version of Philip Roth who is besieged by his anti-Zionist doppelganger who is also named Philip Roth. Similarly, Shards plays with autobiographical elements that readers know must be fictional and Izzy, the character, is tormented by alternative versions of himself.

Early in the novel,  readers learn from a diary entry that Prcic has taken on the rock 'n' roll name Izzy. The new name marks an effort to assimilate in America, but it also promises Prcic a new identity that unfortunately does not help him forget his previous life in Bosnia. As he explains in a later entry, when he returns or thinks about Bosnia he reverts to Ismet, when he acts as a college student at Moorpark College and later UC San Diego, he's Izzy. Readers are thus treated to a schizophrenic memoir-novel that alternates between a teenage Ismet who grows up in Tuzla, Bosnia and a slightly older Izzy who both narrates Ismet's previous adventures and writes in his diary about how he cannot forget about what happened to him and his family even though he is a hemisphere away.

In the memoir portions of Shards, Ismet encounters the war both as something that merely happens on TV--a space where politicians argue and make disparaging nationalistic remarks--and as a restrictive, life-changing event. The home that the family keeps for weekend getaways becomes a symbol of the family's fear and oppression when they are forced to abandon it. Prcic describes a conversation between his mother and their Serbian neighbor. Harvesting her garden, Mrs. Prcic tells the neighbor that she is going to make jam with some of her yield. The neighbor encourages her and then adds, cryptically, that once preserved who knows who may get to eat it. Ismet's mother interprets this as a veiled threat, packs up the car, and considers the weekend retreat as good as torched. Episodes like this shape Ismet's childhood and when he is given the chance to travel abroad to Scotland on a government sponsored theater trip, his family arranges for him to enter into exile just before he is inducted into the Bosnian army.

Where Ismet ends, Izzy begins. Izzy is a brash college student who is doing his best to be "normal." He hangs out with friends, he goes to parties in the Valley, he falls in love. And yet despite his efforts to just be "Izzy," Prcic cannot forget his past in Bosnia. In diary entries addressed to his mother, he recounts the difficulties of the war years, the stress that they have put on his family life, and the mental anguish that he is currently going through. At one point in the novel, Izzy wanders around a strange San Fernando Valley neighborhood. Hearing someone speak Bosnian, he asks for help and is invited into the family home. Once inside, he discovers that they are roasting a pig and are in fact not Bosnian Muslims, but Serbs with military regalia decorating their house and pictures of Serbian war criminals on the wall. Izzy carefully maneuvers his escape from the home, but the episode points to the fact that Izzy cannot escape what he experienced back when he was merely Ismet. 

Finally, there is Mustafa. The novel is perhaps at its most postmodern when it comes to to this illusive figure. Mustafa may be only a fictitious persona that Izzy creates for himself in order to deal with the death of a friend. He might also be a real person who is a true-to-life Bosnian commando. Either way, Mustafa's character is an attempt for Ismet to answer the question, What would have happened if I stayed in the army?  Ismet feels guilty over the figure of Mustafa and the sections dealing with are an amalgam of regret and cartoon masculine fantasies. He is the character who can live up to the ninja stories that Ismet loved as a child. It is Mustafa who gives Bosnia "his shooting finger for defending, his body for a shield, his sanity and humanity as a sacrifice for future generations, [and], his blood for fertilization of [Bosnian] soil." The fictional Izzy cannot  seem to forgive himself for making such a noble sacrifice, but he sacrifices anyway.

Shards is a compelling first novel and we at Narrative Review await Prcic's sophomore effort. Those of you in the Los Angeles area will have the opportunity to meet Prcic and have your copy signed by the author. On October 27th, Ismet Prcic will read and sign copies of his novel Shards at Skylight Books. If you are smart, you will go and check him out.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Juice!: A Novel (2011)

Author: Ishmael Reed
Title Juice!: A Novel
Publisher: Dalkey Archive 
Price: $9.10 (Amazon)
LCC: PS3568.E365 J85 2011

In Bigger and Blacker, Chris Rock discusses what some have called "The Minority's Prayer." In the bit, Rock reenacts the experience of watching the local news. When Rock hears a reporter tell of a violent crime, Rock lowers his head and utters something along the lines, "Please, God don't let him be black. Lord, whatever he is don't let him be black . . . Puerto Rican? Hallelujah! He's Puerto Rican!" Admittedly, the joke loses something in print, but it helps explain Ishmael Reed's latest novel, Juice!

Juice! tells the story of Paul Blessings, a cartoonist who becomes obsessed with the O. J. Simpson trial. Blessings works for KCAK--a formerly left-wing, viewer-supported television station that has recently gone corporate and has become as a result, increasingly right-wing. Fed up with his station's anti-O. J. bias, Blessings does a series of O. J. cartoons that both defend the former football player and attack the media. Blessings encounters trouble when Princessa Bimbette, a conservative blonde anchorwoman in the mold of Fox News, complains that his latest pro-O. J. cartoon features Simpson sodomizing America. The image, featured on the cover, is meant to portray Simpson calling the shots of the American media, supplying them with the so-called "juice" to run. Censored from the airwaves, Blessing's work is banished to the station's new experimental blog.

While Reed's title identifies the work as a novel, the publisher's description on the back cover identifies the work as a "faction." This seems a more fitting appellation to me given the content of the work. Juice! tells us of Blessing's personal and professional travails, but the majority of the novel consists of Blessing's analysis of the media. For someone like myself, who is interested in exploring how postmodern fiction teaches media literacy to its readers, I could not have found a novel more apt for my research. Indeed, Reed himself has become a major critic of the media within the last decade. He has written two works of media criticism and has produced Konch Magazine, an on-line journal that publishes "those voices ignored by the American media." Juice! reveals that at its heart the saga of O. J. Simpson is simply a twentieth-century captivity narrative. As Reed informs readers, these types of narratives are as old as 1682. Captivity narratives tell of  white women raped (in all senses of the word) by Native American or African American men and are subsequently rescued and redeemed by virtuous white men. Often times there is a prurient interest in the story with the sexual desire of white readers displaced onto the offending racial other. O. J. Simpson thus becomes our nation's latest "vicious savage," Nichole Brown the picture of white womanhood, and Mark Fuhrman the white avenger. While the supposedly "all-black" jury failed to convict him, Reed tells us that the "lynch mob of the media" has done their best to hound and ruin O. J. Simpson.

Reed is spot on when he reads into the O. J. Simpson trial the structure of the captivity myth. However, the category of the "faction" produces some interpretive problems. When Blessings critiques the media is the reader to understand these views merely as the views of Blessings or do these views belong to Reed as well? Certainly, there are moments of self-reflexivity that would seem to call this into question. For instance, Blessings is often critical of what he might term the white feminist establishment. Reed has often been accused of harboring misogynist views and Juice! will no doubt raise similar accusations. Seeming to know this, Reed has a friend of Blessings stages a play that defames the Japanese princess Masako in protest of an article that Tsunehiko Kato wrote for MELUS that chastised Reed's view of women. Does this postmodern playfulness shield Reed from these allegations? Ultimately, readers will have to decide for themselves.

Fictional or not, many of Blessing's views correspond to Reed's earlier writing in Mixing It Up (2008) and Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media (2010). In these works, Reed follows third wave feminists by accusing the Women's Liberation Movement of being riddled with white and middle class bias. For Reed, white (and usually Jewish) feminists attack black men like himself and O. J. Simpson for misogyny because as a class, African Americans have little financial power over the lives of white women. For some, the distinction between Reed's critique of the women's movement and women more generally will merely be academic.

More disturbingly however is that although Juice! critiques the collective guilt heaped on African Americans for the alleged actions of O. J. Simpson, Reed is just as likely as to partake in bestowing collective guilt himself. In an essay in Mixing It Up where Reed rightfully attacks the virulent racism of the Don Imus Show, Reed takes a moment to signal out Imus's sidekick Bernard McGuirk for his racist radio impersonations. Here, Reed points out McGuirk's Irish ancestry and the troubled history of Irish-Black relations:
McGuirk’s sexual obsession harkens back to the old Confederate fear of miscegenation. McGuirk is the son of Irish immigrants. It was an Irish immigrant named David Goodman Croly who, according to Harvard professor Werner Sollors, coined the term ‘miscegenation’ and perpetrated ‘the great miscegenation hoax of 1863.’ Croly was the author of a phony pamphlet that exposed a plan by Lincoln’s party to invade northern bedrooms with black women. Lincoln was forced to defend the party from the contrast. . . Contrast McGuirk’s reactionary bile with the views of Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin Party. he told a U.C.-Berkeley audience about the renting of the alliance between the Irish and the blacks who worked on southern plantations by slave masters, who turned them against each other. When Gerry Adams visited the United States, he stopped off to see the late Rosa Parks to thank her for inspiring the Irish movement
What seems to motivate this passage, and others like it, is a sense of resentment. McGuirk and other Irish-Americans should know better than to disparage African Americans because the Irish themselves were thought of as less than white by more powerful white ethnic groups. Racial history in this interpretation would seem to demand that McGuirk and other white ethnics follow the example set by--of all people--the leader of Sinn Féin. However, the problem with McGuirk's racial caricatures is not that they are made by an Irishman, but that they are simply wrong on any scale of justice that tends to the universal and not the tribal. And so, Reed leaves us with the minority prayer. Please don't let Nicole Brown Simpson's killers be black and please don't let O. J. Simpson's critics be anything less than pure symbols of White Anglo Saxon Protestant Patriarchy.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Who is the Black Panther? (2006)

Title: Black Panther: Who is the Black Panther?
Author: Reginald Hudlin & John Romita, Jr.
Publisher: Marvel Entertainment
Price: Free (Library) 

Inspired by the decolonization of Africa, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced a new character into the pages of The Fantastic Four in July of 1966. The first prominent black superhero to appear in American comics, the Black Panther was really T'Challa, a costumed adventurer who ruled the fictitious African state of Wakanda. Since his introduction, Black Panther has attracted a solid fan base, but he has been most successful as a supporting character. Whether this is because comic book fans are reluctant to pick up a book that stars an African character is a subject much debated by comic creators and fans alike.

Reginald Hudlin's Who is the Black Panther? (2006) is an attempt to both streamline the character's storyline and to make him a more prominent figure in Marvel's publishing line. In the back of the collection, Marvel has provided readers with what I assume is Hudlin's pitch for the series. Here, Hudlin establishes that he wants his run to be an iconic version of the character--something that Marvel could base a film franchise upon. (In 2009, the series would serve as the basis for a cartoon on NET). No doubt, this was a smart move given Marvel's recent forays into film. In his attempt to define the character for his editors, Hudlin writes:
The Black Panther is the Black Captain America. He's the embodiment of the ideals of a people. As Americans, we feel good when we read Captain America because he reminds us of the potential of how good American can be, if, of course, we have the conviction to live by the principles the country was founded on. As a black person, the Black Panther should represent the fulfillment of the potential of the Motherland.
For the most part, Hudlin succeeds in writing the "movie version" of the character. Who is the Black Panther? has a strong narrative thrust that would play well on the big screen. Of course, Hudlin is assisted admirably by veteran comic book artist John Romita, Jr., who uses wide panels to reproduce the experience of cinema. In the first chapter of the collection, the pair effectively defines not only who the Black Panther is, but what makes the nation of Wakanda so significant. Unlike the rest of Africa, Wakanda is a technologically advanced society that has never been conquered by another nation. They have always remained free of colonial rule. Hudlin's plot hinges on whether or not that will remain the case.

At times, Hudlin and Romita are capable of subtlety. When the United States plans an invasion of Wakanda and the assassination of T'Challa, we can see a sense of conflict on the face of Secretary of State Ms. Reese (an obvious surrogate for Condoleezza Rice). She is simultaneously disgusted by a racist U. S. military culture, proud of Wakanda's accomplishments, and perhaps, willing to attack the nation simply to prove her patriotic bona fides. Similarly, Hudlin is also willing to showcase the xenophobia of the Wakandas whose technological superiority manifests itself in arrogance and disdain for the outside world.

However, more often than not Hudlin goes too far in his effort to establish T'Challa and Wakanda as real "bad@asses" (his word, not mine). Instead of simply invading Wakanda, the U. S. covertly funds a crack team of super villain mercenaries. Super villains are a natural fit for any superhero series, but Hudlin goes too far by making the villains representative of Africa's colonizers: Belgium, Britain, France, and the United States. This is heavy handed and in the case of the U. S., not entirely accurate historically . Even here, Hudlin doesn't leave well enough alone and also attempts to indict Christianity's role in colonization of Africa. Thus, Hudlin creates a Church conspiracy (shades of The Da Vinci Code) in order to indict Christianity's troubling past in Africa. In doing so, he makes the British villain, the Black Knight, the Church's sworn servant. Readers are conveniently supposed to forget that England has been a Protestant nation since the 16th century. And then, at the end, there are the zombie cyborg marines whom T'Challa scares off with a few words. Is that too much? I suppose that depends on your sensibilities.

All and all, Hudlin's Black Panther is an engaging read, but at times its politics are--if not black and white--capable of only four colors.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

A. O. Scott on "Insider Baseball"

Today's New York Times, featured a film essay by A. O. Scott entitled "Inside Knowledge for All You Outsiders." The piece deals with a recent spat of films that trade on what A. O. Scott calls, borrowing a phrase from Joan Didion, "insider baseball."  Given my interest in media literacy and my last post on The Public Burning, I thought I would link the article here and write a little bit about it.

According to Scott, films like Moneyball, The Ideas of March, Contagion, and television shows like The Wire succeed because they reveal to readers the trade secrets of managing a baseball team, running a political campaign, controlling the outbreak of a plague, or policing Baltimore's inner city. Whereas in real life the technical knowledge one needs to be a baseball manager, political operative, public health specialist, or even a cop remain obscure, these films make these things visible. Scott argues that these films reassure audiences. A the same time that they demonstrate the mechanics of these professions, they also reveal that the people who run our sports, political, medical, and legal establishments are just like you and me. Scott writes:

And this is the ultimate reassurance offered by the insider narrative. Unlike the paranoid conspiracy thrillers that are their fraternal twins, inside-baseball movies do not turn on hidden agendas and concealed motives. On the contrary, once you pierce the veil of illusion you find regular people doing their jobs: the schlubby campaign managers played by Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Ides of March”; Laurence Fishburne’s Centers for Disease Control bureaucrat in “Contagion”; the brokers, bankers and analysts who scurry through “Margin Call” trying to stem the tide of catastrophe. Those guys are running the world, but they’re also just doing their jobs, which consist of trying to wrest some temporary order out of the chaos of life. It helps to be good at math.

Scott is dead on  when he writes that the "insider baseball" film is the fraternal twin on the conspiracy thriller. So much of modern political and social life runs along an axis that moves from the paranoid conspiracy to the reassuring personality. After all, given that specialized knowledge is needed to participate in most modern institutions of power, it seems natural that one would imagine that these same institutions are nothing if not conspiratorial. In the absence of understanding and knowledge, we imagine the worst. Conversely, given the lack of hard information, it also seems natural that one would turn a reassuring personality who one can instinctively trust to do the right thing.

In Scott's account, the "insider baseball" film fall away from technical explanations and moves to focusing on personalities. I take it for Scott this is less a problem and more an inevitably. These films are supposed to reassure audiences and it's hard to imagine popular narratives that do not seem centrally focused on real life characters. But there is the potential for a problem here.

In my last post, I argued that Robert Coover's Public Burning revealed Nixon  to be "a man torn by conflicting sentiments, but ultimately . . . a man [willing to] do anything to seize power." While this is a strength of the novel, I wonder if this is not also it's weakness, a weakness also potentially shared by the films that Scott describes. When we get distracted by personality, we tend to forget about policy and the technical details which effect us far more than whether Moneyball's Billy Beane is boastful or Richard Nixon is deceitful. At the same time, I find it difficult to say that particular human quirks are unimportant. People defy logical explanation all the time. The trick when focusing on personality, and I think Garry Wills does this beautifully in Nixon Agonistes, is that it must stand in for the whole of a system of thinking. A personality or character, as Georg Lukacs argues in The Historical Novel, is the product of historical circumstances. When authors and filmmakers look at personality, we should not accept the "ho-hum" response that such-and-such is just like you and me, but we should ask how that personality reveals some fundamental value about the time that the film depicts.

Friday, October 07, 2011

The Public Burning (1977)

Title: The Public Burning
Author: Robert Coover
Publisher: Grove Atlantic Press
Price: $3.95 (Larklaugh Signature Books)
LCC:  PS3553.O633 N5

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked.

--Bob Dylan

In the middle of Robert Coover's The Public Burning, Michael Rosenberg watches a Red Sox game on television. The program is interrupted by a special message and he hears that the execution of his parents--the alleged Soviet spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg--will go on as scheduled. The news is naturally upsetting but it also causes young Michael to think about the mysteries of television. "He feels like there are two of himself loose in the world," Coover writes, "one who likes to play baseball with friends and come home to Mom and Dad and sometimes push his little brother around, and another one on television and in the newspapers who is threatening to eat the other one up." It is this disconnect between the image and the real that drives Coover's narrative. As I argued in my dissertation, a major trend in postmodern texts is that they endeavor to teach readers how to read their media. The Public Burning is well within this tradition. Coover instructs readers to note how the television image is both hollow and hallowed.

Although Critique has produced two special issues dedicated to the novel, The Public Burning does not occupy the central place in the canon of postmodernism that it deserves. I suspect this is because of the timidity of publishers rather than the oversight of critics. Completed in 1975, The Public Burning did not see print until 1977 because publishers were afraid that the novel would be the subject of multiple lawsuits. Although it quickly shot to the bestseller list, it never went to paperback and would be out of print for over twenty years. What was unique about The Public Burning, and what presented potential legal liabilities, is that the novel is partly narrated by Richard Nixon. Although Coover's Nixon is a fictional construct, his publishers were afraid that they could be sued for libel. Neither Nixon nor any of the other historical personages represented in the novel ever filed suit. Since Hustler Magazine v. Falwell it seems that this line of legal reasoning has been extinguished. Fiction may insult, the court said, but it cannot be construed as libel.

Coover's novel is an epic counter-history of the Rosenberg's last three days before their execution on June 19, 1953. Rather than hold to the historical record, Coover turns the execution into a public spectacle in Times Square, an entertainment extravaganza orchestrated by the best talents of Hollywood and Broadway. By imposing these fictitious elements onto the historical record, Coover enables readers to see the executions as a "show trial," one that was intended to have significant spiritual significance. Coover's America is like ours, but he makes literal the Manichaeism of the Cold War. Uncle Sam is a real character in the novel and the sitting president is his Incarnation, fighting on the forces of light. However, America is bedeviled by the forces of the Phantom, a specter that haunts America and provides the nation with a vague sense of unease. The Rosenbergs serve as scapegoats and their execution is intended to serve as an exorcism, ridding the nation of the dreaded Phantom.

Coover's novel also attempts to go past Nixon's media persona and explores the man behind the public mask. In his portrayal of the then-Vice President, Coover seems to draw heavily on Garry Wills's Nixon Agonistes (1969). Wills's thesis was that Nixon was in fact a classic liberal, a self-made man who was constantly in competition with his fellow man and was therefore resentful of others' success. In turn, Nixon came to power by marshaling similar resentments of the electorate. Capitalizing on this thesis, Coover depicts a Nixon who sees himself in constant competition not only with President Eisenhower and a then-Senator Jack Kennedy, but with the Rosenbergs themselves. However, Nixon also identifies with the Rosenbergs' childhood poverty and is torn between feeling better than them and sympathizing with their current plight. Of course, Coover's take on Nixon is far more satiric than Will's more rational analysis. By the end of the novel, Nixon will prove Bob Dylan right. Dick Nixon will address the nation with his pants down, but only after Ethel Rosenberg scrawls a message on his ass in red lipstick. We come to understand Nixon as a man torn by conflicting sentiments, but ultimately he is a man who will do anything to seize power.

"The Public Burning" was not Coover's first choice for the novel's title. However, he said he reconciled himself to his editor's suggestion when he discovered its meaning shifted if the word burning was read as a noun or a verb. The title can either refer to the public electrocution of the Rosenbergs or it can refer to the figurative burning of the public itself. A novel that describes the extensive mediation of American life and politics, the novel would seem to suggest that the very concept of the public has been lost to us.