Friday, December 30, 2011

My Year in Books 2011

Greetings Narrative Reviewers to our first annual "My Year in Books" segment. Here you'll find a complete listing of my yearly non-academic or semi-academic reading and back links to the appropriate entries. I set out this year wanting to read the following twelve books:

1. One Russian Novel
2. Don DeLillo, Libra
3. E. L. Doctorow, Waterworks
4. William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
5. Frank Norris, The Octopus
6. Philip Roth, The Human Stain
7. Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan 
8. Zadie Smith, The Book of Other People 
9. Mark Twain, Autobiography vol. 1
10. John Updike, The Rabbit Series
11. Gore Vidal, Myron
12. Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome


Out of these twelve, I finished 8. My apologies to Don DeLillo, Frank Norris, Mark Twain, John Updike, and Russian novelists everywhere. Although I did not complete all the books I set out to read for last year, I did manage to read quite a bit. Here's what I read (for fun) in 2011:


Aimee Bender, The Girl with the Flammable Skirt

William Wells Brown, Clotel or, The President's Daughter

Heinrich Boll, The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum
  •  The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum answers the question, "What if Law & Order were actually well thought out police procedurals?"
J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
  • Sparse in language but dense in emotional resonance, Waiting for the Barbarians presents the West with a millennial judgement upon its soul. 
Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image

Robert Coover, The Public Burning 
    Joan Didion, Democracy
    Joan Didion, El Salvador
    • In both fiction and fact, Joan Didion shows us that democracy occurs not at the center but on the edges.
    E. L. Doctorow, Water Works
    • A postmodern thriller of old New York. It doesn't aspire to the greatness of Doctorow's The Book of Daniel or Ragtime, but it's a fun page. 
    Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot


    Dave Eggers, The Wild Things

    William Faulkner, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem 
    William Faulkner, Sanctuary 
    • Honestly, why do I keep on trying to read Faulkner. 
    William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
    • The clipped nature of noir dialogue might just have been preparing us all for Twitter.
    F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Pat Hobby Stories

    Reginald Hudlin & John Romita, Jr., Black Panther: Who is Black Panther? 

    Henry James, The American
    Henry James, Daisy Miller
    Henry James, The Europeans
    Henry James, Washington Square
    • OK, none of these were read purely for fun, but I'm finally developing an interest in James after seven years of grad school, a place where everyone talked about how great James was.
    Gish Jen, Mona in the Promised Land

    Murray Kempton, Part of Our Time: Some Ruins of the Thirties
    • Kempton gives the arguments of Partisan Review a popular sheen.
    Michelle Latiolais, Widow: Stories

    D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

    Scott McCloud, Zot!

    Norman Mailer, The Prisoner of Sex
    • Did Norman Mailer hate women? Probably. But if this is him at his worst, it mostly consists of him doing anal retentive, literary critical hair splitting.
    Toni Morrison, Sula

    Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father

    Ismet Pricic, Shards

    Philip Roth, The Professor of Desire
    Philip Roth, The Human Stain
    • Roth's book is stronger for its statement about African American and Jewish relations than it is about the cultural politics surrounding the Clinton-Lewinski affair.
    Ishmael Reed, Juice!

    Ishmael Reed, Japanese by Spring

    Ishmael Reed, Mixing it Up 

    Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan
    • Those of you have not read Shteyngart are missing out. At the very least you should subscribe to his Twitter fed. 
    David Simon, Homicide

    I. B. Singer, Gimpel the Fool
    • It's easy to mistake this story as nostalgic, but its better to think of it as elegiac.  

    Zadie Smith, The Book of Other People
    • A remarkably consistent short story anthology. I enjoyed almost every story here.

    Craig Thompson, Blankets

    Lionel Trilling, The Journey Abandoned
    • Although I like Trilling's criticism, his fiction really is the work of a snob. Check out page 101 for the most spurious comparison that I read this year.

    George W. S. Trow, My Pilgrims Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998
    George W. S. Trow, In The Context of No Context
    • Trow has  a great style, but his arguments can be a bit cranky.

    Kurt Vonnegut, Look at the Birdie
    • Normally I'm not the biggest fan of Vonnegut's short fiction, but these previously unpublished works were great little stories.

    Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome
    • Other people's appreciation for this book prevented me from enjoying it fully.

    Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
    Oscar Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray
    • Although this has a fairly conventional movie-monster type plot, it has enough twists that it surprised me. 

    Gary Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg
    • A very solid rhetorical account of the Gettysburg address. 

    Richard Wright, Lawd Today

    Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X

    Dan Zevin, The Day I Turned Uncool: Confessions of a Reluctant Grown-up


    So, what did you read?

    Friday, December 23, 2011

    Mona in the Promised Land (1996)

    Author: Gish Jen
    Title: Mona in the Promised Land
    Publisher: Vintage
    Price: Free from Community Reading Exchange Shelf
    Book Put in its Place: Old issue of PMLA
    LCC: PS3560.E474 M66 1996

    The 1980s. The San Fernando Valley-- Mom, Dad, and I have are going to dinner at Road to China. It is a small, family-owned restaurant across the parking lot from where my father owns a muffin bakery. We have just gone to see a movie. It is Christmas and the all diners are Jews like ourselves. While our goyishe neighbors are celebrating the birth of their Lord, we are celebrating a tradition of our own. It might not be the sort of thing that Teyve would sing about, but it means something to us. The hostess and the waitstaff are all Chinese and are, we presume, possibly erroneously, Buddhist. Most of the cooks and the one busboy are Mexican or El Salvadorean immigrants. We don't think to ask how they feel about working on Christmas. If we did, I presume we would feel sorry for them. We don't work or go to school on our High Holidays after all. As an adult, I'll learn that some Jews eat Chinese food because it constitutes what Jordan Rosenblum terms "safe treyfe." Chinese food may not be Kosher but it becomes a safe way to develop cosmopolitan tastes and to interact with the society as a whole. To this I would add that Chinese food is "safe treyfe" because it allows Jews to interact with the wider community while not risking assimilation. As a Jew, you can eat all the Chinese food you want, but no one is going to mistake you for a Chinese person.

    Gish Jen's novel Mona in the Promised Land describes this assimilation story from the perspective of the the Chinese, the  so-called "New Jews." In language that modulates between a Chinese-inflected English, a vaudeville Yiddish dialect, and conventional tight readerly prose, Jen tells us of the story of her titular character.  Mona is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and is trying to find her place in America. Rather than assimilate completely or remain culturally Chinese like her parents, Mona finds the best way to be both an American and Chinese is, oddly enough, to covert to Judaism. For being Jewish is perhaps the easiest ways to be a "model minority."And thus, Mona begins to volunteer at the local temple's suicide teen hotline, learn her prayers, and attend confirmation classes.  Of course, such a decision does not go over well with her parents. Upwardly-mobile Ralph and Helen work hard at the Waffle House they own. They want to make it in America--the Promised Land--but they are more reluctant to modify their Chinese traditions. To be Chinese means to stay Chinese, to know one's place. Mona realizes this most concretely when she views an exhibit of Chinese portraiture. Only the faces of the monks are distinct; the peasants, merchants, and other members of the society are distinguished more by their clothes than anything else. While Mona's mostly-Jewish friends believe that if the peasants had commissioned the painting it would look more differently, Mona quietly disagrees. She knows that they find great comfort in knowing exactly what their role in society is. Mona, however, no longer feels comfortable inhabiting the strict role of "good Chinese daughter" that her parents have laid before her.

    While the novel plays at the "identity  novel" that folks like Amy Hungerford have identified, ultimately it's just as interested in the "marriage" plot as Jeffrey Eugenides recent novel. Instead of meeting those expectations that her parents lay before her, Mona finds herself increasingly laying before Seth Mandel. Seth is a product of the 1960s if ever there was one. He is almost a stereotype. Having a high draft number, Seth has put off college indefinitely to find himself. Mostly, this means reading continental philosophy, volunteering at the temple, and living in a teepee set up in his parents backyard. At first look, the novel's love story may seem to be the sort of thing one finds on the back of a Soy Vay bottle, but their romance is complicated not only by Mona's family but also by the tumultuous politics of the 1960s. Indeed, Seth is only capable of wooing Mona through a process of identity transformation that is even more unusual than Mona's own conversion.

    Mona in the Promised Land is a romance in the tradition of Jane Austen. Like every good Austen novel, Jen gives us the happy ending we all want. It does so by weaving together all the loose threads in the tapestry of America. Shouldn't we all hope to be so lucky?

    Happy holidays, everyone. Tell us what you're reading over Christmas and Hanukkah?

    Friday, December 16, 2011

    Goodbye to all that or, The Marriage Plot (2011)

    Title: The Marriage Plot
    Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
    Publisher: FSG
    LCC: PS3555.U4 M37 2011
    Price: $15.49

    And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
    And you may find yourself in another part of the world
    And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
    And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
    And you may ask yourself-Well...How did I get here?

    -Talking Heads

    Or not.

    Not too long ago, I filed the paperwork to get my Ph.D. in English. It was an anticlimatic event. I went to the basement of the administration building, walked into grad division, and turned in half a dozen or so forms that stated that I was now fit to be called Dr. ASK with all the rights and privileges thereto pertaining. The man behind the front counter quietly examined my paperwork and when he was done he stoically wished me congratulations. For the sake of catharsis, I decided to ring the bell on the counter. It brought me a slight thrill but the man behind the counter looked annoyed. Some months later now I find my job prospects a bit dim and I'm sure the Stoic behind the counter is till gainfully employed. This is not another post imploring the young to skip out on grad school. No, this a post on Jeffrey Eugenides's new novel The Marriage Plot. I mention my own situation because I find that his characters, all recent BAs who are strong candidates for graduate study, remind me of myself and yet seem so distant from where I am right now in my life. And like any good reader of realist fiction, I cannot help but wonder what they should do. Should they make the same mistake choice that I did?

    This of course is not the immediate question that Eugenides sets out to answer for himself. Rather, the question he poses is this: After feminism and postmodernism, is the 19th-century marriage plot still a viable vehicle for telling stories? At one point, Eugenides has a character, a crusty English professor stretch the point even further. As the narrator tells us: 
    In Saunders's opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success i life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. . . Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel.
    Again, can we have modern love and the Victorian novel today? The nature of the question seems to be a sea change for Eugenides. His first novel, The Virgin Suicides (1998), told the tragic story of the Lisbon girls. While committed to mimetic fidelity the novel also reflected a postmodern epistemology. The boys narrating the story obsesses over the minutia of the Lisbon girls' lives, but they are incapable of formulating any coherent narrative about their successive suicides. While postmodern literary theory is something that Eugenides new characters talk about, its hardly an influence on the construction of the novel. The Marriage Plot ventures out into Franzen-like realist territory, ditching the postmodern epistemological question altogether.

    With this in mind, Eugenides gives readers a classic romantic triangle. At the center is Madeline Hanna, the privileged daughter of academic Brahmins. Her family is so WASP-y that they all have names that sound like they came from an Elvish naming dictionary. An English major in love with Victorian literature, Maddy finds that life becomes decidedly more complicated when she takes an upper-division class in theory. This class acts as more than a nod to the setting: Brown University in the early 1980s. It also marks a break in Maddy's intellectual and romantic life. Although she resists theory (get it? get it?), reading De Man, Derrida, and particularly Barthes alters her simple appreciation of romantic literature.

    The class also introduces her to Leonard Bankhead, her chief romantic interest throughout the novel. Bankhead's family is of "old Portland" stock and like a lot of old families they are both financially-strapped and dysfunctional in a Byzantine sort of way. However, what Bankhead lacks in financial resources, he makes up in other ways. Leonard is good looking, charismatic, and brilliant.  He bats out twenty page papers on his typewriter with such grace and clarity that he is an ace student in both his philosophy and biology classes. However, the same things that make Bankhead brilliant also make him a deeply flawed character. Leonard has a Promethean sense of superiority and his sparks of manic brilliance are more set off by deep and profound depressive episodes.

    Enter Bankhead's rival: Mitchell Grammaticus. Mitchell is a religious seeker, a youthful devotee of Franny and Zooey who hopes to see Christ in the fat lady even though he feels cynically toward most people. Unlike Leonard, Mitchell lacks the mojo to seal the deal. Mitchell and Maddy were once on the precipice of becoming romantically involved, but unsure of himself Mitchell blows it. He quickly finds himself an unwilling friend and his love for her sours into resentment. After graduation, Mitchell decides to trek through Europe and help Mother Theresa in India, partly to avoid the Regan recession and partly on a religious quest. Despite his seeking, he can't seem to help how he feels for Maddy.

    Of course, while the triangle is classic there are other elements which are contemporary. Characters have sex before marriage and these scenes are described in full, if not pornographic, detail. Furthermore, the novel breaks from the typical Victorian novel in that it has three different perspectives. This makes the novel seem a little lazy in terms of plotting. At first, episodes alternate from those that focus on Maddy to those that focus on Mitchell. Only much later in the novel, do we have any focus on Leonard other than as the object of Maddy's affection. Given the fact that Maddy falls hard for Leonard early in the novel, the effect of this plotting seems to suggest that, in due time, we will find Maddy and Mitchell in each others arms. However, Eugenides manages to make the marriage plot work for him on modern terms. He lets us think that we're getting the easy romantic story that we're used to--romantic love will conquer all and Mitchell and Maddy will fall in love--and we enjoy it while it's happening. But he also puts a modern twist on this, giving us just enough novelty to show that the marriage plot itself offers some new possibilities and that the novel isn't dead yet after all.

    But I know what you're thinking. None of this matters. The real question is should they go to grad school? In a recent interview, Eugenides suggested that there was something special about where his characters were in their lives. He said that they were adults, fully formed, but that they were still malleable enough that books could be profound to them. Maddy's life is changed when she reads Roland Barthes The Lover's Discourse and Mitchell devours theology and religious testimonies. I know just how much literature changed my life when I was in college. I even took up a religious studies double major because Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that if you wanted to write you needed to know more than just literature. In grad school, that relationship to literature became obviously more complicated, but I'm glad that it did get more complicated and that I got to read so much more than I had before.

    So, should they go?

    I don't know. Maddy, probably. She's got the connections and by the end of the novel, a publication.

    Friday, December 09, 2011

    Japanese By Spring (1993)

    Title: Japanese by Spring
    Author: Ishmael Reed
    Publisher: Penguin
    LCC: PS3568.E365 J35 1993

    Leslie Fiedler did not think much of the campus novel. In an essay titled "The War Against the Academy," Fiedler dismissed the genre as minor and wrote that such novels "tend to fall into self-pity or self-explication, since they are inevitably histories of defeat, a defeat which the institution the writer berates may consider his, but he asserts. . . is the institutions." Fiedler noted that the campus novel was a place for writers to vent their frustration at campus administration and interdepartmental politics while continuing to cash their checks. Also, he didn't think the books were funny enough. Neither Mary McCarthy's Groves of Academe, Randall Jarrell's Pictures of an Institution, nor John Barth's The End of the Road could make him laugh. These were just acts of catharsis for their authors. 

    Luckily, Japanese by Spring breaks this mold and manages to deliver when it comes to comedy. Still, the question remains: what the hell happened to Ishmael Reed at Berkeley? One imagines quite a bit, considering he was denied tenure in 1977 and remained a lecturer at the university until he retired in 2005. Reed's focus in Japanese in Spring concerns not his individual professional advancement but the role of multiculturalism on college campus throughout the 1980s and 1990s. One would think, given his association with the Before Columbus Foundation, that Reed would support multiculturalism's celebration on college campuses. But Reed is suspicious of academic multiculturalism and writes about his experience with it in Japanese by Spring:  
    Ishmael Reed attended a meeting of American Cultures Fellows at the University of California at Berkeley. After reading the Bernstein proposal, he thought that he'd find a room full of brothers and sisters. He and one other black men were the only "people of color" present. Those who were benefiting the most from multiculturalism, in this room, were white women. One white women asked another, who was addressing the group, her advice about what to do if a 'third world' student challenged her authority to teach multicultural course without her having experienced oppression in her background. She was advised to tell her students that multicultural people weren't the only people who were oppressed. She said that an unwanted sibling had it just as bad as a "person of color." Hmmmmmmm, Ishmael Reed thought. Gerald Ford was an unwanted sibling and he became president of the United States.
    In other words, Reed sees multiculturalism as an academic hustle. 

    With its focus on multiculturalism, the canon wars, and the culture wars, Japanese by Spring seems on its surface to be very 1992. Multiculturalism is taken for granted today, the culture wars have become election-year only skirmishes, and the competing sides of the canon debate declared a truce when they decided to teach the conflict rather than reenact it in the classroom. Even though Japanese by Spring may seem superficially to belong to another era, I would argue that it has much to teach us about the contemporary struggles facing the humanities, particularly departments that teach foreign languages.

    Reed's campus novel centers on Benjamin "Chappie" Puttbutt, a black junior professor who teaches at the mostly white Jack London College. Unlike Reed, Chappie is an academic striver, a man on a mission to get tenure. As such, he spends his time accommodating anyone who can advance him in his career. For Chappie this means being the "intellectual houseboy" of white conservatives. In the media and in his books, Chappie blames white racism on the fact that African Americans are just too forceful in demanding their rights. Chappie also accommodates the racist sentiments of his neo-Nazi students, despite the fact that they have been linked to beating the college's few black students and have published a derogatory cartoon about him in their newspaper Kikes and Koons. Again, Chappie excuses their behavior and hopes that doing so will help his tenure decision. (Bass, Jr., Chappie's main antagonist,  is the son of Jack London College's primary financial backers).

    Despite his appallingly reactionary views on race, Chappie also adopts an aggressive feminist stance in order to court the university's powerful feminist bloc. When one of them asks why he is learning Japanese in his spare time, he tells them it is because he wants to teach female court poets in one of his classes. However, Chappie, always planning for his academic future, is learning Japanese because he expects  the East to rise up and dominate the United States' economy and its academy. (Remember, this was 1992 and America was in thrall of Japan bashing and did not yet know about the "lost decade").

    Chappie proves unsuccessful at divining the ideological currents of the campus and looses his bid for tenure. Despite the fact that he is black, conservative, and a New Critic too boot (a rare find indeed), he is simply not minority enough. Instead, his tenure track position goes to a black lesbian. However, taking Japanese lessons does prove to be a good investment. In a stunning reversal of fortune, the campus administration is thrown out of office and they are replaced by none other than Chappie's Japanese teacher, Mr. Yamato. Yamato immediately reverses Chappie's tenure decision and puts him in charge of reorganizing the campus curriculum and firing faculty reluctant to change their ways. Suddenly, the $245 he paid for Japanese lessons seems to be a very good investment.

    The section detailing Chappie's revenge is perhaps the funnest part of the novel, but it is also the most instructive given the current funding crisis in the humanities. Yamato has Chappie reorganize the campus in such a way to satisfy the new president's Japanese ethnocentrism. Thus, Yamato wants all the ethnic studies programs, the history department, and the English department all folded up into something he calls "European Studies," a move that refuses to see the differences between peoples or even disciplines. Western philosophy, Yamato tells him, could be covered in a week. If Jack London College was previously a bastion of ethnic-feel goodism for whites, Reed shows what it would be like if Jack London's fears of Asia came true. Essentially, the college trades one form of race supremacy for the other; the department titles shift, some faculty get fired, but the underlying structure of power remains the same.

    Things eventually go too far on campus, and Chappie eventually changes his mind about Yamato when he discovers that the new president is part of a right wing paramilitary outfit. Yamato's brief reign, nonetheless, shows the relationship between what Pierre Bourdieu calls the field of power and cultural capital, or what we might otherwise call "the curriculum." As Bourdieu argues in The Field of Cultural Production, the art that we consider valuable is always tacitly approved by those who govern society. Certain art works achieve high status because they are liked by the right people and because they may espouse values convenient for those with economic or political power. What we see in Yamato's tenure as president of Jack London College is the purposeful rearrangement of the curriculum to fit the values of Yamato's nationalist organization.

    Although it does not do so directly, Reed's satire of campus multiculturalism speaks directly to the current state of foreign language and literature programs in the United States. Much was made last year of the proposed plan by the University of Albany to close down its foreign language departments. Such plans have become increasingly common on American campuses, but Albany proved to be especially alarming because it was a Ph.D.-granting institution that had global ambitions. Many schools have phased out their foreign-language majors and have done away with teaching foreign literature. What remains at many colleges and universities are introductory language instruction. At risk, of course, is the ability to perpetuate advanced knowledge of these languages given that there will be few instructors in America with the skills to actually teach someone else the language. While there has been an upsurge in students taking Chinese and Arabic, European languages have seen their funding sources dry up as Europe, along with the Cold War, seems to fade in the popular memory. All of this should seem short sighted, of course. The current debt crisis will have an enormous impact on the American economy and it might be a good idea to have a few Americans around who can read and speak fluent German (the language of the creditors) and Greek (the language of the debtors). Achtung αγόρια και κορίτσια!

    Why are languages so vulnerable to being eliminated? It is not because they are too expensive. Although language departments produce few majors, they bring in money through tuition and they have relatively low overhead. As Christopher Newfield discusses in Unmaking of the Public University it costs a lot to operate a biology laboratory, but it costs very little to run a Spanish classroom. Language programs are vulnerable for two reasons. The first, surprisingly, comes down to questions of multiculturalism. In the United States you can cut a program that teaches German language and culture or a Classics Department, because there is not a sizable German or Greek population that will treat such cuts as an affront to their culture. You lose no political points outside the profession for cutting these programs. The second reason, and by far the more important, is that the humanities in general, and foreign language departments in particular, have difficulty in translating themselves into the only type of value currently recognized by the powers that be: market value. As universities lose public funding and are increasingly subsidized by corporations, they have increasingly took on the qualities of a for-profit private institution. The invisible hand of the market is God and it guides curriculum decisions. Business schools are praised as income generators for the school and job creators for the community and free copies of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged are handed out to young, impressionable MBAs. Medical schools are useful. Again, they make money and doctors tend to be rich so we want more of them. But why do you need someone to read Goethe in the original when everyone speaks English? Why read Borges when you learned how to order off the menu and ask for directions to the bathroom in Spanish 1A? How can I turn an understanding of The Iliad if not into cold hard cash, at least into finance capital? Of course, as Newfield makes clear such a view is incredibly shallow; even in capitalist terms its incredibly short-sighted. Teaching students to interpret texts, and I would add here foreign language texts in particular, is an investment in human capital. Students who know how to communicate in multiple languages are an asset, particularly as the economy goes global and  financial power becomes decentered. Even the best English ain't gonna cut it.

    However, it's also the case that every language contains within it a certain way of looking at the world. It's no mistake that the French only have a masculine word for "nurse." That says something about the French, non? It is ultimately through language that Reed builds an argument for multiculturalism. At the height of the Yamato regime, Chappie exerts his revenge on Prof. Crabtree. Under the old administration, Crabtree had voted against Chappie's tenure case. Being a part of the English Department's Milton-fraction, Crabtree had opposed Chappie's early, black nationalist work on Shakespeare's Othello. In retribution, Chappie does not fire Crabtree, but he makes him teach Yoruba. Learning Yoruba and learning more about the culture transforms Crabtree's understanding of his own culture and leaves him to moderate his previous stances on the superiority of European literature. In a sense, and a doubt Reed would agree with me, multiculturalism reproduces the best impulses of Matthew Arnold's educational project. Multiculturalism exposes Crabtree to the "sweetness and light" of other cultures and makes him more accepting of others. By learning the language and cultures  of supposedly "savage" peoples, Crabtree is finally civilized.

    Wednesday, December 07, 2011

    Zot and Geography

    "Jenny said, when she was just five years old
    There was nothin' happening at all
    Every time she puts on the radio
    There was nothin' goin' down at all, not at all
    Then, one fine mornin', she puts on a New York station
    You know, she couldn't believe what she heard at all
    She started shakin' to that fine, fine music
    You know, her life was saved by rock'n'roll."

    --Lou Reed, "Rock'n' Roll" 

    In my last post, I wrote glowingly about Scott McCloud's Zot! (1987-1991). I'm not about to change my mind about what I think about the merits of the book, nor am I going to retract my belief that mainstream superhero books have a lot to learn from the lessons of Zot! However, I would be remiss if I did not also share my thoughts about how geography structures the book as a whole.

    Last time I wrote about Zot's interest in geography and world-building. Clearly, the series juxtaposes the futuristic and utopian urban environment of Zot's planet and the humdrum planet that Jenny lives on to make its point about futurity and fantasy. Zot's planet stands-in for fantasy and romance while Jenny's suburban existence represents a Cheever-esque realism. Taken on its own terms, there seems nothing wrong to me on how McCloud differentiates these worlds in terms of genre.

    However, Zot! produces another set of geographic binaries that is more problematic. McCloud places in opposition the suburbs of New York where Jenny lives in and the urban-core of Manhattan. Jenny, like the central figure of Lou Reed's song "Rock'n'Roll" is a suburban kid, but for her the city doesn't promise the musical kicks of the AM station or the darker thrills that Reed depicts in "I'm Waiting for My Man." Instead the city remains alien, a violent place marred by crime, institutionalized dysfunction, and racial antagonism. Where Zot's Earth is paradise, and Jenny's suburb is merely mundane, the city is a dystopia.

    While McCloud expresses far more antipathy toward the city than Reed, both are united in that they depict the city as primarily a zone that is made distinct from the suburbs by its racial otherness. For Reed, New York City is the cite of soul-enriching black music and, more problematically, Harlem drug dealers. McCloud too fixates on inner-city crime, but he finds no pleasure in it.What makes Manhattan dystopic is that it remains, essentially, racially other and that confronting this difference seems to be the only thing that seriously harms Zot, both physically and emotionally.  

    Zot's first defeat at the hands of the city comes when he attempts to stop a mugging in New York City. All to predictably the mugger is a black teenager (with an odd karate headband) and his victim is a white woman. Zot manages to stop the mugging, but things turn for the worse when he is attacked by the black teenager's older, bigger, and stronger accomplices. These gang members beat Zot into the ground and continue to beat him once they've got him there. Zot, normally so full of confidence, has suffered his first real defeat. However, even more disturbing for Zot is when he calls out for help the crowd of strangers around him is too afraid to help. Zot is more devastated by the crowd's lack of intervention then he is by the beat down. Commenting on this particular episode in the collection, McCloud wrote that he was embarrassed by the scene: "The would-be purse-snatcher and his bigger gang member friends were just lazy stock characters of a sort common in  the mainstream titles of the day, and they strike a false note to me now."

    However, in the final chapter of the collection Zot is made again victim to the city's violence. Once Zot is stuck on Jenny's Earth for good, he tries to make a life for himself as an urban superhero. Apparently, the 'burbs are a crime-free zone. Zot finds this task more difficult than he does at home on his own Earth. Instead of being attacked by mad scientists or crazed robots, Zot has to seek crime out and he does not always find it. In these sections, it's obvious that McCloud is satirizing superhero story conventions where the hero manages to always stumble upon a crime in progress. However, Zot does find crime and he nearly dies for the privilege. Assisting the police on a raid on a crack-house, Zot is shot and seriously wounded. While these events happen off-panel, the crack-house and the surrounding crime are clearly racially coded as black.

    If the book's geography betrays a series of assumptions about crime and race, this is pointedly not to say that McCloud is a racist. At times, McCloud tries actively to address the negative implications of racism.In one scene, Zot is riding the subways when he makes a disturbing discovery about residential segregation. Zot is an innocent and on his world racism is not a problem and thus, he cannot fully comprehend why the racial composition of the subway trains shift depending n the neighborhood he is in. This issue too would later embarrass McCloud. In the collection he writes, "When I look at it again, all these years later, I want to reach over and pat my younger self on the head and say: 'Nice effort, but let's try sticking closer to home from now on, okay?" Although this scene seems borrowed from Brother from Another Planet (1984), it seems like an observation that a formerly New York-based cartoonist would be able to make.

    McCloud takes far more of a risk in writing Ronnie, a black kid living in the white 'burbs, and this risk pays off for him far more than the subway scene. Ronnie is the son of a teacher and a hardware store owner and is thus a member of the black middle class that has left the city. However, Ronnie's father would still prefer it if his son's friends were black. McCloud illustrates this compelling in "Clash of Titans" (Zot! #31):

    FATHER: Why do you hang out with those kids, Ronnie? They're not your kind. . . 
    RONNIE: They're my friends. Dad. It's a white town. . .
    FATHER: I know. . . I know. . . it's my fault for raising you here. But do all your friends have to be white? The kids from the city. . .
    RONNIE: I'm scared of those kids, Dad. Those kids hate me. I'm not like them. Can I go to my room now, please?
    Although this scene reproduces the geographic binaries that render the suburbs white and safe and the city dangerous and black, it also complicates those boundaries. There is a hint of honesty here that the stock figures of Manhattan do not have, cannot have as they're written. Ronnie is a fully developed character who must contend with the class aspirations of his family and his father's call for racial solidarity. He must figure out how to be black, while being groomed to wear a white collar. At the same time, Ronnie is trying to figure out who he wants to be and this doesn't always coincide with the professional and social ambitions that his father has for him. Ronnie's story illustrates the strength of the series, but it also points out the deficiencies that are inherent to Zot!'s troubling geographic distinctions.

    Friday, December 02, 2011

    Zot! (1987-1991)


    A backward glance, a compassionate caress. In this panel from Zot!, Scott McCloud depicts his titular hero bidding goodbye to his romantic interest,  Jenny. Zot must return to his own utopian version of Earth, leaving Jenny to deal with her mundane problems back home. If ever there was a panel that could best encapsulate the collected black and white run of Zot! it is this one. If our hero Zot represents anything, he represents hope and the possibility of change. He is the symbol of better times to come. In contrast, Jenny is a figure grounded in realism, a pessimist at heart who hopes to expatriate herself to Zot's idealized world. In this image, the pair embraces and readies themselves for a kiss that will be all too brief. The issues anthologized in Zot! (1987-1991) deal with teenagers struggling with their own problems, wondering where the future will take them and if they will make their dreams come true.

    Scott McCloud is probably better known as a comics aesthetic theorist rather than as a comic book artist.  Although academics have taken issue with some of his more hazy generalizations, Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000), and Making Comics (2005) remain bold efforts to explain how comics work as a medium. Unquestionably, McCloud figured out how comics worked first hand when writing and drawing Zot! in the late 1980s. The book shows the maturation not only of McCloud's characters, but also illustrates the maturation of his artistic talent. While the early stories remain committed exercises in genre, the second half Zot! takes on a quieter more introspective tone that is rarely achieved in today's mainstream, superhero-heavy comic book marketplace.

    The first half of Zot! focuses almost entirely on Jenny's trips to Zot's futuristic Earth of "1964." It is a planet that never ages, but is always making social and technological progress. This fantasy Earth serves McCloud's purposes in two ways. The first way is that it allows McCloud to imagine future problems that may besiege mankind in the future. Thus, Zot's super villain adversaries all represent some future menace that mankind better avoid, whether that be primtivism, hyper-capitalism, technological supremacy, or a dehumanizing aestheticism. While the villains are all a lot of fun, they are not the real strength of the first half. Zot's utopian version of Earth provides him a means to talk about the nature of escapism. Jenny's desire to live on Zot's world is really just a way to avoid her own problems. Rather than go into what these problems are exactly, McCloud only hints at Jenny's difficulties. In the first half of the collection, we learn about these problems only from Jenny's thought bubbles or from her conversation. We experience her dilemmas primarily as baggage that she brings with her on her trips to Zot's world. It's a smart move.

    In the second half of the collection, McCloud changes the tone of the book radically. Doing so was a risk for McCloud and it took some real chutzpah to do so. The second half of the book finds Zot stranded on Jenny's planet, unable to return home or to facilitate her visits to Earth 1964. Zot remains a fantasy figure in these stories, but his potency as a symbol for escape is not what it once was. Instead, McCloud turns his attention to Jenny's other friends and the mundane but painful struggles they have to endure. Each of McCloud's "Earth Stories," thus focuses on a member of Jenny's nerdy and socially-maladjusted clique as they deal with problems such as family substance abuse; divorce and dysfunctional families; homophobia and coming out; and teenage dating and sexuality. Although these stories are more down-to-earth (or down to our Earth, anyway), McCloud is still extending his original theme. The new characters that McCloud introduces are, like Jenny, trying to make sense of the world while at the same time trying to figure out who they want to be. While the science fiction elements of these stories are minimized, the series remains squarely focused on the future.

    One of the aspects of Zot! that made it noteworthy in its day was the influence manga had on McCloud's stories. In the late 1980s, manga was still fairly hard to find in the United States. These days, manga is easily found in chain bookstores and when I walk down the aisle I usually see a good number of teenagers sitting on the floor, working their way through book by book. Manga has also become a stronger visual influence in American comic books as seen in the work of comic book artists like Humberto Ramos, Carlos Pachecho, and Salvador Larroca. However, what seems to be missing in most mainstream comic books today, and what should serve as the real lesson of McCloud's early work, is that character has to come before both marketing and spectacle. McCloud's stories still work today because human emotion remains central to their drama. Reading an issue of Zot! I never get the sense that "nothing-will-be-the-same-again" or "everything-I-knew-was-a-lie," but I do come to understand a character better and I do see the consequences of their simple maturation.