when i went to my alma mater’s graduation yesterday i was overcome with an intense feeling of mixed nostalgia and incredible sadness, because as i watched all of my friends who were only a year younger than i grab their little pieces of paper and pose smilingly it occurred to me that so long as i didn’t visit the campus, so long as i didn’t see this happening, i could have maintained a little fantasy in my head that though i had left, all of these friends of mine would still be there, still doing what they had always done, having the same sorts of parties and petty squabbles we had always had, and in that sense the thing i lost was more the thing i left. but that really isn’t how this works. if i go back in four years i will know nobody except faculty, not that they don’t count for anything, but the ecosystem which i had personally inhabited will be entirely grown over, replaced, the landscape uncanny and new and not for me.
a friend who graduated yesterday observes this morning in her facebook status, as she prepares to move out:
i don’t know how to do this.
and my response, my thought based on my year turned out:
you know how sometimes you have a dream, really good or really bad or just plain vivid, and after you wake up it kind of stays with you? and you think about it a lot while drinking your coffee and eating breakfast but eventually the day goes on and other things happen, the thousand little mundane expectations and frustrations, and you forget about it for a day or two or a week or however long but then, suddenly, for no real reason, you remember it and it seems just as real to you at that moment as it did when you woke up from it and you experience a sensation of heartclenching injustice at the fact that something so real could so easily and quickly become unreal, and yet at the same time leaving you incapable of not feeling what you still know to be its reality? and you do this again and again as time goes on, forgetting and remembering the dream sometimes at random, or sometimes because you want to tell someone the story, or sometimes because simply and frankly it feels good to feel that way, to remember that even if things aren’t real now at one point they were, at one point every dream you ever had was the realest thing that ever happened to you?
Howdy, friends and neighbors! This is the first post in a series of six that will encapsulate A Serious Game, my final senior essay on the power and nature of literature. It’ll be a long read but I hope it will be worth it. Tune in every Friday for the next section — if there have ever been posts I’ve made that deserve the “i hope you like text” and “limitless literary pretension” tags it’s these. I hope you enjoy them!
“Enchanted by its rigor, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chessmasters, not of angels.”
- Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
When I was a child there was a monster called Old Hickory that lived in the woodwork of my grandparents’ house. It was not uncommon for this creature on occasion to reach out and attempt to grab me, my siblings, or my cousins. Though Old Hickory never succeeded — each failed attempt to abscond with me or one of the other children simply ended with a solid thump of wood on a head, knee, or elbow, with the related sobbing one might expect — I spent a significant portion of my childhood absolutely and absurdly terrified of my grandparents’ furniture. Old Hickory was described to us many times, though always with the same grotesque humor, by my grandfather, who had imagined the creature as a sort of joke to explain the normal rough-and-tumble bumps and scrapes children acquire when they are playing in a home filled with a few decades’ worth of accumulated furniture. Whenever one of us blundered face-first into the corner of the couch or the wood paneling of the living room during a game of Red Rover, we would fall down bawling, and my grandfather would chuckle to himself and say, “Old Hickory almost got you.”
I offer this story because it serves well as an introductory metaphor for my concerns in this paper. It is appropriate not because it speaks specifically of literature but it at least sheds personal light on why I concern myself with literature’s study; in broader terms, my anecdote about Old Hickory speaks of narrative and storytelling, of which literature is a primary form. Wayne C. Booth argued that all narrative is a form of rhetoric; narratives ask the reader or listener to understand a certain situation in a certain way. They require us to give assent, and by listening to them, we do. We come to narratives expecting an “efferent transaction” — that is, we are motivated by “a search for some practical guidance, or for some special wisdom, or for some useful ‘carry-over’ into non-fictional life” (Booth 13). We approach even acknowledged fiction as if there is some grain of truth to it, some way it speaks — no matter how elliptically — of the world in which we live.
These truths, when we find them or think we find them, can have serious ramifications on the ways we view and interact with the world. Old Hickory certainly wasn’t real, but my thinking about it was; I responded as if it did exist, I believed in it, and so in that sense, Old Hickory was quite real to my five-year-old self. Not until I grew older did the idea of a terrible creature living in the woodwork of a house become obviously impossible; in retrospect it was clear that my grandfather was simply telling a joke. He’d exaggerated reality, personified the furniture I was constantly slamming my elbows and forehead into, to amuse himself. But my reaction — because I was a child, and prone to magical thinking, and because he was my grandfather, and therefore a direct authority on all aspects of life — was not one of amusement, but fear. What was a game for my grandfather was something dreadfully serious to me.
But I think it is this sort of tension that has drawn me to literature. My earliest memories of stories all involve people close to me — my grandfather, my mother, and my older sister — telling me stories about strange or bizarre entities and events. As I grew older it became obvious that a great number of these stories were improbable if not impossible, and yet I still enjoyed them. Learning to read (and of the obsession with reading that soon followed) seem to intensify the feelings I had while listening to people tell me stories — except now I was in control of what stories were told and when. Even though the things that happened in most of the stories I consumed never factually occurred, or in some cases could never occur, there was an innate pleasure in contemplating the possibility of these worlds and how they were or were not like the one I knew. Reading, and by extension literature, was a game, something I did for fun and personal amusement.
My classes at college stressed the capacities in which literature is a social force — the ways it gives or takes voice, the way it implicitly approves or disapproves of social currents, and so on. This critical atmosphere presented a problem for me. On one hand, I wanted to be able to look at a text and merely play my game with it, interrogate its plausibility, its structure and consistency; on the other hand, I was intrigued by the way in which various people found methods to appropriate something wholly imaginary as a tool to speak about the real world in ways much more direct and diverse than I’d ever envisioned. For instance, was Paradise Lost an epic, a religious apology, a liberal political manifesto, a reactionary conservative apologia, a valuable tract in the fight for women’s rights, a tool of patriarchic oppression, or a dramatization of imperialist economics? Somehow my classes managed to present me with theorists and critics who argued all of these points — and all of them seemed, in their own ways, to make sense. How could I reconcile all of these compelling readings of a poem that I, on my own terms, had read as a simple adventure story? More pressingly, how could something so obviously fictional be of so much evident real-world importance? To understand this, I had to comprehend on a more conscious level the efferent nature of reading, and the way stories influence our lives.
This paper’s epigraph comes from Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which a cadre of intellectual luminaries conspires throughout the course of human history to imagine and disseminate a fictional world by way of false encyclopedia entries and misprinted history books. I read it at 17 and thought it was a neat piece of speculative fiction; when I read it again at 20, after two years of a serious study of literature, the tale’s actual significance broke through to me. It helped put into perspective the issues I’d been facing, but could not articulate. In the story, the fabrication of the world of Tlön is so extensive and intricate that by the time the conspiracy is discovered, the human race becomes enamored with the uniqueness and complexity of the fiction their brightest minds have imagined. As the story ends antiques from Tlön — clever forgeries, of course, but no one cares — are starting to appear in markets, and the languages of Tlön are being taught in schools. The narrator intimates that, in time, our world will for all practical purposes become Tlön. The game of imagination has enchanted humanity so that they forget they are even playing a game; the creators of Tlön are thought of not as the planners and chessmasters they are, but divine angels.
Before intensive literary study led me to see things otherwise, I had focused chiefly on the ways in which fiction presented worlds that were notthe one I inhabited. In so doing I overlooked the fact that even this was a way in which fiction defined my inhabited reality. The multiplicity of readings my literature courses exposed me to were methods of refining and focusing that definitional power, attempting to draw my attention to a single aspect of the world and the way in which a text invited me to understand or think about that aspect. Though fantastic to the extreme, Borges’s story put this into perspective on my second reading. In the tale, fiction is used to effectively draft a new world. It is a disturbing development, as the narrator seems convinced that nothing good will come of unquestioningly embracing this new reality — or rather this new way of looking at and interpreting the old reality. That was the key for me: fiction is, partially, a device for the interpretation of the real world.
 And maybe he meant to amuse me, too. I am amused now, anyway.
 Highlights include: a nameless monster that kidnapped little boys who caused a fuss when they had to get haircuts, a race of extraterrestrials who traveled through to space via mirrors rather than starships, and a seven-foot-tall Kentucky dentist who used whiskey as anesthetic.
So hey I go to college! I used to be pretty secretive about where exactly but given recent links I’ve posted this semester it is not entirely a secret anymore. So if you want to know what kind of school I go to, you should check out this blog.
Also, because I go to college, I am getting ready to start the first finals week of my senior year. Oh gosh, guys! Just think, this time last year I was all freaking out over going to London and basking in the glory of American Psycho… which reminds me, they are making an American Psycho musical. Isn’t that a terrible idea! Or maybe the best idea? If all the songs are done in the style of 80s power ballads or other era-appropriate music is might actually be pretty amusing.
I case you couldn’t tell I don’t have any profound thoughts this week so I’m just collating some links. Once things wind down I’ll maybe get back to thinking about dumb things to say about popular books or movies, and then we will be right on track! In the meantime, watch this and think of me.
Sometimes it seems like a bad idea to do this blog every Friday, especially on the Fridays when I have nothing important to say — not even literary criticism quotes! — and this Friday is one of them. The year is winding down, I got a few final papers to write up, some drafts of some stories to do, and three more grad school applications to finish.
However, it is cold, and there is snow, so let’s enjoy the beginning of this wondrous season with a special performance by my new favorite musical artist, OtamaTone.
I find myself wasting a remarkable amount of time in the hopes that I will feel relaxed once my summer obligations come to bear. In a little over a week I’ll be back on campus, working on a small research project about Measure for Measure. It’s common knowledge (more or less) that Shakes lifted the plot from Machiavelli, but I think it’s worth investigating exactly how he’s dealing with Machiavellian politics in the play. (If I manage to get something useful out of this, I also suspect there are variations on this theme in Coriolanus and The Tempest, and maybe that will also be a profitable area for further research.) Anyway, that’s boring.
After I finish that up I’ll be a teaching assistant for a two-week course for high school students, during which they’ll hopefully read Hamlet and come to like it. I’ve taught high school kids before, but that was Anglo-Saxon lit, so they were understandably not very receptive. Hamlet, at least, can be related to by most teens in ways of differing profundity; the riddles from the Book of Exeter, not so much.
Going to put this on automatic update, just so I don’t miss another week. See, my abroad program incorporates a week of “free travel” into it, which is supposed to be more or less equivalent to Spring Break back home. A vacation, if you will, or a holiday as they are called here.
This is where we run into problems. I’m not much for vacations, you see, and I didn’t have to read any Jamaica Kincaid or DFW essays about lobsters to make me like this.
There’s this horrid little neologism that’s made the rounds recently, the ‘staycation.’ That is, a vacation where you stay home instead of going out somewhere; the thing is, every vacation for me is a staycation, and it always has been. It may surprise you, given my seething antipathy towards fun, good will, sunshine, and human beings in general, that I really, really dislike going out onto beaches or to theme parks and seeing various things/people/situations that only intensify my disgust and displeasure with life on this earth. When I have time off I don’t want to fucking go anywhere, I want to lock myself in my house and sleep for twelve hours and read books until three in the morning. This is how I relax, this is how I unwind. This is what a vacation means for me.
Not for most other people, unfortunately. The “free travel week” my program has is a bit misnamed. You see, it’s a misnomer because 1) if it were truly a “free” week I could stay at my house and sleep, as would be my preference, or 2) if it were “free” in the pecuniary sense, it would be a lot more appealing. As it happens, for seven days I am required to leave my house and travel either on my own or with friends and fend for myself. My host family is not being paid rent for that week. In essence, I am being kicked out.
My program, for whatever reason, thinks it’s a good idea to have a mandatory crash course in homelessness.
This all sounds a bit whiny, I’m sure, as I am a privileged young white male college student in an abroad program, which puts me a damn sight ahead of 80% of my cohort. I’m in Europe, aren’t I? I should be taking in the culture and traveling and seeing the sights. If you’re thinking that right now, then I have an offer: you fucking pay for it.
I’m a goddamn scholarship student. I’m only on this abroad program because I am incredibly, indescribably lucky — my tuition has been covered, thank god. But on the other hand, I’ve had to pay for plenty of other stuff out of my own pocket — plane tickets, clothes, supplies, food, various other travel expenses such as cabs and trains. My personal savings were drained by this trip, and supporting myself as an itinerant for a week will pretty much reduce me to nothing.
If I were the kind of person who read literature as being, in its heart, about class conflict, or if I were the kind of person given to screeching about systemic classist elements of any setup, I would have been bitching about this sort of thing long before now. So while I normally don’t care about it, I’ve finally come into a situation where it really irks me. (Enough to blog about it, anyway.)
To put it succinctly, I don’t have the money to live on my own in a foreign country for a week. My family does not have the money to help me. This is not something I can do.
But I’m doing it anyway, because I don’t have a choice.
Luckily I have some connections in Stratford-Upon-Avon who are willing to put up with me for a few days, though they’re in the process of moving so I can’t stay there the whole time. My family back home has managed to get me enough money that I can stay in a hostel (as much as I hate hostels with all my soul they are cheaper than hotels) in London for the remainder of the break. I’ve been living as a spendthrift over the last seven weeks, saving large amounts out of the grocery stipend I receive, so I have enough money to eat and buy various little stupid things I need, so I should be all right.
I’d still like to lock myself in a house and read all day, though.
Anyway, excitement: while I’m away I’ve used WordPress’s handy autoupdate feature to organize a series of short reviews of plays I’ve seen recently. These should be popping up at various points during the week, digitally prepackaged and intellectually microwaved for your consumption. It’s not going to be in the vein of the Psycho series, since there’s less for me to string together, so I figured it wouldn’t be bad for me to throw up all three reviews in a week. We’re looking at a Monday/Wednesday/Friday thing here, so stayed tuned.
So it’s Friday, getting on into the evening here in London, and I don’t have a blog post. There is a good reason for this, as my internet was out most of the day and I was attempting to fix it, something I have finally achieved my tricking Blue Yonder into thinking my router is in fact my cable modem. This would have been no problem at all for someone who has experience with cable modems, but that I ain’t.
What I’d planned to write today was a hopefully amusing article on newspapers here in the UK, specifically a few operating in London. I know that sounds about as exciting as a box of twine, or probably less so, but the way in which newspapers unabashedly take political sides in this country fascinates me. I don’t blog about politics because it’s not a good way to make friends, plus I’m generally apathetic to the whole business, but it’s also interesting for me to see how different sides here view our sides back home; plus, something really hilarious (to me, anyway) popped up in the Evening Standard a few nights ago, so if I get time maybe I’ll do a mid-week update, or just save it for next Friday. Usually I’d just write it tomorrow, but as it happens I’ll be going to Stratford-upon-Avon to meet up with some people, so blogging then is shot, but HEY, it’s Stratford so who cares.
I suppose I can rattle off a few words about my classes. I have a history of photography class that, while not a roller coaster ride, keeps me interested because I like tracing the development and evolutions of artforms. I also have a class on British culture, which seems like a general history/sociology blend and should be pretty easygoing. By far my least favorite class deals with social welfare issues and their history here in the UK; I don’t dislike the class because I dislike social welfare, but I dislike it because it is run by breaking us up into small groups and having us discuss various problems (eg, multiculturalism) and then bringing the class back together to get some common points. I’d much prefer a straight lecture-style class because as I see it this discussion is completely useless — for instance, we were most recently told to discuss the perception of the word ‘welfare’ in America. I don’t know about you, but it’s blatantly obvious where this is going to go: every group will say that welfare has a negative connotation.
Well, they did. After like half an hour of dicussion.
So then the prof told us — surprise! — that in the UK ‘welfare’ has a different shade of meaning, one encompassing basic public services such as ambulances and education, and is not necessarily as negative as it is in the States. Woo-hoo. Basically, as I see it, this class is going to be many, many weeks of us arguing ourselves in circles over problems that are essentially insoluble and end up being a big waste of time.
Of course, there’s also my Shakespeare class. We’re reading Macbeth, which I am basically tickled pink over, along with Measure for Measure and Twelfth Night. I’ve never read Measure (aside: abbreviating that M4M might seem like a good idea but it isn’t) but I’m glad to tackle Twelfth Night in a classroom setting since I also happen to enjoy it greatly. How greatly? Well, I only really like one of the other comedies, really, so maybe that tells you something. (Of course, I haven’t read them all — maybe I’ve just read the boring ones first?)
Anyway, a few nights ago we went on a walking tour of “Shakespeare’s London” across the Thames. Of course, Shakespeare’s London is a bit of a misnomer because when Shakespeare and the Globe and the bear-baiting rings were in operation there, it wasn’t really London, and most of it has fallen apart or burned down by now, so a Shakespeare-centered walking tour of the area basically consists of looking at places where things used to be. Nevertheless it’s possible to look at the empty lot where the Globe once stood and then convince yourself you’re feeling a pseudoreligious sense of awe because you are literally oh my god really standing where Hamlet was unleashed on the world.
An addendum: last night I went to Piccadilly Circus and saw The 39 Steps at the Criterion, and it’s a wonderful show. Mel Brooks tried his hand at Hitchcock sendup with High Anxiety, but in my opinion it kind of fell flat; this production, meanwhile successfully manages to parody Hitchcock while being a rather earnest homage to the man and his work. It doesn’t help that it recasts the original story in sort of the style of a Cary Grant 1940s screwball comedy, which I admittedly have a soft spot for.
Today is the last day of classes, with next week being finals. I only have one final, as it turns out — Computer Science, which should be easy enough, except for the mathy bits. Apart from that I have a writing portfolio I need to get finished up (there’s a play I’m writing that’s really kicking my ass) and an essay on Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park.
A note on how much of a nerd I am: I write all my papers a week before they’re due, or I try to. This gives me time to proof throughout the week and basically refine the paper. Most of the time I manage it, but this Lunar Park essay is the single instance this semester of me not meeting my self-imposed deadlines. This is not because I don’t want to write the paper — I really do, in fact, and I’m very excited about it, because if you thought I was giving Ellis too much credit for American Psycho then just wait until I find the time/excuse to write up a blog entry about Lunar Park.* Things just keep getting in the way — a lot of other, shorter papers for the same class or other classes, and me making the decision to drink a lot of wine before trying to write some of these papers and then spending far too much time revising because while writing intoxicated I end up with lines like “His middle-class Marxism they are very important to the social context of the pickle factory.”
So Hemingway I ain’t.
On other fronts, the journey to Mother England draws ever closer. I’ve finally received information about my host family and they seem like Good People. We also got our class schedules and, unlike every other jerk from my school who is taking Contemporary Theater, I took the way cooler route and got myself a class titled Shakespeare and Elizabethan Literature. The naming is important to me because it means, hopefully, we’ll have the chance to look at some other Elizabethan writers I’m not as familiar with as I think I should be — specifically Marlowe, since somehow I’m more conversant in Spenser and Sidney than him, and more Jonson would be super, too.
[*This probably won't happen if my essay turns out well, though. If I pull it off then I'll probably make it into a writing sample for grad school applications, and since it will encompass almost everything I find absolutely goddamned fascinating about the novel I don't want to get into some weird self-plagiarism cock-up if someone decides to Google my essay.]
I just finished my last final, which was for an Intro to US History class and ugh whatever it’s over. Time for summer.
I haven’t been blogging about my DAILY LIFE because honestly I’ve been so fucking busy it’s not worth it. However, that doesn’t mean interesting things didn’t happen to me. For instance, about a week and a half ago I went to wash my hands in the dorm bathroom and the water came out boiling hot, so I spent the night in the emergency room because you would not believe that pain goddamn. Apparently there had been a problem with the pipes the day before and campus maintenance thought they’d fixed it. Anyway, I got all the blisters popped and even though it was only second degree burns I had to visit a plastic surgeon to make sure the healing process wasn’t going to do something weird, since my fingers were burned and I guess finger burns like to heal by webbing your digits together.
But things are fine in that regard now, I’m off the bandages and the dead skin on my hand is falling off in horrendous sheets like some disgusting snowstorm. I’d post pictures but that would be totally gross!
In other news, I’ve hit 22 rejections, almost all of which gave responses that were generally unhelpful. Here is something I will outline that frustrates me about the speculative fiction market at the moment: There are form rejection slips (which I understand completely) but they do nothing in the way of telling you why something was rejected. I do not feel like counting the number of form rejections I’ve received that run along the lines of “Thanks for the manuscript, it was really great, but no. Also, please submit again in the future!”
What the hell do you want from me, people? Of course, I’ve received a few personal rejections that also ran along these lines, but that was less infuriating. That was at least some human contact. A form rejection implies my story wasn’t good enough for special attention — okay, I get that — but why. I have no idea where I should be taking my writing if I want to sell based on these responses alone. The only assumption I can operate on is that my fiction is bone-crushingly fantastic in every way, but I’m not submitting the right stories to the right markets.
The few responses I’ve received with actual critcism (even if it was a few words, like “Fails to hold interest”) have been the most helpful. Of course, criticism can sometimes be inscrutable — an sf story I wrote was called a Bat Durston rather pejoratively, for instance, but weirdly enough that was what I wanted. That was why I wrote the story, because Bat Durstons are hilarious! And I submitted it to a venue specializing in comedic sf! But, well, you win some and you lose some.
Incidentally, I also had something of an acceptance recently. My campus literary journal, Crucible, accepted a piece of flash fiction I wrote entitled “A Measure of Weekend Minutes for a Penny,” making a total of three pieces of mine to appear in its hallowed pages. Well, three pieces I know of. (The other two were in my freshman year.) I didn’t even know this was accepted so I didn’t attend the release party, I found out from a friend later, and I think that’s pretty hilarious. Anyway, here’s the story.