le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What just happened - LIAR

I finished Justine Larbalestier's LIAR today. It's a book I feel like I've heard about a lot, but - weirdly - knew nothing about going into it.

*************THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD, MATEY**********************

and seriously, you don't want this one spoilered. to spare your eyes I will provide a cute image to fill some space. see, here is a kitten diligently reading a book, maybe even LIAR. But probably actually reading Rotten Ralph or If you give a cat a cupcake.

Coming out of it, I'm not sure I know much more.

It was a terrific book. Micah's voice is utterly compelling and real and intriguing. The structure of the novel - in sections of varying degrees of truthfulness - worked wonderfully, and presents some very interesting and provocative (and unanswerable) questions about truth-telling. The whole premise of lying, actually, as both theme and narrational device, is inspired.

I was perplexed, at the library, hunting for this book. Larbalestier's other books are in the fantasy genre, and I'd always thought Liar was strict old everyday realism.

And then, werewolves.
And then, lying.

And oh - there are more puzzle pieces at hand than there are in the finished picture, but how do I know which to discard? Larbalestier says the book is intentionally vague - clearly haunted by the ghost (or IS it a ghost?) of Henry James's Turn of the Screw. Or intentionally multiple, would be a better way to rephrase it. I can imagine this book driving my students insane.

So we don't know, and we can't know - not for sure - what the truth is here. Micah's our narrator, and she is totally, completely and always unreliable. Except maybe when she's not. Does she ever tell us the truth? What about? Does it matter?

Whatever the "truth" or Truth or truth is - how Zach died, whether Micah's brother exists, existed, where or what or if upstate and the farm are, if Micah has the family illness, and if that illness is in fact lycanthropy - there are some thematic truths here that struck me repeatedly.

This book is about Betwixt and Between, to borrow Barrie's phrase. It's about being some of more than one thing. It's about being a third in a binary world. It's a totally queer book, in a lot of ways.

Micah is biracial - and this assertion never changes. She lies about being a boy, at the beginning of high school. She is a werewolf, by definition a being that is neither fully human nor fully wolf. She is liar, except when she's not, which is when? She is attracted to Tayshawn and Sarah, almost equally. She is not anyone's girlfriend, except when she is.
She lives in a world that demands everything be resolved into binaries, and Micah is neither one nor the other. You could say the book operates this way as well: is it a fantasy about werewolves, or a very chilling story about an extremely mentally unbalanced girl? are the pills birth control, or are they antipsychotics, or are they some kind of sedative?
There are no answers to these questions. All possibilities remain open; Micah, in both her lying and her truth-telling (which we cannot distinguish from each other) refuses utterly to foreclose on any of them.

LIAR, and Micah, break binaries at every turn. Fantasy or psychological realism? wolf or girl, straight or lesbian, sane or insane, only child or sibling'd - there are no clear answers and - more importantly - no way to resolve any of these. The answers simply cannot be had, because part of the point of the book (as I read it) is to refuse to provide them. We are meant to be on shaky ground. Because it forces us to look at possibilities, at multiplicities - to think beyond binaries. To stick with binaries is to be endlessly frustrated with this book, and with Micah. To stick with binaries is to, in some ways, obliterate Micah. She cannot be resolved into one thing OR the other.

And so everything we think we know about narrative, about truth-telling, about werewolves and detective stories and YA romances and desire and family and Micah is blurred and opened up on itself. This is a book that generates multiplicity and possibility, and in that, it is absolutely brilliant, and revolutionary.

Our inability to know is put on huge display in this book. No one within the text knows anything for sure; none of us reading know anything for sure. This resonates with me particularly along gender-identity lines: the queered body, unknowable as male/female, straight/gay, resolutely and perpetually resisting and refusing to be known and categorized. There's a huge amount of power there, but there's also a huge amount of power being challenged

This was a staggering book to read. I had to put off my planned errands for the day until I'd finished the last 70 pages or so; I couldn't not know. But of course, there is no knowing here. This isn't a smug or smarmy poststructuralist endless delay of meaning - there's almost a flat-out assertion that there is no meaning to get to. This is a kind of gauntlet-throwing in the face of all systems of classification and knowing.

I HAVE to teach this book. It will break everyone's minds, and that's exactly what needs to be happening.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

day & night/ booking through thursday

this week's question!
Today’s question is suggested by Mae.
Do you divide your books into day and night reads? How do you decide?


nope. I do not. I just read. If I'm particularly gripped by a book, I just read it every chance I get to read anything. I'm not good at putting books down if they're more than usually gripping; I end up staying up late, and finishing, all kinds of books (especially children's and YA, but then, isn't that the bulk of my reading?).  I think Jellicoe Road may have been my most recent stayed-up-to-finish read [and, I'm excited to add, I ordered it in to the bookstore so I can get it with my discount and own my very own Jellicoe Road. I feel a little wistful that I have to make do with the American edition; it'd be nice to have the Australian On the Jellicoe Road instead].

There are a few things that I have discovered I cannot, or should not, read right before bed. The main one is Edgar Allen Poe. Foolishly, several years ago, I picked up a collection of Poe stories, since it had been a VERY long time since I last read Poe. And like a fool, I elected to read a few stories before sleep at night.
so I leave Poe, and Stephen King (not that I read him often anymore) and that ilk for daytime/early evening. But otherwise, anything goes.

Monday, September 13, 2010

adolescence, stereotypes and cliques

My Adolescence class is picking up steam, I think (I hope). We started in on actual primary texts this week (the introductory classes were reading various contemporary news/opinion articles on teenagers, "emerging adults" etc, and some fun with G. Stanley Hall); today's topic was the John Hughes' film THE BREAKFAST CLUB.

Somehow I managed to never see the entire film all the way through until about seven or eight weeks ago. My sister was a fan of the movie when we were younger, and I frankly cannot grasp how I managed to never see the movie in its entirety before now, but there you have it. I've seen it twice now, in a span of about seven weeks, and it's pretty fantastic for a lot of reasons.

But today - and the reason I put it on the syllabus - we talked in class about stereotypes. The students had a lot to say (which was joyous, and a number of them raised points that I hadn't thought of, which always delights me), and I'm looking forward to talking more on Wednesday. In the interim, I got to thinking (as I drove home from school) about the kind of stereotypes in the movie: the jock, the basket case, the brain, the delinquent, the jock ("Sporto"!).

And I wonder if these kinds of stereotypes really only manifest during adolescence. The kinds of cliques Melinda identifies at the start of Speak, for instance; it's a more comprehensive and updated list than Hughes's collection of types, but it's essentially the same kind of stratification.
Now, stereotypes run rampant across the adult world, of course, but it seems to me, on intial thought, that those tend to be organized around some relatively fixed aspect of a person's identity. That is: racial, ethnic, gender, sex/sexuality, religious (which can cross over with ethnic, for example: Jews and Muslims, where it's not just religion that's being singled out but a kind of ethnic or at the very least cultural identity). There are other "character types," - the Boss, the Soccer Mom, types within professions - the Lawyer, the Account Exec, the Secretary - but those are only visible when the person is inhabiting that role. For instance, once The Secretary gets in her car and drives home or goes to the supermarket, that Secretaryish type is almost or entirely invisible to everyone else. Ditto Soccer Mom, who, alone at the library or at Hot Yoga or the supermarket sans children, could just appear to be a woman.

Put another way: in my first year of grad school in Pittsburgh, a co-student of mine said (as we discussed clothing): "you're not really subculturally aligned."
At the time (and admittedly still) that comment rankled, for some reason; possibly because I was then 25 and it seemed to me that the time for subcultural alignment had come and gone long ago, and my acquaintance's remark (and her own persistence in subcultural alignment) struck me as silly and childish.

In retrospect, I was never subculturally aligned, primarily because I was never aligned. I was odd-girl-out through most of my high school years, and then in college, surrounded by a seething mass of mostly-hippies, I was again un-aligned except by virtue of my non-hippie-ness.

BUT. Subcultural identities and/or stereotypes seem to hold strongest and truest in adolescent and/or young adult life. I'm sure there are exceptions - bikers are one, I think, where there is a distinct "look" that accompanies biker life that makes bikers far more visible away from their bikes than for other kinds of subcultures.

The question is: WHY?
why do you get cliques? Why do you get jocks and princesses and brains and criminals and goths and hippies and hipsters and headbangers and stoners in high school, maybe in college, and then - somehow - they seem to seep away into the larger, less obviously differentiated mass of adulthood.
And when you do see vestigial subculturally aligned adults, they seem....well....sort of sad. The adult man who presents as Jock seems kind of like a joke, reliving (possibly imaginary) glory days of his youth. Adult (and old) hippies just seem out of it, kind of very worn and faded and disconnected from reality (though they probably seemed like that as young hippies too). Adult Goths seem sort of pathetic. In each case, encountering the older version of these younger identities always feels like the older version is either 1) immature/not really grown up  2) sad  3) trying to remain young and cool and/or 4) desperate for attention.

These visible marks of difference and identity that we put on as teenagers, and which are then used (by us and against us) to sort us into stereotyped categories, somehow shouldn't be necessary as an adult. You shouldn't need to wear lots of black eye makeup and petticoats to make your personality, your individuality, known. Ditto with the jock attitudes, or the hipster glasses, or whatever group you like. There is a point, it seems, by which one ought to have grown out of these stereotypes. How often do you walk into a gathering of adults and group them off into "jocks" and "cool kids" and "nerds" and "delinquents" and "goths" and "brains"???
you may get tech geeks drifting together, you may have a group of Beautiful People, but you can't tell by looking who those people are (even, sometimes especially, the Beautiful People).

So how does this work, this stereotyping, this subcultural aligning? WHY does it work? Is it part of that "trying on identities" thing the developmental psychologists talk about? How come most people only try on one other identity? I don't know anyone, personally, who went through multiple of these disguises. You went from Generic Girl to Goth, or from Brain to Cool Kid, but there wasn't much movement after that. Angela Chase's season-starting transformation in My So-Called Life makes this very visible; she switches it up, dyes her hair red, starts wearing plaid and funky skirts and shoes. But she doesn't try on yet another new persona.

I'm intrigued by this, and by how it works, and how it lingers, and if that's even a bad thing. Maybe it's a good thing. Maybe carrying the external, visible marks of your subcultural alignment is a useful, important, disruptive thing. I'm not sure.

It's unexamined territory, for my brain anyway, which is pretty content to be un-aligned and (consequently) always observing.