The Poetics of Genre in the Contemporary Novel

1498517293I’ve missed posting this, since so many other things happened in late November and December (and hey, now it’s March, and I’ve still not fully recovered from them). But I wanted to say that Lexington Books put out my edited collection, The Poetics of Genre in the Contemporary Novel, on November 25 or so. As the editor, I want to take the opportunity again to thank my contributors, who were a joy to work with, and encourage you to buy a copy of the book for the low, low price of $ 95! Well, I’ll be okay if you don’t.

What I’d just like to say is that my introduction, which can be found on, makes a point that I’m rather insistent upon, namely that the work of genre in the contemporary novel should be understood to be deeply meaningful to the project of the novel: it’s where we can most easily trace the major shifts which are currently happening in novel-writing. Step aside, Jonathan Franzen: realism’s (probably and hopefully) not the novel’s future.


Roger Luckhurst: Zombies. A Cultural History

luckhurstAs I’ve said somewhere here, I’m working on a book on zombie fictions, so I read whatever is new in the field. Roger Luckhurst’s brand-new “cultural history” of the zombie is among the most interesting recent entries in a growing field. Not terribly long at 220 pages, it nonetheless offers a century’s worth of zombie culture, inclusive of film stills and other graphic material. Luckhurst’s prose is engaging and witty, lucid and magisterial, so the book was a joy to read, and exceptionally informative—in parts. So here we get into the criticism bits of this post.

Luckhurst’s Zombies splits somewhat uneasily into two by no means unconnected, but very much unevenly handled sections. The first half, which really only carries the zombie’s cultural history from about the early 1900s to 1945, is outstanding, a must read for anybody interested in the zombie. Luckhurst expands the history of the figure tremendously from the usual story of William Seabrook and Zora Neal Hurston, White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie. He teases out the American fascination with Haiti, built in large part on American economic imperialism, and draws powerful role the “the black republic of Haiti has played in the colonial imagination of Europe and American since independence in 1804” (40). It’s these long lines that make Luckhurst stand out: it’s an actual argument for reading the zombie against the colonial and imperialist backdrops of its country of origin, rather than the usual, more or less encyclopedic enumerations of zombie appearances that most previous studies have undertaken. At the end of the first one hundred pages, then, I marveled at Luckhurst’s facility in making strong connections between Haiti and American popular culture. Relativizing the impact of Seabrook and Hurston, bringing in less often discussed influences such as Lafcadio Hearn, and situating the entire issues of the zombie in the 1920s and 1930s in a larger survey of the “colonial margin of the American empire” and its influences on American popular culture, Zombie: A Cultural History here traces its grounds expertly, offering a wealth of information. Luckhurst’s conclusion: “By 1939, the zombie is recognized by its embedded references in American culture, rather than through obscure colonial folklore” (65); that is, by 1939 “zombie” already refers to an American version of a voodoo figure, rather than that figure itself.

Yet what seems to me to be a desirable revisioning of the zombie figure is perhaps taken a little too far in the end, and this is where the second section of the book suffers. If I found the first half to be genuinely surprising, establishing a new narrative of the zombie that helpfully elucidates the at least awkward history behind the popular cultural appropriation of the figure. But Luckhurst’s narrative is more ambitious than this: he seeks to keep this Caribbean connection alive even as he draws away from the pre-war era and into the 1950s and 1960s. Again, some of the things he does seem eminently useful, such as including films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers in a greater narrative of what anxieties film in the postwar period engaged; whether or not one buys he relating the Red Scare with the (yet to come) zombie masses or not, at least Luckhurst ably weaves the major strands of popular cultural production into a usefully coherent whole here. But when Luckhurst seeks to draw together his narrative of the zombie as a product of colonial fantasies and the seminal films of George Romero, things become slightly awkward. First, the connections between Romero’s films and the Caribbean remain, at best, tenuous. Sure, “Night takes the vengeful dead from EC Comics and re-injects them with all the cannibalistic terror that underwrote colonial fantasy” (143)—if by that we mean there are two things that appeared in different contexts that both appear in Night of the Living Dead. But there is an sense here that Luckhurst believes the coherence of his argument requires this connection to be more meaningful, even if ultimately, his own sense of how this greater meaning would work is left unclear. This issue becomes evident in Luckhurst’s reading of Dawn of the Dead, for example. As he rightly points out, the read the film as a critique of consumerism is “hardly the unearthing of a brilliant ideological subtext”; but at the same time, his argument that this reading is guilty of “nudging out of the picture the complex colonial history of the zombie” (150) seems vastly unwarranted; and indeed, Luckhurst himself doesn’t offer a positive reading of this “complex colonial history” that would impinge upon a reading of Dawn.

And this is perhaps the books great problem, at least on its final 100 pages or so: the sense that while Luckhurst’s readings aim to set themselves off from much previous criticism, they do not provide much substance by themselves. I felt myself nodding along with much of it. Little of it is spectacularly new, and indeed, perhaps it provides too neat a narrative in its effort to establish that “wherever it comes to stop” it “remains connected to the meaning of Haiti and the islands of the Antilles to the modern world” (15). Luckhurst’s sense of the zombie’s necessary connectedness to Haiti is too strong in the way he offers it. It echoes other recent conceptualizations which, however, leave more room for readerly interpretation and variation. Maxime Coulomb, in the Petite philosophie du zombie, for example, speaks of “sedimentation” (2012, 14) when he describes the way previous meanings of the zombie remain active in more contemporary ones; Haiti and colonialism linger, yes, but need not have the kind of direct expression that Luckhurst often at least implicitly finds in the contemporary zombie. Given that Luckhurst’s drawing on the Haitian origins of the zombie in popular American culture barely ever leads anywhere, a less ambitious thesis might have done the book some good.

Every so often, too, there are bits and pieces that are a critical jump too far. Speaking about Romero’s influence in general, Luckhurst first claims that “the American state was of course founded by millenarians hoping to establish the New Jerusalem as the last redoubt against a sinful, fallen Europe” (156)—a summary that seems at least deserving of a little more caution than Luckhurst’s “of course” leaves—and then notes that “Romero’s zombie films have been appropriated by Christian thinkers” (156) as grounds for reading the films’ success in terms of a post-war millenarian revival culture. While this is an appropriately trenchant and culture-surveying reading, it also seems at second glance more suggestive than substantial. Similar moments, in fact, occur frequently in the latter half of the novel, especially when Luckhurst discusses the most recent boom in zombie fictions. Speaking of Max Brooks’s World War Z, for example, Luckhurst summarizes its conclusion by claiming that “[a]s is common to the American apocalyptic imagination, the disaster proves a hygienic reboot for a nation that has forgotten its Puritan foundations” (185). Where Luckhurst draws the Puritans from here, why he feels compelled to reduce the novel to its American aspects, and how the sense of “hygiene” comes in, is never explained. The problem here then is not that this is not an interesting reading, but that it’s a reading backed up by very little engagement with the text proper, perhaps even to the exclusion of some of the text’s more overt meanings.

Luckhurst’s study, despite all this, is a must buy for its first half and a can buy for its second; it is pithy and abrasive, opinionated and sometimes condescending, frequently surprising. Its own narrative of zombie culture may be foreshortened, but at least its foreshortening brings to the fore the often disregarded, or at least never fully spelled-out, implications of the zombie’s origin in colonialist oppression and appropriation. Its daringly radical thesis, I think, is not successful: but no matter, since the book as a whole is worth the time spent reading and digesting it.

On Columbus Day

Columbus Day was upon us two days ago, celebrating the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the “New World” and there’s been some good backlash against it. Now, let me say that I think it’s well deserved: there’s very little in Columbus himself that we should be celebrating, and there’s a deeply unhappy strain of racism, white supremacism, and lack of historical consciousness in a blanket celebration of the so-called discovery of America. But, and this is where it becomes more complicated, the solutions offered by some this year seem to be well-intentioned enough, but similarly problematical. The Guardian‘s James Nevius notes that Columbus was a lost sadist, and he’s certainly correct. But here’s his counteroffer:

Rather than a holiday celebrating one man, let’s have a day where every local community celebrates the native cultures connected to that locale. In New York, we could honor the Algonquin-speaking Lenape; in Utah, there could be a festival for their namesake Utes; in the Dakotas, a celebration of the Sioux, while at the same time recognizing the plight of many Indians on reservations.

It seems a natural substitution from conqueror to conquered, but it’s similarly irrational, and somewhat random. There is no denying the plight of Native Americans on reservations today, and we would do well to recognize it (and even better to do something about it that’s not merely symbolic); but what would be the point of celebrating, instead of single people, entire, complex, often largely unknown cultures, on the basis that they used to be where we are now? Not, to be sure, remember them, investigate them, and discuss the way they came to an end, but to celebrate them? For one thing, what about these cultures should be celebrated? The Ute were, among other things, a warrior culture, as were the Sioux – but I don’t suppose we are meant to celebrate their version of tribal warfare? And though Nevius doesn’t mention them, for the Iroquois, as Daniel Barr has shown,

War represented a many-sided expression of their world view, a complex, vital component of Iroquois culture that was at times an almost daily part of their lives. (Unconquered, xv)

Do we celebrate this part of Iroquois heritage? I doubt that we should. And that is the problem: the proposal is nonsensical because it rightly condemns one undifferentiated world view (Columbus “discovered” the New World for Europeans) with another one: all Native American heritage should be celebrated. But to substitute the blanket celebration of complex cultures for Columbus is banal and knee-jerk, and does no one justice; substitute celebration instead, as Nevius does in describing Columbus, with historical discussion; in lieu of celebration, highlight this discussion, historical awareness, and a measured analysis of all the consequences of the momentous events of October 12, 1492. You’d be doing Native Americans a favor, and you’d still get to dismantle the idealized Columbus of yore.

On Jonathan Franzen’s Purity

The Nation‘s Jon Baskin offers a perceptive review of Jonathan Franzen’s latest whopper, Purity, which I’m still in the process of reading (it’s a bit of a slog). I’m very happy, given all the praise that Freedom received, that (in passing), he just calls what it is: a “very bad novel.” Purity, as far as I can tell so far, is (as a novel), also very bad…

Occupy Fiction’s as Doomed as Occupy: Karl Taro Greenfeld’s The Subprimes

subprimesIs there such a thing yet as “Occupy fiction”—fiction which reacts creatively to the sadly-doomed protests which, for a brief moment in 2011, seemed to be able to rally people in the quest for a new conception of collective action? There’s Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, which features a homeless and quasi-Occupy camp in New York’s Central Park, whose violent clearing is one of the crucial moments in the plot, but Shteyngart’s novel keeps its distance to these protests. There’s also Edan Lepucki’s California, which essentially picks up the issues spotlighted by the Occupy protests and extrapolates them into a somewhat-far future in which climate change and an increasing split between rich and poor have divided America into heavily-gated communities and people living desperately off the land.

And there’s Karl Taro Greenfeld’s The Subprimes, which shares much with Shteyngart’s novel and much with Lepucki’s, and yet is almost completely different. Greenfeld’s novel imagines a future United States (how far in the future, nobody knows) in which the ideologies of neoliberal capitalism have prevailed in almost all respects: there are no more unions and no more free schools, no health care except for those who can pay, no more good middle-class or indeed lower class jobs. Its closest parallel to Shteyngart’s novel is its insistence on the importance of credit rating, which becomes a caste marker that condemns people beyond a certain rating to a steady spiral downwards to a new status: subprimes, those whom no money is lent, who have no income beyond day work, no future in a world in which money alone determines success. It’s closest parallel to Lepucki is its extrapolation of the dangers of climate change.

The novel follows a slightly—but not entirely—disparate set of characters. There are the Bailey and Jeb and their kids, subprimes who have packed all their possessions into their car and have joined the exodus from no-longer-rich California east, into Nevada and points beyond, out of the “Ryanvilles,” shanty-towns echoing the Hoovervilles of the 1930s. Barred from entry into Nevada through usual means by their low credit score, they enter illegally on backroads to settle in an abandoned housing development, Valence, which, slowly but surely, they turn into a community. And on the other side, there are those who have so far been better off: Gemma Mack, the wife of Arthur, a finance trickster whose pyramid scheme has landed him, first, in court, and second, on the show of TV evangelist Pastor Roger, whose gospel of capitalism keeps millions in thrall. Gemma, her kids in tow, moves back to California, and there meets Richie Schwab, a journalist-and-dead-beat-dad who cannot cope with the increasing and stifling control over personal behavior exhibited especially by his son’s school. Finally, there’s Sargam, the mysterious, motorcycle-riding loner whose leadership of the Valence community renders her into a community hero even before the final climatic confrontation in which the novel’s threads all come together at Valence and are, as best as possible, resolved.

Greenfeld’s book is funny at times, and too close to home to be funny at others: but it’s not an undiluted success. This is most evident in awkward joint the novel offers between its economic and political satire—the novel offers a cultural critique of sorts of the power and choices of coverage of the media, as when Gemma and her kids find a stranded whale that they would like to see saved, and instead see turned into a spectacle—and its parallel critique of something else; and that “something” must remain awkward here, because it’s not quite clear what it is. Richie Schwab’s travails with his son revolve around something like political correctness gone mad, perhaps, or a satirically heightened sense of the pervasive fear of child abuse: his son is stamped as a sexual predator for touching a girl’s behind in school—“a surreptitious fondling of the buttocks” (52), as the school’s principal informs Richie—and he is stamped one for a rough session of touch football with a couple of neighborhood boys. If there’s room to wonder about the soft-padding of children’s lives in contemporary society, especially in American schools, the subplot sits awkwardly against the deeply existential problems of a developing economic caste system.

As the subprimes depart California, heading east in overloaded cars and vans, Greenfeld’s novel reenacts Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, if in reverse, an exodus from the Californian dust bowl and lack of perspectives east, where at least some fruit picking may still be had. Greenfeld’s update of Steinbeck lacks Steinbeck’s power, however, and indeed it also lacks the power of Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. In Shteyngart’s novel, finance is the dominating issue, determining in the last instance all that happened: its further gimmickry all boils down to the control which international finance capital exerted on the lives of people, an impersonal system which does not require individual agency for its perpetuation, only individual apathy.[1] In The Subprimes, while monetary interests are always present, they are personalized monetary interests: the shady financiers behind Pastor Roger, for example, or indeed Pastor Roger himself. The problem with this approach is, of course, that it lends itself to the wrong conclusions: if only it weren’t for people like Pastor Roger!

This complaint—that the novel overly personalizes, individualizes, and indeed lionizes, individual action, must be made especially with regard to its conclusion. Not only is it Richie’s son’s individual, somewhat mad action that collapses the assault which is being undertaken on the community installed at Valence: in its aftermath, Greenfeld introduces an awkward theological-fantastical note that seems deeply unhelpful when Sargam, the community leader, apparently raises Richie’s son from death. This fantastic moment—which is really only fantastic, and not outright fantasy, because the novel doesn’t own what seems fairly clearly to be a supernatural act—weakens Greenfeld’s book. It weakens it because the real achievements of the squatters, their construction of a functioning community from the wreckage of an all-too-familiar future, is suddenly infused with problematic notion that it takes a Messiah, but not the kind of messianic figure which Jim Casy embodies. Where Casy’s status as a messianic figure (besides the somewhat blunt JC initials) stems from his sacrifices (and remain perfectly mundane), Sargam’s supernatural messianism is problematic for what it seems to suggest. No ordinary organizing will suffice—but why not? In taking away sacrifice and loss, and vaguely placing its hope in the arrival of a savior (whose every action before must now necessarily be read differently, too: was she successful in organizing the community because she is endowed with supernatural powers?), the novel willfully counteracts its own narrative of self-empowerment, self-organization, and the power of the mass of disenfranchised people in the face of the deep systemic challenges its characters face.

So what’s the take-away? Fredric Jameson has recently written that

Capitalism began with enclosure and with the occupation of the Aztec and Inca empires; and it is ending with foreclosure and dispossession, with homelessness on the individual as well as the collective level, and with the unemployment dictated by austerity and outsourcing, the abandonment of factories and rustbelts.

(New Left Review 92, 130).

The Subprimes sketches this moment, but in calling back to Grapes of Wrath, it also implicitly condemns us to the realization that capitalism really may not be ending, as Jameson has it: just as it didn’t end in the 1930s. No matter the devastation to the individual lives which contemporary capitalism produces, The Subprimes implicitly reminds us that what awaited us at the end of the Great Depression was a global war, and all the novel offers us with regard to avoiding this fate is the hope for a supernatural savior. Let’s not hold our breath.

[1] But here’s another observation: what Greenfeld’s, Lepucki’s, and to an extent Shteyngart’s novels also share is a somewhat limited perspective on the issues they discuss: their geographical restriction leaves doubts about the state of the world at large. Shteyngart’s protagonist eventually moves to Italy, where, apparently, things are at least less dire; but what the status of the rest of the world is in Greenfeld and Lepucki remains open.

The New Republic Lets Talk About Genre

The New Republics online version has just published a chat between Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman on the topic of fantasy fiction. Because I’m in the process of publishing a book on the contemporary novel’s uses of genre, I was quite intrigued. Some good points made here by both, especially on the relationship between publishers’ decisions and author’s positions on the question of what “genre” means.

Breaking the Boundaries Between Fantasy and Literary Fiction (June 7)

Zombie Rot: Alexandar Hemon’s The Making of Zombie Wars

zombiewarsI just finished reading Alexandar Hemon’s The Making of Zombie Wars, which, yes, I bought because it has zombie wars in the title. I suspect that I’m not alone in this, and that I’m also not alone in being a bit disappointment at a singular lack of zombies throughout the narrative. Lest it be thought that it’s this that clouds my somewhat negative impression of Hemon’s book, however, let me quickly disclaim that: I was hoping, but not expecting, more zombies; and, having been duly disappointed in my hopes, though not my expectations, I got into the book on its own terms.

And those terms are a bit, shall we say, disjointed. Between nods to Hemon’s biography (Serbian characters reflecting upon the devastation wrought on them by the Jugoslavian civil war, a writer protagonist a bit younger than Hemon now, but less younger in the story’s 2003 setting), the slightly improbable story touches base with a variety of subjects: Jewish family life, disappointed writers’ ambitions, the business of film-making, or at least, the business of transferring screenplay ideas into screenplay pitch into film (which the novel never manages to get done). These plot elements do, of course, intersect, even intersect organically: the protagonist, aspiring screen-writer and English-as-a-Second Language teacher Joshua Levin falls in love with one of his adult students, the Bosnian refugee Ana, whose war-damaged husband finds this, shall we say, obnoxious; needs to fend of the (inconsequential) attentions of his family, which seems so dimly stereotypical that it’s either a joke or just really, really bad; faces the problems which come along with having as landlord a Gulf War-1991 veteran with serious issues about private boundaries and a Samurai sword; needs to come to terms with the doomed relationship he has with a slightly-bland successful New York professional whose cat gets murdered by Ana’s husband; all the while writing a script called Zombie Wars, which (in 2003) must certainly seem like a big and new and interesting idea.

Yes, it’s 2003! It’s not exactly clear why it’s 2003, because it’s not like Hemon adds anything in particular to the greater political situation on the eve of and then during the Iraq War. To be sure, everything in this novel is falling apart: Joshua’s relationship, Ana’s marriage, Joshua’s sister’s marriage, his father’s health, and of course the poor cat’s health. Also his landlord’s at-best liminal sanity, and, in what is a clever meta-move, perhaps, Hemon’s novel. Having alternated between the novel’s plot of Joshua’s deflating, and for all that not very interesting, life, and his short vignettes of Zombie War’s growing screen-play, at the very end, in a move that seems like it would have been discouraged in the work shop for its blatant obviousness, the two narratives exchange forms: Zombie Wars ends as a third-person narrative, not a screenplay, in which the film’s protagonists recognize the futility of their quest for safety in a zombie-infested world; and the real-life narrative of Joshua’s life ends in a screenplay scene on Seder in the Levin family (plus by-now best friend insane-landlord Stagger) which is almost aggressively empty.

Now, it’s not difficult to suggest the things the novel is trying to talk about, maybe: the consequences of war (the past Jugoslavian civil war, the ongoing war in Iraq, and the fictional zombie war); issues of personal identity (Joshua’s Jewishness, inescapable, set against his job, also inescapable, and his dreams, unfulfillable); questions of love, relationships, and connection. It’s well-written in the kind of lyrical realism that predominates a certain kind of contemporary realist writing; it’s even funny at times, and certainly absurd, even grotesque. But, and this is the problem, it’s no more than that. Its repetitive screenplay-idea jokes, all of which end on a bad pun, suggest the central annoyance with the novel: Joshua’s screenplay ideas are all idea and no execution, all concept and no content; Hemon’s novel is all content and very little concept. The connections between the zombie wars of Joshua’s screenplay and the reality he lives are suggestive, but unexplored; the finale, which sees Joshua in the company of a family we have seen too little of for us to care about their relationships, is too clever by far, and too meaningless, too.

Of course, we (being literary critics and scholars) can make those connections that the novel doesn’t, and call it cleverly done on Hemon’s part to not spell them out—and really, I do not mean to say that Hemon should have spelled his points out. As the Washington Post notes, “some of [the plot] may strike you as unlikely, possibly as unlikely as mutilated bodies lumbering around in search of human flesh”—and means this, it seems, as a compliment, suggesting the weirdness which real life brings to the fore at every turn. The effect in Hemon’s novel, however, is not that: it’s all a bad screenplay, a zany romp through silliness, whose points (war is bad and leaves people wounded; relationships need—what? honesty?) are superficial. Did we need this novel? No. You’re better off reading books with more actual zombies inside.