Category Archives: Academic blog

Blog entries by MA students on the Contemporary American Literature and Culture module.

Online Nothing is Off-Limits: Emotional Apathy in Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina

Nick Drnaso’s award winning graphic novel Sabrina offers a disturbing reflection of current culture. He uses an unassuming, deceptively simplistic art style, and a muted colour palette to display a story of quiet horror and growing dread. A commentary on the lack of empathy in society. A lack fostered by internet culture. The apathy of the public for a family’s grief is mirrored by the apparent apathy and lack of emotion displayed by the characters in the graphic novel.

A review for the LA times notes that early in the novel’s events, “Two nondescript men greet each other in a nondescript train terminal.” Teddy and Calvin display little to no emotion that the reader can discern through the faces drawn by Drnaso or even from the dialogue. Another review in the New York Times comments on the style used to draw the characters: “Figures are airtight yet textureless, with eyes like pinholes.” This style chosen by the author hides the horror of the novel’s events behind a veneer of the mundane and banal. This is aided by the colour palette, with muted tones and pages entirely filled with almost only one colour. The inclusion of multiple panels per page and some panels devoted solely to moments of silence and inactivity creates a sense of intimacy with the characters, as we have a window into even the quietest moments.

From page 32 of Sabrina

Calvin is an emotionally detached man. Absent emotionally from the novel, and absent as a husband and father – this led to the collapse of his marriage. This emotional detachment is reaffirmed by the art style, which allows almost no definition for the faces of the characters. Readers are unable to connect with the characters before them. Some may consider this a fault of the genre, and the difficulty encountered when trying to conveying emotion through picture alone. However, I believe it was Drnaso’s intention to portray these characters as emotionally distant, each is handling their own grief and personal trauma privately.

From page 57 of Sabrina

Aside from the emotional unavailability of the character’s themselves, Drnaso reflects a society that has next to no empathy for the situation of this family who have lost a loved one.

Drnaso shines a light on the dark side of internet culture, conspiracy theories. From true crime shows to conspiracies about the government – nothing is off limits online where no one is actively affected by what is happening.  GQ magazine calls the novel “The first great work about our current age of disinformation, paranoia and fake news, Sabrina is part Don DeLillo, part Jim Jarmusch, all fridge-humming domesticity and quiet dread.” Internet and mainstream culture have seen a huge spike in interest for conspiracy theory videos and stories. Stef Aupers considers the idea that “[c]onspiracy culture is a radical and generalized manifestation of distrust that is embedded in the cultural logic of modernity.” Similarly, Chris Ware posits that it is this culture of distrust that Sabrina is focusing on, when he states that the novel is an analysis of “[t]he nature of trust and truth and the erosion of both in the age of the internet.”

It is this inherent distrust that allows people like Alex Jones and info-wars a platform to spout their agenda.

screencap of Alex Jones, from infowars, notorious conspiracy theorist

Drnaso offers a startlingly familiar interpretation of these conspiracy theorists. Teddy, a vulnerable young man, is drawn into the propaganda of a radio show. The first instance Teddy can be seen listening to the radio the presenter is stating, “Man commits a terrific atrocity, and the rest of us have to suffer the day with a little less ardour, a little less empathy.” Which resonates with how the character is feeling, with his life adrift. It is these lost people like Teddy who are preyed upon by these kinds of media outlets. However, the term ‘empathy’ used in this context bears a note of humour, as these news channels have no empathy for the people they report on or their families.

The conspiracy theories become even more sinister once the story of Sabrina’s death becomes main news. The family and those surrounding them become barraged with comments and demands from faceless people on the internet who have no right to their grief or their story. Calvin in particular becomes harassed by these anonymous internet users. A user calling themselves Truth Warrior sends aggressive and unhinged messages to him. “The rest of the world may have forgotten about you, but not me.” (175) Increasing the sense of fear that these people and this culture is dangerous. These online users also make demands of Sabrina’s sister. This is revealed towards the end of the novel when she attends an open mic night and reads some of the messages she has received from strangers. “Hi Sandra. I sent you a message on facebook. What’s up? Is this for real or what? I think you owe us an explanation.” (154) When sitting behind a computer screen is so easy to distance yourself from real situations, getting so caught up in a conspiracy that you forget that there are real people involved who are suffering. The audacity of a stranger on the internet to make these ludicrous requests of someone grieving a relative is truly shocking. Not just demands for information, but threats also, as she goes on to read.

“Your address is online. People in our community are waking up to the truth. I’m armed and protected see what happens if they try and test me. I don’t really buy this story. I don’t really believe anything I’m told from so-called verified sources. Remember the Gulf of Tonkin? Why should we believe your story? This whole fucking thing is fake. It’s a fucking lie. It doesn’t make any sense. Where is she?” (155)

After this revelation it appears as if no one knows what to say, and Drnaso’s art style makes it impossible to determine what any of them might be thinking or feeling. The entitlement to the information of others and paranoia is highly prevalent throughout the novel. The distance of a computer screen, allows society to create an emotional distance from events happening around us. Leading to the callous and heinous interactions from total strangers to those grieving Sabrina’s death. Drnaso’s novel is a chilling response to what internet culture is doing to how we interact with one another as well as how it affects how we feel.

Works Cited

Aupers, Stef. “‘Trust No One’: Modernization, Paranoia and Conspiracy Culture.” European Journal of Communication, vol. 27, no. 1, Mar. 2012, pp. 22–34

Drnaso, Nick. “Sabrina.” One-shot graphic novel. (May 2018), Drawn and Quarterly

Hunter, Greg “A Humane Remove: Nick Drnaso’s “Sabrina” Los Angeles Review of Books July  2018 (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/a-humane-remove-nick-drnasos-sabrina/#!)

Park, Ed “Can You Illustrate Emotional Absence? These Graphic Novels Do” The New York Times May  2018 (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/31/books/review/nick-drnaso-sabrina.html)

Ware, Chris. “Sabrina by Nick Drnaso review – an extraordinary graphic novel.” The Guardian, June 2018. www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/02/sabrina-nick-drnaso-review-graphic-novel

Sex, Pornography and the Objectification of Women in the Digital Age: Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story”

“Over the last decade the Internet has grown as a source of sexual socialisation in the US” (Subrahmanyam and Smahel 2011), with “young people in the US using social media to express their own sexuality among peers” (Manago and et a l 2008). This sexual socialisation of young people due to technological developments is undoubtedly reflected in Gary Shteyngart’s vision of a near-future America in his Super Sad True Love Story.

In Shteyngart’s imagined world, hyper sexuality is intrinsically linked to society; with pornography being considered a mainstream source of entertainment for all ages, “Remember those porns we used to watch when we were in kinder garden? With the old man who molests teens on the beach. What was it called? Old Man Spunkers or something?” (224).

The effects of this exposure to sexual images in childhood is elucidated by Eunice and her friend’s discussion of their peers’ sexual activities,

“Guess where she ended up by the end of the party? In the bathtub getting ass-reamed and face-pissed by Pat Alvarez and three of his friends who taped everything and then put it on GlobalTeens the next day. GUESS how high her ratings went up? Personality 764 and Fuckability 800+” (27).

Whilst the degrading acts referred to, ‘ass-reamed’ and ‘face-pissed’, are (thankfully!) alien concepts to us, it is not outside the realms of possibility in today’s society, with Wright commenting “because the majority of today’s most popular pornography includes verbal and physical aggression, the targets of this behaviour is bound to be learned is bound to be learned and acted out in sexual relationships” (23).

Another example of the saturation of sexuality in Shteyngart’s society is through the female characters’ fashion choices, with the clothing store “JuicyPussy” featuring “nippleless bras”, ‘TotalSurrender panties’ which ‘snap right off when you press a button on the crotch’ (109) and “Onionskin jeans” which cling “transparently to [the women’s] legs and plump, pink bottoms” revealing their “shaven secret” (86). Interestingly, there is no male equivalent to these pornographic garments in the novel, which leads one to consider the relationship between the objectification of women in both Shteynart’s and today’s digital world.

Impress your tiger-rug wife with Mr. Leggs- from Adweek

Through the online interaction between Eunice and her friend who referred to only as “GRILLBITCH”, the internalisation of this objectification is fully realised; with Eunice’s friend seeking comfort in the fact that her boyfriend told her she “looked slutty” and that her “fuckability was 800+” (42). The two young women refer to each other as “cum-slut” and “cum-monkey” (114), which are seen to be terms of endearment. GRILLBITCH’s relationship advice to Eunice is equally as overtly sexual; “Treat him like shit during the first day, let him fuck you HARD the first night… He’ll fall for you pronto, especially after you let him plunder your MAGIC PUSSY!!!” (26). In another correspondence between the women, GRILLBITCH describes her response to her boyfriend cheating on her;

“So I went on this site called ‘D-Base’ where they can digitize you like covered in shit or getting fucked by four guys at once…Anyway he came over to my parents house and fucked me in the ass, which is a good sign because we haven’t done that in a while, and its been three hours since hes responded to that bitch on Teens” (120).

Through these utterances, we understand that the females place their value in terms of their sexual function to their male counterparts, due to the saturation of sexual images in their digital world.

A major aspect of Shteyngart’s world which sexualises women is the practice of “FACING”, described by Lenny’s friend Vishnu as a “way to judge people and let them judge you. You look at a girl, the EmotePad picks up any change in your blood pressure. That tells her how much you want to do her” (86).  Becoming a futuristic male gaze of sorts, FACING reveals to the man the woman’s “fuckability”, “personality” and “anal/oral/vaginal preference” (86). Even more sinisterly, the practice also reveals any sexual trauma the women have experienced, “Walking past Annie, I clicked on her Child Abuse Multimedia, letting the sound of her screaming vibrate my eardrums as a pixelated disemobided hand hovered above an Image of her naked body and the screaming segued into what sounded like a hundred monks chanting the mantra ‘he touched me here, he touched me here” (90). Again, one wonders if this imagined technological advancement is totally inconceivable in our current society, with the rise of appearance-based dating apps such as Tinder being already a reality.

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Image depicting the dating app ‘Tinder’, from The Esquire

Eunice’s poor self-image “I know a part of him must be disgusted by my fat, fat body” (72), is at odds with the other characters’ sexual attraction to her, “a small Korean…who vaguely resembled a very young Asian Audrey Hepburn” (14), revealing how the increasing sexualisation of women, due to practices such as FACING, distorts their vision of their own bodies. Once again, this can be related in our own society with Manago viewing social networking sites to act as a “socialisation medium for three main features of objectified body consciousness: internalisation of culturally dominant ideals of attractiveness, body surveillance and valuations of the self based on appearance” (2).

From The Week UK

Shteyngart depicts a world in which sex, and the sexualisation of women, is deeply rooted in society through his depiction of clothing and technological devices which objectify his female characters. At times amusing, and at all times unnerving, these practices are not so far removed from our current society that we may consider the novel to be not so much a dystopian imagining, but a well needed warning.

 

Works cited

Huxley, A (‎1932) Brave New World, London: Chatto & Windus .

Manago, M. A, Ward, M, Lemm, K, Reed, L and Seabrook, R (2014) Facebook Involvement, Objectified Body Consciousness, Body Shame, and Sexual Assertiveness in College Women and Men. [Online]. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273307201_Facebook_Involvement_Objectified_Body_Consciousness_Body_Shame_and_Sexual_Assertiveness_in_College_Women_and_Men(Accessed: 26th November 2017).

Paul G Nixon, Isabel K. Düsterhöf (2017) Sex in the Digital Age, Abingdon: Routledge.

Ropelato, J (2018) Internet Pornography Statistics, Available at: https://www.toptenreviews.com/software/security/best-internet-filter-software/internet-pornography-statistics/ (Accessed: 24th November 2018).

Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. London: Granta Publications, 2010. Print.

Subrahmanyam, K., & Smahel, D. (2011). Digital youth: The role of media in development. New York: Springer.

Wright, Michelle F. (2016 ) Identity, Sexuality, and Relationships among Emerging Adults in the Digital Age, : IGI Global.

Sabrina in the Fridge: The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Graphic Novel in Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina

Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina represents the strengths and weaknesses of a contentious form that has struggled for legitimacy within the literary space. Comic books, or graphic novels, have aspired to a closer connection with wider literary culture and there is arguably no better time than the present in which to achieve this. With the ascendancy of social media, smart phone technology and video streaming services, story-telling has become ‘a more complex economy of words and images’ that saturate contemporary life. (Baetens 193) Literature is presented through an increasing number of different mediums, and graphic novelists have responded to this with a more significant focus on realism. Far from the hero-driven comic books that pervaded the twentieth century, Sabrina expresses the anxieties of the contemporary through banal depictions of domesticity and every day routine, coupled with the isolation of the subjects within. For example, Calvin’s pastel coloured home cages Teddy in a simple frame that presents his psychological anguish in a stark and naked way. (108) This is a strength of the graphic novel form, but as Sam Leith notes ‘We’re now at the point when depressed men doing nothing are as much a comic book cliché as superheroes’ and this has led to accusations of ‘shallowness’ towards the medium. (qtd. in Baetens 179) (Baetens 179) However, this ‘shallowness’ does not hold true for the detached narrative of Sabrina as it is only in ‘doing nothing’ that the isolating and frightening effects of internet culture can truly penetrate the text. (Baetens 179)

The murder of the title character in Sabrina, along with the media madness that follows, is amplified by an atmosphere of inter-textual internet conspiracy. As this atmosphere builds, the radio presenter blames an omnipresent ‘they’ because they ‘put us on a plane’ to ‘fly it into a building’ and sent ‘an executioner into an elementary school’, referencing 9/11 and the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. (Drnaso 101) By ‘us’ he claims to refer to the ‘lonely person clacking away at a keyboard: powerless’ but as Petter Törnberg demonstrates, these lonely persons ‘cluster together into tribes’ creating ‘echo chambers’ that spread ‘biased narratives, “fake news”, conspiracy theories, mistrust and paranoia.’ (Törnberg) Drnaso presents this through a series of emails sent to Calvin by ‘Truth Warrior’. ‘Truth Warrior’ confesses an interest in people at the ‘periphery’ of news stories, and his insistent emails, as well as the panels depicting clickbait articles, are reminiscent of the media frenzy surrounding Sandy Hook. (175) Suspicion falls on Calvin as a result of his connections to the US military and to Sabrina’s boyfriend Teddy. Truth Warrior and anonymous clickbait sites accuse him of being an actor paid to cover up Sabrina’s whereabouts. This is evocative of Alex Jones’s pronouncements that nobody had really died during the Sandy Hook shooting and that the victims of the massacre were ‘child actors’. (Baddour and Selby) The theory of ‘‘crisis actors’ is now a depressingly familiar trope’ and Drnaso’s panels mirror the internet images surrounding real world conspiracies. (Horgan)

Image taken from Snopes.com (A site that claims to be engaged in ‘the battle against misinformation’.)
Panels from Drnaso’s Sabrina which convincingly mirror conspiracy images found online. 2018. p. 122. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The similarities between the images found online and those in Drnaso’s comic are chilling, and it is the visual form of the graphic novel that makes this so effective to a twenty-first century audience.

Moreover, Sabrina is the first graphic novel to be long-listed for the Man Booker Prize which has been seen as a ‘major breakthrough for the format’, and whilst Drnaso’s unsettling insight in to our current moment is advanced, Sabrina is still subject to the intrinsic tropes of the form. (Marshall) ‘Women in Refrigerators’ has been a consistent theme throughout mainstream comic book narratives though the term was only coined in 1999. (Simone) The term ‘Women in Refrigerators’ or ‘fridging’ originated from a website created by comic book writer Gail Simone who based the name on the image of a murdered female character in a refrigerator in Green Lantern #54. (17)

Green Lantern finds Alex DeWitt dead in a refrigerator in Green Lantern, Vol 3, #54. p. 17.

The website provides a list of female comic characters whose death, rape, injury or disempowerment has been used as a plot device (typically for the advancement of male plot lines), and Sabrina could arguably make this list. A notable example of this trope can be found in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke in which we can see the treatment of Sabrina echoed through Barbara Gordan. The violence inflicted on Barbara is photographed by her tormentor and happens predominantly out of view. Barbara is stripped, shot by the Joker and rendered paralysed but this violence is not the focus of the novel. Instead, Barbara is used by the Joker to prove that good men can be driven bad and her suffering is described as ‘one bad day’ for the male characters. (Moore 39) As in Sabrina, the visual show of violence is discovered and viewed through perspective of male characters and it is their reactions that drive the plot of The Killing Joke forward.

Barbara Gordan’s body is used to psychologically torture her father in The Killing Joke. 1988. p. 26.

At the beginning of Sabrina, the title character is considered missing and this is introduced to us through the interactions between her boyfriend Teddy and his old friend Calvin. It is discovered that she is dead because her killer mailed a video tape of the murder to a nondescript office, but the reader never witnesses this violence. Instead, we view it through the impact on the men who find it and on Teddy and Calvin. (69)

Two male office workers watch the murder of Sabrina in Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina. 2018. p. 69.

As the narrative progresses, it does not matter how or why Sabrina is murdered, but how the internet perceives the murderer and distorts Calvin’s role. Drnaso uses Sabrina’s murder to escalate themes of internet paranoia and conspiracy, and to show the psychological impact this can have offline. In the same way, the internet users almost succeed in writing Sabrina out of existence in their attempts to implicate Calvin who never actually knew her. For this reason, Sabrina can be added to Simone’s list for its blatant disempowerment of a female figure in the advancement of a male dominated plot. (Simone) Despite this, Drnaso’s ‘chilling analysis of the nature of trust and truth’ is extremely effective in the graphic novel form, but I disagree with Chris Ware that he ‘does not lapse in to cliche’ as fridging is a long-disputed cliche of the medium. Moreover, Ware claims that the name Sabrina ‘echoes’ throughout this book, and though many aspects of the story intensify with ‘resonance and horror’, the role of the title character is not one of them. Much as Barbara Gordan is not the focus of Moore’s The Killing Joke, Sabrina is a mere casualty of Drnaso’s plot.

 

Works Cited

Baddour, Dylan and Selby, W. Gardner. “Hilary Clinton correct that Austin’s Alex Jones said no one died at Sandy Hook Elementary.” Politifact, September 2016. www.politifact.com/texas/statements/2016/sep/01/hillary-clinton/hillary-clinton-correct-austins-alex-jones-said-no/. Accessed 22 November 2018. Web.

Baetens, J., & Frey, H. The Graphic Novel as a Specific Form of Storytelling. In The Graphic Novel: An Introduction (pp. 162-188). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Print.

Baetens, J., and Frey, H. The Graphic Novel and Literary Fiction: Exchanges, Interplays, and Fusions. In The Graphic Novel: An Introduction (pp. 191-216). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Print.

Drnaso, Nick. “Sabrina.” One-shot graphic novel. (May 2018), Drawn and Quarterly.

Horgan, Collin. “Ann Coulter, ‘Child Actors,’ and the Future of Reality.” Medium, June 2018. www.medium.com/s/story/ann-coulter-child-actors-technology-reality-4faafe797473. Accessed 24 November 2018. Web.

Marshall, Alex. “Graphic Novel in Running for Man Booker Prize for First Time.” The New York Times, July, 2018. www.nytimes.com/2018/07/23/books/booker-prize-graphic-novel-ondaatje.html. Accessed 23 November 2018. Web.

Marz, Ron (w), Carr, Steve (p), Aucoin, Derec (p), Banks, Darryl (p), and Tanghai, Romeo (i). “Forced Entry.” Green Lantern, vol 3, issue 54. (August 1994), DC Comics.

Mikkelson, David. “Sandy Hook Exposed?” Snopes, December 2012. Accessed 22 November 2018. www.snopes.com/fact-check/sandy-hook-exposed/. Web.

Moore, Alan (w) and Brian Bolland (i). “Batman: The Killing Joke.” One-shot graphic novel. (March 1988), DC Comics.

Simone, Gail. Women in Refrigerators. March 1999, www.lby3.com/wir/. Accessed 24 November 2018. Web.

Törnberg, P. Echo chambers and viral misinformation: Modelling fake news as complex contagion. PLOS ONE 13(9): e0203958. 2018. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0203958. Web.

Ware, Chris. “Sabrina by Nick Drnaso review – an extraordinary graphic novel.” The Guardian, June 2018. www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/02/sabrina-nick-drnaso-review-graphic-novel. Accessed 23 November 2018. Web.

Super Sad True Love Story: Humans, Posthumans and the Inevitable Dystopia

Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story writes with a vaguely familiar and all too realistic narrative depicting a ‘very near future’ in America. This novel centres on two entirely opposite characters: Lenny Abramov and Eunice Park. The former is a middle aged, middle class American man of Russian descent and the latter is a 24 year old Korean-American woman. Both characters are inflicted with low self-esteem and insecurities only healed through the realisation that each character represents what the other doesn’t have, what the other isn’t, and what the other believes they want. The narrative unfolds through a series of diary entries and online messages in an entirely illiterate America, highlighting a binary opposition between the ‘old world’ (the analogue age) and the ‘new world’ (the digital age). Lenny and Eunice then, are the vehicle in which this is detailed; they are the physical manifestations of ‘human’ and ‘posthuman’ in this worryingly accurate dystopian future.

Judith Butler discusses the idea of the precarity of human life, and for her, all life is precarious in that it is always vulnerable to death. She argues that “precariousness is coextensive with birth” and survival is dependent upon a “social network of hands” (14). In this instance, it is a particularly interesting phrase given how Shteyngart underscores his novel with this same idea of the human life becoming increasingly more precarious with the rise of social media and digital technology. Super Sad True Love Story highlights the notion of the ‘split self’ or the idea that we become two different versions of ourselves through the use of social media: the ‘real’ self and the ‘virtual’ self. The increased use of social media exposes this notion of self by opening individuals up to constant critique and judgement. An example of this is through the use of the Äppärät, a futuristic smart phone like device which hangs around the users neck at all times. This is frequently used to control and take command of all social interaction, holding (and sharing) all information about the owner, including medical history, personal attributes and credit ratings. Raymond Malewitz describes this era as a move from “liberal humanism to digital posthumanism” (111).

Lenny Abramov is a 39 year old male living in an era where he is old and ‘uncool’ due to his love for books and his ignorance towards the current trends. Shteyngart emphasises the increasing illiteracy, particularly amongst the younger generation by detailing Eunice’s GlobalTeens chats as highly simplified and heavily loaded with acronyms. Eunice represents the younger generation who often use this style of writing to communicate affection towards one another. This reflects the destruction of a previously literate society; a further emphasis on this stems from the primary occupations being credit, retail and media. Furthermore, Lenny uses vocabulary which is ceasing to exist within the younger generations and at one point reminisces of how things used to be when a woman refers to the weather as “blustery”. He relishes in the “precision and simplicity” and the fact that they “were communicating with words” (304). Similarly, Stephanie Li explains how the “obsessive focus on youth makes history seemingly irrelevant” (103). This is evident through Shteyngart’s satirical method of representing how the future (seemingly not that far away) will be, highlighting the ideas and issues that he is trying to raise, of how the “digital hive is growing at the expense of individuality” (Lanier 26).

Image depicting the future of digital technology. From The New York Times.

Jaron Lanier posits that the “most important thing about a technology is how it changes people” (4). This quote firmly aids what Shteyngart is attempting to do with this novel and returning to the idea of individuality and the concept of self, it is important to note the differences between the online/virtual person and the real world person. Not only are people able to openly judge, discriminate and critique others, they are also able to perform anonymously. At one point Eunice mentions how she “gave him a photocopy of who I was, without telling him that I was unhappy and humiliated and often, just like him, all alone” (134). An example of a contemporary teenagers struggles with self worth and the depiction of happiness on social media. Furthermore, Lanier metaphorically explains the dangers of this impending dystopia and how it can affect both our individual selves and the society in which we live in. He writes “you can believe that your mind makes up the world, but a bullet will still kill you. A virtual bullet, however, doesn’t even exist unless there is a person to recognise it as a presentation of a bullet” (27). This idea of the virtual self and the anonymity that accompanies it is so much more than the ‘younger generation taking over’ but rather a highly dangerous, completely illiterate and media obsessed society that is, as the saying goes ‘taking one step forward and two steps back’.

Super Sad True Love Story is an ironic and deeply concerning novel making the reader feel anxious about what the future may be and what it may become (does posting a blog on the internet submit to all the horror that Shteyngart illustrates in his novel?). There are undertones of various different thematic issues which run through this novel, namely capitalism and political agendas, however, I find the most interesting and disturbing element of it to be that this narrative is so familiar for a contemporary reader. This is evident through Lenny’s departure from the United States; he explains, “I wanted to be in a place with less data, less youth, and where old people like myself were not despised simply for being old” (328). This serves as not only a warning but also as a reminder; something to consider about a future which will greatly impact us all.

From The Atlantic Magazine

Bibliography

Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? London: Verso, 2009. Print.

Google Talks. “Gary Shteyngart: “Super Sad True Love Story” | Talks at Google.” YouTube. 13 January. 2012. https://m.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=mrlaqvH6bzU Web. Accessed 15 November 2018.

Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget. London: Penguin Books, 2010. Print.

Li, Stephanie. “Techno-orientalism and the end of History in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.” Dis-Orienting Planets: Racial Representations of Asia in Science Fiction. Ed. Isiah Lavender. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2017. 102-116.

Madrigal, Alexis. “Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad Blueprint for a Post-Literate Future.” The Atlantic. 12 August 2010. Web. Accessed 19 November 2018.

Malewitz, Raymond. “Some new dimension devoid of hip and bone”: Remediated Bodies and Digital Posthumanism in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory. 71.4 (2015): 107-127.

Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. London: Granta Publications, 2010. Print.

Wood, Michael. “Never Say Die.” The New York Times. 6 August 2010. Web. Accessed 19 November 2018.

“People’s Lives”: Capitalism and Responsibilisation in Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live like This

The question of what the primary cause in the decline of Detroit from the manufacturing hub of almost three million in 1950 to its meagre six hundred thousand today is still one of fiery debate. With factors such as the collapse of the American auto industry, to poorly planned freeway construction to the fallout of riots in suburban areas; each answer demonstrates that Detroit was unluckily subject to the changing tides of large scale systemic, economic and political change. That is all to say that it would be wrong, in a sense, to “blame” Detroit for its decline because in truth luck played a large part in its fall from grace. However, if this consideration can be made for Detroit Benjamin Markovits’ novel You Don’t Have to Live Like This (YDHTLLT) seems to question why we can’t make the same consideration for the city’s residents. YDHTLLT is a novel of many lives where its protagonist, Marny, partly as a habit of discipline from his past life as an academic, partly as the result of his weekly newsletter, records and codifies the lives his new neighbours in the novel’s urban commune. Despite the wide variation in lived experience which brings each resident to Robert James’ new “Groupon model for gentrification” (17) a pervading theme throughout each account is the notion of responsibility and the unquestioned conclusion that failed ambitions and adversity lie squarely at the feet of the individual.

Abandoned houses in Detroit (Photo by Kevin Bauman)

Mark Fisher in his essay “Good for Nothing” writes that one of the constant truths in the logic of capitalism and “one of the most successful tactics of the ruling class” in reproducing and defending capitalism from its inherent tensions is “responsibilisation.” Through this process each member of society is encouraged into feeling that “their poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment, is their fault and their fault alone” with media and common wisdom teaching that had they done a better job of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps their lives would be different. Similarly, society’s “successful” individuals are lauded for their individual talents and mythologised as the type of people, it is argued, who deserve their vast wealth. Kurt, a member of the novel’s neighbourhood watch, embodies this mindset as he explains to Marny that Sean Penn is “famous for a reason”, he is “smarter”, “in better physical shape” and “he’s got more energy and intellectual curiosity about the world than anyone you’ve ever met.” (172)

Mark Fisher, theorist

Robert serves as a perfect example of this as he attempts to craft himself into the man he imagines would deserve his enormous inherited wealth. He asks Marny what the “deal” is with specific books, as if, Marny explains, he imagined large ideas were better summarised in a few pithy sentences to be consumed and then regurgitated when of use. He also imagines the only reason Beatrice could be attending the “kennedy school” is for “connections”, (45) again here Robert is assuming wealth is distributed directly down to who makes the most savvy decisions, an idealistic opportunism which perhaps explains his desire to recreate the environment of the “founding of the country.” It’s this inescapably American notion of the “pioneer’s existence”, as Robert himself describes it, wrapped up with his Detroit endeavour and the mythology of limitless self-improvement which really captures Robert’s attention in the first place for what is, as is revealed, really not a particularly profitable endeavour.

The guardian’s review of Markovitz’ novel writes that it troubles the positivistic assumptions of silicon valley’esqe personal betterment and this perhaps explains the similarity between the protagonist’s name “Marny” and the novel’s constant dialogue with modern philosopher Jaron Lanier. Lanier warns against the potential danger of a collectivist approach to dealing with technology in the modern age, instead advocating for the absolute dominance of the individual up to selling one’s browsing data to the companies that seek to profit from it. A parallel here in Markovits’ novel can be found in the neighbourhood’s system of e-change, an application where favours are digitalized and commodified. Users accept jobs such as moving furniture in exchange for money and ratings ranging from help to sociability. As indicated by Fisher the psychiatrist David Smail categorises this phenomena of treating the uncontrollable, such as the natural development of a community, as being under the power of specific individuals by what he calls “magical volunteerism” which he describes as “the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society.”

Given Robert’s general, if not specific, successes and the continued impoverishment of the commune’s poorest residents it might be argued that Markovits’ novel does nothing to challenge the paradigm of responsibilisation. However, the character of Nolan serves to problematise this reading, his constant attempts to “take matters into his own hands” and reshape the commune by his individual will, culminating in the kidnapping of Tony’s son, brings him nothing but failure. It seems in Markovitz’ novel individual agency and the ability to combat systemic pressure lies only with those who the system already favours.

White-Saviour Complexes in Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live Like This

A vein of utopianism runs through Benjamin Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live Like This, as Greg Marnier struggles with his own sense of belonging. Greg Marnier, or Marny, a thirty-something college-educated white American male, daunted by the burden of his stagnated life, decides to up-sticks to the “black city” (Markovits 63) of Detroit. While Marny is numb with apathy, traversing life like a “computer game” (24), it is his Yale pal Robert James who fervently speaks of his “Groupon model for gentrification” (17). It is apparent Robert has been reading his Thomas More, as he convinces Marny of the potential in the empty but “beautiful big houses” (17) that stand empty on the streets of Detroit. With sovereign authority, he has already considered how to organise the division of labour, the “plowing [of] land in to farms”, among his “mass of people” (17).

Thomas More’s Utopia Image taken from ctscatholiccompass.org

Robert’s utopian endeavors, however, provide a self-serving colonial undertone to the narrative. He reminds us of the early settlers of the America’s; that they were “shipped over by private companies” in a “business venture”, and that he believes his project in Detroit belongs “to the same tradition” (53). Robert is correct. In 1606, James I of England granted charters to establish two joint-stock companies to pay for the establishment of permanent settlements in North America (Lombard and Middleton 152-53). Early settlers were recruited with the promise of a utopian vision of society where they would be free from religious persecution. It is this colonial tradition that influences Robert’s every action concerning his new settlement. From his early conceptions, to his “big political fund-raiser” (162) in which he plays on the “story of the Pilgrim’s feast” (168) to emulate a sense of fraternity, Robert James is the poster boy for white male entitlement.

Blind to his privilege as a white man, and ignorant of his inherent racism, Marny also suffers from “entitlement disorder” (Hall 577). Entitlement disorder, as Ronald Hall posits, occurs when “perspectives of White male[s] are distorted by power and [a] sense of entitlement”. It is a “need to dominate in whatever venture” (Hall 562). Marny, despite his station, and even after attending the prestigious universities of Yale and Oxford, has not been afforded the luxuries he was promised. He has itchy feet and a desire to find meaning, as he wonders whether there is a “better test” of who he is than “middle-class American life” (Markovits 4). It is not an altruistic personality that brings Marny to the “hip and cheap” (27) Detroit, but rather because he has lost his “momentum” (12).

Teju Cole, contemporary author of Open City (2011), succinctly summarised the definition of ‘The White Savior Industrial Complex’ in a seven Tweet Twitter thread in 2012. He states, “The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” (@tejucole). These are not new ideas. Cole describes the age-old question of the white man’s place in the world. How does the white man navigate the world in its post-coloniality, while still upholding their dominion? If Markovits’ novel is anything to go by, the answer is to commit further missionary acts. Each year, under the guise of well-meaning intentions, thousands of privileged youths will pay to be involved in volunteering missions to rid the poor of their poverty. These short-lived trips barely scratch the surface of the people’s customs, or their country’s cultures or problems, ultimately serving the volunteer as a CV booster. In few cases, people like Louise Linton will regurgitate Heart of Darkness rhetoric, of Africa as a place of the white person’s ‘living nightmare’ (Linton, 2016) .  Marny, too, was one of these “middle-class teenagers stripping walls” (47). I do believe the intentions of volunteers are almost always honest, but why then do they often leave focused on their improved sense of self? Just as Marny keeps thinking about his summer of volunteering, and “what it meant that fifteen years later [he] was fixing up one of these down-and-out places” (48) for himself, white Westerner’s development can be attributed to the struggles of people of colour.

Selfie-obsessed white saviours in Africa. From Henry Johnson’s ‘The White Savior Mentality’

Cole’s intentions behind his Tweets are to break down the “enforced civility” surrounding marginalised voices; to challenge the “policed language” (Cole, para 6) used when calling out racism. There is a certain amount of “White Fragility” (DiAngelo, 2011) preventing white people from confronting their innate racist tendencies. According to Robin DiAngelo, they live in an “insulated environment of […] racial comfort” in which tension builds so much so that a “minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” (DiAngelo, 54). Marny exhibits these behaviours when antagonised by Beatrice on his generalisations of black Americans. He becomes hot under the collar, raising his voice to Beatrice to say, “Maybe I don’t like being told that I’m a racist” (52). Despite his obvious flaws, there may be hope for Marny yet, as he recognises the shame in the poverty tourism to be found at Robert’s fund-raiser function. He notices “photographs on the walls, a lot of disaster kitsch, Detroit landscapes, burned out houses and teddy bears in the snow”, and feels depressed by the financially advantageous nature of those behind the camera. Marny, by the end of You Don’t Have to Live Like This, appears to have found a place in his new cross-cultural community, but how far has he really been assimilated?

Burned house in Detroit by Steve Neavling

 

Teju Cole, (21 March, 2012). ‘The White-Savior Industrial Complex’, The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/

Robin DiAngelo, (2011). White Fragility, International Journal of Critical Pedagogy Vol 3, pp 54-70

Ronald E. Hall, 2004. Entitlement Disorder: The Colonial Traditions of Power as White Male Resistance to Affirmative Action, Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 3 No. 4, pp.562-579

Louise Linton, ‘How my dream gap year in Africa turned into a nightmare’, The Telegraph, (1 July, 2016), https://web.archive.org/web/20160701064204/http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/how-my-dream-gap-year-in-africa-turned-into-a-nightmare/

Anne Lombard and Richard Middleton, 2011. Colonial America: A History to 1763 (4th ed.)

Benjamin Markovits, 2015. You Don’t Have to Live Like This (London: Faber & Faber)

Debunking Islam and re-educating the non-Muslim American public: ”Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers details the real-life experiences of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American man who is detained in a makeshift prison camp following the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Whilst the horrific details of Zeitoun’s arrest and detainment is a primary example of racial and religious discrimination, the build-up of the novel detailing the importance of religion for the Zeitoun family and Kathy’s conversion to Islam has a powerful effect for readers. The religious discrimination portrayed in the novel provokes sympathy for its readers but also serves as an anti-prejudice mechanism to debunk pre-conceived notions of the Islamic faith and an education on its principles.

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak/Time Magazine)

The war against terror by the Bush administration had a tremendous effect on the rescue operation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Michael Eric Dyson details on how the war in Iraq ‘stymied the response’ of the National Guard in New Orleans and diverted the resources from the Army Corps of Engineers. (Dyson 80) Dyson also notes the budget cuts administered by President Bush for the Corps, as the budget for the Iraq war increased. (Dyson 81) With funds unevenly distributed to fuel the war on terror and chaotic arrests and the creation of Guantanamo Bay, New Orleans was left a disaster zone after Hurricane Katrina, as it is depicted in the novel. It also illustrates the panic felt by the United States government over Islamic terrorism. Judith Butler writes that ‘fears can give rise to an impulse to resolve it quickly, to banish it in the name of action’ (Butler 29) Not only is this transparent in Zeitoun’s imprisonment in Camp Greyhound but is alluded to throughout the novel especially in the religious discrimination faced by Kathy, Zeitoun’s wife.

The entire passage describing Kathy’s conversion is carefully plotted out to disprove the discriminatory stereotypes that are often associated with people of the Muslim faith. As Kathy recounts her discovery of Islam and journey through the religious conversion, she mentions some of her findings while learning about the basic principles of the Islamic faith. She learns that she was misinformed of Muhammed’s role in Islam and believed Him to be ‘the actual God of Islam’ (Eggers 72) and also that Allah means God in Arabic and that Christians in the Arab World actually refer to God as Allah. (Eggers 76) Eggers draws upon the similarities between Christianity and Islam in order to familiarise readers of the connections between the faiths whilst also gaining sympathy and understanding for the religious discrimination faced by Muslim followers. Kathy, alongside the readers, is discovering that her previous beliefs about Islam were false.

Kathy and Abdulrahman/ Michael DeMocker/Times/Picayune Archive

The passages that describe Kathy’s conversion to Islam has a defensive tone as if Kathy is speaking to a critical stranger. These thought processes are directly pointed at the reader, as well as disapproving figures in Kathy’s life. Kathy described how Islam gave her a ‘sense of personal responsibility’ and how she liked the ‘dignity and purity’ that she found in other Muslim women she had encountered. (Eggers 77) This disproves the argument of women being oppressed by Islam, which is one of the most prevalent criticisms made against the religion. By contrasting the perception of women in Islam as oppressed with the image of independence and personal freedom for women, readers are given another perspective that is often foregone.

The defence of Islam is particularly palpable in the passage illustrating different types of Muslims such as the ‘passive’, ‘uncertain’, ‘borderline agnostic’ and ‘devout’, and pointing out those who ‘twist the words of the Qur’an’ to enact personal desires (such as Islamic terrorists). Kathy draws upon these notions of Muslim people to the defence of Islam and says these characters are ‘familiar’ and ‘intrinsic to any faith’. (Eggers 72) This deconstruction of Islam, and especially to the different kind of people that practice Islam, is debunking the stereotypes and myths about the Islamic faith. This passage portraying Kathy’s education of Islam translates to the education of the reader also, as if Eggers is attempting to deconstruct people’s knowledge (or lack thereof) of Islam, which is made easier by beginning from the groundwork of a topic and building upon it. The defence of Islam is commonplace for many Muslims in the West, with the increased prejudice and hate directed towards the community. Nguyen references this in the USA and states that the number of hate crimes towards the Muslim community increased after September 11 (Nguyen xxii) and that criminal prosecution against civil immigration violations increased due to the inflated fear of Muslim individuals. (Nguyen 140) This portion of the novel not only is an education for Kathy, but also for the reader. The association between Islam and Islamic terrorism is separated and Eggers decides to explore the rudimentary basics of the religion that the reader otherwise may not have known.

A Donald Trump supporter holds up an anti-Muslim poster near the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July. CNN

Baudrillard stresses that the ‘real victory’ of terrorist actions is the obsession with security in the West and the ‘perpetual terror’ that is formed in societies through fear-mongering. (Baudrillard 62) With the ever-presence of ISIS, suicide bombers in Europe and the anti-immigration rhetoric, increasing political tensions and furthering religious discrimination in non-Muslim countries, the importance of this anti-prejudice message is as relevant now to the Western world as it was when Zeitoun was first published.

 

References

Baudrillard, Jean. The Spirit of Terrorism: and, Other essays. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso, 2003.

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life. London: Verso, 2004.

Dyson, Michael Eric. Come High or Hellwater: Hurricane Katrina and the color of disaster. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2007.

Eggers, Dave. Zeitoun. London: Penguin Books, 2010.

Nguyen, Tram. We are all suspects now: untold stories from immigrant communities after 9/11. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.

“The barrel itself was rotten:” The Sovereign State in “Zeitoun”

On Tuesday 6th September 2005, as the city of New Orleans lay submerged in water, state forces incarcerated Abdulrahman Zeitoun on the speculation of his participation in a terrorist cell linked to al-Qaeda. Through Zeitoun’s detention, the culmination of a systematic attack perpetrated by the sovereign, Eggers exposes the fragility of liberty under the Bush administration.

Credit: AP Photo/Dallas Morning News/Smiley N. Pool via CBSnews

As mentioned, Zeitoun’s incarceration is not his first altercation with the sovereign. Indeed, this battle began on his entry into the United States. Foucault helpfully explains this through his definition of biopower: a system that subjects life “to precise controls and comprehensive regulations” (137). He elaborates, in Society must be defended, that biopolitics divides homo-sapiens into sub-groups (57). The sovereign’s power is then distributed among the sub-group for the purpose of capitalist fulfilment. Eggers showcases this through the construction of camp greyhound, a Guantanamo Bay-like prison. Whereby, the state utilised able-bodied prisoners from Dixon Correctional Institute to construct a make-shift encampment.

The process of attributing value through capitalist modes of usefulness results in mass disposability; in other words, biopolitics redefines “waste” as humans who cannot produce or consume goods (Giroux 308): the elderly, sick, poor, and the disenfranchised. This discriminatory political structure condemns migrant and racial groups to economic stagnation through thinly veiled policies, such as racial pay gaps and underfunding. Thus, limiting the possibility for production and consumption. So, while residents of New Orleans were…begging for rescue,” it is unsurprising thatthe portable toilets were available and working at camp greyhound,” and not at the makeshift shelter for displaced citizens, the Superdome. (Eggers 321)

 

Credit: Rick Wilking/ Reuters/ Corbis via Huffington Post.
Credit: Rick Wilking/ Reuters/ Corbis via Huffington Post.

For decades, biopower has been covertly implemented in the United States. Lee Atwater, the Campaign Strategist for Former President Ronald Regan, stated, in 1981:

you start out by saying “Nigger, Nigger, Nigger”. By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you, backfires. So, you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites” (New York Times, para.4).

 

Credit: Rick Wilking/ Reuters/ Corbis via Huffington Post.

Eggers shows, and Atwater reminds us, that existing biopolitical structures have a discriminatory core. Through biopower the sovereign imprisons its citizens in a catch-22. Economic sanctions lead to widespread poverty, faltering education, and crumbling infrastructure. These sanctions, consequently, reduce the sub-groupings value and lead to their disposability. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than New Orleans’ “Cancer Alley” (Pastor 21): A macabre nickname denoting impoverished residential areas “built on landfills containing arsenic, lead, mercury, barium, and carcinogens.” (Eggers 176). 

 

The success of Zeitoun’s business shows that escape from economic incarceration is possible. However, the arrival of Katrina sets the stage for a different imprisonment, a literal one. The cataclysmic impact of Hurricane Katrina forces New Orleans into the “state of exception’: A temporal existence where all previously established political and legal norms become obsolete. Such ruptures in the rule of law hold a special significance for Zeitoun, a Syrian born Muslim, as an exodus from the ‘state of exception’ lies in the sovereign’s distinction between the friend and the enemy (Schmitt 26). Violently extending Foucault’s sub-grouping, Schmitt’s enemy does not need to be “personally hated” (29) but must reside outside societal norms. The association of the enemy and abstract notions of otherness makes the distinction prejudicial. When coupled with the sovereign’s natural right to kill the enemy (46), minority groups are placed on death row.  

During Zeitoun’s imprisonment he feels shame in the naivety which facilitated his belief in the existence of legal accountability within state forces (73). Through this harrowing realisation, Eggers forces the reader to acknowledge a bitter truth; one where the sovereign can at any moment, providing there is a catalyst, dispose of all systems of checks and balances in the military, police force, and legal sphere. 

Credit: Illustration by Brad Holland via The New Yorker

Notably, Giorgio Agamben posits that the Concentration camps of the second World War symbolise the complete manifestation of the sovereign’s powers. They are “the place in which the most absolute conditio inhumana ever to appear on earth was realised(cited in Membé, 12). This is due to their role in transitioning the “state of exception” from a limited existence into permanence. Within the modern state, Guantanamo Bay, the “legal Black Hole” (Steyn 1), undertakes a similar role. By operating outside of the rule of law for a sustained period, Guantanamo Bay has transfigured the “state of exception”, for Muslim Americans, into the norm. Eggers exposes this situation and reveals Katrina to be a mere tool used to justify the extension of sovereign dictatorship onto American soil. As such, Zeitoun’s imprisonment says “quite clearly, that this wasn’t a case of a bad apple or two in the barrel. The barrel itself was rotten” (315).

Klein coins the term “disaster apartheid’ (53) to refer to biopolitical death. She is specifically referring to economic sanctions however, to appropriate this term, I have extended it to encompass the violent, reactionary sub-grouping of the enemy, and the “complete and unchecked power [of the sovereign] to keep [Zeitoun and Nassar] detained and hidden indefinitely” (Eggers 263). In a moment of true clarity for the reader, Zeitoun recalls a conversation, long before Katrina, when Kathy half-jokingly lamented their family becoming “collateral damage in a war that had no discernible fronts, no real shape, and no rules” (262). Here, Kathy is ignorant of the biopolitcal forces working against her, but not of the “War on Terror” which, for her, symbolises Muslim American Oppression. Kathy’s uncomfortable laughter juxtaposes and sombrely highlights the aforementioned “Disaster Apartheid” already underway.

So long as the sovereign’s powers are conflated with disposability, liberty abdicates her place in the American Constitution. If American citizens wish to reclaim liberty, the scope of the sovereign’s powers must be constrained. 

 

Works Cited:

Eggers, Dave. Zeitoun. London: Penguin Books, 2009.

Foucault, Michel. The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. Translated by Robert Hurly. New York: Picador, 1998.

Foucault, Michel. Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the College De France 1975-76. Translated by David Macey. New York: Picador, 1997.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Giroux, Henry, A. “Violence, Katrina, and the Biopolitics of Disposability.” Theory Culture Society, vol 24, no 7-8, 2007, pp. 305-309.

Klein, Naomi. “Disaster Capitalism: The New Politics of Catastrophe.” Harper’s. 2007 http://www.phirossophy.com/uploads/1/4/1/2/14122264/disaster_capitalism.pdf  Web. Accessed. 29 October 2018.

Mbembé, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture, vol 15, no 1, 2003, pp.11-40.

Pastor, Manuel, et al. “Environment, Disaster, and Race after Katrina.” Race, Poverty, and the Environment, vol 13, no 1, 2006, pp.21-26.

Rosenthal, Andrew. ‘Lee Atwater’s “Southern Strategy” Interview.” New York Times. 14 November 2012. Web. Accessed 28 October 2018.  https://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/lee-atwaters-southern-strategy-interview/

Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. Translated by Harvey Lomax. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1996.

Steyn, Johan. “Guantanamo Bay: The Legal Black Hole.” International and Comparative Law Quarterly, vol 53, no1, 2003, pp. 1-15.

 

Ornamentalism and the Japanese Crime Novel

In her 1992 book African Novels and the Question of Orality, Eileen Julien coined the term ‘ornamentalism’ to define the tendency of anglophone African novelists to exaggerate aspects of their cultural identity, as a means of establishing a prominent cultural divide from their Western readers. Brenda Cooper helpfully elaborates that ornamentalism “results from the pressure on African novelists to ‘authenticate’ their writing as genuinely African by dressing up their European structures of thought in the garb of African oral traditions, national languages, and folklore” (12). While Julien and Cooper theorize in the context of postcolonial African fiction, I do believe that they raise an interesting point – one that might affect our understanding of all foreign fiction.

Of course, Natsuo Kirino is a Japanese crime novelist, and her 1997 novel Out is undeniably Japanese in timbre. Written in Japanese (translated into English only in 2004) Out is Kirino’s first novel to be translated into the English language, and its gory plot unfolds in the heart of Tokyo. I am concerned, however, with the extent to which Kirino belabours the ‘Japanese-ness’ of her novel. Anticipating the international success of her novel, is it possible that Kirino emphasised (over-emphasised?) aspects of Japanese life and culture that would have otherwise been left unsaid if aimed at a solely Japanese readership?

An initial reading of Out suggests that, yes, there is a blatantly obvious sense of ‘Japanese-ness’. To Western readers, there seems to be an abundance of untranslated Japanese names; from the first page alone, Masaka Katori arriving off the Shin-Oume Expressway to a boxed-lunch factory in the Masashi-Murayama district leaves little doubt about the novel’s situation.Indeed, the nucleus of the novel, around which the entire plotline orbits, is a boxed-lunch factory. As Nakanishi has identified, the “bento or boxed lunch is a staple of Japanese life”, while the fact that the novel’s principle characters are factory workers ensure that “Out is saturated with the atmosphere of Japanese factory life” (von Hurter).  As the plot unravels and readers are plunged into a world of yen, yakuza, and rice for breakfast, Western readers are left feeling vaguely distanced and disorientated by the foreignness of their reading experience.

And yet, I am unconvinced that this was Kirino’s intention. By scrutinising universal issues such as female subordination, capitalism, violence, human psychology and crime, Kirino broadens her thematic focus away from just Japan, far across international borders. “While capturing the essence of contemporary life in Japan,” Davis argues, “she captures the essence of life in the contemporary industrial world, particularly for women”. While Out is firmly rooted in Tokyo, couldn’t this exact plotline have been executed just as effectively in New York, London, even Belfast? In fact, is the Tokyo represented by Kirino even the Tokyo a Western readership would immediately identify anyway? Seaman has suggested that Kirino’s city does not resemble “the standard landscape of gleaming postmodern architecture, teeming with banks and department stores and decorated with neon signs advertising world famous brand names” (201). Rather, the novel predominantly occupies the workspace and the domestic space – universally recognisable situations. In this, coupled with the fact that “Out presents a land and a people far removed from popular imaginings of a mysterious East of geishas and cherry trees” (Nakanishi), Kirino is breaking down cultural stereotypes of Japan through her novel.

I am led to believe, then, that Kirino did not fall victim to Julien’s ‘ornamentalism’ when composing “Out”. And yet, there appears to be a thread of ‘ornamentalism’ woven into Western criticism of this novel that begs attention; it seems that Western reviewers and critics are obsessed with reading a ‘Japaneseness’ into “Out” that simply isn’t there. We need only look at the titles of such writing to expose this: Stephen Poole’s review in The Guardian is (somewhat inappropriately) titled “Murder sushi wrote”, while Joan Smith’s in The Independent is named “What’s in a Japanese lunch box? Revolt and revenge”. Shockingly, von Hurter asserts in his review that “[f]amiliarity with sushi knives is useful when dismembering a body to be disposed of”. Even if we ignore his error (Masako’s tools of choice being saws and scalpels), von Hurter’s review unveils a deep-seated insistence on over-emphasising cultural significance in the analysis of a text. It seems that this spills over into the practical realm of marketing, also. The Japanese edition of “Out” features an ominous, coffin-like object, suitably foretelling Kirino’s murderous plotline. Meanwhile, various Western editions consistently exhibit nothing more than a close-up image of a Japanese woman’s face.

 

 

What we see here, then, is a Western fascination with the foreign other. It is the ‘foreignness’ of a text like “Out” that captures the attention of a Western audience, regardless of whether the writer intends it to be or not. Indeed, I think this is something Kirino addresses in “Out” through the strange relationship between Satake and Anna. Satake’s feelings for Anna fail to progress beyond mere infatuation; he calls her a “beautiful dreamy toy” (50), and consistently recounts superficial details of how she looks. In the scene at the swimming pool, for example, “he studied her body as she ran toward him” (226), and fixatedly details his findings. However, he does not want to pursue physical relations with her, nor does he enjoy her company on a platonic level. He is simply obsessed with observing her. This is of particular significance when we remember that Anna herself is not Japanese; she is from Shanghai. And thus, Satake is guilty of fetishising the exotic other – of detachedly engaging with her for the sake of superficial scrutiny. There is something in this infatuation that is reflective of Western obsession with the foreign. Our fascination with the novel’s ‘Japaneseness’ mimics Satake’s infatuation with the Chinese Anna, and by extension “almost thirty Chinese hostesses” he also employs as prostitutes (42).

 

Works Cited:

Cooper, Brenda. A New Generation of African Writers: Migration, Material Culture & Language. Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2008.

Davis, J. Madison. “Unimaginable Things: The Feminist Noir of Natsuo Kirino.” World Literature Today 84.1 (2010): 9-11.

Julien, Eileen. African Novels and the Question of Orality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Kirino, Natsuo. Out. Translated by Stephen Snyder. London: Vintage Books, 2006.

Nakanishi, Wendy. “Representations of the Politics of Sexual Violence in Japan” Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies 13.4 (2013).

Poole, Stephen. “Murder sushi wrote”. The Guardian. 27 November 2004. Web. Accessed 23 October 2018.

Seaman, Amanda C. “Inside OUT: Space, Gender, and Power in Kirino Natsuo.” Japanese Language and Literature 40.2 (2006):197–217.

Smith, Joan. “What’s in a Japanese lunchbox? Revolt and revenge.” The Independent. 22 October 2014. Web. Accessed 23 October 2018.

Von Hurter, François. “Reading for Pleasure: Francois von, Hurter: Bitter Lemon Press Publisher Takes a Japanese Odyssey with Natsuo Kirino’s Out.” The Bookseller. 5272 (2007): 22.

Is it possible to get Out? Neoliberalism and the problem of freedom in Natsuo Kirino’s “Out”

Natsuo Kirino’s dark and eerie novel Out is set in Tokyo, a global city to focus on four women who work the graveyard shift in a factory which makes boxed lunches for the commuters travelling into the centre of the city to work. All of these women are trapped working in the factory due to financial necessity. Masako has been forced out of a financial institution because she asked for a pay rise. Yoshie’s husband has died, leaving her to look after her grandson and elderly mother-in-law. Kuniko is trapped in a cycle of working to pay off the debt she has accumulated by spending money on expensive things. Yayoi is working to keep her family afloat because of her husband’s philandering and gambling. Therefore, as suggested in the introduction of Globalization and the State in Contemporary Crime Fiction, Kirino concentrates on people who are “on the losing end of global neoliberalism” (11).

Neoliberalism as suggested, by an article in the Guardian is a reductive economic idea that assumes that all human activity is a form of “economic calculation” and as a result “strips away the things which make us human”. The space of the factory is one in which individuality is stripped away through dress, or “white uniforms” (5). Through the contrast of the stark, white uniforms and the “mulitcoloured street clothes” (7) which the workers were wearing, and the repeated use of the collective pronoun “they”, Kirino depicts the factory as a place where individuality is erased. Therefore, from the outset of the novel, the factory is presented as a microcosm of neoliberal society, reducing human workers to an indivisible mass of “bug-like” (7) creatures.

A bento factory conveyor belt- From Facebook

Therefore, Kirino introduces a crucial theme within the novel, capitalist control over the individual, which is taken to greater extremes as the factory is described in greater detail, “they had to take turns going to the bathroom […] You had to announce that you wanted to go and then wait your turn, which sometimes took as long as two hours in coming” (11). The natural bodily functions of the workers are halted so as material production isn’t impacted. The factory then, is a space in which the processes which are required to produce commodities overrule bodily processes, trapping the women in place “from midnight until five-thirty […] at the conveyor belt” (1).

Similarly, Kuniko’s character is representative of the larger trap or cycle within a neoliberal, capitalist city, conspicuous consumption which is the idea that “expenditure on or consumption of luxuries on a lavish scale […] enhance[s] one’s prestige.”. Breu notes that the, “emergence of the city centre as a space of luxury and consumption” means that there is a stark divide, “between economic winners and losers.”. The author’s conflation of the factory and the consumerist hub of the department store, “crowded rows of sturdy hangers, like those at a department store sale.” (7), further emphasises how workers are trapped in a neoliberal environment by pervading ideas of economic worth and societal prestige. Kuniko’s car and her “designer accessories, and her clothes [which are] obviously expensive” (2) are attempts to prove her value within a system which is driven by money. However, she is deeply in debt and must come to work in the factory in order to pay off that debt and so the cycle continues.

For these women, the global city is not place of opportunity or progression, as factory workers they are doing repetitive work which allows them to make just enough money to survive on. Even in the city, working in a credit and loan company Masako’s status as an (aging) woman, meant that, “No matter how hard she tried, or how well she did her job, she played no more than a supporting role” (202). After asking for her pay to be raised in line with what her male co-workers were being paid, she is harassed and chastised until she is forced to leave and enter the part-time workforce. Masako hits what the Japan Times calls the, “glass ceiling [that] women continue to hit in their careers.”. Therefore, Kirino’s portrayal of the workplace in general within the novel challenges notions that neoliberalism is progressive.

The turning point in Out is the moment when Yayoi kills her husband, Kenji and the other women are drawn into her criminal activity by helping their friend to dispose of the body. Breu argues that, “Kirino suggests that the criminal acts undertaken by the women are both enabled by, and a response to, the material conditions in which they work.”. Yoshie and Masako are the two women who dismember the body and it is repeatedly likened to working in the factory, “Now that it had become a job, Yoshie was once again in charge, as if she were directing operations from her place at the head of the assembly line” (98-9). In fact the rationality of the processes which the women learn in the factory help them as Masako “found that concentrating on the process helped to deaden her jangling nerves” (100) and by dismembering the body, they are helping Yayoi to get away with killing her dead beat husband.

Masako goes one step further and uses corporate rhetoric to convince Yoshie to help her, “She made a proposal […] would you do it If money was involved.”, to which Yoshie replies, “It’s more businesslike that way” (97). This connects to later on in the plot when Jumonji offers Masako a “business proposition” (333), dismembering bodies for money, therefore giving the women financial freedom and therefore allowing them to progress. However, as noted by Julia Ingalls, “ Out of necessity, […]  they need to adapt to the changeable rubric of the corporate mindset. They are loyal to no one [….] Their fundamental motivation is to win”. For example, when faced with dismembering the body of Kuniko, one of the women to which they were once loyal to in the factory, those who “help[ed] each other out” (8), Masako and Yoshie do so citing money as their reason for doing so.

Therefore, Masako has gained economic freedom through dismembering bodies, but is still caught in a cycle in which all of human life, even death, is thought of as a monetary calculation or as Ingalls puts it, “by attempting to subvert the agenda they are now part of it”. As a result, the novel is a narrative of anti-progress and antifreedom because their form of “resistance [or freedom] is figured by and within” (Brown, 3) a neoliberal system.

 

References

Breu, Christopher. “Work and Death in the Global City: Natsuo Kirino’s Out as Neoliberal Noir” Globalisation and the State in Contemporary Crime Fiction. Ed. Pepper, Andrew, and David Schmid. Palgrave, 2016.

Brown, Wendy. ‘Introduction: Freedom and the Plastic Cage’. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1995.

Ingalls, Julia. “Corporate Noir, or This Job is Killing Me”. The Los Angeles Review of Books. August 30th 2014. Web.

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/corporate-noir-job-killing/

Kirino, Natsuo. Out. London: Vintage, 2004.

Metcalf, Stephen. “Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world”. The Guardian. Friday 18th August 2017. Web.

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/aug/18/neoliberalism-the-idea-that-changed-the-world

“Still a struggle for working women”. The Japan Times.  8th April, 2016. Web.

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2016/04/08/editorials/still-a-struggle-for-working-women/#.W8ha6BNKj-a