With no mention of the titular character in it at all, critics have been squirming in their seats, unsure of what to think about the title of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, The Childhood of Jesus. Since its publication in the UK and other English-speaking countries in March, it has become the occasion of many outpourings of critical anxiety. Rare is the occasion when someone like Christopher Tayler in the London Review of Books can feel excited about their confusion; or address it honestly as Leo Robson does in the New Statesman. More common is a scramble to make sense of the thing, like Theo Tait’s ingenious attempt in The Guardian, or the dismissal of its importance in giving the book some other framework for evaluation, as in Justin Cartwright’s otherwise interesting guide to the book for the BBC. And with the publication of the work in the U.S. we can only expect more of the same.
The problem isn’t that the title doesn’t describe what’s in the book. It’s the way it doesn’t. It’s too big a title, too grand. It describes a character who, even if he is not literally related to the character in the book — a boy named David — works on such a larger scale that it wouldn’t even work figuratively. And so even when we can’t find anything meaningful in it, it is hard to believe that Coetzee didn’t mean it to be there. It seems, in other words, indeed serious, in being a little too serious — there’s no letup, no obliqueness in it, no irony that is clear and distinguishable.
The funny thing about it is that Coetzee may well indeed mean what he says, and to be taken to task for this is rather strange: as if once he seems too serious, critics think he can’t be serious at all. And this shows that however petty their reaction has been, the critics are on to something. We know Coetzee as a postmodern writer, a coy writer, playful, always up to something, or trying to be up to something. What we witness in this book is a change of emphasis towards seriousness, a stylistic change, or experiment in changing, which is remarkable to watch.
It’s visible in the straightforwardness of the story itself. The book is about a little boy David and a man old enough to be his grandfather, Simón, arriving in a strange Spanish-speaking land. We don’t know where they are from; we even don’t know their real names, since it was Belstar, the refugee camp where they were, that gave them these. Simón himself, through whose experience we witness most of what happens, doesn’t know anything about the child: details are hazy. “There was a mishap on board the boat during the voyage that might have explained everything,” as Simón puts it. “As a result,” he continues, “his parents are lost, or, more accurately, he is lost.”
The rest of the story is simply David developing under Simón’s care, as they both attempt to start what they call a “new life” together. After a few failed attempts to find the boy’s father and mother, Simón struggles to get a more permanent home for the boy. An old washed-up romantic, but without the confusing animalistic drives of a David Lurie (the hero/villain of Disgrace), he gets it into his head that what the boy needs is a mother. This can be achieved, he thinks, by simply finding one; Simón seems to assume, rather strangely, that a bond like this can be created just by arrangement. Improbably enough, on a hike one day he finds someone willing to be David’s mother, and delivers the boy up to a woman named Inés. But he still watches the boy from afar, and misses him. He folds himself back into the family, doing chores for them and small tasks, and monitors the care of the child, entwining his destiny more and more with his.
There is a strange feeling you can get while reading Coetzee’s work that you merely are hearing a yarn: in other words, that the direct, incredibly precise style is the only thing remarkable about what is simply a straightforward tale. The exact narration of plot borders on bottoming out and becoming the — exquisite, no doubt — chronicling of mere events. This feeling was, in Coetzee’s previous work, always countered by the work’s form breaking up, or turning against itself, which would remind you the precision and exactness was slowly working towards a point: that is, that the work was spare for a reason, that the economy plays generously with the things you are hearing about.
But here we have no postmodern tricks as in Slow Man or Diary of a Bad Year. No strange intertextual references as in Foe. No metafictional scenes like the close of Elizabeth Costello, wherein a strange set of judges in the afterlife ask the titular character, a world-famous author, if fiction itself is really worth anything at all — a fiction in which we hear about the meaning of fiction, and in which the status of the fiction we are reading seems to hang in the balance because of what happens within it. Here we simply have Simón befriending a child and believing in him, as it were, so it is no wonder that this feeling of flatness sticks around, and we think Coetzee has decided to stop with all this beating around the bush, with these sidelong ways of probing the depth of his characters.
There are a few tricks still up his sleeve, however. First and foremost there is the pace at which the tale is told, in another instance of that narrative economy which Coetzee has so perfected and which would make anything he writes engrossing. Then, more importantly there is the boy himself. He is, simply, fascinating. Especially in his conceptions and ideas of the world, which Coetzee relates sympathetically and which Simón can’t stop listening to. This despite their childishness, all their petulance and profundity, all their (in a word) contrariness. “Why do I have to speak Spanish all the time?” David asks Simón once. Simón patiently explains:
“We have to speak some language, my boy, unless we want to bark and howl like animals. And if we are going to speak some language, it is best we all speak the same one. Isn’t that reasonable?”
“But why Spanish? I hate Spanish.”
“You don’t hate Spanish. You speak very good Spanish. Your Spanish is better than mine. You are just being contrary. What language do you want to speak?”
“I want to speak my own language.”
“There is no such thing as one’s own language”
“There is! La la fa fa yam ying tu tu.”
Coetzee has David shout things like this often, in the way children do sometimes, where they have been thinking of something by themselves for an hour or so, playing out some internal fantasy of some sort, and suddenly inform you about it as if it was real, and as if it made sense to everyone and was obvious. It happens as David learns to read and talks about Don Quixote as if he were real, as he learns math and talks about numbers as if they had strange properties, as he talks about other people, and their strange characteristics or powers, and in so many other occasions in the novel. And while these fantasies are contrary and counterfactual, they compel. After hearing the boy’s own language, Simón objects:
“That’s just gibberish. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It does mean something. It means something to me.”
“That may be so but it doesn’t mean anything to me. Language has to mean something to me as well as to you, otherwise it doesn’t count as language.”
In a gesture that he must have picked up from Inés, the boy tosses his head dismissively. “La la fa fa yam ying! Look at me!”
He looks into the boy’s eyes. For the briefest of moments he sees something there. He has no name for it. It is like — that is what occurs to him in the moment. Like a fish that wriggles loose as you try to grasp it. But not like a fish — no, like like a fish. Or like like like a fish. On and on. Then the moment is over, and he is simply standing in silence, staring.
“Did you see?” says the boy.
The key thing about this moment, and about other similar moments, is that Simón did not see, or saw only for a second. But that this reserved and fiercely independent man can so thoroughly commit himself to trying to see, or, at the very least, can so thoroughly commit himself to seeing what it would be like to see, or, at the very very least, can so thoroughly commit himself to seeing what it would be like to see what it would be like to see…this shows Coetzee’s child here is much more than someone relating the wisdom that comes out of the mouths of babes — even perhaps the mouth of a baby Jesus. David is the vehicle for Coetzee’s effort to explore belief’s ability to conquer doubt — more particularly, the doubt of Simón — and of the way fantasies can coax even doubt itself into becoming a form of trust, of faith, of belief.
And as David’s fantasies increasingly disrupt the class in school, and the school threatens, eventually, to kick the boy out and put him in a disciplinary facility for children, Simón has to take this commitment even further, and consider whether he will follow the boy and run off again, away from the authorities, to somewhere else, another new life, or try and stick it out in the town and educate him out of his fictions.
For critics, the biggest problem with Coetzee in his early career was the way his style failed to engage with serious, real-world problems. As critics complained, he lived and wrote in South Africa in the midst of one of the worst crises of the century. Where, in the interesting fables he then fabricated, was anything of the brutal situation around him? Postmodern authors were addressing politics even as they wove interesting tales: Yet Coetzee worked in a sort of neo-Modern arid and ironic style implying that art needed to concentrate on things more ambiguous, sometimes concentrating on colonialism through allegory, representing the colonizers as much as the colonized. He was being contrary, in many ways.
Yet by now Coetzee has published much dealing with animal rights, among other things, and Disgrace dealt directly and provocatively with South African issues. What seemed lacking in the purity of his representations of life has been filled up with a closer and more interesting relationship with the world around us. In the recent edition of his correspondence with Paul Auster, Here and Now, we even find him grumbling about the financial crisis. In this respect, the dust jacket’s claim that The Childhood of Jesus is “allegorical” is misleading, a throwback to an earlier contrarian mood. For now we seem to find Coetzee dealing with a problem different in character: a question about the internal, rather than the external, limits of his work, the limitations of his own style.
It is a question of how far irony, self-consciousness, coyness, evasiveness, whimsy, reserve, and simple but efficient avoidance of the commonplace and real, can indeed address the opposite: sincerity, seriousness, truth-telling. While the world can be represented, can it only be played with? Can’t things be believed in? The Childhood of Jesus reminds us again how baffling Coetzee can be, but also that he can be tender, can have, as Frank Kermode once put it, “reserves of feeling that are tragic or even religious.” These are moments where he pretty clearly reminds us that no, we can believe in things, and we do even as we doubt. Play and seriousness have a way of communing together sometimes, with childlike simplicity.
The trilogy currently sitting atop the New York Times bestseller list is in many ways a fascinating one, the sort of Cinderella story that gives journalists a chance to make wild guesses about the future of publishing. E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels began on the Internet, evolved into e-books, were printed by a small Australian press, and, just a few weeks ago, were finally picked up by a traditional big publisher, Vintage, which paid seven figures at auction for the North American rights. It wasn’t a risky bet; the biggest trouble has reportedly been keeping physical copies on the shelves.
The book is notable, too, because to some degree, it’s forced erotica into the mainstream conversation. Much of the coverage of Fifty Shades of Grey has focused on sex: women are passing around the novels at spin classes and telling the Times how nice it is to be able to read porn and talk about it with friends. (“It’s relighting a fire under a lot of marriages,” one woman said.) But then there are the books’ origins: the trilogy started on FanFiction.net, as a story entitled “Master of the Universe,” in which James’ main characters, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, were called Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. It was Twilight AU, or Alternate Universe fan fiction, wherein Stephenie Meyer’s innocent girl and vampire were re-imagined as innocent girl and manipulative billionaire. The story eventually morphed into something more original — and “Masters of the Universe” was removed from the web — but the threads remained. “The book emerged from the steamy land of fan fiction,” said Jason Boog, discussing the legal and ethical questions for NPR. “Fifty Shades of Grey has opened the box underneath Pandora’s bed, and we need to decide what to do with the sexy publishing trend hidden inside.”
Why, when discussing fan fiction, do journalists often sound like anthropologists discovering some long-lost tribe — and a somewhat unsavory and oversexed one at that? To be fair, Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic novel, but it represents a mere fraction of this “steamy land.” Let me take a crack at it: fan fiction is original work with largely unoriginal foundations, in which writers take established fictional worlds and spin them into something else entirely. Outside of all of the various fandoms, and even occasionally within them, a few assumptions seem to prevail: that there is something inherently embarrassing about fan fiction, that it’s cause for anonymity and secrecy, and that it is overwhelmingly pornographic — and often seriously, creepily pornographic. There’s plenty of that stuff, sure, but then, there’s plenty of original erotica out there, too. It’s all a sliver of something much larger. For every story that puts Harry, Ron, and Hermione in some kind of BDSM threesome, there are a thousand stories in which they manage to save the world without having any sex at all.
The literary establishment seems divided on the subject — those who even notice fan fiction, at least. (It’s here that we can part ways with Fifty Shades of Grey, which, as a romance novel, doesn’t really fall under the purview of the “literary establishment” — and the blurry dividers between genres are a wholly different discussion.) Writing for TIME last year, Lev Grossman mercifully skipped the baffled anthropologist shtick: the piece was clearly the work of a super-fan, and he laid out the basics with a great deal of affection. Fan fiction is “still the cultural equivalent of dark matter,” he writes. “It’s largely invisible to the mainstream, but at the same time, it’s unbelievably massive.” (FanFiction.net, the largest fanfic site in the world, has more than two million users and nearly 600,000 Harry Potter stories.) Grossman continues:
Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.
Some authors seem to love the conversation, but some, for legal or creative reasons, seriously hate it. Grossman highlights a few of its vehement detractors, like Orson Scott Card, Anne Rice, and George R. R. Martin, who says on his website that, “Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out.”
But writers have been lifting and borrowing and refashioning characters, worlds, and settings since people began putting stories down on the page. Grossman draws a line between literary influences, allusions, and homage and the world of fan fiction: he highlights 1966, the year in which Star Trek premiered and Trekkies were, in turn, born, and in which two great literary heists were published: Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The latter pair were “written for profit, and they’re adorned with the trappings of cultural prestige; true fan fiction has naught to do with either one.”
I’m just not sure we need the distinction — and I’m not sure that it helps. Nearly every work of fan fiction on the Internet is accompanied by a disclaimer, some variation on “This story was not written for profit, and these characters are not my own.” But it’s copyright law at the heart of that, and to suggest that these writers have no interest in “the trappings of cultural prestige” creates a stark division between fan fiction and its literary counterparts. I have a deep respect for the devotion of fans, and I can certainly understand why one would write a story for love rather than for money. But it’s a multi-faceted world: many of these writers just want a different — and sometimes, a better — way into a story. Hasn’t literature has been doing that for centuries?
There’s fan fiction lore surrounding King Arthur and Don Quixote, but we find easier analogies with modern-day fan culture say, a few hundred years ago, when the novel as we know it was born. Copyright laws had been on the books since the seventeenth century, but the most successful eighteenth and nineteenth century writers watched helplessly as their characters were baldly lifted and reworked into sequels or just plain rewrites — and then sold to the public at a fraction of the price. Charles Dickens, already a victim of intellectual pirating across the Atlantic, watched domestic copycats put out seriously poor imitations of his books with dismay: “I have not the least doubt that these Vagabonds can be stopped,” he wrote. “They must be.”
This was pure plagiarism, meant to harm and to generate profit, not to elevate Dickens’s words. But a century earlier, Samuel Richardson found Clarissa, which he was publishing in installments, to be the subject of positive and somewhat extraordinary fannish speculation. Two sisters, Lady Bradshaigh and Lady Echlin, exchanged dozens of letters with Richardson, urging him to change the course of the novel (basically, they wanted to cut out the rape and death). In The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Carol Houlihan Flynn writes of Bradshaigh contacting Richardson: “Assiduously scribbling over the margins of all the volumes of the novel, she first writes him after finishing volume 4, cajoling, flirting, excoriating, loving, hating, but always admiring her torturer.” Her sister took things further: “Lady Echlin…seems more professional in her investment into the passions of Clarissa, and literally rewrites the novel…Richardson received and of course rejected her alternative ending, but they debated the critical differences in at least forty letters.”
The nineteenth century saw fans skipping correspondence with recalcitrant authors and writing their own endings for books that they loved, including the novels of Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and, most notably, Arthur Conan Doyle, who made the mistake of killing off Sherlock Holmes and whipping the detective’s admirers into a frenzy. The practice continued through the first half of the twentieth century, until the 1960s, when the term “fan fiction” was coined and the literary tradition merged with our current ideas of fandom — science fiction, “cult” television shows, terms like “continuity” and “canon” gaining significance in the process. As the Internet became pervasive, fan fiction communities grew and spread exponentially.
But the past half-century also played host to a lot of self-conscious borrowing and refashioning across literature: authors began to look for silences in the canon and probed the neglected perspectives they found there. Some post-colonial literature could easily be categorized as fan fiction. The most famous of these is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which follows Jane Eyre’s “madwoman in the attic” all the way back to the Caribbean. Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête draws the colonial themes out of The Tempest with an essentially direct re-writing of the play. J. M. Coetzee’s Foe exists within the confines of Robinson Crusoe, placing another character on the island with Crusoe and Friday, and explores ideas of authorial voice in the colonial narrative.
Outside post-colonialism, dozens of books fall within the realm of “parallel novels,” many of which take minor characters and expand their worlds. Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs emerges from Great Expectations; Geraldine Brooks looks for the absent father of Little Women in March. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours offers us two subgenres of fan fiction: the AU of the modern-day Clarissa, Richard, and Sally, and the RPF — that’s Real Person Fic — of the Virginia Woolf passages. With RPF, you’re not writing about Aragorn and Legolas’ lost adventures anymore — it’s Viggo and Orlando on the set, and who knew they might be an item? Every biopic that takes factual liberties could be classified as such, and the same could be said for plenty of books, from Colm Tóibín’s The Master (Henry James) to Ron Hansen’s Exiles (Gerard Manley Hopkins) to Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George (our old favorite, Arthur Conan Doyle).
So what’s the difference? Isn’t all of this just a bunch of variations on the same theme? Why does fan fiction’s stigma persist — and why are remixes and mash-ups, analogs in the art and music worlds, accepted, even celebrated? There’s something about the written word that limits all this unfettered refashioning, something that makes people more protective of their work. It’s the fear of plagiarism, perhaps, or the way that for many people, a character can feel so much dearer than a beat or an image ever could. But fan fiction — and all of its literary counterparts, however you classify them — comes from a place of love and admiration. Some people see a corner of a fictional world waiting to be explored; others just want to exist in the world past the last page of their favorite novel. After all, who among us hasn’t felt that way, closing the back cover of an amazing book and wishing that the author had given us a little bit more?
Why did J.M. Coetzee write The Master of Petersburg?
I mean this as an existential question; the purpose of the novel itself is unusually explicit: not content to be merely “Dostoevskian” in tone, Coetzee’s protagonist actually is Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the story is a fictional account of events in Dostoevsky’s life prior to, and leading to, his writing of the novel Demons. In that way, Master of Petersburg is a sort of reverse mathematical problem. Given a set of factors, it is a matter of simple calculation to derive their product. But what if you start with the product – can you work backwards to discover the original sum from which that product was derived? The possibilities, particular with a large, complex figure, would be infinite. Here, the novel Demons is the product, the effect, the outcome. And from the known answer, Coetzee imagines the unknown questions.
Set in Russia in 1869, Master of Petersburg follows “Dostoevsky’s” grief-stricken return to St. Petersburg after news of the death of his stepson, Pavel, for whom he felt a profound though inscrutable love. While living in Pavel’s old room, he develops a sexual relationship with Pavel’s old landlady, the widow Anna Sergeyevna, along with a fascination with her adolescent daughter, Matryosha. As he becomes increasingly enmeshed in the enigma of his stepson’s death, he discovers Pavel was a member of the nihilist Sergei Nechayev’s revolutionary gang. Nechayev, who is living in hiding, has all the while been scheming to trap Dostoyevsky so to exploit his fame as an author by forcing him to write a pamphlet endorsing the Nechayevite philosophy. Out of these ultimately ambiguous social and political interactions, Dostoevsky begins writing a new novel, ostensibly Demons, in the last chapter of the book.
This plot lies at the murky intersection between fact and two fictions, Coetzeean fiction and Dostoevskian fiction (i.e., Demons). Several elements are based in fact: Dostoevsky did have a stepson named Pavel, who was likewise something of an enigma, although he survived his stepfather. Sergei Nechayev was a real Russian nihilist and revolutionary, and his association with the 1869 murder of a fellow student, Ivanov, partly inspired Dostoevsky to write Demons, where he portrays such idealists of his time as demonic. But the story also draws from the plot of Demons itself, most heavily from “At Tikhon’s,” a chapter originally suppressed by Dostoevsky’s editors, in which the character Stavrogin confesses to having once seduced his landlord’s 12-year old daughter, Matryosha, and driven her to suicide. And finally, to this heady mix Coetzee adds some fiction of his own.
You have to give Coetzee credit for this undertaking, this deconstruction of both the power and process of writing. As a prominent South African writer, no doubt Coetzee was keen to examine the political power of the authorial voice, through Nechayev’s belief in the import of having a famous writer pen the words of a revolutionary pamphlet – and the extreme measures he would take to bring about such a coup. Equally contemplated is the personal power of writing, as it is a means for “Dostoevsky” to access his son, to “give up his soul” so as to “meet him in death.”
But when it comes to the process of writing, you can’t escape the fact that this is not Dostoevsky writing about Dostoevsky writing. It is Coetzee writing about “Dostoevsky” writing. Given this structure, it’s Coetzee’s own role in solving the reverse mathematical problem that compels above all. Why did he choose what he did, from fact, from Dostoevskian fiction, and from Coetzeean fiction? Moreover, Demons is not a novel in a vacuum: many of Dostoevsky’s real-life inspirations are documented, yet Coetzee replaces several of these with fictional inspirations of his own design. Is Master of Petersburg then an account of a fictional writing process? Or is Coetzee laying his own writing process bare?
It’s nearly impossible not to be sidetracked by these thought experiments while reading Master of Petersburg. The fact that much of the (Dostoevskian) fictional parts of the plot are dedicated to Demon’s excised chapter involving the young girl’s molestation is particularly distracting. Coetzee is not alone in holding Stavrogin’s confession as integral to Demons: while some think that Dostoevsky himself was dissatisfied with the confession, others view the forced excision of what was an indispensable chapter as rendering the novel morally asymmetrical. But the extent to which “At Tikhon’s” aligns Demons is not my issue; rather, it is “Dostoevsky’s” largely unexplained tendency to continually attach a sexual subtext to the young girl Matryosha’s interactions, whether with Nechayev, with a sort of version of Pavel that he imagines in the future, or even with himself.
[Dostoyevsky] has no difficulty in imagining this child in her ecstasy… This is as far as the violation goes: the girl in the crook of his arm, the five fingers of his hand, white and dumb, gripping her shoulder. But she might as well be sprawled out naked…
It’s eventually jarring how Coetzee deliberately (and repeatedly) advocates that “Dostoevsky” would be prompted by his own perception of a young girl as above all a sexual object to conceive of the particular molestation scene described in Stavrogin’s confession. I’m not implying this rings false (though it’s somewhat overdone), just that it highlights the major weakness of Coetzee’s particular form of the reverse math problem as fiction: the reader is often far more preoccupied with why Coetzee made his choices than with the choices themselves.
This brings me back to my original, existential question: why did Coetzee write Master of Petersburg? It’s an inspired project, but by its own premise it is merely an experiment, a study, rather than a novel. Coetzee has been criticized for his metafiction before: his 1986 novel Foe, which weaves its plot around Robinson Crusoe, drew him criticism for being a disappointingly politically irrelevant work coming from one of South Africa’s most lauded writers. The New York Times concluded that “the novel – which remains somewhat solipsistically concerned with literature and its consequences – lacks the fierceness and moral resonance of [Waiting for the Barbarians] and [Life and Times of Michael K]…”
However, my criticism of Master of Petersburg is of the literary, not political, variety. Countless excellent novels have been inspired by existing works, but though Coetzee’s writing is stunning, the story, composed of curious but ultimately inconclusive events, never takes hold. It offers much by way of intellectual exercise, but on its own fails to satisfy. More autonomous novels similarly fashioned out of vague questions and ideas contain a central truth or truths that are not merely valuable, but in a sense new, and that have thus driven the author to sit down to write. Here, the underlying purpose, the answer, exists in another novel altogether. And as it turns out, Dostoevsky’s answer is more interesting than Coetzee’s questions.
This winter, Millions contributors Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg both happened to pick up the M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Via email, we conducted a bicoastal conversation about Octavian Nothing, Volume I: The Pox Party, which we’re sharing with you this week in three installments. Part 1 focused on Form and Style. Part 2 focused on Historical and Geographic Setting. N.B.: Today’s installment contains plot spoilers.Part 3: Audience, Character, and ConclusionGarth: What makes a kids’ book a kids’ book, in the popular sense of the phrase? After having thought about this a lot, the answer I’ve come up with is: kids’ books often have a kind of “educational” component adult novels can get away with bypassing. This is a way of broaching the topic of audience. You mentioned earlier, Emily, that you wondered about the audience of this book, and I wanted to suggest that the question of audience may persist even if you ignore, for example, Anderson’s debt to Adorno (as one can easily do.)Emily: Yes, I think I agree with your idea that didacticism is what makes this YA, but I still find myself wondering what I would have made of this book in my early teens – I wonder if I would have liked it, or even understood it. In my own teaching at the university level, I have seen students struggle with 18th-Century literature. Of course, there are a lot of children’s books that abstract their plots and characters from philosophy and history that is more adult (Narnia’s Christianity, Jane Langton’s use of American transcendentalism in The Hall Family Chronicles, Jenny Davidson’s use of an alternative history of Europe (if Napoleon had won at Waterloo) in The Explosionist, Matthew Skelton’s use of Faust legends and the history of Gutenberg and his press in Endymion Spring). But I feel like Octavian is harder – the style is harder, the form is harder – even if the history itself will probably be more familiar. I like the idea of younger readers liking this book, but I am, nonetheless, a little surprised by it.Garth: This may be one of those things you’re not supposed to ask for from books about American slavery, Sept. 11, Naziism, and so forth, but I thought that the subtlety of Anderson’s moral sense lagged at times behind his technical gifts. Octavian offers an essentially monochromatic vision of the institution of slavery. He does a great job revealing the way it was bound up in the culture, extending the responsibility to most participants of that culture, but he leaves little room for gradations of evil. The ironies are often negations, rather than complications or paradoxes. Juxtaposed with his extraordinary formal achievements, this made me wonder, for whom was this book was written? Younger readers may find fusillades of prose flying by over their heads, while older readers may be disappointed by the lack of moral complexity. It may be argued that melodrama is one of the archaic conventions Anderson is playing with here, but Harriet Beecher Stowe got there in the 19th Century, and did it more convincingly. I should issue another spoiler alert here, by the way. I think we might have to give away some of the book’s secrets to discuss our criticisms.Emily: I wouldn’t say I have criticisms of Octavian as much as I have questions because it is a difficult book.Garth: Maybe this is a way of exposing myself as overly hungry for irony in the novels I read. But for me, the problem of moral certainty (and its potential solutions in Volume II of Octavian Nothing) is grounded in the characters themselves. After watching Anderson painstakingly reconstruct the cultural environment within which anyone found slavery sane, I was disappointed to see Mr. Gitney, the head of the Novanglian College of Lucidity collapse into simple villainy. I was more interested in him when he seemed merely compromised and self-deluding. Similarly, the virtuous Private Evidence Goring, who befriends Octavian, was a little too virtuous for me. He had this kind of Rousseauvian innocence – he seems genuinely colorblind, and naturally assumes his friend Octavian’s equality. He’s like a son of the soil. Could he really be uncontaminated by the pervasive ideology of slave-owning? I wanted at least to see him be really dismissive of a woman, or something. I guess I wanted him to be capable of change.Emily: I share your disappointment in Mr. Gitney. The one aspect of this book that I found kind of clunky was the way Gitney pursued his experiment on Octavian. He aims to discover if Africans have the same intellectual and moral capacities as Europeans, but that would necessitate having a European subject raised alongside Octavian in the exact same conditions. The betrayal of the rationalist empiricism that Gitney claims to defend is glaringly obvious – but not to him. Maybe a way around our dissatisfaction is to think of Gitney and Goring as allegorical figures? Goring as the bright, naive, fresh-faced idealism of a soon-to-be nation; Gitney as… well, maybe the inhumanity of which science and commerce are capable? Something like that? And Octavian – who I think will develop into a flesh and blood, three-dimensional character in future volumes – is trying to orient himself in the midst of all of these?Garth: Ah. This might explain my lack of feeling for Gitney and Goring. I don’t have much of a taste for allegory.Emily: Though, in truth, I was not so bothered by Goring as a character, allegory aside. Perhaps because I am more at home with the idioms of the eighteenth century, his character did not seem false to me – kind of Tom Jones-y, though a bit more religious. I found his naive idealism appealing and believable. A matter of taste, I think. I can appreciate irony but do not require it in my reading. Indeed, I have been known – forgive me, Oscar Wilde – to cry uncontrollably when Dickens describes Tiny Tim’s empty stool and crutch leaning against the wall in A Christmas Carol. My occasional problems with sensibility aside, though, I think allegory might be the key here.Garth: Dr. Trefusius, Octavian’s tutor, was a much more interesting character to me, because his complicated relationship to “the peculiar institution” recalled the Jeffersonian one I sketched in Part 2 of our conversation. Trefusius is hopelessly compromised and complicit, but is not beyond redemption. Indeed, his is the kind of character who necessitates redemption. Likewise Bono, the slave you mentioned earlier, who almost forms a dyad with Dr. Trefusius. His clear-sightedness comes at the cost of his optimism. I suppose I think this kind of muddled moral position has more to teach us, because it’s the one we’re more likely to find ourselves in – beneficiaries of institutions that would bother our consciences, if we allow ourselves to see them for what they are. But here I’m starting to sound like I’m asking for more didacticism. Perhaps didacticism in literature is a paradox. For the bald didactic “moral” can only teach us so much. It precipitates a gestalt shift; we can only learn it once. Whereas putatively amoral irony and ambiguity constitute an ongoing lesson in what life is like. This is what’s so remarkable about Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, by the way. It has volumes to teach us about how one human being can tolerate owning another. Speaking of character, what did you think of Octavian himself?Emily: Octavian is hard to grasp, elusive, there is a lack of emotion about him, a lack of self-knowledge that makes him seem something like autistic at times (added to his encyclopedic knowledge of natural and classical history, there’s a bit of a Rain Man effect). This might have bothered me more if it didn’t remind me of some of Defoe’s best heroes and heroines, particularly Robinson Crusoe, and also Coetzee’s equally emotionally opaque Foe. With the exceptions of Evidence Goring and Dr. Trefusis, all of the characters in Volume I strike me as emotionally broken and joyless, either by slavery or by a deformed and deforming commitment to a perverse version of rationalism.Garth: With Octavian, Anderson clearly wants to do something with the idea of scientific observation (in which his protagonist is trained) versus engagement, but Octavian’s tendency to become a transparent eyeball at key dramatic moments made it increasingly difficult for me to get a read on his character. I longed for a dawning complexity befitting the maturity of the language, but Octavian became less plausible to me the older he got. That is, I think I saw what Anderson was up to, but had some trouble suspending disbelief. I would have liked to have seen more of a moral duality in Octavian himself: struggling with his own urge to dominate others, to lash out in violence at weaker characters, to achieve Oedipal one-ness with his mother… you get the picture. Though perhaps the point is that observation versus engagement is itself a moral quandary. I wanted, finally, to see Octavian as a particular human personality, rather than as an Everyman shaped by forces beyond his control. I’m hoping this is what Part II is for…Emily: My question is whether Octavian can get beyond this broken, stunted, deadened quality in future volumes and if such an evolution can be convincing. Garth: So maybe this is a good point to leave off the discussion. This has been fun, Emily. Maybe we should do it again.Emily: Indeed!Bonus Link: A 2008 profile of M.T. Anderson from The Washington Post
Somewhere in the middle of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, the eponymous hero, by now several years cast away by himself on a deserted island, is startled awake by the sound a voice other than his own: “Robin, Robin, Robin Crusoe, poor Robin Crusoe, where are you Robin Crusoe? Where are you? Where have you been?”If you have read the novel (or my “Parrots, Pirates, and Protheses” post), you know that this startling voice belongs not to a newly arrived friend or rescuer, but to Poll, Crusoe’s parrot. And it is Poll’s words that I found myself thinking of while watching the second episode of NBC’s television adaption of Defoe’s novel: Poor Robin Crusoe. Where are you? What have they done to you?Those whose appetites for desert island antics and pirate slapstick were not sated by the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, by all means, tune in; Also those who measure entertainment by the number and diversity of booby traps made out of bamboo and rope (a la Indiana Jones): This show’s for you. For those us of us, however, who found ourselves entranced by the novel’s much more modest “dramas,” the show is a buffoonish disappointment.Crusoe’s island adventures in Defoe’s novel, for the most part, are domestic and agrarian. Rather than, “Will Crusoe and Friday free themselves from the curse of the water god’s tomb?” (as NBC’s version offered this week), the novel offers adventures such as “What will Crusoe salvage from the shipwreck before it breaks up?” “Will Crusoe manage to make bread?” “How will Crusoe catch and domesticate goats?” “Who made the single footprint in the sand?”The novel’s adventures are not about reveling in the lawlessness and primitive world in which Crusoe finds himself, but in getting out of that “meer State of Nature” and recreating the most basic domestic comforts of middle class life in late seventeenth century England: a reasonably varied diet, food, clothes, shelter, religion.One such adventure in the novel is making clay vessels for storing water and other necessaries: After two months’ labor, Crusoe manages to make “odd misshapen ugly things,” but of this laborious modest achievement, described in exacting detail by Defoe, Crusoe tells us: “No Joy at a Thing of so mean a Nature was ever equal to mine, when I found I had made an Earthen Pot that would bear the Fire.” And the satisfaction of these small world-making achievements is palpable – page turning – I promise. But when NBC’s adaption begins, these – the real dramas of castaway life – are already long past: Crusoe (Philip Winchester) and Friday (Tongayi Chirisa) are happily settled in an elaborate array of tree houses featuring an astonishing collection of technologically sophisticated contrivances, and Crusoe spends most of the time he is not having duels with busty pirate queens, or scoffing at Friday’s belief in dreams as divine messages (in the novel, it is Crusoe who takes one of his dreams as a sign from Providence), pining for his wife and children back in England (Oh, Robin Crusoe – how little they know of your emotional autism and your utter lack of interest in women, so deftly portrayed in J.M. Coetzee’s Crusoe adaption, Foe).Ironically, NBC’s Robinson Crusoe is redundant. CBS’s Survivor, in its umpteenth season, and ABC’s Lost, going into its fifth, are much more interesting engagements of the Western fascination with castaways and desert islands that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe began. While Crusoe would seem – because it is explicitly based on the novel that is the original Western fantasy of the castaway (and also a crucial tale in the history of European thinking about man in the state of nature, like Hobbes’ Leviathan and Locke’s Two Treatises) – to trump its predecessors in the realm of desert island television drama, but NBC’s rendering takes only the props and trappings of Defoe’s original and adapts them in Jerry Bruckheimer-y, Gore Verbinski-y, Steven Spielberg-y, George Lucas-y ways: a clownish balancing duet by Crusoe and his man on a stone bridge whose design defies all principles of engineering; jokey banter between Friday and Crusoe while cornered by supernatural tomb-guarding hounds; Friday’s slapstick escape from a pirate orchestrated by shaking a palm tree that brains the pirate with a coconut.Lost and Survivor, by contrast, are much more conscious of Defoe’s preoccupation in his Crusoe, namely, the difficulties of remaking civilization – both socially and materially – out of nothing. Lost dramatizes in genuinely alarming – haunting – ways the fear of the unknown that wracks Crusoe in Defoe’s novel (particularly after he finds a single footprint on the beach much too large to be his own); Survivor, in its admittedly contrived way, is much better at dramatizing the human ingenuity necessary to survive in a state of nature (though Lost attends to this reality of castaway life much more convincingly than Crusoe does as well).In short, if you are looking for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, don’t look for him on NBC. Though if you are looking for Indiana Jones or Jack Sparrow, NBC’s Robinson Crusoe might just be your man.
A recent post at Pinky’s Paperhaus entitled “The backwards academic,” muses critically on the backward-looking focus of the GRE subject exam in English literature, required for applicants to English department Ph.D. programs, and, in Pinky’s case, Ph.D. programs in Creative Writing.Having cited the breakdown of the GRE subject exam in English Literature (pasted in below from the post):- Continental, Classical, and Comparative Literature through 1925 – 5-10%- British Literature to 1660 (including Milton) – 25-30%- British Literature 1660-1925 – 25-35%- American Literature through 1925 – 15-25%- American, British, and World Literatures after 1925 – 20-30%Pinky expresses some concerns – both personal and philosophical:To sum this up, 70-80% of the exam focuses on work before 1925. 25-30% of the entire exam will be on BRITISH LIT BEFORE 1600. What concerns me isn’t that I can’t possibly do well on the test (I can’t. I was terrible at recognizing poets from excerpts when I learned them more than a decade ago, and I don’t know a caesura from a sestina) but what this focus indicates. The discipline, as it appears through the lens of this exam, is inherently colonial, still trying to prove to big bad monarch daddy that we deserve his love, we do, we really really do, because we can appreciate him and study his dirty bards and his pious poets and his sarcastic essayists and his metaphysical poets and his beowulf, thank you very much, and since we’ve been so good, may we please have some more moors, please?The essence of Pinky’s concern, is the exam’s historical focus – What about, she wonders, contemporary fiction, blogs, the effect of the internet on reading? All of these, she suggests, seem the relevant questions – not Milton, sestinas, and Beowulf.I have a few thoughts on these questions, both practically and philosophically speaking, as someone whose taken this exam, and is now entrenched in the academy. Practically speaking, the only way to do well is to spend a few months studying Norton anthologies: No one, even with a freshly minted B.A. in English, is ready for this exam without putting in some time. Also, it’s a multiple choice exam: How, realistically, could they ask questions about the amorphous world of the blogosphere (Name the contributors of certain blogs? Pick traits of a blog essay?) or the yet to be determined effects of things like Google Books and Project Gutenberg on reading practices? Exams have genres too and multiple choice exams cannot help us explore abstract and emergent fields.Philosophically speaking, it seems to me that the desire to get a Ph.D. implies a desire for a deep understanding of a field, and a deep understanding means history. If you just want to contemplate the effects of the internet on literature and read contemporary novels, blogging and book-reviewing will certainly suit you. The doctorate in literature (and, I presume, Creative Writing, since faculty in CW do end up teaching literature quite often), for better or for worse, means theory, the history of forms, the evolution of genres, methodical consideration of allusion and borrowing.Someone with an interest in the internet’s effects on literature and the rise of the blogosphere might naturally appreciate the 18th century English pioneers of the newspaper and essay (Addison and Steel’s The Spectator, for one) and maybe read a little bit of Jurgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which resemble nothing so much as the ultimate fulfillment of quintessentially 18th century ideas about the periodical press as a virtual space for rational debate on subjects of public interest, a space in which all who desired to participate, regardless of class, were allowed. The rise of the periodical press and its role in facilitating writing as a profession for middle-class people was revolutionary – and we’re still enjoying it today as we write our blog posts. Again, to read examples of the early “essai” as practiced by Montaigne – coiner of the genre’s name – (or by Sir Thomas Browne or Francis Bacon) is to be delighted to discover that the rambling, loose essay format that blogging allows and sometimes seems to encourage is nothing so much as a return to the essay’s generic origins. In sum, feelings about how a new technology impacts literature are only broadened by knowledge of literature’s history.And a final philosophical point: The best modern and contemporary writers draw from the literature of the past. Joyce and Pound’s titanic knowledge of the history of forms, T.S. Eliot’s profound reliance on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra and Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy in The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf’s delightful literary critical essays, and her respectful appreciation of Aphra Behn and Jane Austen in A Room of One’s Own for the help they’d inevitably given her as a woman writer. More recently, I offer J.M. Coetzee’s Foe as a re-reading of Robinson Crusoe, his Disgrace as a reading of Clarissa (this reading is Blakey Vermeule’s), Zadie Smith’s On Beauty as a reading of Howard’s End. Frank Miller’s 300 as a rereading of Herodotus.I am also generally horrified by how little I know, how little my peers know, how little my students know or care about history. And I find myself thinking about the affable but fraudulent academic hero of Don Delillo’s White Noise, a professor of Hitler studies who doesn’t know German. Shortchanging history when studying literature inevitably leaves a similarly gaping hole.