A few years ago it felt like one could scarcely read a think-piece in any newspaper or magazine without coming across some mention of the word “meme.” Now it seems as though the new meme is the word “trope.” Trope is everywhere. One recent incarnation was in Peggy Noonan’s column about Sarah Palin in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal: “Maybe [Mrs. Palin’s supporters] think ‘not thoughtful’ is a working class trope!” This sentence indicates that a good trope can pull the wool over our eyes.This week, after finishing Philip Gourevitch’s excellent book about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, I became engaged in a conversation with a knowledgeable friend on the subject of that country’s rebuilding. She knows her stuff, my friend, but her constant references to various African tropes – the tribal trope, the central-Africa-as-eternally violent morass trope – drove me to distraction. Just what the heck is a trope? I felt like the one dry body at the trope pool party.I’d guess that trope has to do with an agreed-upon narrative, an archetypal reading of a story or situation according to the simplest and most widely-held beliefs, a kind of narrative stereotype. In journalism, the trope would appear to be a surface interpretation of words or events that skews away from a deeper understanding of the truth. Trope as I see and hear it used seems indicative of at best this sort of surface reading, and at worst a kind of falseness or even deliberate obfuscation by the invocation of the archetype. I think this is the meaning that my friend used when she talked about how the Rwanda narrative was often defined by western journalists according to a trope of simple tribal warfare – an idea that we can comprehend. But the trope steers us away from the truth of what actually happened.The good people over at dictionary.com define trope as the following: “any literary or rhetorical device, as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, that consists in the use of words in other than their literal sense.” Trope is closely related to metaphor or figure of speech. Seems deceptively simple, and I’m still dry.At Wikipedia, I found a tidbit that’s closer to my understanding of how trope is used now. I found it under the entry for trope in literature: “Various scholars throughout history… have argued that a great deal of our conceptual experience, even the foundation of human consciousness, is based on figurative schemes of thought.” The writer also notes that “Tropes (in the sense of figures of speech) do not merely provide a way for us to talk about how we think, reason, and imagine, they are also constitutive of our experience.” Here the writer has footnoted a work by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. entitled “Process and Products in Making Sense of Tropes” from a collection called Metaphor and Thought. “In modern usage,” the entry concludes, “‘trope’ often means ‘a common or overused theme or device: cliche.’ [footnoted to the 2009 Merriam-Webster online dictionary] though [sic] it is important to differentiate between an overused theme/motif/figure of speech that has lost its meaning (Cliche) and a theme/motif/figure that is used excessively owing to its effectiveness.”I ran my preoccupation with trope by the chief Millionaire, Max, and he steered me to a website, tvtropes.org. There they define tropes as “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” The site asserts that tropes are not really cliches, since cliches are by definition “trite” and what is trite is by and large not of any real interest. The site operates according to a Wiki-style open democracy. It contains a catalog of numerous tropes that pop up in the plots and visuals of TV shows and movies. There is some really interesting stuff here. It all hints at the idea that there are a limited number of story lines out there, or certain set ways that a story can be told. This is not necessarily a bad thing though. A chasm exists between trope in literature and trope in real life.Some might even argue that any and every story is bound to adhere to certain lapidary parameters of narrative arc and character development. Anyone who has attempted to write a screenplay with the help of one or more of the numerous books on the subject know what I’m talking about. In my opinion, it’s a little deflating for the fiction writer to be confronted with the notion that the basic structural elements of a story have not been significantly improved upon since they were codified by Homer.The ubiquity of trope in ideas writing these days can be explained by the memetic propagation of a cool word in the collective consciousness. This idea is a trope of sorts. And that’s the trick with trope: when you start thinking about it, not only is it everywhere, but it is, in fact, everywhere. As the Wiki excerpt above suggests, trope is one way in which we apply order and cohesion to the world. It’s history repeating itself. It’s why one story is a Greek tragedy, and another a Shakespearean romance.Perhaps that’s why events like those that transpired in Rwanda in 1994 are so profoundly troubling. They have no precedent in our store of human narratives. There is an irony here, too. As trope takes over, we seem to be confronted by more and more happenings that flip the script. 9/11 is one example, as is Hurricane Katrina and its tragic aftermath. On the positive side, the election of Barack Obama was an unprecedented event, though that too can be couched in terms of a trope. The American Dream. Horatio Alger.Trope helps us grasp inherent truths. Trope entertains us. And it helps us understand the greater narratives of our lives as individuals and members of a society. Turns out I was waist deep in the pool all along. But, as most usage of the word these days hints, trope is a trick. Easy explanations invite our skepticism.
I’m glad to see my last post got people talking. I guess I have to get into specifics now. Keep in mind that I’ve only read about ten books this year because it took me all of January and February to read Robert Caro’s massive biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (Incidentally, if you’re looking to tone up for the summer months, I recommend all of Caro’s books. Even the paperbacks come in weighty volumes perfect for curls or bench presses). After that it was a real relief to read a couple of books people have been hounding me to read: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.I’d read Atwood’s Cat’s Eye before and like it a lot, but The Handmaid’s Tale is a masterpiece. My girlfriend has been teaching it to her ungrateful undergraduates, and I read it and got a few free lessons on the fascinating language play that goes on in the text. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that was so filling for both my heart and my head.Housekeeping had been lying around my apartment, and, to be honest, I didn’t want to read it. Nobody could really tell me what it was about or anything about it, for that matter, other than that they read it in college, it was beautiful, and they loved it. I read it in twelve hours. It’s the kind of book that really ought to be read in a burst like that because its physical world is so distinct and so engrossing, it invites the reader to wander in and stay for awhile. I don’t think I’d have liked it as much if I’d nibbled at it for a couple of weeks, but it was the perfect book for me at the perfect time. (Note: I was also, no doubt, caught up in the Marilynne Robinson zeitgeist. I heard her read from her new book Gilead, and for a while here in Iowa, it seemed like Marilynne was all people could talk about).After these two terrific novels, I read Man Walks Into a Room by Nicole Krauss. It’s a shame that congress passed that law that mandates everyone who writes about Krauss to refer to her as Jonathan Safran Foer’s husband in the first three sentences (There, I’ve done it… I fear the man), because she’s an incredible writer. Read the prologue to the book and see what I mean.Of course no year of reading would be complete for me without a couple of books about genocide. Max had a great post on historians and journalists who write about the ugly moments in history, and I seem to be working my way through most of the books on his list. Two years ago I read Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You… about the Rwandan genocide. Last year it was Anne Applebaum’s Gulag (a woman!), and this year it was Samantha Power’s book A Problem from Hell. I confess that I forced myself to start this book (even while I was buying it I was apprehensive), but I didn’t have to force myself to finish it. Power writes with clarity and precision about American foreign policy in a way that is easily understood without being too simplistic or dumbed-down. I saw Power on Charlie Rose last year and thought she was so smart and interesting. Her book didn’t disappoint.And now I’m tearing through Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (I’m ashamed to say I’d never read it). So I’ve only read a handful of books this year, but I must say that the women are walking all over the men (and that’s with Robert Caro and JF Powers on Team Penis). I do find that my “To Be Read” list is still male-oriented, so if anybody has any suggestions of books by the fairer sex, let me know. I’m open to anything.
Initially I found yesterday’s announcement of Philip Gourevitch’s hiring as editor of the Paris Review to be odd. I know him best for his journalism in the New Yorker and his much praised works of non-fiction, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families and A Cold Case, but he didn’t seem to have the proper pedigree to head a magazine that is so prominent in its championing of short fiction. However, a look at the press release accompanying the announcement reveals that “Gourevitch holds an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University, and has published a number of short stories in literary quarterlies. He worked as cultural editor of the Forward in the early nineties, before turning to writing full time,” which would indicate that he does indeed have experience both as a writer of fiction and an editor. Beyond that, perhaps from his experience with the New Yorker, Gourevitch may have inkling of what it takes to make an unabashedly highbrow publication both a critical and financial success. Many were dismayed, or at least apprehensive, when former editor Brigid Hughes was forced out, but I think that Gourevitch’s appointment should leave Paris Review devotees cautiously optimistic. For more details and background on Gourevitch, visit Galley Cat.
To continue from yesterday’s post about Iris Chang, I mentioned that she was among the brave historians who choose to study some of the most horrible and painful periods in human history. There are many others like her, and though these books are not a pleasure to read, the knowledge that they impart is a valuable reminder of, as I said yesterday, what we are capable of. So, because I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve compiled an informal list of brave history books. I’m sure there are many others that I don’t have here, so feel free to add your suggestion in the comments field.Gulag by Anne Applebaum (excerpt) — the Soviet forced labor system that underpinned CommunismWe Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (excerpt) — “An anatomy of the war in Rwanda, a vivid history of the tragedy’s background, and an unforgettable account of its aftermath.”Maus by Art Spiegelman — Spiegelman’s unique and emotional look at how the Holocaust shaped his family history.“A Problem from Hell” : America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power (excerpt) — “A character-driven study of some of the darkest moments in our national history, when America failed to prevent or stop 20th-century campaigns to exterminate Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Iraqi Kurds, Bosnians, and Rwandans.”Shah of Shahs, The Emperor, and Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski (excerpt from Imperium) — Each book describes how a sick government can destroy its people.Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami (excerpt) — A bizarre cult poisons innocent commuters on the Tokyo subway.Hiroshima by John Hersey — We ended the war, but at what cost?