Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lecture 24

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Wk 12 - Thurs (23/10), 3-4 pm lecture: HSB2

Conclusion: The 21st Century

In a 1964 letter to his close friend, Ron Goulart, the appallingly prolific (and intermittently brilliant) science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick (1928-82) explained how he, personally, set out to write a novel:

this is how PKD gets 55,00 words (the adequate mileage) out of his typewriter: by having 3 persons, 3 levels, 2 themes (one outer or world-sized, the other inner or individual sized), with a melding of all, then, at last, a humane final note.

The three characters should be, respectively:
  • “First character, not protagonist but … less than life, a sort of everyman who exists throughout book but is, well, passive; we learn the entire world or background as we see it acting on him”;

  • “In Chapter Two comes the ‘protag,’ who gets a two-syllable name such as ‘Tom Stonecypher,’ as opposed to the monosyllabic ‘Al Glunch’ tag for the Chapter One ‘subman’”;

  • “through Mr. S’s eyes and ears, we glimpse for the first time … superhuman reality – and the human being, shall we call him Mr. Ubermensch? Who inhabits this realm.”

So, “just as Mr G. is the taxpayer and Mr S. is the ‘I,’ the median person, Mr. U is Mr. God, Mr. Big” – the plot development of the book is based on blending the original personal dilemma (“marital problems or sex problems or whatever it is”) of Mr. S with the worldwide “Atlas weight” problems faced by Mr. U, until:

The terminal structural mechanism is revealed: THE PERSONAL PROBLEM OF MR. S IS THE PUBLIC SOLUTION FOR MR. U. And this can occur whether Mr. S is with or pitted against Mr. U.
[Quoted from Lawrence Sutin, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (1989): 138].

It all sounds a bit mechanical, and certainly helps to explain how Dick managed to churn out eleven novels in two years, but when one adds that among them were classics such as Martian Time-Slip, Now Wait for Last Year, Dr Bloodmoney, The Simulacra, and Clans of the Alphane Moon, one has to acknowledge that there may be something to be said for such formulaic blueprints after all. Possibly the most disconcerting of them all, however, was The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which depicts an invasion of Earth by some kind of Gnostic demiurge who has taken on the form of the slit-eyed, prosthetic-handed, steel-jawed Terran entrepreneur, Palmer Eldritch ...

Having spent much of the past three months discussing a number of allegedly exemplary, but certainly influential, 20th-century novels, I guess the time has now come to ask the question where is the novel going now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century? Atonement (2001) was, essentially, a backward glance over travelled roads. It's no accident that it's been parcelled up with Henry James's What Maisie Knew (1896) by its paperback publishers.

Does the future belong to the likes of Ian McEwan, or to Philip K. Dick and his heirs? On the one hand, when I look at some of the successes of the past few years, I see:
  • Experiments in style and format (but not subject-matter) such as Mark Z. Danielewski's horror novel House of Leaves (2000) or Craig Thompson's grahic novel Blankets (2003)?
  • Blurring of genre / style boundaries in texts such as Alan Moore's graphic novel The Lost Girls (2006) or W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz (2001)?

According to Johnny Truant, the tattoo-shop apprentice who discovers Zampanò's work, once you read The Navidson Record,

For some reason, you will no longer be the person you believed you once were. You'll detect slow and subtle shifts going on all around you, more importantly shifts in you. Worse, you'll realize it's always been shifting, like a shimmer of sorts, a vast shimmer, only dark like a room. But you won't understand why or how.
- Mark Z. Danielewski

In Thompson's composition process, pages are initially composed

in a very illegible form, a shorthand where words and pictures blur into alien scribbles ... I'm working with words and pictures right from the beginning, but the picture might not look any different from a letter, because they're just a bunch of scribbles on a page.
- Craig Thompson

Truth is a well-known pathological liar. It invariably turns out to be Fiction wearing a fancy frock. ... Self-proclaimed Fiction, on the other hand, is entirely honest. You can tell this, because it comes right out and says, "I'm a Liar," right there on the dust jacket.
- Alan Moore

Every river, as we know, must have banks on both sides, so where, seen in those terms, where are the banks of time? What would be this river’s qualities, qualities perhaps corresponding to those of water, which is fluid, rather heavy, and translucent? In what way do objects immersed in time differ from those left untouched by it? Why do we show the hours of light and darkness in the same circle? Why does time stand eternally still and motionless in one place, and rush headlong by in another? Could we not claim, said Austerlitz, that time itself has been nonconcurrent over the centuries and the millennia? It is not so long ago, after all, that it began spreading out over everything. And is not human life in many parts of the earth governed to this day less by time than by the weather, and thus by an unquantifiable dimension which disregards linear regularity, does not progress constantly forward but moves in eddies, is marked by episodes of congestion and irruption, recurs in ever-changing form, and evolves in no one knows what direction?
- W G Sebald

I don't know if it's really the job of critics - especially Academic ones - to be prophetic, but I'm putting my money on the second of these alternatives.

For the moment, though, we're left with this set of novels written since 1900. However, as Borges reminds us, our view of the progression of the novel will rewrite itself continuously as the future unfolds. The Novel Now is always precisely that - from the perspective of now - never really just an exercise in historical reconstruction.

Exam Structure

• Final Examination (3 hours)

15th November:

[Stage 2: 3 essay questions (60%)]

[Stage 3: either 3 essay questions or 1 pre-announced question (50%)]

NB: You are not permitted to answer on any of the novels / authors you've written about in the rest of the course. Nor may you answer on both John Barth novels - only one of these two works may be written about by any student.

Course Assessment

A course-assessment form will be handed out. These forms are anonymous, and will be used solely for the improvement of the course as it stands at present. The envelopes they are sealed in will not be opened until final results in the paper are determined.


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