Quirky Narrators and Occasional Irrealism in George Saunders’ Tenth of December

[posted by Alice]

At the Café Irreal we often receive stories which the author considers to be irreal because they feature a strange or unexpected narrative style. Sometimes the narrator of these stories uses unusual language or the narrator may have a psychiatric problem or is delusional because of illness. But the story itself depicts events that can actually be explained by the narrator’s mental or physical state (or unusual manner of speaking). To us these stories, though they might be entertaining and well written, are not irreal at all — we want to see reality itself, not an individual’s consciousness, being undermined in some way.

As I read George Saunders’ most recent short story collection, Tenth of December, I couldn’t help but notice that almost every story in the collection features a first person or third person subjective narrative style. In most cases the narrator also uses odd colloquial language and may also be mentally or physically impaired. Many writers in the United States — from Mark Twain onward — have shown a strong preference for quirky and colloquial narration. Examples would include Alice Walker in The Color Purple and J. D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye. Like both Walker and Salinger, Saunders crafts memorable narrators and often makes serious points about the nature of our society, how it is going awry, and how social problems affect the lives of ordinary people. But even when he is writing stories that could clearly be called science fiction, Saunders’ stories are not particularly irreal.

Tenth of December gives us quite a range of quirky narrators, and Saunders uses their narrative quirks to show us, in the space of a short story, what their lives are like and how they relate to others. In “Puppy” we feel a sense of revulsion toward both the woman taking her children to look at a puppy and the woman whose puppy is at the center of the story. We see into these women’s lives, know their thoughts, and are given their rationalizations even as they do ugly things. This is not always pleasant, but despite an odd incident in the puppy owner’s yard, the story is not irreal. In the science-fiction-inspired “Escape from the Spiderhead” we come to see the narrator from a more sympathetic point of view, despite what we know to be true about him. This story takes Stanley Milgram’s experiments to a new level, as managers psyche themselves and others up to do unspeakable things. (Milgram’s 1965 study on obedient behavior saw “teachers” giving electrical shocks to “learners” despite the pain the learners seemed to endure.) But though the setting of this story is near future and the narrator’s language and explanations are constantly altered by the administration of drugs, the story is sadly plausible and again is not irreal.

In my opinion the only story in the collection that has a truly irreal aspect is “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” This is not because of the narrative style, which reminds me of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books, nor because of the near future or alternative universe setting in which most things are very much like our own world. It is instead because of the existence of an irreal phenomenon that is never fully explained, in much the same way that Kafka never tells us why Gregor Samsa turns into a very large insect. In this story the narrator is a father trying to keep a daily diary for benefit of future readers (a nice device that lets the reader know why he explains things so completely) and worrying that his family is not able to enjoy a high enough standard of living. He describes his life in a frequently annoying yet likeable way and says, for example, that he doesn’t like rich people because they make poor people feel “dopey and inadequate,” but he also wants what rich people have. We know that he is not well off — his bumper falls off at the beginning of the story, he says that people at work only ever see him wearing a a blue shirt or a yellow shirt, and his credit cards are nearly maxed out. When he comes into a small windfall in the form of a $10,000 “Scratch-Off win,” he consults with his wife and they decide to upgrade their landscaping so their daughter can have a birthday party at home and feel comfortable inviting her better-off friends to her house. The investment works well, the party is a success, but one of the upgrades the family has made — the installation of four SGs — upsets the family’s other daughter, a sensitive girl who worries about the pain and suffering SGs might experience.

We don’t learn very much about these SGs (Semplica Girls), but we are told that they are women from economically and politically challenged societies. They are brought to people’s homes by a landscaping company that also sees to their physical needs while they are engaged in the service they are being paid to perform. This involves dressing in white smocks and being hoisted into the air, attached to each other by “microfilament” that joins them brain-to-brain, so that they float above people’s backyards. And because of interviews done by one of the daughters, we even learn some “fun facts” about the narrator’s SGs, including their names and that they hail from the Philippines, Somalia, Moldava, and Laos. But I think that this odd notion of the SGs, which is at the heart of an otherwise only slightly nonrealistic story, has more depth and resonance than the illustration at the New Yorker site implies when it shows the white skirt hems of four brown-skinned women float-flying above a koi pond. Nor do I think it is accurate to describe them as “third-world women strung up as bourgeois lawn ornaments” as Gregory Cowles did in his February 1, 2013 review of Tenth of December in the New York Times. I think that the SGs are truly an irreal notion, every bit as much as Gregor Samsa waking up to find he’s been turned into a very large insect. The idea that young, mostly dark-skinned and dark-haired women would be hung so thoughtlessly in people’s backyards calls to mind the wide range of suffering inflicted on dark-skinned people, such as lynching and the mistreatment of undocumented workers. The surgeries they must undergo also call to mind the surgeries women endure to participate in the sex trade (breast enhancement, etc.). SGs wear white, float above the ground and are often described as singing, bringing to mind an image of angels; yet, several times in the story we see a tethered dog suffer at the end of its chain so we can also see SGs in terms of the sad life of a yard dog. In many ways the SGs point to an unknown meaning, even as they also more obviously show us the irrational spending that fads can induce and the suffering of deprived and impoverished humans in our world. And finally, as the diary ends abruptly, we are also left feeling that the fate of the SGs will affect the lives of the narrator’s family who are running the race to the bottom themselves, their two daughters perhaps more vulnerable than they know. The irreal plight of the SGs is inexplicable yet surprisingly meaningful.

An Irrealist Perspective on God Help the Child

[posted by Alice]

Toni Morrison’s latest novel, God Help the Child, was published in April of this year. Though Morrison has chosen an uncharacteristically modern setting for the work, God Help the Child treats themes familiar to readers of her other novels. In particular it focuses on the notion that, “What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” These are the words of Sweetness, mother of Bride, the beautiful young woman at the novel’s core. And though the book is about a mother’s failures in the care of her children, it is also about the failures of our society to provide children and their families the support they need – and the ways that racism worsens those failures.

John Gardner said that in all of the forms of non-realistic literature authors tend to translate “details of psychological reality into physical reality,” as happens in our dreams. And though Toni Morrison creates realistic stories with believable characters as she depicts African-American life in the United States, she sometimes brings one or more nonrealistic elements to bear as the story unfolds.

In God Help the Child a nonrealistic trend develops after Bride’s lover Booker misunderstands something she plans to do and walks out on her, saying “You not the woman…” This half-uttered statement, unclear in its implications, not only sets in motion Bride’s journey to the small town of Whiskey in search of Booker, it also seems to trigger her transformation from an exceptionally beautiful mature woman to a prepubescent child. Booker impugns Bride’s womanhood and leaves her without another word of explanation, after which she begins to lose her most womanly attributes, thereby becoming more like the child who experienced the events Booker fails to understand in the first place. And what Bride hasn’t told him is that, in order to win her mother’s approval, when she was a little girl she testified in court that a teacher had sexually molested other children, something she knew to be false.

Earlier in the novel Bride’s mother Sweetness describes her young daughter as “so black she scared me” and herself as “light-skinned, with good hair.” Bride’s dark skin was taken as a sign of Sweetness’ infidelity by Bride’s biological father, who left the family shortly after she was born. Sweetness also says, “Her color is a cross she will always carry. But it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not.” Sweetness’ negative view of Bride leads her to be a cold and demanding mother who only gives her daughter affection and approval after Bride testifies in court according to Sweetness’ expectations and sends an innocent woman to jail.

To her mother’s surprise, Bride grows up to become a successful businesswoman (with her own cosmetics line, YOU, GIRL), and she is able to use her striking looks to her advantage. But when the woman she falsely accused is released from prison, Bride tries to make amends and is beaten up for her trouble. When Booker, confused about why she would try to make up with a child molester, reacts in the way that he does, Bride begins to experience physical regression to childhood. Her pubic hair disappears, the piercings in her ears close up, she loses her womanly curves, and Bride’s panic and despair as her physical allure is undermined provides at least some of the energy that helps her to come to terms with her past.

Of all Morrison’s novels, God Help the Child reminds me most of Sula, which takes place in an earlier era, mostly prior to World War II. Sula also deals with the hurtful ways parents fail their children, and it contains a scattering of events that seem to represent psychological realities translated into physical ones. As a result the novel shifts between realistic depictions of people’s lives and irreal events that undermine reality. These less realistic aspects include the scene in which Sula slings a child into the lake and leaves him to drown, as well as the presence of a trio of motherless boys named dewey who, despite their differences in appearance and family origin, all answer to the same name and become indistinguishable from one another. A major way in which Sula differs from God Help the Child, however, is in its treatment of community. In Sula the people who live in the African-American section of Medallion, known as the Bottom, are able to function as a community, albeit a sometimes claustrophobic one, whereas God Help the Child implies that our narcissistic individualized contemporary world tends to undermine all human relationships.

Shortly after God Help the Child was released, Toni Morrison gave a reading at the 92nd St. Y in New York. During a discussion about a turn toward the self in the 21st century and how it affects personal development, Morrison says, “And one of the ways you get to be a whole person is you stop thinking about your little self. Am I pretty? Am I not pretty? … And start doing something serious for somebody else.” Though some movement toward community takes place in God Help the Child as Bride tries to understand what happened to her and begins to help others — including another abused child named Rain and Booker’s elderly aunt, Queen — the novel uses the stunting of Bride’s developed womanhood to show how hard developing as a whole human can truly be – especially when family and community fail us.

The Secret World of Objects and Owen Kydd’s Durational Photographs

[posted by Alice]

When I was a child I would sometimes lie in bed and watch the subtle shadows and flickers of color that were projected on the walls of my room by cars passing our house in the night. This intrusion into my life by unknown travelers gave me both a thrill of angst and a puzzled feeling about how these tricks of light occurred.

I felt some of those old reactions again recently when I saw Owen Kydd’s work in an exhibit called “The Pure Products of America Go Crazy” at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. Though other photographers’ work is represented in this show (which takes its title from a William Carlos Williams poem and purports to be “a running dialogue between photographic images—past and present—that take as their subject the accumulated byproducts of an American way of life”) none of them caught my attention like Kydd’s work did. And this was not so much because he deals with particularly American “byproducts” but because he engages with inanimate objects in such intriguing ways.

According to the signage at the exhibit, Kydd describes his process as “durational photography,” in which a digital camera in video mode is fixed on an object, scene, or a small tableau for a short period of time, recording subtle motion, reflections, or changes in light. The digital video images are then played on a continuous loop on a high definition LED monitor, the kind used for commercial signs. Sometimes the viewer has to look rather carefully at the monitor to see what’s happening in the piece. In “Mirror Palm (2014)” images from the street are reflected in the blue-violet surface of a kitschy abstracted palm shape that seems to be part of a window display. In “Knife (J.G.) (2011)” a piece of cutlery showcases small reflections that glide back and forth on its somewhat battered blade against a bokeh background that seems to include wine glasses. In “Composition Warner Studio (on green) (2012)” a tattered black plastic bag twists and writhes in the wind like a monotone sea anemone. In “Windows #5” circles of colored light move up and down like rising and setting suns on what seems to be a glass surface. And “Pico Boulevard (Nocturne) (2012)” presents a number of small tableaus that may have moving light or sliding reflections or both, including one in which hazy images of passing cars and buses are seen through a somewhat tattered venetian blind. (Versions of these pieces can be seen at The Nicelle Beauchene Gallery site, but the size and clarity of the images really does affect their impact.)

So what seems irreal about Kydd’s art? Though I read an interview in Aperture in which Kydd speaks about the ways in which his work explores the differences between cinema and photography, to me the most surprising thing about these durational photos is that they evoke the seemingly secret world of objects. These objects move. They glow. They are played upon by light and go through many subtle changes. Kydd shows us objects that seem somehow animated without biological life (or mechanical impetus), and this in turn gives a glimpse into the uncomfortable reality of being in-itself, the existence of objects that, unlike us, have no conscious motivations and, unlike us, cannot be said to live or die. But like us they do exist, and this is the deep foundation of existential unease. Kydd helps us feel this, and his work is worthwhile for that reason — as well as because of the way his durational photographs contribute to “the possibility of undoing the time signature of the photograph.”

Annotated Michal Ajvaz Bibliography Now Online

[posted by Greg]

We just wanted to draw attention here to an annotated bibliography (of sorts) of the Czech writer Michal Ajvaz that we recently published in our literary supplement, irreal (re)views. Ajvaz has appeared several times — and in various contexts — in our journal, and we felt that such a bibliography was necessary to help show the depth and scope of his writing and thinking as little of it has been translated into English.

A Review of The Conductor and Other Tales by Jean Ferry

[posted by Greg]

We want here to make note of an important book published late last year, The Conductor and Other Tales by Jean Ferry. A copy was kindly sent to us by its publisher, Wakefield Press, upon the request of the work’s distinguished translator, Edward Gauvin (we’ve previously published his translations of The Pavilion and the Lime Tree by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, The Wrinkle Maker by Marcel Béalu and, indeed, one of the stories that appears in this volume, Kafka, or the Secret Society.

The book immediately stands out because of its elegant appearance. It is printed in a format I’m mainly familiar with in Europe – a matte (not glossy) paperback cover with a folded over leaf – that is largely reserved for literary works with a smallish print run. This sense of the literary was reinforced by the abundance of compelling black and white collages by Claude Bellaré. Indeed, seeing a small literary work so distinctively and lovingly put together in an American context served as a reminder of how rare that experience is here, and for reasons that are not entirely clear: the graphic work done on our mass produced trade paperbacks can certainly be of high quality, but the graphics and illustrations are generally limited to the front and back covers, leaving the rest of the book almost indistinguishable from any other book of its type, while the small press literary works also generally fall into the same standard trade paperback format with the disadvantage that they do not have such a large budget for the cover art. As every single story in this volume is illustrated by one of Bellaré’s surrealistic collages, that is not a problem here.

And the stories themselves are quite brilliant. As this is but a short review, I will attempt to describe Ferry’s stories succinctly but imperfectly by stating that they present a reality being pushed by the circumstances described in the story and the narrator’s reflections on those circumstances to the breaking point and then, inevitably, past it. As in the story “Rapa Nui,” in which the narrator finds himself at long last on Easter Island after 30 years of literally dreaming, time and again, that he was finally on Easter Island except that, at the end of the story’s two pages, we learn that “not a line of the above is true, except that for 30 years I’ve wanted to go to Easter Island, where something awaits me…” The same is true in the story of Ferry’s that we published, “Kafka, or the Secret Society,” in regard to the the mysterious, but flexible and expansive (perhaps endlessly expansive) membership parameters of the society mentioned in the title. Indeed, the stories generally share the quality of the island on which the narrator is stranded in “Letter to a Stranger,” whose reality causes him to ask the reader, “Haven’t you, in the dark, ever reached out with your foot for the final step of a staircase, only to find there wasn’t one? Do you remember the utter disarray you felt for a moment? … Well, this land is always like that.”

Indeed, this work reinforces for me the sense that we in the English-speaking world are not sufficiently familiar with the strong, and unique, tradition of the fantastic that exists in the Francophone world. Like many, I’ve been aware of and even read occasional works by such authors as Alfred Jarry and iconic names such as Baudleaire and Rimbaud. But that these are only the most famous names of what is a very deep tradition has been brought home to me from three sources in the course of my work with The Cafe Irreal: the translations that Mr. Gauvin has sent us (see above), the translations that Michael Shreve has sent us (Morphiel the Demiurge by Marcel Schwob, Hell by Remy de Gourmont, and  Where Are the Plans? by Jean-Marc Agrati) and, in the course of my own translating and reading of the work of the Czech writer Michal Ajvaz, his mention in an essay (which I read several years ago) that the author who has had the greatest influence on him was Raymond Roussel.

This was a surprise to me as I didn’t have at that time the slightest idea who Raymond Roussel was. I have since corrected this by reading Roussel’s Impressions of Africa. It is true that it is not at all my favorite work from amongst what I have read of this group of authors, but perhaps to correct this I need to read a bit more of Ferry’s work. For it turns out that Ferry wrote no less than three works about Roussel. Indeed, André Breton, who called Roussel the “greatest mesmerizer of our times,” admitted in a letter to Ferry that “without you, I would probably still not see anything in him.”

But here we have entered the realm of the translator’s excellent introduction, and these and other aspects of Ferry, Jarry, Roussel, the Collège de ‘Pataphysique (of which Ferry was a leading member — “pataphysique” is “the science of imaginary solutions”), the Oulipo (a subcommittee of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique) and other such matters are concisely and nicely explicated by Gauvin. Which is yet another reason to purchase this book, and/or recommend that your local library does the same.

 

 

 

Sun Ra’s 100th Birthday and Irrealism

[posted by Greg]

It might be going a bit far for us, as irrealists, to claim the great jazz musician, bandleader and Afro-futurist Sun Ra as one of our own. But I can certainly report having my sense of reality undermined anytime that I saw Ra and his Solar Jet Set Arkestra. Certainly one does not expect to go to a jazz concert and, after the band sans leader has warmed the audience up with a tune or two, to see the band’s singer get up and start singing the lyric “When the world was in darkness, and darkness was ignorance, along came Ra,” and then, as the rest of the band repeated the refrain “Along came Ra,” to see Sun Ra himself, dressed in a kind of futurist-Egyptian garb, coming onstage. Nor did one expect, as happened at a concert at Chicago’s Navy Pier in 1980, to hear a long monologue from Ra, detailing how he had once been the pharaoh of Egypt but had given up his kingdom for immortality. And beyond the unexpected theatrical juxtapositions there were the musical ones, as the band effortlessly moved back and forth between playing with the raw energy and deceptive simplicity of a 1920s or 1930s jazz territorial band and with the sophistication and boundary-breaking sensibilities of the cutting-edge avant-garde group that they also were.

Some of the sense of strangeness of these performances came from not appreciating the musical and cultural roots of Sun Ra, who in his youth played with the great 1920s bandleader Fletcher Henderson and whose stage sensibilities lay in the more theatrical jazz of, e.g., Cab Calloway, which preceded the sanitizing of big band jazz that occurred in the course of the 1930s and 1940s. In that sense, he was both a throwback to a previous era and yet an exemplar of the avant-garde. But it also flowed from the personality of Sun Ra himself, aided by his brilliant musicians, including vocalist June Tyson, tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, and alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, and the whole tradition of the touring big band, which the Arkestra exemplified.

In 1985 Alice and I were living at the Blackstone Hotel in downtown Chicago when the Arkestra had a two-week engagement at the Jazz Showcase, which was located in a room off the lobby of the hotel. The whole of the fifteen or so member Arkestra stayed at the hotel as well, and so for that two weeks we would frequently encounter its members as they came and went from rehearsals, ate at the diner downstairs, and so on. Like any touring band they lived in a world of their own, but this was obviously a very unique world, influenced as it was by the singular vision of Sun Ra. And here, perhaps, we could make a leap to some of the icons of irrealism, for if exceptionally distinct visions of the world, with brilliant art flowing from them, characterized figures such as Kafka and Borges, then the same can certainly also be said of Sun Ra.

The Cafe Irreal Gets a New Look

[posted by Alice]

Having a web-based magazine means doing a certain amount of web design, but we’ve always tried to keep the design of The Cafe Irreal simple so the focus is on the stories. When the first issue of Cafe Irreal went online in February of 1999, it had a somewhat stark black-and-white design, and for the first few years the “cover” of each issue featured an animated gif collage. Those were the days of font tags and the other messy building blocks of early html.

With the February 2014 issue we’re rolling out a new design for which we’re using html 5 and a CSS framework, Pure, to make a responsive site. Pure is available at http://purecss.io/. We used a couple of their common layouts  and customized them. The resulting site reminds us a little of the original, black-and-white Cafe Irreal design, and it’s nearly as light-weight. Let us know what you think.