Tuesday, 07 March 2006

Insult? This Is Injury. Injury? Meet Insult. Octavia Butler's Fledgling disappoints. Exuberant popular reviewers must have forgotten the territory she covered in the Xenogenesis books. Only I'm not sure how they would have since she basically rewrote them in Fledgling. Not that I want to speak ill of the recently departed . . . or even of Fledgling. Had it been written before the Xenogenesis novels it would've compelled me to read every other word she's written. Only it wasn't. I've read that a crippling case of writer's block prevented her from completing the Parable series. Reading Fledgling I got the impression that she thought she could hurdle that block by rewriting earlier, better novels. Maybe she could've. We'll never know. I should say that I don't begrudge her this rewriting. I do the same thing everyday: I pull up my dissertation and rewrite the last paragraph I'd written so as to reoccupy the headspace in which I had written it. She thought she could find her gift again by recasting the Oankali as vampires. The human-Oankali dynamic became the human-vampire dynamic. The narrator is an African-American woman who is a half-human and half-the-other . . . a hybrid whose hybridity drives the narrative to its inevitable melancholic-but-hopeful conclusion. To be fair, there are only two sexes in Fledgling; but the structural relations of symbiont to alien are identical . . . as are the benefits of that relationship. Butler traces the complexity with the same deft hand responsible for the Xenogenesis books but it's the same complexity. I admired it as much this time as I had the first but the book lacks that spark . . . that moment in which a nebulous everything clicks into place. Walter Benjamin writes of the night sky suddenly aligning random stars into a collocation of constellations . . . the moment when all the implications are finally tallied and everything makes the sense it should have all along. That is what Fledgling lacks. Brilliant, certainly, but familiarly so. Those stars had already clicked into place. I had intended this to be a substantial review of Fledgling. Only I don't want to spoil what little there is to spoil. It's the only pleasure you'll take from the book. Especially when you consider this was supposed to be her priming the pump for the bigger and better things. Finally, I feel obliged to note that you should wait until the Warner paperback comes out to read Fledgling. I read on Nalo Hopkinsons' blog that Butler always published her hardcovers with small presses before turning over the mass market paperbacks to Warner. If there were some way I could admire her more, this would be it. However the hardback from Seven Stories Press which arrived last week has already started falling apart. Chunks of pages have come unstuck from the binding and are threatening to jump. The spine has already cracked. On a hardcover. I'm not sure how that happened. I should add that outside of writing in the margins, I...
Behold The Power Of Tweed A couple of people have messaged me asking how tonight went, so I'll post this for all to read. I think it went well. I'll copy-and-paste what I didn't really read below the fold. It's a flawed but solid introduction to historicism . . . by which I mean, Jane Newman complimented me on it after the festivities ended. Since she's not one to compliment gratuitously, I feel my impression of my performance confirmed. Since I'm in such a fine mood I've decided to share my "wealth." Since all my readers are beyond cool they certainly already own all The Replacements albums, but I since I've zipped up a couple of my favorite 'Mats songs for other purposes, I thought I'd give 'em the opportunity to re-re-acquire a couple of brilliant songs. So enjoy! (That link won't last forever. Be sure to listen to "Can't Hardly Wait." That version was the stuff of legend. Now it's the stuff of swapping . . . but still worthy of legend.) I begin with a startling revelation: every work of literature is written at some particular historical moment, read at some particular historical moment and represents some particular historical moment. Call them the moment of composition, the moment of reception and the moment of representation. (I should note that this it's obviously more complicated than this. It's far more difficult to situate the particular moment represented in John Donne's "Holy Sonnets" than say John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. But bear with me.) A person whose primary scholarly interest is in the interaction of these three moments is an historicist. I would define the term further, but at this moment in literary studies historicism is less methodology and more attitude. To paraphrase one of the most prominent working historicists, Stephen Greenblatt: historicists desire to speak with the dead, to know how it felt to live during the moment of composition. How do they acquire such knowledge? Slowly. An historicist must be on intimate terms with his or her chosen moment of composition. This requires exhaustive study of both the primary sources--novels, newspapers, diaries, poems, &c.--produced during that moment and the secondary ones written about it after the fact--histories, literary criticism and what-not. I know what you’re thinking: Where can I sign up? The answer is many of you already have. Historicism has become increasingly popular in literature departments because its appeal is, I'd argue, inherently literary. You were interested enough in literature to sacrifice your early evening to a discussion and performance of a work of one. Ipso facto . . . no I take it you're gonna need convincing. Alright then, a quick example: James Joyce famously, and modestly, said of his novel Ulysses: “I want to give a picture ofDublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” A tall order. And note that he only says /Dublin/ can be rebuilt. Bricks and mortar. Easily represented. He doesn’t claim...

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