Monday, February 23, 2009

A Drop to Make Them Sleep

Conveniently, I have a sequel on my hands.  Last week, some might say in large in part to my wife's being-out-of-townness, I wrote about the centrality of love in The Dispossessed.  I argued in blog and in class that it was the rapture of monogamy (don't see that phrase too often, do you?) which construed a hidden possession under all the dispossession, the tension that activates the novel's key transformations, particularly Shevek's awakening, his realization that he has not questioned the dominant practices, the basic social assumptions which govern life on Anarres.

My wife is not out of town again.  Not to worry.  Besides, the abortion, rape, and brutal assaults conjured in the opening pages of Woman on the Edge of Time, clearly signal that Marge Piercy will not be as receptive to my little heuristic Cupid arrows.  No, this sequel comes by way of inversion.  Piercy, like Foster in "The Machine Stops," is undermining the very notion of epiphanic love.  She rejects an intimacy that transcends cultural norms; she denies her characters access to revolutionary union.  Connie, like Kuno, discovers new ways of seeing through the frustration of love.  It is the suppression of the intimacy drive, its destructive turn inward, that transfigures her into prophet and pioneer.

Near the end of the novel, Tina asks Connie if she had a bad dream.  Connie reassures her that it had been a good one:

"I dreamed of my daughter, safe, happy, in another place...If only they had left me something!" she whispered.  Still trembling, she thought, If only they had left me Martin, or Claud, or Angelina, if they had even left me Dolly and Nita, I would have minded my own business.  I'd have bowed my head and kept down.  I was not born and raised to fight battles, but to be modest and gentle and still.  Only one person to love.  Just one little corner of loving of my own.  
Reflecting on those she loved, and those she might have loved more, Connie laments their loss. And it is their loss from her life which is the focus.  She is not mourning their fates; she is mourning her fate.  She has been led astray from her destiny, from her purpose, from stillness. 

Stillness as a destination is an understandable desire, especially for a woman who no longer hears a steady beat of time, who no longer orientates herself in one place at one time (despite how many "orientations" doctors impose on her).  As universes and threads of time have multiplied, the one alternative she has not known is singularity.  She desires the corner, the spot where two alternatives meet, and rest.  There she would take a loved one—and by loved one I mean, as she does, anyone, a child, a friend, a mate, whom she could care for.  The reciprocation does not seem as important, nor does the love itself: it is the care it would require, the attention it would demand, the devotion she could give to this single, stable, person.  She could disappear inside that which she would give.  She could become one.  She would be at peace.

Instead she has become politicized.  The passage continues:

For that love I'd have borne it all and I'd never have fought back.  I would have agreed that I'm sick, that I'm sick to be poor and sick to be sick and sick to be hungry and sick to be lonely and sick to be robbed and used.  But you were so greedy, so cruel!  One of them, just one you could have left me!  But I have nothing. Why shouldn't I strike back? (367)
She craves the illusion.  As much as she resists the treatments at the hospital, she wants to slip under the illusion, she wants to join the social fabric, she want to live unquestioningly.  She wants her Soma.  If "they," the perennial they who are often in control, if they would have only given her what she asked for, she would have agreed with them.  As much as Connie is defined by her recalcitrance throughout the story, as much as she frustrates the institution's prescriptions and protocols, she is ready to accept them.  She will agree with what they say she is.  She will accept the rules.  If only they would give her someone to love.

The parallels with Kuno in "The Machine Stops" are strong.  The suggestion in that story is that Kuno would never have crawled out of the machine, accelerating its destruction, had the machine only granted him a wife.  Instead, because of what was denied him, he was left only with a unavoidable lack.  A desire.  And in the space of this desire a new world was discovered.  The illusion of the machine died, or perhaps was displaced,  with the promise of this new world.  It is a kind of triangulation among a desired life, the current state, and the utopian promise.  It is the start of a revolution.

Woman of the Edge of Time closes with Connie's greatest insurrection.  She destroys her "they." Or at least part of "them." It becomes a "you," a subject that can be attacked.  You can strike at a you.  It is the revolt which writes the rest of her life.  She will not leave the hospitals again.  The fate she once wished for herself is forever closed.  The triangulation fractures, the implication being, as in "Machine," that the utopian promise remains.  Only with Woman the appendix serves as a grim reminder that the institution, the machine, grinds on.  They remain.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Kiss to Wake Them

If this remarkable book , The Dispossessed, has a center—which is highly unlikely—it is the love story.  Shevek's dedication to Takver (both its discovery and constant re-enactment) drives most of the significant character developments in the novel.  It gives us, finally, a utopic wakes up.

In Huxley's Brave New World, Lenina, like Takver and Shevak, runs counter to the romantic drives of her culture.  She has a itch for monogamy.  In Le Guin, who offers her characters much more compassion and complexity than Huxley, the itch becomes almost an integral compulsion, a sense of inner truth that must be avowed and protected.  Shevek and Takver will remain possessed of one another: it is nothing less than rebellion.  They have promoted their needs above those of the larger community.  They will suffer inconvenience, they will suffer exclusion, so they can have one another.

The decision, of course, snowballs, opening up a space in which both Takver and Shevek may more critically engage their own culture and politics.  Because of the shuffling of linear time in the book, the space seems to be created and maintained by Shevak's travel.  His awakening is literally juxtaposed with his travels.  We are tempted to interpret him as the glorified study abroad student who reassesses from afar, wondering, for the first time, why those refrigerators back home are so little, or why there's not better plumbing.  But it is Takver with Shevek, not Annares vs. Urras, that structure this tension.  Their love allows them a way through.

By a way through, again, I mean a questioning of the ground, the first principles, on which a society (one's own) is built.  After the first decision to break with a core tenet (un-exclusive romance), the second break becomes much easier.  Le Guin is careful to construct a scene in which both Takver and Shevek are present for this re-assessment of grounding:

"We always think it, and say it, but we don't do it.  We keep our initiative tucked away safe in our mind, like a room where we can come and say, "I don't have to do anything, I make my own choices, I'm free.'  And then we leave the little room in our mind, and go where PDC posts us and stay till we're reposted." (329)

This is the sentiment (sediment) for Shevek's radical departure, his decision to leave Annares.  And it doesn't come from simple, mutual agreement (Takver in the scene mentioned above begins more as a counterpoint to Shevek's ideas); rather it is through their contact, through the dynamic of an insurgent love affair, the seditiousness of commitment's kiss, that sets Shevek free.

This reminded me of my first reading of Le Guin in an annual of fantasy and horror writing.  Her contribution was "The Poacher," a short story about a rugged peasant boy who cuts through a thicket and finds himself in none other than sleeping beauty's somnolent castle. The boy falls under an enchantment as well; but it is beauty, not sleep, that entices him:

I knew, I knew as soon as I entered her room, that first time, that one time, as soon as I saw her I knew that she, she alone in all the castle, might wake at any moment....I knew that if I spoke in that tower room she would hear me: maybe not waken, but hear me in her sleep, and her dreams would change.
This kiss never comes.  The boy grows old in that castle lawn, knowing that it is not his place to place that kiss.  He knows one day a prince will come, stride through the thicket that the boy spends the better part of the story clawing himself through, stoop down to the lovely girl and kiss her tenderly.

With this, Le Guin demonstrates that she is deserving of the praise Jameson reserves for her and few other fantasy writers.  He comments that she is savy in the complication of magic, widening it beyond the "ethical binary of good and evil" (58).  Moreover she proves that she can evade Tolkein's nostalgia for a righteous aristocracy and a frolicking peasantry (60).  Le Guin's peasant is beaten and unrewarded; her aristocrat privileged and undeserving.

Love is complicated too.  Like her novel, the story still turns on a seditious commitment.  Yes, there is not kiss, but there is the hope that the poacher's years of haunting the princess's charmed rest, his vigil at her court, will inscribe him in her memory.  When she opens her eyes and finds her prince, perhaps "she will think, 'Is that the face I dreamed of seeing?'"

The Dispossessed would not work without a similar desire.  Shevek must wonder if the apparition of his face still haunts his family.  The return would not compel him—there would be no consuming drive—if there was not an absence.  Only if he leaves the tranquility of bed, the warmth of Takver, the draw of sleep, might he then imagine himself reconfigured there, changed, transformed by his journey, but all the more hers.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Natural, Organic, Green Pogrom

The degree will differ, but most of us will agree: We are poisoning and being poisoned by our environment.  Carbon Monoxide.  BPA.  Pesticides.  CFCs.  PVCs.  Phthalates.  One needs only look at the back of a package for an energy efficient light bulb to discover we are daily putting into landfills that which will lead to our own decomposition (in this case, mercury).  How do we respond?

For Rachel Carson, it becomes a responsibility to scrutinize and redefine our practices: "We are subjecting whole populations to exposure to chemicals which animal experiments have proved to be extremely poisonous and in many cases cumulative in their effect.  These exposures now begin at or before birth and—unless we change our methods—will continue through the lifetime of those now living" ("Introduction," xx).

For John Brunner in The Sheep Look Up, the answer is found somewhere between a realization and a "rational proposal."  First comes the realization that "at long last the revolution had arrived!  Well—maybe not quite THE REVOLUTION, in capitals, but certainly the chance to make a revolution work.  There had never before been so many people so angry with the system, and striking back against it" (357).  Then comes the rational proposal: "we can restore the balance of the ecology...if we exterminate the two hundred million most extravagant and wasteful of our species" (363).  Such a revolution is destined for vengeance and fire.  America must burn.

Carson's language is dominated by the "we."  It is we who must reexamine our methods.  Some industries and institutions may have played larger roles in aggravating the plague she describes, and so their introspection perhaps must be more exhaustive than others; but that does not mean they alone are accountable.  There is no top and bottom that revolves in opposition to each other.  With Carson, the entire human landscape must revolve, or, better yet, invert itself, turn its practices inside out, if we are to evolve out of the current "stillness."

For Brunner that stillness is a complacency, a stupor which must be shaken from us.  We must awaken to see what They are doing to Us.  Corporate entities and governments align to form the perfect Marxist foil:  a hegemon that must be usurped.  Yes, indeed, this is REVOLUTION with capital letters, with "starving refugees besieging frontiers" (355).  Granted, this is problematized by Train's death at the hands of his own ideology, but it still seems like a welcome purging.  Fires will be started.  Bombs will be detonated.  A New World Order will reign free and green.

Eco-critics have not missed the violence implicit in this message.  Some have embraced it. Others, particularly Patricia Greiner, have labeled Brunner's book "false ecofiction...a literature of division, one that stresses opposition rather than commonality, and thus is inherently at odds with the integrative nature of ecology" (qtd. in Murphy 27).  Although Greiner's labels of "true" and "false" are lamentable for their strict, either/or logic, the point is helpful in explaining the ease with which political opponents of environmental reform can undermine the more confrontational elements of "green" activism.  They merely step back and reveal its perpetual compulsion to collapse in on itself.

A different kind of action is needed, one that is as creative as it is resistant.  Michel de Certeau would suggest walking instead of charging.  In de Certeau, walkers become bricoleurs, subversive spin artists of the dominant, "proper," powers.  Brunner, however, denies his characters this possibility, first, by physically making walking impossible, then by pitting against them oppressors so corrupt that their scapegoating is unavoidable.  Facing such a vile foe, one must draw blood.  Only through a purging violence can creation begin again.  

On the other hand, de Certeau and Carson locate both problem and solution within the individual.  The call becomes to rearrange one's own perspective, to "cut out" and "turn over" what exists within one's own relationship with the environment (62).  The cutting here opens no wound.  The turning over sets into motion no besieging army.  A space is renewed when, as de Certeau puts it, the extroverted and the introverted combine —a looking out as well as a turning within.  In this tactical turn totalities  are shattered and new relationships become possible.  A breech comes without blood.  A refreshment without the cleansing.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Kipple & Bits

Much of utopia or dystopia is a kind of tour around the author's fantastical creation (Sorry, I slipped: this is not fantasy; this is science.  Why, we might ask, has that word, "fantasy," fallen much like the word "liberal"—now we imagine it must denote some radical, less refined version of "progressive;" even magical realism can't suffer a fantasy anymore; all that's left for it are swords and soft porn).  Gilman certainly offers that kind of journey through Herland: "To the right, you'll notice our manicured cherry trees, to the left, our mosquito eradication tent, and straight ahead..."

Fredric Jameson picks up on this spectacle of movement in Thomas Moore: "travel narrative marks Utopia as irredeemably other" (23). A new land is entered.  New sights are seen.  New people met.  Differences noted. 

There are elements of the travel narrative in Philip K. Dick's Dr. Bloodmoney.   In fact, much of the book is devoted to making California place names strange(er) again: "Berkeley had become a sieve" (87); "South of San Francisco it's just farmland now" (133); "That meant there were two functioning radios in West Marin, compared to none at all in Bolinas" (175).  The capital letters of these sentences make them exotic.  The names unsettle us.  To write "Clemson had become a great deposit of eyeglasses and mutated squirrels" is to project an otherness not by odd deposits or squirrels alone.  It is the reference to location that makes the middle let go.

But Bloodmoney lacks the common conventions of the travel narrative, most importantly the unified POV, the Dante for Virgil's tour, to collect and unify observations of an other land.  The traveling here is done through leaps of limited points of perspective.  Each of the locations named above—Berkeley, San Francisco, West Marin, Boinas—each is spoken for by a separate character.  From one paragraph to the next we might change points of view in what Jameson describes as "a whole constellation of peculiar characters."  He finds, in this constellation, grounds for his elaborate "Character Systems," separating the novel from other "non-realistic narratives," which use the multiple perspectives as a mere trope (351).  He does not seem to mind the discrepancy in tropes with travel narratives.   

Before being accused of misreading Jameson, I should note that he speaks only of travel narrative in Utopia, and specifically in Moore's.  He reserves the dys- for elsewhere.  Still, I think it might serve us to put these two ideas of Jameson together and ask who or what, if anything, is the Dante of this journey.

At best we have Stuart.  He establishes our initial POV reference, and he physically travels most in the novel (discounting, in a way, Dangerfield).  I'm by no means arguing that Stuart is the central subject in the novel; if anything, Jameson's Character Systems prove the complexity of locating a subject, much less a central subject, in the novel.  But Stuart's characterization might be centering a kind of practice.  He is, after all and always, a traveling salesman.

This is Armageddon.  This is not utopian abolishments of capital, which Jameson claims "offer little more than a breathing space, a momentary relief from the overwhelming presence of late capitalism" (279).  Capital has been abolished only to rise up anew, baser.  It is silver and real cigarettes and calendars of real nude girls that mean something (at least, economically speaking).

Moreover, it is capital, not mutation or radioactivity, that holds promise of the  greatest transformations in the novel.  Andrew Gill transforms from a melancholic VW bus driver to the John D. Rockefeller of his era by abandoning his family for a load of tobacco.  Hardy and Stuart concoct ways to get even richer than peddling mutant animal traps has made them (Stuart: "Maybe I could become a plant breeder" (158)).  Eldon Blaine can buy medicine for his daughter only by hoarding eyeglasses.  June Raub "in the old days...had not amounted to anything and the Emergency had given her her chance, as it had many people, to show what she was really made of" (108).  Yes, the great event, the rupture of the bombs dropping, certainly initiated these transformations, but at their base we find the transformation of capital.

This is why I find it strange that Jameson concludes that Stanley (along with Bonny) is largely a background character in a narrative "transcending them in significance" (361). Yes, Stuart is overcome, passed by, transcended, but only because of his nagging failure that he hasn't kept up.  More than anyone, it is he who has been unchanged by the change in capital: "I'm no better off now than I was before the goddam Emergency" (149).  Or through the eyes of another: "this man has somehow managed to preserve his viewpoint...nothing can or will stop him....He is, Gill realized, simply a good salesman" (201).  This is the novel's central conflict: mutation vs. non-mutation.

The conflict doesn't break so clearly as Jameson might suggest along human/non-human/hybrid-human lines.  As Dick himself has stated about the novel in the essay "Man, Android and Machine," "We hold now no pure categories of living versus the non-living; this is going to be our paradigm."  Stuart refuses to let those categories blur.  His mutation becomes his unwillingness to mutate.  The same can be said of the always-affairing Bonny: she too, for much of the novel, refuses to hear an utterance of her daughter's hidden friend.  It is fitting, then, that the book closes with her viewpoint, at peace again when the flows of capital resume in the city streets.

All has come from kipple, "Dick's personal version of entropy," the muck that builds up where street meets sidewalk, the box of bric-a-brac shoved under a bed, the artifacts of a "late twentieth-century object-world [which] tends to disintegrate under its own momentum" (Jameson 346).  The kipple builds and builds.  We stack it up around us, thinking it a fort, an individuating tower to protect us from invasion, until, like Hoppy, the boxes come tumbling down upon us.

And we are reborn.