Thursday, November 29, 2012

Not Quite

Ending post

Defining Experimental via mechanics

As far as I can tell, experimentalism in 20th century British Fiction has been defined by the challenging social conventions through challenging literary conventions. That may seem simplistic since as English majors we tend to assume that the author's use of syntax and style is always reflective of the rest of the work, but the texts that we have read for this course have all been aimed at critiquing or examining something in society: "what is love?" in Women in Love; fascism and group-think in The Waves; social class and it's relation to language in Loving; the social standing of women in Voyage in the Dark. Molloy and The Golden Notebook challenged conceptions of madness: is pure madness somehow less insane than the madness of the system? Crash challenges our conception of how do we define humanity in a world where technology and cyborgism are becoming the norm.

Yet all of those themes can theoretically be explored through narrative alone. But every one of these texts takes full advantage of the very mechanics* of writing. In other words, the often amorphous message of the piece is carried in both the mechanics of the text as well as in the actual narrative.

While all good works of fiction use the mechanics of their writing in conjunction with providing the narrative, the books in this course are extremely aware of the relationship between mechanics and narrative. In different ways, every novel in this course used the challenging of literary and narrative conventions to emphasize the narrative's challenge social to conventions (specifically control, love, gender equality, normalcy). The reverse can also be true, in that the narrative social context also provides a critique of the literary conventions.

Woolf's constructions of characters in The Waves boiled them down to a collective, a supposed single unit (such as the goal of a fascist state), yet undermined that unity in the way each character provided their own separate perspective which ultimately could not be summed up by one ideology (Bernard/fascism).  

Crash's fusing of sexuality (one of the most basic of human processes) with technology, is further emphasized by Ballard's clinical  yet accurate use of the term "sex act,"** contrasted with terms like "make love" (a term which is inherently a metaphorical construct yet is somehow more natural). The conflict between what is accurate (or linguistically natural), and what the reader perceives as natural (but which is in fact a construct) brings the reader back to that central question of how do we define human in a world run by our technology (mechanically: how can artificiality be more "true" than the "natural").

While it is possible that my definition for experimental is too broad, since it sort of encompasses every work in which mechanics and narrative line up. The fact that the mechanical metaphor for the works is being delivered through internal critiques and discussions of literary conventions, I'd say that the fact that the narrative and mechanics are having two distinct conversations (narrative conventions and social conventions) yet keep both reflecting, critiquing, and changing each other, take the works beyond merely being symbolic, and into the realm of experimental.

*I am borrowing the term mechanics from the perspective of game-design. In game design the mechanics represent the way the various elements of play and their interaction, in a literary context this translates to something akin to the interactions of words, syntax, and narrative delivery-style.

**a fun game for Crash, every time Ballard says "sex act," imagine the voice of the generic nerd from Robot Chicken.

Hope this makes sense to someone else...

To be honest, when I signed up for this course, I had no clue what experimental meant. After this semester and all of our discussions of the books we read, I'm still not entirely sure what experimental means in regard to literature. The closest thing I can say some others have mentioned in their blogs (or touched upon the same topic area). These novels we read from the beginning of the 20th century to the end all pushed the norm of literature in some way. Women in Love explored relationships between men-women, women-women, and men-men. The Golden Notebook also took a in-depth look in relationships between the individual and those around her while also exploring the concept of dealing with one's own madness. Molloy had a very different structure than most of us are used to and a lack a linear plot. The Waves, as some described it best, is written more like a poem than a novel. Each book pushed the standard of literature in some way and pushed our minds as the readers as well. In my experience in this course, that is the closest definition of experimental that I can convey

From mad and insane to smartly deceptive: the amusing game of reading the “Experimental”

When we set out to answer the initial questions the first day of class, I was sure what to anticipate. Questions like can be mad? Or what does it mean for a novel to be insane or obtain insane/mad qualities. "Mad" and "insane" conveyed a sense of urgency and chaos--I was afraid that I would be frantically trying to force a meaning that could somehow satisfy or answer the ambiguity of these questions and, through this process,  become distracted from the larger claims, ideas, and overall feeling of the text. So, I focused on the feeling of the text and discovered—at least for myself—it isn’t necessarily that the text itself is mad, rather the deceptive structure and repetition of perplexing reading processes that makes us mad, though I’d liked to propose deceptive or fun comparable to this maddening reading experience. Although I did feel rather anxious while reading Crash, I felt the entirely opposite feeling in novels like Never Let Me Go, Molloy. In these novels, while of course trying to make meaning, I almost always found myself transforming my readerly experience into that of a game; hunting for clues and trying to solve, understand my position or relationship to the text before the end; unfortunately, the structure of Molloy and Never Let Me Go directly attacked this desire order, structures, and linear narrative progression/drive. In this way, narrative structure/narrative dive--the way the author or narrator thwarted our perhaps more conventional expectations for a beginning, middle, and an end. I became intrigued how a novel could make us so keen/aware of our positions as readers while also take advantage of our desire for the novel's end as a motivating force behind the mockery. In other words, I grew fascinated by the simultaneous distance and closeness I felt to various characters. For example, I could lose myself forever in the re-reading of Never Let Me Go in hopes I could somehow, this time understand/construct a completely vision or picture of the novel's "atmosphere". It is this very notion of repetition--my impulsive confidence in thinking I am so close to unlocking, uncovering, or discovering some hidden truth and meaning in one of these text that I would characterize as manic. This repetitive mode of mania defamiliarizes the familiar and traps us in a cycle of consistently altering perspectives. I think we see the importance of patterns of perspective in Molloy; I enjoyed the task of having to construct a perception of a seemingly “mad” Molloy first and then close with Moran's seemingly more navigable method of narration. Although frustrating at times, Molloy's backward structure revealed my tendency to constantly make associations in an attempt to make meaning. These revelations are now forcing me to questions the authenticity of my interpretations; is there an original or organic way I read? Or are all my ways of reading --meaning my expectations, rituals, or categorizing-- original or organic? Or am I a product of various narrators, plots, or familiar scenes with characters from other literary world?  Similarly, in Never Let Me Go, I experienced a sense of almost relief when I realized I was responsible for constructing a perception or vision of the book out already deconstructed plot outcome. I guess for me, "experimental" --the mad or insane emotions of a novel--exist within the novel but require our participation to develop, transform, or release. I’ve never before been made so aware of how I read while simultaneously be so involved and lost in a text; it’s like I inhabited both spaces at once—a literal internal existence within the pages of the novel while always checking back-- or perhaps an entire  new space was created resulting from the themes of these clever texts. Instead of making meaning from chaos, I found the most meaningful experiences reading to be chaotic; although the endings of Molloy and Never Let Me Go signaled the end of the novel, I found myself immediately flipping to the beginning to re-read and moments later put the book down in fear I may know more than I initially thought. Back and forth, close and further away—the ebb and flow, pace, and pattern of these texts. A heartbeat of maddening, chaotic, insanity! 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Possible Synthesis?

Yesterday I came here when it was all but barren, untouched land and tried to write down something worth something, but felt bemused and lost at where to begin. As it has been pointed out, there are many elements of the texts we have read that can be pointed to and pounded out that connect the novels into a more thematic narrative of 20th century literary experimentalism. In reviewing the posts, I thought I might direct my attention towards a connection I feel might exist between what Sam F. said and what Brad said.

Brad talks about the experimental nature of many of the texts we read lying partially in the narrators' unreliability, a characteristic that is well shown as existing across the spectrum of texts. The unreliable quality of the narrator in books such as Molloy, The Golden Notebook, Never Let Me Go, Crash, and Loving have all been discussed in class in a way that lead to Brad's further conclusive notion--that the unreliability of the narrator echoes out and question the reliability of the novel itself, its form, its fiction, and its purpose.
Sam, meanwhile, brings up the British aspect of the course (it took me a few books to realize that these weren't all set in Conway), and how the books or narrators--especially the latter half that we encountered in the course--express a dissatisfaction/disillusionment with "Britishness," its coldness, its ominous powers of technology and unfeeling alienation. I like the historical context Sam puts this into, the crumbling empire of Britain in the 20th century; after the Waves, there is an implicit feeling of decline or at least deviation, as well as an increased amount of violence in the modern world that disturbs one's belief that modernity is a progression.

I think there is a definite link between these two ideas--similar to, perhaps, Laing's quotations of madness. That we receive unreliable narrators in a stagnating, degenerating society does not seem surprising; as Laing tells us, madness is the only thing that actually makes sense in a world that is shown to be mad itself. The inconsistencies of the narrators oftentimes have carried hints of madness in them--Anna, other Anna, Molloy, Ballard--that in ways speak to/against the environments around them. Even in Women in Love, the ways in which characters such as Birkin and Gudrun behave seem like rebellions against the flaws of their immediate society. Gudrun especially, in all the disgust she expresses with the people and the environment around her, seems like a reactionary character, formed from malcontent. The discontent these authors seem to feel toward Britain and modern society is expressed experimentally through the unreliability of the characters, who may serve both  as reverberations of the British disillusionment or as subversive critics of it.

Conclusively Inconclusive

Blythe, I didn't notice that you had posted about this topic.  I think that my post can speak to yours--

Endings are never easy for any writer, but throughout our semester’s journey of 20th century experimental British fiction, I think that we have come to realize that many of the authors are preoccupied with concluding their narratives.  While Women in Love ends in argument, Henry Green’s Loving seemingly ends in Raunce and Edith’s marriage (a marriage that was not enough for Birkin, who we know was preoccupied with maintaining individuality within a relationship and that a “pair” was not complete without a third—“few” to use the language of Levenson), though we know that through discussing the novel itself, we have come to distrust such an “easy” ending.  After Anna’s crack-up in the Golden Notebook, the novel ends “The two women kissed and separated,” a similarly abrupt ending just like Loving.  Given Anna’s “cracking up” throughout the novel, this ending seems extremely dissatisfying in its resolution. 
We’ve talked a lot about experimental fiction “breaking expectations” and doing so through the “uncanny,” and this particular ending seems to speak to this concept.  Namely, that we’ve spent the novel experiencing Anna’s “cracking up,” and to end so abruptly and conventionally becomes uncanny—just like Green’s Loving—breaking our expectations of what the novel has already established. 
Samuel Beckett’s Molloy perhaps offers the most frustrating ending as it both exposes its own fictionality: “he wrote, ‘It was midnight.  It was raining.  It was not midnight.  It was not raining.”  Such an ending asks the reader to loop back to the beginning of the novel to ponder the relationship between the two sections of the novel.  This anxiety over concluding a narrative reveals the characters’ similar anxiety over mortality.  The Waves ostensibly illustrates anxiety over death both throughout the novel (in the ghostlike figure of Percival) and at the end of the novel, through Bernard’s apostrophe—“Oh Death!”  However, it is the italicized line “The waves broke on the shore” (220) that trumps Bernard’s declaration against death, rather bringing the reader outside the subjective perspective of the characters in this final moment, to return to a continuing cycle. 
Speaking of cycles/death, we can also look toward Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark, which ends in Anna’s repetition of thinking about “starting all over again” even though one likely presumes that she will die from the botched abortion.  Crash also ends in the “unceasing flow of traffic”—a short separate paragraph that stands alone after James and Catherine’s moments wandering among the crashed cars together.  Perhaps Never Let Me Go ends most conventionally, in that Kathy seems resigned to her fate, and the reader knows that she too will “complete” just like Tommy and Ruth.  In its conclusiveness, however, this ending becomes uncanny in its own right, making the reader continue to question/probe further into this unsettling novel, which perhaps hits too close to home.    
From arguments, to cycles, to “conventional” resolutions that are uncanny because the novel itself is so “unconventional,” to a shifting perspective (leaving the characters for the final moment in The Waves), the literature that we have surveyed this semester certainly seems preoccupied with destabilizing the reader at the end of each novel.  Thinking back to Woolf’s "The Mark on the Wall," with which we began the semester and its ending—“Ah the mark on the wall!  It was a snail”—reminds us that endings/conclusions certainly aren’t—and perhaps are best if they aren’t— resolutions.