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.   


A trend I've noticed within most of the experimental texts we've read this semester is their tendency to end in an indefinite way. At times, the story may seem incomplete; at other times, circular. Perhaps we are unsettled due to the uncertain conclusion. To look at the last few lines of some texts that this applies to:

Women in Love
"You can't have two kinds of love. Why should you!"
"It seems as if I can't," he said. "Yet I wanted it."
"You can't have it, because it's false, impossible," she said.
"I don't believe that," he answered.
--> In this case, Birkin feels unsettled.

Voyage in the Dark:
"And about starting all over again, all over again...."
-->Here we have uncertainty of a potential circularity (rather than a new beginning).

The Golden Notebook
"The two women kissed and separated."
--> OK, but we have no idea where this leaves Anna. Not really.

Never Let Me Go
"I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be."
--> Vague, so vague. We don't actually see Kathy become a donor-- could she find her way out? Or is she accepting her pending doom?

This does not work quite as well for The Waves, Loving, Molloy, or Crash (please correct me if you disagree). But I think it's obvious in at half of these texts that we are left with uncertainty. I know I wasn't fully satisfied with these endings, though I accepted them because I had to. Perhaps this relates to Brad's discussion about the narrators that we can't fully trust. Maybe it's narrator unreliability that causes us confusion or doubt about the end of the novels. I believe this is a characteristic of experimental texts: questioning, contradictions, doubts, uncertain narrators and endings of novels.

What makes a novel an experimental novel? In general, experimental means something new, something unprecedented, a deviation from the established. When thinking about the readings for this course, I feel like one can distinguish between two kinds of “deviations” that constitute the experimental.
I would like to focus on the three, in my eyes, most obviously experimental novels, namely The Waves, Crash and Molloy. While they are undoubtedly all experimental, there seems to be a difference in their “experimentality”. The Waves, this “play-poem”, deviates from the conventional mainly in regards to its unusual narrative form, demonstrated in the six soliloquies.  Crash on the other hand, transgresses rather moral boundaries and our ideas about the plot of a novel in general. Molloy seems to be experimental in both mentioned ways. Its narrative style with the constant contradictions is as extraordinary and unconventional as its “lack of plot” as Daniel put it.

A Century In Review

Though I realize that we haven't talked much about the role that Britain (or perhaps more specifically, England) plays in the texts which we read over the course of this semester, I think there are a number of conclusions to be drawn about the way in which the nation is presented by each of these authors. The most prominent of these conclusions, at least to my eye, is a general displeasure or disillusionment with Britain as a state and the idea of "Britishness" as a characteristic of the people who live there. Specifically, it seems that texts like Never Let Me Go, Molloy, and Crash all put forward a fairly depressing picture of England on a societal level. Whether it is discriminatory, alienating, or disturbingly technology-driven, something is fundamentally wrong with British society when viewed through the lens of these texts. Other texts offer a more historically-based critique, particularly in respect to the imperialist project -- The Waves, Loving, and Voyage in the Dark are especially critical in this regard. When taken all together, these texts represent a bleak view of British society in the eyes of their authors.

With that being said, I'm not sure from where this impulse to distance themselves from their native country originated. Perhaps it is part of a reaction to the dismantling of the empire and Britain's general decline during the 20th century, or perhaps it is a rejection of the unimaginable violence which that century represented -- the bloodiest one yet in human history. (Of course, the timeframe of the texts when taken together somewhat dimishes the value of those conclusions). For whatever reason, I think this general disillusionment with Britain and its people is in some ways the most common driving force behind all of these texts. To what end, however, I am not yet sure.

Some Thoughts

So I don't think it would be safe to say that the texts we have read in this semester are necessarily representative of the whole of 20th Century British Fiction (yes, those needed to be capitalized).  However, having taken Dr. Stuber's British Literature in an Age of Modernism, I think I can come up with some conclusions that I'd be happy with.  At the turn of the 20th century science and technology moved at hitherto unknown speeds.  Everything was changing in ways that were difficult to grasp.  Art of the time period became more abstract in an effort to capture the changes as they happened.  I think British Modernism and its more experimental facets that we have talked about this semester are good representations of those efforts.  The experimental texts are 20th century authors' attempts at keeping up with that pace.  Never Let Me Go is a good summative example.
As a whole, this class has certainly widened my scope for interpreting what should be considered an experimental novel.

I would like to acknowledge (in a very concise and non-explanatory way) why these texts seemed experimental to me.  Women In Love felt experimental because of its obsessively verbose descriptions and constant character contradictions. The Waves felt experimental because of its heteroglossic narration and intermittently cryptic descriptions of nature. Voyage In The Dark felt experimental because of its repetition and Anna's disturbing complacency. Loving felt experimental because of its simplicity, its emphasis on low-life as opposed to high-life, and its fascination with gossip and observation. The Golden Notebook felt experimental because it forged relationships between several narratives, asking us to reexamine the importance of traditional structure. Molloy felt experimental because of its lack of plot, contradictions, and its fixation on a perplexing interiority. Crash felt experimental simply of because of its plot--a distanced portrayal of wildly unorthodox fetishism. Never Let Me Go felt experimental because of its undeniably intentional simplicity and unreliability in narration.

None of these texts are experimental for the same reason(s), but they are still very much worth comparing because they share several overarching themes and means of existence. The power of these themes is not contingent on what method they are presented with and the universality is bolstered by their diversity.

The narrator in experimental novels

Though the experimental novel can be defined in terms of a plethora of different qualities, one aspect that has presented itself in all of the works we have read is our inability to completely trust the narrator. Through  their use of language and style, the narrators in the novels have given us doubt in their own abilities to relate their stories. While most narrators possess at least some bias or subjectivity that must be considered when interpreting the story, the narrators in experimental fiction are beyond biased. They undermine, contradict, exaggerate, and leave out details that make us question their motives and roles as narrators. Whether it is Bernard, encompassing the other narrators in The Waves, Molloy, questioning his communicating ability, Kathy's blotchy memory, the end of Loving, James's unquestioning loyalty, Anna's cracking up, etc. Almost all of the narrators must be read cautiously. The only novel I couldn't immediately add to this list was Women in Love, and I would argue it was experimental for different reasons.

Why do so these experimental works  want us to question their narrators? By questioning the narrators we are forced to question the novel. Not the events in the novel (though those may be questioned too), but the intention, the motivation behind writing the novel. In most "standard" novels, the intention of the novel and what it is trying to convey are easily made clear to the reader, even if not stated directly. In the experimental works, we must pry deeper and interpret more in order to discover the underlying meaning. In doing so, the novel as a whole begins to become a part of its own story, creating a sort of entity that interacts on another level with the reader. In this way the experimental novel sets itself apart from the standard literature and defies or goes beyond the traditional narrative.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Technology and 20th Century Brit Lit

The novels we have read together this semester have covered different decades and social classes, and have crossed continents. Yet no matter the time or place, each of these novels (with the possible exception of Molloy) has had something to say about the increasing mechanization of Western society. In The Waves, there were trains. In The Golden Notebook, there were nuclear bombs. In Crash, there was... the whole book! In Never Let Me Go, it had gone a step further to the mechanization of actual human bodies. (If anybody wants to comment with good examples from Women in Love, Voyage in the Dark, and Loving, you would be my best friend.)

The Industrial Age changed the face of Britain forever, perhaps more so than in any other nation. It resulted in colonial expansion, a rising middle-class, and social turmoil. If literature is any indication, it seems that ever since, the Brits have been struggling to reconcile technology with the organic. In none of the novels I mentioned above was technology a positive presence. It can be destructive - of civilizations as in TGB or of intimacy as in Crash and The Waves. In all cases, mechanization leads to the degradation of the human. But all these imagined universes are dependent on technology, sometimes for their very survival. It's as if these books are trying to tell us we've made a deal with the devil.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Say, how's the weather?

I don't know if it was our discussion Tuesday about connecting this novel to The Waves or just that I saw Anatomy of Gray recently, but something that stuck out to me about this novel was the constant references to the weather (in the play, some scenes will begin with the characters remarking on the weather outside). There are two things that seem strange to me about the weather references: first, that they are there to begin with (I usually don't remember the weather outside when I am telling a story, and Kathy has much bigger things to tell us than the weather) and second, how insanely specific these references are. For example, the first reference to the weather comes to us on page 7: "There was bright sunshine, but it must have been raining earlier that day because I can remember how the sun was glinting on the muddy surface of the grass."

I know the weather was somewhat important  because Tommy splashed mud all over himself, but never once have I even thought about the weather in such specificity. To me, the continuous references to the weather make Kathy seem unreliable... It seems that in every story she tells us, she remembers the exact weather of the day! How is that possible? Furthermore, Kathy even admits that "This was all a long time ago so I might have some of it wrong..." (13). What in the world is the weather doing in this story?!

I want to believe that it functions like the wave sequences in The Waves and Anatomy of Gray do-- that the weather in the story indicates its content. For example, in the above story, the weather would mean it's sunny, so starts out good, but then has the potential to get muddy since the grass is wet. When Tommy breaks up with Kathy, Kathy reminds us that the weather was "really foggy, and [she] knew the field would be soaking" (280). Again, the climate of the setting seem to indicate the climate of the story. If this is true, either Kathy is making up the weather of each story or her life is full of foreshadowing clues and crazy coincidences. What do you guys think? Do you find any anomalies to my theory? Do you have a better idea?

Sorry for such a long boring post about weather, but this has discombobulated me from the beginning. I never start my stories out by describing the weather.


One of the most disturbing things about "Never Let Me Go" to me is the fact that the three friends never actually try to escape their fate or rebel against the “system” (in the absence of a better word) that created them to be used as human spare parts. Even Kathy and Tommy’s request for a deferral does not really count as a rebellion, because they only try to alter their fate within the boundaries and possibilities of the system; they do not consider other ways to get away when their plan fails. On page 244 Kathy and Tommy think about what they want to do with their extra years together, if they get the deferral:
“What do we do exactly? See what I mean, Kath? Where do we go? We can’t stay here, this is a centre.”
“I don’t know, Tommy. Maybe she’ll tell us to go back to the Cottages. But it’d be better somewhere else. The White Mansion, maybe. Or perhaps they’ve got some other place. Somewhere separate for people like us. We’ll just have to see what she says.”
This passage shows that their plans for the future do not involve living in the “free” or “normal” world (which at least Kathy must be familiar with due to her status as carer, which apparently involves a lot of travelling), but that they again only wait for what the system (in this case Madame) tells them to do.
The only (at least halfway plausible) explanation for this passive and fatalistic behavior seems to be the brainwashing at Hailsham and consequently the clones’ deep conviction that their donating is “what [they]’re supposed to be doing […]”(227). I wonder, though, what Ishiguro is trying to tell us with this depiction of his protagonists. Is it meant to be a criticism that we often do as we are told without questioning the system that makes the rules? Or does he rather want to show us that there is no running away from death and that we all have to face our own mortality? Whatever it may be that the author wants to convey, this part of the story leaves the reader in a very melancholic mood. 

PS: I chose the German adjective "schicksalsergeben" as title for the post, because it seems to describe the protagonists best. The Englisch translation would be "fatalistic" or better "being resigned to one's fate". 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Parts and Pieces in Never Let Me Go

Like JillAnn, I am fascinated by Kathy’s memory in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go thus far. For me, however, Kathy’s sometimes misty or hazy memory doesn’t make me question her reliability as much as instills a longing to understand or sympathize with her—a longing that seems impossible to satisfy as I continue to read. In this way, I am interested in our experience as readers and how the pace of the novel is established through glimpses or “parts” of Kathy’s experiences at Hailsham and The Cottages. This notion of pieces or parts reminds me of parts of the physical body, organs, and parts of the characters or perhaps creatures of Hailsham. I am especially intrigued by Kathy’s mention of “pieces” and “parts” in relation to a whole and how her parts trap us in the liminal space between (like Lillie’s post mentions) not having the capacity to sympathize with Kathy’s use of “you” and so desperately longing to nurture, rescue, or relate to these human beings who exist for this incomprehensible purpose. Although Kathy only reveals parts of her life as she feels necessary, I appreciate the fluidity and honesty (as Blythe put it) that Kathy seems to definitely convey.  On page 124 Kathy compares her interaction with Ruth to that of a chess game: “It was like when you make a move in chess and just as you take your finger off the piece, you see the mistake you've made, and there’s a panic because you don’t know yet the scale of the disaster you've left yourself open to” (pg 124). Not only does this particular passage reveal the irony in Kathy’s desire to control, it heightens the devastating reality of the potential fates of these characters and taunts us, as readers, to at once want to sympathize while simultaneously sort of suggesting maybe it’s okay not to get attached, in fact maybe its better, a warning of sorts.  It seems frustrating to read, relate, and get to know these characters with their end in mind. It’s almost as though we know this “puzzle” will never be complete or whole. We know that there characters are only constructed to be deconstructed for someone’s completion or fix.  Kathy is so good at trapping us in her airy mist of nostalgia; I’m either inside looking out, or outside looking in…but never wholly there, never complete, there is always a part of something negated.  In this sense, perhaps our containment as readers rightfully reassembles the containment of Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy; we barely see through the windows that they've been subjected to their whole lives and right now I am thankful and maybe even hopeful for a “cozy state of suspension” before we have to face the deconstruction or death. For all the various communities, couples, and bonding that Hailsham requires of its students and that Kathy tries to incite in us, there's such an overwhelming sense of isolation/distance. For such a bleak and somber atmosphere, the prospect and desire to discover one’s “possible” seems chillingly wrong. 

Rewind! Rewind!

As I sit down to write this post, I realize I have only 8 minutes before it is due, and I haven't (yet) finished reading the entire assignment. So I apologize in advance if it's slightly late, or if I step on any toes, say something obvious, etc. I had some car troubles, as I'm sure you'll understand. Anyway:
Something I note, over and over in this novel, is everyone's (not just the narrator's) obsession with memory and remembering, which goes hand-in-hand, it seems, with a collective disregard for the future; it isn't so much that characters are afraid to contemplate their futures, but rather, that they don't even care. This might only be relevant to the somewhat amusing fact that everyone knows they've got to "unzip" their vital organs in the future (which strikes me as fundamentally inefficient), but I think there might be more to it. The narrator links memory and sex/babies in several instances. For example, on pg 70: "So that's where I used to go, in the day when no one else was likely to be about, to play my song over and over;" and more explicitly on pg 99: "There'd be a chant of: 'Rewind! Rewind' until someone got the remote and we'd see the portion again, sometimes three, four times. But I could hardly, by myself, start shouting for rewinds just to see sex scenes again." I can't help but connect this need for repetition with a general impulse at Hailsham to remember/recreate/recount, even. It is almost as if, since the children "know" they won't be able to reproduce in the biological sense, they seek out every conceivable replacement as a means to assuage their instinctual drive for preservation. Enter Freud, once more, once more.

Hailsham vs. The Cottages

Something which struck me as odd upon reaching Part Two of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is the difference between the graduates from Hailsham and the veterans. Kathy talks about Hailsham’s immaturity, about how lunch is spent gossiping about who is having sex with whom, and other things of the sort; such actions, however, seem very common and natural for teenagers. Shortly after arriving at Hailsham, Kathy talks about the couples there. She notices that, “so many of [the veteran couples’] mannerisms were copied from the television (p. 120)”. She compares how couples said good bye at the Cottages to how they were done at Hailsham; Hailsham good byes consisted of hugs and kisses, but good byes at the Cottages involved what I imagined as a friendly tap on the elbow. It struck me as odd that the veterans pulled so much of their intimate interactions off of television.

Other interactions and minor comments Kathy makes also struck me as odd. Her comment about sex at the Cottages being “a bit functional (p. 127),” seemed unusual, as did the behaviors some of the other veterans engaged in. It led me to wonder how differently those raised at Hailsham are from the others at the Cottages who were raised in other places. I have to wonder whether Hailsham raises the students in a more “natural” manner; while they are being bred for some other purpose, they’re interactions (especially in terms of intimacy) seem more natural than those copied from tv shows. Whatever the case is, I think it may be too early to judge whether this due to a difference in how the characters were brought up or not.

"any place beyond Hailsham was like a fantasy land"

Oh my. It seems I made the same mistake Robert made, thinking I was to post today rather than last week. Well, what to do except follow through.

In reviewing the trajectory of our reading list and our discussion of experimental/chaotic fiction, Never Let Me Go at first seems to me the most eerie of the works thus encountered--a sort of psychological thriller, perhaps. I can't get The Island out of my head, try as I might; I do think that striving too hard to understand the special nature of Hailsham and its residents tends to distract me from other things happening in the text.

A point of interest that I thought I would bring up here is the underlying sense of Hailsham as a simulacrum or  a synthetic reality; the true purpose of the place being hidden from sight but nevertheless sensed in shadowbox scenes of the unfamiliar social infrastructure with guardians, donors, carers, etc. Kathy seems more or less oblivious to the unnatural situation/society she lives in (though of this I am not sure), whatever you wish to call it, which puts me all the more at unease. Whether or not this is on a dystopic route, I don't know; but something that I struggle with as I wait to find out more is how to compare the emotional import and personal intimacy we get with Kathy's anecdotes about Ruth and Tommy--how to take this stark display of human reverie against the backdrop of a seemingly artificial upbringing, where the children at Hailsham are not being raised in order that they may embrace a free future but rather for some end, some purpose, some donation. The all too human retreats to memory--of childhood imaginings, personal struggles, friendship and foeship--challenge the simulated circumstances the characters exist in. And the quote I chose to title this post shows how the challenge may extend deeper into paradox and the uncanny...reality versus artificiality, those seem to be at play here.


I'm just going to boast here for a minute and say it only took me two sentences to guess this book was a dystopian story.

Anyway,  I was really intrigued by the way Kathy H. addresses the reader directly.  She casts the reader as a character in her story by implying we have all had experiences similar to her own.  You know when someone waves in your direction and you wonder if they are waving at you or the person behind you? That's how this book makes me feel. I wonder who she is actually talking to, because I have no clue what she is talking about.  But the way she tells her story assumes we have some prior knowledge of the state of the world, what carers are, and the nature of these "donations."  This has really drawn me into the story and made me extremely interested in the missing details.  A page turner I'd say.

Super-late Blog Post (Sorry Everyone!)

First off, I completely forgot I was supposed to write one of these last week. I commented instead though. Sorry!
"I felt that this act was a ritual devoid of ordinary sexuality, a stylized encounter between two bodies which recapitulated their sense of motion and collision" (161).
I thought this one single line from Crash held a lot of meaning within it. Firstly, it includes the word "stylized," which, as Dr. Stuber pointed out in class the other day, is repeated multiple times in the novel. Personally, I think the word "stylized" is repeated so many times because of its connotation of forcing something to conform to a certain style. This connotation makes sense considering Ballard is using the phrase to refer to the way Vaughan makes women conform their bodies to resemble those of car crash victims. The second thing I wanted to point out of interest in this line is the last part where James describes the sexual encounter of his wife and Vaughan as having a "sense of motion and collision." The words motion and collision both seem to relate sex to a car accident, strengthening the connection between the two concepts in James's mind.

Unreliable Narrator

Memory is a tricky thing: it's hard to know what really happened, what you made up, and what has been added due to other people's influence. Kathy in Never Let Me Go often uses the language of uncertainty and even admits to times when her recollections differ from Tommy's or Ruth's memories. There are times where she can't remember the reason for or location of a memory; she can't even keep them in chronological order always.

Kathy is also looking back on her life as she finishes her work as a "carer." I imagine she wants her life to look prettier in retrospect than it actually was, such as when she insists that no one cared that The Cottages were falling apart, or when she pulls out her oft-repeated phrase, "but you have to remember." She knows she's telling a life narrative, but how accurate can memory be?

Does her memory make Kathy an unreliable narrator?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

working at the car wash

"The gantry retreated to its start position.  The machine switched itself out of circuit.  The rollers hung limply in front of the clear glass of the windshield.  The last of the detergent-stained water ran through the darkness to the drainage vents.  Sucking at the air through his scarred lips, Vaughan lay back exhausted, staring at Catherine with confused eyes...I wanted to reach out and care for them, helping them into their next sexual act...celebrating in this sexual act the marriage of their bodies with this benign technology." (162)

The entire car wash scene, which occurs for many pages, is one of the most striking scenes to me in Crash.  It is in this scene where the reader truly understands that the characters have unconventional emotional attachments to sex.  Granted, becoming aroused by car crashes is far from conventional, my focus here is more on James and Catherine and their sex and emotional lives.  From the start, we (and they) know that each of them has had affairs, making their relationship abnormal to begin with.  This scene in the car wash is significantly deviant from societal norms - James watches his wife have violent sex with another man.  Why?  James seems to be fascinated by their sex acts because the positions Vaughan puts Catherine in relate to the crash victims, but James is also fascinated with Vaughan's body that has been marked by many car crashes.
It appears though, that the most important relationship in during this car wash is not Catherine and Vaughan, nor James watching Catherine and Vaughan, but the sex act in conjunction with the large mechanized car wash as well as the reenactment of the crash victims positions.  This connection of sex and technology can be seen in the sexual language mixed in with descriptions of the heavy carwash machinery.  Phrases such as "retreated to its start position," "out of circuit," "hung limply," "detergent-stained water ran through the darkness," connect machinery with Catherine and Vaughan having sex.  James is so mesmerized by their connection to technology that he continues inserting coins to make the car wash keep going.
Sex is still an emotional event, but it is no longer a shared emotional event between two people.  While two people are still needed, there is no emotional connection between them.  The connection occurs between each person and a car, which represents technology.  It is through these fascinations that each character becomes more embedded in themselves, constantly seeking ways to improve their sexual experiences.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Morality of Voyeurism

Well. I started reading this novel without any sort of context, as I do with most of the novels we've read for class. So, (and I feel like most of you can probably sympathize) I really wasn't ready for the *ahem* intense nature of Crash.

Now, that being said, I'll jump right into this bloggity blog post.

The--to put it gently--intimate nature of Crash combined with both James and Vaughan's fetishization of the car crash highlights the theme (is that the right word choice?) of voyeurism that is present throughout the novel (or at least what we've read so far). Vaughan is a voyeur in his desire to actively seek out/witness car accidents, not to mention the heaps of camera equipment he hoards around in his trunk (Rear Window, anyone?). But we, as the audience, are really no different than Vaughan in terms of our voyeurism: as Ballard describes sexually explicit acts, we look on and witness these acts unfold.

When I first read about the sexual pleasure these men achieve from car crashes and their horrifying consequences, I was instinctively (pardon my French here) freaked the fuck out. The idea of becoming aroused at the pain and suffering of others is, quite frankly, repulsive. However, despite my initial horror at this thought, I realized that these men aren't actually doing anything wrong. At least legally. (Well, with the exception of Vaughan's attempt to murder Elizabeth Taylor...let's disregard that for the moment.) Their actions, though I may find them incredibly creepy, do not affect those around them. So my question is this: does the fact that I (and possibly some of you, as well) find their type of voyeurism appalling necessarily mean that what they are doing is wrong? Or is voyeurism ok, despite the content of what is being watched for sexual gratification? And what does that say about our own voyeurism? For it's undeniable that we are, in fact, voyeurs, especially in relation to this novel.

Ending Isolation

            I fully expected to dislike this book going in. A book about people being aroused by and obsessing over deadly car crashes set my dispositions strongly against this novel. So I picked up the book and waited for the rage... it never arrived. It took me a while to figure out why I was enjoying reading Crash so much.
            I think, at it's heart, Crash is about human connection, particularly human connection in a world where isolation and distance is the norm. The first passage that comes close to this expression happens right after the James' crash with Helen.
            "During my first hours in Ashford Hospital all I could see in my mind was the image of us locked together face to face in these two cars, the body of her dying husband lying between us on the bonnet of my car. We looked at each other through the fractured windshields, neither able to move... as if unsure what had brought us together." (Ballard 20)
It is from this painful experience that any significant human interaction arises. James' affair with Helen and the revival of James' relationship with his wife Catharine both originate from this event. In the imagery of the crashes and in the vivid perversity of sexual acts and desire one feature that is pervasive is the act of joining. We can debate about weather or not this is healthy interaction latter. I think the important aspect of this is that human connection is preferable, in whatever form it comes in, to a sterile world where each individual is isolated from others.
            "Now, what isolation?" You may ask. Excellent question. The answer, I think, is somewhat more subtle and subdued than the vivid and erotic collisions of cars and flesh and is therefore less noticeable. Distance is one aspect of this isolation. There are many scenes (pick your favorite) where James observes people or cars or buildings from an impersonal distance. Vaughan uses his telephoto lenses to photograph Elizabeth Taylor. Each person is in their own capsule and is insulated from others. The people in the other cars become scenery that you navigate but have no real relationship with. The crash breaks through this isolation. The crash creates a brief but intense moment where you and the life of another person are directly and irrevocably joined. Those who live are changed and carry the scars both physical and mental with them all their lives. There is an intense, intimate, and sadistic power in a crash.
            But why the perversity? Could the same point not have been made with a heartwarming story of James and Catharine befriending Helen and coming to forgive and love one another? The answer, I think, has something to do with how a  crash is a twisting of social order. In the cold impersonal routine of modern life each person passes hundreds if not thousands of people without ever forming a connection. This is the structure of daily life. A crash breaks this order, distorts the structure that the society relies upon. This disruption is perverse, a violation of the social norm. To convey this contrast, the human interaction that results from the crashes, and the crashes themselves, are put in terms that both express the perversity and the intimacy so that we can understand just how wrong this situation is. If anything, isolation should be perverse and intimacy revered.
            I hope this makes some sense to everyone. I'm still trying to understand my own position.

Cars Crashes and Change

Well, this has been an interesting read so far... I'm not even sure with what aspect of this story I should begin conversation...
I guess a quote that really stuck out to me was "the deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilites of an entirely new sexuality."
The idea of rebirth of self through a car crash is a constant theme throughout the novel, and I think this quote demonstrates the driving force that has enveloped most of the characters. I don't think the characters are turned on by the cars themselves, but rather it is the idea of a new self, a new sexuality, derived from having survived a close encounter with death that ignites a new flame in the characters. The involvement in a car crash acts as the ultimate pinnacle of adrenaline rush and physical awareness, and as a result the only way for the characters to become aroused is to keep experiencing the crash. In this way they are not the same people they were before the crash, and their sexualities have become dependent on the physical cars. The physical s(cars) of those who have been "changed" such as James, Helen, Vaughn, and the rest can be contrasted with the physical perfection of Catherine who has undergone no such change. The scars symbolize the extent of their sexual perversion (in terms of cars, obviously Catherine is a bit perverse otherwise) with Vaughn possessing the quintessential scar on his penis, symbolizing his complete transformation into the "nightmare angel of the highways."  I'd like to know what the rest of you think about the idea of rebirth physically, mentally, and sexually through the car crashes? I've also been thinking about the fact that Vaughn has experienced many crashes, but has he undergone many changes as well, or only continued down the path of this new identity? Catherine has not been involved in a crash...yet at least, but she is constantly described as having undergone her own changes. Why are they unique?

Thursday, November 1, 2012


There are no worthy excuses for why this post is late.

Whenever Dr. Stuber divided us into groups in order to discuss some specific reoccurring images, I found the book's fascination with sheep to be especially compelling and was disappointed that we didn't have the time to share our close reading and observations with the class. Some of the thoughts that I'm about to share were formulated much through the ideas of my other group members so it's only fair to offer them a little credit.

I think it's very helpful to preface with the fact that Molloy actively calls himself a "creature" because it easily invites us to compare him with animals that the text presents. On page 36-37, Molloy strikingly states, "I don't smell like a sheep, I wish I smelt like a sheep". In expressing his desire to smell like a sheep, it is difficult to not see Molloy as very self-deprecating and lacking in confidence, potentially considering his own smell so repugnant that it falls below that of a sheep. If examined in other light, however, it is instructive to unpack stereotypical characterizations of sheep to complete our comparison. Traditionally, sheep mostly have a negative connotation, coming off as unimpassioned, mindless followers of their shepherd. Because Molloy desires to be more like a sheep (even to the extent that he might be emulating them on pg. 35 - "I ate a little too, a little grass"), we must consider what about their existence or lifestyle may be appealing to him. A certain comfortable, guaranteed purpose and acceptance is implicated in the fact that sheep primarily exist in groups and are very goal-oriented. This could be reiterating his estrangement from society or his struggle to understand its meaning.

Because Molloy also provides narration detailing the sheep's "bad beginning" and trip to the slaughterhouse, we wonder whether this is indicative of his frequently mentioned desire for or fixation with death. Or perhaps he's just offering a commentary on death's inevitability.