Memory loss, memory overdrive, and other concerns of ‘popular’ fiction

 

 

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beforeigo

 

It would seem that, at first sight, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep (HarperCollins, 2011) and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project (HarperCollins, 2013) do not have any threads in common. The first novel describes a woman’s tragic and mysterious consequences of a traumatic memory loss and the second novel is a lighthearted look at an Asperger syndrome sufferer’s attempt to attain a love life. On closer inspection, however, here are some of the elements which allow for an interesting literary comparison:

  1. First person unreliable narrative. Both novels are written from the perspective of the protagonists; Christine Lucas (Before I go to Sleep) and Don Tillman (The Rosie Project). In both cases, they are unreliable narrators: Christine because she suffers from various forms of amnesia so she can narrate only those memories which she writes in her journal every day as she forgets everything while she sleeps and Don because he has Asperger syndrome and therefore his compulsiveness and obsessive logic leave out many normally significant facts. This unreliability, however, creates what could loosely be called a psychological thriller in the first case and  a lighthearted romance in the second case. Both protagonists rely on others to validate what they feel and understand of their own life. Christine has her lover and self-appointed husband as well as Dr. Nash  who supply her with descriptions or photos of past facts and actions which she then attempts to make her own. Towards the end of the novel, Christine’s best friend Claire is instrumental in saving her life.  Don has his two best friends who help him maneuver in social circumstances and who are the bouncing bags for his ideas on how to find a satisfactory partner. The unreliability of Christine’s memory means that the reader does not have steady consistent and trustworthy clues as to who it was that was responsible for her amnesia, but also who it is that is the keeper of her memories: the suspense then leads to continuous reading. The unreliability of Don’s narrative significantly adds to the unpredictable and funny resolutions of his search for a potential partner who is to “provide intellectual stimulation, share activities with, perhaps to breed with”.
  2. The role of memory. Both novels question the extent, utility, and role of memory, but the protagonists find themselves enmeshed with different definitions of what exactly memory does for them. Christine relies on her fragmented, sketchy, constantly recreated memory for the definition of her identity. Don, on the other hand, having exceptional memory, depends on his ability to recall minute details to further his search of or hold on to a possible life partner. Scientific research shows that our memories are never written in stone, but are re-elaborated, re-worked, and transforming continuously. This leaves the question open regarding whose memories are fabricated when an amnesiac is given created memories every single day. As there are almost countless novels whose plot relies on a character’s memory loss (see the list for specific examples in  https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/10996.Amnesia_and_Memory_Loss_Fiction), Christine’s plight has numerous literary precedents. In Don’s case,  his memory is nowhere near as prodigious as that of Funes in Jorge Luis Borges’s short story Funes el memorioso, and therefore his situation is not tragic.
  3. Characters’ unethical behaviour. In both narrations, characters behave unethically: in Before I go to sleep, Christine’s lover and self-proclaimed husband  is not only deceitful and dishonest, but also pathologically violent. Although his love for her keeps him busy with taking care of her, this love is possessive and unnatural, as she is shielded from realities of her family life. His character, however, has not received a full treatment, so the motivation behind his violence and unethical behaviour is unexplained. In The Rosie Project, Don not only collects DNA surreptitiously but also has the samples tested without the subjects’ approval, a situation which no self-respecting institute for higher learning would ever allow. This unethical behaviour, however, is needed for the story to proceed in a certain direction.
  4. The Nature of love. Love takes on various forms and definitions in both novels. Christine’s situation is intriguing, since she does not know who she slept with when she wakes up every morning: perhaps sleeping around was her customary activity before her trauma, but that means she kept yearning for love and not being able to get it. That calls into question her marriage and her having a son: clearly, these do not need to be based on love. Her lover and self-appointed husband’s situation is every different: his love is overpowering to the point where he obsesses over her and in fact turns extremely violent against her. It is not clear what Don imagines love to be, and, being very methodical, his search for a partner involves a research project. Ironically, the woman whom he chooses does not make it on the list of prospective partners (for ex., she smokes, and he is against smokers!), indicating not only that opposites attract each other but especially that one cannot simply treat human encounters as academic projects.
  5. Pitfalls in writing the first novel. Both novelists are first-time authors, and as much as their good intentions result in readable stories, there are some stumbling blocks which detract from a thorough enjoyment of reading their creations. Firstly, Before I go to sleep is written from a woman’s perspective (an always contentious choice on the part of a male author),  but the character’s past before her trauma is not fully explained. This lack of  content makes the trauma almost unbearably judgmental: she was punished to the extreme for her marital infidelity. The feminine traits that the author proposes are petty. Even though she wrote a novel, she is an uninteresting, gray character without redeeming features, one who lets herself be controlled like a puppet even by her best friend. Her trauma only underlines these traits.*   The Rosie Project‘s protagonist is a university professor: not an original choice, but writing about academia without being stereotypical seems to be impossible.  Secondly, and more importantly, both authors (as well as countless others who write ‘popular’ novels) set their work in a vacuum: there is no sense of the general social, political, and economic environment to their stories: the protagonists’ issues are of a navel-gazing sort. Giving the characters a middle-class, pretty comfortable life lessens the impact which the narrations could have had. Fiction is not about accuracy, however, but if after having read the novel there is no answer to the question “So what?”, something really profound is missing.

*One member of our book club took it further: Christine is a perfect sex doll, as well as victim of violence. Instead of focusing on the violent man, the book focuses on the victimized woman.  Furthermore, the notoriety/popularity (?!) of the novel and the subsequent film illustrate the perpetuation of the disconnect between the act of violence/abuse and its result (so obviously put to the forefront in the news these days  on account of the abusive Hollywood bully).

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Captain Fantastic

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This is a great movie: from the gut reaction of shedding some tears to laughing out loud, it has us also wonder about some basic questions of parenting. Above all, this little jewel underscores the generally well-observed fact which almost no one adheres to: do not make value judgements about people and their actions, since you don’t know the whole truth. In the case of Ben, the truth is that he  made his 6 children live in the forests of the US Pacific Northwest because he wanted his wife to get better by attempting to make her lose the chains of mental illness, not because he was some type of freaky hippie.

Here are three questions-considerations stemming from some scenes in the film which made an impact on me:

  1. Is knowledge acquired from books such a bad thing?  Ben’s oldest son (Bo)  claims that he does not know anything that has not been written in a book:                                     I know nothing! I know nothing! I am a freak because of you! You made us            freaks!  And mom knew that! She understood! Unless it comes out of a fucking book, I don’t know anything about anything!                                                                                  This is interesting, since nowadays, teachers often say  that students don’t know anything because they do not read and therefore are not appropriately familiar with any topic.  Furthermore, Ben’s 4-year old daughter knows not only what the Bill of Rights is, but she can also quote the individual amendments. Ben’s sister’s children (boys over 10) do not know what the Bill is. One could ask what the utility of knowing the Bill of Rights is while living in the wilderness. Either everything written has a value no matter where one lives (and therefore one can actually think about many, many topics and put arguments together, making one’s own mind  naturally), or nothing has a value and therefore making one’s own mind does not come easily (and one is easily persuaded). The film clearly leans on the side of usefulness of books for the cognitive growth of children, especially as the father asks the children to talk about the ideas that the book evoke (not to describe the plot).
  2. When will a “controlling” parent stop being such a parent? In the film, Leslie’s  father controls the way her body is to be disposed of,  even though it is contrary to her last wishes. What does it exactly mean when a parent/caregiver says to his/her child: “I am doing this for your own good”? Different parents have differing opinions of what this “good” means. The film attempts to give children the right to express their own “good”. In this meaning, the title of the film may be misleading.
  3. Is spirituality always connected to giving/receiving gifts? Noam Chomsky is the spiritual godhead in the film and celebrating his “birthday” means Ben’s children get gifts. Gifts which are bought in the store; therefore, the film seems to be saying that even a “wild” education falls prey to  consumerism.                                                                                                                                                                                                          One of the most entertaining  lines of the film mentions Marxists, Trotskyit, Trotskyist, and Maoist almost all in one breath, the other reflects the mother’s desire to have her body cremated according to the Buddhist tradition and then flush the ashes down the toilet.  A number of American cultural traditions and problems are either made fun of or questioned (giving some wine to children, obesity, consumerism, hypocrisy, ostentation of wealth, etc.). It would be most instructive to hear what children and young adults think of the film.  All in all, since the idea to live in wilderness as a family was not really the initial push toward this type of unconventional education, it is difficult to make judgements about it. Suffice it to say that good parenting is never just parenting: it is also (maybe above all) the relationship between the parents. The dynamics may be unpredictable (one child or more? one parent or more? religious background or atheistic or agnostic? right-leaning or left-leaning politically? etc. etc.) but in conclusion, parenting is always unwitting experimentation.

One thing the book club taught me (so far)

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Thanks to our book club (Literary Ladies), my reading selection has expanded dramatically, because I read books which I would have never come into contact otherwise. Our discussions also prompt many thoughts regarding reading which I have been interested in throughout my life. What follows presents the results of thinking about our two meetings and the conversations we had about the two books chosen.

As far as readers are concerned, there seem to be two main perspectives underlying the act of reading (fiction, but perhaps other genres can be included here too). These perspectives underpin the interpretation of themes, settings, actions, descriptions, and allow for very different types of enjoyment/disappointment/expectations of the book which all contribute to delightful discussions. The two perspectives are mutually exclusive but neither is “better” than the other. Each, however, lets us understand the world differently, although often without any possibility of rapprochement.

  1. Some readers identify themselves with a character. This is reading and thinking/feeling with one’s own mind: the reader looks for validation of her/his own ideas through a character’s language, race, gender, religious affiliation, social class, education, familial status, etc. (Pace Steven Pinker and other psychologists). Clearly, affection for a character of identical background reaffirms one’s situation and makes one exclaim: “I am not the only one that is experiencing these troubles/joys”. Women who went or are undergoing separation from a partner read The Love Warrior and find the “memoir” meaningful as they feel their life experience is reaffirmed since they can identify with Glennon. The book’s content, then, is part of the real world of suffering/joy. It is almost a given that this type of reading makes it much less probable that the readers would actually criticize the character with whom they identify. Conversely, if the readers do not identify (but would very much like to ) with a character (usually a protagonist), they are more likely to criticize the character’s  choices and lifestyle. Those readers who “could not” identify with Leo Gursky in The History of Love were more likely to find his quirks and life choices not understandable.
  2. Some readers suspend their way of thinking and stand back, so to speak, which makes them read and think/feel using the author’s mind. In other words, for them, “reading is thinking with someone else’s brain”, as Schopenhauer apparently claimed. This perspective does not seek to validate any aspect of the reader’s personality through an identification with a character. The characters are perceived purely on the strengths or weaknesses of the artistry of their description and on the intrinsic web of relationships they form with other characters. Readers who did not identify with Glennon of The Love Warrior and who read the “memoir” purely on the strengths of the description were more likely to detect the fact that the author was not entirely honest. This type of reading made it therefore possible to find faults, for example,  with Glennon’s abandoning her family and going off to expensive yoga sessions. As for The History of Love, those readers who found Leo Gursky’s life interesting or poetic, were more likely to find enjoyment and appreciation of the description of his quirks and life choices. This perspective interprets the book’s contents as an enrichment of one’s real life, rather than a confirmation of it; and therefore the farther the book’s content is from the reader’s experiences, the more chance it has to mold critical skills.

These two types of reading, however, leave various questions unanswered. For example, what are the criteria for constructing the countless book classifications, suggestions, lists? Do they measure the contents from the perspective of identity or from the perspective of detachment? Moreover, and, more significantly, the algorithms which are forced on us by the digital technology surely support our “preferred” type of reading and therefore the destruction of the boundaries (identity vs detachment) we as readers fall prey to becomes ever more impossible. Also, do the genres themselves force us to read from one perspective or another, as Edgar Alan Poe suggests? What do you think? You are welcome to leave your reactions by clicking on the “Comment” button below.

Social Media: Implications for the University

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The purpose of this volume is to offer a balanced critical reflection on the role of social media in the workings of the engaged university. The 15 contributors analyze, critique, and explore the rich ideological and pragmatic relationships ensuing from the intersection between social media and academic life. This book is the sixth volume in the Social Theory: Communication and Media Studies published by Aracne Editrice (Rome). Its contents are definitely of interest to 1. those who work or have a stake in modern academia, as well as 2. those who observe the radical transformations of the manner in which knowledge is shred, elaborated, and used in contemporary life and 3. those who reflect on the unforeseen ramifications of technological advances. Moreover, many contributions have readers step outside of the classroom, presenting bridges especially to the arts communities: bridges that would have been impossible even 5 years ago. Oftentimes, edited volumes are criticized for “unevenness”, but the pleasure deriving from reading various ideological perspectives on, and multifaceted illustrations of the same general topic overrides any “unevenness”. The individual voice of each of the contributors is clear and purposeful.  It is hoped that the volume engages all the crucial players in today’s academic life and that the contributions may reach those who work as platform designers, making the most of (automated) connectivity and (human) connectedness (J. Van Dijck’s terms). In times such as these, when the end of many human occupations and professions are being placed in the hands of robots, questions should be asked also of what will become of the engaged and purposeful university – and it is without doubt that social media will have a significant role to play in the spread of knowledge. Decisions must be made regarding the balance between academic gatekeepers and technological gatekeepers: this volume provides a number of starting points in order to reach satisfactory answers.

The book is available from http://www.aracneeditrice.it/aracneweb/index.php/pubblicazione.html?item=9788854897427.

 

 

Quantum emanations and Byzantium

The other novel published together in the same volume with Francesco Verso’s Bloodbusters (see my post of December 14) is Sandro Battisti’s L’impero restaurato (Mondadori, November 2015). Both received the Urania Award in Italian Science fiction, and this decision to publish them together could not offer a better view of what Italian science fiction is today: the range, themes, scopes, languages, visions of future are widely different, distinct and thoughtfully enjoyable.  While Francesco Verso’s characters often enjoy a tongue-in-cheek, down to earth, palpable human (human/machine) interactions, Sandro Battisti’s world belongs to all-powerful aliens, capable of controlling quantum energies and use this power to achieve their ends. Thus, near human future  on one side of the literary continuum looks across to alien shenanigans at the other.

L’impero restaurato (The restored empire) is part of a cycle of novels dealing with various themes, but one of the leading concerns is the answer to the question “What could/would an all-powerful, alien, male being do to/with humans?”. To make the answer more concrete, Battisti endows the protagonist, Totka_II, emperor of the Connective Empire, with the ability to capture quantum emanations from earth of any historical period and allow them to be embodied. Totka_II is one of the most powerful of Nephilim  (in the novel, this race of biblical echoes is responsible for human ‘progress’). He is smitten with Byzantium’s power, opulence, military prowess, and therefore while he is looking to found another capital city for his empire, he is bent on establishing a new Constantinople. Using the ability to control quantum fluctuations he observes the court of Justinian and Theodora, the meeting between Justinian and a papal envoy, the triumphant entry to the city by general Belisarius. The most powerful pull on him, however, turns out to be Theodora, whose checkered past he knows.

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The novel proceeds as evil forces gather to attack  the positions of Totka_II’s empire, while the emperor is busy planning the new capital city. One of his envoys who was to report to him the augural liver reading does not return, and his vice, Sillax almost loses control while he is overwhelmed by the fluctuating energies which his technicians try to channel properly.    The augur whose observations of the sacrificed animal’s liver do not give a unequivocal answer to the emperor’s envoy turns out to be an enemy whose military ability almost destroys the Connective Empire. I will stop here not wanting to  spoil the pleasure for those who have not read the novel.

In an interview (with both Urania winners,  published together with their novels in the last pages of the book, pp 298-301), Sandro Battisti claims that “l’umano non mi ha mai affascinato: è l’inumano la grande frontiera da indagare, così immenso nelle sue potenzialità da sovrapporsi, nel mio pensiero di uomo, all’infinito.” (the human never fascinated me: the great frontier to be investigated  is the non-human, so immense in its potentialities that it superimposes itself as infinity, in my thoughts as human.) The novel clearly shows this interest: human beings exist as fluctuating energies, as posthuman entities bidding the will of the Nephilim and treated worse than slaves. But humans are also very attractive to Totka_II, especially Theodora, who in her desire to learn about the Connective Emperor’s real identity, abandons her earthly life. However, to imagine, let alone describe in verbal language, an alien world of vast complexity is impossible, and here is where the non-human empire meets its challenges. Battisti is careful not to be too technical, and leaves a lot to the imagination. But he also uses unexpected (almost deus-ex-machina) strategy to have Totka_II emerge victorious. One could quibble with Battisti’s mixing, on one hand, the  utterly out of this world aliens able to travel on quantum fluctuations, with, on the other, their need to hang on the words of an augur. Also, the human language in the alien world rears its head now and then, as in the case of the directional metaphor which uses the direction of the hands on the clock (!) (“passeggiando in rigoroso senso antiorario”: walking strictly counter-clockwise). Nevertheless, there is no better illustration of Giambattista Vico’s principle verum factum est  (we [humans] can only know what we made) as in the predictability of the fact that empires are created, have to be maintained,  and fall, whether they be human or alien. The lovers of empires will cherish this aspect of Battisti’s Connective Empire.

 

 

On “the Way to Bee”

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One of the saddest sights I have ever been exposed to was the mound of dead bees in their hive once my brother opened it up for inspection after a cruel winter. To realize that more than 60 000 individual beings did not survive the freezing temperatures was astonishingly numbing. To appreciate the bees and their existence one must come close to them, observe their wings and pollen-laden hind legs, listen to their humming (happy as well as angry), share with them the fruits of their labor, and, yes, see them die by stinging you (unless you are allergic). Harsh winter die offs are not the only problem worker bees encounter during their short lives. As any beekeeper knows, honey is just the tip of the iceberg which is created when the bees and the keeper respect each other.

One such respectful relationship is the object of Mark Magill’s short book, the Way to Bee. Meditation and the Art of Beekeeping (Lyons Press, 2011).

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Magill describes the effects seasonal changes bring to the bees’ lives, their cycles of being, their purposeful existence, their focus on protecting their queen, feeding the brood, guarding the hive’s entrance. He mentions the research into bees behaviour and communication, especially that conducted by Frisch and Langsroth.

Magill also includes his take on the art of meditation. But his desire to somehow connect apiculture and meaningful meditation, to teach the steps to achieve one’s focus, seems too earnest and too rushed. It is as if he were searching for a focus in his own life. The book is lyrical and documentary; it leaves the reader with the desire to keep bees, and, as an aside, how to learn to meditate, presenting the necessary conditions and steps to meditation.

Some introspective books are written with the sole purpose of allowing the author to document an aspect of his or her life which still awaits a conclusive word. The danger in offering such a book to a wider public stems from the ephemerality of one’s experiences and feelings. Thus, documentary elements are mixed in with philosophising and, and, if the author is prone to pedagogize, all this is sprinkled with an earnest desire to teach. Perhaps giving the reader a nice package all wrapped up in colorful paper and topped up with a magnificent bow is not the intended aim. If nothing else, I hope that this book is read wisely so that it may instil different denotative and connotative meanings to the word “bee” to an English-speaking readership. Human culture and experiences are shaped by the language we speak, as Benjamin Lee Whorf’s linguistic relativity hypothesis indicates. Although Whorf and Sapir were more interested in the grammatical/temporal categories of languages, the meanings of words are a prime example of this relativity, and there is no better example of this than in the denotation and connotation of the word “bee”. For English speakers, “bee” is a non-marked, general term that denotes any insect that hums, flies, and possibly stings: wasp, yellow jacket, hornet, bumble bee, etc. The connotation is that if a vicious stinging insect, instilling fear and hate in children and adults alike. Speakers of other languages do not share these connotations, nor the generic denotation. For Slovaks, for example, the word včela is not the unmarked, general category, or hyperordinate term, but it denotes the Apis (mellifera). The connotations assigned to this word include laboriousness, cleanliness, and the attitude it brings to the Slovak speaker’s Weltanschauung is that of respect, not fear. Children used to receive a stamp of a stylized bee on their work in their notebooks, and that was a sign of great pride. Rather than trying to get rid of a buzzing bee, kill it or zap it, children were led to admire its characteristics and be inquisitive about it.

Having a negative connotation about all types of bees makes it perfectly acceptable to kill them using all kinds of chemicals which, in the final analysis, harm all living things. This is the strongest connection between beekeeping and meditation: there is a relationship between humans and bees (of all types) which goes far beyond enjoying a spoonful of honey.

Reading fiction: brain or heart work?

It is said that Schopenhauer is the originator of the following dictum: “Reading is thinking with somebody else’s brain.” Assuming he was referring to reading fiction, he was only partly right.

There is a movement afoot nowadays to make reading fiction palatable to school officials, syllabus makers, etc. by insisting that reading fiction makes people more empathic (see http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/08/literary-fiction-improves-empathy-study).
This, also, gives only a partial picture of what reading does for the careful reader.

So there are at least two positions regarding reading fiction: that of the brain (thinking) and that of the heart (feeling). Long lists belonging to either camp can be collected. However, the suggestion here is that both are true at the same time: books make us think and make us feel. Furthermore, the greatest books make us do both, and more: they make us also cry and laugh, being in an imagined environment of the special world created in a different language. Silvana Grasso’s L’albero di Giuda (Einaudi, 1997) is one such book.

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It makes the reader think: the story of Sasa` Azzarello’s life, set between the 1920s and sometime before the 2000s in Sicily, overturns the usual stereotype of the daughter doing what the father wants: it is the son who has to live up to the father’s expectations. Studying philosophy completes one of the requirements: the son is brainy. The other requirement, that of being sexually endowed and doing what that expectation commands (il capitale), is, however, another matter. The son’s unhappy love affair with a Friulian young woman whom he met while he was studying in Padova, makes contemplating suicide a real option. Thus, much of the protagonist’s time is spent in attempting to find the right way of ending his life, the right time, the right location. But he also participates in the life of the town: he meets his friends, he cares for his wheelchair-bound cousin. Sasa` shows himself to be a master in reworking the Pirandellian motto “Così e` se vi pare” (It is so if it seems to you so), combining thinking about a matter or an event (happy or sad) and laughing at and with it.
The novel makes the reader feel: among other psychological vicissitudes, the desire for self-annihilation, lasting for more than 50 years, torments Sasa`: but this torment is accompanied by the need to be loved, a need which is never satisfied.

The book makes the reader cry: the description of the protagonist’s solitude and his scheming to commit suicide are heartbreaking, as is his decision to obey his father and marry Maddalenina, a type of Xantippe who does not understand him.

The novel makes the reader laugh: on many an occasion, the carefully premeditated suicide mission fails on account of really petty events. Describing the wife’s irruptions into the protagonist’s humdrum activities as Caporetto is one of the many funny nuggets that require outright laud laughter.

Regarding the language of the novel, it must be said that it is one of a kind: lexically, the use of many of the varieties of Italian available creates a dreamily elaborate atmosphere, but the author is also skillful in adding special, realistic touches when employing Sicilian dialect terms. These features seem mundane now, since another contemporary author uses many of these in books published after Silvana Grasso published her works. Andrea Camilleri’s fiction is so overwhelming and forcefully supported by all types of media that it is difficult for another author to emerge. Silvana Grasso’s style, however, is stronger and more interesting. Syntactically, too, she plays with novel possibilities to extend the syntactic groups and add to her linguistic tree a crown which is full and life-producing. The academia, as well, has not given Grasso her due, as there are few solid studies of her works (see, for ex., the essay “I romanzi di Silvana Grasso” by Sharon Wood, published in the collection Il romanzo contemporaneo, edited by Franca Pellegrini and Elisabetta Tarantino (Trubadour Publishing: 2006, 93-107) and “Tendenze linguistiche nella narrativa di fine secolo” by Valeria Della Valle, included in La narrativa italiana degli anni Novanta edited by Elisabetta Mondello (Meltemi: 2004, 39-68)

If you have a book which does all four (make you think, feel, cry and laugh), like Silvana Grasso’s L’albero di Giuda, please share it with us in the comment section below.