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April 2, 2009

The Narrator Vs. Mystique--I mean, Rinehart

"'Rinehart, baby, is that you?' she said.
Rinehart, I thought. It works."
--Invisible Man, page 483

This was a pretty interesting chapter--after all this expectation that the book is about an invisible man, the narrator actually does become invisible! Well, in a way. I found it really cool how Ellison throughout the novel doesn't ignore the rules of reality completely but twists and stretches them pretty significantly for symbolic purposes. Just like the questionable concept of adding dark paint to more dark paint to produce white, it seems like a pretty crazy coincidence that the narrator is able to look so much like this other person just by putting on sunglasses and a hat. Maybe he's not invisible so much as a shape-shifter, like Mystique in X-Men. Anyway, while this coincidence doesn't make a whole lot of literal sense, it sure works on a symbolic level. Rinehart represents the shifting nature of identity. He is able to be everything from a gambler to a priest, and the narrator's identity completely disappears behind the outward appearance. It really helps depict a society where outward appearances, be they skin color or clothes or the way you walk, are all that people perceive, even though there may be much more to the story. Hmm, I wonder if they had all this symbolic significance in mind when they created the Mystique character for X-Men. Maybe. By the way, I totally think this book would make a great origin story for a comic book series. Ras the Destroyer is an excellent idea for an arch-nemesis.

April 4, 2009

Jazzed-up Emerson

"Still other readers of Invisible Man have focused upon the
novel's musicological qualities, the ways in which the narrative experimentation
of the novel incorporates Ellison's early love of and expertise with
music, pulling together an authorial voice that draws upon the techniques of
several musical forms in order to re-invent the American novel."
-- "Eloquence and Invisible Man," page 78

I really liked how this article connected all the speech-making in Invisible Man with musical qualities. I definitely noticed how the speeches the narrator makes have a kind of jazz-like element to them. The narrator's eulogy for Tod Clifton is especially wonderful in the way it introduces the main theme or refrain of "his name was Tod Clifton" and then with each paragraph he expands or riffs on that theme. I especially like the rhythm of "He was standing and he fell. He fell and he kneeled. He kneeled and he bled. He bled and he died." It is a far cry from the speech the narrator makes at the beginning of the novel, with its formal restricted sense of rhythm. I had never really thought about how the speeches are used to chart the narrator's growth, but it makes perfect sense here. This article is an example of how learning more about something else, such as Emerson's ideas about individuality and his relationship to African Americans, deepens your understanding of a work of literature. What seems like a throwaway reference in the conversation with Norton appears that it could be really significant according to this essay. I certainly would never have connected it with the narrator's ability to make speeches and the way his speaking abilities develop over time. It just goes to show that you can use elements from the outside world and work them into an argument about a work of literature, as long as they are actually referenced or at least alluded to in the work of literature.

April 14, 2009

Sex isn't sexy

"...describing two human beings engaging in the most intimate of shared acts is very nearly the least rewarding enterprise a writer can take."
--How to Read Literature Like a Professor, page 143

I think this is pretty true with any sort of physical experience where primal desires or feelings are involved. I mean, try writing about the pleasures of eating a delicious chocolate cake. Reading about sex or eating really good food is kind of secondary to the real thing. That's why, unless you're trying to write porn, the only real purpose for writing a sex scene is to carry the plot forward. Take The Time Traveler's Wife, which is a romance novel, so you'd think the sex scenes are pretty important. But they rarely describe the physical details of Henry and Clare in the act. Sex is pretty prevalent in the story, but we never really see them having sex. Just like them eating; we assume they eat, since they don't talk about starving, but we don't actually need to read about they physical details fo them eating. It's sort of the same thing with the sex, I think. Sex for Henry and Clare is wonderful and passionate in the beginning, and they do it constantly, but we usually just hear about the post-coital glow or Henry just states flatly something like "We fuck carefully, silently." Then Clare feels they're having too much sex, and then sex becomes stressful because it's a way of attempting to get pregnant again after several miscarriages. It's a way of showing what Clare and Henry's relationship is like at different points in time, but Audrey Niffenegger lets us know what the sex is like for them by them talking about it and not actually showing it, which is a good idea because even if she was able to somehow capture how good their sex is we'd probably all just get jealous.

Tune in tomorrow--Same Bat-time, Same Bat-channel!

"I wake up in the hospital. Henry is there. The baby is dead."
--The Time Traveler's Wife, page 376

As I was reading through the first half of this book, I wondered how Audrey Niffenegger was going to keep suspense with this premise. Normally when you put time travel in a story, you can use it as a way to mess up the past or the future and then you have to try to fix it, a la the Back to the Future movies. But here, Henry acts as if the future is a predetermined thing that can't really be changed even if you voluntarily try to. That initially seemed boring to me. We know that Henry and Clare are going to meet and fall in love and get married, and it doesn't seem like there's a whole lot of uncertainty that can keep the reader interested in finding out what's going to happen because it's all happened already. For instance, when they're trying to have a child, a Henry of the future tells Clare they're going to eventually have a child, so you would think that would completely kill the tension and suspense of "will they ever have a successful pregnancy?" But the quote I mentioned completely goes against your expectations; when you find out Clare's pregnant again after Henry tells her they have a child in the future and after he's already had a vasectomy, you think this is going to be successful. It completely takes you by surprise and makes you wonder if they really are going to have a child or if Henry was just lying or if they're going to adopt. When you find out that Clare's pregnant from a Henry of the past, you're like, "Ohhh!" But you still don't know if this pregnancy is still going to be successful or if there's some other unforeseen thing that's going to happen that twists your expectations. I think it's really cool how Niffenegger is able to use time travel as a way to build suspense. She lets you know that certain things are going to happen; you just don't know how they're going to happen. It's like when Batman and Robin got put in some horrible trap by a villain and at the end they tell you to tune in tomorrow to see what happens. You know they're not really going to kill off Batman and Robin; the interest is in how they're going to escape whatever ridiculous contraption the villain has put them in. I'm sure that show is exactly where Niffenegger learned everything she knows about maintaining suspense.

April 25, 2009

Arthur Miller's funny now?!

"Nothing to be alarmed about. I finally decided, one morning, to jump out my window."
--Resurrection Blues, page 1

Sitting down to read this play, I had certain expectations about it since it was written by Arthur Miller. I'm familiar with his earlier works like Death of a Salesmanand The Crucible, and All My Sons, which are very serious realistic dramas. And I know that a lot of his later plays weren't very well-received, so I just assumed that he kind of stuck to a not-as-good version of his realistic style in later life which appeared out-dated and not very daring or innovative in contemporary theatre. Then when I read the first two sentences, I was shocked--Arthur Miller actually wrote a dark comedy! If this were one of his serious dramas, she would have said something much more depressing. But the contrast between those two lines tells you right off the bat this isn't going to be your average Arthur Miller play. True, he wrote a lot of plays that I haven't read, but from what I know of him he really seems to be experimenting in this play. For example, the whole presence of Jesus Christ throughout the play is definitely different. He normally stays very grounded in gritty reality; The Crucible was all about people believing themselves into spiritual things that weren't actually real. The idea that Christ appears to be returning to Earth and people react to it by trying to televise his crucifixion definitely takes this play into the realm of a black comedy that doesn't exactly play by the rules of realistic human behavior, which I think is a lot more popular now in theatre than it was in the 1940's and 50's, when Miller first started doing his thing. It's cool that in his 80's he was still going out on an artistic limb, even though this play feels a little preachy, especially toward the end. "Message-oriented" theatre in which plays deliver a very specific idea to an audience, like the fact that greed is what ultimately prevents the characters in the end from being saved, is kind of passé with a lot of contemporary playwrights, and that may be why this play got sort of mixed reviews. But the wonderful dark humor of it is what I think keeps it from being a throwback to Miller's heyday and brings it into the 21st century.

About April 2009

This page contains all entries posted to MatthewHenderson in April 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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