Parable of the Torso?

Paul asks a great question: How would you read Parable of the Sower if you didn’t know there was a sequel? And I hate to have to say it, but I think I would read it as incomplete.

On the level of just plot (what Paul describes in a comment as the day-to-day stuff)—well, let’s say incident—I think the story’s actually pretty neatly laid out. This is Lauren; this is Lauren’s family; this is Lauren’s home; family and home are taken from Lauren and she has to find new ones; Lauren makes a new family and a new home. Ta-da. On those terms, I don’t need a sequel!

But everywhere along the way, this book is striving toward a farther future than 2027. Paul’s had his eye on that Mars mission we heard so tantalizingly little about, and Lauren’s explicitly trying to found a religion (which is a legacy kind of project, obviously), and the group she gathers does found a community (another legacy kind of project). Lauren’s been planning for a significant portion of her life for how to live after her neighborhood inevitably falls, not just how to get to someplace else that’s safe.

I’m not saying that I don’t want a book to have a sense of in some way continuing past the back cover (I’d have a biiiiiig problem with Infinite Jest if that were the case). It’s good when the characters and situations live vibrantly enough in me that I can imagine what I’m not shown! But I want that feeling to come from the coherence and vividness of the characterization and writing, not from an obligation to pick up a bunch of dropped threads. That’s where I don’t think Parable of the Sower stands alone very well.

I asked a couple weeks ago whether this is messianic fiction, and I still do think that it casts Lauren as a messiah—she sets out to become one on purpose. Frankly, I was surprised when Gray and Doe joined her band; with Emery and Tori, they were up to a count of Lauren plus eleven, so I fully expected just a single follower, to total them up to an even dozen disciples. (Then Jill died, and I was all, “A-ha! Here’s our twelve, and clearly Grayson will be the Judas.”) That’s a me problem, not a Butler problem, of course, but it’s a sign of how loudly I felt that bell was being rung—and then they find a place to settle and the book’s over. Lauren has her intentions, but not a sect yet. For any reasonable exposition of how Earthseed develops, after she’s spent so much energy consolidating it, there had to be another book.

It sure seems like some of that development needs to happen on Mars, doesn’t it? There’s a Mars mission! (I don’t mean to keep poking you about this, Paul; I’m genuinely tickled that it put a burr under your saddle and I forgot all about it except for your curiosity. I guess this is what my gratitude looks like?) And Earthseed’s Destiny—with a capital D, even—is “to take root among the stars,” explicitly to spread Earthlife to other worlds. That’s a great big Chekhov’s Spaceship…that never launches.

Now’s the time when I want to reiterate that I’m talking about how I would read this book, in the counterfactual case that I didn’t know it has a sequel. Because it sure sounds like I’m dumping on it, when I actually enjoyed reading it. It’s just that I’m reading it as “book one.” And as book one, it’s got me excited for book two!

A High-Five for Travis

I was so gratified to see Travis testing Lauren’s Earthseed philosophy. (Religion? I mean, yes, but is it yet?) I’d had some similar questions myself, and it was pretty clear that Lauren wasn’t going to just engage them in her journal. She’s got better things to do with her time. But it should have occurred to me that someone she met would do the asking for me. Plato gave Butler the dialogic tools for it a couple thousand years ago.

That conversation between Lauren and Travis got me thinking more about Earthseed itself, though, and what we know of it. Principally, that’s the epigraphs—which we’ve talked a little about already. But looking back on the disappointment we expressed there, I see that mine is pretty firmly rooted in reading them as literature. That’s certainly a legitimate way to read parts of a novel! (He says, understating the case.) But they’re not part of the narrative here, they’re sort of in-world apparatus to the text. So they’re susceptible to a reading for that function too, their Watsonian value as scripture. So I guess I’m doing exegesis this week! Or at the very least, taxonomy.

Chapter 1 starts with actually a pretty strong couple verses: “All that you touch / You Change. / All that you Change / Changes you. / The only lasting truth / Is Change. / God Is Change.” That’s actually just pretty straightforwardly good Buddhist philosophy, and focuses on the interconnectedness of everything. A pretty good summary of Earthseed, I expect. Except then suddenly the word “God” shows up, and I agree with Travis: Why? Lauren’s answer is essentially a matter of durability and social engineering (shades of the Bene Gesserit), but I’m not convinced. I mean, personally I’m not convinced by any argument about God; but the Eightfold Path of Buddhism is good and enduring, and it doesn’t couch its exhortations in terms of a god. Compare the Ten Commandments to the Eightfold Path: one is an authority telling you how to circumscribe your behavior, the other is guidelines for measuring yourself against yourself and striving to improve. It’s not clear to me that the introduction of the concept of God strengthens Earthseed.

It strikes me that for a book named after one of Jesus’s parables, we don’t get any parables from the Book of the Living. We get close a couple times, with Chapter 6 (“Drowning people / Sometimes die / Fighting their rescuers.”) and Chapter 14 (“In order to rise / From its own ashes / A phoenix / First / Must / Burn.”), but notice that neither of them uses a definite article. A parable, as Daryl said, is a simple story, but it’s also a specific story. Take the Chapter 6 epigraph, for instance. In the form of a parable, it would be a simple little story about a person who was drowning and thrashed so hard that their would-be rescuers were unable to hold onto them and pull them back to shore. Not some nebulous drowning people, whom it’s difficult to identify with, but a specific person. (Notice that it’s the Parable of the Sower, not a Sower.) The more elliptical statements in Lauren’s Book of the Living are more distant, more abstractly philosophical. They seem to invite an either/or kind of understanding—”I get it!” or “I don’t”—rather than the experiential sort of process that a parable, with its conscription of narrative, takes devotees through.

More effective, I think, are the more direct verses, by which I mean Chapters 2 (“A gift of God / May sear unready fingers.”), 5 (“Belief / Initiates and guides action— / Or it does nothing.”), 8 (“To get along with God, / Consider the consequences of your behavior.”), and 15 (“Kindness eases Change”). They’re not trying to gussy up any of their meaning, and they’re not meant as koans or contemplative prompts; they’re telling the faithful of Earthseed how to be. Be ready, be active, be thoughtful, be kind. This is the moral philosophy of Earthseed, where the scripture tells readers how to be good according to their beliefs.

Chapter 13 (“There is no end / To what a living world / Will demand of you.”) isn’t quite the same type, to me, but it’s one of my favorites, and there is some relationship. It’s more about a mindset than any specific practice or trait to cultivate, which is also the case with Chapters 3 (“We do not worship God. / We perceive and attend God. / We learn from God. / With forethought and work, / We shape God. / In the end, we yield to God. / We adapt and endure, / For we are Earthseed / And God is Change.”), 4 (“A victim of God may, / Through learning adaptation, / Become a partner of God, / A victim of God may, / Through forethought and planning, / Become a shaper of God. / Or a victim of God may, / Through shortsightedness and fear, / Remain God’s victim, / God’s plaything, / God’s prey.”), and 11 (“Any Change may bear seeds of benefit. / Seek them out. / Any Change may bear seeds of harm. / Beware. / God is infinitely malleable. / God is Change.”). These verses are emphasizing the way to understand the world around you, the wisdom counterpart to the previous category’s praxis.

There’s a sort of cosmological/sociological strain too, which seems to me the weakest of all of the epigraphs: Chapters 7 (“We are all Godseed, but no more or less so than any other aspect of the universe, Godseed is all there is—all that Changes. Earthseed is all that spreads Earthlife to new earths. The universe is Godseed. Only we are Earthseed. And the Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.”), 9 (“All struggles / Are essentially / power struggles. / Who will rule, / Who will lead, / Who will define, / refine, / confine, / design, / Who will dominate. / All struggles / Are essentially power struggles, / And most are no more intellectual / than two rams / knocking their heads together.”), 10 (“When apparent stability disintegrates, / As it must— / God is Change— / People tend to give in / To fear and depression, / To need and greed. / When no influence is strong enough / To unify people / They divide. / They struggle, / One against one, / Group against group, / For survival, position, power. / They remember old hates and generate new ones, / They create chaos and nurture it. / They kill and kill and kill, / Until they are exhausted and destroyed, / Until they are conquered by outside forces, / Or until one of them becomes / A leader / Most will follow, / Or a tyrant / Most fear.”), and 17 (“Embrace diversity. / Unite— / Or be divided, / robbed, / ruled, / killed / By those who see you as prey. / Embrace diversity / Or be destroyed.”). These are the ones, honestly, where I wish we had parables instead. They’re just so…diagnostic. “This is the way the world is.” Well that’s a lot of cases to try to cover. They would be rhetorically stronger, I think, and more scripturally effective, if they were told as stories that exemplified the themes but showed the counterexamples as well, for followers to identify with. It’s easy enough to think of how it could be done; hell, off the top of my head, Chapter 17 could be about two farmers, one practicing monoculture and one crop diversification, or two villages, one insular and disproportionately affected by a genetic disease and another constantly welcoming newcomers and making the whole genetic pool more robust. Better than “Embrace diversity or be destroyed.”

Lauren’s building a mindfulness component into her doctrine, too. Chapters 12 (“We are Earthseed / The life that perceives itself / Changing.”) and 16 (“Earthseed / Cast on new ground / Must first perceive / That it knows nothing”) both have a real humility and depth to them in terms of rooting the practice of Earthseed—whatever it is—in the center of your being. Who you are, what you’re experiencing, what you know, what you don’t. It keeps you in communication with yourself and challenges you to be connected and honest. Clearly Earthseed is going to be cast on new ground—there’s a Destiny—and so some of this is about preparing those travelers for success. But all of life is a journey, it says; anywhere is new ground.

And then there’s the one that truly made me scoff when I read it: Chapter 18 (“Once or twice / each week / A Gathering of Earthseed / is a good and necessary thing. / It vents emotion, then / quiets the mind. / It focuses attention, / strengthens purpose, and / unifies people.”). (It is, of course, also the chapter in which Lauren gets her first convert. This is not a coincidence.) It seems so…paltry. It’s not “here’s how to be a good person,” it’s not “here’s how societies are structured but shouldn’t be,” it’s not “know thyself”—it’s “have church a couple times a week, for these specific reasons.” But then I realized something that I think is actually really neat about this one, more than any of the others. This particular set of verses is about how to establish an Earthseed community. It’s the rules of the early church, not doctrine but management. More than any of the other epigraphs, it gives a vision into the process of Earthseed turning from one girl’s ideas into a community and presumably then a movement and a religion. There are things like this in the Christian New Testament too, what seem like finicky little details on how to run services or to operate a church. They’re not really instructions on how to worship; “once or twice” is entertainingly vague for scripture. But what Lauren needs if Earthseed is going to grow is for it to spread. She needs Earthseed communities to sprout in more places than just wherever she is, and for them to have a shared identity. Now that I’m reading this epigraph as community consolidation rather than scheduling, I can’t help feeling like it would be such an interesting one for future historians of Earthseed to use in re-creating the early communities of their faith, and that just tickles me.

The Benefit of the Doubt

Seems like we’re sort of all in the same boat responding to this first chunk of reading in The Parable of the Sower: It’s only Act I, so we’ve got both too much and too little to work with. But I’m also about to give y’all whiplash, going from my rah-rah explorations with Kindred to holding my nose on the way into this book (but looking forward to it anyway, because Butler is a great read). And yet.

Here’s my question, underlain by my personal tastes, but it’s an honest question: What is the purpose of apocalypse fiction?

I’m specifically making a distinction between apocalypse fiction and postapocalyptic fiction, because I totally get the point—and the appeal (which is a different thing)—of the conjectures and experiments that postapocalyptic fiction allows. How might human societies be reorganized after a sea change in certain structures or resources or conditions? Good question, with so many knobs and parameters to fiddle with! It’s one of the versions of the question “What if?” that I mentioned at the beginning of this IZ go-round, which sf as a literary approach is made for answering.

I suspect that’s where we’re going with these Earthseed books, but it’s not where we are. Right now we’re in the slow-motion apocalypse itself. And sure, the details may differ from example to example, but this story always goes the same way, right? It’s an inevitable descent, at one speed or another, into a Hobbesian nightmare of warring clans under the law of the jungle.

So: Why? Given the formula, and the straight-up misery and panic that always accompany the apocalypse, I’m skeptical of an argument for aesthetic pleasure. (Although I’m open to hearing one!) Does it have an instrumental function, then? Is it a pessimistic prediction? An Old Testament–style prophecy? Or is there even truly such a thing as apocalypse fiction as distinct from just the incipit of a postapocalyptic story? Is it just an extended buildup to the postapocalyptic part, giving us time with the characters on their way to the real meat of the story?

The End of All Our Exploring

The other posts here, and an exchange I’ve been having with another friend who’s also just read Kindred for the first time, have had me ruminating on a few things that I think I’ve figured out how to solidify together. There are two parts to this, really: the description of what I see happening in the text, and the interpretive metaphor. Let’s go with the metaphor first, since it’s more overarching and I’ve already broached the subject in a comment on Daryl’s recent post.

Butler is giving us a way to reconceive the psychic force of our shared history of slavery as not primarily a horror, but a wound. (Dana’s lost arm, Kevin’s PTSD…) That’s not to say there’s no horror—Paul reminds us of an especially hideous moment that branded itself on Kevin’s memory. But it’s important, I think, that we get that incident at some remove: Kevin’s telling Dana about a thing he saw years earlier (in his subjective time frame). The move here is to locate another category we can assign to the gravamen of slavery and its legacy, not deny any of it, and then to look at what that new framing means for the possibilities of our relationship to it.

Throughout the book, Butler shows us that the system of slavery is destructive to everyone. Obviously I’m not saying what we really need to think about in terms of slavery is how it hurt White people; what I’m saying is that Butler is very clearly showing us that it also hurt White people. This is one of the reasons for the move from horror to wound, because it’s hard to feel a moral demand to care about the effects on a monster of their monstrousness. You don’t sympathize with Dracula—but you can with Renfield, because he’s been damaged too. It’s empathy, not absolution.

We’ve talked some about Tom and his code of honor, and in this last week’s reading Rufus became an especially complex character. The reason it’s so uncomfortable to engage with them is that Butler gives us enough to see who they could have been if they hadn’t been warped by the world they live in. As my friend said to me, slaveowners were humans too, after all, with all the psychological and emotional needs that entails. They developed their own moral and ethical code to contain their lives in the system they lived in—and vastly benefited from—and justify the inversions of human feeling that it demanded. It’s no sure thing, but we get enough flashes of the man Rufus could have grown up to be, I think, to feel the loss of the comparison with who he ended up as. (Especially when the man he ends up as is a man who will drive the woman he believes he loves to kill herself because it’s so plausible that he would punish her—for resenting being serially raped—by selling their children.) It’s nothing like Alice’s losses, or Isaac’s, or Sarah’s, but it’s still a loss.

There’s a purpose here for Margaret Weylin too; remember that Dana illustrates Margaret’s neuroticism in terms of her micromanagement of the house. Her function is supposed to be running the household, but in the system of slavery, that’s accomplished by means of a community in her home that she’s not a part of—people she needs but won’t love, and can’t trust. No wonder competence in a Black woman is a threat to her. She’s forbidden to have any herself, or to complain about that.

And again, Butler’s careful to make sure we know she’s never just talking about the past. Given the time-travel conceit in this book, Faulkner’s aphorism is more apt than he even knew: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Remember Dana’s uncle, and how angry he was that she married a White man? “The last thing my uncle said to me was that he’d rather will [his apartment buildings] to his church than leave them to me and see them fall into white hands.” The book takes place only 20 years after Brown v. Board—that uncle grew up under Jim Crow, and may well even have gone to segregated schools. The wound was never healed. In the second paragraph of the first proper chapter of the book, Dana mentions that she and Kevin have just moved into “a house of [their] own a few miles away in Altadena.” That’s not just a line about how greater Los Angeles is made of gazillions of separate cities and neighborhoods: Altadena is where Owen Brown eventually settled after he survived his father John’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. (Check out his gravestone here: “Son of John Brown the Liberator.”) And bringing the past into the present, Altadena was also one of the first middle-class Black neighborhoods in the LA area, because it escaped the redlining that prevented Black people from buying land and owning homes in so many places. The wound was never healed. I come back to Dana and Kevin’s “chocolate and vanilla” coworker, too, because miscegenation only even exists as a concept in order to enforce racial categories—the core mandate in the system that we inherited from slavery.

Over and over again, we see that slavery brutalizes Black people specifically but injures everyone. Butler’s not the first person to observe this, of course, and I’m nowhere near the first person to take up medical imagery for the subject; Lincoln’s Peoria speech describes slavery’s euphemistic presence in the Constitution’s as “a wen or a cancer, which [an afflicted man] dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death.” It’s figured there as a potentially fatal wound to the entire country, which indeed it has very nearly been, more than once. But here’s the trick, I think—the whole point of this change in stance: a wound can be healed. There’s a connection here to my previous post, in that considering slavery only as a horror forecloses a lot of constructive responses to it. What can you do with an atrocity? Depends on which side you’re on, of course, You hope that the victims find the grace to forgive you for it. You recoil in shame from complicity in it, or privileges descended from it, and harden the walls of your ego-protective reaction. Or you resent the original sin against you and your people, and you swallow the embers every day from the match that can’t be unstruck. But wounds… Wounds we have a framework for, one that acknowledges both the possibility of healing and the necessity of being an active part of your own healing.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. And it doesn’t mean that some pristine state from before is recoverable. Scars are a part of healing too. But it means there is a kind of wholeness that can be striven toward. I don’t think Butler’s project in this book extends so far as to prescribe; expecting her to reminds me of the breathtaking audacity of the book’s setup, in which the universe kidnaps a Black woman more or less at the existential version of gunpoint and forces her to play guardian angel for a White boy. It’s Daryl’s Hurston quote again, “the mule of the world.” It’s on us White people to do the work of healing the body politic just as assiduously and conspicuously as we (as a group) take self-care measures like therapy and meditation and going to the gym. The only real obstacle is our collective will.

What We Owe to Each Other

At the beginning of last year, I joined a book group run out of my local library. (Got a whole two meetings in before we had to switch to Zoom, heh.) It’s for classics, which in this case means at least fifty years old. The book we discussed in February was A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the first East African author to publish a novel in English. It takes place in the few days before and the day of Kenya’s official independence, and while I didn’t especially enjoy reading it, it gave me a lot to think about, and it feels like an especially valuable piece of postcolonial literature.

One of the themes my thoughts kept returning to from that book is the idea of justice, and how often pursuing it after the fact is a mug’s game. It feels weird to me even to type that sentence, which suggests that I might have gone for the most inflammatory summary of my thinking, so let’s take the long way to understanding it.

When we’re being socially constructed as citizens, we’re taught that justice is the function of the legal system. We have a whole coequal branch of government dedicated to it, after all. This is fundamentally the purpose of constitutional law, right? (I’m very aware that this is a White fairy tale; as I said, this is how we’re molded into the citizens that society wants us to be, which is White supremacists.) But interestingly, our legal system knows better—and has for something like three quarters of a millennium. The US legal system was originally based on that of Great Britain, particularly English common law (although of course, just like their squirrels and ours evolved differently once the continents separated, so too did our legal systems after independence), and until 1938 maintained a distinction inherited from that common law between law and equity. Simplistically, cases at law involved seeking money (“damages”) and cases in equity involved seeking…basically anything else. That old, old distinction arose in the first place from widespread recognition that the law wasn’t producing equitable outcomes; it was deeply formalist and procedural, and thus largely unconcerned with the justice of the underlying dispute, but also: money is only a substitute for, well, literally everything but other money. Compensating a person is rarely the same as making them whole. There are things you can do to a person, to a group of people, that can’t be taken back or repaired.

This is where Daryl’s double bind comes in: On levels from micro to macro, from interpersonal to global, there are affronts that can only be healed through the grace of the victim. In A Grain of Wheat, that’s refracted through colonial oppression (and war crimes) and the inevitable accompanying issues of collaboration/survival and post-independence retribution. In this section of Kindred, it’s focused pretty sharply through Dana and what she has to forgive Rufus in order to keep to her mission of saving his life (and thus her own) and maybe hopefully if she’s lucky changing his heart some too. It’s not bad enough to have to endure the aggression and insults and humiliations and enslavement; she also has to just eat it all and find a way to keep trying even though she knows there’s more coming. Even worse, he forces her to be complicit in his rape and abuse of Alice, which it hurts her to have to try to reconcile. Thus the double violation: first the injury, then the demand to bear all the burden of healing it.

But of course even with that focus on the interpersonal level, Butler makes sure our eyes are on the bigger picture too. The book takes place in 1976, after all—the Bicentennial. What kind of celebration must that have been for Black Americans, though? The country it was celebrating was the country Rufus summons Dana to: a country explicitly founded on racism and enslavement. Over those 200 years of independence, multiracial democracy on a national level had only existed for 11. (Even when Butler was writing, the Voting Rights Act hadn’t yet turned 15.) We see from Dana and Kevin’s families, and their odious “chocolate and vanilla porn” coworker, that injustice and group trauma live on beyond the time that the aggressor deigns to desist (and remember Frederick Douglass’s admonition: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will”—a third burden on the violated). And the costs they impose can’t be recouped.

That’s not to say that healing and change aren’t possible. It’s to say that I’ve come to see the idea of justice as forward-looking, because it can’t change the past. On a personal level, that means we have an inherent obligation to strive not to do these harms in the first place—although the danger there is that the force of that injunction comes from the idea that it’s unjust to impose the costs of my behavior on others, and for some people that asymmetry is called permission. Look at Rufus, and Dana’s understanding of his hideous plan to claim Alice. There’s nothing but Dana’s disapproval and opposition to keep him from it, and that only matters for as long as he lets her opinion hail him and chooses not to exercise his power over her. But in a larger sense, it goes along with Dana’s ruminations about Rufus that Daryl highlights. As he says, her goal is “to make things better for those who … follow her.” That’s where ideas of restorative justice (in the criminal system specifically) and transitional justice (in the context of regimes of human-rights abuse) come into play instead. I’ve already been going on more than long enough, so I’m not going to run through all that, but I do encourage y’all to look them up. The primary point is that rather than look to undo what can’t be undone or limit the repair to settling a dollar amount on the harm inflicted, these approaches understand justice as a transformation of the set of circumstances that produced the injustice. In a meaningful way, they’re about fixing the world rather than settling a score. To put it in terms I learned from Melissa McEwan at Shakesville: Justice for Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have meant George Zimmerman in prison and weregild paid to Trayvon’s family. It would have meant Michael Brown being alive. And so on and so on and so on and on and on and on.

And really that’s what I mean too, when I say that pursuing justice after the fact is a mug’s game. What we have to do is seek it in advance, so that things like what Dana and Alice and Isaac and Sarah and so very many others—and more importantly, real people—go through aren’t done to them in the first place. This is the onus Butler is showing us.

Pragmatics

There’s been some discussion already of Butler’s style, which I want to investigate a little in terms of how it functions to help create some interesting effects in the first sections of this book. (I agree with Paul that this book seems to demand less playfulness than I’d usually strive for in titling posts. For this post in particular, I know enough to know that I’m referring to an area of linguistics that relates to the points I want to make, but not enough to know how to lay out those connections myself! If anybody who does know more about pragmatics in the linguistic/semiotic sense wants to spell it out, I’d love to learn.)

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I’m going to do a bit of generalizing about Butler’s style, based not just on the first third of Kindred but also on the seven other books of hers I’ve read (the Patternist and Xenogenesis series). It’s been a couple years since I read those, so I’m working from memory; but that memory tells me that her style is largely consistent across books, with the possible exception of Wild Seed, which I remember as being somewhat more consciously beautiful.

So. In thinking about this little investigation, a rough dichotomy of styles occurred to me. On the one hand is a kind of writing that seems to show the author’s intellect visibly at work, or on the move. I’m thinking of Wallace, of course (and that sense so many readers describe of his writing being the voice in their brain), and Nabokov, and maybe Austen—and, frankly, myself: One of the things I value so much about these group reads is the opportunity to write about the books, because that’s how I find out what I think about them. Sometimes this style shows the writer themselves on a journey, or sometimes it shows them leading the reader on a journey that feels more planned. On the other hand is a kind of writing that’s trickier to pin down, but the best way I’ve come up with to describe the feeling that characterizes it is that the author has already made the journey, whatever kind of journey it is, and is sort of reporting from the place where they’ve settled. I’m thinking here of O’Connor, a lot of Morrison, Hemingway, and, relevantly, Butler. The characters still have places to go and things to learn (or not), but there’s a kind of density of conviction that underlies the writing, a feeling of experience rather than experiencing, if that distinction makes sense. (This is all sort of a provisional structure. If you have any refinements or additions or objections, speak up! For one thing, don’t think the gender skew of my examples has escaped me…)

There’s an incredible economy in the way Butler structures the first parts of this book. It’s clear that the structural logic and the narrative logic are largely aligned—Dana’s called to Rufus when he’s in mortal danger from something: a river, a fire in his bedroom, a fall from a tree. So we get a section for each of those: “The River,” “The Fire,” “The Fall,” and so on. (The flashbacks and present-time moments of Dana in 1976 are important, but in my reading that importance is narrative rather than structural.) The Prologue is two pages, beginning with “I lost an arm” and ending with two characters saying they don’t know what truly happened. Then comes “The River,” which introduces us to this pattern. Dana’s called away for just barely over a page, and there aren’t even six whole pages in the section. We’re moving fast, from event to event, and it’s deliberately bewildering. Butler’s giving us nothing that she isn’t also giving Dana, and what she’s giving Dana is a damn lot in a big hurry. “The Fire” is then about four times as long as everything combined that went before it, and then “The Fall” is another 20ish pages longer still.

I’m talking about page spans here because it’s quite literally a learning curve:

And that’s an important part of what we see: Dana learning. Learning what’s happening, especially, but also learning about living in the antebellum South as a Black woman, and learning as much as she can of what the Black people on and near the Weylin estate have grown up knowing. But also we see her taking action, and that’s some of where I come back to where I place Butler in that dichotomy I mentioned. We don’t watch Kevin decide to assemble a go bag for Dana; we skip right to her awaking with it already beside her. And then she iterates on its contents, trying to zero in on the optimal combination of supplies to bring with her. The thinking, here and throughout, is fully reconstructable (and indeed, not always withheld), but it’s kind of taken for granted that the thinking is indeed happening.

Even when we get more explicit cogitation, it reveals that there’s already a fully formed intellect underneath that’s doing the thinking: On page 28, when Dana’s putting together her tie to Rufus, she thinks, “Alice Greenwood. How would she marry this boy? Or would it be marriage?” (The italics are mine; Butler doesn’t do a lot of that kind of cuing.) From Dana’s 1976 perspective, that’s a reasonable question. But of course its real import isn’t whether Alice and Rufus solemnized their relationship—it’s whether Alice was given the power to consent at all. There’s no further elaboration on that point in Dana’s train of thought, though. On the Watsonian level, Dana already knows why she’s wondering, so there’s no need for her to rehearse it. And on the Doylist level, this is part of how Butler operates. It’s up to us as readers to be alert to the mass of the iceberg under the water. Whether that technique lands for you is more or less a personal question, but I’m finding it quite powerful.

A Couple Conversations I Wish We Could Have Had

Zombies are still around the day after, right? Or at least still have their notifications on?

I think for me the reading schedule Daryl set for Bubblegum was just about perfect. But the trade-off I always find myself making in timeline-governed reads like this is that I often have a hard time making time to write more than one post in a week. (Hell, I haven’t even managed to finish all of these that I’ve participated in.) And with the kinds of books we read here, there’s more than one thing in a week worth talking about!

To that end, I wanted to drop a little note here with a couple thoughts I never had the chance (or I guess made the opportunity) to air with the group, in case anybody else has anything to say about them.

I know we were mostly or all struck by the ventriloquizing in “Jonboat Speaks.” Knowing, as we do in retrospect, that it was Belt’s words, I’m even more intrigued by this bit from about page 613:

The only real effort I ever spent on you was on resisting the occasional urge I felt to kick the shit out of you. The urge to kick the shit out of you for being so needy and weak and available to harm. I didn’t quite understand where that urge came from, but I knew it was universal. Not just among the other kids at our school, and not just toward you—I’m not trying to be insulting—but toward every being like you in every kind of social circle in every last species of the animal kingdom. Herd, pack, murder, flock. Universal, this occasional urge.

So Belt understands bullying, although he universalizes it (at least he has Jonboat universalize it), which I know we’d all like to hope is inaccurate. How closely does that urge that he describes here line up with cure overload? It feels like the text is making an inexact association between Belt and cures, but I note that the characteristics the urge is attributed to—”being so needy and weak and available to harm”—don’t include cuteness, which is apparently the key factor in overload.

And speaking of cuteness! It’s canonically registered in juvenile features: the more something resembles certain characteristics of human babies especially (big eyes, high foreheads, short noses, small chins), the cuter it is usually judged to be. Those features are a part of neoteny in humans (Rob, copyediting note for you: the Kindle version, at least, has neotonic and neotony where it should have neotenic and neoteny), which means that compared to other primates, our somatic maturation is slow relative to our sexual maturation. This is not a common word! But it was introduced to us by the axolotl poster in Dr. Kleinstadt’s office. (Axolotls are a standard example of neoteny.) How does that play with the fact that cures actually grow cuter as they age? There’s almost a kind of hyper-neoteny in play there, and I don’t know what it means.

I’m also curious about something that I’m pretty sure would take an actual academic article to work all the way out, but I’d love to hear if anybody has anything to say about it. Here we go: Is there a relationship between Bubblegum and New Sincerity? That’s a contested term, actually (I found a dissertation that gave me a lot to think about); but one very relevant use of it is to describe what we might broadly and therefore imprecisely call the Wallace/Franzen/Eggers nexus of literature. Not comfortable yet concluding whether or how much I think Bubblegum is or isn’t connected to New Sincerity. But what sparked the thought was some feeling of relevance, and the germ of an idea that if the novel is to some extent related but resistant to New Sincerity, Belt’s thought processes—his tortured and spiraling efforts to achieve total transparency—could be dramatizing that affinity and conflict.

And I guess I still owe y’all a post about conceptual art!

My Head Is Filled with Things to Say

When I finished Bubblegum the other day, I closed up my Kindle case and just sat there. My husband looked up five or ten minutes later and asked if I was OK, and I told him I didn’t really know. I was still trying to figure out how I felt.

I’m still working through my thoughts and feelings on the book. There’s a lot to process, and I think some parts of it are deliberately in tension with some others; I didn’t expect a neat resolution, so that’s not really a surprise, but it is surprising to me how refractory it is. It leads you in directions and then ditches you just before you arrive at an identifiable place, so you end up with emotional responses cued and no concrete framework to process them in.

Paul said he feels like this book is part one of something bigger, and I feel that feel, bruh. Only to me it’s more like, say, parts one, two, four, seven through nine, and twelve of something bigger. We get a lot of setups that aren’t followed through on, and it’s hard to say why I think that is.

For instance: Gender identity gets activated as a site of at least some salience. Paul caught the references to the Wachowski sisters—and as a matter of fact, in our world Lilly didn’t even come out as trans until 2016, and that was under threat of being outed. In that respect, Bubblegum “does well,” if you see what I mean by such a stupid term. But then the same book uses Fondajane to create a social split and actually names one side of that split “anti-beauty/pro–trans beauty.” So why? Why turn those engines on and then walk away with the keys in the ignition? What’s the function of creating an imaginary world where the Wachowskis are apparently uncontroversially women but also choosing to replicate transphobia—and blame it on the one identified intersex character?

Or here’s a big one: Dr. Kleinstadt the vet. Late in the novel we meet a man who has actually been trained to understand cures. He says cures were only even part of the veterinary-school curriculum for a few years in the 90s, which, fine, right? But that means that this knowledge—that cures are even capable of developing cancer, for one huge obvious thing, but also just the understanding, even if only partial, of what cures are and how they work—is available. It’s out there, it was officially taught in courses regulated by state licensing boards. How is this so irrelevant to the book that it comes up in this one episode and is never referred to? Dr. Kleinstadt even looks Blank in the face, for some period of time, and doesn’t apparently feel the urge to slaughter him. It’s been very strongly implied, I’d say, that Belt is (or believes himself to be) special or maybe even unique in his ability to not want to kill Blank. But lookee here, there are others. Whom we won’t spend any time with or on.

Or: After spending the whole book troubled by how people treat cures, Belt decides to use a drug made from spidge without filling us in on any qualms. Was he that altered by his exposure to A Fistful of Fists? It didn’t seem like it. He was concerned enough about Blank to find Dr. Kleinstadt, which was a hassle.

I guess a big part of why I feel so confounded by the book is that I feel like stuff is missing that I need. Like I’ve just spent two months visiting in a house with a lot of rooms locked, and now I’m supposed to figure out how its owners live in it.

There really is a lot in here that I appreciated, not that you’d know it from the emotional reactions I keep having on these pages. Clyde’s admission that he feels like he and Belt are too old to keep playing the roles of father and son is something I wish I saw more of in stories about father-son relationships. Sandrine’s whip-quick connection of No Please Don’t‘s Bam Naka figurine to Lisette seems like it promises to be worth more thought. Obviously pretty much everything about Annie Magnet is gold (except for her fridging). There’s more.

And obviously I wouldn’t have spent two months reading this and feeling as intensely as it made me if it didn’t connect with me. It’s an uneasy connection, for sure, but the book is powerful and I’m glad I got to read it along with everybody here.

It’s the Little Things

You know what I didn’t expect to find in the Pellmore-Jason compound? Tenderness. Little moments of genuine kindness. But there are lots of them! We’ve already seen Fondajane being friendly to Belt and trying to put him at ease, and later instantly recognizing that seeing himself in A Fistful of Fists would be hurtful because of what he was going through at the time he was recorded.

Then in this week’s chunk we get a number of displays of empathy and caring from male characters, which to be honest I don’t think I was expecting. Outside of Belt (who’s clearly an outlier from his own society), the men in the novel have tended to be “masculine” in that way that means feelings are for other people to worry about. Whenever we’ve seen people actually trying to treat each other well, it’s been female characters (again, excepting Belt): Belt’s mom. Stevie Strumm. Ms. Clybourn. Maybe Janie Sez and Maggie Mae.

(Please let me know if I’m shortchanging any of the guys. I left the Yachts and their Charity Parties off the list because those are both performative and random, rather than “genuine,” and because I find them ghoulish, even though I know the Yachts themselves don’t.)

For instance, I was genuinely touched during the little exchange between Belt and Jonboat about the box of cereal. Jonboat’s efforts to make Belt feel unstigmatized about whatever meds he may or may not be on was a really sweet effort, but even better was just before that:

“I was saying about your gift,” I said, pointing at the Crunch box. “I brought you a gift.”

“A box of cereal?”

“They really didn’t tell you?”

“They who, Belt?” he said.

“That’s not—never mind. The gift’s under the cereal. Under the bag inside the box, I mean.”

That “they who”/”that’s not—never mind” caught me. What‘s not what? And I thought I realized what it meant, but now as I’m typing another possibility occurs to me. Both are about inans, but the difference is in whether Jonboat knows that Belt converses with them, which I don’t know whether we have evidence about one way or the other! (Belt’s inference that Denise didn’t read the “about the author” blurb on No Please Don’t because it would have raised some questions she would definitely have felt she had to ask suggests that it’s possible Jonboat could know, especially with the fabulous capabilities that come with obscene wealth.)

  • Possible meaning #1: Jonboat knows Belt has conversations with inanimate objects. When Belt asks if “they” told Jonboat about the present Belt brought, Jonboat asks conspicuously neutrally, “They who?” Doesn’t want to upset Belt by sounding judgmental or disparaging, but obviously needs to clarify whether Belt’s operating in a shared reality with him or not. Belt gets the implication and waves it off, starting to say “That’s not what I meant, I was talking about the tribe of he-men you employ whom I had to tell one by one why I brought a partial box of cereal to brunch,” then decides instead to skip the explanation and go right to the giving.
  • Possible meaning #2: Jonboat is actually genuinely just like “wut who? There have been so many people in this compound today, and I just got off the phone with Dubai and then slipped out, I don’t know which ‘they’ you even mean. Why would I be talking to someone about cereal.” Which Belt self-consciously misinterprets as an oblique reference to his condition, and waves it off, starting to say, etc. etc.

I mentioned this moment in the first place because my interpretation on reading it was #1, and I was touched by what I read as Jonboat’s delicacy. But we know Belt’s personalizing really hard in this section, so I may be wrong.

Paul mentioned that Burroughs shot up his list of favorite characters in this section, and I similarly appreciated his quiet, sly solidity. (I’m always a sucker for an invincibly capable body man, even more when he has a fierce, deadpan wit.) His job is security, but he doesn’t take a brute approach to it when he doesn’t have to—he could have just told Belt if he gets a Quill out one more time, he’s on the street, but instead he empathizes over the nicotine craving and gives some down-to-earth advice about riding it out. (Not too far off from how he advises Belt on how to recover from the concussion he was unfortunately forced to administer to Belt.) And Burroughs and Trip double-team Chad-Kyle when he takes Belt to task for not saying hi. Paul called it “jump[ing] to Belt’s defense,” and that’s exactly how it feels. They’re defending him, and they certainly don’t have to.

For that matter, from the moment Trip arrives in the office, it feels like he’s already adopted Belt as one of his crew, down to mouthing his opinion of Chad-Kyle at Belt and serendipitously choosing the same insult Belt came up with back when he had whorehouse pizza with Lotta. (One of the less instantly obvious pleasures of this book: the truly outlandish and totally accurate things you can say in summarizing episodes from it.) Obviously he’s already committed 100,000 of his dad’s dollars to Belt, but it doesn’t feel like a business-relationship kind of closeness, not even a teenager’s idea of a business relationship. It feels like he’s treating Belt as a pal.

There’s more kindness in this week’s chunk of reading—the lengths Herb goes to to make Belt feel better about Stevie’s being married, and then his frank vulnerability to Jill about fearing “the chickens of his own irregular flossing habit one day coming home to roost,” are especially sweet. But I really wanted to highlight the welcome Belt received at the Compound. It took me totally by surprise.

Of course he repaid it by trying to beat someone to death with a souvenir of his host’s and former best friend’s space travels… But still.

In Which Your Correspondent Counterweights His Late Complaints with Some Things He Liked in This Week’s Reading

I don’t have much of a reading this week—in terms of an argument to make—because it’s been a very eventful week for me. But I do have some scattered thoughts I want to share, especially in light of how down I was on the book last week. As Daryl promised in reply to my post last week, there was some much, much nicer stuff this week.

Here’s a strange thing to say about an 800-page book: There are a lot of things here I wish we got more of! The compound, for instance. Jonboat turned a small neighborhood into his residence. They don’t even have outbuildings there, like, say, a studio—the production house is an entire actual house. It’s essentially a 26-room mansion, except each of its 26 rooms is a house. Although I suppose what I want isn’t a tour of the different houses (we get a listing of some of them), but more of the compound as a setting. That’s a weird environment! I would have thought, for example, that if security is a grave enough concern to prompt the construction of a compound with ramparts and everything, you wouldn’t then let whole crowds in like the audience for Triple-J’s Neo-Gratification spectacle. I also want to know more about the logistics of a distributed home life like that, and how it might/would warp a kid’s ideas of how to be a person.

Somewhat related, I want to know more about the Archons. It didn’t occur to me that Burroughs would have a family. (…Which is not a fun thing to think about, my having supposed his entire identity was “driver/mentor.”) Who is the woman who gave birth to these hulks? Did we hear about her? Is there an Archon who didn’t want to go into personal security to the wealthy at all, and rebelled by, I don’t know, becoming a sportscaster or a marine biologist or a day trader? They have a house at the compound—and I’m curious how closely it resembles a Spartan barracks.

I thought the opening sentence of “Certain Something” was genuinely excellent:

If Mike told Brenda he’d dreamed she’d died, she might let him kiss her, he thought.

That’s in ballad meter! It also has some almost Keatsian sonics, and some beautifully balanced syntactic embedding that covers, what, four time frames and one conditional statement with an extra removed level of speculative likelihood. In seven beats. I’d be happy if I’d written that.

I also found it hilarious that Paul and I were right on the money about Bam Naka’s name.

And as I mentioned in a comment on Daryl’s Proust post, I do generally like Fondajane. I think I appreciate her critical performativity—when she’s doing Fon with respect to art and Theory—a lot more than her libidinal performativity, but I’m pretty sure that’s on me, not Levin.

Actually, to follow up on me not especially responding to how cataclysmically desirable Fon is: If I do have an objection for this week, it’s how woefully straight this all feels. I know that sounds weird when we’ve got this whole section on fisting (and god help me, as soon as I read “the French power guy” I knew it was Foucault), but stay with me here. So I haven’t read it myself, but it appears that this whole notion of fisting as a revolutionary invention is truly Foucault’s—and not, as I thought Bubblegum was saying, Fon’s friend David Ballard’s application of Foucault’s thought. (Y’all have to read this whole thread. It’s a doozy.) But from what I can tell without going to the source, it wasn’t this free-floating conception of “revolution.” In fact, that’s a nonsense idea, that revolution can exist without a system to roll back. I appreciate the point that Trip is channeling the revolutionary energy he felt from reading Ballard’s paper, but I can’t miss that he’s also taking it out of its very specifically queer context. It’s not just that fisting was supposedly a brand-new way of using the body for pleasure; it’s that it was a defiant way of relating sexually, one that took the phallus out of the equation altogether and therefore—in this almost comically on-the-nose poststructuralist, French theoretical way—short-circuited patriarchal control over oppressed bodies and marginalized sexual practices.

Lots of buzzwords there, and I cannot overstate that I’m working from secondhand and partial knowledge. But to see the inescapable queerness of this idea translated into “I want to innovate” is…disappointing. Especially when everybody’s straight. I’m not calling it appropriation, because that’s another nonsense idea when it comes to scholarship (mostly). I’ll just stick with “disappointing.”

I do love where we end up from that spark, though. Fon’s instant dismay when she learns that Belt is the boy in A Fistful of Fists whose mother was dying—that immediate, reflexive empathy for Belt—was really touching, and a good ironic counterpoint to Trip’s profession that empathy is the root of good art. (Ironic, of course, because Trip’s idea of empathy means the viewer seeing things through the artist’s eyes. It’s empathy as a cover charge for experiencing art, not as a requirement for creating it.)

But Trip’s art project? I am one hundred percent totally on board. I love conceptual art; it’s one of the most purely unnecessary things, which, for me, makes it an absolutely necessary outpost out past the borders of “regular” art to pound stakes down and keep room open for other kinds of art to exist in. (Oh man, I feel a whole separate post coming on. The gist of it is: I want to argue that what characterizes art as separate from not-art is some kind of superfluity. And conceptual art, by maximizing superfluity, holds space for other kinds of art to be some degree less extra and therefore some degree more essential. This is not a considered argument yet, just a ghost of what I’d want to think about.) A Fistful of Fists isn’t even his artistic statement, it’s the performance of scarcity in a relatively post-scarce environment (DVDs are more or less trivially reproducible, especially with his family resources) and the manipulation of the art world’s construction of that performance as a kind of authenticity. OK, listen, if I get time for an extra post, I’m coming back to Trip’s art project, because the more I type about it the more excited I get.

And now that we’re about to get to “Jonboat Speaks” (not “Jonboat Say”—that was the first section of the first chapter, or first chapter of the first section), I’m really looking forward to seeing how the relationship between grown-up Belt and Jonboat compares to the relationship between adolescent Belt and Jonboat.