When reading The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 novel about dreaming and altered realities, it can be difficult to find one’s footing. The novel is often described as an homage to fellow science fiction author Philip K. Dick, and while Le Guin’s prose style remains largely unchanged, in terms of subject the work has more in common with Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik than it does with, say, Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness—which is to say, it’s far more surreal than her usual, quasi-anthropological stories tend to be. At some point, and by design, the novel’s story becomes impossible to track.
Still, while following the plot of The Lathe of Heaven may be a daunting task, it is possible, and not that challenging, to follow the novel’s thematic content. This is especially true if the reader pays close attention to a particular symbol which crops up time and again throughout the novel. Seeing how the novel approaches this symbol will doubtless make for a more coherent and fulfilling reading experience. So with that in mind, let’s talk about Mount Hood.
Mount Hood first appears as a concept, if not as an object, in the first paragraph of Chapter 2, when the narrator describes the office of psychiatrist Dr. William Haber. Hanging prominently “on one of the windowless walls was a big photographic mural of Mount Hood” (p. 6). On its own, the mural would be a solid detail for the setting, adding a degree of verisimilitude to ground what will become an otherwise disorienting story. (Think of how many waiting rooms across the country feature framed photographs by Ansel Adams.) But in the context of the scene, it serves as much more than mere set dressing.
The narrator mentions how Haber looks at the mural while speaking with his receptionist, who informs him that his next patient, George Orr, has arrived. The mountain is an object of desire for Haber, largely because, as the first sentence of the chapter tells us, his “office did not have a view of Mount Hood” (p. 6). It’s somewhat unusual for narration to begin a scene by noting what is not present in the setting, which draws the reader’s attention, paradoxically, to the act of perception. Haber cannot experience Mount Hood directly, so instead he must content himself with a simulation. To drive the point home, Haber spends kills time while waiting for his patient to enter by contemplating the nature of that simulation:
Now Penny was going through the first-visit routine with the patient, and while waiting Dr. Haber gazed again at the mural and wondered when such a photograph had been taken. Blue sky, snow from foothills to peak. Years ago, in the sixties or seventies, no doubt. The Greenhouse Effect had been quite gradual, and Haber, born in 1962, could clearly remember the blue skies of his childhood. Nowadays the eternal snows were gone from all the world’s mountains, even Everest, even Erebus, fiery-throated on the waste Antarctic shore. But of course they might have colored a modern photograph, faked the blue sky and white peak; no telling.
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven, p. 7
This paragraph accomplishes a number of things for the novel. First, it serves as world-building for the near-future society depicted in The Lathe of Heaven. Climate change has ravaged the planet such that in just forty years the “eternal snows” of mountains the world over have melted. Second, the paragraph encourages the reader to be skeptical of what is presented in the novel, not to take things at face value. Haber cannot be certain that the photograph is an accurate depiction of its subject, that is, of Mount Hood at the time that the photograph was taken. An artist or technician would have the tools to alter the causal process that produces a photograph; they could impose their own vision onto the image.
These two implications of the photograph—that society has declined and that one can impose a vision onto reality—combine to lay the groundwork for the entire plot of The Lathe of Heaven. Once Orr enters Haber’s office and reveals his dilemma, the story can begin in earnest. Orr has been taking drugs that suppress dreaming because he occasionally has what he calls “effective dreams”: dreams that alter the past, and everyone else’s memory of it, to radically reshape the present. Haber is naturally skeptical that such events are possible, but decides to test this hypothesis by intentionally making Orr have an effective dream.
He hooks Orr up to a device called the Augmentator, which allows a patient to rapidly enter the dreaming stage of sleep, and gives him the hypnotic suggestion to have an effective dream about a horse. Once Orr awakes, he asks Orr to recount his dream, and it’s here that the reality of Orr’s powers becomes hauntingly clear:
“A horse,” Orr said huskily, still bewildered by sleep. He sat up. “It was about a horse. That one,” and he waved his hand toward the picture-window-size mural that decorated Haber’s office, a photograph of the great racing stallion Tammany Hall at play in a grassy paddock.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven, p. 23
Anecdotally, I can say that this passage caused me to doubt my own memory of what I’d just read. “Was that picture always there?” I asked myself. “Wasn’t that a picture of Mount Hood before, or is this just another mural that hadn’t been mentioned yet?” The fact that Haber doesn’t immediately react to the change only intensified my confusion. It’s not until Orr broaches the subject that the reader can regain confidence in their own senses:
“Was it there an hour ago? I mean, wasn’t that a view of Mount Hood, when I came in—before I dreamed about the horse?”
Oh Christ it had been Mount Hood the man was right.
It had not been Mount Hood it could not have been Mount Hood it was a horse it was a horse
It had been a mountain
A horse it was a horse it was—
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven, p. 24 (emphasis original)
We can see in Le Guin’s abandonment of punctuation Haber’s efforts to reconcile his two memories: one of the world before the effective dream, one of the world the effective dream has caused. Orr’s powers have shaken him profoundly, and though he tries to play it off in the immediate aftermath (a psychiatrist must maintain composure in front of his patient), it’s clear that he has some deep thinking to.
The picture of Mount Hood is the perfect object on which to have Orr demonstrate his powers. First off, changing the photograph’s subject from a mountain—something traditionally thought of as eternal (cf. “eternal snows”)—into something as dramatically different as racehorse without Haber noticing unprompted proves that Orr’s powers have staggering implications. Second, it calls back to Haber’s doubts about the authenticity of the photograph in the first place. If Orr’s dreaming has changed the photograph and Haber’s memory of it right now, who is to say that a previous dream had not done the exact same thing before?
But it’s the third reason for the image’s power that really gets Haber thinking. If Orr’s dreams are capable of changing a photograph of Mount Hood, why can’t they change Mount Hood itself? Haber realizes that Orr’s dreaming could be used to fix all of their present society’s problems: not just the loss of Mount Hood’s snows, but also overpopulation, racism, nuclear war, and so forth. Orr’s dreaming unlocks the potential that Haber subconsciously was hinting at when contemplating the photograph: the potential for Haber to exercise god-like powers on reality.
Throughout The Lathe of Heaven, as Haber uses Orr’s effective dreams to impose his vision on the world, Mount Hood appears time and again as a reflection of how that project is going. Most notably, as the new society that Haber is guiding grows more unstable and dystopian, the volcanic activity of Mount Hood keeps increasing. It’s a striking manifestation of Orr’s concerns regarding his abilities. One cannot control the eruptive power of a volcano, and neither can one control the disruptive power of effective dreams. As Orr thinks of Haber’s office building in one of the new realities: “This building could stand up to anything left on Earth, except perhaps Mount Hood. Or a bad dream” (p. 136). Really, are the two not the same thing?
I don’t want to give the impression that understanding how Le Guin uses Mount Hood as a symbol will “solve” The Lathe of Heaven, like it’s a cipher in need of a key. Indeed, to come to a definite conclusion about this particular novel’s story and themes would be to read the novel in bad faith: everything is in constant flux. Instead, one can use Mount Hood as an anchor in the plot’s turbulent waters. One will never get a sure grasp on the story in its totality, but one can still can find a moment-by-moment calm within it.
What are your thoughts on The Lathe of Heaven? Do you think that latching onto a symbol like Mount Hood is a good way of understanding the novel, or are there some drawbacks that I haven’t accounted for? Let me know in the comments!
This post is part of my Classics Club project. If you’d like read my previous installment on Elfriede Jelinek’s novel Wonderful, Wonderful Times, click here; if you’d like to see my master list of books and get a sense of what the future holds, click here.
I’m very happy to have another poem in Cumberland River Review! Their current issue features my piece entitled “On a Small Farm in Waterbury, VT,” which is inspired by a photograph by Sasha Arutyunova that was featured in The National, the Amtrak in-train magazine. The photograph was part of a larger series documenting the Vermonter route between New York City and Waterbury, all of which are worth checking out. (Surprisingly, The National is a really good magazine; give it a read if you’re ever on Amtrak.)
Thanks again to the editorial staff at CRR for selecting my work for inclusion!
You can read “On a Small Farm in Waterbury, VT” by clicking here, and you can read my previous poem in CRR, “Overland Express Arriving at Helena, Mont.,” by clicking here. If you would like to see Arutyunova’s series of photographs that I mentioned above, you find them on her website (the one that inspired my poem is the 12th in the series).
I’m very pleased to announce that two poems of mine have been published in the most recent issue of The McNeese Review: “Men Who Stand Still Are Broken” and “Luis Martinetti”. The former poem was inspired by a line someone had written on a column in the 42nd Street–Port Authority Bus Terminal subway station, and I think it’s the only poem I’ve written where the organizing principle is having a fixed number of words per line. The latter is another installment in my series of ekphrastic poems about the Edison Studios catalog of short films (which I have mentioned here and here). In this case, it’s inspired by some footage of an acrobat going through his routine. I’m rather proud of both these pieces, so I guess finding a market for them helps validate my taste in my own work.
This publication is very exciting for a couple of reasons. First, it turns out that I’m in the same issue with Jim Daniels, a faculty member at my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University. (I never had a class with him, but I did get to speak with him a handful of times.) Second, this is the first publication that I’m actually getting paid for, so I can finally cross that goal off my list.
You can order a copy of this issue of The McNeese Review through the magazine’s website. If you’d like to see the film that inspired “Luis Martinetti” (i.e., the film Luis Martinetti), you can watch it below:
The speech tag is among the most utilitarian features in a piece of writing. Those little phrases connected to a fragment of dialogue—”he said,” “she asked,” “said the barkeep”—tend to serve exactly one purpose: making it clear who is speaking. They are as close to purely structural text that one will find in a story or an essay; they may be integrated into the main body of the text, but functionally they are more like the name labels in a script or an interview. They may assist the reader in comprehending and interpreting the text, but they don’t exactly contribute to its meaning.
A general rule of good writing is that the speech tags should not call attention to themselves, as they are boring almost by design. Oftentimes beginning writers, realizing that speech tags sound kind of dull, will attempt to spruce them up by using fancy synonyms for “said” or “asked,” or by appending needless modifiers to them. In doing so, they end up drawing the reader’s focus away from the dialogue, away from the important part of the sentence. And this assumes that speech tags are necessary in the first place. After all, if the voices of the characters are sufficiently distinct, the reader can suss out the speaker from the dialogue itself. (I’m certain that half the reason Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is a classroom staple is how well it demonstrates this fact.)
Still, I’m not happy to just take a general rule and leave it at that. In much the same way that I’ve thought about how one can effectively use inanimate objects as narrators, I’ve wondered if there are ways to use speech tags creatively. One possibility that comes to mind is to vary the placement of the speech tag relative to the dialogue. It’s standard to close the sentence with the speech tag, but one can move it closer to the middle or beginning of the quoted text to suggest, say, a pause in the speaker’s delivery or an emphasis on an unexpected word. One may even do so just to give the reader a place to mentally breathe in a long passage.
This technique is definitely useful, if for no other than that it varies the rhythm of a conversation on the page, but I’m not sure I’d call it a creative use of speech tags, per se. When the speech tag interrupts dialogue, the content of the tag doesn’t really matter, only it’s presence. One could insert a brief action or a bit of description and obtain a similar effect. No, I’m looking for something stronger: a way to make a phrase like “I said” interesting in itself.
A speech tag doesn’t give the writer much meaning to work with, granted. But it does provide the reader with one indisputable piece of information: someone is speaking. If the act of speaking is thematically important to a piece of writing, then a writer could use speech tags, could use the constant repetition of “said” and such words, to underscore that theme. In fact, I’ve come across two short stories that do precisely that: “Fat” by Raymond Carver and “Say I won’t be there” by Ali Smith. Both stories revolve around characters who are struggling to communicate something, and both use an excess of speech tags to highlight that struggle.
“Fat,” which was included in Raymond Carver’s 1976 collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, tells the story of the narrator’s encounter with a fat customer at the restaurant where she works as a waitress, and of the effect that the encounter has on her. When I say that it tells the story, I mean it is explicitly about the telling of it. It begins thusly:
I am sitting over coffee and cigarettes at my friend Rita’s and I am telling her about it.
Here is what I tell her.
It begins with two sentences, each its own paragraph, devoted to what at first seems like throat-clearing. In fact, Carver is setting up the story’s fixation on the act of speaking. This becomes apparent when the narrator first approaches the fat man to take his order:
Good evening, I say. May I serve you, I say?
Rita, he was big. I mean big.
Good evening, he says. Hello. Yes, he says. I think we’re ready to order now, he says.
Carver does not merely include those utilitarian speech tags; he uses way more than is necessary to get the point across. It’s not as though the reader will lose track of who is speaking mid-paragraph, so they must be serving some other purpose.
From what I see, these extra speech tags accomplish two things. First, they replicate the experience of orally telling a story with lots of dialogue. Unlike in print, the audience for an oral story does not have punctuation marks or paragraph breaks to clearly delineate whose dialogue is whose, so a good storyteller will need to remind the listener of who is saying what at more frequent intervals. Second, the repetition of “I say” and “he says” convinces the reader to pay special attention to the dialogue, even as we might be tempted to skim past all these pleasantries. The narrator certainly finds this dialogue interesting, noting that the fat man “has this way of speaking—strange, don’t you know.” Without all those speech tags slowing us down, we might not notice the fat man’s peculiar use of the royal “we,” which he ends up using consistently throughout the story.
Of course, if we pay close attention to the dialogue—and by extension, to the language the narrator uses throughout, for this whole story is being spoken—we get the sense that the narrator is not saying as much as they would like to. She has clearly been affected by that night with the fat man: by his speech, by his huge fingers, by the comments others make about him. But she seems unable to clearly vocalize just how she’s been moved. Instead she must resort to vague statements like, “Now that’s part of it. I think that is really part of it.” One senses that her only choice is to recap the entire evening, in the hopes that the feeling will shine through. Indeed, moments like the fat man’s last line come tantalizing close to an epiphany (“If we had our choice, no. But there is no choice”).
But, given Rita’s reaction to the story, it would appear that telling a story doesn’t mean conveying it. After the narrator mentions how she felt “terrifically fat” while her boyfriend Rudy raped her, she realizes that Rita has missed whatever point she was trying to make:
That’s a funny story, Rita says, but I can see she doesn’t know what to make of it.
I feel depressed. But I won’t go into it with her. I’ve already told her too much.
No matter how many times that narrator “says” something within her story, she cannot guarantee that her audience will understand. That goes not just for Rita, but also for the reader, for whom the last lines are famously enigmatic: “My life is going to change. I feel it.”
Whereas in “Fat,” the problem is that the audience doesn’t understand the narrator, in Ali Smith’s “Say I won’t be there” (collected in the 2015 book Public Library and Other Stories), the problem is that the audience doesn’t want to listen to her. As it happens, the story starts off in a similar fashion to “Fat,” with two one-sentence paragraphs that foreground the act of telling a story to an audience:
I had a dream, I say.
Don’t tell me about any dream right now, you say, I can’t listen to it right now.
And, much like Carver, Smith makes liberal use of mundane speech tags to reinforce the importance of speaking, although in her story’s case there’s a more palpable sense of frustration:
It’s not just any dream, it’s the recurring dream, I say. The one I’ve been having all year. I had it again. I keep having it.
Tautology, you say.
What? I say.
You just said the same thing four times over, you say. And I can’t hear about your dream right now. I’ve got work in a minute.
Something is obviously eating away at the narrator. They’re having trouble getting it out, though, so they just end up repeating themselves as a preface, saying that they’re want to say something. Not helping matters, they don’t have someone like Rita who is at least game for a story; the audience here is actively trying to shut down the discussion.
One thing you’ll have notice is that “Say I won’t be there” features not only a first-person narrator but also addressee, in this case the narrator’s romantic partner. The use of “you” in this context encourages the reader to place themselves in the perspective of this character, which is a rather conflicted position: both intimate (the reader is sole audience member) and confrontational (the reader-character resists being the audience). This tension, this need to negotiate between the desires of the reader and those of the reader-character, may explain why the story progresses the way it does, with the addressee insisting they don’t want to hear about this dream while they keep asking questions about it.
Over time, we get a rough notion of what the narrator’s dreams: she keeps hearing stories about how Dusty Springfield was being photographed in a nearby graveyard. The addressee finds this perplexing, because that sort of dream would seem to have much more relevance to their own life—their a fan of Springfield’s music and they work for a company that wants to repurpose a graveyard for commercial purposes. They playfully accuse the narrator of “filching [their] subconscious,” which brings the narrator back to an earlier period in their relationship, back when they made it a point of sharing dreams with each other. They’d write them down “because it’s really boring to have to sit and listen, in the morning when you’re hardly awake yourself, to a dream someone else has had.” In that moment, the narrator’s entire quest seems both hypocritical and hopeless.
As it turns out, the narrator is not the only one with a lot to say that they’ve been holding back. Later that day the addressee, inspired by their earlier conversation, sends the narrator a text message, an email, two voicemails, and a letter, all filled with fun facts about Dusty Springfield. It’s as though the addressee sees the earlier dream discussion as an excuse to share their interests with the narrator. Through that deluge of a trivia, though, it’s difficult to see what, if anything, the narrator takes from it—a role reversal from earlier on. This is why I find Smith decision to have “I say”/”you say” volley back and forth so crucial: it implies that the narrator and the addressee are in similar positions. We are reminded, constantly, that both characters are speaking, but never reassured that either is hearing.
From the examples of Carver and Smith, we can see that beyond structuring and stitching together dialogue, speech tags are an excellent tool for getting the reader to consider speaking as an action. Both “Fat” and “Say I won’t be there” are stories driven by and about the struggle to communicate; that struggle is where the majority of the conflict lies. Not all stories feature such conflicts, and even in those that do it may not be necessary or advisable to go to the extremes of Carver and Smith. But if you’re writing a passage of tense or uncertain dialogue, perhaps consider what those little words around the quotation marks might do for the scene.
What are your thoughts on speech tags? Are there other potential ways of using them for creative ends? Can you think of any stories which use them especially well, or poorly? Let me know in the comments! And if you want more advice on making the most of the little things in writing, you might want to check out my post on how Brave New World and Hiroshima use section breaks.
It was only yesterday I learned that Brenda Shaughnessy, one of my favorite contemporary poets, has a new collection out from Knopf, entitled The Octopus Museum. I’ve of course not read it yet (and knowing me I won’t actually get to it for another two years), but from what I can gather it’s a rather high-concept book: a dystopian future in which the world that humanity destroyed is now run by octopuses. Shaughnessy’s past collections have had strong motifs running through them—astronomy and tarot cards in Our Andromeda, ’80s synthpop in So Much Synth—but thisone sounds like it goes a level beyond that.
I have no idea how one would approach the substance of an octopus dystopia, but in an interview for Lit Hub with Peter Mishler, Shaughnessy does mention how she approaches the form of it. Mishler points out how The Octopus Museum features much longer lines than is typical of Shaughnessy’s poetry. As she explains, the longer lines are not the mere product of an evolution in her writing style, but a conscious decision related to the themes of her new collection:
Oh how I love a long prose line with no self-important line breaks! It just ends where the margin says it ends. These lyric-essay/prose-poem vignettes are the correct shape for the content—almost all rectangular, as if framed, teleological. There are some regular, stanza-ed poems in the book because they are relics: humans used to write poems in which they wasted space, breaking our lines as if it would buy us more time, give the illusion of freedom. The prose pieces say: this is data, utilitarian. It uses up all the space it’s been given; it doesn’t imagine any use for taking up extra space.
I find this perspective on line lengths fascinating, because it runs counter to my own preconceptions about them. In the best case scenario, a long prose line in poetry can have a certain ecstasy to it. Walt Whitman is the most obvious example, what with the chant-like style of poems such as “Song of Myself,” and the later poetry of Larry Levis accomplishes something similar through a whirlwind of ideas and images. But to me, long lines of poetry tend to be suspect; I take them as a sign that the poet has not been discriminating in their diction or judicious in their self-editing. Such lines waste space in a poem the same way empty soda cans and scratch paper waste space on my desk: their presence detracts from the value of their surroundings.
But, upon reflection, perhaps my stance on long lines would play right into the hands of the octopus overlords. When I think of a poem in a visual sense, I tend to discount the page from the picture, as though the text were floating outside of time and space (or, alternatively, on an infinite plane, which for present purposes might as well be the same thing). But on what grounds do I refuse to consider page space as a fundamental part of the poem? I might as well refuse to consider the environment as a central feature of my life. From this point of view, there is something obscenely decadent about using an entire sheet of paper to print a haiku. It’s like clear-cutting a forest to plant a few rose bushes. No matter how beautiful the buds are, the process which produced them hardly seems justified.
I have no idea whether The Octopus Museum takes full advantage of the thematic possibilities of the long line poetry, especially in relationship to its odd premise. But at the very least, I’m sure I’d appreciate a collection which so challenged my base assumptions regarding poetry. I still remember how Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, regardless of whether or not I actually enjoyed it, taught me that poetry can deliberately sound stilted and awkward and still be thought-provoking. Hopefully, when I actually read The Octopus Museum, I’ll have similar experience to that.
Thanks for reading, and for humoring me on what really amounts to speculation. If you’d rather read my thoughts on books that I’ve actually read (and who could blame you?), my most recent post was on the role of the Missionary in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which you can check out here. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on long lines of poetry? Can you think of a book that challenged your understanding of how writing is supposed to work? Let me know down in the comments!
In my twelfth-grade English class, for the unit on postcolonial literature, I wrote an essay on the missionary characters in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. I don’t remember very much of my argument (and I’m certain that, if I actually reread that paper, I’d be embarrassed by it), but one quote that I used when defining terms for the essay has stuck with me through the years. It comes from Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony, and it concerns the nature of religious conversion. According to Mbembe, conversion is:
. . . a way of exercising violence against a state of mortality; the convert is supposed to move from death to life—or, in any event, to the promise of life. This tends to suggest that conversion always involves an act of destruction and violence against an earlier state of affairs, an accustomed state for which one seeks to substitute something different.
Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony, pp. 229-230
What strikes me about Mbembe’s conception of conversion is how it stands in contrast to how I believe we normally think of conversion. In our everyday understanding, one converts from one set of beliefs to another either through some fantastic moment of insight (e.g., Paul on the road to Damascus) or through the power of a compelling argument. The process in either case is of serious importance but is ultimately peaceful. But in Mbembe’s view, such conceptions of conversion tend to overlook an essential element of the process, namely, that one has discarded—or has been forced to discard—a previous set of beliefs and customs. The old must be destroyed to make way for the new.
That quote came back to me while reading Homegoing, the debut novel from Yaa Gyasi. One might suppose such thoughts would be inevitable when reading about the European colonization of Africa, where cultural imperialism in the form of Christian missionary work is still ongoing. But Homegoing, and specifically the chapter centered on the character of Akua, is an almost perfect embodiment of Mbembe’s sentiment, as it it highlights both the metaphorical and literal violence that comes with conversion.
Akua is the daughter of Abena, a woman who left her village while pregnant with her who and settled with a group of Christian missionaries she had met on a previous journey. Abena dies when Akua is very young, and so Akua is raised by the missionaries. Throughout her youth, Akua is caught between two competing religious systems: European Christianity, as represented by the character of the Missionary (who is only referred to as such), and the traditional religious practices of the Gold Coast, as represented by a local fetish man (again, only referred to as such).
It is the fetish man who first connects the Missionary with destructive behavior. When Akua is six years old, she hears another child refer to the Missionary as an obroni, a term that she only knows to mean “white man” but that he seems stung by. The fetish man explains that obroni derives from another expression: abro ni, or “wicked man.” And it seems this child is not alone in his appraisal of the Missionary. “Among the Akan,” he tells Akua, “he is wicked man, the one who harms. Among the Ewe of the Southeast name is Cunning Dog, the one who feigns niceness and then bites you” (location 3039). In other words, he has a far-reaching reputation for destructive actions.
At first, Akua finds such talk about a man of God to be sacrilegious, but her opinions soon begin to shift. During this conversation, she remembers how the Missionary had “snatched her hand and pulled her away” when she first met the fetish man, even though he seemed perfectly kind to her (location 3048). A few days later, the Missionary calls her into his office and begins giving her private religious instruction. He chooses to begin his instruction, though, not with the tenets of the faith but with the threat of corporal punishment, brandishing a switch “just inches from her nose” (location 3094). He tells her in no uncertain terms that she, her mother, and all of Africa are sinners and heathens, and forces her to accept these terms by reason of force. The whole affair hits right at Akua’s psyche:
After he told her to stand up and bend over, after he lashed her five times and commanded her to repent her sins and repeat “God bless the queen,” after she was permitted to leave, after she finally threw the fear up, the only word that popped into her head was “hungry.” The Missionary looked hungry, like if he could, he would devour her.
Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing, location 3104
The Missionary makes no attempt at rational persuasion or at revelation; Akua must acknowledge and cast aside her pre-Christian state of sinfulness by submission. Indeed, such violence would seem to be the only tool at the Missionary’s disposal, as seen when Akua announces her intentions to marry a local tradesman named Asamoah. His response is once again to say that she must repent her sins and to throw the switch at her. The gesture is impotent, though, as when it hits her shoulder Akua “watched it drop to the floor, and then, calmly, she walked out” (location 3134). When the Missionary loses the power to coerce, he simultaneously loses the power to convert.
So far, we’ve examples of the violence that Mbembe finds in the process of conversion, but we haven’t seen much in the way of destruction; it’s not as though the Missionary has been smashing local religious artifacts like so many biblical idols. That changes, however, in Akua’s final confrontation with him. The whole scene is charged with violent potential, as the Missionary starts off standing “in the doorframe, his switch in his hand” (location 3187). Violence is found not only in the switch, but also in how he prevents Akua from exiting the room; he is limiting, or at least attempting to limit, the options available to her. Once the Missionary realizes he has no real sway over Akua, however, he tells her the story of how her mother met her end:
“After you were born, I took her to the water to be baptized. She didn’t want to go, but I—I forced her. She thrashed as I carried her through the forest, to the river. She thrashed as I lowered her down into the water. She thrashed and thrashed and thrashed, and then she was still.” The Missionary lifted his head and looked at her finally. “I only wanted her to repent. I—I only wanted her to repent…”
Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing, location 3199
This one paragraph renders Mbembe’s conception of conversion in the most tactile, literal way possible. Baptism is ostensibly a way to be born again, a way “to move from death to life—or, in any event, to the promise of life.” But baptism is fraught with the potential for violence; even in consensual circumstances, one places oneself at the mercy of someone else’s hands. The Missionary’s attempt to impose that promise of life on Abena, to force her out of a state of supposed sinfulness, ends up killing her. In Homegoing, conversion does not merely attack the cultural traditions of the Gold Coast, does not merely do violence to an already-established way of life. It has actual blood on its hands.
We could go further with this discussion of the violence of religious conversion. In particular, one could note how Akua appears to internalize a violent conception of religion in general based on how she interprets the experience of prayer, or how the final paragraphs of the novel offer a more spiritually fulfilling version of baptism than what we see in the chapter that we’ve discussed. But I’ll leave those discussions to you, before this blog post turns into a dissertation.
That’s enough from me. How about you? Have you read Homegoing, and if so, what aspects of the novel struck you the most? Let me know in the comments! (Also, apologies for the inconvenient use of location numbers; my ebook version of Homegoing doesn’t have page numbers for some reason.)
Like I said at the start, this post was inspired by my twelfth-grade English class, but this isn’t the first time that’s happened. A while back, I wrote some fragmented thoughts on the concept of “nothing,” which in part sprung from another assignment from that same years. So thanks, Mr. LoGiudice: all these years later and you’re still making me think.
After all, there is always poetry. This month’s poem, written by William Carlos Williams, is all about the experience of being at the ballpark, with all the messiness that goes with it. It’s called “[The crowd at the ball game],” which you can read at the Poetry Foundation website. Give it a look, and then we’ll start with some background info.
Poets have long been drawn to baseball as a subject, so it’s not exactly surprising that Williams dabbled in baseball writing. But David Ward, in an overview of baseball poetry published at the Smithsonian magazine website, suggests that Williams’s poem is a noteworthy piece within context of modernist poetry. Even though baseball has had significant influence on the American consciousness, modernist poets tended to ignore the game as a subject “because it was too associated with a romantic, or even sentimental, view of life.” That so prominent a modernist poet as Williams would choose baseball as a subject is thus surprising, though Ward laments that Williams is more interested in “the relationship between the crowd and the individual” than in the game itself, which is largely absent from the poem.
The opening lines present us with a thesis statement on the nature of the crowd, a direct account of why people have chosen to gather at the ballpark:
The crowd at the ball game is moved uniformly
by a spirit of uselessness which delights them— (lines 1-4)
The second stanza offers us the first surprise of the poem: the fact that the crowd can find the “uselessness” of watching a baseball game delightful. In Ward’s account, this is because baseball is “a time out from the hum-drum grind of daily work,” but I don’t find this answer satisfying. It might be a sensible response to James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” which I’ve written about before. Wright’s poem is haunted by the imagery of the post-industrial Midwest, so of course in that poem sport functions as an escape from a laborious life. But there really are no such references to such work in Williams’s poem, so Ward’s analysis is purely speculative. I think we need to take Williams’s speaker more literally: the useless of the ball game is delightful not in contrast with something else, but in itself.
We might expect to find that delight in the action of the game, in the same way that the people in “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” find release in how the high school football players “grow suicidally beautiful / At the beginning of October / And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies” (lines 10-12). But Ward is correct in saying that baseball is not the actual subject of “[The crowd at the ball game].” The description of the game that the crowd is watching is hopelessly vague:
all the exciting detail of the chase
and the escape, the error the flash of genius— (5-8)
Compare this description of baseball to, say, Williams’s description of a fire engine in “The Great Figure” or a barnyard scene in “The Red Wheelbarrow”. Those poems are not exactly lush in their language, but they are precise in their details and remain evocative after multiple readings. But in “[The crowd at the ball game],” the words are inexact (“the chase / and the escape” from what?) and tend to lean on abstraction (“the flash of genius”); if we weren’t given the subject in the first line, I would never have guessed it from these stanzas.
This description is so uncharacteristic of Williams’s work that I can only conclude that it’s a deliberate irony: there is no “exciting detail” in the game itself, because that’s not where the excitement actually lies. The speaker may go on to tell us that these aspects of the game are “all to no end save beauty / the eternal” (9-10), but that’s only to set up the poem’s next twist: the crowd is the poem’s true site of beauty. The parallel is explicit in both form and content: “So in detail they, the crowd / are beautiful” (11-12). Williams’s choice to repeat the word “detail” and to reemphasize aesthetics with the word “beautiful” keeps the reader’s mind focused on the same ideas even as the subject shifts.
Granted, given how limp his description of the ball game is, this may also prime the reader for a further disappointment. While repeating “detail” and “beautiful” gives the poem’s argument cohesion, it also highlights how little has actually been said so far, how little detail and beauty we have encountered. And truth be told, there is little beauty to be found in the poem, at least in the conventional sense. The speaker says the crowd “is alive, venomous // it smiles grimly / its words cut” (14-16). It’s menacing, this crowd, although just how is unclear. Is this a harmless, playful fury, the sort that lies in the call to kill the umpire? Or is this a mob out for blood?
As we get more details of the crowd, its nature becomes both more worrisome and more ambiguous. The speaker highlights the diversity of people in the crowd, and how they relate to the greater collective:
The flashy female with her mother, gets it—
The Jew gets it straight—it is deadly, terrifying
It is the Inquisition, the Revolution (17-22)
To paraphrase “The Red Wheelbarrow,” so much depends upon the meaning of “gets it”. One possibility is that the women and the Jew “get it” because they are the recipients of the crowd’s abuse, the people who the crowd’s “words cut”. In this interpretation, the diverse elements of the crowd are an unwelcome sight to the rest of it. Williams’s invocation of the Inquisition becomes rather loaded in this reading, as the Inquisition was an especially dark chapter in the history of antisemitism. To call the crowd “deadly, terrifying” in this context borders on understatement.
But there is another possible interpretation of “gets it,” and that’s to say that the women and the Jew understand the sentiment of the crowd and embrace it. They are included in the general passion; their words cut just as well, their smiles are just as grim. All members of the crowd are equal members in the Inquisition and the Revolution. You will note that this is still a rather sinister scenario, though at least the victims of the violence have been elided from the poem. In either case, we seem to be a long way from the sense of brotherhood one finds in “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” Williams does not resolve this tension as the poem progresses. It is a tension that the reader must accept from start to finish.
But while the nature of the crowd remains ambiguous, the poem does develop the notion of beauty that Williams has in mind here. The speaker once again asserts that “beauty” can be found in this scene, but it’s not the sort that one can appreciate the way that one appreciates an artwork. This beauty “lives // day by day in them / idly” (24-26). This beauty is a potential that goes untapped the vast majority of the time, but can be unleashed in certain circumstances. (Ward may have overextended himself in linking this feeling to “the hum-drum grind of daily work,” but he was not completely off-base.) The occasion of the ball game allows something, specifically the passion of the inquisitor or the revolutionary, to express itself. It’s not for nothing that the speaker remarks on the time of year, as it connects the moment to something spiritual: “It is summer, it is the solstice” (29).
Broadly construed, both the spirituality of a solstice rite and the pastime of a baseball game are forms of play. Both occur in what the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga would call a “magic circle,” a metaphysical space where the ordinary rules of society are temporally suspended, whether for the purposes of law, religion, or entertainment. This goes back to the notion that the ball game has “a spirit of uselessness”: it happens outside the normal world. But just because it is useless does not make it worthless, in the same way that the “play” of ritual is still a serious matter. Just look at how Williams ends the poem:
the crowd is
cheering, the crowd is laughing in detail
permanently, seriously without thought (30-34)
For as difficult as it is to figure out the nature of the crowd, for as difficult as it is to see what it is about baseball that makes this moment possible, for all of that—the sheer exuberance of the moment comes through strongly. Whatever the experience has done to the crowd, I believe the impact has been tremendous, that they have been “permanently, seriously” moved.
What are your thoughts on “[The crowd at the ball game]”? Do you have a poem or a story that puts you in the mood for baseball season? Then sound off in the comments below! If you enjoyed this deep dive into a poem, then you’ll be happy to know that I write one of these every month. Most recently I analyzed Tracy K. Smith’s found poem “Declaration,” so why don’t you start there and start exploring?
First things first: Wonderful, Wonderful Times is a deeply unpleasant book. Elfriede Jelinek’s 1980 novel (translated from the German by Michael Hulse) is a tour through the various depravities of 1950s Vienna: unmotivated crime, unenthused sex, unrepentant Nazism, and so forth. I do the vast majority of my reading on the bus these days, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so self-conscious about reading a book in public. Granted, I do have something of a moralistic streak that’s been bubbling up on me of late, but Wonderful, Wonderful Times is so unrelenting in its grime that it borders on the lurid.
To take just one example: there’s a scene in which one of the main characters allows (encourages?) a man on the tram to grope her so that her friends can filch his wallet. That about sums up the book’s moral universe: even the victims are perpetrators, and vice versa.
Despite all that, despite one’s natural revulsion at the novel’s content, I find myself agreeing with Richard Eder’s assessment in the Los Angeles Times, in which he detects in Jelinek’s work “a hint of delicacy and lyricism” and “a measure of perverted innocence.” I attribute a fair amount of this effect to Jelinek’s narration, which blends every character’s dialogue and inner thoughts into a single voice that almost tears itself apart from its own incoherence, but it’s more an artful melange than a morass of text. It takes a few sections that get used to it, yes, but there’s something mesmerizing in watching it unfold speaker by speaker. But even more than the prose style, it’s Jelinek’s character crafting that gives the novel its odd beauty.
Wonderful, Wonderful Times tells the sordid stories of four young adults in post-WWII Austria. At the novel’s center are Rainer and Anna Witkowski, a pair of twins from a middle class family with ties to the Nazi power structure that their abusive father remains proud of. Rainer is self-styled poet who builds his life around the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, a young man who envisions himself as the leader of a revolution of thought as he paraphrases other people. Anna, by contrast, is a promising student and musician given to prolonged periods of absolute silence, when she’s not lashing out with absolute rage. Joining the Witkowski twins are Sophie Pachhofen, a rich athletic girl with tons of fight and nothing to actually fight for, and Hans Sepp, the son of a Communist activist who longs for Sophie’s sort of luxury. Together, these four have made it their job to terrorize the streets of Vienna, because what else is to be done?
The novel opens with the four in action, beating the living daylights out of a random passerby out for a late night stroll. The assault is already underway, which has given the narratorial voice enough time to start pontificating on the nature of violence. “Particular courage is required,” the voice informs us, “if you are to scratch a man’s face while he is looking full in your own (though he cannot see much since it is dark) or indeed try to scratch his eyes out. For the eyes are the mirror of the soul and ought to remain unscathed if possible. Otherwise people will suppose the soul is done for” (p. 7). The reader is forced to accept the nature of this novel from the first paragraph: its characters will aim for your eyes, will try to extinguish your soul and whatever hope you may have for it. In its sheer bluntness, the opening assault functions as an initiation rite, signalling what you’ve agreed to read.
For the first third of the novel, the prose and the luridness were enough to pull me along, past scenes where Herr Witkowski forces his wife to pose for pornographic photos and scenes where Anna initiates sex in a school bathroom with all the passion of ticket-taker. But while I had been initiated into the circle of these characters, I still felt like I was at more-than-arm’s distance from them. They were more intellectual constructs than people, more forms of pointless rebellion than rebels. The turning point for me happened at a different point of initiation, when Rainer decides it’s time to officially initiate Sophie into their little band of mischief. The four protagonists head out into the Vienna Woods to engage in some old-fashioned animal cruelty:
What distinguishes the group from other groups who are out and about dressed for a ramble is that they are not dressed for a ramble, but instead they are carrying a basket containing a sack tied shut. There’s an amount of scratching and whimpering going on inside the sack. This is because there is a cat in it. They caught the cat. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason is a character who wants to drown his cats, and so today they are planning to drown this cat too, though this cat also has a right to live. Rainer says that he himself has an equal right to non-existence, just as this cat does, the cat which he is going to assist on its way to non-existence before it can count to three. The cat has its suspicions. Hence the brouhaha in the sack.
Wonderful, Wonderful Times, p. 88
Here is where I started to see that “perverted innocence” that Eder mentioned. Take out the part about trying to drown a cat, and what you’ve got is a scene about four young adults enjoying a nice day out in nature, looking to recreate something from a novel. They seem like overgrown children here, play-pretending with something that will, in fact, have consequences. More than anything, I’m reminded of Tom Sawyer’s role in the final chapters of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, cooking up an absurdly elaborate plan to rescue Jim from a shed inspired by all the adventure novels he’s read. Never mind that Jim is a human being and not an excuse for a quest; never mind that “this cat also has a right to live.” The perverted innocents will let nothing get in the way of their fun, for what is fun is serious business.
The cat-drowning attempt is also the point at which the romance elements of the novel begin to center themselves. Rainer is in love with the Sophie, Anna is in love with Hans, and because fate is cruel, this whole initiation is what drives Hans and Sophie into a romantic pairing. Throughout the scene, events highlight the divide between the Witkowskis and their friends. One example: whereas Sophie and Hans are at ease traipsing through the forest, Rainer and Anna “are not altogether in their element. Their lungs are rattling. They have none of that fitness and stamina” (p. 91). When the scene ends with Hans kissing a soaked and bleeding Sophie, the narrator bothers to point out the obvious: “This little scene leaves two people satisfied and two unsatisfied. It is always like that in life. Fifty-fifty. Which makes things fair” (p. 93).
The remainder of Wonderful, Wonderful Times, it often feels, tracks the fallout from this initiation scene, as Rainer and Anna struggle to win back the objects of their affection. What once appeared to be, to use the title of Eder’s review, a “cuckoo Clockwork Orange” turns into young adult novel. The characters’ concerns suddenly seem much more teenage: worrying about university, trying to escape parental influence, and of course how to resolve these overlapping love triangles. Several times, as some aspect of this heightened high school drama gave me pause, I had to remind myself of where this novel started, i.e., with our heroes engaged in a for-kicks beatdown.
Rather than lowering the stakes, though, the result is that Jelinek has a chance to give her characters greater depth, to turn grotesques into people. We see that Rainer’s penchant for philosophizing everything is a smokescreen for his cowardice and his self-doubt. We see that Hans, the one who has entered the working world, wants to define himself in opposition to his mother’s quixotic fight for social democracy is an increasingly consumerist Austria. Anna in particular comes alive in the homestretch, as she struggles with her personal demons and gets to experience one of the novel’s few moments of ecstasy before everything is taken away in an explosion of violence. There’s a possible world where she’s the relatable, troubled heroine of a contemporary young adult novel, and what I wouldn’t give to see what exactly that world looks like.
There’s a lot more in Wonderful, Wonderful Times that deserves scrutiny, particularly the character of Herr Witkowski and how he and what he represents factor into the moral rot that helped birth our protagonists. (Let’s just say that the line “After 1945 History decided to begin again from scratch and Innocence, after much hesitation, forced itself to take the same decision” [p. 94] is just dripping with evil.) But I think I’ll leave things there, and simply encourage you to seek this one out—at least those of you who can stomach this sort of novel.
Those are my thoughts, but what’s your take? Does a novel like Wonderful, Wonderful Times hold any appeal for you? Can you think of other works which explore this sort of “perverted innocence”? Let me know in the comments!
If you’d like to see what’s on the horizon for my Classics Club challenge, you can view the master list here. And if you’re interested in more general thoughts on the classics, I recently wrote about OCLC’s Library 100 list, which you can read here.
A few days ago OCLC, the organization that operates the WorldCat library cataloging system, unveiled The Library 100, their version of a most-popular-novels list. Rather than tallying sales, OCLC decided to rank novels based on how many libraries that register information with WorldCat hold at least one copy of a given book.
Just glancing at The Library 100, something becomes apparent almost immediately. Rather than featuring contemporary bestsellers, the list is dominated by “classics,” the marketing category that covers older, timeless literature and usually carries prestigious connotations. Classics are also my wheelhouse, so on a personal taste level I don’t really have any complaints. I’m more interested in talking about what sort of classics ended up on this list, because I get the sense that libraries have a more narrow conception of the term than I do.
As an exercise, I recorded the publication date of every novel on The Library 100 and sorted them into one of eight broad eras: pre–17th century, 1601–1700, 1701–1800, 1800–1850, 1851–1900, 1901–1950, 1951–2001, and 2001–present. I then counted the number of novels that fell into each period, to get a sense of which points in time libraries were especially fond of. The results are presented in the chart below:
Before going any further, I’ll note a few limitations to this approach. First, pinpointing exactly when some novels were published can take a bit of guesswork, especially for older works where the records may have been lost. Second, even if records are present and accurate, there may be multiple possible publication dates to choose from. For instance, many of the novels on The Library 100 were originally published in serial formats, and were subsequently compiled into a single book. In such cases, it’s not clear which date should be the “official” date of publication: when the first installment was published? the last installment? the completed and compiled book? It was because of such ambiguous cases that decided to just use broad periods rather than precise years.
Based on the above chart, we can see that the periods 1851–1900 and 1901–1950 make up a large portion of the list. Combined, this 100-year stretch accounts for 63 of the 100 novels. We then see a sharp drop off on either side of this combined stretch, with the periods on either extreme of the chart accounting for just 1 novel each. Why exactly is this the case?
A few reasons spring to mind immediately. First, a list that only includes novels, like The Library 100, will necessarily be biased towards the period of time when the novel was popular, i.e., from the 18th century onward. You can surely imagine that a list that included drama and poetry would at least feature the likes of Shakespeare and Homer. Second, a list based on library holdings will be biased towards works that have been around for long enough to end up in such collections, especially if the novel in question still has to be translated into other languages. And third, well, the classics are popular. It may not be reflected on the bestseller charts, but think of how many people read Pride and Prejudice or A Christmas Carol every year. Almost by definition, they have a proven, consistent fanbase, and that will convince libraries to keep those books on shelves.
But of course, there are other, more socially systemic reasons why one would expect classics to dominate this particular list, reasons that OCLC actually acknowledges in the FAQ section. They note that classics “are the novels most often translated, retold in different editions, taught and widely distributed in library collections,” and that as a result, “the list tends to reflect more dominant cultural views.” (They go on mention various efforts to diversify their holdings and encourage the reader to lend a hand in the effort.) It’s no surprise that white men are overly represented here, but something that did surprise me was how Anglophone the list was as well. You can see just how much English-language works dominate the list in the chart below:
Even though I tend to think of French and Russian as especially literary languages, combined they only account for 17 of the 100 books on the list. And that’s to say nothing of languages that are completely absent: no Arabic, no Japanese, no Mandarin, etc. English is especially over-represented in the top slots. While the #1 novel on the list was written in Spanish (Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes), the rest of the top 20 was all written in English. This might not be too shocking if WorldCat was only used in, say, the United States, where publishers have been historically reluctant to publish works in translation. But OCLC boasts that WorldCat is used in over 120 countries, so what gives?
My best hypothesis is based around the fact that the rise of the novel coincided with the height of the British Empire and the emergence of the United States as a world power. In addition to imposing economic, political, and social systems onto the rest of the world, both British and American empires could impose their cultural products onto it as well. This cultural imperialism could take a softer form, such as associating Anglophone literature with high class and prestige, or a harder form, such forcing Anglophone literature into classroom curricula at the expense of literature in the local language. Even in our slightly more conscious postcolonial world, the effects of that imperialism may still linger in the collective taste of libraries.
Combine the context of world and literary history and the dominance of Anglophone literature in general on the list, and it’s almost natural that Charles Dickens is the most-represented author here. Six of his novels made The Library 100, with 4 of them in the top 20. Dickens is the epitome of Victorian novelists, which in the somewhat conception of classics this list presents, makes him the epitome of literature. Which, hey, maybe he is, at least to some people! He’s never been to my taste, exactly, but what’s wonderful about libraries (in theory, at least) is that they don’t pander to any one group’s preferences. They’re not marketplaces that conflate popularity with quality, but repositories and archives that treat all entries as worthy of respect. (Libraries are in fact run by fallible humans who do face economic realities, but can’t we live the dream for a few more minutes?)
Libraries are a hodge-podge—meticulously organized, but a hodge-podge nonetheless. That’s what I love about them, and that’s what I tried to capture in my Classics Club reading list. As I wrote in December, I wanted “kitchen-sink Naturalism and spiritual science fiction, epic and lyrical poetry, literary theory and analytic philosophy, Renaissance and modernist drama.” But I also wanted works from people of different backgrounds, from different languages and vastly different time periods. I’m not trying to disparage the list per se, which seems like a perfectly fine piece of descriptive analysis of library holdings. I’ve just been trying to figure out why I, of all people, found it all just a little bit boring.
Not too boring, though. Otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered futzing with Excel to write about it.
Last Christmas, my brother gave me a copy of Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), Andy Greenwald’s document of emo subculture right as it was reaching new heights of prominence in the mainstream. Nothing Feels Good has its share of problems (not least among them, it really could have used another round of copy editing), but on the whole I found it to be an engaging piece of popular music criticism. This comes despite the fact that I was familiar with almost none of the music that Greenwald discusses in the book.
It was fascinating, really: all this music is from the not-too-distant past, yet the only songs I recognized were Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” and the singles from Weezer’s first album. Why was so much of this book’s material foreign to me? Partly, it’s a simple matter of timing. In 2003, I was just entering middle school, which would have put me at the very youngest edge of the traditional emo fanbase. If hadn’t heard any songs by Dashboard Confessional or Thursday, it’s because I wasn’t in their target audience. It would still take a couple of years before I aged into that particular bracket, by which point a new crop of emo acts had come around and overtaken them.
At least, that theoretically might have happened. Truth is, when I was a teenager, I didn’t have any emo acts to call my own.
Okay, I know that sounds like bragging, given how the word “emo” is loaded with negative connotations, but that’s not what mean. Before we go any further, it’s probably wise to define our terms. Greenwald, rather than defining emo in terms of any essential musical components or any historical connections to the D.C. hardcore punk scene of the 1980s, takes a more functionalist, more audience-centered approach to the genre. What’s important is not what emo music is, but what it does. To quote at length from the introduction:
Emo isn’t a genre—it’s far too messy and contentious for that. What the term does signify is a particular relationship between a fan and a band. It’s the desire to turn a monologue into a dialogue, to be part of the art that affects you and to connect to it on every possible level—sentiments particularly relevant in an increasingly corporate, suburban, and diffuse culture such as ours. Emo is a specific sort of teenage longing, a romantic and ultimately self-centered need to understand the bigness of the world in relation to you. It takes its cues from the world-changing slap of community-oriented punk, the heart-swollen pomp of power ballads, and the gee-whiz nostalgia of guitar pop. Emo is as specific as adolescence and lasts about as long.
from “Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo,” pp. 4-5 (emphasis original)
What emo is supposed to do, in Greenwald’s telling, is to elicit certain emotions in the listener and to foster a connection between audience and artist. It’s a form of music that, moreso than other genres, is intensely personal and interpersonal. It’s why Greenwald spends less time analyzing the music itself and more time interviewing the teenagers who listen to it: that’s where the true nature of emo is to be found.
That functional approach to the genre seems fairly intuitive to me. It explains how Dashboard Confessional, originally the solo project of acoustic guitar–playing singer-songwriter Chris Carrabba, can be placed into what is ostensibly an offshoot of punk rock. The musicological features of their music don’t matter nearly as much as the fan communities surrounding them. Further, Greenwald’s approach allowed me to at least intellectually appreciate emo for what it is. Had he focused more on the music, had he encouraged the reader concentrate on aesthetics, well, based on the lyrics he quotes I’d have concluded that nothing of value had been forgotten fifteen years on.
One might object, however, to this functionalist approach to the genre. If emo is defined by what it does to the listener, by the personal connection that the listener has with the artist, then two people could disagree on whether a certain song or artist was “emo,” and there would be no objective criteria to determine who was correct. Greenwald, though, seems willing to bite the bullet on that. “In short,” he says after laying out the definition above, “everyone has their own emo” (p. 5). Now, I would concede that the term “emo” is too laden with associations at this point for Greenwald to expand the definition that radically, though of course I’m writing with the benefit of a decade-and-a-half of hindsight. Going forward, I shall substitute the phrase “angst music” to describe the sort of thing that Greenwald investigates in Nothing Feels Good. It’s not a perfect equivalent, I admit; “angst” is really a subset of the emotions that emo is supposed to elicit. But it’s good enough for rock ‘n’ roll.
Which brings me back to my initial point. I feel like I missed out on something when I was a teenager, because I didn’t have any good angst music.
II: “I Built a Time Machine”
When I was in high school, I was very disconnected from contemporary popular culture. I distinctly remember hearing some of my classmates in 11th grade health class talking about the Taylor Swift–Kanye West incident at the 2009 VMAs, and I had no clue what they were talking about. I don’t just mean that I didn’t know about the incident—I didn’t know who either of those people were. Nowadays, I’m still not all that knowledgeable about current popular tastes, but it’s not like I’ll respond to the name “Ariana Grande” with a confused squint.
It should come as no surprise, then, that most of the music I listened to back then came from the past. I picked up my love of Neil Young from my father, and I eventually started devouring Bob Dylan records, too. I loved both of those artists dearly, and would spend hours listening to their music, with something like the intensity that Greenwald sees in the teenagers he interviews in Nothing Feels Good. But there’s a key difference between my experience and theirs. They could relate to the music that they were listening to, and if I’m being honest, I could not.
On a surface level, Dylan and Young seem like good candidates for angst music—not for their whole discographies, perhaps, but for certain beloved and acclaimed albums. Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (1975) is a contender for the greatest break-up album of all time, and doesn’t heartache describe a good chunk of teenage angst music? Similarly, Young’s Tonight’s the Night (1975) is a naked and ramshackle outpouring of grief, which fits with the blunt and bombastic emotions that Greenwald emphasizes. And could appreciate all those emotions, but only on an abstract level. Dylan and Young sang about adult problems with adult complexities. Meanwhile, I was a sheltered, shut-in kid from the rural suburbs; I never had a decade-long marriage fall apart or lost multiple friends to drug overdoses. If I had quoted any of their lyrics on hypothetical message board posts, it would have looked like, and would have been, a pose.
(Okay, one exception: “I’ll find somewhere where they don’t care who I am,” from Young’s “Albuquerque”. That’s pretty easy for anyone to apply to themselves.)
Beyond my forays into classic rock, the other context in which I heard a lot of angst music was in sports video game soundtracks. My brother and I spent a lot of time playing ice hockey video games, like EA Sports’s NHL series and Midway’s NHL Hitz. Both series had a penchant for genres like pop-punk and nu-metal, classic angst music styles. And their selections were…not very good. The first thing I used to do after booting up NHL 06 was change the song playing on the menu screens, because the soundtrack always started off with Fall Out Boy’s “Our Lawyer Made Us Change the Name of This Song So We Wouldn’t Get Sued”. I just could not stand how smug, snotty, and self-satisfied Patrick Stump’s vocal delivery was, especially given Pete Wentz’s kinda-cute-but-not-actually-clever lyrics.
Not every song on those soundtracks was unbearable, though. I quite enjoyed Brand New’s “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows”, easily the best song on NHL 2004. The sweeps between quiet and loud on the track are pretty and even somewhat cathartic in a way I can’t quite figure out. Still, I could never manage to use it as angst music, largely because I couldn’t understand the lyrics. That’s both because they don’t enunciate clearly and because the situation is described with the exact wrong amount of concrete detail. It’s neither sketched-in enough to be a vivid scene nor vague enough to feel universal; it’s in the uncanny valley of description.
Best as I can figure, the closest thing I had to angst music as a teenager was, of all bands, Guster. I’ve talked about them before, when I analyzed the lyrics of their third album, Lost and Gone Forever (1999), but I didn’t get into the band until I heard the lead single to their fifth album, Ganging Up on the Sun (2006). That single, “One Man Wrecking Machine”, is a quintessential depiction of suburban teenage malaise. The speaker’s concerns are stereotypically high school: he wants to go to the Christmas dance with the homecoming queen (“Maybe now I’ll get in her pants”), “pass around a skinny joint” with his friends, and get out of his parents’ house already. These issues are small, but the title blows them up to an operatic scale: the speaker isn’t just angsty, he’s a one man wrecking machine. It’s a song that captures the visceral experience of being a teenager.
Except, not really. Angst music tends to be immediate: the problems it addresses are set in the here and now, and the emotions it elicits are felt in the here and now. To the extent that the genre allows for reflection on the past, it comes from the perspective of a teenager remembering childhood. The artist isn’t supposed to be reflecting back on being a teenager—that’s too distant a perspective for the assumed audience. But “One Man Wrecking Machine” is explicitly a retrospective song. The opening line, “I built a time machine,” places everything that happens in the speaker’s own distant past. He wants to “relive all [his] adolescent dreams,” which only makes sense if he’s moved well beyond them. I didn’t really notice that the first time I heard it, but after a while it became obvious: this is a song about having a midlife crisis.
It’s also not a song that is content to let the speaker indulge in his emotions. The last repetition of the chorus alters the lyrics slightly to highlight the futility of the song’s central gesture: “I tried to pull it apart and put it back together / No point in living in my adolescent dreams.” That’s a very earnest songwriting choice, but it’s earnest in a way that’s less reminiscent of punk rock than it is of country music. The guys in Guster are correct, of course, and perhaps those of us listening to angst music could use that little bit of perspective they throw in at the end. But if someone’s in the mood for angst music, I’m not sure that they want perspective; what they want is for their feelings to be validated. In that mindset, I couldn’t blame them if they took friendly advice as condescension.
At any rate, even if I wanted Guster to be my angst music, I would have found myself disappointed right quick. Sure, they had songs like “Demons” and “Happier” in their back catalog, but their next album, Easy Wonderful (2010), was as sugary as a pop-rock album can get. As it happens, Easy Wonderful was the album that really made me a fan, so that didn’t bother me none, but there’s a possible world where the sunshiny one-two punch of “Architects & Engineers” and “Do You Love Me?” broke my already-broken heart.
That more or less takes us up through my high school graduation, right past the peak listening years for angst music. It wouldn’t be until college that I discovered the band that filled a void in my past-self’s soul, a void that past-me didn’t even know existed. And that band was Frightened Rabbit.
III: “Not Deep Enough to Never Be Found”
It took me some time to come around to Frightened Rabbit. I first heard of the band in the comments section of The A.V. Club, under an article that mentioned former folk-rock superstars Mumford & Sons. The commenters at The A.V. Club hated Mumford & Sons, and often brought up Frightened Rabbit as the superior version of that sound. (I’m not sure why, actually; I don’t think the two bands sound anything alike.) I began to associate Frightened Rabbit with the self-impressed hipster set, and when I gave a listen to their then–most recent album, The Winter of Mixed Drinks (2010), I wasn’t too taken with it. Sure, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” was fun, but everything else just left me cold.
Maybe a year-and-a-half later, though, I was out on a late-afternoon walk around the campus of Carnegie Mellon, listening to WYEP, a local community radio station. The DJ introduced the next song as the latest single from Frightened Rabbit, entitled “State Hospital”. The track was hauntingly austere, with lonely guitar plucks overlapping with the percussion and Scott Hutchison’s vulnerable vocals taking center stage. He starts telling “the most threadbare tall story the country’s ever heard,” the story of a woman born into a life of poverty and abuse. Hearing the song for the first, I wanted to reject it as a piece of mawkish, manipulative sentimentality, as too many works on that subject are. But Hutchison’s lyrics proved too precise, too poetic to dismiss. By the time we got to the chorus, by the time the song went from sparse to anthemic, Hutchison sang that “[h]er heart beats like a breeze block thrown down the stairs,” and I was sold.
“State Hospital” is more empathetic than it is angsty—the third-person perspective doesn’t lend itself to the emotional release and connection that the first-person perspective does—but their next single, “The Woodpile,” is angst distilled and refined. The speaker of “The Woodpile” yearns for a human connection but his held back by crippling social anxiety. A man “bereft of all social charms” and “struck dumb by the hand of fear,” the speaker finds himself at a dance club and instinctively retreats from the action, “look[ing] for a fire door / An escape from the drums and barking,” and “fall[ing] into the corner’s arms.” Yet still he calls out for companionship, wishing that “you would brighten [his] corner / A lit torch to the woodpile.” That line, coupled with the blasting guitar in the instrumental bridge, elevates he speaker’s anxiety to heart-bursting levels. It’s perfect angst. And it was perfect angst for me: a song I could not only appreciate, but relate to.
“State Hospital” and “The Woodpile” set the stage for Frightened Rabbit’s fourth album, Pedestrian Verse (2013), which over the years has become one of my most listened-to albums. Each song is a jewel of self-doubt and self-loathing, sometimes backed with a spare, mournful arrangement, more often with electric rock energy. A great sense of worry pervades the album: the secrets in “Backyard Skulls” are “not deep enough to never be found,” the speaker in “Holy” is “too far gone for a telling,” and a title like “Dead Now” seems self-explanatory. Yet the tunes are always so alive and memorable. It’s like Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” played over 12 tracks, only I’m not embarrassed to sing along with the lyrics.
I loved Pedestrian Verse in the moment, of course, but even more I’m convinced that past-me would have worshiped it. The pain on Pedestrian Verse is almost entirely internal, the sort that comes from no apparent cause. Scott Hutchison doesn’t sound betrayed by an ex, and he certainly is not railing against overbearing parents. The speaker of a Frightened Rabbit song is miserable because he is miserable. That really was my sort of teenage angst, the feeling that I wanted validated. I would have especially loved “Holy”, though I probably would taken the religious metaphor more literally than I think it’s intended: “I can dip my head in the river, cleanse my soul / I’ll still have the stomach of sinner, face like an unholy ghost.”
Granted, there’s another reason I think Pedestrian Verse could have been my angst music had it come out earlier. There’s a certain amount of self-critique and irony to the album, an attitude that Greenwald would suggest is anathema to emo. That sort of music is supposed to be entirely, humiliatingly sincere. Pedestrian Verse, on the other hand, seems skeptical of itself. I mean, the album is called Pedestrian Verse, a self-deprecating assessment of the lyrical content. And the last two songs, “Nitrous Gas” and “The Oil Slick”, see Hutchison poke fun at his own histrionic tendencies. On the latter, he suggests that “only an idiot would swim through the shit [he] write[s]”: it’s so sad and self-serving, how can it appeal to anyone else? “Nitrous Gas” is even more extreme: he is “dying to be unhappy again,” “dying to bring you down with [him],” and more than willing to substitute happiness with the title chemical.
As an adult, I see those self-critical flashes as a necessary balance to some of the album’s more indulgent moments, like the phrase “knight in shitty armor” from the album opener “Acts of Man.” But as a teenager, those same flashes would have provided my ego with some plausible deniability. I wasn’t listening to angst music, I could have told myself, it’s a parody of angst music. That argument would not have held the slightest water, but whether it was true or not was irrelevant. Past-me would have needed that escape hatch to justify listening to something so straightforwardly emotional. I remember all those extended quotes from the teenagers Greenwald talks to in Nothing Feels Good, and while I may cringe at how what they say can get overblown and lose perspective, I still admire how open they are about it. I was incapable of such openness at their age.
So I’m totally down with angst music now, right? Well, not quite. There’s still one thing about it that troubles me.
IV: “A Particular Relationship”
If, like me, you watch a lot of video producers on “Left Tube” (or “Bread Tube” or whatever people are calling it now), you have probably come across the term “parasocial relationship,” which is the term for a one-sided relationship in which a person emotionally invests in someone who does not know that they exist. Think of how you might admire a particular television personality, or how you might root for a particular fictional character—those are classic examples of parasocial relationships.
I first heard the term “parasocial relationship” on an episode of the YouTube show NerdSync, which discussed the concept in the context of the comic book series Ms. Marvel. In the video, presenter Scott Niswander mentions how, although parasocial relationships “can be a relief from strained real-life relationships and act as a buffer against a loss of self esteem,” there’s always the risk that one will end up “project[ing] certain attributes onto the celebrity to fit their own wants and needs.” More recently, a YouTube series from Shannon Strucci, called Fake Friends, has been exploring the potential negative aspects of parasocial relationships, most notably in the second installment, “Parasocial Hell”.
Recall how Greenwald defines emo: “a particular relationship between a fan and a band,” “a desire to turn a monologue into a dialogue.” It’s a genre of music that invites parasocial relationships, to a greater extent than popular music naturally must. It invites devotion, however short-lived it tends to be in the genre. When we listen to angst music and conclude that the artist understands what we’re going through, it’s rather easy to make a leap as to what the word “understands” means in that sentence.
Frightened Rabbit means a lot to me, though I didn’t quite realize how much until Scott Hutchison’s death last May. I don’t wish to dwell on it for fear of exploiting it for personal use, so I’ll just say that I think I felt similar to how countless people felt after Chester Bennington’s death the year before that. I felt half-numb for few days afterwards, and wondered whether I needed to reevaluate my assumptions about Hutchison as a result.
Parasocial relationships set us up for disappointment, as the probability that an artist will wholly match our perceptions of them is close to zero. And that’s not even addressing the chance that an angst music artist proves to be terrible person. I mentioned Brand New earlier, and in the course of researching this piece I discovered that their lead singer, Jesse Lacey, has faced multiple allegations of grooming underage fans. Were I a fan of Brand New, had I formed a parasocial relationship with Lacey, would I be tempted to ignore or deny the allegations for the sake of preserving a particular mental construct—especially had that construct helped me through some difficult times? I can’t prove or disprove a counterfactual, but it’s not a comforting prospect.
In “Parasocial Hell,” Strucci criticizes the tendency for fans of celebrities to assert, without actual intimate knowledge, that so-and-so public figure is a “good person,” particularly after allegations of sexual misconduct. And if I have one reason to still find angst music distasteful, that might be it—no matter how much I may, in fact, derive from it.
Thank you for reading through this overly long post! I’ve had something like this kicking around in my mind for about as long as I’ve been keeping this blog, and the more I thought about it the more it started sprawling on me. I eventually realized that if I didn’t just write the damned thing already it would never get out of the conceptual stage. The result is what you’ve just read.
Anyhow, if you’re new to the blog, I’ve recently undertaken the Classics Club reading challenge, and I think my first write-up for it, on W. H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, is representative of how I like to approach culture. Hope you enjoy it!