Blog Post

In Which I Introduce Myself & My Orals Project, and Offer Some Thoughts (S. Alexie, J. Schumacher, Z. Smith)

My prep for my orals exams is in full swing. At the CUNY Grad Center's English program, where I'm in my second year, that means I craft three lists with three different faculty members and then spend several months reading from said lists before sitting in a room with said faculty members to talk ideas. I'm hoping to write here every so often to help formulate my inchoate thoughts about different texts from my three lists and both why they are interesting to me and how I see them interacting with each other. If you read, I'll really appreciate it. If you comment, I'll owe you some coffee or a Friendly Letter and definitely a lot of gratitude!

And hi. I'm Hilarie. When I'm not learning and writing about rhetorics of embodiment in popular culture and literature, I'm teaching yoga, doing a lot of kickboxing, and planning new tattoos. I also teach composition at Queens College, which is a joy and a wonderful learning experience. (I think I learn more from my students than they do from me.)

A bit of Breaking the Fourth Wall: Authenticity and Obliqueness in Cultural Texts and Pedagogies; and Writing with/of/in the Body. (I'll get them up here soon, with the caveat that they are still works in progress.) I recently described them to a friend this way: "i have three lists, one on embodiment in writing and pedagogy, one on liminality in lit and film, and one on remembering in lit and memoir." We'll see how my explanations evolve!

I'm starting with the Remembering list, mostly, and threading texts from the other two in as my attention shifts. This method feels natural and interesting, and I have enough time that I can skip around among lists. What I'm finding, in a nutshell, is that the three lists - and their very general themes of memory, liminality, and embodiment - fit together and challenge each other in fascinating ways, some that I foresaw and some that I didn't. The next few months are going to be fascinating!

I chose Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for my Remembering list in part because I want to think about the slippage between fiction and (biographical, even if fictional) fact, and Alexie (and his protagonist) coming from a marginalized group that much of his (young adult) audience might not be familiar with. (Interesting that the book has been banned.) What I came away with, though, is the realization that ATD is more than a slippage/fourth wall novel: it’s a grief memoir. Arnold/Junior, the protagonist, loses his sister in the final third of the book (to accidental death), but he also lost his best friend, Rowdy, much earlier on. The degree to which he misses Rowdy is a gentle pulse in a maelstrom of emotion and change as he leaves the rez school to attend a majority White one. (That decision is the reason Rowdy has renounced their friendship.) One source of Alexie’s narrative power is that he draws these losses out relatively subtly — and he recuperates one of them, with Rowdy’s return. He gives us, in Junior, a sensitively funny and observant narrator, whose drawings add to his observations — and often inject a bit of adult voice into the child’s story (snarkier, for one).

It's also interesting that Alexie never names the book, other than in the title, setting it up as a kind of journal kept by a fictional kid who has many similarities with young Sherman Alexie. He said the following about his own narrative process in a 2007 interview with the National Book Foundation:

"[Interviewer Rita Williams-Garcia]: Now that it's all said and done, what is the story decision that you are most proud of?
SA: I suppose I'm most proud of telling the story in first person. I worried that my highly autobiographical novel would be just thinly disguised memoir if I wrote in the first person. And I was equally worried about writing yet another first-person YA novel, featuring yet another highly sensitive protagonist. So, yes, I did write an early draft in the third person, but that narrative distance created an emotional distance as well. And I realized that I was afraid of the first person because I was afraid of my own history. I'm not a fearful person, onstage or in my books or anywhere else, so I was nearly debilitated by my fear. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to finish the book. But with much support from my family, my agent Nancy, and my editor Jennifer, I was able to proceed."

In partial contrast, Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members lives, with Zadie Smith's On Beauty, on the academic novel section of my Remembering list. It's an epistolary novel told through memos and letters of rec sent by one apparently long-suffering professor at a SLAC in the middle of nowhere. His narrative voice is not unlike Kinbote’s - he draws hyperbolic contrasts and makes small things seem huge — and yet, he’s also making strong cases for interference into the current underfunded, overworked state of humanities academia. (Are these moment where Schumacher’s voice peeks through?) He’s also unable to keep himself from the center of every other concern — each recommendation letter references something that went wrong between him and the person being addressed, making those concerns as important as the ones the letters are ostensibly about. The language is (petty) battle-scarred, the rhetoric is absurdly charged, and yet, real issues are in there, too. So in terms of remembering/reshaping landscapes, this novel takes minutiae and makes them both absurd and important. I wonder how the book would shift if the narrator were not an (I think?) white dude. And the self-absorption of the narrator has an effect on the reader — by the time we learn that the student that Fitger has been (somewhat selfishly) fighting for has died, his grief (there it is again!) rings somewhat hollow.

I have SO MANY thoughts about On Beauty: here are a few. The book has both clear and subtle ties to Virginia Woolf in the kind of description that Smith uses, and in the way that she shifts not quite so seamlessly from one character's mind to another, leaving her own narrative voice slightly out of focus but still visible. There are moments where someone other than the main characters appears to be speaking. Smith as a narrator is preternaturally able to inhabit multicultural voices, different classes, different nationalities, and different worldviews. Her powers of observation are Woolfian, but in a more conversational way. Is it fair to say that Zadie Smith is the late 21st-century Virginia Woolf? Smith, like Woolf, lets her characters have their own voice. (I've got some research to do on this connection. My very quick and dirty search in the literature comes up with only one really clear comparison, in Alberto Fernández Carbajal's "On being queer and postcolonial: Reading Zadie Smith’s NW through Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway."

There's also quite a bit of focus on bodies in On Beauty, which is interesting given Smith's particular and frequent use of passive voice, a British design where it isn't always clear that the narrator persona is actually British (or, rather, both British and American characters shift into narrative focus at different times). Female bodies are of paramount concern here: there's a theme of interest in the different, whether it's the white husband fetish is in the black wife's body or the older white man fantasizing the young black woman's body, or the older black man fetishizing a different young black woman's body. In Smith, bodies do things like externalize feelings: "the pomposity of the young man seemed to Howard to be concentrated in his jaw, which he worked round and round as they walked, as if ruminating on the failures of others " (35). Embodiment also comes up in the form of family history in a few different ways, one is that a father and his son sleep with the same woman and then there's also the matter of the family home, the Belseys' family home being passed down and referred to as inherited (54).

One ongoing question I have about this book is why it is an academic novel at all. As you go onto the novel it becomes more and more of fulcrum for action: one of the families children enrolled at the college for the father teaches and other people who are part of the family's orbit turn out to be part of the university community as well. I think possibly one reason for the point of making a novel academic novel, which is a question I'm considering on this list, is that it has some time-based drama built in. What I mean by that is that there's a rhythm to academic life that's almost a built-in structure for a novel and in this novel Smith uses it to rub up against the domestic trials and personal traumas and triumphs of her characters. There's also a built-in play between change and stasis that comes up with the changing of semesters and the constant reflection on what has happened before and what is going to happen in the future. There's a line on page 401 that expresses this neatly: "as long as Wellington stayed Wellington, he could risk all manner of change himself."

Smith also punctures a lot of the self-importance that a lot of students and professors tends to have in her estimation which is interesting given that she is herself and academic who has stayed who is chosen to stay firmly with in academia despite incredible mainstream success. She's not saying it's bad and she's not saying there isn't value in it, but she is pointing to some pretty trenchant class and cultural differences between the university community and the surrounding working-class, Bostonian community. In this way I could compare her to somebody like Jhumpa Lahiri, I think.

It also seems noteworthy that part of one of the novel subplots is the daughter, Zora, and her beginning veneration of an academic lifestyle, her desire to bring a certain kind of extra academic life into it via Carl, and her pretty clear disillusionment if not of the life of the mind then of some of the people who are purveyors of it like her father and his professional and personal nemesis, Monty Kipp. Interestingly, not very much of the book actually takes place with in the classroom or in office, with the exception of some forays into Howard's lectures and a couple of dean and faculty meetings and then the last scene of Howard apparently failing to get tenure. Much of what we get of academia in this novel is meta: if any are discussed by people who participate in it, but in places like the street and the bar and the house as opposed to the college itself.

Embodiment also comes up in an interesting way in any academic novel when there is so much division drawn between the intellectual and the physical. I did some work in Cathy Davidson's and Bill Kelly's class last semester on embodiment in the classroom and this division that is often made in practice for a lot of reasons but also I think to the detriment of student bodies and certain physical health. I'm thinking of the degree to which we sit without moving or the lack of kind of intervening movement to raise the classes energy. So this division in the novel, which is externalized into sort of town versus gown, really interests me. See page 418 where Carl in italics talks about intellectuals. For better or for worse, Kiki is a link between a couple of different worlds that are overlapping in this novel, but her body is a big part of it, too.

That's it for now. More soon!


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