ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945

Lecture 16

 - Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (cont.)


At the very beginning of the course, Professor Hungerford offered students the opportunity to pitch a novel of their choice to fill the final spot on the syllabus. Today six students rise to that challenge, presenting their arguments for why each book would complete the intellectual trajectory established thus far. While the Teaching Assistants tally the results of the class vote, Professor Hungerford provides some final thoughts about the theme of loss in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. The effacement of the body in this novel, and the beauty of absence and hunger, result in what Hungerford terms an “anorexic aesthetic” that raises problems for feminist interpretation.

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The American Novel Since 1945

ENGL 291 - Lecture 16 - Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (cont.)

Chapter 1. Novel Pitch Day [00:00:00]

Professor Amy Hungerford: Today is Novel Pitch Day. Does everyone have a ballot? If you don’t have a ballot, there are some down here. We have a wonderful list of six novels, all brought to you by students from this class. I’ll tell you, my dream is that one day someone will pitch their own novel. That’s my dream, and yeah, this could happen. Yes. Okay. Are you ready? Ballot? Here you go. So, without further ado, is everybody ready? Now, each of these students has been given five minutes only to make their presentation, and at the end of it you will rank your top three choices, 1 for your first choice, 2 for your second choice, 3. The TFs will take your ballots. They will leave the room. I will begin to lecture on Housekeeping, and when they’ve added it all up, which should go pretty fast because there are nine of them and they’re very good at adding. You have to know that to get in to the Ph.D. programs here. There is a little arithmetic test. They will add it all up, and then I will announce at the end of the class which book it will be. So, without further ado, Emma Barash will come and talk to us.

Chapter 2. Emma’s Pitch: “Giovanni’s Room” [00:02:03]

Emma: Well, thank you, Professor Hungerford. I’m Emma Barash, and I am pitching Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. So, what is Baldwin like? Well, Baldwin is one of the great twentieth-century American authors, and he has some really unique insights into human interaction and a shrewd sensitivity into the internal lives of his characters. His background kind of shines through his prose. He is the son of a preacher, so his words have this really strong, sort of, grandness to them, and there’s a really, really unique resonance to everything he writes. Anyway, so Baldwin, in my opinion, isn’t read as often as he should in academic settings, so I chose this book because I wanted to use this opportunity to read Baldwin at Yale. And a nifty little fact about Giovanni’s Room: It’s about 150 pages. Yeah. And, it’s eminently readable, so that’s a big plus at the end of the semester.

But also, I didn’t just choose Giovanni’s Room because it’s short. I chose it because it fits seamlessly with our syllabus. So, what’s Giovanni’s Room about? Well, Giovanni’s Room is the story of David, a twenty-something man who flees America to Paris in hopes of finding himself. While in Paris David finds a fiancé, Hella, and, in her absence, another lover, Giovanni, a man. So, the novel spirals around David’s reverie on one particular evening, the evening of Giovanni’s execution. I don’t want to ruin any more of the book, so I’ll let you wonder what offense Giovanni has committed. Now, Giovanni’s Room fits with the notion of the Identity Plot which Professor Hungerford was discussing a lot last week, but here the identity problem is founded in sexuality, a fascinating issue which the literature we’ve studied so far has yet to explore. So, Giovanni’s Room complicates the Identity Plot further, but Giovanni’s Room also explores national identity. It is an American novel of expatriotism, an American in Paris. So without further ado I want to read a passage in which David realizes his alienation from America and from American-ness. So, here he is walking into the American post office in Paris to pick up his mail:

Yet walking into the American Express office one harshly gray midsummer afternoon, I was forced to admit that this active, so disquietingly cheerful horde struck the eye at once as a unit. At home I could have distinguished patterns, habits, accents of speech with no effort whatever. Now, everybody sounded, unless I listened hard, as though they had just arrived from Nebraska. At home I could have seen the clothes they were wearing, but here I only saw bags, cameras, belts and hats–all clearly from the same department store. At home I would have had some sense of the individual womanhood of the women I faced. Here, the most ferociously accomplished seemed to be involved in some ice-cold or sun-dried travesty of sex, and even grandmothers seemed to have had no traffic with the flesh. And what distinguished the men was that they seemed incapable of age. They smelled of soap, which seemed, indeed, to be their preservative against the dangers and exigencies of any more intimate odor. The boy he had been shone somehow unsoiled, untouched, unchanged through the eyes of the man of sixty, booking passage with his smiling wife to Rome. His wife might have been his mother forcing more oatmeal down his throat, and Rome might have been the movie she had promised to allow him to see. Yet, I also suspected that what I was seeing was but a part of the truth, and perhaps not even the most important part. Beneath these faces, these clothes, accents, rudenesses was power and sorrow, both unadmitted, unrealized, the power of inventors, the sorrow of the disconnected.

Okay. All right. Here you see that miserable sense of separation, that confusion, that hopelessness that Baldwin crafts, that loss of identity, and perhaps you can begin to see the beauty and the might of his language which molds such a powerful story of love, of loss, and–most importantly–of self. Okay. Thank you.

Chapter 3. Kelsey’s Pitch: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” [00:06:44]

Professor Amy Hungerford: All right. Kelsey, where are you? There you are.

Kelsey: Hello. I’m Kelsey, and the book that I’m pitching is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. It is about a certain insane asylum, and the narrator is a six-foot-seven schizophrenic deaf mute Indian chief named Chief Bromden, whose life is turned upside down by a brutal and hedonistic man named Randall McMurphy. And Ken Kesey, who I need to talk about a little bit, was sort of a rock star. He was to the hippie generation what Jack Kerouac was to the Beat generation. He was an era’s most outspoken proponent of LSD. He and his Merry Pranksters went on the road in their Magic Bus touting it across the nation. One road trip that he took in 1964 with Neal Cassady, the same Neal Cassady who Dean Moriarty was crafted after, was written down in a book by Tom Wolfe called The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip [correction: Acid Test] so he has that, sort of, in common with Jack Kerouac. And I’d like to play a little clip that I have from a BBC interview with Kesey about LSD’s effects on his writing. Oh, just some background information: While he was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he was working in a mental institution.

[video clip playing]

Kelsey: Okay. So, the door that Kesey opens in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest reveals the inner workings of an insane asylum. This, of course, draws attention to the one most obvious, and also most complicating theme of the book, that of madness. We’ve touched on the theme of madness before with Lolita and with Franny and Zooey, but I don’t think we have addressed it as explicitly as we would with this book. The book is set in an insane asylum. There is no way to avoid insanity. At first glance that might seem like a very straightforward assertion. However, the very sense of omnipresent madness in the book is one that, I think, ropes this book very neatly into the argument of Professor Hungerford’s syllabus. I think it’s an intensification of most of the themes we’ve studied so far, for example the Identity Plot. I think it’s a very unique manifestation of the Identity Plot, because the people in the insane asylum are perhaps one of the most isolated groups that you could possibly be a part of. They’re isolated by their own neuroses, the tyranny of the nurses and a barricade of concrete, plexiglass and barbed wire. I think if you imagine any attempt to find yourself within the confines of a sanitorium, you can sort of see how interesting a story would be crafted on that.

Another theme that we have talked about is the relationship between language and experience. We talked about that with John Barth, and I think that’s a really important question to focus on, when you’re reading a book like this, because you have to think to yourself as you’re reading: how does an author accurately capture the experience of insanity, and, more importantly, how can we as readers trust a narrator that’s self-diagnosed as insane? And, in that same vein: what is truth, and how does one portray truth? I’d like to read a passage from the book. This is at the very beginning, when we’re first introduced to the Chief, and he decides that he is going to begin telling about all this:

…about the hospital, and her, and the guys, and about McMurphy. I’ve been silent so long, now it’s going to roar out of me like flood waters, and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving. My God, you think this is too horrible to have really happened. This is too awful to be the truth, but, please, it’s so hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it, but it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.

So, I think you can see the confusion that can arise from having an insane narrator. One of the most enticing aspects of this book is that it is funny. There are extremely hilarious aspects of this book. I don’t know if any of you have seen the movie, or at least that famous clip of Jack Nicholson laughing like a maniac. The movie, in general, doesn’t do the book justice at all, whatsoever, of course. But I think that one moment is quintessentially Ken Kesey, and he uses humor as his most powerful tool in conveying his deep and serious messages in this book.

One thing that I want to point out is, there is this really fascinating thing that happens over the course of this book, and it’s this. There is an X that frames the plot. And that X: one arm is the Chief’s ascension from insanity, and the other arm is McMurphy’s descension into insanity. And I think, if we choose this book, one of the most challenging aspects of our analysis of it will be to find where the two slopes of those intersect. Just to wrap up, I think that this book is absolutely phenomenal, and it’s completely engrossing. My own introduction to it was completely random. It was one of the books that my roommate happened to throw into her suitcase before she came to Yale, and I read it at the beginning of the year. I took it with me to my grandparents’ over a weekend, and I didn’t sleep the entire weekend ‘cause I was reading it. And I think, if you choose this book, each and every one of you will be equally as enthralled. So, I hope you pick it.

Chapter 4. Miranda’s Pitch: “Play It As It Lays” [00:12:25]

Professor Amy Hungerford: Miranda.

Miranda: Hi. I’m pitching Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. Joan Didion is, in my mind, one of the greatest intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century. She is perhaps best known for her journalism, particularly her collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which I believe came out in 1968, in which she coolly confronts and sensibly analyzes the confusing cultural climate of the late 1960s. What I think is most remarkable about her reporting is the lack of naiveté with which this literally tiny woman– I don’t know if you any of you seen a picture of her. She’s just remarkably small. So, she is clear-eyed, but not unsympathetic, innocent but detached, and above all candid in her assessment of her country and her time. The voice that she develops in Slouching Towards Bethlehem serves her very well in Play It As It Lays. She’s able here, too, to draw the same sort of precise portraits that she relied upon in her nonfiction, that results in a novel that is positively, undeniably seductive.

The plot revolves around a sort of marginal actress, Maria Wyeth, who is divorced from her director husband and who drifts aimlessly through the Hollywood party scene of the late 1960s waiting for something to touch her, impact her emotionally and morally. She’s both damaged and, as a result, utterly unreachable. Tragedies–and there are many, major and minor, that sort of blithely by–slip off her or appear to. It is a novel very much about a woman who accepts everything, feels nothing, and finally resigns herself to the inevitable. The inevitable is, in many cases, trivial fates dealt out at cocktail parties. It is told in several voices, Maria’s and three of her closest friends, and each character is haunted by an ineffable loss of meaning and consequences that they either ignore or are ignorant of, willfully or otherwise.

In many ways these characters’ lives are coming or drifting apart, and their lack of awareness of this fact becomes, through Didion’s prose, our own, so that the shock of the final scenes is both powerful and hopelessly hollow. And I don’t mean that in the negative sense. I mean that we feel that consequences perhaps are unimportant, that there is something larger at work. So, Play It As It Lays, I think, fits very nicely into the syllabus because it provides a beautiful contrast to The Crying of Lot 49 in that it depicts the disintegration of southern California, and specifically L.A., in a much less manic, but no less troubling way. Didion’s language, in its flat, plain tone, mimics the flat, plain Los Angeles of her narrative, as Pynchon’s convoluted, elusive language does his perplexing and intricate portrait of the city. Also, as with Housekeeping, the loss of self is imagined as a dispersal, though Didion’s dispersal is a cold, defensive and ultimately empty one.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem begins with a quote from Yeats that includes the phrase “The center will not hold.” This has become very emblematic of that era. Maria, who in the first few pages declares that nothing applies to her, is perhaps one of the most poignant examples of the personal consequences of the loosening, the loss of cultural restrictions in the 1960s, a time when, in fact, none of the old rules applied to her or anyone else. Didion proposes that the consequences of this freedom might be more than any single individual can cope with, that in fact if nothing applies, the individual center, no lesson societies cannot hold. It is an account of the ’60s that appears perhaps elsewhere, but was, I think, defined by Didion in this novel, and I want to read a very brief passage from the beginning. Here we go.

I am what I am. To look for reasons is beside the point. But because the pursuit of reasons is their business here–[she is, I believe, at this point institutionalized] they ask me questions: “Maria, yes or no: I see a clock in this inkblot. Maria, yes or no?” A large number of people are guilty of bad sexual conduct. I believe my sins are unpardonable. I have been disappointed in love. How could I answer? How could it apply? “Nothing applies,” I print with a magnetized IBM pencil. “What does apply?” they ask later, as if the word “nothing” were ambiguous, open to interpretation, a questionable fragment of an Icelandic rune. “There are only certain facts,” I say, trying again to be an agreeable player of the game, “certain facts, certain things that happened.” They will misread the facts, invent connections, will extrapolate reasons where none exist, but, I told you, that is their business here.

And I think it would be wonderful to end the semester with a strong female voice that is darkly amusing, courageous and, especially, cold. And I don’t mean cold in the negative sense; just that she approaches things in a sort of detached way that allows you to observe these characters, but not attach yourselves to them in a way that promotes a sort of self-identification that makes it difficult for you to judge their actions. It’s also fairly short, just over 200 pages: a fast, captivating read. This is a sort of stupid analogy, but I imagine it’s sort of like getting on a highway in L.A. (not during rush hour) but heading to where you’re going, maybe east towards the hills, and you get to your exit, sort of, before you realize it. So that’s my pitch. Thank you.

Chapter 5. Will’s Pitch: “Jesus’ Son” [00:18:06]

Will: Hi. My name is Will. I’m pitching Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. I’m actually going to start without introducing it at all. I’m just going to play a clip from the movie that was made of the book. I’m not even going to talk about it.

‘Denis isn’t feeling too good today.’ ‘Is Denis in here?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, maybe I’ll come back later.’ ‘Don’t worry. I just shot him.’ ‘You mean you killed him?’ ‘I didn’t mean to.’ ‘Is he really dead?’ ‘No. He’s sitting down now in the front room.’ ‘I don’t know who shot him.’ ‘Well, you shot somebody.’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Okay. Have you taken him to the hospital or anything?’ ‘He started to.’ ‘How are you doing?’ ‘I can feel it right here. It’s just stuck in the muscle.’ ‘Oh. Oh.’ ‘It misfired.’ ‘You misfired it a little bit.’ ‘Yeah. Well, how about if I take him to the hospital?’ ‘Do you promise not to tell them anything?’ [inaudible] ‘Tell them it was an accident. Okay? Promise?’ ‘What did he say?’ ‘Well, what do you mean what did I say? What–He’s mad at me because I know all about this stuff?’ ‘He’s dead.’ ‘All right. I know he’s dead.’ ‘Throw him out of the car?’ ‘Damn right. Throw him out of the car.’ ‘I’m glad he’s dead. He’s the one who started everybody calling me Fuckhead.’ ‘Wow. What a lousy birthday.’ ‘I don’t know. Maybe he thought I might say something. Will you believe me when I tell you that there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.’

Will: That was a clip from the movie version of Jesus’ Son, and this is the book. It’s by Denis Johnson, who has been in the news a lot lately because he wrote Tree of Smoke, which won the National Book Award in 2007. And this book is, kind of, the book that established him as a serious, great author, and I think it’s wonderful. It’s a collection of stories, and they’re all kind of about the same character, one of the characters you saw in there, and kind of the same group of characters runs through all the different stories. And so, it’s kind of novelistic in that way, kind of like Lost in the Funhouse, the book we read. I guess, as you might or might not have been able to tell from the clip, the book kind of deals with drug addiction, and the main character is addicted to heroin. But I really think the book kind of transcends the drug genre. I’m not a huge fan of drug books, myself, but I think this book is really beautiful and powerful and devastating and really hilarious, really funny at times.

What else? It’s short (like everyone else has been saying), but this book really is short. It’s only 160 pages, and there really aren’t very many words on each page, ‘cause it’s quite small, as you can see. And really, I find this book– I don’t know how much I want to describe it, but it takes place mostly in Iowa and kind of just travels around, kind of daily things. In one of the stories the main character and his friend decide to rip scrap metal from a house and sell it to make a little money so they can get drunk that night, and just different kind of adventures that they go on. And then the book kind of ends as he makes this kind of pilgrimage to Arizona. It’s really beautiful. I guess I’ll just read you a quick passage, if that’s all right.

We bumped softly down a hill toward an open field that seemed to be a military graveyard filled with rows and rows of austere identical markers over soldiers’ graves. I’d never before come across this cemetery. On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there had been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear. Georgie opened his arms and cried out, “It’s the drive-in, man, the drive-in!” I wasn’t sure what these words meant. “They’re showing movies in a fucking blizzard,” Georgie screamed. “I see. I thought it was something else,” I said. We walked carefully down there and climbed through the busted fence and stood in the very back. The speakers which I had mistaken for grave markers muttered in unison. Then there was tinkly music of which I could very nearly make out the tune. Famous movie stars rode bicycles beside a river, laughing out of their gigantic, lovely mouths. If anybody had ever come to see the show, they’d have left when the weather started. Not one car remained, not even a broken-down one from last week, or one left here because it was out of gas. In a couple of minutes, in the middle of a whirling square dance, the screen turned black, the cinematic summer ended, the snow went dark, there was nothing but my breath.

So, I guess that gives you enough of an idea of it. I think it’s great and I think you should vote for it. It’s a quick read. It’s really riveting and enthralling and I find it really an incredible book. So, Jesus’ Son.

Chapter 6. Eli’s Pitch: “Everything is Illuminated” [00:22:31]

Eli: Hi. I’m Eli. The book I wanted to pitch was Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. And the main reason I wanted to pitch it, of course, was: Professor Hungerford said that she’s waiting for one of us to pitch their own book, and–contrary to conventional wisdom–this is actually my own book, just so you know. But, setting aside authorship issues–the thing is, you just had to introduce the seed of doubt, and then the rumors percolate, so this is good–I love books that have outrageous characters. Actually, hearing some of these pitches, I was like, “oh, maybe I should vote for some of the other books.” But I won’t tell you that. But, this book does have outrageous characters, which is really cool. And also, I just thought, the pitch, I would just kind of describe some of the characters, and you’d be like, “those characters are indeed outrageous,” or go, “I will vote for this book.”

So, the book kind of takes place in two different worlds. One is the world of Trachimbrod, which is a small shtetl in the eighteenth century, and also Jonathan Safran Foer’s ancestral home. And the other world is kind of modern day Ukraine and it features Jonathan Safran Foer on a quest. As, I don’t know if you Jews out there, I’m sure, at some point, have done this, as I have, been drawn to Slovakia or Ukraine to find the ancestral home, and that’s what Jonathan Safran Foer is doing in this book. So, in the, kind of, modern-day world, there are a number of really cool characters. The main one is the hero, Jonathan Safran Foer, who is also referred to as the “spoiled Jew” and the “ingenious Jew.” The other character is his humble translator, Alexander Perchov, who learned English exclusively through the use of a thesaurus (which produces some outrageous results) and who works for the family business, Heritage Touring. His description of it is:

It’s for Jewish people like the hero who have cravings to leave the ennobled country America and visit humble towns in Poland and Ukraine. I will be truthful again and mention that before this voyage I had the opinion that Jewish people were having shit between their brains. That is because all I knew of Jewish people was that they paid father very much currency in order to make vacations from America to Ukraine.

Food for thought. And then there’s also Alex’s dog, Sammy Davis Junior, Jr., which is Heritage Touring’s “officious seeing-eye bitch.” So, that’s one world. And in the other world, the world of the shtetl, we have a Well-Regarded Rabbi who speaks exclusively in capitals. We have Brod, a brilliant girl who emerges magically from a river and is adopted by the disgraced usurer, Yankel D. We have two synagogues, the Congregation of the Slouchers and the Congregation of the Upright. We have villagers, including the deceased philosopher, Pinchas T, who in his only notable paper, “To the Dust: From Man You Came and to Man You Shall Return,” argues that it would be possible, in theory, for life and art to be reversed. We have the good gefilte-fish monger, Bitzl Bitzl R. We have the mad squire and village rapist, Sofiowka N. We have Harry V, the shtetl’s master logician and resident pervert, who had been working for many years on his magnum opus, “The Host of Hoists,” which, he promised, contained the tightest of tight logical proofs that God indiscriminately loves the indiscriminate lover. So, I don’t know how many of us that will pardon, in here…

So, besides these outrageous characters, I do think this book fits well with the themes of the course. It deals with identity, language and experience, and problems of narration and remembrance. As the New York Times Book Review (I guess you could say) lauded the book, “Not since A Clockwork Orange has the English language been simultaneously mauled and energized with such brilliance and such brio.” So, going with that, I thought I’d read, as people have been inclined to do, a passage from the book. I’m going to take a little risk here. I’ve been reading the book with a Russian accent in my head, so I figured I would just go with that here. I figured that would have the added benefit of: If you don’t vote for this book, then I’ll just be the kid who made a fool of himself and read with a Russian accent in front of everybody. So, I know you don’t want to do that to me. Yeah. Okay, I think. All right. So here we go. This is Alex kind of introducing himself at the beginning of the book:

“I dig Negroes, particularly Michael Jackson. I dig to disseminate very much currency at famous nightclubs in Odessa. Lamborghini Countaches are excellent so are cappuccinos. Many girls want to be carnal with me in many good arrangements, notwithstanding the Inebriated Kangaroo, the Gorky Tickle and the Unyielding Zookeeper. If you want to know why so many girls want to be with me, it is because I am very premium person to be with. I am homely and also severely funny and these are winning things. But nonetheless I know many people who dig rapid cars and famous discotheques. There are so many here who perform the Sputnik Bosom Dalliance–which is always terminated with a slimy underface–that I cannot tally them on all of my hands. There are even many people named Alex. (Three in my house alone!) That is why I was so effervescent to go to Lutsk and translate for Jonathan Safran Foer. It would be unordinary.

So that’s said, and a fool proudly made. That’s it. Thank you.

Chapter 7. Roger’s Pitch: “What is the What” [00:28:03]

Roger: Well, it’s really unfortunate to have to go after that, but hi. My name’s Roger. I’m presenting for Amina’s section, and we’re doing Dave Eggers’ What is the What (and you can’t see the “What” because it’s 20% off; plug, plug). And, I guess, rather than try to sum up the book myself, I’ll use not the author’s but the person about whom the book is written’s own words:

What is the What is the soulful account of my life, from the time I was separated from my family in Marial Bai –[if I mispronounced that I’m so sorry]– to the thirteen years I spent in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps, to my encounter with vibrant Western cultures beginning in Atlanta, to the generosity and challenges that I encountered elsewhere.

So, just to add a little bit to that, What is the What is a story of a Sudanese refugee in the United States. And in the course of telling it, he reads an account from his life back in Africa, to stories here in the United States, and everything in between. As for reasons why you should want to vote for it or read it, I think the first thing which many of us in the section realize about the book is just that it’s really engaging. It’s written in a way that’s, I would say, kind of refreshing compared to some of the other more–how to put it?–complex authors that we’ve read, in that it’s just really accessible and really just an easy read that’s deeply human. You feel like you’re having a conversation with the guy, and (even though the guy is actually having a conversation with Dave Eggers, so maybe that’s why you get that impression, but at any rate) it’s also a book which manages to address really, really serious current issues such as civil war, genocide, alienation in American society, but do so in a way that’s simultaneously really poignant and inspiring, but also, actually, funny. It’s not a book that you’re going to read and be depressed by, even though you will come from it having really felt that you’re dealing with really significant material, which I thought is really cool, and we thought was really cool.

It’s also–just going on to the whole contemporary thing– it’s written by one of the best contemporary authors out there. He was nominated for a Pulitzer; he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, I think, last year, 2007. (I’m not sure, and if I got that wrong and someone here is a big Eggers fan, I’m terribly sorry.) But yeah; he’s great. And, in a course where we’re doing from 1945 to the present, I think it’s good to have a really strong, really contemporary author represented. So, that’s another cool thing. Another thing which I think would be really cool about reading this book is that - it’s not your standard academic book at all. You’re not going to find this book on any syllabus, but it still really merits being read in that sort of a context because of the depth of the material that’s being covered, because of the way it’s written. Really, there are some beautiful descriptions with beautiful language. And, well, for any other reason that you’d want to read a book in a class, it can serve that function, and yet you’d probably more like to hear about it in a coffee shop or in a restaurant. So, I think that’s a pretty cool opportunity which this would give us.

As far as tying in to the course matters, this book is a great, great study, and, I would think, an unprecedented study, as far as the Identity Plot goes, for our class, because as a black African the protagonist is identified not by his ethnicity in the United States, but by his race. And, as is shown in a really very interesting, I guess, scene, at the very beginning of the book, where he’s being robbed by a black man who says to him, “Oh, well, we’re brothers because you’re African” and at the same time derides, only refers to him as African and actually mislabels him as Nigerian when he’s Sudanese. So, it really offers some really interesting perspective into issues of race, issues of ethnicity, and just a totally new look at American society from, yeah, a perspective that we’re not really used to. I guess, yeah, that basically covers that.

As far as some other, maybe a little bit sillier things, this is a great date book for those of you who either are dating or are looking to be dating. It’s a book that people are reading all of the time, and, even if they aren’t reading, then you can really wow them with just your knowledge of contemporary literature, and to say nothing of your concern for the people who are struggling in America and abroad. So, really, that’s a big plug. And it’s also won a bunch of awards. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, which I think is good, and the guy from Barnes & Noble would not let me leave the counter because he liked it so much, and he is a good judge.

So, those are some really good plugs but as far as a weakness, you might notice it’s a little bit bigger than some of the other books that we’ve read, but I promise you that that’s okay. You fly through the pages, and just to give you a sense of why you do that, I’ll read to you a section from the book. It’s actually the last paragraph of the book, but it’s not like one of those spoilers, like “And then your mother died.” No. It actually, really, I think, is very fitting to read, now, because it’s kind of his plug for why you should read his book, or at least it’s a description of why he tells this story. So here we go.

Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories. I have spoken to every person I have encountered these last difficult days, and every person who has entered this club during these awful morning hours, because to do anything else would be something less than human. I speak to these people, and I speak to you, because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other. I am alive, and you are alive, so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell these stories to people who will listen and to people who don’t want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.


Professor Amy Hungerford: Okay. Vote. If this were really a high-tech classroom, we’d have a little console for you, and you’d be voting online, but we don’t. Okay. Okay. Anyone need a ballot? Okay. Rank them 1, 2, 3. TAs get to vote, too. Yes, you do. And when you’re finished, pass them to the aisles. Can I borrow your pencil? I am voting too. Okay. Everybody voted? Okay, TFs. Everybody done? Pass them over. Okay. We will see them in a moment. Well, let me say it’s a tough act to follow you guys so congratulations to all the people who pitched books, although I have to say I am a little hurt at the implied criticism. Long? Long? Hard? Boring? I don’t recognize my own syllabus. Maybe the long, but not the hard and the boring. So, we will see what that next book will be.

Chapter 8. Back to Housekeeping: The Logic of Absence [00:36:30]

Now, I have exactly five minutes, so what I think I want to do is just say something very quick about loss in this book. I put this quote up on the board: “Need can blossom into all the compensation it requires.” That little blurb, I think, encapsulates this novel’s meditation on loss. I asked you last time to think about where Ruth’s voice comes from, what situation we can imagine, and there are a bunch of different theories that critics have put forward about where Ruth is and from where we hear her voice coming. One is that she’s dead and she’s speaking to us from the afterlife, that she really, somehow, did die in the lake that day, that she fell off the bridge, or somehow the bridge is a metaphor for her passage into death. Or that this is an adult Ruth, living who knows where, or just as a transient, who has written this account, or who speaks to us, somehow. I think that quotation from Marilynne Robinson that I gave you at the end of last lecture, about how she aims to speak in the voice of the consciousness of the person–not necessarily the words that they would use if they were to write their own account–suggests that what she is getting at doesn’t require that kind of historical explanation to account for it, that she doesn’t want us to have to think of Ruth speaking from a particular place, which is also a way to say that Ruth is gone; somehow Ruth is absent from us. And this relates to my point last time about how identity is imagined as voice. Ruth, the historical Ruth, the character Ruth, a Ruth that we could situate in any concrete position in the world, has vanished from the frame of this novel. What we’re left with is her voice.

The logic here is that vanishing makes the voice totally present; that full human presence is in the voice, somehow inherent. That’s why there are all of these meditations on what would happen if various people either did disappear or didn’t disappear. So, when Ruth meditates on what it would be like for her to leave Sylvie, she says, “I did not want to grow gigantic and multiple to Sylvie.” Her sense is that, by leaving Sylvie, her absence would become enormous, and she herself, in a kind of negative presence, would become larger than she is, and this is how Ruth feels about her own mother’s disappearance, that when her mother disappeared, what she got in return was the compensation of memory: sharp, specific, evocative, mysterious, ever-present memory. And the visual metaphor for this kind of memory is, of course, the lake. The lake is imagined to contain whole and undecayed all the objects of the past that have been lost in it. So memory is imagined in the same terms, so that you could always bring them up to the surface and there they would be, whole.

So, the resurrection imagined, if you run the film backward of the train slipping in to the lake–I read that passage last time–the kind of resurrection imagined, is the way memory works. But more specifically it’s the way the language of memory works. And I want to read my own favorite passage. This is at the very end of the novel, and I want you to think, as I read it, about the difference between this passage and the one I read from Bluest Eye about Pecola, that passage of negativity about her being a kind of blank or a negative, against which all other virtues could be present in the world. So, think about that as I read this, the bottom of 217:

Since we are dead, the house would be hers now [hers, Lucille]. Perhaps she is in the kitchen snuggling pretty daughters in her lap. And perhaps now and then they look at the black window to find out what their mother seems to see there, and they see their own faces and a face so like their mother’s, so rapt and full of tender watching, that only Lucille could think the face was mine. If Lucille is there, Sylvie and I have stood outside her window a thousand times and we have thrown the side door open when she was upstairs changing beds and we have brought in leaves and flung the curtains and tipped the bud vase and somehow left the house again before she could run downstairs, leaving behind us a strong smell of lake water. She would sigh and think, “they never change.” Or imagine Lucille in Boston, at a table in a restaurant waiting for a friend. She is tastefully dressed, wearing, say, a tweed suit with an amber scarf at the throat, to draw attention to the red in her darkening hair. Her water glass has left two thirds of a ring on the table and she works at completing the circle with her thumbnail. Sylvie and I do not flounce in through the door, smoothing the skirts of our oversized coats and combing our hair back with our fingers. We do not sit down at the table next to hers and empty our pockets in a small, damp heap in the middle of the table and sort out the gum wrappers and ticket stubs and add up the coins and dollar bills and laugh and add them again. My mother, likewise, is not there, and my grandmother in her house slippers with her pigtail wagging, and my grandfather with his hair combed flat against his brow does not examine the menu with studious interest. We are nowhere in Boston. However Lucille may look, she will never find us there, or any trace or sign. We pause nowhere in Boston, even to admire a store window and the perimeters of our wandering are nowhere. No one watching this woman smear her initials in the steam on her water glass with her first finger, or slip cellophane packets of oyster crackers into her handbag for the seagulls could know how her thoughts are thronged by our absence, or know how she does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope, and always for me and Sylvie.

So, you see in that incredibly lyrical evocation of absence how the very absence calls forth this lyric voice. The structure is exactly the same as the one that Morrison uses to describe what Pecola is to Claudia and Frieda and the rest of their community. It’s a way in which absence calls forth the living essence of other people, but here what’s called forth is a sort of living essence of imagination, a living essence of voice, so that Sylvie and Ruth’s absence for Lucille becomes the very presence that they have to her. There is a passage earlier in the novel where she describes the condition of the body that matches up with this understanding of absence. She’s outside in the orchard–this is on 203–imagining the story of a young girl in a lighted house that she sees. Let’s see. It would be that kind of story, a very melancholy story.

Her hair, which was as black as the sky, and so long that it swept after her, a wind in the grass, her fingers, which were sky black and so fine and slender that they were only cold touch like drops of rain, her step, which was so silent that people were surprised when they even thought they heard it, she would be transformed by the growth of light into a mortal child. And, when she stood at the bright window, she would find that the world was gone, the orchard was gone, her mother and grandmother and aunts were gone. Like Noah’s wife on the tenth or fifteenth night of rain, she would stand in the window and realize that the world was really lost. And those outside would scarcely know her, so sadly was she changed. Before she had been fleshed in air, and clothed in nakedness, and mantled in cold, and her very bones were only slender things like shards of ice. She had haunted the orchard out of preference, but she could walk into the lake without ripple or displacement, and sail up the air invisibly as heat. And now, lost to her kind, she would almost forget them, and she would feed coarse food to her coarse flesh and be almost satisfied.

And then Ruth meditates on her transformation in that time in the orchard.

If I had stayed there, I might have discovered other things. For example, I was hungry enough to begin to learn that hunger has its pleasures, and I was happily at ease in the dark. And, in general, I could feel that I was breaking the tethers of need, one by one.

I would call this an anorexic aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic of starving the self into invisibility so that the voice can become present. So in this scene, when she imagines the girl inside the house eating, all that’s outside the house is lost. All she can see when she looks out her window is her own reflection. But outside the house, she is starved in to a kind of ethereal, full presence. So the logic of absence–to bring it back around to this question of identity and the identity of the voice–the logic of absence starves away the person so that this fullness can appear. And I think this is the dark side of a novel that so many people initially read as a feminist novel, a novel celebrating the strength and the independence of women. It turns to an aesthetic that has a kind of purchase in our culture; that sense of anorexia blends into the spiritual fullness of imagining memory as this beautiful, lyrical presence. I think this is the complexity of this novel; this is the tension. It’s also, in many ways, its beauty.

So, now I believe we have an answer. Jonathan Safran Foer. That will be our novel. Eli, congratulations. Thank you very much. Have a wonderful break.

[end of transcript]

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