Thursday, 10 January 2013

A Short Review of Le Temps du Loup (2003)

I recently got my hands on this little French-language gem, directed (and written) by Austrian director Michael Hanneke who, it appears, is a bit of a household name. The English title translates the French one: Time of the Wolf. The story is quite standard post-apocalyptic fare: some unknown cataclysm (IMDB comments point out oblique references to nuclear war here and there, but it’s never spelled out) has upheaved the social order, and we follow a family trying to survive and make sense of their new rather hostile environment. The movie is entirely set in the French countryside, beautifully realized in all its bleakness and chill. The central location, where most of the film takes place, is a train station, where a diverse group are waiting, hoping against hope that a train will come and take them away.

The movie begins innocently: the Laurent family arrives at their summer cottage somewhere outside of Paris, their car stocked up with supplies. When they enter they are immediately faced by a man with a gun. A very nervous man, who asks them about what food they have and how much gas they have in the car (“very little”). The fact no-one says anything about the police at this point, and the fact that the housebreaker is accompanied by his wife and child – who immediately loot the Laurent’s bags for something to drink – is perhaps the first suggestion something is very wrong indeed.

The husband tries to bargain – he manages to send the children to safety outside, and then continues, sounding very reasonable indeed: sharing food, putting down the gun, talking about it. And then bam, he’s shot and killed, blood splattering over Isabelle Huppert’s character Anne. Just like that. There is no gore, no shots of brain matter, in fact we do not see the father and husband again, nor do we see the aftermath of that whole scene. The next thing we know Anne has taken her two children and their bike and is trekking down the road with little but the clothes on their backs.

This beginning scene sets the mood: talking isn’t going to help. Being reasonable isn’t going to help. But it’s not a question either of some kind of Mad Max-esque gang versus still-civilized families with children either: just normal people in abnormal circumstances. When Anne goes to her neighbors to explain what happened, they basically shrug: “You know how things are now.” Indeed we do.

Whereas American apocalypses often very quickly create an us-versus-them mentality, where there are good guys and bad guys, and where the bad guys are very obviously bad (e.g. Mad Max) and violence is taken for granted, Le temps du loup is much more subtle than that. At the train station where Anne and her children eventually end up, most of the people seem perfectly normal. Scared and stressed, they blow up at one another, squabble over who has authority over whom, and protect their own to the exclusion of everyone else. The leader is a man named Koslowski, who seems to lead only because he has a gun in his pocket – a gun, interestingly, that is never even shown. Yet the mere mention of it is enough to make him, an otherwise very unassuming and uncharismatic figure, the ‘leader’.

Koslowski’s leadership is undermined when another group arrives, a group so big that when Anne asks them “who are you?” they all reply with “aren’t you with us?” The original group is entirely subsumed into this new group, which carries with it animals, guns and some kind of organization. At this point they stumble into the man (and his family) we met in the beginning, who shot the father. They try to exact some kind of justice, but the murderer vehemently denies everything, making it a case of his word against hers. An incredibly frustrating impasse, made even more so because it always feels like civilization, the old world, the rule of law and all the other things we take for granted are just so close.

The cover image of the film is a dramatic one – a naked child outlined against a blazing fire over railroad tracks. This is also the penultimate scene in the movie. The child is the younger of Anne’s two children, Ben. He intends to throw himself into the fire, offering himself up as a sacrifice in order to make things better. The basis of this belief comes from a storyteller and trickster they call the ‘razor eater’ that came with the new group. Among his stories is one of self-immolators who do just that in order to make things better, woven into an odd pseudo-religious narrative of the thirty six “Just”, people without whom the world would immediately cease to exist (this is apparently based on a semitic tradition of exactly this – 36 men who through overt or covert acts of good and justice keep the world from spiraling into the apocalypse). He is saved from this fate at the last moment by one of the guards, who despite Ben being entirely mute still recognizes the attempt for what it is. He tells him that his intentions were enough, that he was very brave, that maybe tomorrow a car or a train will arrive and someone will step out and tell them everything will go back to normal. The fact that this guard, this saving angel, is also a racist asshole who tried to kill an apparently innocent Polish man several times for alleged crimes makes the whole end scene doubly ambiguous. Where are the good guys? Where are the bad guys? What’s going on!

This is perhaps not as much a review as a notation of mood. The final scene of the movie is several minutes long, and consists of just the self-same French countryside passing by, watched from the window of a train. Is the train arriving, at long last? Has it already passed them by, leaving them behind? Are they already on it? My feeling was one of calm; if nothing else, it suggests trains are still running. Most of the movie consists of these long stretches of silence, with people staring into fires or into the dark of the night and, most importantly, not saying anything. Just being quiet. No-one communicates, and the actual main protagonist of the movie, Eva (Anne’s daughter) says as much in a letter she writes to her dead father (the only person, apparently, she can try to communicate with). She tries to befriend a thieving runaway who is probably much her same age, but he proves to be unreliable, selfish and, above all, a lone wolf. Although, like all characters in Le temps du loup, far from entirely unrelatable.

The mood of silence, of despair, of coldness and darkness is, I feel, supplanted by the one I felt the most strongly: the feeling of injustice. The feeling that something very unjust is happening. In whatever conversations the characters have amongst one another, this same feeling is topmost. It is unjust Koslowski leads merely because he has a gun. It is unjust the poor Polish family’s child dies. It is unjust a probably mentally ill woman is raped and then later commits suicide. The water merchants are unjust. Even the purported leader of the larger group is unjust – as he says himself, he’s not ‘really’ the leader, he just “organizes things”. No-one takes responsibility, no-one carries the blame. Or then everyone does. What is suggested throughout is, in short, that perhaps the 36 just men are no longer around; all it takes after all is that one disappears for the whole world to be consumed by its sin.

The Road, both the movie and the book, are of course also unjust in many ways. Most post-apocalyptic narratives are. But most of them have also introduced, and solidified, a new status quo. In The Road, it is absolutely clear that no-one but the father and the son are allowed into that duo. They may share their food sometimes and they may show compassion and empathy with others they meet, but in the end, there is no-one but the two of them. The behavior of others, however ghastly and monstrous, must also be understood as a symptom of the new status quo: if you are caught by the bad guys in The Road, they won’t mince words: they will kill you and eat your body. In Le temps du loup, there is (not yet) any such status quo. Most people still want to adhere to old rules of morality and decency – such as the man who, despite his glasses being stolen, does not want the thief thrown out into the woods. Others, such as the water merchant who steals this self-same man’s watch for no other reason than that he can, seem to want to impose a new order on things, but it is all still too fragile, too new, too uncertain. Most importantly, we can see the slide towards what we see as the new post-apocalyptic status quo, and it’s terrifying. The bottom line seems to be: this could be us, tomorrow. Us tomorrow with all of our old problems and unresolved issues and petty disputes and useless skills, not to mention the piles upon piles of evidently traumatized children amongst the families, staring hollow-eyed at the new world. And as such, the topmost feeling must always be one of a great injustice being done: “What have we done to deserve all of this?”

And thus, the great post-apocalyptic challenge: “What have you done to prevent it?”

Le temps du loup (IMDB):
The 36 Just (Wikipedia):

Friday, 11 May 2012

Revisiting J. B. Bouson – The Year of the Flood

Here is yet another article by J. Brooks Bouson (who I think I have now determined to be a she), this time on the The Year of the Flood. I need to re-read her earlier article on Oryx and Crake, I believe, but even without re-reading it I can tell she is more or less still talking about the same things – utopia and hope and a call to action amidst a narrative laden with the most awful predictions imaginable.

Bouson speaks at length about how Atwood equates the various carnivorous things happening in Year (her short form, which I might as well use) to the state of women in the novel. She invokes de Sade’s musings on predator-prey relationships and how only the predator can enjoy sex because “pleasure belongs to the eater, not to the eaten” (Bouson 2011: 12). This is seen particularly in the character of Blanco, who not only operates a SecretBurger chain (which literally minces human meat into burger patty) but also treats all of his female employers as meat to be sexually exploited. This of course also ties into the other kinds of meat-eating going on, like the Rarity chain that regularly serves the meat of endangered species as a specialty – in fact this whole meat-eating theme is quite strong indeed when looked at it from that point of view. The Gardeners, naturally, are vegetarian.

Another thing she discusses is postfeminism, in particular the characters of Ren and Amanda who have chosen or accepted “[their] own sexual commodification and humiliation” (Bouson 2011: 14) and who use their female bodies as tools and trading goods. This contrasted with Toby who, Bouson contends, is a more traditional feminist (mainly because she protests against this sexual objectification). Atwood, Bouson says, is afraid that “the recent gains women have made as a result of the feminist movement may be short-lived and that there is a thin line, indeed, between the postfeminist’s embrace of her sexuality and the sexist world of the prefeminist past.” (Bouson 2011: 15).

Furthermore, she discusses what she strangely calls ‘Americanism’, “that is, the American culture of violence and corporatization and commodification and unbridled consumption” (Bouson 2011: 15). This seems to me to be rather unfairly directed at a specific nation, although there is no doubt some merit to this term (although others have seen this not as an expression of Americanism, but rather a universal human tendency). Global capitalism? Postmodernism? Globalization in general?

Bouson evokes the idea of ‘degeneration’ when Atwood “gives voice” to the “fear” that “scientific advances will lead not to a progressive utopian future but instead will result in humanity’s reversion to a savage dystopian (even pre-human) past” (Bouson 2011: 16). That is to say, the post-Darwinian idea that despite the rhetoric of progress civilization itself generates degeneration inevitably – perhaps an evolution of the idea that capitalism (which drives progress) must by necessity create haves and have-nots, and that the (degenerate) have-nots must again by necessity outnumber the haves. Thus, the dark pleebland cityscapes that Year is set in.

This, Bouson thinks, is the background Crake comes from and which inspires him to create the Crakers, “noble savages that are environmentally friendly, peace-loving and socially and economically egalitarian” (Bouson 2011: 17) – the replacements of the degenerate 21st century humans. However, as we have seen time and time again, Year also offers an alternative to this: namely the God’s Gardeners.

They too “see the need for a cleansing renewal of humanity and the creation of a new social and moral order”, however their vision is a “counter-vision and counter-narrative of sweetness and light” to the “dark vision of a corporation-controlled, consumer-driven and morally corrupt elite class” (Bouson 2011: 17). The idea seems to be (much like Bergthaller argued) that “environmentalism will not work if it does not become a religion” (Bouson 2011: 18). There is the tension here between nature as good and nature as ‘bad’, nature as prey and predator, and the combination of the two (for instance in Toby’s vision animal being a liobam, a genetically spliced lion-lamb creature). This same duality is reflected in human nature, between the Painballers who torture and kill, and Toby and Ren who selflessly set out to rescue Amanda from their hands. The feminist statement inherent in having only men on one side and only women on the other is perhaps a little too on the nose, but I personally don’t mind.

Bouson finishes with a call to the phronetical (or in common parlance, art not for art’s sake, but for some other, practical sake) in Atwood’s work:

Atwood, who has long talked of the moral imperative that drives her work, also believes in the transformative – and ethical – potential of imaginative literature, and indeed, Year, like Oryx, is a feminist, anti-corporate and radically ecological work in which Atwood, in sharing her fears of and outrage against current trends in contemporary society, also wishes to prod her readers to meaningful political thought and action.                                                                                                                                                                     (Bouson 2011: 23)

Perhaps a fair enough assessment of Atwood’s oeuvre; it is after all difficult to read this kind of literature in any other way, I would contend! Bouson reaffirms her belief in the ultimately utopian vision of Atwood in the very final scene of Year, where they hear singing voices arriving through the trees – whether they’re the Crakers or the Gardeners however Atwood leaves unsaid. Either, I suppose, offers its own version of utopia.


Bouson, J.B. 2011. “’We’re Using Up the Earth. It’s Almost Gone’: A Return to the Post-Apocalyptic Future in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood”. In The Journal of Commonwealth Literature

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Housebreaking Humans – Critiquing Ecocriticism

If anyone is actually reading these, please know that they are mainly written for my own benefit – it’s a psychological thing, a way of forcing me to process the information in the article. Actually posting my musings online in turn forces my notes to be coherent, and I’ve found coherent notes to be much, much more useful than scribbles. That said, if they’re of some interest to anyone, that’s an added benefit!

I recently read another interesting article on Atwood’s two novels, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, written by Hannes Bergthaller (full reference below as always). Bergthaller’s analysis is quite crisp, and dives straight into the post(-post)modern issue of the usefulness or uselessness of art, a topic close to Atwood’s heart in these novels. Framing the whole piece is the idea of ecocriticism and how it fits into the general humanist discourse. His own summary:

The first half of this essay argues that the idea of sustainability, and the question of species survival lying at its heart, poses a direct challenge not only to ecocritical orthodoxy, but to traditional conceptions of the humanities, as well. It challenges ecocriticism insofar as it exposes the untenability of the normative conceptions of nature which, under the name of ecology, have informed much ecocritical work. It challenges the humanities insofar as it forces them to revise the very understanding of humanitas that has traditionally underpinned them, and to recognize the arts as ‘‘anthropotechnologies’’, in Peter Sloterdijk’s terms: they are technologies of self-domestication that deal with human beings as evolved, biological creatures so as to make them governable.                                                                                                                                (Bergthaller 2010: 729)

The reference to Sloterdijk here is not a one off occurrence; Bergthaller keeps referencing this particular philosopher. Unfortunately I am not very familiar with him, but I might need to familiarize myself after this – point is anyway I might have missed some of the author’s original points just because I am unfamiliar with Sloterdijk.

According to Bergthaller, the modern idea of ‘sustainable development’ was a response to the more Malthusian, nihilistic views on ecology prevalent during the 1970s, (Bergthaller 2010: 730), but has since been criticized as being an ideology of having the cake and eating it: the idea being that we cannot simultaneously sustain the constant capitalist need for growth while also sustaining our natural world. This criticism is what Bergthaller terms ‘ecocriticism’ (with ties to Deep Ecology), which claims that the problem with the world today is a failure of imagination: we must understand that humankind is a part of nature and can exist as a part of the natural order. Bergthaller however astutely points out that this criticism is just “a continuation of Romantic critiques of modernity” (Bergthaller 2010: 731) and claims that “Atwood’s novels expose the woeful inadequacy of this formula as an ethical foundation for humanity’s relationship to its natural environment” (Ibid).

The ecocritical/Romantic fallacy is the fact that although humanity is indeed a part of nature, “there is little comfort in this realization” (Bergthaller 2010: 732). Humanity is after all following its own destructive, but wholly natural, urges when it wipes out other species and destroys their habitats (and humanity is hardly alone in this kind of behavior either – all of natural history is an endless succession of such cataclysms). The solution to this, Bergthaller (via Sloterdijk) contends, is that humankind must in fact de-naturalize itself, we must ‘housebreak’ ourselves and  “tame the human animal.” (Ibid).

How this can all be applied to Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood has already been intimated in other critical essays I’ve previously mentioned, especially the two conflicting views the novels present (posthumanism/Crakers versus spiritualism/God’s Gardeners). Oryx and Crake is a world on the brink of apocalypse (even without Crake’s interference) exactly because culture has “failed to produce workable strategies for taming the human animal” (Bergthaller 2010: 732). Via Sloterdijk, he makes a (in my view) rather odd aside into eugenics, claiming that humanists are simultaneously the shepherds and the breeders of the herd of humanity (a role that Jimmy-Snowman literally embodies with regards to the Crakers) – in essence then the argument is that any culture work (attempting to ‘housebreak’ the human animal) is also an eugenics project attempting the breeding of better humans. The Crakers represent the final and finally successful attempt at creating a thoroughly housebroken human being through genetics, one that no longer needs or even is able to perpetuate the kind of destructive, natural behavior us regular homo sapiens are prone to. A useless piece of hyperbole, probably inherited from Sloterdijk, but the idea itself is solid: ‘humanists’ do see themselves as shepherds of good ideas versus bad ideas (thus the eugenics would be memetic, rather than genetic). This is where Jimmy-the Snowman comes in.

However, disagreeing with other critics (such as Bouson 2004) Jimmy alone is not a solution, as he (in Bergthaller’s words) only embodies a kind of “half-understanding”: “He is fully alive to the thrill of artistic beauty, yet does not understand that it is meaningful not in itself, but because it provides a way of coping with the conflicting tendencies rooted in our biological being” (Bergthaller 2010: 738). The real solution, that brings together the two half-understandings of Jimmy and of Crake in Oryx and Crake, is, Bergthaller contends, the God’s Gardeners in In the Year of the Flood. Bergthaller quite simply states that the reason the God’s Gardeners turn out to be successful in the end is that they have created “a symbolic order within which the fact of survival can appear as meaningful and ‘good’” (Bergthaller 2010: 738) – in other words, they have reintroduced God (this in turn ties into e.g. Dunning 2005). This, Bergthaller says, is a necessary element of the fiction of the whole symbolic order (the rituals, the sermons, the arbitrary rules etc) – “as fictions, they are, in a sense, self-supporting structures for which our biological nature can provide no warrant” – we have no imperative to do any of it, there are no actual norms in place, thus “nature acquires normativity only by virtue of its createdness at the hand of God” (Bergthaller 2010: 740).

What we have here then, in conclusion, is a rather wonderful piece of post-postmodern criticism (more of that old validation, I’d say!): we need ‘imagination’ (art, culture, literature, etc) not in order to see some Romantic ideal of man and nature living together in harmony, but rather we need it to see what is not there (since there is no such natural harmony in the world!): we need it to imagine that we can live in harmony with nature (which is only possible thanks to a meaning-creating entity such as God), yet without forgetting the scientific evidence that suggests we cannot. A return to Romanticism perhaps, but a slightly jaded, cynical return. A return to believing-without-believing, to leaps of faith, to blind trust in things that we rationally know cannot be trusted. Very strange, very curious. I do wonder however if the reintroduction of God is the true solution to this dilemma, and Atwood is I think equally wary of it – but there is no denying that the God’s Gardeners have a lot of good points.

Bergthaller, Hannes. 2010. “Housebreaking the Human Animal: Humanism and the Problem of Sustainability in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.In English Studies; Nov 2010, Vol. 91 Issue 7: 728-743

Friday, 4 May 2012

Post-Apocalyptic, Post-Postmodern, Post-Traumatic! And Oryx and Crake

It was honestly a little difficult for me to read Katherine Snyder’s 2011 article (full reference below) on Oryx and Crake. Since academia is now my business, any hint of someone else doing exactly the same thing as oneself makes you quite nervous, and leaves you feeling like someone beat you to the punch – especially as I haven’t officially published anything yet in a journal or whatnot. Still, it was a useful exercise, so here follows my immediate thoughts:

Snyder discusses pre- and post-apocalypses, analepsis and prolepsis, Cathy Caruth’s trauma theory as applied on post-apocalyptic fiction, Freud’s uncanny, and even the uncertainty inherent in fantastic fiction as opposed to realistic fiction. In other words, the only thing she is missing is Bakhtin’s chronotope and she would already have pre-empted most of my thesis. Her definition of what I’ve termed ‘realistic science fiction’ but which I’ve come to realize most people (Atwood included) seem to term ‘speculative fiction’ is quite apt:

The novel teeters, and we teeter with it, on the unstable brink that separates real from imagined, now from later, an exercise that blurs the line between what is inside and outside the self, between what is already present in our world and what may be yet to come.                                                                                                                                                     
(Snyder 2011: 473)

But perhaps I shouldn’t feel threatened, but rather validated, by Snyder’s article. After all, everything that has been said and done has already been said and done (Adam One's comment on a limited moral keyboard springs to mind), and this just means I am not alone in my musings. What Snyder does do is talk about Caruth’s trauma theory in much more detail than I have, which was quite useful to me.

First of all, she wants to make a connection between the major traumatic event in the novel (the apocalypse) and Jimmy’s own personal apocalypses (the loss of his mother and pet Killer): “Losing one’s mother at a tender age is not the end of the world. It just feels that way.” (Snyder 2011: 473), in much the same way as readers of Shelley’s The Last Man have postulated that Shelley’s own trauma (the loss of her family) was made “commensurate with global history itself” (Elmer 2009: 356). Although I don’t fully agree with this idea (the only personal trauma that explicitly causes the apocalypse was Crake’s, and that discussion is not one Snyder takes up), Snyder does back her thoughts up through liberal examples taken from the text. She discusses the way the story itself is set up, from post-apocalyptic ‘present’ to analeptic ‘past’ scenes starting from Jimmy’s childhood and finally coalescing at the very end. Snyder also talks about the present of the post-apocalypse, of how the “present-tense narration of this new but compromised dawn hints at a traumatic past event yet withholds the context that would allow the reader to understand what has happened, or is still happening, or what it all means” (Snyder 2011: 477). So, in essence, the ‘ungrasped’ idea of trauma theory, that one is not consciously aware of the trauma despite it affecting your life constantly.’

The third part, where she talks about ‘traumatic witness’, was probably the part that intrigued me the most, since it actually had a discussion on how one can apply the idea of the traumatic witness (the all-important third part to my post-apocalyptic chronotope) to Oryx and Crake. It was also at this point when I realized exactly how powerful the idea of post-postmodern theory may be. Consider:

The pandemic—a singular traumatic event of global proportions, yet one that replays past private traumas for the protagonist—marks the moment at which these two registers of the narrative collide, or the moment at which they are revealed to have been one all along.
(Snyder 2011: 479)

In other words, read symbolically (deconstructively?) the whole narrative is more or less about Jimmy’s own childhood traumas becoming manifest in the most obvious way imaginable. “The trouble at home at once predetermines and is retrodetermined by the cataclysmic world events around which the narrative is structured” (Ibid). But yet, but still! There are the other plots, the other ideas, the bioengineering and the dystopia and all the rest. And then, from this, she goes on to wonderfully define post-apocalyptic fiction based on this idea of trauma theory:

It is this uncanny aspect of the protagonist’s experience, I contend, that is fundamental to the imaginative investments of the reader of post-apocalyptic fiction. Post-apocalyptic fiction serves as rehearsal or preview for its readers, an opportunity to witness in fantasy origins and endings that are fundamentally unwitnessable. We are horrified and yet thrilled to see ourselves and our world in the unthinkable plight portrayed here, and even more horrified and thrilled to see the origins of this plight in ourselves.                                                                                                                                                                            (Snyder 2011: 479)

Thus, she returns to the actual powerful message of the science fiction narrative: that it must in a way be read as ‘real’ (witnessable), that there must be that element of suspension of disbelief and so on for it not to simply collapse into the (still very valid and powerful) interpretation that the whole cataclysm is just an extension of Jimmy’s own trauma.

At this point, Snyder goes into more Freudian depths, something I think is a mistake. For one thing she brings up the Oedipus complex when trying to explain the (to me still quite intriguingly puzzling) deaths of Oryx and Crake. Although an acceptable enough explanation, she makes the (in my view wrong) assumption that Oryx is “fatally infected” (Snyder 2011: 481) and the actually patently false assertion that Crake would likewise be thus infected: we know perfectly well that Crake is immune to the ‘super bug’, having taken the same immunizing ‘cocktail’ as Jimmy did.

One interesting point she makes about trauma, a point I had not thought of myself, is the idea that although trauma by definition is the unconscious repetition of an event, Snyder claims the possibility of “repetition with a difference, repetition as reworking”, in other words that characters could actually deal with trauma in order to “remake their present relation to loss” (Snyder 2011: 485) – perhaps for the better. Again we return then to the dual meaning of apocalypse – the end of the world, or a revelation of a new, better one – perhaps even through reworked trauma! Her conclusion is, again, painfully close to my own (validation!):

Such fictions allow us imaginatively to rehearse the end, a rehearsal that itself stands as both traumatic symptom and potential cure, as acting out and working through, as repetition and repetition-with-a-difference. Our awareness that such apocalyptic visions of human futurity mirror our own inner fears and desires does not mean that all trauma, whether individual or collective, will be consigned to the past, but it does help us to confront our status as subjects of history by looking to the future.                                                                                                                                                                             (Snyder 2011: 486)

A perfectly viable theory, this one: that post-apocalyptic science fiction in essence is our own attempt at, through endless repetition, perhaps eventually rework some of our unrealized traumas. And this, dear friends, might very well fit nicely with some things Zizek (add upside-down ^’s on the Z’s please) had to say about catastrophes, dystopian zero points, and other such nice things. But – for a later post.

Elmer, Jonathan. 2009. “'Vaulted Over by the Present': Melancholy and Sovereignty in Mary Shelley's The Last Man.” In Novel: A Forum on Fiction; Summer2009, Vol. 42 Issue 2: 355-359.

Snyder, Katherine V. 2011. ” “Time to go: The Post-Apocalyptic and the Post-Traumatic in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake”. In Studies in the Novel; Winter2011, Vol. 43 Issue 4: 470-489.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Metro 2033: Science Fantasy or Fiction?

Hello, um, Blogger.

It seems it has been since 2010 that I last wrote anything here? Well - I am, as it were, back in the saddle. My thesis proper is finished long since, and accepted with good grades and so on, and now I am in fact doing research in this very same field of literature! Isn't that exciting? This means I've a reason to write something in these here blog again, so I hope to be doing that a bit more frequently now. We'll see if the ratio of entertainment-academia becomes slightly more skewed towards the former or not - chances are they might?

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to approach/discuss the Dmitry Glukhovsky novel Metro 2033. Unfortunately this particular piece of Russian writing won't be a part of my eventual doctoral thesis since it's a translation, so my thoughts on it will largely be rambling rather than proper reviewing. Also, it's rife with spoilers, so if you want to avoid that, don't read I guess? It's a good book and I can recommend it, although the translation is spotty to say the least.

So: the premise is that somewhere around 2013 or so, a global nuclear war (the reasons for which are never discussed) devastates the Earth. Luckily for the Muscovites, the Moscow metro system is also the world's largest nuclear fallout shelter, and it is to it and its myriad tunnels and stations that the survivors flee. A decade or two later, people are still living underground, in societies formed along station or line boundaries or according to ideologies. The survivors' diet consists mainly of mushrooms and pigs that eat mushrooms.

The secondary premise is that the metro dwellers must remain such. The surface has become uninhabitably lethal. Aside from the radiation and the blinding sunlight, the surface is now home to mutated creatures, many of which it seems do not even have an equivalent animal it mutated from (such as the Librarians, unless they're mutated humans I suppose). What more, and this is even touched upon at some point, the rate of mutation makes little sense - it's difficult to imagine the kinds of monsters found on the surface could appear in scarcely a decade, not to mention the monstrosity in the Kremlin. Or, indeed, the Dark Ones themselves, the instigators of the whole plot of the novel.

The Dark Ones are not a part of the premise, exactly, seeing as they ultimately only appear a few times. They start our protagonist's journey through a task given to him by a member of a mysterious group, Hunter, dedicated to the preservation of the Metro. Artyom must travel to the centre of the Metro, Polis, in order to warn Hunter's superior about the threat of the Dark Ones, and so that they may find some way for his station to combat the encroaching monsters. Artyom, as befitting of a blank slate protagonist, obviously knows little of the Metro outside of his station, and is thus the perfect set of ears and eyes for the reader to experience it all through.

And that's what this book is essentially about: discovering the underground world of the Metro, with all its varied types of survivors, ideas, ideologies and mysteries. And they abound, oh yes: Glukhovsky, were I to use him in my thesis, fits very neatly into the definition I have made of post-postmodern writing. The novel's more than aware of the fact that fiction is fictitious, but it does not flaunt it like postmodern texts did (except in one particularly memorable dialogue towards the end, but that was a bit of authorial indulgence I had no trouble swallowing): rather it neatly incorporates the inexplicable and the supernatural into the general mood of the story. From the very first pages, we realize that Metro 2033 is a two-layered thing, where what is 'real' and what is just stories is constantly in question.

We gain access to most of the Metro via stories told to Artyom, starting from the very first pages, stories about other stations and lines, some grounded in reality while others are more fantastic. We (the readers) in turn experience the Metro through Artyom as he travels it, alternately finding that reality is not as fantastic as we were told, and alternately finding it is even more fantastic. This technique is not in itself something unique, but the layers of 'reality' versus 'superstition' effectively become so blurred it is entirely up to the readers sense of willing suspension of disbelief (please see my previous entry on Coleridge et al.!) whether or not they end up 'buying' the world of Metro 2033. Of course, 'buying' the world itself is what largely determines how effective the novel will be.

This brings us to the point of all this: where does Metro 2033 fit in on the arbitrary scale of science fiction rationality versus the kind of fantasy typically found in magical realism? I admit that I myself had actually played the game before I read the book, and I was therefore surprisingly enough prepared for the supernatural elements when they arrived (surprisingly because game narratives rarely follow their sources very closely), but I'm not sure how I would have reacted without prior knowledge of them. Probably with inquisitiveness: how do hypnotic voices emanating from pipes or stretches of tunnel with deadly effects on the human mind fit into the overall picture of ragged survival and very human conflict? Luckily, this same inquisitiveness is what Artyom feels, so our journeys happily coincide - what more, his companions are more than willing to provide their own interpretations of events, which either muddles or clarifies the issue, depending on how you wish to view it.

This duality is perhaps best presented through an event in the novel itself. Towards the last third of the book, when Artyom finally reaches Polis, Artyom has just experienced the memorable piece of dialogue I mentioned earlier. This happens on the station just before Polis, where he meets two hookah-smoking gentlemen who engage him in conversation. Allow me to reproduce a short extract from it:

"But do you believe in fate?" asked Sergei Andreyevich, inclining his head to the side and examining Artyom studiously, while Yevgeniy Dmitrievich turned away from the hookah with interest.
"No," said Artyom decisively. "There is no fate, just random events that happen to us, and then we make things up on our own later."
"Too bad, too bad..." sighed Sergei Andreyevich disappointedly, austerely looking at Artyom over his eyeglasses. "Now, I'm going to present a little theory of mine to you, and you see for yourself if it matches your life or not. It seems to me that life, of course, is an empty joke, and that there's no purpose to it at all, and that there's no fate, which is to say anything explicit and definite, along the lines of you're born and you already know that you're going to be a cosmonaut or a ballerina or that you'll die in your infancy...No, not like that. While you're living your allotted do I explain this...It may happen that something happens to you that forces you to perform specific actions and make specific decisions, keeping in mind you have free will, and can do this or that. But if you make the right decision, then the things that happen to you subsequently are no longer just random, to use your word, events. They are caused by the choices you made. [...] And your life will gradually stop being just a collection of random events; it will turn into....a plot, I suppose, where everything is connected by some logical, though not necessarily straight, links. And that will be your fate.
(Metro 2033: 254-255)

Strengthened by the realization that the incredible events leading up to this point in his journey (that is to say, the plot of the novel) indeed constitute the plot of his life (hello, postmodernism), Artyom hurries on. However, in Polis, the description of the two gentlemen he spoke with earlier causes a different reaction. There are two factions in the station, one scholarly and one military. Both contend that the station through which Artyom passed and where he met Sergei Andreyevich and Yevgeniy Dmitrievich is in fact empty and uninhabitable. The military claim that people often experience hallucinations while there due to a gas leak, whereas the scholars come to believe people who see and speak with someone while there are special and chosen. This very neatly puts the ball in the reader's court: do we believe the military (it was just a gas leak, causing Artyom to hallucinate the whole conversation) or the scholars (it was exactly what it seemed to be; a bit of otherwordly providence, showing Artyom how special and unique he is to the plot of the Metro). Artyom himself is troubled, but Glukhovsky does not provide a definite answer either way, although he allows for both.

The one piece of suspension of disbelief we do have to accept, even if we go in for the harder science fiction route, is that mind control or telepathy or psionics what-have-you is now officially possible, potentially through the effects of a powerful experimental bioweapon released on Moscow during the war (which, in turn, might also be the reason behind the improbable monsters on the surface). This ability is particularly apparent towards the end, when they meet the worshippers of the Great Worm, who turn out to have a few capable telepaths among their numbers. Another example is the Kremlin and its inhabitants: demons or merely monstrous mutations? Once it is established that the human mind can now be affected in this way, by whatever means it is accomplished, one can easily explain most of the bizarre occurrences in the Metro by ways of this. Perhaps there are simply other creatures like the monster in the basement of the Kremlin who are capable of controlling minds, and these live here and there, preying on lone wanderers in dark tunnels.

Or, then we allow for the preternatural, in which case Metro 2033 is an interesting amalgam of the post-apocalyptic science fictional genre and horror writing, possibly set in the kind of world these guys are creating, where the bizarre and memetic exists just underneath and hidden away from the surface normality - except, of course, that in the Metro, it has all come bursting out of the woodworks following the nuclear apocalypse.

Being a post-postmodern reader myself, I accept both interpretations as equally valid. The rational, science fictional interpretation is canon, the one I would use if I were to be transported bodily into the world of the text and had to 'explain' what was going on. The other interpretation is the super- or metatextual one, the one that self-consciously uses the text to talk about issues outside the text or then about the text itself in relation to other texts. A metaphor, a comment, another layer. And read so, Metro 2033 is, to say the least, very enjoyable.

The translation is still incredibly spotty though, or at least it feels like it is. Yikes.

Glukhovsky, Dmitry. 2007. Metro 2033. London: Gollancz.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Realism in Post-apocalyptic fiction – a general introduction

I wonder if it is too much to say that realism is a key concept in post-apocalyptic (PA) fiction: are we not after all dealing with a subject that is inherently fantastic, describing events that have not, and cannot, take place? Well, that is only if you adhere to an idea of 'realism' as being something only associated with things (whether physical or psychological) that exist presently, or existed within living memory (historical novels, no matter how assiduously researched, can never be considered realistic within this definition, since they by necessity concern themselves with a time or place no longer in existence). Obviously this definition however is far too limited: a novel's sense of realism cannot be contingent on the subject matter. Rather it must be a factor of the text itself, the way the reader is approached through it.

To get the groundwork out of the way: obviously realism in a novel demands that the reader and author enter into a contract, a consensual, shared belief in the existence of certain things, such as contiguous time and recognizable space. The famous (almost cliché) remark of Coleridge's, the willing suspense of disbelief comes to mind: the author asks the reader to believe for the duration of the novel everything that is told in it. The reader does so willingly, albeit with a little help from a skilled author. I can imagine a postmodern, post-apocalyptic novel, where this contract is wilfully broken: fair enough, that is after all the role of the avant-garde in any situation, to make us aware of our own conceptual shortcomings. But a comment on language, or on the death of the author, or on any such thing would no longer be a comment on the apocalypse and its aftermath: for that, we have to believe it really happened. I contend that the moment the apocalypse merely becomes an obvious, over-extended metaphor that can at any time be reversed, it loses its sublime power and thus its true artistic viability.

This is of course only my opinion on it, but it does seem to be the general consensus among the post-apocalyptic canon (see my previous posts on the various books I've read and that I consider a part of this canon). Not one of them offer a post-modern or even modernist reading, they all stay firmly rooted within the realist tradition most famously described by Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (1987 [1957]). Watt (1987: 291) defines formal realism as follows:

[T]he particularisation of time, place and person; to the natural and lifelike sequence of action; and to the creation of a literary style which gives the most exact verbal and rhythmical equivalent possible of the object described.

This is firmly rooted in the empirical, rational, Enlightenment tradition of the early 19th century. The Arts often follow science, so too in the case of the early novels: science purported to describe a natural world without the vagaries of religion, superstition or subjectivity, to provide an accurate and objective view of the world. Much like that, the early realist novelists wanted to give their reader an unromanticized view of the world (often to the outrage of their contemporaries, who were scandalized by the themes of sex, lust and violence that had hitherto been considered too vulgar for the Arts). None, once again, of the novels I have read have had any scruples about hiding the realities of the post-apocalyptic world (with the slight exception of Shute's On The Beach, whose future vision ended with a whimper rather than a bang). Even without gore and violence aplenty, however, the post-apocalyptic novel remains a clearly realistic one.

Morris (2003) points out two central tenets of realism: contiguity, and the search for truth. Contiguity is basically what Watt (1987) spoke of above: namely a contiguous chain of events that eventually lead to a conclusion. There is a distinction, of course, between story time and narrative time. Story time refers to the whole chain of events from start to finish. As an example, let us take On The Beach: an escalating world tension leads to a launch of nuclear warheads by a small third world country, which is misconstrued as an attack by one superpower upon another. In the nuclear exchange that follows, a 'powder-keg' akin to pre-World War I Europe is ignited, as everyone takes the opportunity to solve their own disputes. The result is that the entire northern hemisphere is destroyed. Unfortunately, the cloud of radiation that killed everyone that wasn't killed in the original exchange is now slowly moving down south with the seasonal air currents, killing everything in its path. Australia and New Zealand, where the action takes place, will be the very last to go. In the end of the story, everyone dies. This is the story time. The narrative time does not even encompass all of this: it begins in the post-apocalypse and ends there. Whenever the narrative jumps to a past moment or a future moment (analepsis and prolepsis), it does so within story time. Thus contiguity is created, and maintained. There is of course also the matter of psychological contiguity for the characters and many other situations in which an ordered chain of events is desirable.

The search for truth, on the other hand, is another feature of realism and the realist novel. In the beginning I mentioned Coleridge's suspension of disbelief and the contract between author-writer. What this contract is based on is that the reader suspends their disbelief for a good reason, a moment of grace to allow the writer to rely whatever insights (truth) he or she wants to. If at the end of a narrative these insights, or truths, prove inconclusive or irrelevant, then the author has broken the pact with the reader (this is, in general, what happens in postmodern novels, who have a tendency of avoiding any even semi-conclusive endings). In On the Beach, like many other PA novels, the first and most pressing questions are without fail: what happened and why. This is the basic quest for truth that generally colours a post-apocalyptic narrative. In many, but far from all, stories, the author also offers a solution, a way to prevent the disaster. In many others, the author provides us with an alternative future instead of dwelling on the past (e.g. the aptly named Survivors). In some, like On the Beach, neither the past nor the future seem to hold any promise. But it is here we are reminded of the basic fact of post-apocalyptic literature: it is science fiction. Until the moment it becomes fact, everything described in a novel such as Shute's is preventable. This, of course, was the great truth of the Cold War-era novels of nuclear Armageddon: the Arms race must stop, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction must be abandoned, and a more peaceful form of dialogue must be adopted in order to prevent On The Beach from happening.

Morris, Pam. 2003. Realism. London: Routledge.

Watt, Ian. 1987 [1957]. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. London: The Hogarth Press.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake: The Terror of the Therapeutic

A few scribbled comments (amounting to more than 1000 words – oops!) to round Atwood off for now, this time an article written by Stephen Dunning in 2005.

I quite liked this article. He starts off by reminding the reader there are essentially two kinds of dystopias: the Orwellian and the Huxleyian. The boot stamping on your face forever, or the more subtle vision of Huxley's Brave New World, which emphasises the carrot rather than the stick, but is no less totalitarian. Dunning places Oryx and Crake into the Huxleyian tradition, and with good reason:

It finds our current vulnerability to unprecedented disaster arises not from dystopian societies with hostile political structures, underwritten by oppressive metanarratives, and established through threat of imprisonment, torture and death, but rather within the qualitative vacuum of a culture that has lost its "great" narratives.

(Dunning 2005: 86)

This loss of 'great narratives' is of course a post-modern concept, borrowed directly from Lyotard, although Dunning refuses the post-modern label and prefers “late modernity” (although this does force him to translate 'postmodern' into 'late modern' whenever he discusses it in the text, and then I have to translate it back in my head...anyway). This culture, Dunning goes on to argue, has lately, with the fall of the Soviet Union, lost even the political alternative to the old religious narratives, leaving only unfettered scientific progress behind. A pattern can be discerned, I would say. Dunning claims that the “sacred narrative” (Dunning 2005: 87) is being excised from the world and replaced with ideas stemming from “the laboratory and ledger” (science and capitalism).

Much like DiMarco's text on homo faber, Dunning also goes back to antiquity and then to the beginning of 'modernity', when science ousted the old traditions, without however truly offering an alternative. He speaks of 'orders of desire' (which I believe corresponds to the lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs):

Modernity can offer no convincing rationale for pursuing second-order desires, which require the suppression or deferment of first-order desires to achieve higher ethical (often communal) goals, precisely because, as both Huxley and Atwood recognize, modernity rejects the traditional cultural narratives that give such goals their authority.

(Dunning 2005: 87)

I should read more Lyotard, but I would assume such a traditional cultural narrative might be something like 'God', who, through the advance of science, has now become a mere “God of the gaps” (Dunning 2005: 88), only powerful wherever there has been no scientific explanation yet. Oryx and Crake is then a “darkly comic critique of our triumphant scientific modernity that is only now beginning to reveal its true shape, having finally exhausted the resources of the world it has systematically destroyed” (Dunning 2005: 88-89). Sounds a bit post-postmodern to me, I must say!

Dunning's article, as the title suggests, focuses on psychological, or therapeutic elements in the text (another postmodern concept, incidentally). Thus we see the relationship between Jimmy and Crake, and the relationship between the compounds and the outside world, as elements of a mentally ill world (or culture). One of the major elements is the lack of communication between people: when Jimmy entertains himself by having love affairs with bored compound wives, they are entertained by his way with words: “it is telling that they find his considerable linguistic skills appealing, suggesting that on some level, they recognize the nature of their deprivation, the cause of their extraordinary loneliness. Community, even a community of two, requires communication.“ (Dunning 2005: 91). Likewise, the image of Jimmy and Crake as adolescents sitting back to back with their computers seems to suggest that “they are not present to each other at all, or perhaps virtually not present” (Dunning 2005: 92). This, of course, is hogwash, brought on by Atwood's amazing inability to grasp what a video game is actually about (which is quite staggering, considering how central a role her 'Extinctathon' game plays), but Dunning nonetheless probably captured her authorial intent with the scene. In essence, the separation between mind and body is becoming more and more acute, which leads to a sort of split personality for those afflicted (where the body, for instance, is merely entertained by pornography, executions and violence). This is a typical Freudian concept, Freud also belonging to the modernist tradition (Dunning 2005: 94); the separation between the id, the ego and the superego.

Crake's solution to Freud's problem (that we all have base, often destructive needs, that have to be sublimated or expressed in some less destructive way for society to survive) is to entirely replace homo sapiens with his own species – the Crakers – through genetic manipulation (Dunning 2005: 95). As I already mentioned in some of my other article reviews, this kind of backfires, with Jimmy-Snowman teaching the Crakers in the post-apocalypse of Gods and Goddesses and giving them the beginnings of a mythical framework just like the one Crake attempted to eliminate. Atwood could probably not have made it more obvious through the Crakers' 'exodus' from 'Paradice (Dome)', after all. Dunning has an interesting insight into Crake's character here: why would he kill Oryx (who is important to the Crakers) in front of Jimmy, knowing full well this would make Jimmy kill him, while leaving the Crakers in Jimmy's (a “words” person) hands? Why not leave Oryx alive, or why not take care of the Crakers himself? Dunning suggests that Crake is, ultimately, only human, and that in killing Oryx he follows his own inner qualitative and unscientific first-order desire to own her in death, which would not be possible if either both Jimmy and Oryx survived, or Jimmy and Crake did (Dunning 2005: 96). Curious stuff.

The end result, however, is what we see in the post-apocalypse: new “sacred narratives” being constructed by the prophet Snowman and embraced by the Crakers who, despite Crake's intentions, remain at least “marginally human” (Dunning 2005: 98). “Thus, whatever solutions we may hope for must come at least partially by way of recovery, recovery of some form of great narrative that reestablishes culture firmly in the cultus from which science has torn it” (Dunning 2005: 98). In other words, “numbers people” 0, “words people” 1. Hooray!

Dunning, Stephen. 2005. “Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake: The Terror of the Therapeutic” In Canadian Literature; Fall2005, Issue 186: 86-101.