Wednesday, July 29, 2015

On Those Texts That Have Been Over-Analyzed: Animal Farm

It's hard not to read Animal Farm and immediately offer the fact that it is, with very little ambiguity, an allegory for the 1917 Russian revolution that led to the rise of Josef Stalin, one of the 20th Century's most brutal and callous leaders (in a century that had its fair share of those types).

Vladimir Nabokov labeling him a "mediocre writer" seems reasonable. As has been the charge leveled against Orwell from the beginning, one I doubt very much he'd have disputed, his prose is meant to teach more than it's meant to be any kind of work of art in itself. As a prose stylist, George Orwell's work does indeed leave a great deal to be desired, more often than not.

It happens, though, you can admire both writers for their respective strengths, although I must hand it to Nabokov, for my taste and obvious bias, with novels like Bend Sinister, he did the work of Orwell more than a fair measure beyond what Orwell ever achieved. And of course with that said, George Orwell's work is not to be simply discarded. He saw things about power structures and the human relations within them that, as those who invoke 1984, whether rightly or wrongly, to this day want us to remember, make clear Orwell is (and likely will remain) relevant.

I had the opportunity to read Animal Farm for the third time in my life, with a classroom of summer school students this past month. It's interesting what high school students, what younger readers in general, are liable to become obsessed by when you focus on one dimension of any reading material. It's probably worthwhile as an educator teaching something like Animal Farm, then, to avoid making specific reference to a subtextual aspect of a book, to the extent that that's possible (most of my students were already familiar with some aspect of Animal Farm, for instance). because for the better part of our week reading it, most students were hung up on the obviousness of the allegory.

"Why not just write the story of the Russian Revolution and the terror of Stalin? Why dress it up like this?" That was the question most were concerned with throughout our reading. That and the question of pacing. I was fortunate enough to come upon this quote by the author Jeff Jackson concerning texts of a political nature, which I shared with my students and used as a counterpoint to their line of thinking:

So much commercial and even literary fiction works hard to fill in details for the reader and stage manage their experience of the story. So-called good prose is engineered to ensure you glide effortlessly over its surface without significant disruption. It’s part of a trend of passive consumption throughout the culture. Our critical skills are eroding and we need them more than ever in this era of information overload, nonstop marketing, and political doublespeak.
I was hopeful they'd be equally curious about their assumptions concerning pacing, and a feeling that Animal Farm was overstuffed with ideas, could be streamlined to be more "readable" so they might "glide effortlessly over its surface" and not have to consider the implications of what was there, especially as they relate to not simply the Russian Revolution and Stalinism, but the great, wide world of human beings' gas-lighting, obfuscating and otherwise convincing those beneath them that their impression of how things really are is wrong and they must be mistaken. I wanted them to consider how Animal Farm isn't simply the story of the Russian Revolution but of the USA as it currently exists. And that's not to specifically indict America, but to instead showcase how the world of Animal Farm doesn't exist in the vacuum of one particular ideologue or ideology run amok. There is, instead, something profoundly human in its telling, which were it not told as it is, might be even less apparent to the average reader.

In every friend and colleague I've ever seen who died before they were able to receive the benefits (in the form of a pension or social security, etc.) of the life of work they did I see the betrayal of poor Boxer, who says always, "I must work harder."

In every misrepresentation of the truth perpetuated by Squealer I see our culture of victim-blaming and the ways we tell said victims--without literally saying it--that their experiences are not really so, that they imagined them, that it wasn't rape or assault or some other form of violence like they thought but instead a misunderstanding, or worse, revealing of some deficit in themselves for ever thinking that. It's this systematized approach that has allowed men like Bill Cosby to operate as they did for decades, unchallenged.

In those dogs trained from birth to be ruthless upholders of the system Napoleon has contrived, I see our own culture of systemic racism, misogyny and general oppression and suppression of ideas that fall out of sync with the established order. A police state in which people are reared from birth to respect authority and understand that anyone who at any time seems to have run afoul of it must necessarily have done something to deserve their situation, whether it's rudeness, insubordination, or being where they're not supposed to be, for whatever reason.

In Napoleon himself I see every leader who has ever claimed to be a righteous reformer but who ultimately serves only to do more to uphold the status quo. Certainly this charge could be leveled against a president like President Obama, who campaigned on notions of hope and change, and whose actions, and the absence of those words, have largely proven otherwise (the continuation of No Child Left Behind with Race to the Top, continued export of American hegemony around the globe, little-to-no change in the draconian gun violence our politicians refuse to address (Congress, too) and so forth). Though it would be impossible to indict Obama without likewise indicting the preceding Bush administration, among whose mendacious characteristics were to insist continually that WMDs were in Saddam Hussein's possession and that even though that was almost exclusively the pretext for going to war with Iraq, when no WMDs were found, it was actually not the only reason we had to go to war with Iraq. Humanitarian considerations were an actual reason. All of this obfuscating, gas- lighting and willingness to psychopathically say whatever one thinks needs to be said in order to appease the masses is exactly the kind of leadership Napoleon represents, as relevant to the US today as it was in Stalin's Russia.

And so, while I could belabor the point (I'm good at that!), I'll conclude here simply by saying, to those dubious who questioned the validity of studying an allegory about the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, and any others who might raise an eyebrow to the study of Animal Farm. It's about us, them, and everything. Pay attention to its lessons, please!!!

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Marrow Reading Series: Summer School, Alternative Education, and Some of What I Think I Know About That

Here's the essay I read at last night's wonderful reading series, The Marrow, hosted by Naomi Huffman and Leah Pickett, and had a number of great readers and truly is all-around excellent. I encourage you to check it out when you get the chance, Chicago! It's at the Whistler, a wonderful Logan Square bar, and you can follow the series on Twitter, @themarrowchi.

The following is a modified version of the essay I read, "Summer School, Alternative Education, and Some of What I Think I Know About That" --

I started teaching English during summer school in the Maine Township High School district way, way back in 2012. I’ve taught it every summer since then, and found it’s really its own animal from a teaching perspective.

 Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far:

 It’s funny, really, but all the stereotypes about summer school students, that they’re completely unmotivated, that they don’t care about their futures, that they are wildly immature, are only half the story. Yes, some aspects of those qualities are reasonable enough to believe, but like so much of our shared human experience, they tell only parts of a bigger story.

In my experience, a lazy student isn’t just a lazy student. It’s always more complex than that. More times than not, students who end up in summer school are there because they’ve rejected some part or whole of the four-year high school model, one that if you’re at all aware of the bigger educational picture, has sought to make learning progressively homogenized and structured around the idea that there can be one singular model for educational success that all students will aspire to, and, what’s more, all students are expected to reach.

But that’s not how education works, really. Teaching is a jumbled, disorganized system of adults, many of whom pretend to have secret knowledge of how things “work,” teaching students who either do or do not have faith in said adults’ abilities and are suspicious of their actual understanding of how things “work.”

It’s also having a student only a year removed from living in Iraq thrown into your classroom without regard for that student’s circumstances or how overwhelming it might be for him or her to learn among a classroom entirely full of native English speakers. But that was the case for me this past summer school session. And fortunately, the student in question was willing to meet with me for ten minutes after every class for a recap of the day’s lessons and to discuss things we talked about, and I had time to set aside to modify an essay assignment so that it wouldn’t be too overwhelming but still challenge this student, adjust the final exam to make it likewise something both comprehensible and capable of being completed.

 That’s life in a credit recovery classroom, in the reality of such a situation where students are brought together in a combined English I through IV section, somehow, freshmen through seniors. Evening high school is much the same, something I also teach, although the class sizes are smaller. I had twenty students in summer school this past month, entirely manageable and arguably close to the ideal number of students, which in my opinion is around fifteen.

And the weird thing is, these classrooms seem less competitive and hostile than the ones I’ve experienced in classrooms during the regular school year. There’s certainly playful teasing, and the occasional incident that’s a bit more extreme, but usually those incidents are directed at me, the horrible authority figure ruining their lives.

 It has gotten me thinking a lot about an article Rebecca Solnit recently wrote for Harper’s entitled, “Abolish High School.” That and an article by Megan Stielstra entitled “An Essay About Essays.” Both deal with assumptions about how we educate and questions the established approach. In short, Solnit is making the point, why should students suffer through a one-size fits all approach to a four-year high school when there are plenty of ways to implement and make available many different alternatives, and Stielstra is making the point, essays don’t have to be the tedious and mechanical experience they are as they are currently taught in most high schools, they can (and let’s face it should) offer an opportunity to explore ideas and challenge a person’s individual sense of creativity.

 We read these essays in most of my classes and every time we do they’re met with a mixture of awe and the kind of eye-opening revelation that comes with someone speaking a very real and honest truth. The kind of truth that’s all-too obvious when it’s spoken aloud, like the emperor having no clothes, that sort of thing. Force and power and authoritarian constraints will only alienate a sizeable percentage of students, which my alternative students always seem proof this notion. They can do the work. I’ve read and discussed over my years in alternative classrooms celebrated authors and thinkers like Solnit and Stielstra, as well as Franz Kafka, Philip K. Dick, ZZ Packer, John Steinbeck, Roxane Gay, Friedrich Nietzsche, James Baldwin, Hannah Arendt, Voltaire, David Foster Wallace, Simone de Beauvoir, Italo Calvino, Daniil Kharms, John Cheever and George Saunders, to name a few.

And students never fail to appreciate these texts, often because they understand intuitively the arbitrary quality of the power structures that writes like Kafka weave into their work, despite his penchant for ambiguity. It’s why they quickly intuit that “The Knock at the Manner Gate” isn’t about someone being punished for literally knocking on a gate, but the absurdity of so many of our rules and laws and how easily they can be manipulated to condemn a person, when necessary, whether guilty or not. Most of the students I work with have been on the losing end of that power relationship before. And let’s be honest, so have most of us. Some of us just experience it sooner and / or more severely than the rest of us.

I think about porn for educators like Freedom Writers, which I like but let’s face it, fetishizes the teaching profession in the same way most professions are fetishized by Hollywood. I think about these kinds of movies, teacher as superhero, and I see a thousand essays people could write on missing the point. They mean well but they miss the point. I think they mean well. Whether they mean well or not, they miss the point. Most every educator wants to inspire kids but the real goal, the simple and useful goal should be to tell them the truth, as you understand it, as often as possible. That’s what they really want. That’s what I didn’t get as a student teacher awkwardly dancing around the fact that I had a girlfriend, not sure of how to respond to a personal question from a student. It’s important to remember to be human, I think.

 It’s how you avoid situations as an educator like ZZ Packer’s Lynnea, a worn-out first year teacher in a Baltimore public school, inhabiting Packer’s short story, “Our Lady of Peace,” who says, exasperated, to a former colleague who is now a police officer writing her a ticket for disobeying a traffic signal, “Do you know what it feels like … to have worked one long motherfucking day with a bunch of kids who want to strangle your ass and you want to strangle theirs and you think about that sentimental shit -- that ‘if I can only reach one’ shit -- and you don’t reach anyone?” Then her former colleague says “Yep” and hands her her ticket, which is both funny and true, all of it.

 I find myself wanting to just be part of the conversation, dipping in with my various questions, the ones essayists like Megan Stielstra encourage all of us to approach the craft with, or as she writes in her essay about essays, “What you need is That Thing; maybe a question, a fear or a fury.” That just sounds true to me.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Paper Man Is More Than a Man Made of Paper

Gallaghar Lawson is a name to remember in the coming years. He's got his finger on the pulse of something and it's led to a wonderful conflation of aspects of modernism and fabulism in the spirit of Franz Kafka but with a smidge of someone more contemporaneous, like Shane Jones or Amelia Gray.

Lawson's novel is entitled The Paper Man and recently released by Unnamed Press (a press to keep an eye on in the future; I just finished reading The Fine Art of Fucking Up by Cate Dicharry, another of their titles in this year's catalog and enjoyed it immensely, as well). The Paper Man, meanwhile, is quite an unassuming titled for a novel so packed with ideas, ambiguities and in general the good "stuff" that perpetuates a narrative.

I mentioned Kafka, Jones and Gray but I'd be remiss if I didn't also say that Lawson's book stands entirely on its own. I don't know if he is a reader and / or admirer of any of those authors, but regardless of any similarities in spirit, his novel has a tone that's unique to himself and the world he's conjured in the The Paper Man.

My philosophy, perhaps without really knowing it and bungling it many times in the past (or maybe I've literally written this before and forgotten), with respect to a works of literature, is to consider those narratives like you would a Rorschach Test. And by that I mean, my interpretation of a novel and its "meaning" will usually say a lot more about me than it will about the book itself. In general, I perceive this to be the case with most literary criticism. So much of what the reader "interprets" is something they either want or don't want from the story they're reading, and, in some weird and quasi-fatalistic way, that was true before they ever even laid eyes on said book.

That's not to entirely let the author off the hook. They have a role in the process, too, and certainly I can say things about myself while perhaps indicating things about a story that might not work for other readers (in their manifold forms), and in certain cases, might represent things the author him or herself also believes are lacking in their story. Broad strokes questioning of a given writer's choices isn't necessarily an indication of something latent in me, as reader, I mean, it can also be something that genuinely adds to the discourse, even if it's not the most chipper thought or comment added to the discourse surrounding a book. Most recent and glaring case in point would be questions of Atticus Finch's racial awareness, i,e, does he need to be the perfect incarnation of all that is good about white people, or as Go Set A Watchman brings to the table, can he be human, too? And does it have to be such a bad thing that he's human? I don't know. I haven't read that book yet, but the most glaring questions already swirling by plenty of people who no doubt have also not yet read it in too many cases at least adds to the discussion.

To that end, I'm a subscriber of Rebecca Solnit's thoughts on criticism, which she articulates succinctly and pointedly in her essay "Woolf's Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable." She says, "The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens up an exchange that need never end." The latter is the goal to aspire to whenever reflecting upon a work you admire. The Paper Man certainly lends itself to discussion and the kind of conversation that need never end.

And so the following analysis is filled with plenty of light spoilers. Therefore, read it with caution if that's something you're concerned about, spoilers. I hope with it I can open up the discourse, because Lawson's book is certainly one deserving of that treatment and, still more than that, deserving of many readers.

Michael, Lawson's protagonist, has recently left his home in the south for some kind of opportunity in the city. The vagueness of the topography and other elements of setting in the novel are what give it such a Kafkaesque quality. Michael lives in a land that is not entirely devoid of the one we understand as our own, but he also enjoys surrealist elements that are nothing like what you'd find in typical realist fiction. He's a man actually made of paper, which occurs after a train accident that also results his mother's death. His father, an artist, manages to save him, but leaves him trapped in the body of a boy made of paper.

One of the things I liked best about Lawson's description of Michael is that he leaves very little to the imagination. It works somehow. And as odd as it is to hear that Michael has been given a paper penis by his father, one that is as puny and flaccid as a roll of small coins, it seems important information and keenly brings to mind the fragility of this paper man (beyond his being composed of a material that is in itself so apparently feeble), among very many other things.

While questions of aesthetics and what makes for true, honest art are a huge component of the novel, I have to leave that to others, because, as though this were a Rorshach Test and I the one interpreting, those areas of concern didn't move me terribly much -- which says nothing of Lawson's novel and only of my own personal deficits, so take this as one example of what I mean in the preceding part of this review.

Indeed, I'm much more interested in the ways Michael is treated by the other primary characters, those whom I'd classify as Maiko, a young woman who takes him in early on both saving his life and growing to view him as some cross between her ward and romantic partner; the artist David Doppelman, whom he meets when he discovers the man has painted a portrait of the adult-version of a girl he loved in his childhood; and Mischa, that very girl he loved in his childhood who seems to see it as her responsibility to return Michael to reality, no matter the draconian measures required to do so.

The story is in fact separated by a moment in it when Mischa literally tears Michael apart. His old body is then made new by David Doppelman, who gives him an upgrade in every way, which includes his genitalia, one of the many things Mischa had mocked about him, as she both rightly and cruelly turned a mirror to Michael and tried to make him understand that he was not simply a victim but also a person who had to become something less flimsy if he ever wanted to grow into the person he dreamed of being, which included artistic aspirations of his own. In his new body, he gains a literal strength and a figurative confidence he'd never previously enjoyed.

He reunites with Maiko, with whom he'd had a falling out in the earlier part of the story because he'd lied to her about his dealings with Doppelman and his search for Mischa. He gets work in the window of a department store as a living mannequin, more or less, which is one of my favorite, and also arguably one of the most humorous moments in the novel, because he's absurdly expected to model department store clothing and dance and interact with two other non-living mannequins for the public's amusement. They play music and he finds himself increasingly invested in his part, until the day the window literally comes crashing down due to an explosion caused by forces from the north.

And as other reviews I've read have noted and I've already alluded to, there are only the most tenuous comparisons to be found between our world and that of the inhabitants of The Paper Man. The north is the power center, and the south and the city are at its mercy. Still, like our world, and the climatic finish of the novel, there feels constantly the prospect of combustion, one which a man made of paper seems perfectly apt to find himself at risk of being made tinder in.

I highly recommend The Paper Man, and with it all of the titles of Unnamed Press.