Archive for the None of this is normal Category

None of this is normal is going to be a real live book

Posted in None of this is normal, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 3 May 2018 by Ben

There is a page for it at the University of Minnesota website and everything.

See also the U of Minnesota P Fall 2018 catalog (PDF link) where it takes pride of place behind Brian Massumi, Allen Ginsberg, Werner Herzog, and a local Minnesota novel.

And, of course, you can pre-order it from Amazon and other fine and not-so-fine booksellers: B&N, BAM, IndieBound.

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Book cover!!!!!

Posted in None of this is normal, Uncategorized with tags , , on 18 March 2018 by Ben

This image will likely be updated slightly before the book is released, but here is the cover for None of this is normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer, coming this fall from University of Minnesota Press.

I have asked for the name of the designer(s) who produced the cover and will update this post when I know.

Edit: the cover was designed by Michel Vrana, who tweets from @MichelVrana.

In any case, it’s amazing and does exactly what I wanted in terms of capturing what the book is about without in any way being what I anticipated. That’s just the best.

NOTIN Cover

On Dradin, in Love; or, VanderMeer ephemera

Posted in None of this is normal, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 13 July 2017 by Ben

Part of the reason I wanted to write about Jeff VanderMeer is Dradin, in Love, the 1996 novella that became the first section of “The Book of Ambergris” in City of Saints and Madmen. It is a very strange story insofar as it is set in a secondary world but includes few of the trappings of fantasy. I am currently trying to wrap up my chapter on the Ambergris novels and was committed to shoe-horning my thoughts on Dradin in there somewhere. Overall, the chapter discusses how the Ambergris books take up both postmodernist poetics and the secondary world-building of fantasy. These two things do not exist with one another easily, as the skepticism endemic to postmodernist fiction tends to destroy the naive worlds found in fantasy. However, I argue that Ambergris is a world, a materiality, entirely made up of its textuality. Whereas in fictions such as House of Leaves, textuality becomes an abyss without a bottom into which characters and events might fall, in City of Saints and Madmen this textuality is the bottom, the condition. You will have to read the book to get more about that.

That all said, I am so focused in the chapter on Duncan Shriek that maintaining the discussion of Dradin became untenable. As such, I have cut it and provide it here, for your consideration and amusement. Enjoy. Or not. (BTW, the last line of this refers to the title of this subsection of the chapter, “This is Ambergris,” which is a line from “The Strange Case of X,” the fourth section of City of Saints and Madmen.)

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None of This is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer

Posted in None of this is normal on 9 September 2016 by Ben

Here is the proposal I wrote for None of This is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer, which is now under contract with the University of Minnesota Press. If you like your book proposals in PDF form, then click here.

Overview

None of This is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer contributes to literary and cultural studies in three ways and speaks to several audiences. First and foremost, and at the level of greatest detail, it will be the first scholarly examination of Jeff VanderMeer (an increasingly important and popular, yet understudied writer), namely in terms of his development of “fantastic materialism” beginning in his early fiction in the 1990s and early 2000s, continuing in the Ambergris novels (2002 – 2009), and culminating in the Southern Reach trilogy (2014). As such, the book will be of interest to students and critics of VanderMeer, as well as to readers of the middle-brow venues that have helped to put him on the mainstream cultural map. Second, and at a somewhat more abstract level, this book extends and broadens, by way of this examination of VanderMeer’s fantastic materialism, ongoing critical discussions of recent trends in genre fiction and the theoretical questions that surround it, namely those having to do with how particular forms react to and frame specific historical moments. Thus the book will address scholars of genre fiction as well as other scholars who occasionally write about genre fiction without adequate background in its history, conventions, or critical context. Finally, and most broadly, it connects both VanderMeer and the issue of genre to a broader historical context. In an era concerned with the Anthropocene and characterized by pessimistic fictions and critical theories, new generic forms have become prominent. They offer a potential means of complementing or extending theoretical and scientific discussions of the Anthropocene and a means by which to overcome the pessimism that often pervades these discussions. This aspect of the book will be of interest to scholars of post-1945 literature and culture who have worked in recent years to connect literary/artistic form (including realism, meta-fiction, and generic structure) to contemporary political, cultural, social, and ecological issues, including the Anthropocene and climate change.

VanderMeer has become an important figure in contemporary fiction, and a crucial voice in discussions of how humanity interacts with natural and cultural environments, by blending science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the weird without reducing himself to any of these categories. He established himself in mainstream literary circles in 2014 with the publication of his Southern Reach trilogy by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, after first publishing in small, independent venues, and earning acclaim from readers of genre fiction. The merits of the trilogy were extolled in such middle-brow venues as The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New Yorker (the latter of which calls VanderMeer “the weird Thoreau”). Popular venues also praised the trilogy. Entertainment Weekly named it one of the ten best books of the year, attesting to VanderMeer’s sudden visibility as a writer as well as to the newfound commercial viability of genre writing that defies conventional designations. Alex Garland (director of Ex Machina, writer and producer of 28 Days Later) is directing the film adaptation of the trilogy’s first book, Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac. The film will be released in 2017. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux acquired the follow-up to the Southern Reach trilogy (Borne, to be published in 2017) for a six-figure deal. Both the film and the new novel suggest that VanderMeer will continue to be a major writer and a driving force for the genres in which he works for the foreseeable future.

Little scholarship on VanderMeer has appeared to date, despite his success, and despite considerable popular and critical attention paid to horror and weird fiction in recent years. For example, in 2015 Penguin re-issued Thomas Ligotti’s first two volumes of fiction with an introduction by VanderMeer. This volume followed from True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto’s claim that his show was influenced by Ligotti. Similarly, in the last decade, VanderMeer (with his wife Ann VanderMeer) has published major surveys of weird and New Weird fiction. Scholarly journals such as Genre and Paradoxa will publish special issues on weird fiction in 2016 and there are cottage industries devoted to theorizing horror (via Zero Books and others) and New Weird writer China Miéville. None of This is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer fills a gap in the critical discussion of horror and the weird as it focuses on how VanderMeer’s fictions, as well as the genres he works within and deforms, interact with the current historical moment. On one hand, these fictions and genres react to a world that, in contrast to the promises of modern science, has become increasingly inhospitable to human knowledge—whether scientific or humanistic. On the other hand, it offers glimpses of new frameworks for thinking about that world. These frameworks exist outside of norms familiar to the reader and are therefore neither beholden to those norms nor to the pessimism to which they are often joined. These frameworks arise from the native logics of VanderMeer’s fictional worlds, logics alien to sensibilities grounded in the reader’s world. VanderMeer’s stories, novellas, and novels stand in contrast to the cognitive/rationalist science fiction of the past, to the critical discussions of genre that continue to celebrate such science fiction by dismissing texts that do not clearly connect to the reader’s world or exhibit a logic reducible to it, and to the current pessimistic trend in theory and criticism surrounding the Anthropocene and such discourses as Object Oriented Ontology.

I frame the book in terms of the crisis of scientific and humanistic knowledge revealed by the “Anthropocene,” the proposed name for the current geological epoch characterized by humanity’s impact on its environment. As recent theoretical work by Donna Haraway, Timothy Morton, Jussi Parrika, Peter Van Wyck, Heather Davis, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, and Dipesh Chakrabarty, among others, shows, the Anthropocene demands that humanity rethink its relationship to what we can variously call nature, the environment, or ecology. At the same time, critics such as Stephanie LeMenager and Kate Marshall have sought to identify adequate literary forms for representing this evolving relationship or, in the case of Dana Phillips, have claimed that the Anthropocene always escapes representation (in whatever form). Despite their differences, these thinkers make clear that scientific knowledge does not fully grasp the Anthropocene’s complexities, nor does any extant humanistic practice adequately narrate them. As such, humanity needs new modes of thought, new forms, new genres, especially ones capable of being more than pessimistic treatises on the failures of humanity. By paying close attention to the specific sort of estrangement VanderMeer produces for his readers—by way of what I call fantastic materialism—as well as to the generic, critical, and cultural contexts in which he writes, I explain how VanderMeer offers a glimpse of what new modes of thought might look like and how they suggest escape routes from our current pessimism.

“Fantastic materialism” assumes altogether different realities out of which manifest altogether different subjectivities and modes of thought. The term “fantastic” highlights how this materialism is based in something historical materialism (mainly of a Marxist sort) deems impossible. Fantasy, in Tolkien’s argument, ideally instills in the reader belief in a secondary world, the rules of which are quite different than the primary world in which the reader reads. However, this belief renders any thought which would challenge belief, especially critical thought, impossible. Starting in his earliest fiction and reaching a culmination in the Southern Reach trilogy, VanderMeer borrows from generic fantasy in order to create secondary worlds divorced from the primary world of the reader. However, even as he solicits the reader’s belief in these worlds, he calls them into question, thus both asserting their materiality but also rendering impossible any total understanding of them. Moreover, and here is the key point, VanderMeer questions these worlds not from the outside, not from the point of view of someone located in the primary world. Such questioning would render them other in opposition to established norms—as merely fantastic. Rather, he questions his secondary worlds from within, from points of view manifested in and by the worlds themselves, thus establishing for each a particular and fantastic materiality. That is, the points of view from which these worlds are presented and questioned are grounded in the worlds themselves, according to the particular modes of knowledge these worlds manifest by way of their specificities. Such ways of thinking must always be alien to a reader conditioned by a very different materiality, the one in which she reads—thus the title of the book, None of This is Normal, taken from a passage in 2009’s Finch. To be clear: VanderMeer’s worlds cannot be understood according to norms operative for a reader situated in the primary world because these worlds’ alien materialities create different norms. At the same time, these alien norms are neither complete, coherent, nor singular, but are always partial, contradictory, and multiple.

I argue that the estrangements fantastic materialism creates and maintains—not only estranging worlds and environments, but also understandings of that environment which are themselves estranged and estranging—are appropriate for, necessary for, an historical moment in which historical thought fails. Such thought, often involved with conventional realism and the scientific empiricism related to it, is the legacy of modernity. It might be understood not simply as a failed attempt to make sense of the Anthropocene. Rather, insofar as it derives from and feeds into certain forms of anthropocentrism, it actually serves to obscure the Anthropocene as it has developed and thus plays a role in our incomprehension of it in the first place. VanderMeer’s fiction, of course, remains the product of a human mind and human history, and thus remains burdened by many of the shortcomings thereof. However, rather than affording a pessimism that remains humanist by virtue of being unable to see its way past human modes of thought, it seeks to describe what inhuman worlds might look like, as well as the different subjectivities, histories, and espistemologies these worlds might manifest.

Little scholarship on VanderMeer has been published to date (although there is at least one essay forthcoming later this year in a special issue of Paradoxa on “Global Weirding”). As such, no books directly compare with the one proposed here. Nonetheless, a book on VanderMeer would not only be timely (given his current popularity), but it would also greatly contribute to a field that has already received considerable attention in terms of general theorizing and with regard to two specific writers. Eugene Thacker’s Horror of Philosophy trilogy (Zero Books 2011 – 14) does an excellent job establishing horror and the weird as contemporary cultural concerns and informs my work here. However, Thacker spends little time addressing specific writers or texts, even if he sets the stage for such considerations. He also contributes to the pessimism VanderMeer helps us understand and overcome. Other critical texts do address specific writers of weird fiction, but mainly only two: H.P. Lovecraft and China Miéville. Graham Harman’s H.P. Lovecraft: Weird Realism (Zero Books 2012) offers an engagement with Lovecraft that says a great deal more about Harman’s interest in Object Oriented Ontology than it does about the weird as a genre or its resurgence in the current cultural moment. The Age of Lovecraft (Carl H. Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, eds.; U of Minnesota P 2016) and New Critical Essays on H.P. Lovecraft (D. Simon, ed.; Palgrave 2013) have something to say about genre beyond their specific object of inquiry and therefore only demonstrate the need for further work in the field, especially with regard to writers other than Lovecraft and topics beyond the Cthulhu mythos. Along similar lines, China Miéville: Critical Essays (Caroline Edwards and Tony Venezia, eds.; Gylphi 2015) offers excellent readings of weird fiction from multiple perspectives and in manifold contexts, but, again, only with regard to a single writer. Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville (Carl Freedman; Gylphi 2015), while excellent in its own right, remains tied to a cognitive/rationalist approach to genre that ignores the weird altogether, along with horror and fantasy. It reduces Miéville’s fiction by way of a Marxist understanding of science fiction which remains grounded in outmoded understandings of historical materialism. Weird fiction generally, and VanderMeer specifically, seek to overcome such modernist logic.

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