Archive for Weird fiction

ICFA 2020 paper, on Mat Johnson’s Pym

Posted in Conferences, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on 20 November 2019 by Ben

Here is my paper proposal, now accepted, for ICFA 41, in March 2020. It’s for the horror division, which is new for me even though I work on horror. I usually propose to the fantasy division, but this paper didn’t really fit there in my opinion.

I do have another proposal in to the fantasy division, for a theory roundtable, but I will wait to hear on that before saying any more.

Anyway:

“Infrastructures of Horror: Race, Neoliberalism, American Literature, and the Anthropocene in Mat Johnson’s Pym

In The Marvelous Clouds, John Durham Peters tells us that “Ontology is usually just forgotten infrastructure.” In other words, what we often take for natural structures or systems are in fact constructions we no longer see or understand as constructions. Humans, who exist at scales that render such infrastructure invisible to us, operate therefore under conditions they cannot always, or perhaps ever, discern or comprehend. In Pym, Mat Johnson investigates the naturalized structure of American literary history by way of a narrative about neoliberalism, catastrophic climate change and related disasters, and the position of the racialized subject within such systems. Specifically, Johnson provides a revision and sequel to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which Johnson’s narrator, Chris Jaynes, describes as “A book that at points makes no sense, gets wrong both history and science, and yet stumbles into an emotional truth greater than both.” As he investigates the history of Poe’s Pym, Jaynes navigates the power of neoliberal economics (which asks him to become a brand for personal gain), a world increasingly defined by disaster (some real, some imagined), the iniquities of American literary history, and the ongoing power of whiteness (which binds all of these other structures together materially and conceptually).

This paper discusses Johnson’s Pym as an instance of the new weird, but one especially attuned to the problematic legacy of weird fiction. For HP Lovecraft, Poe served as a major antecedent to the weird fiction of the haute weird period, roughly 1880 – 1940 in ST Joshi’s account. As such, Poe—whose racism anticipates and informs Lovecraft’s—serves as a forgotten infrastructure, as an apparent “ontological” ground for both American literature and a certain variety of horror fiction. In the present, novelists such as Mat Johnson and characters such as Chris Jaynes operate “in the wake” (to borrow Christina Sharpe’s term) and under the power of structures that determine their lives and the potential meanings of these lives despite the invisibility of these structures. As Johnson makes clear, they are not invisible because they are too small but rather because they are too big, because they are self-identical with the world itself in its present configuration. For Jaynes, in Pym, the first step in addressing this problem is to render the invisible visible. However, as this paper makes clear, such a project may always be doomed to failure insofar as the tools available to us (prose fiction, critical thought) are part and parcel of the very structures that remain hidden from us.

“Another world, another life”: Humans, Monsters, and Politics in Predator: South China Sea

Posted in None of this is normal, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 28 October 2019 by Ben

Here is the first paragraph to my contribution to Surreal Entanglements: Essays on Jeff VanderMeer’s Fiction, edited by Laura Shackelford and Louise Economides, on Jeff VanderMeer’s Predator novel. You’ll have to wait for the book to come out to read the whole thing…

“Another world, another life”: Humans, Monsters, and Politics in Predator: South China Sea

In the context of Jeff VanderMeer’s larger body of work, which so often imagines and describes the incompatibility of the human with the alien or monstrous, perhaps the least interesting aspect of Predator: South China Sea (hereafter P:SCS) is the Predator itself. In a recent tweet, VanderMeer makes clear why such is the case: “Oh, memories. My personal favorite part of writing [Predator: South China Sea], besides characters exploding into fungi…was having a scene with the Predator just lounging in his spaceship, farting and burping. I thought for sure Dark Horse/20th Century Fox would make me cut that. Buuuut they didn’t.” The Predator most familiar to a mass audience is that of the film series, which introduces it as an invisible and nigh-unstoppable killing machine. VanderMeer’s flatulent alien may be amusing to this audience, or to the smaller audience of the extended franchise. However, this moment of lowbrow humor also demonstrates the degree to which the Predator can be understood according to anthropocentric and anthropomorphic norms, especially insofar as this novel (and other texts and films in the series) makes clear how valuable Predator technology will be to world governments seeking to kill other humans with just as much enthusiasm as the Predator itself, if for allegedly different reasons. Of course, VanderMeer would have been constrained in how he was allowed to imagine and deploy the Predator given the fact that this novel participates in a larger storyworld determined by a history and physics he would have had to obey to avoid damaging that storyworld’s consistency and potential as a venue for future franchise development and profit. The effects of such constraints on a writer whose previous and subsequent work has been defined by ignoring constraints (those imposed by generic boundaries, for example) are certainly worth further study. However, I begin with this issue as a means to stage a confrontation between the anthropomorphic monster at the heart of the Predator series—an anthropomorphism that needs the monster to stand in this position insofar as it allows the series’s ongoingness and the staging of conflict after conflict between the Predator and the human—and the inhumanity of the larger universe in which that monster and the human exist.

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.

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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