Lonesome no More!

Different writers speak to different people. There can be lots of writers that you like, and lots that you don’t. But I think for each of us, there are a few writers who speak to us in a way that most do not.

isfdb.org
Image from isfdb.org

For me, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is one of those writers. Slapstick, or Lonesome no More! (1976) is not the most famous or celebrated of Vonnegut’s work—in fact, it was poorly reviewed upon release. Nor do I think it is necessarily his greatest book. It might be more fitting for me to be writing on Slaughterhouse Five (except I’ve already done that), or The Sirens of Titan, due to my love of stories concerning interplanetary travel and aliens.

Instead I’m going to talk about Vonnegut and my affection for him through the lens of Slapstick, because in a very personal way, I think it’s beautiful. Because this book is very much about being personal, and about finding a connection with other human beings, whether it is rational or not.

Hi-ho.

That’s the storytelling hiccup of Vonnegut’s narrator. Whenever the story has to change pace, or jump to a different part of the narrative, that is how he signals it.

When reading someone like Vonnegut it’s important to read the foreword, a tiny, honest slice of the author’s mind as it was when the strings of the book were all pulled together.

So I will preface what the story is about with what Vonnegut says on the very first page of my copy.

This is what life feels like to me.”

Hi-ho.

wychwords.wordpress
Image from wychwords.wordpress.com

Slapstick is the autobiography of Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11, the last president of the United States of America, who tries to solve the problem of American loneliness before Western civilization is destroyed by a plague unleashed by China.

Like so many of Vonnegut’s works, the narrative is wonky, anecdotal, and often non-linear. He explains much of Wilbur Daffodil-11’s life story right from the get-go, because the slow reveal of information has never been Vonnegut’s style. His storytelling is more about his desire to share an idea, or to bring himself closer to his reader in some way.

Wilbur and his twin sister Eliza are born looking like ugly, Neanderthal-like creatures. When separated, neither twin is very smart. Believing that they are brain damaged, Wilbur and Eliza’s rich parents lock them away in a mansion in Vermont, where they are expected to live out short half-lives and then die.

But Wilbur and Eliza survive. Slowly, they discover that while apart, each of them operates as half a brain. Wilbur is the left brain: logical, rational, and able to communicate. Eliza is the right brain: vastly creative and with high emotional intelligence, but unable to communicate herself properly.

All throughout the novel, Wilbur repeatedly claims that Eliza is the smarter of the two, but nobody ever knows this, because she cannot read or write.

Through a strange telepathic power, Wilbur and Eliza become a single great intelligence while in physical contact with each other, far beyond that of an ordinary being. Together, Wilbur and Eliza realize that it is their bond that has allowed them to survive their childhood. It was their togetherness. While hidden in the mansion where their parents kept them locked away from the world, Wilbur and Eliza devise a plan to save all of America from the loneliness that they have saved each other from.

Their plan is to give every American a new middle name based on random objects and a number from 1-20. Everyone with the same name is to be cousins, and everyone with the same name and number are to be siblings.

This is how Wilbur Rockefeller Swain became Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11.

goodreads
Image from goodreads.com

But then Wilbur and Eliza are separated for revealing their intelligence. Because he can communicate, it is deemed fit for Wilbur to enter society, while Eliza is condemned to an asylum. Once apart, neither of them is a whole person, and they become unable to think of themselves as the special geniuses of Wilbur and Eliza, but as two dull entities, which they nickname Bobby and Betty Brown. Eventually Eliza leaves the asylum and emigrates to the planet Mars. She would die there. Her tombstone reads like this:

Here lies Betty Brown.

As for Wilbur, living the life of Bobby Brown without his sister, he runs for President of the United States and wins. He runs the campaign that his sister had created when the two of them were children, with the slogan that became the subtitle of the book itself.

Lonesome No More!

And even as western civilization crumbles around him, at the very least, nobody is alone. Everybody in America has a great wealth of brothers and sisters and cousins. Nobody is left alone.

Hi-ho.

There is more that I could say about the novel itself. I could get into what happens with Wilbur’s parents, his grandchildren, and his doctors. I could get into his interactions with life after the fall of western civilization. But I won’t. I don’t want to spoil it. If the tidbits that I’ve given you are enticing, then go read the book. But what I have laid out, that desperate need to be close to another person, is the point of Vonnegut’s novel.

Instead, I’m rolling all the way back around to the preface of the book. Vonnegut gave this story the title Slapstick because that is how he sees it. He sees this story as something grotesque and horrible but also somehow gut-wrenchingly funny, like watching someone fall down the stairs in a Laurel and Hardy movie. Situational poetry, he calls it.

On the third page of the preface, Vonnegut sums up his thinking with a small anecdote. When about to go away, one of his three adopted sons said to Kurt: “You know—you’ve never hugged me,” So I hugged him. We hugged each other.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote this book because of his sister Alice. Three days before Alice Vonnegut died of cancer, her husband died in a train accident. Kurt was with her when she died. After, he adopted her three children. One of them is the adopted son he hugs in the preface to Slapstick.

So this is a novel about closeness. It is about the closeness one can have to family, or simply to other people in general. It is an examination of the sense of closeness that Kurt Vonnegut felt with his sister Alice. It is very funny, and secretly very brutally sad. It’s slapstick comedy.

Hi-ho.

I wanted to write a post on here about the strange closeness one can feel to a person they have never met. I wanted to write about the way a book can speak to you, even though you never have and never will enter the author’s thoughts. I wanted to write about Kurt Vonnegut, because his many novels, short stories, and lectures speak to me in an alien and personal way. These are novels that have had an unnaturally large effect on my life, and the way I live my life.

So I picked Slapstick, a meditation on the strange and alien closeness human beings can have for one another. Perhaps Vonnegut doesn’t speak to you the way he speaks to me. That’s okay. There are many, many other books and other writers out there, perhaps waiting to speak to you in the same or similar way. I pick up one of his books, and I read it as if the author is speaking to me in that strange and personal way, a small stab to attempt the premise of the book, to be lonesome no more.

Thank you, Kurt.

Hi-ho.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

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Mulan Takes The Bechdel Test

Did I love Disney princesses? Of course I did. We all did. Don’t even try to lie. Everyone is an 8-year-old at some point in their lives.

It probably would have been a healthy obsession in my case—stopping after a few cute Halloween costumes, some fairly awkward conversations with animals, and an assortment of charming husbands—had it not been for Mulan.

Mulan-disneyscreencaps.com-3154
Image from http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/

Fa Mulan.

Sigh…

I knew there was no going back from the moment I first watched it. I went from wearing plastic tiaras to whacking my brothers with sticks faster than you can say, “The Huns have invaded China.” Maybe it was the lucky cricket. Maybe it was the silly grandmother. It was probably Mushu. But I like to think that it was watching Mulan discover herself with a sword in hand, rather than in ballroom slippers.

Let’s fast-forward (a shamefully small amount of time) to the present.

Now that I am much older and think about things (before hitting them with sticks), I have long since come to the conclusion that I was merely drawn to a strong, empowered female character. Done. That was easy.

Events transpired, however.

I recently stumbled upon something called the Bechdel Test, which is an unofficial measure of female portrayal in films.

Here is a 20-second history to get you up to speed:

The Bechdel Test was invented by Alison Bechdel and came from a comic titled “The Rule” in her series Dykes to Watch Out For (pictured here).

The-Rule-cleaned-up
Image from http://dykestowatchoutfor.com

A movie must meet three very simple criteria in order to pass:

  1. It must have two female characters (with names)
  2. They must have a conversation with each other
  3. That conversation must be about something other than a man

It sounds laughably easy to pass, but it turns out that 69% of IMDB’s top films fail that simple little test.

I’ll admit I was doubtful. I read through page after page about it.

I bet you have a favourite movie, they said. Look it up, they said. YOU WILL BE SUPPRISED BY WHAT DOESN’T PASS, they said.

So I looked it up. I saw a little green check mark next to Mulan. Hah, thought I, and gave my laptop a smug little smile. I was confident in my superior judgement. I was about to move on when the words “although dubious” caught my eye.

Dubious? DUBIOUS?!

How could Mulan be dubious? She was the pinnacle of female kickassery, the definition of feisty and unafraid, a raw, unadulterated shock of battle tactics and brute force with some kooky chicken feeding methods to boot. What could possibly be lacking?

Well, it seems that the female conversation was very scant in Mulan. Yes, there was some chit-chat between female ancestors, but they were unnamed. Yes, there was some mother/daughter/grandmother musical numbers, but those all circled around getting ready for the matchmaker to find a good husband. And yes, the protagonist was FEMALE but get this: Mushu had more lines in the film than Mulan did.

curvy-disney-mulan-1
Image from https://metrouk2.files.wordpress.com

Here’s how the movie scraped by:

Fa Li: I should have prayed to the ancestors for luck.
Grandmother Fa: How lucky can they be? They’re dead. Besides, I’ve got all the luck we’ll need.
Fa Li: Grandma, no!
Grandmother Fa: Yep! This cricket’s a lucky one! 

How progressive for the dark ages of 1998.

So I re-watched Mulan and came to the conclusion that in terms of women’s representation, it’s far from perfect. But then again, so is the Bechdel Test.

Although there was an utter lack of meaningful, non-male-related conversations between women in the movie, it’s not a stretch to attribute some of that to the largely (and in this case logically) male cast. Not to mention that this test doesn’t take into account the historical context, in which Mulan shows considerable independence and strength of character compared to the rest of the female cast as well as her fellow warriors. So perhaps this test is superficial, but it’s not entirely wrong.

Re-watching Mulan, I realized it wasn’t the perfect embodiment of female power I once believed it to be. Mulan says very few noteworthy things over the course of the movie, and the speaking parts are all largely male. Mulan is fighting for the greater glory of China, but the victory of the movie is more about winning the Emperor’s and her father’s approval, and Li Shang’s admiration.

I’m sad to say that I could summarize Mulan by saying, “Girl pretends to be a man, girl successfully blends in and is a very good man, girl wins huge victory for China and is offered a place as a woman in a man’s world but rejects it to return to domesticity. Then girl gets boy.”

That being said, for me, this movie will always be full of important victories: the cross-dressing imperial army, a Disney princess in armour, the most flattering of compliments (“Um… you… fight good.”), and an unlikely girl showing up all the boys.

But maybe I’ll make room for new heroes.

-Contributed by Katie Schmidt

Hypermasculinity in the Jedi Order, or Why the Prequels Don’t Actually Suck All That Much

 ThreeJedi.jpg

 

I’d like to preface this by saying that a large majority of this analysis is just my interpretation. I frankly doubt that George Lucas, paragon of feminism (heavy sarcasm), actually considered feminist discourse while writing the Star Wars prequels, but it’s nice to imagine that he did.

Let’s take a look at the most iconic tragic hero of our age, often referenced in high school English classes in a futile attempt to relate to the Millennials: Anakin Skywalker. What was his fatal flaw—hubris? Jealousy? A lust for power? These ideas have all been looked at extensively, so let’s look instead at what pushed him over the edge: the Jedi Code. We constantly see Anakin agonizing over the rules that he is expected to follow—“I’m not the Jedi I should be,” he says.

Jedi are taught to control their feelings; they are taught that emotional bonds make you weak. They are forbidden to fall in love, and they are forbidden to feel anger or grief. And Anakin, the Chosen One, is expected to embody this philosophy. The inner angst that consumes Anakin is the fear that he’s not a good enough Jedi simply because he doesn’t reach these ridiculously high standards. He’s human! He can’t be expected not to feel emotions, to never feel anger or grief or love—no one can. It is clear how toxic it is for him to suppress these emotions—how it culminates in brash fits of rage and violence, and how it begins his descent into darkness. Really, it’s the Jedi Code’s narrow set of expectations that push Anakin over the edge.

When I think of these unattainable standards, this suppression of emotions that the Jedi are expected to achieve, the first things that come to mind are: “Be a man.” “Real men don’t cry.”  The similarities between the expectations of the Jedi Code and the standards that societal gender norms place on men are alarming.

There’s this toxic notion that a man isn’t supposed to be emotional, that he’s supposed to be strong and solid while a weepy woman cries on his shoulder. As if crying and being emotionally vulnerable make you “less of a man.” Hypermasculinity imposes a strict definition of how men should behave; this can result in pent-up anger and violence, and has a real effect on the mental health of men.

I would argue that hypermasculinity plays a role in the reception of the Star Wars prequels as a whole. These films are notorious for their bad reception, and are considered a bit of a joke among hardcore Star Wars fans.  But I would say that part of this negative view is due to the fact that they’re films in a genre that is traditionally considered a “man’s world,” and yet they focus on traditionally feminine ideas and themes.

Compared to the original trilogy, there is a clear narrative difference in the prequels. The original trilogy is very much centered on friendship and adventure, and revolves around interpersonal relationships—the most prominent being a father-son relationship. The conflict is external, with a force of evil that is eventually defeated by the hero. These are traditionally “masculine” themes.

In contrast, the prequels are much more focused on internal conflict. The main character frequently shows emotional vulnerability, which is a rare sight in male protagonists. Compared to Han Solo, that personification of bravado and manliness, Anakin’s character really does challenge gender norms. How often do you see the male character in a sci-fi being the romantic and sensitive one in a relationship? And yet Anakin is often interpreted as whiny and overdramatic.

The original trilogy is about adventure and comradery—this belongs to men. The prequels are about romance and heartbreak and vulnerability—this belongs to women. According to society, at least.

For a man to admit that he enjoys these types of films would be to admit to being “unmanly.” This is the same perception of masculinity that has categorized an entire genre of movies as “chick-flicks”—as if movies have genders. So men are more inclined to scoff at the prequels. People laugh at the mushy dialogue (I wouldn’t disagree with you there, but let’s look at the bigger picture) because that’s not what they expect from a male protagonist. It doesn’t help that, on top of this, a huge demographic of the prequel fandom is teenage girls. Of course anything that teenage girls enjoy is automatically looked down upon. There’s that wonderful fragile masculinity again.

So people are just inclined to hate the prequels. And I will admit that there are honest and valid critiques of the prequel trilogy. However, say what you will about the cringe-inducing dialogue, Hayden Christensen’s acting, or the entirety of Jar-Jar Binks, the prequels did one thing right. Returning to the Jedi Code’s black-and-white views, the prequel trilogy is interesting because it introduces complexity into the Star Wars universe. Is the world really split between good Jedi and evil Sith, as the original trilogy would have us believe? If the Jedi are enforcing a toxic philosophy allegorical to sexist gender norms in our world, if they are what push Anakin to the Dark Side, are they truly the perfect force of benevolence? Whether George Lucas intended it or not, the prequels call into question just how good the Jedi really are.

 

 

 

-Contributed by Komal Adeel

 

OXFORD: A Cradle of Fantasy

Modern fiction and fantasy have an unquantifiable amount of geographical, cultural, and institutional origins, but only a few of these places can be credited as continuous sources of literary innovation. These locations may even deserve the title of “birthplaces”, for they have inspired many genres of literature, including: classic and modern, children’s and adult, fantasy and speculative fiction.

One of these literary cradles is the city and University of Oxford. Although the university’s precise date of establishment is not known, scholarly activity in the city dates to Medieval England, as far back as the 1090s. That’s right, Oxford has been an active site of scholarly pursuits and literary innovation for more than 900 years.

The university is therefore considered the oldest educational institution in England, and the second oldest in Europe, only preceded in establishment by the Italian University of Bologna. Oxford increased dramatically in size and student population after 1167, and gained a royal charter between the early and mid-1200s.  This essentially gave the university official recognition and the allowance of institutional power. Over time, Oxford came to be made up of several departments and divisions. The most notable aspect of its structure is the 38 colleges, which were created at different times ranging from the 1200s to just about a decade ago, and were established by various religious and political groups, educational departments, and influential individuals.

map of oxford
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Oxford#/media/File:John_Speed%27s_map_of_Oxford,_1605..jpg

For those who love fiction, the magic of Oxford is not only in its incredible history, but also in the world-changing works of literature that have emerged from within its walls. These works and their respective authors have influenced, and continue to influence, the concepts of fantasy, children’s literature, secondary worlds, modern fairytales, and the writer’s agency. A fraction of the renowned poets and authors who graduated from and/or taught at Oxford University include: C. S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Percy Shelley, J. R. R. Tolkien, Graham Greene, John Fowles, Philip Pullman, and Thomas Warton.

While the educational origin of these authors is significant, the most amazing aspect of these authors’ connection with Oxford is that it was, for many of them, the actual location where they wrote some of their most influential works. For some, the setting of their stories also took place at the great English institution, ranging from C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia to Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Incredibly, several of these and other acclaimed authors associated with one another for many years—gathering in Oxford pubs, restaurants, and gardens to discuss their work. In some cases they shared deep connections and long friendships, supporting one another through personal hardships and inspiring each other through faith and creativity.

The Eagle and Child
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inklings#/media/File:Birdandbaby.jpg

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, more popularly known as Lewis Carroll, is one of the most well-known writers who emerged from the University of Oxford. Considered to be one of the founders of children’s literature, Carroll studied at Oxford and later taught mathematics at the university for most of his life. This was also the place where he conceived of and wrote his two most famous works, the beloved childhood favourites Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Alice’s story goes something like this: in the late 1850s Carroll had a strong friendship with the Liddell family, who also lived in Oxford at that time. The family included three daughters, one of whom was named Alice, and who is believed to be the inspiration and dedicatee of Carroll’s books. The idea for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is said to have originated in 1862 during a paddling trip on the river when Alice Liddell requested a written copy of the story Carroll had told her that day. A few years later in 1865, after giving Alice a manuscript and being encouraged by many friends, the book was submitted to a publisher. Soon after, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland met with amazing triumph as a bestseller. And so, it was near Oxford University, on the checkered, manicured lawns of the riverbank, under the ancient swaying trees, where Alice of Wonderland was born, or perhaps, had always been.

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image of Oxford River from traveltalesfromindia.in
alice in wonderland
image from http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/resources/analysis/picture-origins/

Two other prominent authors inseparably linked to Oxford and whose works are world-wide classics are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Both writers were graduates and later lecturers at the university. Additionally, both were part of “The Inklings”, a group of Oxford writers and intellectuals who met often to discuss literature and debate both tradition and innovation in the fantasy genre. Tolkien, while teaching at Oxford, produced two of his most acclaimed works: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; while Lewis wrote the well known The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of The Chronicles of Narnia series. Notably, the Narnia series is thought to be a product of his return to Christianity—a process encouraged by his close friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien.

Oxford, England
original photo of Oxford, England – Polina Zak

 

Visiting the University of Oxford last summer, I was completely blown away by its beauty, vibrancy, mystery, and majesty. Somewhat naively, I expected a large, lone castle on a hill, with spacious libraries, stone-laid corridors, and expansive gardens—yes, I admit it, I was expecting Hogwarts. And Hogwarts is what I got: there were rose gardens and green pathways, domed libraries and intricately carved walls, spiralling staircases and soaring towers.

But I also experienced a grand and joyous city that I was completely not expecting. Walking through both the busy streets and the peaceful gardens, it was not hard to imagine why this place was the inspiration for and the setting of so many great works of fiction. Oxford holds mystery, magic, and knowledge, and will no doubt be the origin of much more fiction and fantasy.

Oxford University
image from huffingtonpost.com

-Contributed by Polina Zak